Author Archives: Life In Stilettos

James Baldwin

In the month of what would be James Baldwin’s 94th birthday, White Supremacists gathered in our Nation’s Capitol on the anniversary of the murder of a Civil Rights activist. Heather Heyer, a young white woman who worked for a black lawyer and thus saw racism even in the eyes, actions, and words of those clients in need of her employer’s expertise, died on the front lines of this long-fought war. In the month of his birth, James Baldwin’s words are incredibly poignant:

            Because on the American continent, they talk about the color problem, but the truth is, that no white American is sure he is white, and every American negro visibly is no longer in Africa. And we know what happened and we know who had the whip.

So it was not my grandmother who raped anybody.

            …Forget all the mountains of nonsense that has been written, and everything that has been said. Forget the negro problem- don’t write any voting acts, we had that, it’s called the 15th Amendment. We don’t need a Civil Rights Bill of 1964. What you have to look at is what is happening in this country. And what is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing that it was his brother. White men have lynched negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It is a problem whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it. (“Baldwin’s Nigger” documentary, 1965)

In 1965 Horace Ové directed a rawly open documentary, “Baldwin’s Nigger,” in which James Baldwin and Dick Gregory spoke to a room of other people of color “presenting dialogue between black people as if no white people were present” (BFI Screen Online, “Baldwin’s Nigger,” 1965). The documentary is meant to be instructional for White people, to remove the White-washing of previous discussions and debates on race in White spaces; like that found in the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley (1965). Still, Baldwin was the first to earn a standing ovation for debate at Cambridge.

The crux of the meaning of Baldwin’s words- “It is a problem whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it,” places the “negro problem” directly in the laps of those who created it, who continue to invest in it. “We have invented the nigger,” he said in the documentary Take This Hammer in 1963, “I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. … If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”

Baldwin examines the White problem of attempting to escape the responsibility of creating the “nigger” while at the same time perpetuating their stolen privilege by supporting systems of racism. To put it more straightforward and forthrightly: White people hate themselves. They hate the abject evil their families inflicted on countless other families, the descendants of which they live next to today. They are perpetually attempting to escape the consequences of their wretched past by perpetuating hate of the “nigger-“ but the “nigger” is their own invention. The “nigger” is their brother by rape. When White Americans see Black Americans they see generations of White crime, of White ignorance, of White evil. White Americans hate what they see in Black Americans- themselves; the crimes of their fathers, the crimes they continue to perpetrate and perpetuate in their callow, absurd attempt to outrun history and maintain their privilege.

In 2016 Raoul Peck directed I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished book, This House. Peck, Haitian by descent, said, “It was incredible to see. It’s happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing has changed fundamentally,” which is why Baldwin’s sales are up 110% now, and why blood that is no longer White and no longer Black will continue to spill, until White America holds itself accountable. And it will take more than one Heather Heyer to do so.

 

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Malcolm X Shabazz

The story of Malcolm X Shabazz, as his daughter, Attallah Shabazz calls him, is- well, it is embarrassingly prescient- of what has transpired since X’s assassination, and the direction we are headed in- we’ve allowed White patriarchy (the “white devil”) to separate and conquer us. We were not able to rise above by rising together. Instead, we have fractured as each group has sought to use the tools of White patriarchy to attempt to gain privilege over the other. Whenever tools of White patriarchy- white supremacy- are used, it is only White patriarchy that benefits. From his days as a hustler, X could see a fixed game from a mile away- White patriarchy is about as fixed a game as you can find.

Elijah Muhammad, whom X always viewed as his savior, even after his rift with the Nation of Islam (NOI), had employed White patriarchy in his leadership of the NOI. As X rose in prominence, to maintain personal control, Muhammad hobbled his strongest leader, in order to keep the power of the patriarchal religion in his hands. It is clear, in The Ballot or The Bullet Speech, given to two thousand people before he left on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, that X had already begun to consider the failures of requiring fealty to religion and religious leaders. At the same time, X stopped short of completely condemning Muhammad, the man whom he still saw as his savior even as he knew Muhammad had ordered his death by the NOI. Perhaps it was because X had sunk so low in his life, and had humbled himself in acknowledging how low he had become, that he was able to see his hero as human, as well; capable of even unthinkable (especially to X) grievous faults.

He saw his heroes as human- those men (and women, though it was tough for him to admit) whom he looked up to or leaned on- he exalted what he saw as their gifts and strengths, while at the same time recognizing their humanity- their own struggle to reach (or fail to reach) what they could become. A struggle X was intimately knowledgeable of; one he never gave up. A philosopher continues to question what others take for granted; even after they have studied exhaustively, they continue to question, always knowing there is more to know. X was a philosopher- he continued to question what he knew, and he continued to change what he knew to be true as he sought and learned new information. Who knows, in the end, he may have even become a feminist, as well as a Civil Rights leader! It was his intelligent flexibility and drive to find and accept new information and adjust direction, to accept the flaws of others as he valued their strengths, that made Malcolm X Shabazz the uniquely deliberate, graceful, and powerful force he was, that still reverberates through our communities today.

Removed from the NOI, and immersed in the practice of Islam on his journey to Mecca, X gained deeper perspective on the religion he thought he had known through Elijah Muhammad; and a wider perspective on how people of different races may live peacefully together. X began to “reappraise” the “white man,” clarifying, “the ‘white man’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, ‘white man’ meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley). In America, the white man had destroyed his family: murdering his father (a Civil Rights fighter as well), driving his mother to a breakdown then sending her to a mental hospital for over 25 years, and separating the children; the white man called him a n**ger and told him a n**ger couldn’t be a lawyer, jailed him for sleeping with a white woman (and robbery, though the length of the sentence was clearly a message), and consistently treated him as a threat. The “white man” had no idea just what kind of threat Malcolm X was. Elijah Muhammad knew, and had him assassinated for it.

Helen Handler, wife of M. S. Handler, an international reporter and one of few white men whom X trusted and respected, said of Malcolm after meeting him for the first time in the Handler’s home, “You know, it was like having tea with a black panther.” (This was before the Black Panther Party or the super hero existed.) M. S. Handler explained, “The black panther is an aristocrat in the animal kingdom. He is beautiful. He is dangerous. As a man, Malcolm X had the physical bearing and the inner self confidence of a born aristocrat. And he was potentially dangerous. No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price.”  Ruby Dee, as well, was awed by X’s graceful power, one of her regrets in life was muffling that power when she asked him to store his iconic rifle away during a meeting and press event in her home. Ossie Davis, her husband, who eulogized Malcolm X Shabazz, perhaps summarizes who X was to us, who he continues to be, most succinctly when he wrote: “…Malcolm kept snatching our lies away. He kept shouting the painful truth we whites and blacks did not want to hear from all the housetops. And he wouldn’t stop for love nor money” (Negro Digest, February 1966). X was good at snatching our lies away because he was constantly snatching his own lies away. No one knew better than X that he was a flawed human living among other flawed humans, that he was not always right, that knowledge is a constant and arduous task- with awesome rewards.

Our Shining Black Prince,” our black panther, our Muslim brother, our Malcolm X Shabazz left us his human story, a legacy and a battle cry (Eulogy, Ossie Davis). “All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient. … I am spending many hours,” he wrote, “because the full story is the best way that I know to have it seen and understood, that I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society…” and then he rose (Malcolm X).

 

Juneteenth, a history

On September 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, giving the Confederate states in rebellion a last chance to return to the Union, using the freeing of enslaved people behind Confederate lines as a consequence for continuing their succession. January 1, 1863, with Confederate states still in succession, President Lincoln signed the Proclamation, and executive order, freeing enslaved people in Confederate states in rebellion. The Proclamation did not free enslaved people in the slave states not in rebellion, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri (as well as what would become West Virginia), also known as the Border States; nor in non-battleground states, like Texas.

In Union-held areas in the Confederate states, enslaved people were freed the day the Proclamation went into effect. The Proclamation also ended the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed by Congress September 18th as part of the Compromise of 1850, ordering escaped enslaved people to be returned to slaveholders; now enslaved people able to escape from bondage in Confederates states were free; as long as they made it to Union territory. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, a Federal law written to enforce Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 (the Fugitive Slave Clause) of the United States Constitution, requiring return of runaway enslaved people to slaveholders. The new Fugitive Slave Act penalized officials who did not arrest and return alleged runaway enslaved people. A black person could be arrested and turned over to a slaveholder based on as little as the claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. In 1855 the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Act unconstitutional, the only high state court to do so. In 1859 the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the State court- the Fugitive Slave Clause, after all, was written into the Constitution of this country.

Lincoln’s government took a strategic march towards Emancipation. In December 1861, just over a year before he signed the Proclamation, in his first “State of the Union Address” (then referred to as an annual message, given in writing) Lincoln wrote of human rights over property rights, and supported legislation to find a solution for the contraband enslaved persons escaped from the South, hiding in the North, offering, perhaps that their freedom could be purchased from their former slaveholders with federal taxes. The monetary implications of slavery were not lost on Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who, in calling for war against the Confederate states, noted that Emancipation would ruin the economy of the Southern states, weakening their ability to succeed.

