Cornbread Millionaires: Reflections on Riva and Josephine

 by LEONARD SMITH
a picture of Birkenau in the snow
Birkenau. Source: Midnight Believer, Creative Commons

I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.

During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.

Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.

However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.

It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.

Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.

Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.

Though I had girded myself for  Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.

Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.

I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.

Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.

I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.

That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.

Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.

My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.

I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.

I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.

I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.

I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.

 

Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour

 


Cycles

an old train cart
The old train cart. Source: Georgi Kirichkov, Creative Commons

“I had everything until the murderer came,” Riva Hirsch begins, clutching a microphone between two pale hands. “We weren’t rich, but we had a ball and a doll and a dog… There was no discrimination. We loved.”

Sitting in a sterile events space around circular tables, we watch as a map appears on the projector screen to helpfully show us exactly where seven-year-old Riva lived before that day: an area of Ukraine that used to be Russia. She isn’t sure where exactly she was taken. “A better place,” was all the Nazis told her as she boarded a train overflowing with corpses.

“Did you see any towns on the train ride?” the moderator of the talk asks.

“Piles and piles of dead bodies–that I saw. Children. Grown-ups. Babies. But not towns.”

A microphone fails, its battery dead. Some shuffling and chuckling, then Riva’s microphone is handed to the other guest speaker, Josephine Bolling McCall, from Lowndes County, Alabama. “Bloody Lowndes”, it used to be called because of all the murders.

“We thought someone was killing cows,” she tells us, describing the sound of her father’s lynching. His children found him lying in a ditch with his eyes open, shot several times. “The definition of lynching is not about the noose around your neck. It’s about the group of people. At the time, three people made a lynching”

The room releases a deep hum of a surprise.

Her father was rich for a black man, owning a storefront, some land, and several shipping trucks. The night of his murder, Josephine’s brother scrawled down the car tag number of the white men he saw driving away in the dirt outside their store. “The sheriff wasn’t interested. Lowndes County planned my father’s murder and planned to make it look like it wasn’t a lynching, because the county would be held responsible. Most of the blacks were afraid to talk. There was no mercy there.”

The two women trade their lone microphone back and forth, standing tall when it is their turn to speak with the kind of straight-backed poise that has been lost over the generations. Both look dressed for a nice evening out, their hair in big, loose curls around their shoulders, Riva’s white and Josephine’s dark brown, like their skin. Riva talks fast, with an Eastern European accent, her voice booming through the sedate hall. Josephine, by contrast, talks Southern slow and soft enough that we lean forward to catch her words. Riva speaks as if the horrors she witnessed happened only yesterday. Josephine speaks as if they happen to her every day.

“I was lying more dead than alive,” Riva says of her condition when the German man who smuggled her out of the camp to a convent. “Me as a little Jewish girl, I had never seen a nun. But I survived through them.”

“I decided it was time to get some recognition,” Josephine told us about publishing a book about her search to discover what really happened to her father. “They made my book required reading at Northeastern University.”

The moderator asks them what one lesson would they want us to take away.

“The intention was to terrorize,” Josephine says. “Terrorism is what they got… We must continue the discussion, but as it says in Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let brotherly love continue’.”

“Make sure to educate our students,” Riva answers, her voice reaching a fever pitch. “Because the future is in your hands to let the world never, ever let it happen again.”

The room is silent when her words stop ringing through the high ceiling, but in our ears, the shouts of Charlottesville echo. We clap to drown them out.

 

Mary Elizabeth Chambliss is a graduate English student specializing in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a CRM Administrator in UAB’s Enrollment Operations. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology in 2015.

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

UNITY: A BEAUTIFUL GUMBO

by GABRIEL WRIGHT

a photo of a jacket that reads "we're all in this together"
togetherness. Source: Jonny Hughes, Creative Commons

** I read and utilized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. book, Why We Can’t Wait, as the basis of this blog. The page numbers (xx) refer to the specific edition in the hyperlink.

One of my grandfathers was an old Cajun from south Louisiana who cooked gumbo when I was a kid.  His gumbo was always different because it was always full of whatever meat he had available at the time. Once, it consisted of duck with sausage and crab, while another time, it contained shrimp, chicken, and sausage. No matter what the ingredients, the gumbo was always good.

