The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.
Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.
The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.
For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started
working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.
In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.
She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.
In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.
Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.
In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.
To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.
There’s a lot of buzz on the ‘net about a story in The New York Times Magazine titled A Prom Divided. The article is about the continuing practice in the South of having separate high school proms for blacks students and white students.
The article is accompanied by a compelling photo/audio slide show.
It’s definitely worth a read.
The Times article also talks about the documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” which will be shown on HBO in July. The documentary is about actor Morgan Freeman’s offer to pay for a first-of-its-kind integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, which is his home state. This is an excerpt from the documentary:
Here are links to some recommended reads.
Ellen Holly (1931- ) is an American actress, the first black actress ever to appear regularly on a soap opera. She played Carla Hall on “One Life to Live” from 1968 to 1985. She also played the president’s wife in “School Daze” (1988).
Holly grew up in New York, the daughter of a chemical engineer and a librarian. She studied acting at Hunter College and went on from there to act on stage. By 1956 she was on Broadway. She got in to the Actors Studio, the first black woman ever to do so. She later got parts in film and television too.
In 1968 Holly wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times about what it was like to be a light-skinned black woman. Agnes Dixon, who was then starting a new soap called “One Life to Live”, read that letter. It led her to create the character of Carla Gray (later Hall). She offered the part to Holly herself. Holly took it and became the first regular black female character on a soap. Other soaps soon followed their lead and had black characters of their own too.
I remember watching Holly on One Life to Live as a teenager. At the time, I didn’t appreciate that she was breaking new ground for black actors in the soaps.
I can see why so many people thought she was white: it wasn’t until the late 1960s that color TVs started selling in large numbers. On black and white TV, her light skin did make her look white.
She started out on the show doing a story line where she is a black person passing for white. A white male character on the show actually proposed to her, but she had to reject the proposal because she was not white. I later found out that the theme of the “tragic mulatto who passes for white” was a not an uncommon one for Hollywood (see Imitation of Life). But at the time, I was shocked that this kind of race-sensitive stuff was being shown on daytime television.
Monroe, Louisiana is a city of about 50,000 in north central Louisiana. It’s about a half hour drive from Grambling University. The following is from a recent story in the Monroe Free Press, which is one of the city’s African American newspapers:
Monroe: The city where it’s safe to say Nigga
City won’t fire or reprimand foul mouthed department heads
It started a few years back when we started reporting about the tendency of our police chief to curse and use extremely foul and graphic language publicly. In one instance he even told the police chief of Sterlington to get under the table and suck his…
There were no reprimands, lost days of pay, or other slaps on the wrist. The subliminal message is that such language is acceptable for department heads…
The most recent problems occurred this year when Sean Benton the Superintendent of Monroe’s Water Distribution plant was accused of referring to black employees of his department as Niggas and routinely using foul language and expletives in his references to others. Police had to be called once when Benton took off his shirt to fight a subordinate…
What raises eyebrows is that Benton is black. Most of his “Nigga” comments were made to blacks. The issue that this raises is whether or not “Nigga” is an generally offensive by whites but acceptable when used by blacks.
Because Benton has not been fired or reprimanded by the city’s black mayor it appears to be an endorsement of “Nigga” as acceptable language for a black professional in a department head status to use toward subordinates.
There’s been a slew of articles written in the past year or so about Tyler Perry. A recent piece about him in Entertainment Weekly, titled Tyler Perry: The Controversy Over His Hit Movies, claims to go “inside black America’s secret culture war”:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment of the US Constitution
The Constitution makes it clear that Americans have the right petition the government to redress their grievances. But the Constitution says nothing about the money that’s needed to do this petitioning.
And if money is needed to effectively petition for the redress of our grievances, then the black community may be grieving in quiet.
A review of lobbying expenditures in 2008 shows that major lobbyists for the African American constituency – the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Urban League – spent a pittance compared to the lobbying powerhouses of Washington, DC.
As wikipedia describes it, “Lobbying is the practice of influencing decisions made by government. It includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents or organized groups. Governments often define and regulate organized group lobbying.”
In Washington, DC, millions of dollars are spent annually to lobby the Congress or the Administration for one thing or another. According to a recent edition of the National Journal, these are the lobbying expenditures for the top 15 firms in 2008:
1. US Chamber of Commerce: $62.3 million
2. Institute for Legal Reform (US Chamber): $29.2 M
3. ExxonMobil: $29.0 M
4. AARP: $27.9 M
5. Northrop Grumman: $20.6 M
6. PhRMA: $20.2 M 7. American Medical Association: $20.9 M
8. GE: $18.6 M
9. National Assn of Realtors: $17.2 M
10. American Hospital Association: $16.7 M
11. Boeing: $16.6 M
12. Lockheed Martin: $15.3 M
13. Koch Industries: $15.1 M
14. AT&T Services (and affiliates): $15.0 M
15. National Cable and Telecommunications Association: $14.2 M
And this is what the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Urban League – the biggest lobbying organizations for the African American constituency – spent in 2008:
• NAACP: $100,000
• the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF): $160,000
• the National Urban League (NUL): $240,00
I’ve posted several stories lately on some of the negative reaction to Barack Obama’s election to president, from both here in the US and abroad.
