The Octavius Catto Memorial

CattoI first learned about Octavius Catto about ten years ago when we took our daughters to Philadelphia for a short vacation.  During our visit we took full advantage of the city’s “Once Upon a Nation” storytelling benches.  Professional storytellers at each bench–there are fifteen scattered around the Independence Hall area–tell stories about famous Philadelphians.  I don’t know if the program has changed over the years, but when my kids were young they could get a free carousel ride and an ice cream cone in Franklin Square if they visited all fifteen benches.

I vividly remember one of the “Once Upon a Nation” story tellers (I think it was outside the National Constitution Center) telling my girls the story of Catto’s civil rights activism in Civil War-era Philadelphia

I was thus pleased to see that Philadelphia will be erecting a statue near City Hall to commemorate Catto’s contribution to the city’s history.

Over at Philly.Com, writer Jonathan Lai reports on a recent program for teachers on Catto’s life and his contribution to Philadelphia’s African American history.

Here is a taste:

Catto was murdered in 1871, at just 32 years old. He sought to protect fellow African Americans who were trying to exercise their right to vote, which had just been ratified by the states the year before. But his name had been largely missing from the modern discussion of civil rights, organizers have said.

As he has been brought back into popular consciousness — a sculpture is set to be placed next month on the southern apron of City Hall — the School District of Philadelphia, the Catto Memorial Fund, and the National Archives partnered for Thursday’s event, the first in a yearlong series aimed at helping teachers include Catto in their curricula, the educational counterpart to the physical memorial.

The statue is the first of a named African American on public ground in the city. The work, titled Quest for Parity, will feature the 12-foot-tall bronze statue, a stainless-steel ballot box, and five granite pillars symbolizing streetcars.

“The Catto story is the national story. It is part of the story of our Constitution. It is the story of how ordinary citizens work, some every day, to make the Constitution live,” said V. Chapman Smith, an organizer of Thursday’s event who works at the National Archives and who is on the board of the Catto Memorial Fund.

Read the entire article here.

Our First Summer “Patrons-Only” Episode is Here

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Todd Allen

If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our first patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is Todd Allen, the new assistant Special Assistant to the President and Provost for Diversity Affairs at Messiah College.  Todd is a scholar of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote his doctoral dissertation on museum interpretations of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.

For more than a decade Todd has led “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Bus Tour,” a premier Civil Rights bus tour that takes participants to nearly every major historical site associated with the Movement.  Stops on the tour include Greensboro, NC; Atlanta, GA; Albany, GA; Montgomery, AL; Birmingham, AL; Memphis, TN; and Nashville, TN.  The tour combines historical site and museum visits with lectures, conversations with major Civil Rights Movement veterans, and documentary films.  I took the tour in June 2017 and wrote about it here.

In this episode, Todd talks about the origins of the tour, Civil Rights Movement tourism, his building of relationships with the veterans of the Movement, and a whole lot more.

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.

Did the Civil Rights Act Spur Racist Progress?

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Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.  According to National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi, the Act “spurred all sorts of racial progress–from desegregating Southern establishments to driving anti-discrimination lawsuits, to opening the doors of opportunity for the new black middle class.”

But Kendi’s recent piece in The Washington Post also calls our attention to what he believes to be an overlooked aspect of the Civil Rights Act.  He argues that the Act “also spurred racist progress.”  He adds, ”

Here is a taste:

After the passage of the act, Americans quickly confused the death of Jim Crow for the death of racism. The result: They blamed persisting and progressing racial disparities on black inferiority. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had been complaining throughout the 1960s about those “dependent animal” creatures on welfare. Criminologists like Marvin Wolfgang were writing about urban blacks’ “subculture of violence.” Sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, pointed to the black family as a “tangle of pathology” in a 1965 report.kendi

As new racist ideas and anti-racist demonstrations spread in the late 1960s, first President Johnson and then Richard Nixon turned away from civil rights toward “law and order” — a phrase that came to symbolize and pardon the progress of racist ideas and policies. The Nixon White House branded black people as the real source of the racial problems, rather than the Americans who quietly responded to the 1964 act by backing “race neutral” policies that were aimed at excluding black bodies.

For many Americans, it was this violent subculture, emanating from the weak and dependent black family, that caused the hundreds of urban rebellions that followed in the days, months and years after the Civil Rights Act. As the Wall Street Journal headline on Aug.16, 1965, explained: “Behind the Riots: Family Life Breakdown in Negro Slums Sow Seeds of Race Violence: Husbandless Homes Spawn Young Hoodlums, Impede Reforms.”

Read the entire piece here.

Civil Rights and Health Care

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I am not a scholar of the Civil Rights Movement, but I found Vann Newkirk’s piece on the Civil Rights Movement and health care to be compelling.  (I would appreciate any insights from scholars of the Civil Rights Movement).

Here is a taste of Newkirk’s piece at The Atlantic:

It was a cold March night when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his pulpit towards health care. Speaking to a packed, mixed-race crowd of physicians and health-care workers in Chicago, King gave one of his most influential late-career speeches, blasting the American Medical Association and other organizations for a “conspiracy of inaction” in the maintenance of a medical apartheid that persisted even then in 1966.

There, King spoke words that have since become a maxim: “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” In the moment, it reflected the work that King and that organization, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), were doing to advance one of the since-forgotten pillars of the civil-rights movement: the idea that health care is a right. To those heroes of the civil-rights movement, it was clear that the demons of inequality that have always haunted America could not be vanquished without the establishment and protection of that right.

Fifty-one years later, those demons have not yet been defeated. King’s quotation has become a rallying cry among defenders of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark 2010 legislation that has come the closest America has ever been to establishing a universal guarantee of health care. Their position is in peril, as the Republican effort to repeal the law and create a replacement that leaves 22 million more people uninsured over the next decade and will slash Medicaid enrollment by 15 million now sits just days away from possible passage.

People of color were the most likely groups to gain coverage and access to care under the ACA, and in the centuries-old struggle over health, they have never been closer both to racial equality of, access and to, the federal protection of health care as a civil right. But if Republicans have their way, that dream will be deferred.

Just as the ACA’s defenders find themselves between a once-in-a-generation victory and a potential equally devastating loss, so the MCHR found themselves in 1966. King delivered his address just months after breakthroughs a century in the making. In the height of the movement in the early 60s that brought sweeping changes in voting rights, integration, and education, civil-rights actors had also won major victories in a push for universal health care. Chief among those victories were two of the defining pieces of 20th-century American policy: the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

Of course, the Civil Rights Act might not seem like much of a health-care bill, and Medicare isn’t usually counted among major civil-rights victories, but as detailed in in health-policy researcher David Barton Smith’s The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health System, they were complementary pieces of a grand civil-rights strategy.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is a piece about the King quote mentioned above.  It is apparently very had to track down and there is no recording or transcript of the speech he delivered on March 25, 1966 to the second convention of the Medical Committee on Human Rights.

Ed Sullivan and Civil Rights

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The Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

Hey Todd Allen, I think you should include something about Ed Sullivan in your Return to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.

Here is a taste of an article about a forthcoming documentary titled “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights tells the story of the man who single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and impacted the minds and lives of both his performers and his viewers. This long-awaited, 70-minute documentary takes a surprising look at the man who was once television’s most influential personality. Visit www.mpslegacyproductions.com to learn more.

Suzanne Kay, daughter of the iconic actress and singer Diahann Carroll, and Margo Precht Speciale, granddaughter of Ed Sullivan, are Producers. They will participate in the film festival panel along with Diahann Carroll, Dwandalyn R. Reece, Ph.D., Curator of Music and Performing Arts, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ed Sullivan is best known for creating television’s longest running variety show and for introducing The Beatles to America. But he was also a risk-taker who consistently booked African-American artists despite threats from southern sponsors and letters from irate white viewers. He showcased unknown artists who are household names today, and he treated them with grace and dignity at a time when racism was the norm, challenging America to do the same.

Based on interviews with celebrities, Sullivan’s family members, and media analysts, this documentary shines a light on a little known chapter in America’s struggle for racial justice.  Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Berry Gordy of Motown, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg are just some of those interviewed as they talk about how the show was a launching pad for their careers and changed their vision of America and America’s vision of African-Americans.

Read the entire article here

“The Drum Major Instinct”

During our history of the Civil Rights Movement bus tour we spent a lot of time watching documentaries and listening to recording of speeches.  On Sunday morning Todd Allen played Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” King delivered this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.

Listen:

As I listened from my seat I was struck by this part of the sermon:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

Here is King, only months away from his death, suggesting that the issue of poverty and low-wages is a justice issue that seems to transcend race.

This point reminds me of this recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Tom Hanks:

 

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 9

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For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.   It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline.  We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.

Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success.  I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour.  Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.

Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio.  The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course.  (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University).  He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club.  He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm.  In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American.  Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:

Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional.  Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first).  Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.

Here are some more pics:

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with Renee Powell at Clearview Golf Club

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Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 8

For previous posts in this series click here.

Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio.  We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time.  Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students.  The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans.  It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.

Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player.  As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence  gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism.  Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place.  Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.

On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee.  When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.

We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted.  When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960.  Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it.  He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960.  Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists.  The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry.  Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.

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With Rip Patton at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room

Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character.  Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices.  During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.”  He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement.  They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.

After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides.  In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.

Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton.  Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'”  He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a  “war.”  (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university.  I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far.  If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it).  Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.

At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement.  Here I got to learn more about his story.  After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College.  While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X.  He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world.  “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.”  Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment.  Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.

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With Kwame Lillard at Swetts in Nashville.  He held up his fist for the picture and said “Mandela.”

During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North.  It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location.  (The lunch counter was removed).  We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville.  On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years.  Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?

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Kwame Lillard telling us about the Nashville Walgreens sit-in

As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward.  Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.

As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College.  The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation.  At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.

I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others.  As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots.  Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith.  As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders.  So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college?  Something to think about.  I need to keep reading,

Today is our last stop.  It is in Canton, Ohio.  Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

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Another shot of the Nashville Walgreens

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When we got to Fisk University, Phyllis Brown (pictured above) told us all to kneel down and touch the “sacred ground.”  Phyllis traveled with us from Memphis to Nashville.  She is the sister of  Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

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Vernon Winfrey shares some words of wisdom with us from the floor of his barber shop in Nashville.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 7

Memphis

For previous posts in this series click here.

I cannot believe we have been on the road for a week.  We started the day in Memphis and ended it in Nashville.

The major stop of the day was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel, of course, was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  The museum is built around the motel and an additional building–the Young and Morrow Building–located just across the street.  This is the building (a rooming house in 1968) where James Earl Ray fired the shots that killed King.

Here is New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the evening of King’s death. He delivered it while on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis.

Kennedy would be assassinated two months later.  As I listen to his speech again, I wonder if it still holds-up today.  I hope it does.

After touring the museum we headed to Beale Street and a visit to the gallery of Civil Rights Movement photographer Ernest Withers.  He took some of the most iconic photos of the era.  You can see some of my favorites here and here.

The last stop in Memphis was lunch at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street where we were treated to some great soul music from recent graduates of Stax Music Academy.

We are touring Nashville today.  Stay tuned.

Are Students *Still* Ignorant of the History of the Civil Rights Movement?

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?” I linked to Sam Wineburg‘s criticism of a Southern Poverty Law Center study that concluded students are not familiar with the basic facts of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Here is a taste of what Wineburg wrote in the LA Times in October 2011:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Are American students still ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement?  I have heard this over and over again from folks this week while I travel through the South as part of a Civil Rights bus tour.

If students today are ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it is because the Movement is not covered adequately in history textbooks or state standards.  I am not familiar with every set of state history standards, but I would imagine that all of them, or nearly all of them, cover the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, there are some exceptions, especially in certain types of private institutions.  And yes, many textbooks do not cover the Movement to a degree of depth that will satisfy everyone.  But I wonder if the lack of knowledge about the Movement is representative of student ignorance in all areas of history.

Thoughts?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 6

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For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent a lot of time in the bus today as we drove from Birmingham to Memphis.  For me the highlight was tearing my calf muscle while running through the pouring rain to make it back to the bus on time after lunch.

I cannot put much weight on my leg, but I was able to hobble my way through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  If you want to learn more about Stax Records I would encourage you to watch this documentary.  (Below is the first of 9 segments):

While poking around online I found John Schaefer‘s short post comparing Motown to Stax.  Here is a taste:

Motown and Stax. The two great labels of American soul and R&B. There is really no good way to prove that one label was better than the other – but that won’t stop us from asking the question. After all, this is the fun part of being a fan. Sports fans, I have to admit, enjoy arguing about who has the best centerfielder or middle relief pitching or defensive front line as much as we do actually watching games. So Motown vs Stax may be the musical equivalent of Mickey Mantle vs Willie Mays – an argument you can never settle – but who cares?

As for me, I love the Stax Records roster of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs. Sam and Dave can be added to that list, too, though they were part of the alliance with the major label Atlantic Records. It’s interesting to note that this legendary institution of black music was founded by white guys (actually, a guy and his sister); and the fact that they had a color-blind house band as early as the early 60s is pretty great. Also, the records had a grit and a sense of audio verite that was and is noticeably different from the slick, highly produced sound of Motown.

The Stax Museum tells the story of this historic record label through a narrative of interracial cooperation.  It is clear that the guardians of the Stax legacy believe that the cooperation between blacks and whites was representative of what the Civil Rights Movement hoped to achieve in both Memphis and the nation.  The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis was not only a national tragedy for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also a tragedy for Stax’s vision of interracial cooperation, at least in the music industry.  Consider this line from the museum website:

Memphis’ racial tension came to a head when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after speaking to the city’s striking sanitation workers (the Lorraine had been a regular gathering place for Stax employees, both black and white).

When citizens rioted in the streets after King’s murder, Stax’s building was left untouched, but the studio’s atmosphere as a creative respite with no regards for race was forever altered.

The Stax Museum (and the website) does not elaborate on how this “creative respite was forever altered,” but it is hard not to interpret this as a critique of the Civil Rights Movement’s turn toward Black separatism and Black power.

Today we continue in Memphis and then make our way to Nashville.  Stay tuned.  I will leave you this classic Stax hit from the Staples Sisters:

And a bonus track from Booker T & the MG’s:

The Birmingham Bible-Reading Crusade of 1946

Bible Cause CoverAs our Civil Rights history tour leaves Birmingham and heads to Memphis today, I recalled the story of Birmingham’s Bible Reading Crusade of 1946.  I wrote about this crusade in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyHere is the pertinent passage:

As the ABS experimented with different ways to bring the Bible to the world and raise the necessary funds to do so, they continued more traditional means of extending the Bible Cause at home.  In several American cities, the Society held “Bible Reading Crusades.” The largest and most influential of these crusades was conducted in 1946 by the Atlanta Division of the Agency Among the Colored People of the United States (at this point it was called The Haven Agency). The crusade was focused on the African American coal miners and plant workers of Birmingham, Alabama. Daniel Stanton, the senior secretary of the Haven Agency, inspired the crusade. He wanted to meet the spiritual needs of the more than 100,000 African Americans living in the city.  Stanton had spent most of his time in Birmingham gathering informally with these laborers, mostly on weekend afternoons on 4th Avenue North between 16th and 18th streets, to share the Gospel and teach them the Bible. “These milling throngs,” he wrote, “were ‘making a living’; but the pace of the wheels of industry gave them little time to think about ‘making a life’.”

