By Mary Frances BerryOur electoral process is broken. Polls, interviews with voters or prospective voters all confirm discontent with our system and a sense of unfairness, corruption or unresponsiveness. At the state and local levels, such issues as expanding Medicaid, insuring clean drinking water, addressing homelessness, figuring out how to “fix” education, repairing streets and other infrastructure, police community relations, all depend on an effectively functioning political system. The public routinely expresses a sense of uncertainty about when and how to vote, who can vote, and whose votes count, whether in state and local or national primaries or general elections. The uncertainty is exacerbated by increased population mobility. Some jurisdictions make changes in the law and are then challenged and endure expensive litigation costs because of provisions attacked as voter suppression.
By Lennard Davis
Twenty-seven years ago, disability activists threw away their canes, crutches, and wheelchairs. They proceeded to slowly and painfully crawl up the steps to the Capitol to protest those who would block the Americans with Disabilities Act. The “Capitol Crawl,” as the event was called, has become in retrospect a powerful visual symbol the difficulties faced by people with disabilities when confronted with barriers and obstacles created by politicians and others. Now, faced with massive cuts in disability medical care and services under the proposed Republican dismantling of Obamacare and Medicaid, disability activists are staging protests around the country.
This month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? turns fifty. King’s acute analysis of American race relations couldn’t be more prophetic. Written in 1967, in isolation in a rented house in Jamaica, King’s final book lays out his plans and dreams for America’s future: the need for better jobs; higher wages; decent housing; quality education; and above all, the end to global suffering. King’s dreams are very much our own today.
By Adam EichenFor the last nine months, we have assessed the state of our democracy. In our search, we confirmed the now seemingly intuitive notion that Americans across the country are upset, for they feel increasingly powerless, that their voice does not matter, and that the political system does not represent them. But we also found something underreported—that people are eagerly yearning and demonstrating for solutions to make our democracy better represent all voices and work more efficiently. In fact, there is nothing less than a Democracy Movement emerging in our country.
By Perpetua CharlesThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the court decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the United States. Thanks to this ruling, people across races could legally declare their love for each other through marriage. Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Loving: Interracial Relationships and the Threat to White Supremacy, offers a history of interracial relationships in the United States and looks at how present interracial relationships will shape the future of the country. As I read Loving, I was struck by a short section near the end of the book. Cashin writes that one doesn’t have to marry, date, or adopt a person of another race to experience transformational love or to acquire what she calls cultural dexterity—an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside one’s own tribe. An intimate friendship works just as well. Cashin doesn’t use the word friend lightly, and neither do I.
By Nicholas DiSabatinoToday marks the hundredth anniversary of legendary literary icon Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m so proud to be working on the new biography of her from award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist, Angela Jackson, who intimately knew Brooks and her family and had unprecedented access to her papers. A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks is a welcome introduction to Brooks for both longtime fans and newbies like myself.
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-WhitakerIndigenous nations have for many decades negotiated with and litigated against the United States for its unfair and many times illegal dealings with them, dealings that have resulted in the massive loss of land and resources. Beginning with the Indian Claims Commission in the 1940s, the United States has paid out billions of dollars in settlements in acknowledgment of its depredations, with Native nations sometimes extinguishing their right to aboriginal title or status as federally recognized tribes in exchange.
A Q&A with Will MyersI had read Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank as a young reader, but unfortunately it wasn’t until I was an adult that I read Man’s Search for Meaning. So when I began thinking about a young readers edition of the book, I was really excited to think about what it would be like to encounter the book as a young reader. I was interested in the possibilities of approaching the book with a young reader’s eyes and seeing the book from a different perspective.
By Laura WinnickTeaching Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of the most important projects I embark on with my students. I’ve taught it for the past two years, and have seen my students, previously bored by texts, evolve into voracious readers, horrified by the grim depictions of slavery and transfixed by the possibility of time travel. This year, we paired John Jennings and Damian Duffy’s newly published graphic novel with the dense fictional text, and students arrived every day begging to read the graphic novel, utterly obsessed with the artistic rendering. In this unit, our essential questions are extremely difficult. We examine: How do race and gender affect our identities? What are the lingering effects of slavery? How are people impacted by their ancestral histories?
On August 17, 1971, Beacon publicly announced that it would publish The Pentagon Papers. Nobody on staff was naive about what such a commitment entailed: “A Beacon spokesman said yesterday the Gravel book is the biggest venture in the history of the small publishing firm.” The papers represented the “biggest venture” in Beacon’s long history on many levels. For starters, the papers in their submitted form—a “great container full of stuff”—presented an editorial nightmare. The manuscript that antiwar activist Leonard Rodberg brought in was composed of more than 7,000 pages of “original transcripts.”