Growing up my parents were pastors and missionaries. We moved…a lot! I learned at a young age that to have friends I would have to accept people with all their differences. I attended eight different schools, in two states and three countries from kindergarten through graduation.  I was the outsider often.  Rejection became my norm. In 7th grade, we lived in Auburn, Alabama. I was not cool enough to sit with the white kids at the lunch table so I became the palest face in at the end of the other table. In high school, my friends and I called ourselves, “The Losers”,  a ragtag bunch of racially diverse rejected kids that included guys from the Philippines and Nepal.

Accepting differences is an essential step to developing unity. Every person, regardless of skin color or background, can wage war against injustice without having a national stage. The fight to right injustice is overwhelming; the enormity of the task can produce fear that paralyzes, causing many to do nothing. Therefore, I prefer to think that there are small battles to be won every day which come through the removal of fear and the creation of change. Unity exists on the other side of the willingness to change. Here are some strategies and keys to remember that can help us bring about change to achieve unity.

First, discrimination, including racism has a spiritual element. I used to think that racism was a preference or color issue. Now I realize racism is a heart condition. If I were to offer any solution to our current state of unrest and violence, it would begin with prayer. I realize it does not sound like a solution because there is no visible action; however, not everything is visible. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, says that we do not fight against flesh and blood enemies, but against spiritual unseen forces. Dr. King understood this principle well.

The nonviolent direct action of the Birmingham Civil Rights movement was brilliant. King understood that combating people like Bull Connor with physical violence would result in colossal failure. To be a part of the movement, each participant had to commit–not only to the cause of freedom and the values of non-violent direct action–but to prayer (68). People say, “we need to pray for our nation” to no longer remain divided by racism. Often, prayer for the nation looks like an outward one, directed at the heart of someone else, rather than an inward one, directed at your own heart. King David, prayed in Psalm 139, “Search me…know me…test me, and see if there is anything in me that offends you…”  The first step in overcoming division in the nation is identifying division in the heart. Ask God to reveal if there is division in your heart. The Bible calls for repentance. It sounds like a fancy church term but it simply means to turn away from what is wrong and move toward what is right.

Second, stereotypes distort and divide. Stereotypes are widely held but fixed and oversimplified ideas or perceptions of people. Dr. King asserted that the March on Washington dealt a heavy blow to the perpetuated stereotype about blacks. “The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comment, which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants.  If the press and expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed” (153). The decision to shatter stereotypes is not about being or becoming a false version of yourself; it is more a decision to recognize that we are not bound to act like the stereotypes placed upon us.  As a pastor, one of the stereotypes I battle against is that all I want is your money. My plan was to be generous toward our people and to never ask for money from our visitors so when I planted my church, I decided that I would not give anyone a reason to believe that stereotype. Stereotyping is the byproduct of a spirit of division. Abraham Lincoln famously quoted Jesus Christ in saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. The best way to bring down a nation, organization, or family is through division.

a picture of Dr. King at the March on Washington 1963
Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site, Creative Commons.

I can see that spirit operating against Dr. King and the movement in 1963. The bombings began after the movement achieved great victories and won many converts to the side of justice. “Whoever planted the bombs had wanted the Negroes to riot. They wanted the pact upset” (128). The stereotype of blacks had been unsubstantiated rhetoric, used to undervalue and suppress. It was with this in mind–the spirit of division–that pushed men to plant bombs, knowing it would give rise to violence and division, not only between black and white, but within the African American community itself. Thankfully, Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth had taught the African American community about the spiritual as well as the physical. “I shall never forget the phone call my brother placed to me in Atlanta that violent Saturday night.  His home had just been destroyed.  Several people had been injured at the motel.  I listened as he described the erupting tumult and catastrophe in the streets of the city. Then, in the background as he talked, I heard a swelling burst of beautiful song.  Feet planted in the rubble of debris, threatened by criminal violence and hatred, followers of the movement were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’” (128). The movement realized that they were not fighting flesh and blood, which would be a losing battle; but in the spiritual, with prayer and song.

Never let a stereotype define you. Look for opportunities to deal stereotypes a “heavy blow”.

Third, understand that meekness means strength under control. Many people were against Dr. King’s stance on non-violent direct action. For them, action without retaliation was weakness, not strength, specifically when Connor turned water hoses on protesters. Jesus once said, “The meek will inherit the earth”. When we are meek, it doesn’t mean that we are lowering ourselves, but we are controlling ourselves and taking the ammunition away from our enemies.

Next, we cannot expect to overcome injustice and racism without setting up the next generation. I’ll never forget my friend Cedric. He lived in a very violent, crime ridden government housing project. I lost track of him (this was before Facebook and cell phones) because he moved away. His mother decided that she wanted better for her son; therefore, she worked hard, saved money and looked to provide her son a better situation. Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois developed an ideology called the “talented tenth”, in which some African Americans to rise, pulling the mass up with them. King disagreed with this philosophy in the 1960’s because, at the time, African Americans had no real way of creating a better life as individuals, let alone as a group (28). Today that is not necessarily the case.

a picture of a puzzle piece fitting into another one
Putting The Puzzle Together. Source: www.SeniorLiving.Org, Creative Commons.

I understand that things can always be better, but in today’s world, there is a path for success. There have been many African Americans that have navigated the ladders of success in politics, sports, entertainment, medicine and business. You may say, “it is easy for a white person to rise up”, and while that is true, it does not mean that a person of color cannot.  We will only accomplish what we think we can accomplish. I love to hear about millionaire athletes, who, through hard work and good choices make it out of bad situations, turned their lives around, and give back to their community.  There is a need for more people to show the way; to educate and mentor the next generation in the ways of life, including finances and relationships. Over my years of ministry, I have found that people need more than a handout. The old saying, “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime” is true.  As the “talented tenth” begin to use their influence to not just help, I feel we can and will see a shift in the balance of justice and equity. When people understand that their platform and influence is not for their glory, but to serve others, then we will be on the path toward victory.

Finally, as a friend and I were talking one day, he told me of a church that wants to become more multiracial but just can’t seem to “crack the code”. Curious, I asked him, “Why do African Americans attend our church?” We don’t sing gospel. I don’t preach like T.D. Jakes or Tony Evans, and we don’t do anything to appeal to any one race over another. I believe his responses are simple and effective ways to begin the healing process between the races and start moving toward justice in our nation:

  1. You don’t try to appease.  People know when you are being fake.  When we try to be something we are not, we usually come across as offensive.
  2. You have African American friends.  We need to make friends with people of different races, not to put a notch on our belt, but to really expand our circle of relationships.
  3. You love people.  When you set your heart to love and accept people, it become contagious.
  4. You promote African American people.  At our church, we don’t have token African American leaders.  We have leaders, and some of them happen to be African American.

I pastor a wonderful little church in Birmingham, Alabama. Our church is a beautiful “gumbo” of colors, classes, and countries. In this current climate of racial tension, it is my heart to have place where people can catch a glimpse of heaven…a glimpse of Dr. King’s dream for America; a place where black and white don’t just attend together, but do life together. We aren’t perfect but we fight for unity, peace and most importantly, love. I believe our nation should be like that gumbo…different flavors and backgrounds coming together to create something wonderful.

 

Gabriel Wright, along with his wife Perry, started and pastor Gateway Family Church in Birmingham, AL. They have three children.

MLK’s Efforts to Advocate Human Rights in 1967 Echoed Fifty Years Later

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, in 1966. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina.
Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, in 1966. From the General Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina., Creative Commons.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the final summer of his life articulating a way to move the United States from civil rights to human rights, a project that found him criticized from across the political spectrum. Fifty years later, King’s anguished attempt to navigate the complex racial politics of the Summer of Love illustrates many contemporary challenges facing progressives and radicals in the 21st century.

In popular memory, Martin Luther King largely operates on the level of myth, often appearing as a hallowed character in various tales of turmoil and triumph. Indeed, historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall laments the dominant image of MLK—“frozen in 1963”—dreaming endlessly of an America where individuals are judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Yet in my experience with college students in Chicago and Birmingham, race and ideology continue to influence how Americans interpret King. While racists continue to attack him and his legacy, it is now difficult to find critics of the man in polite circles. Indeed, like other folk heroes and founding fathers, there appears to be a King for everybody. Moderates celebrate his patriotism, piety, and non-violence. Progressives revel in their inside knowledge that the real King was much more militant than grade school portraits suggest. Radicals share and collect his lesser-known writings and speeches. Even conservatives appropriate the preacher’s dream to support color-blind policies anathema to his life’s work. As is their habit, academics live in the nuance and contradictions, depicting a multi-dimensional King that changed over time and remains difficult to capture.

The kaleidoscopic nature of King’s memory owes a great deal to the legacy of his life and times. In the decade-and-a-half of his public existence, MLK’s position often changed with the perspective of the observer. King’s worldview evolved as well. By 1967, King was in the early stages of a public shift to the radical Left, an incomplete journey whose end is impossible to know. At the time, however, King was beset from all sides with judgment, criticism, and ridicule. Conservatives hated him for challenging the racial status quo and for his alleged link to communism. Liberals cautioned him to moderate his demands and contain voices of extremism. Radicals doubted his sincerity and credentials. His own reflections depict a man grappling with uncertainty and doubt.

In the shifting political climate of the mid-1960s, King responded to new developments by reshuffling the movement’s priorities. Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the demands of battling Jim Crow moved to the background. In the face of continued racial inequality, King and others renewed their focus on an older set of priorities, principally in the field of economics. While African Americans had long demanded fair access to jobs, housing, education, and housing, Cold War anti-communism silenced an older generation of radicals whose voices sustained the movement prior to World War Two. In post-war America, the relatively safer fight for desegregation dominated the civil rights establishment. By 1967, however, King joined a growing chorus demanding fundamental changes to American society. Never silenced completely, traditions of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism rose to the fore once again. In the final year of his life, King made explicit many radical values previously left implicit. In his effort to articulate the more radical elements of his dream, King drew much criticism.

In an attempt to challenge the static portrayal of King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, however, some commentators have exaggerated the degree of change between the younger and older MLK. While King’s public career reveals a noted radical turn after 1965, much of his later philosophy appeared earlier as well. As historian Clayborn Carson writes, “King’s basic beliefs remained remarkably consistent during his adulthood.” Indeed, King’s evolution was less philosophical than it was dispositional, even circumstantial. King always cultivated a radical perspective, but the passage of time—his internal maturation and a changing external opportunity structure—found him more comfortable articulating radical ideas. Analyzing King’s seminary training and roots in the Black church, for example, historian Douglas Sturm contends that King’s late radicalization was more of a “refinement” than a “transformation of his basic orientation.” While associates claim King only began describing himself privately as a democratic socialist in early 1968, King had long practiced a form of collective humanism, even while avoiding Marxist language in his speeches and publications.

An African American man, the victim of assault during Detroit's race riot tries to escape from a mob before further violence ensues.
An African American man, the victim of assault during Detroit’s race riot tries to escape from a mob before further violence ensues. Source: Tullio Saba, Creative Commons

In the late summer of 1967, however, the momentum of outside events forced King to articulate a radical vision of civil rights—one grounded in a larger framework of human rights—that would anger liberal critics in Washington, alienate moderates within the movement, and arouse skeptical militants. Two examples from July and August serve to demonstrate King’s evolving public position and the volatile context within which he operated. July witnessed two of the worst civil disorders of American history, as first Newark and then Detroit exploded in several days of rebellion, riot, and uncoordinated violence. Dozens of people—mostly Black men shot by the police—died as authorities retook the streets. Distraught and physically fatigued, King placed his name on an official response endorsed by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the National Urban League, two giants of civil rights known for their moderation and restraint.

Uncomfortable characterizing civil disorder as the act of lawless rioters, King issued his own public statement in the form of a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson. Blaming public officials—especially Congress—for failing to invest in the inner city, King insisted, “Only drastic changes in the life of the poor will provide the kind of order and stability [we] desire.” Determined to propose a solution, King implored Johnson, “Let us do one simple, direct thing—let us end unemployment totally and immediately. I propose specifically the creation of a national agency that shall provide a job to every person who needs work” (p. 570). Cautious in his sympathy for participants of urban rebellion, King avoided direct criticism of the president and tempered his support for economic redistribution.

