Dr. King speaking during “phase one” of the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Joe Chapman)
Recently, I returned to my home town and found myself flipping through a fake “yearbook” students assembled that asked students who they thought their peers wanted to be like. Someone wrote “to be like Martin Luther King” for me. It’s true that I grew up as a follower of Dr. King, though I hadn’t realized how obvious it must have been to others.
I grew up in the small town of Williamston, Michigan, where the only person “of color” I knew of was Mexican American. While I wasn’t exposed to racial or ethnic diversity, I’m grateful to my parents who taught me to be open minded, to treat others as I wished to be treated, to read and reflect—and, also, to pay attention. Like many others, I still vividly recall those images of vicious dogs and fire hoses turned on black children in Birmingham, Alabama, and troopers on horseback, riding people down in Selma. I had spent happy summers in Detroit, where my parents grew up, but not after the summer of 1967, when police brutality set off an unbelievably turbulent inner-city rebellion that makes today’s revolt in Ferguson, Missouri look tame. Detroit had experienced a horrific white race riot in 1943 and most whites in the 1960s still seemed terrified of black folks moving into their neighborhoods or taking their jobs.
To address the poverty of the inner cities like Detroit, in 1968 Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to take the poor to the nation’s capitol to demand that money for war be spent instead on jobs, housing, health care, and education. As an Oakland University college student, I helped recruit a busload of people to go to Washington DC. But King never made the journey: an assassin’s bullet cut him down. I will never forget the despair my parents, Keith and Betty, and my brother, Charles, and sister, Maureen, felt at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. My mother’s tearful comments echoed the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos, or Community?
Three young black men were dead at the hands of the police. The police claimed a gun battle, but no weapons were ever found and witnesses said it was an execution. Nonetheless, the officers were not indicted—and the local newspapers were not willing to investigate or press the issue. The community was outraged; the families bereft.
This was not Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It was 1967 Detroit and Rosa Parks was outraged by the pattern of police abuse and harassment which had led to the 1967 uprising and the lack of police accountability for their violent behavior during the riot.
Two weeks ago, fierce protests erupted in Ferguson following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. While there has been a great deal of criticism of the aggressive police response to the protests, there has been an undertone of concern and fear about the protesters. Many have cast the young protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the legacy of the civil rights movement. Cast as a generation gap, these framings misrepresent these young protesters and the history of the civil rights movement.
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 14: Demonstrators take part in a rally on West Florissant Avenue to protest the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown by a police officer on August 9.
This week’s firestorm of racial outrage—which had continued to smolder since the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer—seemed as inevitable as it was horrifying. The shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer is only the latest incident in a series of high-profile and unjust deaths of black men and women by law enforcement, or by civilians with a weapon and a stand-your-ground mandate. That the officer in Ferguson remained anonymous for a full week after Brown’s shooting only fueled the unrest.
We asked several Beacon authors for their take on what happened in Missouri this week. Their responses were as varied as the contributing factors that compelled this incident to boil over: the shock of a small, Midwestern suburb confronting unjust violence; the deployment of an over-militarized police force; the arrest of journalists and public observers; the close lens of social media. As Jeanne Theoharis says at the end of this piece, and as the photographs this week from Ferguson made clear, the struggle for civil rights seems far from over.
Ninety years ago this past weekend, on August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was born in Harlem to a single mother, the eldest of nine children, plagued by poverty, and by a deeply divided country where both his race and his sexuality were seen to be liabilities. That Baldwin, who left Harlem first for Greenwich Village and later for Paris, would transcend these difficult beginnings to become a citizen of the world—famously sparring in one instance with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the necessity of civil rights legislation—was evidence of his remarkable talent, unparalleled intellect, and the sheer force of his principles. As the poet Nikky Finney put it in her introduction to Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, Baldwin would come to be regarded as “the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century.” He spoke about his early life, and of his difficult relationship with his stepfather—a domineering presence in Baldwin’s youth—in a 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark:
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in June, 1964 World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin (via Wikimedia Commons)
In July of 1964, fifty years ago this month, Harper & Row published what has often been applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book. Why We Can’t Wait recounts the Birmingham campaign in vivid detail, while underscoring why 1963 was such a crucial year for the civil rights movement. During this time, Birmingham, Alabama, was perhaps the most racially segregated city in the United States, but the campaign launched by Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and others demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent direct action. King examines the history of the civil rights struggle and the tasks that future generations must accomplish to bring about full equality. The book grew out of ideas in first expressed in King’s extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. That famous letter, which is included in the book, was first composed on scraps of paper and in the margins of a smuggled newspaper. It would eventually bring much needed national attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, and become an essential clarion call for the wider civil rights movement.
We are saddened to learn of the death of beloved children’s book author Walter Dean Myers, who wrote so many important and life-changing books for America’s youth, including Bad Boy, Monster, Darius & Twig, Lockdown, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother. He also was a friend to the house, having contributed a wonderful introduction to A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr. for Students. In that introduction, Myers, who was born in West Virginia but raised in Harlem, wrote about being a young soldier traveling to Louisiana and experiencing segregation there for the first time:
When I arrived in Louisiana, when I saw what institutionalized racism was, I was shocked. Restaurant signs read “Whites Only” or “Colored Served in Rear.” Some stores wouldn’t serve black people, and there were movie houses in which they were made to sit in the balcony or, in some cases, not even permitted to enter.... The signs did more than make me feel uncomfortable; they made me feel sick. I was being told that I wasn’t as good as some people simply because of the color of my skin. And yet I was in the military, ready and willing to sacrifice my life for this country.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was a culminating moment in the civil rights movement, a movement that, as author and legal scholar Sheryll Cashin noted in her recent New York Times editorial, far from being isolated to southern black activists, involved an extensive and well-coordinated “grass-roots mobilization [that] was multiracial, from the integrated legion of Freedom Riders, to the young activists in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to the more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington, a quarter of whom were white.” The story of the act’s eventual success is the story of our nation passing through a moral gauntlet. That, fifty years later, we remain uncertain about how best to address the legacy of those racial divisions that first sparked the movement is a testament to how deep the fissures ran. And how brave and dedicated the movement’s heroes were—Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, and others—men and women whose names have entered the lingua franca of American history, synonymous with freedom, righteousness, and moral certitude. As Dr. King says in his classic narrative Why We Can’t Wait, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God.”To celebrate their struggles, and the efforts of all those “co-workers with God” who sacrificed so much to lay the groundwork for the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we’ve put together a list of essential books that we hope will empower the next generation for another fifty years and beyond.
Buses arrive at South Boston High School, Jan. 8, 1975, as classes resume at the racially troubled institution. Police were on hand to provide protection as black students arrived. (AP)
Forty years ago this Saturday, on June 21, 1974, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. found Boston’s schools to be unconstitutionally segregated, instituting a plan of forced busing between some of the city’s poorest (and most racially divided) schools. Far from correcting the racial imbalance in the Boston city schools, Garrity’s decision instead sparked wide protest, racial conflict, and riots throughout the city. Michael Patrick MacDonald was a young boy in South Boston—targeted as one of the first schools to be integrated—when news of the decision swept through this troubled, fiercly insular, mostly white and poor working-class enclave. In an excerpt from his powerful memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald writes about the firestorm of racial tension that spread throughout the neighborhood in the wake of Garrity’s decision, leading up to the tempestuous autumn when Garrity’s plan was set to begin.
It was on one of those days at the intersection in the spring of 1974 that we saw the headlights blinking and heard the honking and loudspeakers screaming something about the communists trying to take over South Boston. Everyone came running out of the project to line the streets. At first it was scary, like the end of the world was being announced. But then it seemed more like a parade. It was even along the same route as the St. Paddy’s Day parade. One neighbor said it was what they called a motorcade. The cars in the motorcade never seemed to stop coming. It went on for a good half hour. Irish flags waved out of car windows and one sign on a car read WELCOME TO MOSCOW AMERICA. Many more had RESIST or NEVER written on them. My favorite one was HELL NO SOUTHIE WON’T GO. That was a good one, I said. I started clapping with everyone else. But then I had to ask someone, “Where are we not going?” One of the mothers said, “They’re trying to send you to Roxbury with the niggers. To get a beatin’,” she added. Someone else told her not to say that word to the kids, that they were blacks, not niggers. “Well it’s no time to fight over that one,” someone else said. “It’s time now to stick together.” When I asked who was trying to send us, someone told me about Judge Garrity; that a bunch of rich people from the suburbs wanted to tell us where we had to send our kids to school; that they wanted us to mix with the blacks, but that their own kids wouldn’t have to mix with no one, because there were no blacks in the suburbs.
