Tag Archives: black history

Living History

5 Apr

In the months leading up to a tour titled “On the Road to Freedom: Understanding the Civil Rights Movement,” I was on the fence. Despite the waning Covid infection numbers, the easing of mask mandates and the fact that my fellow travelers would all be fully vaccinated and boostered, I wasn’t sure. After all, we were traveling by bus through Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, states with lower vaccination rates than California. I’d managed to dodge the Covid bullet for two years. Was I ready to let my guard down?

I like to think of myself as an intrepid traveler, but the thought of navigating airports and ground transportation, all in an N 95 mask, gave me pause. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of a trip to U.S. historical sites I’d only read about.

In the end, I decided to go for it. After all, I told myself, you’re not getting any younger.

What occurred to me once the trip began, was that the people we would meet, foot soldiers who had been on the front lines of the movement, weren’t getting any younger either. As I note in my op-ed, “What Happens to Rage Repressed?” published in The Boston Globe on April 1, I got to meet Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. But she was just one of the treasures who shared their time and wisdom with us.

Elizabeth Eckford

There was Hezekiah Watkins, who describes himself as Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider. His first arrest and incarceration at 13 years old is a harrowing tale.

Hezekiah Watkins

We spent several hours with Rev. Carolyn McKinstry as she recounted how at 15 years old she was handling Sunday School paperwork at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Ku Klux Klan set off the blast that killed four of her friends, injured others and terrorized the Black community.

Rev. Carolyn McKinstry

We visited the Montgomery, Alabama, home of Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, which was down the block from the parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. Dr. Harris told heartwarming stories of the two families socializing in each other’s homes and how her own home was a sanctuary and a strategizing space for civil rights activists.

Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery

The tour, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California, included time to take in good music and enjoy delicious food. The state-of-the-art interactive museums that document the history of the African diaspora alone were worth the trip. Still, it was the living monuments to this history that I will remember the most.

Happy 120th birthday

24 May

 

May 24 would have been my father’s 120th birthday.

I don’t know what would resonate with him today, but back in the 1930s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s, he was given to quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his birthday.

For three consecutive years, in columns that ran near May 24, Ebenezer would quote the same lines from Longfellow’s “The Spanish Student,” a play in three acts.

s-l300

“Approaching one of those inevitable milestones imposed by Father Time, this paragrapher pauses in reflection and does a little audible thinking. Methinks Longfellow was correct when he wrote of persons born on May 24. ‘The strength of thine own arm is thy salvation.’ But I think he stretched his optimism a bit far when he said, ‘Behind those riftless [sic] clouds there is a silver lining [sic]; be patient,’” my father wrote in the New York Age, May 28, 1934.

Longfellow actually wrote “rifted clouds,” and in at least one edition, that one line was not about a silver lining. It was, “there shines a glorious star!” Also, I could not find any verification that the 19th-century poet and essayist was specifically referring to those who were born on May 24.

But, ok, Dad.

More often than not, my father used his weekly column for a little of this and a little of that. In one paragraph, he would rail against racially discriminatory hiring practices in Harlem and in the next, he would chide an acquaintance for falling under the spell of Father Devine. Then he’d wax about a social event or musical performance that moved him. Often, he used his column to express his outrage about lynchings and the trumped-up charges against the Scottsboro Boys. During the years when my father was quoting Longfellow in his birthday columns, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression; Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had begun their reign. You couldn’t fault him for seeing no rift in the clouds.

These days, the press is literally being punched and kicked simply for the “crime” of asking questions.

A Republican Congress is poised to denude health care, the environment, public education and women’s agency over our bodies.

Our president and his family are raiding our treasury.

Law enforcement officers who kill unarmed black and brown civilians, including children, do so with impunity.

Immigrants are being harassed, deported and maligned.

White supremacists in this country have been given license to spew hate and kill.

Has anyone seen a glorious star lately?

Actually, yes.

When a Supreme Court majority (that includes Justice Clarence Thomas!) rejects North Carolina’s voter suppression efforts.

When reporters fight back with fierce investigative journalism.

When constituents yell “you lie” at those to try to sell us alternative facts.

When we forge authentic alliances strong enough to demolish and deconstruct silly walls.

When we vote like our lives depend on it, because apparently, they do.

So, in honor of Ebenezer’s 120th birthday, I will take a few liberties of my own with Longfellow:

Only the strength of [OUR] own [COLLECTIVE] arm[S] will be [OUR] salvation.

Let’s get to work.

 

It happens here, and now

20 Jun

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. The black church has long been the cornerstone and sanctuary for African American life. It has also long been a target for racists and white supremacists trying to strike blows against the African American psyche. The latest attack came Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, when 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof joined a prayer meeting inside historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine people dead, including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and other ministers. (AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill)

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. (AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill)

From his columns, I know my father as someone who believed America thought too much of itself when it came to racial justice.

He often used his writing to remind readers that while the United States was promoting itself around the world as the land of the free, it had a lot to answer for at home. He chastised white American leaders who responded vocally to the scourge of Nazism, but were mum on “the many injustices to which Negroes of America have been subjected during the past many years.”

“Truly, the oppression of Negroes in America is of a more subtle nature than the present ruthless persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime,” he wrote, but “there are individual cases which compare remarkably well with the deeds perpetrated by proponents of the brown shirt and swastika.”

dottings_1_7_1939

The New York Age, January 7, 1939

Much of that column, published in the New York Age on January 7, 1939, was devoted to an incident a few weeks prior involving a wealthy black Chicago businesswoman  — Noblesse Boyd  — who was racially profiled, jailed and charged with vagrancy in Indianapolis for the crime of wearing an expensive coat.

But that weekly offering also referenced lynchings, including one notorious case in which several members of a family — the Lowmans — were brutally murdered by a mob in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1926.

“It Happens Here!” was the title of that column.

And it happens still. It happened in America on June 17, 2015, when nine black women and men were gunned down during bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist who allegedly spewed racial epithets along with his bullets.

The dead are Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, and Myra Thompson, 59.

I refuse to utter this terrorist’s name or publish his photograph, as it will just give him another platform for his hatred. But photos show him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. His neo-Nazi and Klan inspired diatribes appear to be well documented. His terror indeed compares, as my father said, “remarkably well with the deeds perpetrated by proponents of the brown shirt and swastika.”

“It happens here,” Ebenezer Ray reminded his readers in 1939. As we approach Father’s Day 2015, I am forced to say, “Daddy, you were, and still are right.”

Happy Birthday, Ebenezer

24 May

My father would be 117 years old today. Eighty years ago his birthday wish was for a typewriter with the same configuration of keys as a Linotype machine.  I wonder what he would think of our writing implements and communications platforms today.  A dear friend recently gave me a bracelet made of typewriter keys. I’m wearing in honor of my Daddy’s birthday today.

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: