This piece was originally delivered as a sermon and appeared previously in Sojourners.
During my meditation on the messages being sent out from South Carolina this week, three scriptures came to me:
Jeremiah 31:15: This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
John 8:32: Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Isaiah 58:1-3: Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse Friday morning, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke solemnly of the nine Black churchgoers who were shot to death less than a month ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We have all been struck by what was a tragedy we didn't think we would ever encounter,” Haley said of the horrifying massacre. Before signing the bill with nine pens that will go to the families of the victims, she called those who were murdered during Bible Study at the historic church, “Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history.”
The Governor referenced the “grace” shown by the nine families, when they forgave the white gunman. She said their grace helped usher the state toward this long overdue decision.
It’s been so long since we’ve caught up with Atticus Finch—a little more than half a century if you count the time between books. It is now the 1950s, twenty years later, and his daughter Jean Louise—Scout—twenty-six years old and living in New York City, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit.
And despite the passage of time he really hasn’t changed at all. Despite what some sensation-seeking book reviewers, shocked readers, and disoriented English teachers will tell you, he’s pretty much the same man he always was. We finally have his backstory in print.
He’s older, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is grooming a successor to his legal practice. Atticus Finch hasn’t morphed from a champion of racial justice to a racist. That he’d long made a comfortable peace with white supremacy was there from the moment Lee’s now classic To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. Despite defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, against a false accusation of rape made by a white woman, he was at home with structural Jim Crow. This was never stated but permeated the story without being critically noted by the author—or countless readers—in any obvious way.
This blog post is one of two about the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Stay tuned next week for Kay Whitlock's follow-up on the conversation.
American readers love stories of political uplift and inspiration rather than forthright, bluntly honest accounts of unpalatable truths and realities. They especially love them when they are spoken by innocent young girls.
After just over half a century, Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has released Go Set a Watchman, her eagerly awaited second novel. But, with a novelist’s twist, Watchman is, in reality, her first novel, an earlier version of Mockingbird’s characters, but set later in their lives.
Lee submitted Watchman in 1957 to Tay Hohuff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott and Co., who felt the manuscript—in which Jean Louise Finch confronts the racism her of father Atticus, her potential lover Henry, and her beloved town—needed considerable work. Hohuff worked with the thirty-one-year-old first-time novelist to rewrite the story from the perspective of a younger version of the narrator, two decades earlier. That version, in which Atticus’s overt racism is erased or obscured, became To Kill a Mockingbird.
First announced in February 2014, the publication of Watchman has been a publicist’s dream. After its release in 1960, Mockingbird became an instant classic and a staple of high school reading lists. (The 1962 film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus.) But after Mockingbird, Lee became reclusive, never publishing another novel. Two years ago, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carte, claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box and it was quickly—allegedly with the eighty-nine-year-old Lee’s permission (some friends question her current state of mental competency)—snapped up by HarperCollins. Excitement for the new work was palpable and Watchman became the most pre-ordered book in history with over two million copies printed. (Mockingbird has sold forty million.)
Questions have swirled around Lee’s career and life for decades, and Watchman has only added to them. Why had she never published another novel? Why did she remain out of the limelight for half a century? If Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, why was it only recently discovered? Did Lee actually consent to the publication of this early work? Some of these questions may have answers, some may not, and frankly, some of them are no one’s business. Certainly, since Watchman’s publication on July 14, the most urgent question for the media and a multitude of readers is: how has one of the most beloved characters in modern American fiction become, overnight—and in an earlier version of the story—not only a racist, but a member of the Ku Klux Klan and active in the leadership of the local version of the notorious White Citizens Council?
Much of the power of Mockingbird comes from the narrative voice of six-year-old Scout Finch detailing her small Alabama town and her father’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Intimate and heart-warming, the book became emblematic of the white liberal race politics of Kennedy’s Camelot, with rational, just, and courageous Atticus—his name means “citizen of Athens”—as the mythical great white savior. Mockingbird appeared after the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education and before the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington. Atticus, in book and film, became a touchstone for many white readers and viewers who identified with his integrity and vision of justice in a world wracked with racial turmoil and strife.
Tay Hohuff, by all accounts a brilliant editor, understood that a mid-late 1950s readership (the final draft of Mockingbird had to have been submitted at least a year before publication) would have responded strongly to a heartwarming bildungsroman of a young girl with an idealistic father. In many ways, Mockingbird is the sentimental version of Carson McCullers’ emotionally harsher girlhood coming-of-age stories such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946). Watchman may have been too blatantly political coming from a young, white, Southern woman writer at the time.
Each book gives us a political vision of race relations in America written closely together, but published half a century apart, that is a reflection of the presumed reader’s emotional and political response. Mockingbird represents the perhaps naïve, white liberal hopes and desires for justice in 1959 America, and Watchman, with its harsher explorations of racism, painfully resonates and intersects perfectly with our own political culture in which #BlackLivesMatter and controversies over the Confederate Flag are paramount in the news.
But there is a larger question here: when is a society ready to understand the harsh political truths an author might bring them? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in Dutch in 1947. In three years, it went through six editions, and in 1950s was translated into English and other languages. During the editing process, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, removed various diary entries that reflected on Anne’s emerging sexuality, her highly conflicted relationship to her mother, and thorny family matters; these deletions remained in all editions until 1989 when they were restored.
In the 1950s, American novelist Meyer Levin, forty-four, after having read the French Le Journal de Anne Frank, wrote a theatrical version he felt profoundly portrayed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the very specific Jewish qualities and character of the Frank family. After a series of protracted, painful negotiations with Otto Frank, who had been persuaded to give the rights over to a non-Jewish writing team in an attempt to make the play “more universal” and, for Levin, less Jewish, Levin was forced to give up the project. Even worse, the new writers took out many of Anne’s political observations and her anger. Levin, who was deeply committed to his truth of the story, eventually, in 1973, wrote The Obsession, his version of how the play betrayed the material. Frank’s Diary and the plays and film made from it are all modern classics, even as the last two—Levin was right—avoid the harsher truth of history to sentimentally engage without challenging the audience.
Even the published Diary has been subject to expurgation in the public imagination. The most quoted line from Frank’s book is “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Yet in the context of the Diary, it is: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.”
Novelist Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank,” speculates a “salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made it of all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” There is a very real chance that if the Diary had been published unexpurgated or the play and film really reflected Frank’s original they would never have had the impact that they did.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. To reach an audience it needs to be published, sold, bought and read. Mockingbird was the perfect book for the early 1960s. Watchman, despite its literary imperfections and adult Scout’s ultimate decision to accommodate herself to mainstream racism in her hometown, may well be a book more suited to our time, not the imagined, more sentimental world of Mockingbird. Time will tell if Watchman speaks to readers today, and if the adult Jean Louise has the power to be heard as much as her younger self Scout.
In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer “testified” before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The highlight of her remarks was when she exclaimed “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” In so doing, the impoverished Mississippi Delta sharecropper secured her place as a leading light in the Civil Rights movement. Describing her home state as the antithesis of “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she rebelled against that definition by calling it out as “the land of the tree and the home of the grave.”
So, here we are in 2015. As yet another round of racial animus erupts and national political conventions loom, I am compelled to echo Mrs. Hamer’s lament. I cannot even begin to tell you how sick and tired I am. It’s the same shit, albeit a different century.
On June 17, a white man named Dylan Roof invaded Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and massacred nine people engaged in studying the bible. Roof’s online manifesto “criticized blacks as being inferior while lamenting the cowardice of white flight.” It was illustrated with photographs, many of them showcasing him with a Confederate flag. I don’t know what chapter and verse the bible study group was concentrating on when Roof opened fire, but he obviously did not heed the sixth commandment that exhorts the moral imperative of “thou shall not kill.”
This weekend will see the flourish of red, white, and blue return as Independence Day festivities fill the streets. No other symbol has been more emblematic of our country’s independence than the American flag. Unfurled and waving in the breeze, the primary colors usually invoke national pride and liberation. The American flag had an altogether different meaning for Samuel Battle, the New York Police Department’s first black cop, during the beginning of his career as in 1911. In a working environment where his fellow white officers wanted him gone, it meant isolation, as Arthur Browne shows in his biography,One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York:
Battle’s work chart scheduled his first reserve duty for midnight to 8 a.m. on the Thursday after he started patrol. Finishing a four-to-twelve night shift, he was to sleep in the stationhouse with a platoon on call in the event of an emergency. A dormitory was outfitted with a couple dozen bunks and was draped in the odors of overworked men, discarded shoes, soiled linens, and tobacco smoke.