African American businessmen in the city drafted A.C. Gaston to lead the crusade and serve as its primary organizer. Gaston was the grandson of a former slave, a World War I veteran, a layman in African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a Birmingham businessman who made his money in insurance, banking, and the funeral services industry.  He was the wealthiest African American in Birmingham and was known city-wide for providing jobs for out-of-work blacks.  He also built the A.G. Gaston Hotel in 1954, an important civil rights landmark where Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders stayed free of charge.  As racial tensions broke out in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, Gaston became an advocate of working peacefully with the city’s white businessmen, even at times disagreeing with the approach of King.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that the significant role that Gaston played in Birmingham’s civil rights movement had roots in his leadership of the city’s Bible crusade in 1946.  Gaston was well known, but this was one of his first efforts to organize a citywide event of this scale.

One of Gaston’s first moves was to get the support of Birmingham’s Negro Business League and African American ministers.  He then set a goal of getting 50,000 people, roughly half of the African American population, to read the Bible together on May 12, 1946, the first day of the weeklong crusade.  The black community of Birmingham responded in a way that far exceeded expectations.  Stanton arranged for 40,000 copies of the Gospel of John to be distributed before the crusade so the city would be ready for the mass meeting.  The success of the first day reading prompted Gaston’s committee to change its distribution goal to 75,000.  Gaston purchased 15,000 more copies of the Gospel of John from Stanton and created a subcommittee to provide one for every high school in the city.   Local businessmen turned their stores and officers into what the ABS described as “centers for stimulating an interest in the reading of the Book.”  Volunteer workers distributed Bibles in every industrial plant in Birmingham that employed African Americans.  Others brought scripture portions into the “dark mines and into the lives made darker still by sin.”  In the end, over 101,800 copies were distributed in the city during the week.  The ABS ugranted 62,000 of those Bibles, its largest donation to an organization or denomination in the two decades following the end of World War II.

Last night I asked Carolyn Maull McKinstry if she remembered this Bible reading crusade.  She did not, but she also wasn’t born yet. When I wrote The Bible Cause I did not explore this event from the perspective of local records or from the Birmingham African Americans involved.  But this civil rights bus tour has challenged me to think about this story in new ways.  I wonder if there might be some connections between the Bible Reading Crusade and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.

Perhaps I will return to this story one day.

More on the Civil Rights Movement and America as a “Christian Nation”

Christian NAtionLast night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.

During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.”  If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”

It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.

Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation.  White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term.  I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013.   Here is what I wrote following that conference:

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Read the entire post here.

The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 5

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent half of Day 5 in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham.  The tour is now more than half over.

Yesterday morning we spent some time at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center.  The museum interprets a memorial commemorating those who died of hate crimes during the Civil Rights Movement.  Here is a description of the monument:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Caroline at the Civil Rights Memorial

We then headed over to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University.  This museum tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and contains one of two original city buses.

After lunch we drove to Birmingham and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park.

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Entrance to Kelly Ingram Park: King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth

In the evening we had a pizza party with two women associated with the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when the bombing occurred.

Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed during the bombing. (Lisa never met Denise. She was born sixteen months after her death).  Both McKinstry and McNair talked about the events surrounding the bombing, the aftermath, of the bombing, and what we can learn from this tragic moment as we reflect on how to be people who practice reconciliation.  (Check out McKinstry’s book While the World Watched.  She graciously signed our copy).

McKinstry remembers attending the first planning meeting of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  She recalls sitting with her friends as they listened to Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King teach them how to behave on the march and prepare them for what they might expect from the Birmingham police under the direction of Bull Connor.   On May 2, 1963, McKinstry and the children of Birmingham left school and marched directly toward Connor’s water hoses, white tank, and attack dogs.  (She said that the leaders of the movement had not prepared them for the hoses.  This was a complete surprise).  5000 of McKinstry’s fellow child marchers went to jail.

