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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.

Merry Christmas, Joe Louis, the Communists, the Scottsboro Boys and Mother

25 Dec

Joe Louis 1935

I love the fact that my father gave a shout out to his mom, whom he said was responsible for all that was good in him.  (Sadly, he used the same line nine months later when she died.) He also sent greetings to Joe Louis, the “uncrowned king,” “the Scottsboro lads with a sincere hope for their ultimate freedom,” and  the Communists who took up the Scottsboro Boys cause and saved their lives. There was some reluctance among supporters of the NAACP about whether the Communists efforts on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys would hurt their cause.  Ebenezer did not seem to have those concerns. He did give props to the NAACP for its “untiring efforts on behalf of the Negro race.”

The New York Age, December 28, 1935

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

5 Dec

This photo by William Porto was taken in 2008.

Construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, located at 112th St. and Amsterdam Ave. and dubbed a house of  worship “for all people,”  began on Dec. 27, 1892, when the first cornerstone was laid. But it took decades for the church to be completed. My father published  this column Feb. 23, 1935, and it would be more than six years before the opening of the full length of the Cathedral. (The opening celebration took place Nov. 30, 1941, and a week later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Construction was halted during World War II and did not resume until the 1970s.)

The grand design inspired this response to those who warned that the Apocalypse was imminent:

“I am far more interested in the present rise in food prices, the prolonged depression, and the likely invasion of Abyssinia by the Italians than in any tornado of fire sweeping these hemispheres and leaving their inhabitants in ashes. Yet there remain a few devout persons who occasionally try to scare my reluctant soul into submission with this bogey, which, they say, will be followed by that great Judgment Day when I will have to account for even taking a lump of sugar when Mother wasn’t looking.  When they come around again I will tell them that while they in their puny knowledge look for world destruction, learned theologians are erecting structures of granite to stand forever.”

The New York Age, February 23, 1935

The Lindbergh kidnapping, from many angles

30 Oct

Ebenezer weighs in on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the man sentenced to death in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. My father, having been a court reporter before he was a columnist, was apparently fascinated by the trial. He also had a few things to say about the racial implications of the story. William Allen, the truck driver who found the corpse in the woods, was apparently a “Negro” who got little recognition. He also drew parallels with this case and the trial of the Scottsboro boys. In both cases, suspects were tried in the media, as well as in the courts, but Hauptmann got a fair trial,  my dad says, the Scottsboro boys did not. Of course, questions still remain as to whether the Hauptmann was framed, but we get his point.
I like the final item about the white girl who defied her parents by marrying a “mulatto” man. But my favorite is closer to the top when he talks about his hobbies: eating, catching a good show and drinking good gin occasionally.”  Hear, hear! I’m headed to a show at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco tonight and am looking forward to a great dinner with friends.  And, yes, I’ve been known to enjoy a Bombay martini and a Tanqueray and tonic more than occasionally. Once again, the apple does not fall far from the tree!

The New York Age, January 19, 1935

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