Montgomery comrades Rosa Parks and Virginia Durr come together in South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1981. Photo credit: Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives, Portrait Collection.
Today’s theme for University Press Week is Presses in Conversation with Authors. In our entry in the blog tour, our executive editor Gayatri Patnaik interviews Jeanne Theoharis, author of the 2014 NAACP Image Award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of numerous books and articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the politics of race in contemporary America. She is also series editor for a new Beacon Press series, Stride Toward Justice: Confronting Race, Gender & Class in the United States. The series offers progressive voices writing on and at the intersection of race, gender and class and is an urgent response to the injustices of our times and the ideas that hide and sustain them. Theoharis’s coeditor for the series is Melissa Harris-Perry, Presidential Endowed Chair in Politics and International Affairs, the director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, and host of Melissa Harris-Perry, which airs weekend mornings on MSNBC.
Retaking the Keystone XL Pathway. Photo credit: Tar Sands Blockade
Wen Stephenson was invited by the Reverend Kyle Childress, longtime pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas and one of the key voices in What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other, to speak to the congregation. The church's congregation plays a crucial role in the resistance to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. They supported the Tar Sands Blockade and welcomed young blockaders into their homes.
Stephenson tells us: “By uncanny coincidence, I was in Houston, doing an event with the grassroots group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services)—whose founders Juan and Bryan Parras, and organizer Yudith Nieto, figure prominently in the book—when the news broke that President Obama had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, or the northern leg of it. And the very next day I went up to Nacogdoches. Too many people, especially in our national media, have forgotten that the southern leg of the pipeline was built with Obama’s blessing, and that it began pumping tar-sands crude to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston in January 2014.”
He adds: “I realize now that this book project wasn't truly finished until I went back to Nacogdoches and spoke to the people of that church community. It really closed the circle for me, in a profound way.”
I wrote The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks to challenge the limited stories and troubled uses of Parks and the movement. There was nothing natural or passive about what Rosa Parks did but rather something fiercely determined. It was not a singular act but part of her larger lifelong history of activism, a string of acts of bus resistance in the years preceding her stand, and a collective uprising following her arrest that led to a mass movement in Montgomery. To the end of her life, Parks believed the struggle for racial justice was not over and she continued to press for more change in the United States.
What has been your relationship with environmental issues?
My mother took me to my first protest when I was six, against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire in 1976. She also took me for walks in the local woods and taught me about trees. So I had a good grounding both in caring about nature and citizen activism, which has stayed with me throughout my life. At this point in history, the number one issue is climate change. If we don't address that, everything else will be beside the point.
What do you look for in books dealing with these issues?
Obviously, I hope the books I look for on environmental issues will move people to action. The way to bring people in is through stories. Having something new to add to the conversation is important as well, but I look for writing that can teach about the issues by engaging readers with good writing and compelling storytelling. Whether the book is about solar power, orcas, or farming, the information is grounded in stories of people, places, struggles, hope.
And sometimes, as in literary nature writing as opposed to issue-driven books, the writing is enough—creating something beautiful in the service of nature speaks to our human connection with the “natural” world and with each other.
Edith Barksdale Sloan speaking at the first national conference of household workers, in 1971. (Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, National Archives for Black Women’s History)
I’d been following the domestic workers movement here in Massachusetts as they campaigned to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In 2014, Massachusetts became the fourth state to approve the domestic workers bill of rights which guarantees basic work standards, such as meal and rest breaks, parental leave, protection from discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. I wanted to know more about the movement and this lead me to Premilla Nadasen, who was involved as an activist and historian.
I tend to gravitate towards stories of fierce activists and agitators on the margins, so naturally I was fascinated by the history Premilla unearthed in Household Workers Unite. The women she writes about—Dorothy Bolden, Geraldine Roberts, Josephine Hulett—were all brilliant organizers who responded to the challenges that were unique to their profession, challenges that were so severe that mainstream labor regarded them as “unorganizable.” For instance, domestic workers were isolated in the home, they could have any number of employers at any given time, and perhaps most problematic, their work was categorically disregarded as work. They were excluded from basic state and federal labor rights; and were, to quote Geraldine Roberts, “invisible workers.”
In response, they recruited other domestics on buses and street corners, made alliances with black freedom movements and women’s rights groups. They sought to professionalize the occupation through technical training programs.
Photo credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)
Dilley, a small Texas city eighty-three miles north of the Mexican border, greets visitors with a cheerful sign.
“Welcome to Dilley, Texas,” it reads. “A Slice of the Good Life.”