Birmingham 3The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred about four months after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  The bombing took place on “Youth Day” at the church, a special Sunday in which the young people ran the service.  McKinstry helped to organize the 1963 Youth Day.  The sermon (which no one got to hear that morning )came from Luke 23:34 and was titled “A Love That Forgives.”  The bomb exploded at 10:22 (they know this because the clock stopped).  There were 75 students in Sunday School that morning. Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were killed.

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16th Avenue Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

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Monument to the 4 girls killed during the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church (Kelly Ingram Park)

Lisa McNair talked openly about what it was like to grow up as the sister of Denise McNair. Lisa described her first memory: “my sister was killed by white people because they hated Black people.”  As she grew up in Birmingham she always worried that the man who killed her sister was out there somewhere.  McNair said that few of those who experienced the bombing talked much about it until the 25th anniversary in 1988 and then again at the release of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls in 1997.  These events helped the families and the larger community begin to share their emotions.

What struck me the most about McKinstry and McNair was how their Christian faith has enabled them to deal with this tragedy.  McKinstry has spent most of her life trying to make sense of what happened when she was fourteen years old.  Today she travels the country speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation.  McNair is a photographer and speaker who attends a 6000-member white Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Both women refuse to let hate and anger control their lives.  It would be natural for these men and women to respond with hate and anger, and I am sure they have had moments when they have been tempted to act and think in this way.   But they ultimately choose not to dwell in anger.  Instead they make every effort to practice what Reinhold Niebuhr once called the “spiritual discipline against resentment.” McKinstry and McNair made it clear that they have drawn heavily from the spiritual resources of their faith to provide them with the strength to move forward.

Today we are traveling to Memphis.  Stay tuned.

Historical Thinking at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI 1Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.  We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.  Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionEJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.

During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan.  Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.

  1. Slavery.  This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
  2. Racial Terror:  This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate.  EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America.  It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history.  In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below).  It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen.  EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty.  Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world.  In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way.  This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
  3. Segregation
  4. Mass Incarceration.  Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color.  EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.

Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.

In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business.  It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject.  EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.

Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present.  Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise.  EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.

So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.

 

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Lynching exhibit at EJI

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 4

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 4 in Montgomery, Alabama.  (Montgomery is the only city where we are spending two nights.  This means that we didn’t have to pack our suitcases this yesterday!).

In the morning we made quick stops at some of Montgomery’s most iconic historical sites. As we entered the area around the Alabama State Capitol I was struck by the juxtaposition between Confederate States of America sites and Civil Rights Movement sites.  I am sure historians and scholars have written about these juxtapositions, but when you see them for the first time they are quite striking.  (If you know of any good books or articles that deal with these commemorative juxtapositions in Montgomery please let me know in the comments section).

As our bus entered this part of the city we passed the First White House of the Confederacy, the home of Jefferson Davis during the brief period when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia in August 1861).

As a series of massive Alabama government buildings (including the capitol building) came into sight I was immediately struck by their whiteness.  Seriously, these buildings are painted in a very bright white.  I don’t know if they were that white during the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, but as I surveyed the landscape I tried to imagine what it was like on Sunday, March 25, 1965 to see the color of these buildings in the background as 25,000 people–many of them African Americans– arrived at the capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

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Office building in Alabama capitol area

 

I was also struck by the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Martin Luther King Jr. served from 1954-1960.  It is only a few hundred yards from the Alabama State Capitol Building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America and where the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was written.  Every Sunday morning King and his congregation would step out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and into the whiteness of the built environment.  It was a material manifestation of Alabama’s historical commitment to white supremacy.

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View of the Alabama State Capitol from the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

 

As you leave Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and walk up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol Building, you will see, on the right side of the road, a monument commemorating the path of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration parade.  It was placed at this site in 1942. Directly across the street on Dexter Avenue is a monument commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.  It looks very new.  I did my best to capture this contrast here:

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Selma to Montgomery march monument is in foreground.  Jefferson Davis inaugural parade monument is in upper right of the picture (monument with water marks behind gray car)

After our visit to the capitol area, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, and the homes of some of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, we headed over to the Montgomery headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  If you are familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercyyou are familiar with the work of EJI.  I have a lot to say about EJI, so I think I will save those thoughts for another post that I hope to get up later today.

We spent the afternoon in Selma.  Our guide was Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who, as an eleven-year-old girl, marched in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  She took us to the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march.  In the back of the church is an outdoor concrete slab that served as the launching point of the march.  Bland asked us to pick up a stone from the crumbling slab (she is trying to get the slab refurbished) and hold it up as a reminder of the Selma marchers.  She challenged us to show this kind of courage in our lives whenever we encounter injustice.

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Joanne  Bland tells her story

Bland showed us some historical sites in Selma, took us to a local fruit stand so she could buy some peaches, and then told us her experience during the 1965 voting rights marches.  We then made our own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Our tour guide Todd Allen asked my daughter Caroline to lead us across the bridge.  It will be an experience she will never forget.  Later in the day Todd asked Caroline what she thought about playing the role of John Lewis in our march).  It was a moving end to a very moving day.

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Caroline is about to lead us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Tomorrow we will spend half the day in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham. Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

 

 

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Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 3

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began the day in Albany, GA and ended the day eating fried catfish in Montgomery, Alabama.  (More on that in the next post).

We spent most of the morning at the Albany Civil Rights Institute learning about how the Civil Rights Movement played out in this Georgia city.   African Americans in the city led the so-called “Albany Movement”–an attempt to desegregate public spaces in the city through nonviolent protests.  The Albany Movement was lead by William G. Anderson, a local medical doctor. Anderson had support from three outside activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also got involved.  King arrived for his first of several of visits to Albany on December 14, 1961.  During one visit, evangelist Billy Graham came to Albany and bailed King out of jail.  (This was not mentioned in the exhibits at the Institute.  I learned about it here).

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Albany Civil Rights Institute, Albany, GA

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Freedom Riders bus inside the Albany Civil Rights Institute

The highlight of the day was our visit to the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church.  Old Mount Zion was one of two Baptist churches where King preached during his first visit to Albany (the other one was Shiloh Baptist Church, located directly across the street). Here we met Rutha Mae Harris, an Albany native and one of the original Freedom Singers.  In 1963 the Freedom Singers traveled over 50,000 miles to over forty states under the auspices of SNCC.  They performed at the March on Washington in August and appeared on stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.  Here are a couple of videos:

At 76-years old, Rutha’s voice seemed to be just as strong as it was in the videos posted above.  She taught us several songs, including “Which Side Are You On?, “Fighting for My Rights,” “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” and “Dogs.”  When we finished singing she dubbed us all “official Freedom Singers!”

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Rutha Mae Harris greets us at the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church

Harris firmly believes that “without the songs of the Civil Rights movement, there would have been no Civil Rights movement.”  Harris was a lot less political than Juanita Jones Abernathy the day before, but she did suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement would have been more successful if it had music.

We stayed in Albany for a soul food lunch at Carter’s Grill and Restaurant and then boarded the bus for Montgomery.

The rain put a damper on some of our plans in Montgomery, but we did make quick stops at Holt Street Baptist Church (site of the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association) and First Baptist Church (Ralph Abernathy‘s church during the Montgomery Bus Boycott).

We head to Selma tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.

What Was the Nation’s First Civil Rights Monument?

Incident

From the Desmond Herzfelder’s piece at The Washington Post:

The first civil rights monument in the United States is having its diamond jubilee. The monument isn’t a temple, obelisk or sculpture. It’s a mural installed in the spring of 1942 at the entrance to the Interior Department’s basement cafeteria. The artwork, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” portrays the racially integrated audience at the Lincoln Memorial concert by the great African American singer Marian Anderson. In part, the mural reflects the racial attitudes of the era; it also conveys a radical message about civil rights that deserves a gala celebration to mark this, its 75th anniversary.

Read more here.