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Don’t sell us short

9 Dec

“Thanksgiving Day gone, the Christmas season with its busy shopping days approaches. In this respect Negroes of Harlem and vicinity will contribute their full share. The opportunity therefore presents itself for them to observe how much of this money spent is returned to them in the form of employment.”

My father wrote these words in a column dated Dec. 5, 1936, in which he lamented the fact that 75 percent of the patronage of businesses on 125th Street  “comes from Negroes. Yet even the casual observer may note that Negroes comprise less than 25 percent of the employees on that street.”

Ebenezer chided Blumstein’s Department Store, one of his frequent targets, for its announcement in the black press the year before that it had employed “60 Harlemites” on its staff.  He argued that it would be hard to find 60 black employees in Blumstein’s with a microscope and that some of those department store workers may well have lived in Harlem, but they were not black.

“Negroes are not interested in how many Harlemites the Blumstein store or other stores on 125th Street employ.  They are interested in HOW MANY NEGROES ARE EMPLOYED.  And we take this opportunity to tell these store owners that Negroes expect a commensurate share of employment as clerks in these stores during this Christmas season.”

Jobs and economic parity for black Americans are on the wish list this Christmas season as well.  The national unemployment rate has declined to 7.7 percent.  The rate of black unemployment, while lower than it was, is 13 percent.

With this in mind, black leaders met in Washington recently to set an agenda for keeping the black community from a steeper fiscal cliff.  The meeting was convened by Marc H. Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League, Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, and Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.  The communiqué issued after the meeting outlined five key areas of focus.

urbanleague_historic_event_rb

Photo: National Urban League

* achieve economic parity for African-Americans
* promote equity in educational opportunity
* protect and defend voting rights
* promote a healthier nation by eliminating healthcare disparities
* achieve comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system

“We African American civil rights and social justice leaders come together on the heels of another historic election — one in which African Americans played a crucial and decisive role in securing a second term for the Obama Administration, and in the outcomes of numerous U.S. Senate, U.S. House, gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral and other races across the nation.

“We, the undersigned organizations are bound by our common goal to protect, promote and defend the rights, well-being and opportunity of 42 million African Americans.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must have a seat at the table to fully leverage the talents, intellectual capital and contributions of our leaders to craft a domestic agenda that brings African Americans closer to parity and equality, and fulfills the promise of these milestones.”

Just as my father wanted to ensure that neighborhood merchants did not take black Harlemites’ dollars for granted, black America expects that its considerable political clout be fully appreciated as well.

Dottings on a presidential reelection: Hate me if you dare

11 Nov

I’m re-posting an entry I originally published in February of 2011, which seems like ages ago. Last Tuesday, We The People overcame voter suppression campaigns, lies, bungled debates and obscene amounts of campaign spending to reelect President Barack Obama and to put down efforts to make him a one-term president. Now that the Florida vote has been counted, I thought I would add this year’s final electoral map.

The New New Deal, 2008, Photo illustration by Arthur Hochstein and Lon Tweeten. ( F.D.R. photo by Associated Press. Obama photo by John Gress, Reuters.)

“Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said of Republicans during his reelection campaign in 1936.
Sound familiar? I wish.
Perhaps President Obama will take a page from FDR as he gears up for the 2012 campaign.
After all, these fightin’ words turned out to be winning words for FDR.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, I offer a column published by my father, Ebenezer Ray, on Nov. 14, 1936, shortly after the shellacking Roosevelt doled out to his opponent, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas,  in 1936. Prior to the election, my father had written columns endorsing Roosevelt. But his support was not a given.  His employer, The New York Age, was a traditional supporter of the Republican Party.  The paper opposed the Democratic Party nationally because of its tolerance  of southern segregation.

FDR’s 1936 landslide.    Credit: 270toWin

Referring to himself in typical self-deprecating fashion, Ebenezer wrote: “This newcomer and political dunce failed to be convinced (1) that President Roosevelt was not the fit and proper person to guide the destiny of this country for the next four years and (2) that the Republican candidate was the better man.
. . . With his avalanche of votes in favor of the New Deal went the Negro vote, local and national, despite the fact that President Roosevelt represents the Party which disenfranchises the Negro in the South. Wherefore the Negro vote?
According to the man in the street, in the barbershop, in the restaurant and other proletariat among whom this writer moves, prosperity is the paramount issue. Up to 1929, they contend there was discrimination in the South, but we also had prosperity. Since 1929, and especially during the last Republican regime, there was still discrimination in the South but NO prosperity. In President Roosevelt is seen the capability of bringing prosperity from around  that elusive corner, made popular by Mr. Hoover.”
To illustrate his community’s support of the New Deal, Ebenezer described the changing atmosphere in the bank at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Ave.
“In these premises, until president Roosevelt’s bank holiday, was situated the unlamented Chelsea Bank.  During its declining months one could easily race a bull about the premises without harming a depositor.  Nowadays, occupied by the Dunbar National Bank, during business hours the premises resemble a market rather than a bank. Of great concern to the poor man is the knowledge that whatever part of his earnings he is privileged to save is SAFE.
The great majority has reelected Roosevelt. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,'” Ebenezer concluded.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, who is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a column before the midterm election last fall, titled “Why Obama should learn the lesson of 1936, not 1996,” In it, Reich said: “The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.”

Library of Congress

Reich continued:”By the election of 1936 the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.” Reich wrote that while the key to Clinton’s victory was a booming economy, the key to Roosevelt’s was setting himself apart from the greed of the Republicans and their financiers and standing up for and with everyday people.

Back to Ebenezer’s column: At the end he offers a brief review of the theater adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a Hitler type character who attempts to dominate the United States:
“The capacity crowd which attended the Adelphi Theatre on West 54th Street Thursday evening last . . . is better testimony to the entertainment value of It Can’t Happen Here than any reviewer can write. For, after all, ‘It is the guest who is the judge of the meat,'” Ebenezer wrote.

Olympic flashback

29 Jul

During the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens won four gold medals in Berlin: He came in first in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and was part of the 4×100-meter relay team that also took gold. Owens’ success was a poke in the eye of Adolf Hitler, who had hoped the 1936 games would serve as a showcase his Aryan propaganda.

The column below, published Aug. 15, 1936, my father chided Hitler, whom he described as a “one-time Austrian house painter” and a “pervert,” who snubbed Owens. He cited news reports that while Hitler had “received and congratulated in his private quarters the German winners, he was conspicuously absent from his box when the occasion arose that he should extend similar felicitations to the American Negro winners.”

It remains unclear whether the reports of Hitler’s snub are true. The LA Times recently included the story as one of the “Top Ten Olympic Controversies.”

“Perhaps the most enduring myth of the Olympic Games is that Adolf Hitler refused to extend a congratulatory handshake to Jesse Owens, a claim for which Olympic historians have found no supporting evidence. It is clear that Hitler was neither pleased nor impressed by the four gold medals Owens won, even as the German crowd cheered him loudly and mobbed him for pictures and autographs. As Owens pierced the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority, his home country acted with regrettable caution, replacing two Jewish sprinters on the U.S. team. Owens got a hero’s welcome upon returning home, yet as a black man he had to ride the freight elevator to a New York hotel reception in his honor.”

My father’s Aug. 15 column was published the week my grandmother, Malvina Alkins, died. Guest columnists appear in the “Dottings” space in the two issues that followed.

“It is not news to those of you that read Mr. Ray’s columns that he has been an inspiration for many men who later found success in the field of journalism,” wrote Romeo Dougherty, whose bio describes him as a “well-known sports and theatrical writer.”

“To be considered worthy to take his place for even a week makes me feel that I have not labored in vain…,” he wrote in a guest column published Aug. 22, 1936.

“In the splendid showing of our boys in the Olympic Games,” Dougherty added, “we have practically sapped the climax and proved conclusively that we are worthy of being considered in every branch of athletics we seek to enter.”

Today, athletes spanning the African diaspora are representing countries across the world, including Germany.

Dearest Ellen-Marie, Where did 10 years go?

25 Sep

Looking for a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of my eldest sister Ellen-Marie’s death, I looked to my father’s column’s for wisdom and inspiration.

On a couple of occasions in honoring the dead, his inspiration came from Thanatopsis, said to be the most famous work of  romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.   It must have hit home for my father;  he  included the poem’s final stanza in a column he wrote after his mother died in 1936. He used it again several years later when honoring the death of a colleague’s mother.

The New York Age, September 5, 1936

My reading of Thanatopsis is that Bryant’s point is that death and dying are part of  life’s natural cycle, to which all of us will succumb.  And when we do, we will join the company of  the wise and the good.  We should not fear death, but live life fully so that when our time comes we will enjoy our eternal rest.

This is not really much consolation when you are in the throes of grief.  When I got that 3 a.m. call on Sept. 25, 2001, that Ellen had died of a heart attack in her sleep, leaving two children and a whole host of other family members and friends, I spent the following days and months alternately wanting to die and fearing that I would.

A decade does give you some perspective. And if tragedy teaches you anything, it is that you must put one foot in front of the other and press on, celebrating life’s abundance every day.

In the last stanza of Thanatopsis, Bryant wrote:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night
Scourged to this dungeon; but sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him. and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Dearest, Ellen-Marie,

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Rest in paradise.

Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

Dottings on Easter

24 Apr

The New York Age, April 11, 1936

Just returned from traveling and am still in the throes of the  post-vacation dig out, so I’ll just let my father’s words speak for themselves. One item was written the week before Easter in 1936. Not sure what that last word is, but you’ll get his point. Don’t shop where they won’t hire you.