That good life extends only so far. Just west of town, nearly two thousand women and children are locked up inside the massive South Texas Family Residential Center. With a capacity of 2400, the brand-new Dilley is now the largest immigration prison in the United States. There are so many children at the camp that they sometimes outnumber the adults, the New York Times reports; their average age is nine years old.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Danziger Bridge shootings. Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge was released on the same day the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed an order granting the officers a new trial based on misconduct by prosecutors that judges said tainted the officers’ trial back in 2011. Ten years after the shots on the bridge, the four surviving victims are still waiting for legal resolution. This excerpt from Greene’s book takes us back to that fateful day in 2005 when the officers appeared on the bridge for an unrelated distress call. In Greene’s vivid prose, the scene reads like something out of a movie.
Nearly eighty years ago, Margaret Mitchell published what would become a best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind. More than thirty million copies have sold worldwide, and in 1939, the film adaptation was released. The novel tells the tale of a young white woman slaveholder, Scarlett O’Hara, who struggles to come to terms with her descent into poverty in the South during and after the Civil War. The story is hailed as a classic in American literature and beloved by audiences for its heroic portrayal of one headstrong woman’s journey for independence and self-discovery.
Georgia Johnson's new home. Photo credit: Tom Wooten
Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
On September 4, 2005, eight years before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, officers of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire on two families crossing the Danziger Bridge. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city six days before. The officers were on site for an unrelated distress call. All the innocent victims were black and unarmed. A harrowing story of blue on black violence, author and investigative journalist Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge vividly recounts the crime and the ensuing case. With the anniversaries of Katrina and the crime coming up, we caught up with Ronnie Greene to ask him a few questions about his book.
I was first drawn to this story in August 2011, when I happened to read an AP account of the federal court conviction of officers with the New Orleans Police Department, who had fired upon two groups of people on a small bridge and then covered up their crimes.
In reading that first story, I instantly felt these events were worthy of a book. I was struck in learning about the victims, including Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old. With Katrina coming, Ronald stayed back to be with the family dogs. His older brother Lance, a onetime professional football player, stayed to watch over him. Now I was reading that Ronald was killed—shot in the back—and his brother, his protector, had been falsely arrested for allegedly firing at officers. I read about the other family on the bridge, the Bartholomews, along with their nephew Jose Holmes Jr. and his friend James Brissette Jr. JJ, was killed, and several in the Bartholomew family were critically wounded. The mother, Susan Bartholomew, had to have her arm amputated. As the bullets were coming that morning, her daughter, Lesha, lay atop her mother to try to protect her.
In truth, each of the victims was unarmed, yet police hatched a cover-up to conceal their actions.
On July 30, the whole world watched as thirteen Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John's bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell's ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for forty hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland's "kayactivists" from the local Climate Action Coalition—some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over five hundred people, cheering and chanting "Stop that boat!" Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: "Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail." Another complained: "Congratulations, Portland! You've confirmed that this is a city where it's important to be weird." There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
While July 26 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we need to recall that discrimination against people with disabilities is not over.
The ADA accomplished a lot. It banned employment discrimination, made public transportation accessible, opened places of public accommodation and added closed captioning so the Deaf could watch television, to name a few. But discrimination against people with disabilities remains.
There is economic discrimination. When we talk about the ninety-nine percent and the one percent, we may forget that within that ninety-nine percent there are some groups that suffer the most. There is no group in the US as badly off as people with disabilities who are the largest and poorest US minority.
In the last three months The Family and I have twice piled into the car for eight-plus-hour (one way!) road trips to Washington, D.C. As family road trips, the journeys necessarily included junk food, some nausea, lots of laughter, sunburn, bickering, loud music, crowded hotel rooms, and unscheduled bathroom breaks. Unlike the usual family road trips, however, it’s been the season of Civic Road Trips.
On April 28, with thousands of others, we cheered for marriage equality before the steps of the Supreme Court building as the justices heard oral arguments. Road trip preparations had included learning more about the multiple state cases, interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, looking backwards to the 1968 case of Loving v. Virginiathat declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional, and arguing about the purpose of dissenting opinions. We fell out of the DC Metro carrying our homemade signs and looking like the out-of-towners that we are. We cried as the plaintiffs emerged from the Supreme Court at the end of the day, weary, optimistic, and surrounded by the love of family. Two elderly men from Nebraska, who had been in love for decades, asked if we would adopt them because their own extended family had rejected them. In the midst of the profound we mundanely argued over who had to stay awake in order to drive home.
