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Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday triumph

10 Apr

Reposting this in honor of the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to believe that I wrote that Boston Globe editorial 25 years ago.

Regular readers of this blog know that the legacy of singer Marian Anderson looms large in my consciousness. My mother held her up as a hero. My sister was named for her. My father, a contemporary, was apparently smitten with her.

One of the first assignments as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe was to write a piece in honor of the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s  concert on the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday 1939.

In that first Globe editorial, published on April 9, 1989, I wrote:

“Fifty years ago today, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 awed spectators and offered up her brilliant operatic contralto.
The concert was a triumph in an era of legal and customary segregation. Anderson, by then an accomplished performer in the US, Europe and South America, had hoped to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform there because she was black. Amid protests from musicians and public figures, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, and with her help, the show went on at the Lincoln Memorial.
Since then, Anderson has been a symbol of pride and achievement. Introducing her at the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday in 1939, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes said: “Genius knows no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows as a matter of exulted pride to any race.”

Unbeknownst to me then, my father had written about that concert in 1939:

“‘Whereas only about four thousand persons usually listen to her concert, seventy-five thousand persons in a visible audience and millions in an invisible audience heard Marian Anderson sing her program of triumph on Easter Sunday afternoon in the Lincoln Memorial Park within striking distance of the Capitol’s dome.
Miss Anderson’s unusually large audience was swept to her on the wings of bigotry and racial intolerance. Since a couple of nations in Europe seem to vie with each other in acts of racial persecution, it seems to be Uncle Sam’s serious ambition today to be on the right side of the pale – a sort of see-how-good-I-am attitude.
America’s escutcheon is well blotched with racial intolerance, discrimination and persecution. Up to now it’s the Negro who is borne the brunt, if not all, of this form of treatment. Lynching, ruthless lynchings, the Scottsboro Boys are inerasable marks. Scoldings, however, from within and jeers without are gradually bringing about actual efforts to earn herself a cleaner slate.
The old Devils of the American Revolution ran true to the Old America and cried ‘color’ to Miss Anderson.  . . .  But seeking no ally with Nazism and Fascism, official America loaned Miss Anderson the Lincoln Memorial Park and facilities for a worldwide audience. “

Coincidentally, Anderson died on April 8, 1993, almost exactly 54 years to the day after her triumphant concert. In another Globe editorial, I wrote that to my mother Anderson “represented a triumph over segregation and a counterweight to Aunt Jemima images.”

“As a youngster, Anderson was denied admission to a Philadelphia music school because she was black. She was given the keys to Atlantic City, but was not allowed to stay in a hotel there. When she sang in segregated concert halls, she demanded that seats be allotted to black ticket buyers in every section of the auditorium. . . Anderson often referred to herself with modest detachment. But for several generations of black women in America such modesty is unnecessary. Marian Anderson’s name and her memory are synonymous with the magnificence of  her voice.”

Happy Easter!

Making it right: The Scottsboro Boys and the Central Park Five

22 Apr

On Friday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation that paves the way for posthumous pardons of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women. For nearly a decade, my father used his New York Age column to remind his readers of what he called a travesty of justice.

“We cannot take back what happened.  But we can make it right moving forward.  That’s why I’m signing this legislation,” Bentley said on Friday.  “It’s important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys.”

Ebenezer would say it’s about time.

I’m glad it didn’t take 8more than 80 years to clear the young men who served 7 – 13 years for the rape of Trisha Meili, better known as the Central Park jogger. Still, these young men have not been afforded the full measure of justice.

On April 19, 1989, Meili was brutally raped and beaten nearly to death in the park by Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer.

It just happened to be on a night when a couple of dozen teenagers ran through the park, some assaulting, robbing and harassing people.

Ken Burns chronicles the case in his latest documentary, The Central Park Five, which premiered on PBS last week.  . In the film, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise admit that they were in the park that night and witnessed some bad behavior. But none of them knew anything about a rape until New York City police, determined to wrap up the case, force fed them details and manipulated them into confessing.

