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.”
BOSTON, MA September 12, 1974: A large crowd gathers in South Boston's Columbus Park to protest federal court-ordered busing of black students to all-white neighborhood schools. A prominent sign at right reads 'Whites Have Rights' while militant anti-busing members of the 'South Boston Information Center'—an anti-busing organization—are visible wearing white caps among the crowd.
This year, in the 40th anniversary of the explosion that was Boston busing, it’s time to be clear: busing wasn’t just about black and white. It was also about green—who had some in their pockets, and who didn’t.
Busing was the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger.
In the years leading up to the 1974 busing plan, my neighborhood—South Boston—was perceived as the bastion of white supremacy and privilege in Boston. After all, some of the city’s most powerful politicians were from South Boston, and the most egregious symbol of white supremacy in Boston, school committee member (later city councilor) Louise Day Hicks, was a resident of the affluent and beautiful shoreline of South Boston’s City Point. Although the reasoning behind the State Board of Education’s busing plan will forever remain a mystery, I have had to presume that this was the motivation for a plan that—disastrously—included busing students from predominantly black Roxbury to Irish-American South Boston and vice versa, even though both groups were desperately poor with desperately underfunded schools.
FERGUSON, MO - OCTOBER 13: Author and activist Cornel West protests outside the Ferguson police station on October 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Sometime in the afternoon of Monday, October 13—Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day depending on who you ask—the culmination of a weekend of organized protests in Ferguson, Missouri, news started trickling through Twitter and other media platforms that Cornel West and several other clergy members and activists had been arrested while trying to peacefully enter the Ferguson Police Station and request a meeting with Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Photos from the moment are striking, instantly iconic: Dr. West knocked off his feet, grimacing mid-fall, his rain-streaked glasses reflecting the neon green riot jackets of the officers lined in front.
SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 13: People cheer during Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. Earlier that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution designating the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day.
Last week after Native American activists successfully lobbied the city of Seattle to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to put an end to the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus—a man linked to the enslavement, mutilation, and genocide of the Indigenous people he encountered on his exploration and subsequent conquest of the “New World.” A corresponding WhiteHouse.gov petition has generated tremendous response, confirming that support for the idea of honoring Indigenous people over Columbus Day’s “metaphor and painful symbol of [a] traumatic past,” as Dunbar-Ortiz describes in the letter, has spread throughout the general public. Dunbar-Ortiz, whose An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Stateswas published last month, spoke with us recently about the book and about how Indigenous people remain a dynamic, diverse, and necessary force in the world today.
Beacon Broadside: What are a couple the most enduring myths about Indigenous history?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I think the myth of disappearance—the myth of not being here now, of being people of the past. That’s a kind of unspoken, unconscious genocide that takes place over and over and over again, not just in the past. But of course, genocide doesn’t mean the total elimination of a people. It can mean that but in world history it’s not meant that. There are still Jews in the world. There are still Armenians. There are still Cambodians. Even though we call each of those cases genocide. But with Native peoples it’s different. So I think that’s the main myth, this idea of eliminationism, to do away with the Indians. And it’s sort of confusing and painful for people who don’t know US history, or know only a version of it—that is the settler colonial narrative—don’t know what to do with the fact that there are still Indians because the narrative really does away with Native people.
Cornel West’s Black Prophetic Fire is both a new look at six revolutionary African American leaders and a rousing call for more “fire” in what West calls the Black prophetic tradition, a reframing of the social order in terms of radical justice. As Dr. West writes in the introduction,
The deep hope shot through this dialogue is that Black prophetic fire never dies, that the Black prophetic tradition forever flourishes, and that a new wave of young brothers and sisters of all colors see and feel that it is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice and that there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others—especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!
In 1935, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States. When Thurman became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Today, on the 145th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, we look back to that meeting in 1935, when the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience passed from India’s spiritual leader to the man who would deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers and civil rights leaders—among them Martin Luther King Jr.
The conversation then turned, in the words of Desai, to “the main thing that had drawn the distinguished members to Gandhiji,” his philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (civil disobedience campaigns). “Is non-violence from your point of view a form of direct action?” Thurman asked. “It is not one form,” Gandhi replied, “it is the only form.” Nonviolence, Gandhi said, does not exist without an active expression of it, and indeed, “one cannot be passively nonviolent.” Gandhi went on to lament that the term had been widely misunderstood. Ahimsa was a Sanskrit word with deep resonance in all of South Asia’s ancient karmic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, and (especially) Jainism, in which ahimsa stood for a commitment to refrain from harming living things. He felt there was no good English language equivalent for ahimsa, so he created the term nonviolence (the earliest usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing Gandhi, is from 1920), but told Thurman that he regretted the fact that his coinage started with the “negative particle ‘non.’ ” On the contrary, Gandhi insisted nonviolence was “a force which is more positive than electricity” and subtler and more pervasive than the ether.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s proposed bill to strip the NFL of their nonprofit status is the latest strike in the ongoing effort to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their mascot. Canwtell joins a growingchorus of opponents to the disparaging name. Back in January, the National Congress of American Indians created a powerful PSA that outlined the issue in just a few words: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t...” The ad ends with a close-up image of the Washington Redskins logo. The implication is clear.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting and what military historian John Grenier identifies as “ranging”—the use of settler-ranger forces. By that time, the non-Indigenous population of the English colony in North America had increased sixfold, to more than 150,000, which meant that settlers were intruding on more of the Indigenous homelands.
Anti-busing protestors line a street to demonstrate against forced busing of students into formerly all-white South Boston schools on September 12, 1974.
Forty years ago today, on September 12, 1974, desegregation busing officially began in Boston, sparking a racial crisis in the city that would last more than a decade. South Boston native Michael Patrick MacDonald was a young boy on that day, and in the following excerpt from his acclaimed memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald writes about the climate of outrage that infused Southie during that period, and what it was like to come of age in that fiercely insular enclave with “the highest concentration of poor whites in America” during a time of radical disruption for the whole city.
That September, Ma let us skip the first week of school. The whole neighborhood was boycotting school. City Councilor Louise Day Hicks and her bodyguard with the bullhorn, Jimmy Kelly, were telling people to keep their kids home. It was supposed to be just the high school kids boycotting, but we all wanted to show our loyalty to the neighborhood. I was meant to be starting the third grade at St. Augustine’s School. Ma had enrolled Kevin and Kathy in the sixth and seventh grades there as well. Frankie was going to Southie High, and Mary and Joe were being sent to mostly black Roxbury, so they really had something to boycott. But on the first day, Kevin and Kathy begged Ma not to send them. “C’mon Ma, please?” I piped in. It was still warm outside and we wanted to join the crowds that were just then lining the streets to watch the busloads of black kids come into Southie. The excitement built as police helicopters hovered just above our third-floor windows, police in riot gear stood guard on the rooftops of Old Colony, and the national news camped out on every corner. Ma said okay, and we ran up to Darius Court, along the busing route, where in simpler times we’d watched the neighborhood St. Paddy’s Day parade.