President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act into law
This weekend, celebrations marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be in full swing. Members of our country’s largest minority will be at pride festivals honoring the history of fighting for the overdue rights that made the world more accessible to them. Published this month on the 14th, Enabling Acts by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Lennard J. Davis—whose mother and father are both deaf—traces the nearly twenty years of activism and legislation that gave rise to the ADA. They were, indeed, an intense twenty years. Here we present the opening of his book, and the forty-six words that changed history for those with disabilities.
Trying to find a moment when the ADA began is like trying to find the source of the Nile or the Amazon. So many tributaries flow into the making of the ADA that you cannot say if any single stream is the true source. But you can say that at some point, like a mighty river, the movement toward the ADA surged powerfully and in a sense became inevitable.
But as inevitable as the act now seems in retrospect, Congress might very well have failed to act sufficiently to create a meaningful bill rather than a document simply expressing general platitudes. Certainly, an ADA could not pass Congress today. In fact, ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was defeated in the Senate in 2012. Bob Dole, who was instrumental in getting the ADA through Congress, arrived on the Senate floor in 2013 to argue emotionally that the convention should be ratified. At eighty-nine, he’d been in and out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center for two years and appeared drawn and fragile. Despite his dramatic appearance, the convention ratification was defeated. Dole, Harkin, and Hoyer all have asserted that if the ADA came up for a vote in 2015, it would be defeated.
On the steps of Gombe, 2008. Merrick is seated next to Goodall in the company of family and others.
Fifty-five years ago today, young Jane Goodall arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to begin the study of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Accompanied by her mother, she arrived at a time when it was unthinkable for a young woman to “risk” the African jungle alone. It was also an era when humans were viewed as the sole makers of tools and the only beings capable of intelligent thought and complex emotion. How wrong we were.
Dr. Jane arrived, little suspecting the significance of that day—or of how she was about to rock a number of the world’s fundamental concepts. A former secretary without college education, could she have imagined she would earn a doctorate from Cambridge University, become one of today’s most influential people, and reorder the world’s thinking?
I was seven years old at the time, and unaware that a young British woman was beginning a mission that would one day so enrich my life. Twelve years later, I would arrive on those same Lake Tanganyika beaches to become Dr. Jane’s research assistant—and life-long friend. It has been a privileged journey, witnessing firsthand so many seasons of the remarkable Dr. Jane Goodall.
The EPA recently released a review draft of its long awaited study of hydraulic fracturing in the United States entitled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” This report, which totaled almost one thousand pages, was undoubtedly read by very few people, but the news coverage was astounding. Oklahoma’s senator Jim Inhofe stated in a press release: “EPA’s report on hydraulic fracturing confirms what we have known for over sixty years when the process began in Duncan, Oklahoma—hydraulic fracturing is safe…” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institutesaid, “After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known: hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices…” But is that the message from the document itself? Tom Burke, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of research, explained the impact of the document: “It’s not a question of safe or unsafe” but rather “how do we best reduce vulnerabilities so we can best protect our water and water resources?”
If we accept Tom Burke’s explanation, how did so many news outlets get the story so wrong? The document itself states: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” This was the quote that was taken out of context and drove the breathless news coverage. A very different picture emerges if one actually takes the time to read the document.
Update: As of June 1, Bruce Jenner has officially announced that she would like to be known as Caitlyn. We have updated this blog to reflect her name change and pronoun usage.
Since coming out last month as a transwoman during her interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, former Olympian, track and field athlete, and TV personality Caitlyn Jenner has cast more light on gender identity. Her celebrity status grants her a privileged position to do so and has been propelling a paradigm shift in American society’s regard toward the standard female/male dichotomy. That Jenner came out to millions of viewers while still phenotypically male is encouraging. In fact, she inspired singer and actress Miley Cyrus to come out and admit her non-binary gender. These and the stories of others give guidance and hope to those living between and outside of the narrow definitions of masculine and feminine. If you or someone you know is at the crossroads of gender identity, we would like to share some books and resources that we hope will be helpful in the journey.
Matt Kailey lived as a straight woman for forty-two years until he took the steps toward becoming a man. In Just Add Hormones,he shares the story of his transformation through surgery and hormone therapy, the change in the behavior of others because of his new gender identity, and the transition towards acceptance of one’s self as a person who straddles two genders. For those who have been questioning their gender, Kailey’s book is full of sound advice and answers all the questions you may have about what it’s like to live as a transsexual.