By Carlos A. BallGrimm’s lawsuit, and other cases like it such as the challenge to North Carolina’s so-called transgender bathroom law (also known as House Bill 2), is of great importance, because it addresses the question of whether transgender individuals are legally entitled to do something that everyone else is permitted to do, namely to use bathrooms (and similar facilities such as changing rooms) that match their gender identity. But cases like Grimm’s raise an even more fundamental and important question: whether federal law protects sexual and gender-identity minorities from discrimination to begin with.
By Lori L. Tharps: February is Black History Month. Personally, I’ve always felt conflicted about a month being set aside to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in the United States, because it seems to suggest that once February is over, we can fall back into ignoring Black people’s contributions to American history.
A Q&A with Caroline LightOrdinarily, the duty to retreat obligated you to first try to avoid a violent confrontation before meeting force with force, unless you were threatened in your home. Starting in Florida in 2005, Stand Your Ground laws have granted some people an exemption from criminal prosecution when they claim to have killed another person in self-defense, as long as their fear of the deceased can be seen as “reasonable” in court. In some jurisdictions, SYG laws make it very difficult for police to arrest someone in the wake of a deadly encounter, because they must first establish evidence that the killing was not in reasonable self-defense.
By Rashod Ollison: It was February 1988, and I was in the fourth grade, the new kid at Fair Park Elementary in central Little Rock. I was nervous, of course, because I was the new kid. And nobody wants to be the new kid. But unlike previous classroom situations, I wasn’t the only black face in the place. There, in Mrs. Charlotte James’ orderly room, I was surrounded by kids who looked as though they could have been my cousins—black and brown faces staring back at me sans the entitled icy glares I usually got from white kids in Hot Springs. Also, Mrs. James was black, as stately and no-nonsense with her pearls and round glasses as the Baptist church mothers who silenced me with a stern look whenever I was disruptive in the Lord’s house. She was my first black teacher, and I was “so excited” like the Pointer Sisters.
By Carole JoffeMany who celebrated the success of the recent worldwide Women’s Marches—record-breaking numbers, wonderful esprit, and their peacefulness—were also gratified by the significant participation of men in the women-led events. This widely noted involvement of men in the marches prompted me to think of another important example of men supporting the aspirations of women, but one less noted today: the role of Black men in the struggle for abortion rights before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. These men played crucial roles in key legal cases, introduced pioneering pro-choice legislation, and as doctors, made sure women could get this essential care.
By Sharon Leslie Morgan: When Dr. Carter G. Woodson created “National Negro Week” in February, 1926, my oldest uncle was a newly conceived embryo. Louis Nicholson would emerge into the world in October of that year, born into a society in which African Americans were a mere six decades into freedom from 264 years of enslavement. “Jim Crow” was the law of the land. Black people were being segregated, terrorized, and lynched—even in his hometown of Chicago. Woodson chose February as the celebration date for “Negro History Week” because it coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and “The Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln.
By Jay WexlerAs someone who has written a book about the “odd clauses” of the Constitution, I always find it exciting when some weird and heretofore unnoticed clause starts grabbing some of the nation’s headlines. This time it’s the so-called Emoluments Clause of Article I, Section 9 (I think it should be called the “Presents Clause” but I’ll get to that), which prohibits anyone holding “any Office of Profit or Trust” from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The news media has been reporting for well over a month that Donald Trump’s extensive business network puts him in danger of violating this clause; and on Monday a group of extremely prominent legal experts filed suit in federal court claiming that Trump has already violated this constitutional provision.
A Q&A with Daina Berry: Since the early twentieth century, when trained historians and economists wrote about the institution of slavery, many included the monetary values of “prime male field hands” in their work. They argued that these individuals were the most valued and quantifiable members of the plantation community, and that by tracking their prices one could analyze the profitability of the institution. I was always struck that few scholars provided historical context for these prices and that women, children, and the elderly were rarely included. I also knew that enslaved people had very different conceptions of their value.
By Jeanne Theoharis: While Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are typically associated with the South, both spent a great deal of their lives challenging the racism of the Jim Crow North. Yet this part of their history is repeatedly ignored. Parks described the Detroit she moved to in 1957 as the "Northern promised land that wasn't" and spent the next four decades challenging the segregation and inequality endemic to the city.
By Isaac Newton Farris, Jr.The world knew him formally as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. Many knew him affectionately as “Daddy King.” I knew him simply as “granddaddy,” but all who were acquainted with his presence respected this influential man of God. As new generations of Americans become familiar with the life of my grandfather, they will better appreciate how my uncle, his son, Martin Luther King, Jr., evolved into one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century. In fact throughout my uncle’s life, my grandfather played a key role in allowing my uncle to retain the financial and political independence necessary for him to be at all times an uncompromised public servant.