Publicly optimistic, King privately worried that his words might encourage further disorder. In a phone conversation transcribed by the FBI, radical associates of King reassured him that “in taking this position, you are not isolating yourself with a few rioters; you are joining some very distinguished opinion-makers and a very large mass of people who have seen through to the real issue here.” While Wilkins, Young, and other moderates distanced themselves from “rioters” for tearing up their neighborhoods, King joined an influential group of observers—particularly those on the radical Left—who recognized the social and economic roots of unrest. According to the FBI transcript, “MLK described the Detroit riot as ‘an explosion of anger against an invisibility’ resulting from ‘a dull monotony of nothingness’ from which people escape occasionally to go to work but to which they must return.” (1) King would expand on this theme of anomie affecting inner city residents—and the nation as a whole—in a more militant speech a few weeks later.

a picture of the National Guard and the police in Detroit, 1967 following the riots
National Guard and police, Detroit Riots July 1967, Image: Howard Bingham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty, online: Cris Wild: Remembering the Detroit Riots of 1967. Source: continentcontinent.cc, Creative Commons.

On August 31, 1967, King delivered a keynote address titled, “The Three Evils of Society,” before the National Conference on New Politics (NCNP) in Chicago. Celebrated among King aficionados and radicals today, the speech found King at an emotional low as he faced a divided and occasionally hostile NCNP crowd. Alluding to the audience’s “disillusionment” and sense of “betrayal” with American liberalism, King claimed to share their “blasted” hopes and “shattered” dreams. In the face of an immoral war in Asia and widespread poverty at home, King sympathized with a group of “angry young men of our movement” who booed him the previous summer. King admitted, “I had preached to them about my dream,” only for them to watch it “turn into a frustrating nightmare.” At the heart of their frustration, King contended, was the great American “hypocrisy” whereby policymakers advocate “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.”

King devoted the bulk of his speech to “a triple-prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning”—the “sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism.” King argued that a contemporary “white backlash” was not triggered by the recent “cry of Black Power “or the “unfortunate wave of riots.” Rather, racism constituted a core component of “Western Civilization,” a phenomenon “rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.” Far from aberrant, he insisted, racism was foundational to the American experiment.

Next, King turned to a second societal evil, the “extreme materialism” of the American economic system. “Capitalism,” King declared, “was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both Black and white, both here and abroad.” Proposing a federal guarantee of full employment, King called for investment in “education” and “health,” a “radical redistribution of political and economic power,” and a program to “aid in the transfer of power and wealth into the hands of residents of the ghetto.”

Finally, King turned to the “disease of militarism.” As American cities descended into “inexorable decay,” King denounced the “tragic adventure in Vietnam” as a drain on “our wealth and energy.” Not only was the war immoral, King argued, it also robbed vital resources from efforts to alleviate poverty at home. In sum, King diagnosed as “morally bankrupt” a society in which “profit motives and property values are considered more important than people.” Only a “radical revolution of values” could save the United States from impending “spiritual death.” Along with a handful of other notable documents, the July telegram to Johnson and the August NCNP speech reflect King’s efforts to steer the civil rights coalition toward a radical human rights agenda with the potential to bring economic justice and substantive freedom to millions of Americans.

Fifty years after 1967, many human rights advocates in the United States today echo King’s attacks on racism, materialism, and militarism. His efforts to move the freedom movement from civil rights to human rights involved demanding the United States government provide all residents adequate employment, housing, education, and healthcare. Including vocal criticism of war and the criminal justice system, King’s 1967 agenda speaks powerfully to 21st-century problems. Indeed, the 2016 platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggests the direct influence of King and his contemporaries. The radical voice of both MLK and #BLM, of course, inspired strong opposition. In King’s day, Cold War anti-communists labeled his prescription subversive and un-American. While the Cold War eventually ended, the rise of mass incarceration and the bi-partisan triumph of neo-liberalism after 1970 continues to stunt racial progress beyond the minimum of condemning Jim Crow statutes. In 2017, activists who challenge fundamental premises of American institutions or demand equitable employment, housing, education, and healthcare encounter the same oppressive forces attacking MLK half-a-century earlier.

 

Andy Baer is an Assistant Professor of History at UAB. He teaches U.S. History and African American History with a focus on social movements and criminal justice. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago, 1972-2015.