The second item was published a week later, the day before Easter Sunday, which fell on April 19 in 1936.

The New York Age, April 18, 1936

Happy Easter to all

Questioning Clarence Thomas’ compassion, again

3 Apr

Last week, a majority in the U. S. Supreme Court rubbed salt in a decades-old  wound. It denied John Thompson, a man who spent 18 years in prison  – 14  on death row –  for crimes he did not commit, $14 million in damages awarded him after he was exonerated.  Thompson’s case sounds like something that took place in the  1920’s and 30’s, not  the 1990s.

In 1984, Thompson was arrested in the murder of  a man from a prominent New Orleans family. According to NPR, another man, Kevin Freeman, also was arrested for the murder, but he made a plea deal in exchange for testimony that he saw Thompson commit the crime. Prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, then run by Harry Connick Sr. (Yes, the singer’s dad)  needed more ammunition to seek the death penalty against Thompson, who had no violent felonies on his record. So they trumped up a carjacking charge against him and railroaded that case through.  Once Thompson had a violent felony on his record, the carjacking conviction, prosecutors were able to convict him of the murder and send him to death row.

A  team of lawyers from the law firm Morgan Lewis, took on his case. They thought they had exhausted every one of his appeals. (A date for Thompson’s execution was set seven times.)  He was just weeks away from execution when a legal team investigator found evidence  (on microfiche!) that ultimately resulted in Thompson’s exoneration, not only for the murder but in the carjacking case as well.

Here’s the legal background on the case described by Dahlia Lithwick  in Slate: “In 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant’s innocence. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Yet the four prosecutors in Thompson’s case managed to keep secret the fact that they had hidden exculpatory evidence for 20 years. Were it not for Thompson’s investigators, he would have been executed for a murder he did not commit.”

Once exonerated, Thompson sued the district attorney’s office arguing  that it was liable for failing to properly train its employees on the requirements of Brady. A jury awarded him  $14 million, which was upheld by federal district and appeals courts.  Connick, Sr. was among the petitioners who challenged the lower court rulings in the Supreme Court.

In writing the majority opinion,  Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged that prosecutors have an obligation to see that justice is done, and agreed that in the case of John Thompson they fell short. However, Thomas, who once portrayed  himself as a victim of  high-tech lynching,  said prosecutors should not be held responsible for training  – and thus the corrupt conduct  – of the attorneys under their authority.

Thompson is coming out  the better man in all of this. He says what bothers him most is that the Supreme Court decision  opens the door for district attorneys to turn a blind eye to misconduct on their staffs.

“My life was spared despite the efforts of many prosecutors from Harry Connick’s office who sought my conviction and execution over 18 years. They’re the criminals they made people believe I was,” Thompson told the Associated Press.

“If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee,” he told The New York Times. “But I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, and Elena Kagan with President Obama. What would my father have made of this photo?

My father, Ebenezer Ray,  would have inveighed against Justice Thomas’ cruel and convoluted decision. He would, however,  have stood with the  female justices on the court, particularly Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, in an unusual move, read her dissent  aloud:

“From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady‘s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.

“What happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of one lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady‘s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility . . . “

Ginsburg was joined in her dissent by fellow justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, (Who also took the lead in the discussion of the merits of the gender discrimination class-action suit against Walmart this week.)

When my father was writing his columns and covering the courts in New York, the idea of female  justices serving on the highest court in the land would have been a fantasy.  In fact,  he wrote a column published Feb. 22, 1936, in support of women serving as jurors in New York:

“Women’s fight for equal suffrage was a desperate and historical one. She won it,” he wrote. He credited Jane Todd, a Westchester County assemblywoman, with securing passage of a bill in the state assembly that would enable women to serve on juries in New York state.

“Negroes are not barred from jury duty in New York, yet there is almost total absence of men of color in jury panels. Should Assemblywoman Todd’s bills become law colored women might exhibit a different tendency. We could well appreciate a few colored faces in the present all-white atmosphere of the criminal courts jury box,” Ebenezer wrote.

Unfortunately,  having “a few colored” faces in the jury box or even on the highest court of the land guarantees nothing.

In 1991, after Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court,  I wrote an editorial for the Boston Globe titled “A question of compassion.” I had written extensively about the sexual harassment charges made by Anita Hill, however,  this editorial was about how he had publicly and dishonestly, castigated his own sister and her children for their “dependence” on public assistance.

“As the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearing on Thomas’ confirmation, questions regarding his dishonest portrayal of his sister will not come up,” I wrote. “But his failure to appreciate the difficulties of overcoming racism, poverty and male privilege –  difficulties he has witnessed firsthand   –  suggests that he will have even less compassion on the bench for strangers who appear before him.”

Almost 20 years later, Connick v. Thompson stands as a reminder that Justice Thomas has not changed.

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