The documentary is heartbreaking. Police ignored or neglected the fact that there was no physical evidence that implicated any of the boys. They ignored the fact that the boys’ “confessions” were not only inconsistent with the facts that law enforcement  knew, but also with each others stories. One of the most heartbreaking scenes  is watching the prosecutor take a videotaped confession from Wise, the oldest of the five, who was 16. She read him his Miranda rights, told him he had a right to a lawyer, a right to remain silent. But  Wise was  exhausted after hours and hours of intimidation, interrogation and promises that he would soon be allowed to go home, tells a made-up story implicating himself and his acquaintances.

“If this had happened in 1901, they would have been lynched, perhaps castrated and their bodies burned and that would have been the end of it,” Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, said in the documentary.

“But this was New York City,  1989, , said LynNell Hancock, now a journalism professor at Columbia University. “It was not Jim Crow South, and yet the same words are being used with the same damaging results.”

I remember tearing up when I picked up the New York Times in 2002 and read that the whole thing had indeed been a lie.  Reyes,  who by then was in prison for other crimes, confessed to the rape of Meile. His DNA was in the police files all along. It  was the only DNA on Meile’s belongings. The worst part: While officials were railroading the boys, Reyes continued to rape and murder women.

With his confession, the convictions of the five were vacated by a New York State Supreme Court judge.  The City of New York, however, has refused to admit any wrongdoing. A civil suit filed on behalf of the young men in 2003 has yet to be resolved.

No amount of money will give these men back their youth, bu eas Alabama Gov. Bentley said, New York City cannot “take back what happened,”  but the city can and should make it right.

Happy Thanksgiving

20 Nov

My father plagiarized himself frequently, most notably in his Thanksgiving columns. In 1934, 1936 and 1938, he wrote about the Pilgrim fathers, who in 1623 faced “their second winter of hunger, cold and peril” until, after a day of prayer, sighted “a ship loaded with friends and supplies.” He ended every one of these columns with the question of whether “Negroes” should be thankful. He would give a nod to the Scottsboro Boys, who were  incarcerated in Alabama. A favorite refrain was that the  “Negro’s winter is still on” and the ideals of safety and happiness continued to elude American blacks.

In 1939 his column still included these elements, but had a more optimistic tone. That year, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that Thanksgiving should be celebrated the next to the last Thursday of the month, rather than the last Thursday, which had been American tradition dating back to the end of the Civil War.

“Now, in the year of 1939, Americans find themselves sandwiched between two Thanksgiving Days,”  Ebenezer wrote. According to my father about half of the nation’s bosses  “preferred to adhere to the traditional (Lincoln’s). . .”

Apparently, my father  thought the whole debate was silly.

“It is safe to say that the idea of giving thanks on this day has been lost in its routine acceptance. It is now rather a day of feasting. And to hear the opposition tell it, one is almost moved to believe that there IS a difference between gormandizing vittles and guzzling corn liquor on one Thursday as against another Thursday. But this is a Democracy.”

Under Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini, he asserted, the “thanksgiving edict” would have come without choice and accepted with the “clicking of the heels. Dictators’ proclamations have but one ‘alternative': yes or YES.  . . Not in America. And that’s a good reason for giving thanks – any day.”

Ebenezer gave his customary nod to the Scottsboro boys.  Five of the original nine were still imprisoned. “Should the question of Thanksgiving Day penetrate those prison walls, those lads could well ask: What have we to be thankful for on the 23rd or the  30th of November?” he asked. “Their oppressors quibble over trifles.”

“Quibbling over when one should give thanks is hardly productive of the spirit of gratefulness  – at that. “

As for me, I’m giving thanks every day that America is changing, as evidenced by the recent election. Thankful that more Americans will have access to health care and that women will have agency over their own bodies. That race-baiting and big money don’t always prevail and that the Supreme Court’s activist slide will be slowed.