Fetid air and all, the officers of the Sixty-Eighth Street stationhouse resolved that this was a whites-only domain. Cops carried a cot upstairs to a room on the second floor, where the precinct stored the American flag, and left the mattress and springs under Old Glory as the black man’s accommodations.
Early in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 2015, ten days following a mass killing in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a young Black artist and activist, refused demands from law enforcement authorities to come down from the flagpole she was climbing near the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.
Instead, she continued to the top of the pole to take down the "Stars and Bars" or "Southern Cross," a potent symbol of the Confederacy carried as a battle flag by Robert E. Lee. It was the only way to take down the flag at this particular site; it cannot be raised or lowered by the usual cord and pulley mechanism. The flag flies until two-thirds of the predominantly white state legislature votes otherwise.
Once Newsome was down, arrested, and charged (not ironically) with defacing a public monument, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle publicly expressed concern that she was making it harder for them to remove the flag. “Citizens please engage legally, or we lose!” a Charleston Democratic state representative tweeted.
But Newsome’s carefully planned direct action captivated the public imagination.
The media characterized her action as a protest against “hate.” Newsome herself was precise: her act of civil disobedience signaled the urgent, imperative need to dismantle white supremacy.
Hate. White supremacy. Is there really any difference? Does it matter what we call it?
Yes. If #BlackLivesMatter, and they must, it matters profoundly.
Founded in 1906, Children’s Institute, Inc. (CII) is one of the oldest and largest children’s service organizations in L.A. County, serving more than 24,000 children and families each year. CII serves Los Angeles’s most vulnerable children—those harmed by family and community violence, abuse, or coping with the challenges of poverty. At the core of CII’s work is the agency’s comprehensive service model, which addresses the evolving needs of the whole child and entire family. Out of that innovative approach grew Project Fatherhood,SMa program created in 1996 by the late Dr. Hershel Swinger, the agency’s former Senior Vice President of Programs, to address the problem of absentee fathers.
Dr. Swinger had long observed that fathers were most often left out of programs designed to strengthen low-income urban families, and prevent child abuse and neglect. He envisioned a way to increase their involvement in the lives and upbringing of their children, especially those involved in the child welfare system. Through clinical, family support, and child enrichment services, the program gives fathers the tools to become actively engaged parents.
Over the past 20 years, Project Fatherhood has reached more than 9,000 fathers and 12,000 children across Los Angeles County. Fifty area organizations have been trained to deliver the program model and CII continues to operate numerous fatherhood groups. Project FatherhoodSM continues to exemplify Children’s Institute’s commitment to developing leading-edge programs that deliver lasting impact to the children and families the organization serves.
CII provides services throughout central and south Los Angeles County, including three comprehensive campuses: the Otis Booth Campus—just west of downtown Los Angeles; the Mid-Wilshire Campus in Koreatown; and the Burton E. Green Campus in Torrance. Additional service sites are located in Watts and Long Beach, as well as 32 early childhood centers and 60 family child care homes throughout the County.
We embarked upon a journey to test whether two people could come to grips with deep, traumatic, historic wounds and find healing. We had no idea where we would end up.
I burst into tears in the parking lot of the Lowndes County Interpretive Center in rural Alabama. Tom and I were five days into the 6,000-plus mile healing journey that informedGather at the Table, the book we wrote about healing the many wounds Americans inherited from the legacy of slavery. We had just crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where, in March 1965, John Lewis (now a 15-term U.S. congressman) and more than 600 protesters tried to begin a 54-mile march to Montgomery. On a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers confronted the peaceful marchers and viciously attacked them with billy clubs. I watched these events unfold on television as a 14-year-old child embraced in the warm comfort of my family home in Chicago.
My great-grandparents were enslaved in Lowndes County, Alabama, which is at the heart of the historic march route. They lived a lifetime of Bloody Sundays. My great-grandmother Rhoda Reeves Leslie was alive when I was a child. I knew her. I loved her. I had no concrete idea, until that very moment in the parking lot, what anguish she and other members of my family had suffered as slaves, and then as people who were terrorized by Jim Crow laws, disenfranchised from voting, and kept from becoming full citizens in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In 1965, there were zero black voters in Lowndes County because of voter suppression through poll taxes and intimidation. Even today, it is deeply impoverished. Tom's face morphed into a representation of all white people and everything they had done to people like me.
I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing. I sat in the passenger seat next to Sharon while she sobbed. Twenty minutes earlier, on the drive from the Voting Rights Museum, I had asked her, What would you do if you had lived here then?
I would kill them, she said, staring straight ahead as she drove, clutching the steering wheel in a death grip. I watched the first tear roll down her cheek.
I am often accused of being a Kumbaya kind of guy. I believe seriously in love and peace and want everybody to get along. I also believe that people are born with a basic sense of humanity that can enable them to changenot just themselves but the communities in which they live. I know Sharon shares that belief, but it is sometimes hard to keep the faith.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
It’s the time of year when our newsfeeds are filled with posts highlighting the best commencement speeches of the season. This got us thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to young people today who are heading into the next chapter of their lives; his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” immediately sprang to mind. In it, Dr. King, speaking at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages students to be the best people they can be, regardless of their status in life.
Now, you can watch this rarely seen film of that speech. Recorded on October 26, 1967, just six months before his assassination, Dr. King’s words will still resonate with young people today and encourage them to keep moving in the struggle for justice and make our nation a better place in which to live.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
2010 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Theresa Perry is series editor of the Simmons College/Beacon Press, Race, Education, and Democracy Lecture and Book Series. One of the books in the series is Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski’s Holding Fast to Dreams, which went on sale yesterday. As a preview, we’re presenting the note she wrote for the book in which she explains how Hrabowski’s work, going on strong since he joined the civil rights movement at age twelve, is making headway in education and equality.
In the spring of 2013, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski delivered the Simmons College–Beacon Press Race, Education, and Democracy Lectures, called “Standing Up for Justice, Creating Opportunity: From the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to the Creation of Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”
This book, which is based on those lectures, eloquently captures the bookends of Dr. Hrabowski’s life and indeed the lives of many other African Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow South, fought with their lives to dismantle this oppressive system, and then dedicated themselves to creating opportunities for black students and other marginalized groups.
The atmosphere at Dr. Hrabowski’s Boston lectures was electric, filled with a sense of anticipation and hope. Similarly in Holding Fast to Dreams, Dr. Hrabowski brings us a message of hope and possibility.
In describing his young life, he embodies Du Bois’s mantra “Your child is wiser than you think.” Dr. Hrabowski offers a moving story of what it was like to become a civil rights activist at twelve years of age. He describes the agony of his parents and their initial refusals to allow him, their only child and son, to participate in the marches. He describes how the morning following their refusal, with tears in their eyes, they gave him permission to march. Dr. Hrabowski describes the brutality he experienced during the marches and while being arrested.
In his speech “The Burning Truth in the South”, Martin Luther King, Jr. says the appeal of nonviolence has many facets. Though he wrote this speech half a century ago, we have been watching the facets of nonviolence at work again, this time against police brutality and racial injustice in Baltimore. The media frenzy centered on the purge riot of 27 April was inevitable. Violence, as always, elicits an immediate reaction, the most immediate attention. Up until the riot, the protests were peaceful—and still are. Student protesters Korey Johnson and John Gillespie Jr. have recently organized peaceful outlets to demanding justice for Freddie Gray. Johnson and Gillespie are shining examples of what King extols as the facets of nonviolent of direct action.
"An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South. Though confronted in many places by hoodlums, police guns, tear gas, arrests, and jail sentences, the students tenaciously continue to sit down and demand equal service at variety store lunch counters, and extend their protest from city to city. In communities like Montgomery, Alabama, the whole student body rallied behind expelled students and staged a walkout while state government intimidation was unleashed with a display of military force appropriate to a wartime invasion. Nevertheless, the spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment remains firm, and the state governments find themselves dealing with students who have lost the fear of jail and physical injury.
It is no overstatement to characterize these events as historic. Never before in the United States has so large a body of students spread a struggle over so great an area in pursuit of a goal of human dignity and freedom.
The suddenness with which this development burst upon the nation has given rise to the description “spontaneous.” Yet it is not without clearly perceivable causes and precedents. First, we should go back to the ending of World War II. Then, the new will and determination of the Negro were irrevocably generated. Hundreds of thousands of young Negro men were mustered out of the armed forces, and with their honorable discharge papers and GI Bill of Rights grants, they received a promise from a grateful nation that the broader democracy for which they had fought would begin to assume reality. They believed in this promise and acted in the conviction that changes were guaranteed. Some changes did appear—but commensurate neither with the promise nor the need.
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.