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The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

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.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

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.

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Election Wrap-up: Black Republicans Go to Congress

The 2010 election cycle is notable for the Republican Party tidal wave that saw the Democrat Party lose control of the House of Representatives, and have diminished majority in the Senate. The Wave brought with it some diversity in the GOP’s Congressional delegation: there are now two African American Republicans in the House of Representatives.

The last time there were two African Americans Republicans in Congress was in 1995-96, when J. C. Watts represented the 4th District of Oklahoma and Gary Franks represented the 5th district of Connecticut.

This year’s breakthrough occurred thanks to the election of black Republicans in Florida and South Carolina. Allen West won his race for congress in southern Florida, while Tim Scott won his race in the Charleston and northern coastal area of South Carolina.

Allen West won in Florida’s 22nd District, which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, and other portions of Broward County and Palm Beach County. These are north of Dade County, which contains the city of Miami.

West’s district is 75% white, 15% Hispanic, and just 5% black. He beat out two-term Democratic incumbent Ron Klein by a margin of 54.3% for himself to 45.7% for Klein. The two had faced each other in the 2008 election; in that election, Klein beat West by 55% to 45%.


Allen West, Congressman-elect, 22nd District-Florida

West has something of a reputation for being controversial and combative. The 2010 Almanac of American Politics spoke of West in its discussion of the 2008 election:

…former Army Lieutenant Col. Allen West… retired after a 2003 incident in which he fired a gun near the head of an Iraqi detainee in an effort to make him reveal information about plans to attack U.S. troops. West’s explanation was that he had “sacrificed” his military career “for the lives of my men.”

Also during the 2008 campaign, West charged that a request for an interview from Al-Jezeera was actually part of a kidnapping plot.

The website TalkingPointsMemo.com said this about West:

Without a doubt, Allen West is going to become a new star all around — adored on the right, and a bogeyman of the left. First of all, West built his conservative political career on a particular event from his own military service — when he tortured an Iraqi policeman, and was proud of it. Since then, his attitudes on foreign policy haven’t changed much: “A nation goes to war against an ideology. We are against something that is a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology, and it is called Islam.” The incident ended his time in uniform, and launched him on a track to Republican politics.

Also during this past campaign, West faced questions over his campaign’s ties to a criminal biker gang, The Outlaws. And at one of his events, a group of leather-clad men ejected a Democratic video tracker, as West got the crowd cheering. (It is unclear whether these same security men were Outlaws. In addition, West has pointed out that he could not possibly be an Outlaw himself — they do not accept African-Americans as members.)

It remains to be seen if West will this interesting once he gets on to the mundane tasks of representing his district in Congress, although being a black Republican will surely get West some media attention no matter what he does.

DID YOU KNOW: South Florida now has three African American representative in the Congress: West; Alcee Hastings, who represents Florida’s 23rd District; and newly-elected Fredrica Wilson, of Florida’s 17th District. The 17th District seek was previously held by Kendrick Meek. Meek ran for the U.S. Senate this year, and lost in a three-way race (that included outgoing Florida governor Charlie Christ) to Marco Rubio.
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Tim Scott, Congressman-elect, 1st District-South Carolina

The other successful Republican African American candidate for U.S. Congress is Tim Scott. Scott will be representing the 1st District of South Carolina. This includes much of the Charleston metro area, although the heavily black parts are in the nearby 6th District. The 6th District is represented by James Clyburn, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Clyburn is the current House Majority (Democratic Party) Whip, which is one of the leadership positions among House Democrats; however, with Republicans taking over the House, his role may change. We'll see.
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Republican Scare Tactics, Then and Now

Fear is one of more common themes in political advertisements. Consider this political ad from 1949, which was seen in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area:

I think this speaks for itself. It almost makes the Willie Horton ads from the 1988 presidential campaign seem tame.

Note the little girl’s doll:

So… who’s the Republican bogeyman for 2010? This poster was recently (October 2010) seen in Shreveport, Louisiana:

Obama as the bogeyman, 2010.

Boo.

(Hat tip to Dailykingfish.com for the image.)
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NOTE: This picture at the top is from the excellent book, One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris. Harris was a photographer who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the nation’s top black newspapers.

The book contains photographs taken by Harris from the 1940s through the 1960s. Black Issues Book Review said this about Harris and the book:

One Shot Harris is pure soul. Though Harris photographed people living in poverty, most of his photos break away from the all-too-familiar images that oftentimes represent blacks during hard times. Instead, Harris focused on local folk–proud at work and at home–along with numerous celebrities to convey cultural pride. He took particular pleasure in highlighting The Hill District, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where many African Americans flocked seeking employment and entertainment.

“What I’d like for readers to take away from this book,” says writer Stanley Crouch, “is that Harris shows that these black communities, regardless of all stereotypes, were as civilized as any community in the entire western world.”

The book contains an essay by noted writer Stanley Crouch, and a biography of Harris by African American photography scholar Deborah Willis. Highly recommended.

Artur Davis Loses Big in Primary Election for Alabama Governor

Artur Davis, who was running to become Alabama’s first black governor, lost big in the Alabama Democratic primary yesterday.