No doubt, our nation is still deeply divided between those who “want to  take their country back” and those who want to move forward.  But, as Ebenezer said,  “This is Democracy.”

By the way, I was going to wait until tomorrow to add a photo of President Obama pardoning a turkey, but I thought this video said more about thankfulness.

A Mother’s Day tribute

8 May

I queued this up a year ago just so I would remember to revisit it for Mother’s Day 2012. (Apparently, it went live several days ago.) My father never missed an opportunity to sing the praises of he mother, Malvina. It’s clear my grandmother was God-loving and generous to a fault. I wish I had a photo.

The New York Age May 20, 1933


Continue reading

Should Negroes be thankful?

20 Nov

In 1934, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The Scottsboro Boys had been locked up for more than three years. Lynchings were rampant, and many states still denied black folks the right to vote.

Ebenezer was not pleased.

“Three hundred and 11 years ago, a disconsolate group of humans who have since come to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers were facing their second winter of hunger, cold and peril,” my father wrote in his column published Dec. 1, 1934. [In the age of linotype, I suppose it was customary for the Thanksgiving column to come out after Thanksgiving.] “The spring crop of corn had been withered by a long drought; the vegetable gardens had been destroyed by fire. A day of prayers was declared, which was followed by a refreshing rain. Almost simultaneously a ship loaded with friends and supplies was sighted. The Governor proclaimed a day ‘for public thanksgiving.'”

My father went on to add that since that day in 1623, the United States had celebrated other days of thanksgiving in the midst of national crises:

“In the first year of his office, President Washington issued a proclamation making Nov. 26, [1789] [Typo alert! The actual column says 1879] a day of ‘national thanksgiving’ for the establishment of a government designed for safety and happiness. When the Civil War was slowly drawing to an end, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of national thanksgiving ‘for the defense against unfriendly designs without and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household.'”

But what did Thanksgiving mean for black people in America in 1934?

“As another Thanksgiving Day approaches, can the Negro as a race really be thankful for many material blessings? . . . Even the individual materialist may have much to be thankful for – he may be in good health, his family as well, he may even have a job and everyone knows that that is much to be thankful for nowadays. Yet the Negro as a race still needs much to complete his reasons for Thanksgiving Day in this anno domini 1934. He is still the victim of ruthless exploitation by an unyielding capitalist system; he is still being denied many constitutional rights as a citizen, including the right to vote in many states; he is still being discriminated against even under the dome of the nation’s capitol; he is still the victim of brutal lynchings. Nine Negro boys are nearing their fourth year of incarceration in an unsympathetic Alabama prison for a crime they did not commit, while a coterie of lawyers strive valiantly, but almost ineffectively to stave off a legal lynching of them.

“The Negro still needs sound reasons for a real honest-to-goodness Thanksgiving — his winter is still on, his ‘corn is still withered’ his ‘ship loaded with friends and supplies’ still to be sighted; his ‘government . .. for safety and happiness’ has not yet been established.'”

So, as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches, those of us fortunate enough to be employed, to have homes, health and abundance should be grateful. We also should continue the fight for those among us who continue to endure the chill of injustice.

Here’s the column in its entirety:

Continue reading

The Claude Neal lynching

5 Jun

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson‘s hard-to-put-down chronicle of the Great Migration,  she describes the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida in 1934.

It is  a gruesome tale of unspeakable acts, including the mutilation, hanging, rehanging, dragging and shooting of one  man.

And though we can only hope that this orgy of gratuitous hate and voyeurism was what Wilkerson says was “perhaps the single worst act of torture and execution in twentieth-century America,”  we know it was illustrative of the reign of terror, humiliation and intimidation that prevailed in the American South well into the 1960s.