Footnote: 1) “FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC via surveillance of home telephone of King advisor Stanley Levinson, July 21, 1967-July 26, 1967,” accessed through the ProQuest History Vault.

We, too, are America

a picture of a microscope
microscope. Source: milosz1, Creative Commons.

We see you. More specifically, I see you. I see you and I understand your fear. Your fear, though, is not of our ascent and overthrow of your supremacy. Your fear is that we–those for whom you believe yourself superior in gender, race, ability, intelligence and religion, but equal to under the law—will treat you as you have treated us. This is your actual fear.

For so long, you have hidden behind your power to give and take at will and random, without accountability. You believed might and standing would continually protect you as you abused, assaulted, and harassed us behind closed doors, in elevators, at parties, or in cars. You assumed your strength would guard against numbers because silence remained your closest companion until it revealed you. Now, silence is your betrayer and light is shining into the darkness. With light comes freedom.

However, not for you.

Finally, thanks to the unfaithfulness of silence, the light that comes with freedom will change you, as the nullifications of uneasy interactions, creepy glances, and videotaped confessions that “boys being boys” and “locker room talk” conclude what we have known all along: you are an insecure predator.

You always have been.

For centuries, you employed power to mask your insecurity while building empires and corporations upon the backs of those “under your feet and purview”. You made rules and assured yourself they did not apply to you. The rules are changing, and you are afraid. You shudder at the possibility of the enforcement of an unjust law you created, applying to you. You are fearful that you will rot in jail for a crime you may or may not have committed, based upon the verdict of 12 who are not truly your peers because they do not look like, live like, or know what it like to be someone like you. You will know what it is like to tell your side of the story and find yourself defending your participation in and motives about the situation that caused you to end up here. Identified as you truly as a perpetuator of trepidation .

You always have been.

Your taxonomy and modus operandi, whether on the forced labor field of terror, in a Las Vegas hotel room or Charleston church, or behind a “news” desk or podium, remains hiding in plain sight because the condition of many is blind submission. The conditioning served us well too, for a while. However, now we are woke. Eyes wide open and aware of the insidiousness of your nature. This scares you, so you label us a threat because we discarded the previously employed labels you doled out. Threat, in your mind, encompasses all manner of challenges you have not experienced during your time in authority. We are a threat to your domination, to your supremacy and privilege. This is what frightens you. The poisonous fruit you provided opened our eyes to the facts about who you are and what we have known all along: you are an idol worshipper.

You have believed the lies told to you and by you for so long, that in many ways, the facts cannot penetrate the walls around your heart and mind. You contrive revisionist history as a method to mask the brutal reality of your ancestors, unwilling to yield to handwritten letters, photographic and videotaped evidence that counter your claims, and absurdly ask us to disbelieve what we see what our eyes, hear with our ears, and experience over time. The words you employ are not for freedom of expression but an expression of your hate, leaving us to wonder if you know how to express yourself in a manner to prove your point without resorting to vileness. You are not out to institute unification, rather everything about you proceeds from an inner core of division. You are in an identity crisis.

You always have been.

Conflicted on one hand about the creation of humanity as made in the image of an unseen God, while on the other, using some as cattle and unpaid laborers, burdened by cherry-picked scriptures applied to build a theology of exclusion. You claim to seek the facts through the reading of words written in years past but systematically avoid anything that may shatter the illusion of grandeur created in the ivory towers which redlining amassed. You proclaim belief in gender equality, except when it comes to leadership, reproduction, sexual experience, and wages. You defend colonization and imperialism due to a misapplied belief that those demonized and dehumanized are ignorant and incapable of civilization; however, pyramids, irrigation systems, and social order existed before the feet of your ancestors stepped on this, and that land. You balk at peaceful solutions and challenges to your authority by responding with insults and name-calling as though life and death are games played in a schoolyard. Even when you are wrong, you are uncompromised in your steadfastness to show your superiority, while marketing yourself as a humble follower of God. You want to be a mirror without looking in one.

I see you.

We see you.

We know the facts.

The fact is, change has arrived. For we, too, are America.

 

Additional readings:

Langston Hughes

The Color of Law

America’s Original Sin

Nations and Nationalism

Jessica Valenti