Artur Davis

Artur Davis, who is currently serving out his term as a member of Congress for Alabama’s Seventh District, lost big to Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Sparks got 62% of the Democratic primary vote for governor, versus 38%, of the vote for Davis.

Davis’ support from black voters was lower than expected, although some observers were not surprised. For one, Davis failed to court the support of Alabama’s main black political organizations, and got endorsements from none of them. Those groups gave their support to Sparks.

Davis also drew the ire of some progressives for his centrist/conservative stands on many issues. For example, Davis voted against the Health Care Reform bill, a move that was seen as a way to make him more attractive to the state’s white and conservative voters in a general election. Rev. Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying, “You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man.” Davis was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the bill.

The political website FiveThirtyEight.com has a good discussion of the election results, starting with this:

The dream of a biracial progressive coalition supporting a southern African-American politician took another hit last night as Rep. Artur Davis was crushed by underdog primary opponent Ron Sparks in the Alabama Democratic gubernatorial primary. And so, for some who don’t look too closely at the numbers, Davis joins the list along with Georgia’s Andrew Young, North Carolina’s Harvey Gantt and Tennessee’s Harold Ford, of southern black candidates who couldn’t get enough white votes to win.

Without exit polling, it’s impossible to accurately break down racial patterns in yesterday’s vote. But even a cursory look at the numbers shows that while Sparks did indeed wax Davis among white Democrats, he did exceptionally well among black Democrats as well. Moreover, Davis wasn’t hurt by some dropoff in black turnout attributable to his refusal to pursue African-American endorsements or focus on that community and its issue priorities; indeed, in most parts of the state, black turnout seems to have held up relatively well as compared to the last statewide gubernatorial primary in 2006 (overall, Democratic turnout was down 31% from 2006).

The article goes on to say that Sparks may have won almost one-half of the black vote in the primary.

It still remains to be seen who will win Congressional seat that Davis is vacating. The two top vote getters in the Democratic primary, Terri Sewell (who got 37% of the primary vote), and Shelia Smoot (29%), will face-off in a runoff election that is scheduled for July 13. Although Republicans will be running for the seat in the November election, it is a foregone conclusion that the Democratic candidate will be the winner after the votes are counted.

US Navy’s Guide to Commanding Negroes (1945)

In recognition of the challenges in dealing with Negroes, the US Navy developed a pamphlet titled Guide To Command of Negro Naval Personnel (NAVPERS – 15092) in 1945.

The Guide notes the following:

The mission of the Naval Establishment is the protection of our country, its possessions and its interests. It includes neither social reform nor support of the personal social preferences of its personnel. In the accomplishment of this mission it is mandatory that the training and ability of all Naval personnel be utilized to the fullest.

It must be recognized that problems of race relations do exist and that they must be taken into account in plans for the prosecution of the war. In the Naval Establishment they should be viewed however solely as matters of efficient personnel utilization.

In general, the same methods of discipline, training and leadership that have long proven successful in the Naval Establishment will be found to apply to the Negro enlisted man. However, the effective administration and use of Negro personnel does call for special knowledge and techniques in some instances.

This is the result of the fact that Negroes as a group have had a history different from that of the majority of Naval personnel. Their educational opportunities have been restricted; the percentage of skilled workers is smaller; and participation in the life of the nation has been limited.

It is the purpose of this pamphlet to point out group differences in background and experience of significance to the officer with Negroes in his command, and to suggest approaches which may be of aid to him in the performance of his duties. The success or failure of each Commanding Officer in the administration of Negroes under him will be determined largely by the spirit in which he approaches the problem and the degree of attention given to it.

The Guide addresses potential problem areas such as “Symbols That Irritate,” “Even Compliments may be Misunderstood,” “Racial Separation,” “Transportation,” “Public Relations,” “The Negro Press,” “Rumors” and “Control of Venereal Disease.”

The title is outdated, and so is much of the Guide’s content. However, I found this to be a fascinating read for its frank and comprehensive treatment of the subject of dealing with African Americans in the military, and the window it provides into the mindset that whites in the military had toward blacks in the 1940s. It’s well worth your time to take a look.

NC Civil Rights Museum Opens at Site of the First 1960s Lunch Counter Sit-ins

This is great news!


The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina

In Greensboro, NC, the site of the first 1960s lunch counter sit-ins has been turned into a civil rights museum. This is an excerpt from a story by the AP:

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The four college freshmen walked quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter – and sparked a wave of civil rights protest that changed America. Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat near an older white woman on the silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The black students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous act. Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously planned, down to buying a few school supplies and toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the lunch counter was the only part of the store where racial segregation still ruled.

They weren’t afraid, even though they had no way of knowing how the sit-ins would end. What they did know was this: They were tired, they were angry and they were ready to change the world.

The number of protesters mushroomed daily, reaching at least 1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.

The sit-in led to the formation in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became the cutting edge of the student direct-action civil rights movement. The demonstrations between 1960 and 1965 helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

On Monday, February 1, 2010, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store. The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.

A video about the sit-ins from the History Channel is here:

The Museum’s web site – www.sitinmovement.org – has a very interesting homepage, which is worth a few seconds to browse.

A slideshow of photos from the museum has been produced by the New York Times, along with this article.

It’s wonderful to the efforts of these brave people memorialized and saved for review and consideration by future generations.