“Across the country, thousands of outraged Americans wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding a federal investigation,” Wilkerson writes. “The NAACP compiled a  sixteen-page report and more files on the Neal case than any other lynching in American history. But Neal had the additional misfortune of having been lynched just before the 1934 national midterm elections, which were being seen as a referendum on the New Deal itself. Roosevelt chose not to risk alienating the South with a Democratic majority in Congress at stake. He did not intervene in the case. No one was ever charged in Neal’s death or spent a day in jail for it,” Wilkerson adds. Continue reading

A King’s reach: My father’s take on the Royals

26 Feb

When I suggested to my daughter, Zuri, that she would love the Oscar winning The King’s Speech and that it would be great for her to see it in London, where she is studying abroad, she revealed that her drama professors were not so keen on it. “They see it as propaganda for the monarchy.”
There is also a lot of buzz in the American and international press about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film. Bertie’s stutter was not really that bad, Winston Churchill was not really that fat and  he was not so forcefully opposed to King Edward VIII‘s relationship with a twice-married Wallis Simpson. More seriously, some argue that throughout the late 1930s the royal family and much of the British establishment favored appeasement of Hitler’s regime.
My father was a bit of a gusher when it came to the Royals.

“A King Dies,” Ebenezer proclaimed in a column on Feb. 1, 1936. The far-flung British Empire, with its approximately 500,000,000 inhabitants of all colors mourns today! George the Fifth, its ‘Sailor King’ is dead! He passed away in his 71st year of life and in the 26th year of his reign. From far-off New Zealand and Australia to the Dominion of Canada, from India to the remote Falkland Islands and the West Indies, flags are at half-mast; bells have tolled, theatres closed, night clubs darkened — business had come to a standstill, all in reverence to a departed monarch, loved by his people, and of whose greatness historian will testify.”
But in true fashion, Ebenezer brought the king’s death back home to America.

King George V

“The passing of the British monarch had its repercussion here in the House of Representatives when Speaker Byrns [Joseph W. Byrns, D-Tenn] put forward a resolution that the body adjourn out of respect to the dead king. Representative [Martin] Sweeney of Ohio was the dissenting voice. His objection was based on the grounds that his kin lost their lives during the time of the Blacks and Tans (Britain opposing the independence of the Irish Free State) and according to the New York Times Washington correspondent, Mr. Sweeney ‘is unwilling for the legislature of a democracy to honor the memory of a king in whose names the bullets went winging’  Speaker Byrns ignored Mr. Sweeney. Negroes might sympathize with Mr. Sweeney in the loss of his kin, but it is natural that they at the same time reflect on the atrocities which are committed under America’s ‘democracy” In the first place we have hundreds of lynchings which have taken place in the direction from which Mr. Sweeney hails and against which Congress up to its last session refused to enact legislation. Many a Negro has lost his innocent kin by these barbarous methods. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the constitution as they apply to Negroes are openly violated in the South. Under the shadow of the Capitol’s dome, Negroes have been denied use of the House Restaurant and even in the North Negroes are systematically and occasionally discriminated against in government and private institutions. Lastly, we come to the persecution of the nine Scottsboro lads. Within the columns of the issue of the New York Times which voices Mr. Sweeney’s objection we read that the trial was being conducted for the fourth time amidst the most prejudiced atmosphere perhaps known to any court in a civilized country.”

As for the brief reign of Edward VIII and the Wallis Simpson scandal, my father initially had high hopes for the young king whom he described as a “super-salesman, athlete, flier, sportsman and one of the most socially beloved princes, whose magnetic personality was already evident. “

But upon Edward’s abdication, he was less charitable. “I still think Edward strayed somewhat from the ‘manor born.'” he wrote in a later column. He was born heir-apparent to a throne when the world respected it. He could easily have lived closer to its shadow.  Love intoxicates a man; marriage sobers him up, someone once said. And what if the inevitable hand of retribution moves to arouse Eddie from his intoxication, brought on by Wallis Simpson’s potion of third-rate ‘love!'”

My father was wrong about that love affair. Edward and Wallis stayed together until Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, died of cancer in 1972.

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