I think it’s fair to note some of the positive reaction, too. This is an excerpt from a USAToday article:
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s election has inspired a wave of optimism about the future of race relations in the United States, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken the day after the first African American won the White House.
Confidence that the nation will resolve its racial problems rose to a historic level. Two-thirds of Americans predict that relations between blacks and whites “will eventually be worked out” in the United States, by far the highest number since Gallup first asked the question in the midst of the civil rights struggle in 1963.
Optimism jumped most among blacks. Five months ago, half of African Americans predicted the nation eventually would solve its racial problems. Now, two-thirds do.
I can personally say that I was pleasantly surprised by the election results. Obama got more of the white vote than Kerry did in 2004. He got just under 50% of the white outside the South and southern border states. I honestly didn’t see it coming.
It’s not all good, but there’s more reason for optimism than cynicism.
Black Leaders in the Colorado Legislature Make History
The Colorado legislature has only two black members. But now they are the two most powerful members of the 100-person body.
Colorado Democrats made legislative history by electing Rep. Terrance Carroll as speaker of the House and re-electing Peter Groff as Senate president.
It will be the first time in American history that the presiding officers of both chambers of a legislature will be African-Americans.
Two Omaha-area Black Women Elected to the Nebraska Legislature
For most of the past 30 years, Nebraska has had only one African-American serving in its single-house legislature. After the November election, it will have two, both female.
Incoming Nebraska State Senators Tanya Cook and Brenda Council
As reported by the Washington Post in its article Racism Rears Its Head in European Remarks on Obama, the election of Barack Obama to US president hasn’t been hailed universally across the globe:
Europe erupted in cheers to celebrate Barack Obama’s election as president, but the continent is seeing its share of insensitive racial blunders, too.
Over the past week, a number of European lawmakers and journalists have made foot-in-mouth comments regarding America’s black president-elect, suggesting that some otherwise respected public figures in Europe are far from enlightened on racial matters.
The day after Obama’s victory, a leading Austrian television journalist said on camera that he “wouldn’t want the Western world to be directed by a black man.” A Polish lawmaker stood up in Parliament and called the election result “the end of the white man’s civilization.”
Some racist comments have come from people who have expressed such views before. “Africa Conquers the White House,” read a headline on the Web site of the National Democratic Party of Germany, a political party that sympathizes with neo-Nazi groups. In an accompanying article, Jürgen Gansel, a party leader and an elected lawmaker in the German state of Saxony, blamed Obama’s victory on “the American alliance of Jews and Negroes.”
Most of the reporting about Barack Obama’s election victory makes it appear that there is an almost universal euphoria over this historic event.
But this post at King Politics, Racist Incidences In The Aftermath of Obama’s Election, indicates signs of anger, resentment, and disgust on the part of some Americans over Obama’s win.
So many heroes, so little time.
Thousands of people, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of people, were part of the Civil Rights Movement. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have a national holiday to honor their memory. Some are folks whose heroism has been lost to time. But they should all be cited and celebrated as often as possible.
That’s why it’s been a joy for me to read DAISY BATES: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas, by Grif Stockley. Who was Daisy Bates? Consider this description of her from the book:
As a college-educated white Arkansan remembered in 2002, “Daisy Bates was our Osama Bin Ladin.” As outrageous and grimly ludicrous as this comparison is, it captures the emotions of the white community at the time.
And what did Bates do that made her comparable to a mass-murdering terrorist? She wanted to make it possible for black children and white children to go to school together in the 1950s. Such was the insanity of her times.
Daisy Bates, Arkansas Civil Rights Activist
Bates’s main notoriety is from her role as the “advisor” to the Little Rock Nine. A history of Bates is here and here; there are many others on the Internet. But I want to share a passage from the book by Stockley that tells a great story.
Today marks a sad date in American history. On June 21st, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (seen above in FBI photos), three Freedom Summer volunteers, were killed by a white mob in Mississippi.
As described here:
On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers—a 21-year-old black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were murdered near Philadelphia, in Nashoba County, Mississippi. They had been working to register black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and had gone to investigate the burning of a black church.
They were arrested by the police on trumped-up charges, imprisoned for several hours, and then released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who beat and murdered them. It was later proven in court that a conspiracy existed between members of Neshoba County’s law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan to kill them.
Justice for these killings was slow in coming: