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.
Amid the excitement following the announcement of the forthcoming publication of a second novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a work featuring the return of an adult Scout Finch to her hometown, the most prominent initial reaction was a sentimental outpouring of love for a book (and movie) that many readers say gave them their first introduction to the struggle for racial justice. Lost in the excited flurry of response is the unexpected relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to current tensions throughout the country—in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and many other communities—regarding "hate violence," structural racism, police violence, and a persistent culture of antiblackness in American society.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most heralded American stories of the twentieth century. Harper Lee’s novel won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and has since sold more than thirty million copies. Many white people remember Mockingbird as the story that first opened their eyes to the terrible wrongs of racial injustice. Cultural and political scholars have examined the novel’s representations of the racial dynamics and community life of fictional Maycomb, Alabama, and its exploration of the relation of social norms to questions of justice.
In January 1965, a campaign for voting rightslaunched in Selma, Alabama. Escalating police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators culminated in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18. He died eight days later. In response, on March 7 activists set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local lawmakers. After refusing to disperse, the marchers were attacked with clubs and teargas. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” James Reeb (January 1, 1927—March 11, 1965) was among 40 Unitarian Universalist ministers who answered a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., for religious leaders to join him in Selma after the violent confrontation. On March 9, 400 religious leaders joined 2,000 African Americans to march over the bridge again to the site of the attack, where they kneeled and prayed before returning to Selma; the march had been cut short because of an order prohibiting it until protection could be provided to the marchers. That night, Rev. Reeb and two other UU ministers were attacked outside a whites-only restaurant. Rev. Reeb died two days later from his injuries. On March 21, a federally sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery began. The march was limited to 300 people but swelled to 25,00 by the last day. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama, March 15, 1965.
And, if he should die, Take his body and cut it into little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night.*
These beautiful words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb. He entered the stage of history just thirty-eight years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well. James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.
Seven years after the end of the Civil War, hundreds of African Americans in Baltimore gathered at historic Madison Street (Colored) Presbyterian Church for the purpose, “[O]f adopting measures to petition the Congress of the United States to tender the powerful mediation of this great government towards ameliorating the sad condition of a half million of our brethren now held in slavery in the island of Cuba by Spain.”S.R. Scottron, noted black inventor and a co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Committee, was the evening’s keynote speaker. He urged his enthusiastic audience to remember, “They had passed through the Egyptian bondage and through the sea of blood, and having become clothed in the habiliments of freedom, knew how to sympathize with the 500,000 of their own race bowed down in Cuba. The Cuban patriots were opposing wrongs as galling as those which adduced the American patriots to rise up against the oppression of Great Britain.” Scottron’s advice was that African Americans should “petition the government of the United States to extend a liberal policy to the colored race in Cuba. The 800,000 votes of the colored people here would have their weight in that direction.” After Scottron concluded his speech, church deacons circulated the petition for signatures.
Rev. Henry Highland Garnet
Less than a week later Scottron joined a delegation that included Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, George T. Downing, and J.M. Langston to present petitions to President Ulysses S. Grant signed by tens of thousands of African Americans and allies across the country in support of the resistance movement in Cuba. African Americans demanded that the US government grant belligerency status to the Cuban freedom fighters and also support the abolition of slavery on the island. The Cuban solidarity movement was a national phenomenon with organizing activities in cities including Sacramento; San Francisco; Virginia City, NV; New Orleans; Boston; Philadelphia; New York; Washington, DC; and many other places. Estimates of the number of signatures gathered in support of the struggle ranged from tens of thousands to as much as half a million.
What is a mob, actually? We say the word, and tend to think of it as a crowd of people. But a mob is not a crowd; it is a state of mind.… Two or three people, even one can become a mob. —Lillian Smith, novelist and civil rights activist
It was another tragedy in a distrustful, on-edge society steeped in violent confrontation and extra-judicial killing as the solution to whatever ails us.
What motivates these on-the-spot executions? Fear? Resentment? Rage? Disgust? Misbegotten feelings of some sort of imagined superiority: racial, religious, gendered? Maybe just a hair-trigger impulse to strike back decisively at anyone who symbolizes an enemy? Or maybe, at times, the motivation is some terrible combination of any or all of these emotions that results in a desire, as Lillian Smith wrote, to hurt somebody.
There have been so many tragedies lately. Too many.
On February 10, 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla, 19, were shot to death—bullets to their heads—in a condominium complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were Muslim, all pursuing or about to pursue studies at UNC and North Carolina State University.
