Black History Month is as much about rediscovery as it is about celebration and commemoration. At Beacon Press, the books we publish that cover black history reintroduce us to long-forgotten or hidden historical figures, unearth information previously unknown about prominent black leaders, bring us closer to the struggles and triumphs of African ancestors. In the current age of #BlackLivesMatter and other movements that compel us to evaluate our country’s progress in racial justice, it’s important to get reacquainted with the steps black forerunners have taken—and their history—so we can see how to step forward. For this year's Black History Month, we're recommending a list of new and older titles offering biographies, histories, memoir, and more.
Editors Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise collected twelve first-person narratives spanning eight decades, all told in the voices of the runaway slaves themselves, that reveal the extraordinary and innovative ways these men and women sought freedom and demanded citizenship. More than half of the inspiring narratives in this collection, the first book about the runaway slave phenomenon, had been long out of print. The Long Walk to Freedom also includes an essay by history professor Brenda Stevenson that gives a context for these narratives, a comprehensive brief history of slavery, and a look into the daily life of a slave.
Just before becoming the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Reverend Dr. William J. Barber developed ankylosing spondylitis, an extreme and very painful form of arthritis. In this excerpt from The Third Reconstruction, he recounts the three months he spent in the hospital, when, having reached the depths of despair, he received an inspiring visit from an “amputee angel,” and eventually learned firsthand the incredible power of people standing together.
I learned a great deal in Martinsville about moral leadership—more than I realized at the time. But I did not know what was next for me when our family moved back to North Carolina in 1991. Preaching had helped me find a voice of moral dissent, but my father had shown me long before that you don’t have to pastor a church to preach. I was at the core of my being a preacher, but I knew that preaching did not have to be my job. In fact, I had begun to think I might be more effective if it weren’t. The pastoral work of managing a tight-knit community was not without its challenges and frustrations, which inevitably took time and energy away from public justice work. One of my aunts kept telling me I needed to stop trying to be a lawyer. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to become, but I knew I wasn’t in a hurry to find another church.
This is the second entry of our Montgomery Bus Boycott Turns 60 Series. About two months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, times start to become dangerous for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family. Death threats over the phone are coming in daily to King’s home, most of which Coretta Scott King answers. Aware of his role as a leader, Dr. King turns to his faith for strength and resolve in the face of danger. Sixty years ago today, the danger arrives on his porch in the form of a bomb. This excerpt from Stride Toward Freedom brings us close to the reality of fear Dr. King lived with, and the resilience of the King family.
One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
What are U.S. workers to do about the problems presented by the gig economy?
The past year saw a number of prominent liberals offer policy ideas to mitigate the worst elements of precarious employment. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich proposed that companies pay into a common benefit fund for the gig workers they employ. Left-leaning think-tank executives, academics and even a few union leaders signed on to a manifesto declaring that portable benefits were the solution to easing the lives of precarious workers.
They’re off the mark. A lasting solution can’t simply address the obvious lack of benefits—it must tackle the real problem: the power differential between gig economy workers and the big businesses that control their labor.
Click here to sign the petition demanding better working conditions for the Boston Globe delivery workers.
If you live anywhere near the Boston area, you’ve probably heard or read something about the Boston Globe’s recent delivery debacle. Since the newspaper contracted with a new delivery company starting December 28, the entire delivery system collapsed, and subscribers have been puzzled and furious that their daily newspaper has vanished with little explanation and little hope for restoration any time soon.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber speaking at a Moral Monday rally. Photo credit: Flickr user twbuckner
The Third Reconstruction, written by the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, is out today. In his memoir, Reverend Barber tells the stirring story of how he helped start a state-by-state movement—uniting black, white, and brown; rich and poor; employed and unemployed; gay and straight; documented and undocumented; religious and secular—to bridge America’s racial divide. Only through such a diverse fusion movement, he argues, can we make progress toward ending racial and economic injustice. The Third Reconstruction is as much a blueprint for community activism as it is an inspiring call to action from one our most compelling grassroots organizers. At the end of the book, Reverend Barber provides fourteen steps for building a social justice movement.
MU students protest inside Jesse Hall after report of racism, October 6, 2015. Photo credit: Flickr user KOMUnews
“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to, to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.
“One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too, too fast for them.”
Justice Antonin Scalia’s words during the Supreme Court’s revising of the Fisher v. University of Texas case of affirmative action have been rattling around the insides of many who work and study on college campuses. His words caused outrage, but in fact, they are representative of the widespread and erroneous belief that campuses are apolitical locations of merit and ability. His words are racist because they absolve and therefore further the bedrock of institutionalized racism on college campuses. And these words are echoed in the limited ways that higher education currently has responded to students’ accounts of racism.
Islamophobia has reared its ugly head again. As author and journalist Linda K. Wertheimer noted in her previous post, education about world religions couldn’t be more important in today’s climate. Education about other religions comes not only from the classroom, but also from the life stories of others. In his book Acts of Faith, interfaith leader Eboo Patel writes about the time he spent with his devout Muslim grandmother in India. In this excerpt, he recounts the invaluable lesson his grandmother gave him in what his faith stands for.
In The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz writes that many young people view religion as an old man saying no. Growing up, my “old man” was a woman—my grandmother, with whom I was now staying in Bombay. She would come to the States every few years and live with my family, occupying the living room from midmorning to early evening watching Hindi films. I avoided her as much as possible. “Are you saying your Du’a?” she would ask if she caught me before I managed to reach the back staircase. If she woke up earlier than usual and saw me at the breakfast table before I left for school, she would say, “Are you giving your dasond?” referring to the tithe that Ismailis give. She was disappointed that I had no close Ismaili friends when I was a teenager. “You will marry an Ismaili, right?” my grandmother would ask, catching my arm, as I was sneaking out. I am embarrassed to say it now, but I dreaded her visits and did my best to avoid her.
Sixty years have passed since the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We at Beacon are commemorating the anniversary of this milestone in civil rights history with a series that highlights key events and players in the boycott’s timeline. The first entry in our series is an excerpt from Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Dr. King’s account of applying the large-scale nonviolent resistance movement that desegregated the Montgomery buses. Rosa Parks has just been arrested for not giving up her seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus. Once the news reaches Dr. King and the proposal of a boycott starts floating around, he, along with a number of others, knows it’s time to act.
On December 1, 1955, an attractive Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in downtown Montgomery. She was returning home after her regular day’s work in the Montgomery Fair, a leading department store. Tired from long hours on her feet, Mrs. Parks sat down in the first seat behind the section reserved for whites. Not long after she took her seat, the bus operator ordered her, along with three other Negro passengers, to move back in order to accommodate boarding white passengers. By this time every seat in the bus was taken. This meant that if Mrs. Parks followed the driver’s command she would have to stand while a white male passenger, who had just boarded the bus, would sit. The other three Negro passengers immediately complied with the driver’s request. But Mrs. Parks quietly refused. The result was her arrest.
Given that chimpanzees are humankind’s closest relatives, it only seems logical that they should merit our special respect. Yet these intelligent creatures—capable of making and using tools, having strong social and family bonds, and mirroring us in so many ways—seem to continuously suffer from our actions. Anthropocentrism has always been an enemy of chimpanzees, and sadly, because of it, chimpanzees have been deemed as “acceptable stand-ins” whenever we run into something we view as unethical to do to ourselves.
Medical experimentation is a perfect example. There are literally hundreds of chimpanzees in US laboratories that, if they could speak, would tell of being anesthetized hundreds of times, of repeated liver biopsies, blood draws, and darting, and even of living in isolation for decades. The end-result for many has been permanent traumatization, leading to self-mutilation, bizarre behavior and anxiety. Until now, lab scientists have justified the sacrifice of these chimpanzees, saying their use is essential to saving or improving the lives of thousands of humans.
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.