Few educators embody that mission more than this year's lecturer, Dr. Chris Emdin, recently honored by the White House as an African American STEM Champion of Change. Dr. Emdin's research focuses on issues of race, class, and diversity in urban science classrooms, and the use of new theoretical frameworks to transform education and urban school reform. A self-proclaimed member of the hip-hop generation, Emdin seeks to popularize the notion that the genius of hip-hop is compatible with science genius. In partnership with GZA (Gary Grice), a member of the Wu-Tang Clan whose love of science is well known, he developed the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. In a pilot project, students wrote rap songs that captured the complexity of the science and lyricism of hip-hop, and, in a final competition at Columbia University, students’ performances of these rap songs were judged by a panel of scientists and hip hop artists.
We close out this year's Black History Month with two prayers from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Collected in “Thou, Dear God”: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only compilation of its kind, we hear in Dr. King's prayers what editor Lewis V. Baldwin describes as “the soul of a man who realized that the whole of life is lived in a God-centered universe, and that God is able to work wonders and even miracles in nature and in history.”
In the first prayer, “In the Moment of Difficult Decision,” most likely delivered in 1949, we hear Dr. King's early concern for issues of race and equality. In the next, Dr. King, uses Jesus's prayer from the cross as his “sermonic text and point of departure” to draw parallells between forgivness and salvation, suffering and love.
The cumulative effect of the volume is humbling and inspiring at once, as these two prayers reveal. “Undoubtedly,” writes Baldwin, “they show that powerful words can outlive powerful individuals.”
In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tackled the difficult work of building multiracial community directly in his conception of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw in the Freedom Riders and his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of his love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As Dr. 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 The Trumpet of Conscience, he wrote, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
That idea of transcendence was critical to my thinking when writing my new book, Place, Not Race. In it, I attempt to apply the lessons from Dr. King’s theory of mutuality to the debate about affirmative action. I conclude that race-based affirmative action buys some diversity for a relative few, but not serious inclusion. It doesn’t help to build a movement to attack underlying systems of inequality that are eating away at the soul of our nation.
In this year of anniversaries—fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fifty-year war on poverty—I think it is particularly appropriate to focus on the anti-poverty aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agenda. Recently President Obama, a black man who has been elected not once but twice, talked during the State of the Union speech about inequality as a signature issue of our time. In this context, I want to reflect on and honor a lesser known March on Washington that Dr. King planned and what it suggests about his mission for how we might build one nation that brings all people along.
In 1967, Dr. King was keenly aware of the importance of broadening the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public accommodation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to reintegrate politics. After those important watershed victories, Dr. King saw poverty as the next key issue for the movement, and he knew that arousing the nation’s conscience about poverty required a new approach encompassing all of America’s poor. A young African-American attorney named Marian Wright (later Edelman) was director of the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). She urged Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to focus on employment and job training as a means of alleviating poverty. She recommended that SCLC stage a series of demonstrations in Washington, DC, to bring national attention to this new direction of the movement.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy often told a story of going to Marks, Mississippi—the poorest hamlet of the poorest county in the nation—with Dr. King as they planned what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign. They visited a daycare center at lunchtime. “There was one apple,” Dr. Abernathy said. “And they took this apple and cut it into four pieces for four hungry waiting students. And when Dr. King realized that that was all they had for lunch, he began to cry. The tears came streaming down his cheek. And he had to leave the room.”
Black History Month is more important than ever. To understand how this nation traveled from colonialism to independence, slavery to freedom, and segregation to civil rights, we must place the lives, aspirations, and thoughts of African Americans at the center of US history. The first martyr of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American heritage who fell in the Boston Massacre. John Hancock honored Attuck’s memory by observing, “Who taught the British soldier that he might be defeated? Who dared look into his eyes? I place, therefore, this Crispus Attucks in the foremost rank of the men that dared.” By the end of the Revolution black troops composed approximately one out of every five soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army.