The movie Selma deserves the accolades it has received not just for its artistry but also because it lays bare for modern day activists the kind of strategies that are necessary to work a social transformation. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Christian theologian but he was also a tactician. He recognized the power and absolute moral authority in love and nonviolence. He championed agape love. It was not romantic love or the love between friends, but the hardest kind of love to show—a love indifferent to human merit. You raise a billy club to me and I will kneel and pray for you. I can’t say that I could be as brave or as disciplined as the marchers who lived this history and code. The moral authority that flowed from John Lewis and others crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, getting beaten and not retaliating did much to render the movement “everybody’s fight”—the words that Viola Liuzzo used to justify leaving her five children in Michigan to join with civil rights activists in Alabama.
Dr. King saw in his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he espoused. The movement itself could be an approximation of the spirit of agape love and community that he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of this love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Christmas Eve 1967, he proclaimed, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
The birth of the American film industry, first in New York and then Hollywood, changed how Americans thought about politics, law, and social justice. Beginning in colonial times, newspapers, pamphlets, and books were enormously influential in shaping public opinion. They helped formulate ideas about justice and helped an ever-growing reading population to engage in public conversations about ethics and morality. Images played a large part in this (think of the illustrations of abused slaves in abolitionist literature), and the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century radically transformed the cultural influence of images.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses supporters and fellow marchers outside the State Capital in Montgomery, Alabama at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965.
Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, set during the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, has been justly lauded for its portrait of the human, and more radical sides of Martin Luther King, Jr., even as it’s gained notoriety for what some are calling an ahistorical portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. That fuss has somewhat obscured a more significant departure from historical accuracy in the film: the fact that all of the speeches Dr. King delivers in the film, including the rousing victory speech at the climax, were actually fictionalized, written by DuVernay herself in the style of King. The choice wasn’t artistic; usage rights to King’s actual speeches had belonged to another project. Nevertheless, such an omission might leave viewers of the film wanting for King’s actual words.
A bullet hole is pictured in the window of a prayer room at a mosque in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans, western France, on January 8, 2015, after shots were fired and three blank grenades were thrown at the mosque shortly after midnight, leaving no casualties.
The outpouring of outrage and concern following the lethal shooting of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine is understandable.
Many people want to express their shock and grief. They want to stand against the censoring, repressive, and violent impulses represented—symbolically and actually—by the gunmen.
There is no ethical justification for the killings. None. No one “deserved to die.”
Yet the reaction to these tragic killings seamlessly moves forward within an easily manipulated narrative. This story is compellingly shaped by the twin themes of terrorism and destruction of freedom of speech. Because this narrative is framed by the politics of fear, resentment, and vengeance, it has become as volatile and potentially incendiary as the actions that produced it.
“[Students] are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Time for Freedom Has Come”, September 10, 1961
During the civil rights movement of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up against the injustices of the time to make America a better place for all people. More than 45 years after his assassination, his message is still relevant as we continue to struggle with issues like unjust laws, racism, poverty, and war.
We believe that talking with young people about his vision and its continued relevance will better enable them to build the America Dr. King envisioned. Educators, however, were lacking a good resource for teaching King in their classrooms, often resorting to using photocopied pages from various websites, while also lamenting about the mass amounts of incorrect information and untrusted resources online. As a result of discussions with educators about the importance of teaching King and the lack of available resources, A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., for Students was conceived. The writings and speeches in the collection were selected by teachers across a variety of disciplines and speak to the issues young people face today.
Ana DuVernay’s movie Selma tells the inspirational story of a coalition of activists, young and old, students and ministers, local and national, radicals and respectables who, despite their differences came together three times in the spring of 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and confront state police intent on enforcing racial segregation. Viewers and reviewers want to know more about all the people surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr.: Dr. King’s right hand in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy and SNCC’s John Lewis. They want to know about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper as he was defending his mother from a police beating. People want to know about women in the movement, about Selma community organizer Amelia Boynton and the young girls who also took part.
So the recent flap over the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson during this pivotal point of the civil rights movement distracts us not only from the historical truth, but does the further disservice by (once again) trying to make white people the center of the black freedom struggle. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. goes so far as to suggest that LBJ should be remembered as the “white savior” who suggested the march, rather than as a president who tried to stop it as the film portrays. (That dubious honor goes to John F. Kennedy who tried to shut down the 1963 March on Washington.)
January is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts, ambitious goals. At Beacon, we publish some of our most exciting titles in January, books we think will have a long shelf-life. This January, we explore a geopolitical conservation effort, redefine the cause of hate and hate-driven violence, return Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his radical roots, and expose the hypocrisy of “merit-based” admissions practices. These are books you will be thinking about and discussing for the rest of the year.
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back to some of our most popular posts of 2014, as well as some gems you might have overlooked. Consider it a countdown of a different sort, a look back at a year that was both volatile and filled with possibility, with posts that reflected both the intensity and diversity of our readers. And consider it a promise, as well, that our 2015 posts will be filled with the same inquisitive spirit and intellectual curiosity. Happy New Year!
James Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” is a poem of apocalyptic scale, written at a time when the specter of nuclear annihilation hung over the world’s so-called superpowers, held like an axe by the “pink and alabaster pragmatists” of the white power structure, as Baldwin so cuttingly described them. It is a long, furious, and fearless poem, seventeen pages that mix politics with pop culture with black historical and literary references, and snippets of Negro spirituals dripping with venomous irony, all to expose the matrix of colonization and systematic oppression that continued to plague black people in the US—who “don’t own nothing / got no flag,” whose very names remain “hand-me-downs”—well after the civil rights movement was declared victorious, sanctified, then sanitized and anesthetized by those same keepers of red button.
BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.
In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.
In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.
I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.
Martin Luther King, Jr. receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on December 10th, 1964.
Fifty years ago today, at the age of thirty-five, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, becoming at the time the youngest person to have received the award in history. Now, as civic unrest continues to flare up over the unjust deaths of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and too many others, it seems clear that Dr. King’s message of hope and resilience are as necessary now as ever before. “I refuse to accept the view,” King said in that acceptance speech, “that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” Later in the speech, he continued:
I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome.
This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.
A window at Left Bank Books in St. Louis displays titles in their Black Lives Matter Reading List
Before moving to Boston in 2012, I spent several years working for Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s flagship independent bookstore. Founded in 1969, the store has maintained a strong commitment to community, and has gained a reputation as a platform for social and political discussion. Their author event series has hosted the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Madeleine Albright. This week I checked in with one of the store’s co-owners, Jarek Steele, to ask about the bookstore’s response to the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent rallies, protests, and demonstrations.
Daniel Barks: I’ve seen bits and pieces of the store’s (and the staff’s) activities regarding Ferguson since August through social media, but maybe you can give a clearer picture of how the store has responded.
Jarek Steele: Early on we talked about Ferguson in our staff meeting. We talked about how Left Bank Books has always been more than just a bookstore, and that we had the opportunity (and responsibility) to use it to facilitate a public conversation about race, policing, and St. Louis’s history and current practice of segregation. We wanted to celebrate the courage it takes to openly talk about race, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Our staff is about ¼ non-white at the moment and very queer, so this message was not unwelcome.
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 04: Hundreds of protestors gather at Foley Square in New York, United States on December 04, 2014. A Staten Island grand jury voted against criminal charges for New York City Police a white police officer Daniel Pantaleo who was accused of using a chokehold during an arrest of Eric Garner.
Let me see if I understand what just happened. Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer in July. The NYC Police Department prohibits the use of choke holds. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide. And the grand jury will not indict the officer involved. Is that about it?
“Again the system has failed us. “How? How? I don’t know how.” —Jewell Miller, who has an infant daughter with Eric Garner
All true. A New York grand jury failed to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, this past July. Sadly, I’m not surprised. After the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, it’s what I expected.
Rev. Al Sharpton (L), President of the National Action Network, Esaw Garner (C), widow of Eric Garner, and Emerald Garner (R), daughter of Eric Garner, hold a press conference December 3, 2014 in New York, after a grand jury decided not to charge a white police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, a black man, days after a similar decision sparked renewed unrest in Missouri.
“Hell No!” That’s what Esaw Garner said in refusing to accept the apology of the policeman who killed her husband Eric in New York City. And that is what I am saying today. I would like to write something erudite and wise, but those facilities fail me just now. I am feeling great empathy for the rage Louis Head (Michael Brown’s stepfather) unleashed in Ferguson, Missouri when he yelled, “Burn this b**** down!”
Metaphorically channeling the 1969 recording by Miles Davis that “sent a shiver through a country already quaking,” I am at a loss for words to fully capture my “Bitches Brew” of feelings. Miles led the revolution for jazz. I see it as a soundtrack for society—the one where, in 1969, I was a mere five years into the modicum of Civil Rights that forbade denial of equal protection under the law. In 2014, I continue to yearn for those rights to be applied—equally.
Perhaps what hurts most right now is my lack of surprise about what should be surprising events. Eric Garner and Michael Brown are merely two names on a very long list; to which I hasten to add the more than two dozen black women who have also been killed by law enforcement officers in recent years. It wasn’t a surprise when Darren Wilson was not indicted in Missouri. Nor was it a surprise when Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted in New York. It is not a surprise that an unarmed black person is shot every 28 hours by police, nor that black men are incarcerated at ten times the rate of whites.
Fifty-nine years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which, led by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a renewed urgency to the civil rights struggle. In an excerpt from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis traces the aftermath of Parks’s arrest and the lead-up to the bus boycott, and shows exactly what was at stake for Parks as she made the decision to let her arrest be used as the rallying point for a new movement.
After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.
They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do.That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.
She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.”Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest.According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”