Trans Liberation is a collection of activist Leslie Feinberg’s inspirational speeches in which ze calls for acceptance and tolerance for those who live at the boundary of sex and gender expression. Pointing out the similarities between the struggles of the trans and gay, lesbian and bi communities, Feinberg advocates for respect towards the cross-dressers, transsexuals, intersex persons, Two Spirits, drag kings and drag queens.
It’s hard to believe that the world lost Matt Kailey and Leslie Feinberg just last year, but we hope their lives and work continues to inspire and help others.
In My Gender Workbook, author, performance artist, playwright, and gender outlaw Kate Bornstein provides a hands-on, accessible guide to help readers discover their own gender identity. Through quizzes, exercises, and puzzles, you may discover that you’re a “real man”, a “real woman”, or “something else entirely”.
Professor J. Jack Halberstam appoints Lady Gaga as a symbol for the new era of gender identity in Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. With the burgeoning influence of pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families in the twenty-first century, gender and sexual politics have broken away from the status quo of heteronormativity. Halberstam urges readers to embrace the gender and sexual fluidity of the new feminism that Lady Gaga embodies.
Our parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), offers a Transgender 101: Identity, Inclusion, and Resources section on their website that includes a list of ten ways to be more welcoming and inclusive of transgender people, basic gender identity definitions, films for congregational viewing, and much more. You may also be interested in Standing on the Side of Love, a public advocacy campaign sponsored by the UUA that participates in LGBTQ activism. The campaign’s mission is to challenge exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity.
In his speech “The Burning Truth in the South”, Martin Luther King, Jr. says the appeal of nonviolence has many facets. Though he wrote this speech half a century ago, we have been watching the facets of nonviolence at work again, this time against police brutality and racial injustice in Baltimore. The media frenzy centered on the purge riot of 27 April was inevitable. Violence, as always, elicits an immediate reaction, the most immediate attention. Up until the riot, the protests were peaceful—and still are. Student protesters Korey Johnson and John Gillespie Jr. have recently organized peaceful outlets to demanding justice for Freddie Gray. Johnson and Gillespie are shining examples of what King extols as the facets of nonviolent of direct action.
"An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South. Though confronted in many places by hoodlums, police guns, tear gas, arrests, and jail sentences, the students tenaciously continue to sit down and demand equal service at variety store lunch counters, and extend their protest from city to city. In communities like Montgomery, Alabama, the whole student body rallied behind expelled students and staged a walkout while state government intimidation was unleashed with a display of military force appropriate to a wartime invasion. Nevertheless, the spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment remains firm, and the state governments find themselves dealing with students who have lost the fear of jail and physical injury.
It is no overstatement to characterize these events as historic. Never before in the United States has so large a body of students spread a struggle over so great an area in pursuit of a goal of human dignity and freedom.
The suddenness with which this development burst upon the nation has given rise to the description “spontaneous.” Yet it is not without clearly perceivable causes and precedents. First, we should go back to the ending of World War II. Then, the new will and determination of the Negro were irrevocably generated. Hundreds of thousands of young Negro men were mustered out of the armed forces, and with their honorable discharge papers and GI Bill of Rights grants, they received a promise from a grateful nation that the broader democracy for which they had fought would begin to assume reality. They believed in this promise and acted in the conviction that changes were guaranteed. Some changes did appear—but commensurate neither with the promise nor the need.
To commemorate May Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Bill Fletcher, Jr. Fletcher has been involved with the labor movement since he worked as a welder in a Massachusetts shipyard after graduating from Harvard in 1976. He moved on thereafter to become a labor activist and organizer. With hands-on experience from the bottom up, Fletcher is in the prime position to bust the myths bent on dismantling unions. Watch him bust ten in “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.
MYTH 1 Workers are forced to join unions.
Fact: Unions are created when a majority of the workers in a workplace either vote for a union or sign cards to join the union, and are recognized by the employer. Whether one must become a member of a union depends on (a) a negotiated agreement between the workers and their employer that all union members can ratify and (b) state law.
MYTH 2 Unions are destroying the economy.
Fact: Problems with the U.S. economy have little to do with labor unions but instead stem from a global capitalist economy and polices that perpetuate inequality. Labor unions seek to more fairly distribute the results of labor.
MYTH 3 Unions are run by labor bosses.
Fact: Leadership is chosen through an electoral process. Local union leaders are elected by individual members, while delegates sent from local unions then choose national union officers, including a president and an executive board.
MYTH 4 Unions are always on strike.
Fact: The number of strikes, a nonviolent tactic for asserting worker needs, has declined from an average of 352 per year in the 1950s to 21 in the last ten years.
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.