Abraham Lincoln credited African American labor power as well as courage on the battlefield with turning the tide of the Civil War. In an interview with John T. Mills, President Lincoln asserted “Abandon all the posts now garrisoned by black men, take one hundred and fifty thousand men from our side and put them in the battle-field or corn-field against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.”
Beyond these powerful narratives, John Brown Childs has argued in his essay, “Crossroads: Towards a Transcommunal Black History Month in the Multicultural United States of the 21st Century,” that we need to broaden the scope and scale of Black History Month beyond the borders of the United States and to think of the ways that Latinos, Native Americans, and others have played critical roles in African American history. Historically speaking, African Americans have often connected questions of self-determination and equality at home with the fates of oppressed people in Latin America, Africa, and the Global South generally. In 1825, free African Americans in Baltimore gathered to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Haitian Independence and offered a public tribute to “Washington, Toussaint, and Bolívar—Unequalled in fame—the friends of mankind—the glorious advocates of Liberty.” By this gesture, African Americans joined their own aspirations for freedom with the emancipation of their brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean. The commemoration promoted an understanding of the intimate connections between movements for liberty throughout the Americas.
When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Much to my own surprise, less than five years later, I found myself in a masjid, reciting the Shahadah in front of an Imam.
Taking inspiration from the 30 Days of Love campaign that we wrote about earlier this week, we're redefining love this year to mean something larger, more humanitarian, something that can encompass fellowship, art, justice, and beauty.
Sonia Sanchez has done just that in her collection Morning Haiku, a collection pulsing with life and music and raw humanity. And it is full of the simple wonderment of poetry, as she describes in the book's preface, meditating on the power of the haiku, “It's something to find yourself in a poem—to discover the beauty that i knew resided somewhere....” It might be tempting to focus on the aural similarity of “morning” to “mourning” in the title, and indeed several of the poems are tributes to departed friends, artists, and musicians. But Sanchez knows that real beauty is complex, deep enough to contain both loss and renewal, and that duality is where life, hence love, resides.
At Beacon Press, we make it our daily mission to publish books that explore deeply the complex issues of social justice, civil rights, equality, and other humanitarian causes. To that purpose we have published over the years a number of landmark titles by writers, thinkers, poets, activists, and historians who have collectively worked to reshape, to broaden and enrich what we consider to be Black History in America. For us as for them, Black History is more than an annual blip on the news cycle. But we do think of it as an opportunity to take stock of the tremendous achievements that have been made over time, as well as a reminder to contemplate the serious work still left to be done.
On November 26th, two trailblazing Beacon authors, Cornel West and Bill Ayers, stopped by our offices. Ayers' new book, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, had recently been published and, although he was concluding a whirlwind 22 city tour, he was astonishingly energized.
On November 30, Melissa Harris-Perry honored my biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by including it amongst a group of ground-breaking Black feminist texts and histories on her “Black Feminism Syllabus.” This recognition came on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' bus arrest and the public marking of the day, including the RNC's unfortunate tweet celebrating “Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” The RNC’s tweet spoke to what has been a theme at the heart of much Parks memorialization across the political spectrum—the honoring of her is regularly accompanied by a element of national self congratulation. Her stand is often now commemorated as a way to mark how far we’ve come in the successful movement to end Jim Crow segregation and racism.
What my book sought to do was rescue Rosa Parks from the narrow pedestal she exists upon. This national sainthood has paradoxically diminished the scope and importance of her political work and functions, across the political spectrum, to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. It misses the lifelong activist who worked against injustice in both the North and South and paid a heavy price for her political work but kept struggling to address contemporary racial and social inequalities until her death in 2005. It misses her global vision and how she was treated as un-American for great stretches of her life by many Americans for these political activities. And finally, it misses that a real honoring of her legacy requires us to do the same hard, tedious, scary work of pressing against the injustices of our time, both nationally and internationally, because she firmly believed the movement was not over.
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
Exactly fifty-eight years ago today, just days after Rosa Park's historic arrest, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta watched tensely from their living room window as the first moments of the Montomery Bus Boycott unfolded. Dr. King recounts those anxious early minutes in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, part of our King Legacy Series:
There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.