While we can cynically view Emancipation as a shrewd war strategy; given the inherent racism written into the Constitution, with the Three-Fifths Compromise (Article 1, Section 2), the Fugitive Slave Act, and the purposeful misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment- claiming enslaved people as property, and not persons with rights to life, liberty, and property, Emancipation could never have passed in peacetime. It was only in wartime, as Commander in Chief, under Article 2, Section 2: Presidential Power, that Lincoln could claim martial power to free enslaved persons, as an act of war. In less than two years after his election, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. It would take years for enslaved people to be freed.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not end the Civil War, it did not free all enslaved people. Even the end of the Civil War did not mean immediate freedom for enslaved black people. Almost two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, General Robert E. Lee’s retreat then limping surrender at Appomattox Court House April 9th, 1865 forebode the reluctant slow surrender of Confederate troops across the country. Enslaved black people remained enslaved after the end of the war until Union troops marched in to take control of Confederate-held territory. Slavery was still in practice even in some Border States after the end of the war. Delaware and Kentucky did not abolish slavery until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, December 1865. Of the other Border States, Maryland lead the way, abolishing slavery November 1, 1864. Missouri and West Virginia abolished slavery in 1865.

So freedom rolled across the United States, making its slow procession with Union troops to Texas. As Texas was not a battleground state, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to black people who escaped from Texas to a free state, or Union-held Confederate territory. Texas remained a slave state through the war, and an attractive haven for slaveholders. In 1850, 5 years after Texas was annexed, 58,000 enslaved people lived in Texas. In 1860, before the war, the number had risen to almost 183,000. By the time Union General Gordon Granger took Galveston Island, June 18th, 1865, the population of enslaved black people in Texas had swelled to 250,000.

June 19th, 1865, General Granger addressed the citizens of Texas at Galveston, and read aloud General Order No. 3, the emancipation of all people held as slaves, freeing the enslaved people in the farthest outpost of the South, and once again unifying the United States. Texas was the first state to officially established Juneteenth, June 19th, as a state holiday in 1980. In 2015, Maryland became the 43rd state to recognize June 19th as a commemorative day. Today 45 of 50 states recognize Juneteenth. Juneteenth is yet to be recognized as a United States national holiday.

 

Linda Brown

Linda Brown’s passing, March 25, 2018 at the age of 76, was widely covered by news outlets and sources. They exalted Brown as the symbol of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and shared a photograph of Brown in junior high school, when the Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools. It was fortunate Brown was not around to see that photograph- because the girl in the photo the Associated Press released to member outlets, the photo that was posted next to erroneous accountings of Brown v. Board of Education by even trusted news sources, was not Linda Brown.

“How could the life of Linda Brown, the black woman at the heart of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that declared segregated schools as unlawful, be declared, with one fell swoop, both historically significant and invisible?” Valerie Russ asks in her piece for philly.com. Childish Gambino daringly asks the same question about the dichotomy of the heavy presence of blackness in American culture and music, contrasted with the invisibility, devaluation, and exploitation of the black person in America in his latest song and music video, “This is America.”

Linda Brown, herself, had expressed feelings of being exploited as early as the late 1970’s. The Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation unconstitutional came May 7th, 1954, 105 years after the first case against segregated schools was fought (and lost) in 1849. Brown was 8 years old when the NAACP convinced her reluctant father, Oliver Brown, to join 12 other parents in the suit against the Board of Education of Topeka. Oliver Brown was assigned as lead plaintiff, being the only male plaintiff named in the Topeka suit. Thus Linda Brown, his daughter became the symbol of the NAACP’s fight against segregation, but more importantly the fight against “separate but equal,” the ultimate target of the NAACP. Her identity became that of all black children oppressed by segregation and “separate but equal.” As Brown grew into the Civil Rights activist that reopened the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka with the ACLU in 1979 (winning in the Court of Appeals in 1993), her actual activism was overshadowed by her public image, frozen in time as the 8 year old girl whose father championed her rights to an education equal to that of her white peers.

Another part of Brown’s often misreported story were the complex dynamics of segregated schools in Topeka and across the states. Black Topekans were not all in support of desegregation, in fact, most were against it. Brown described her school, Monroe Elementary School as a “very nice facility, being very well-kept” (Eyes on the Prize Interviews, 10/26/1985). The four all-black elementary schools in Topeka were considered comparable in resources, facilities, and curricula to all-white schools. And all-black schools also had black teachers. Teachers who were personally interested and invested in their pupils’ success. Not so at the integrated junior- and high schools, where black students were largely ignored, if not ostracized by white teachers. Today many black students continue to suffer from being ignored or disregarded, or infantilized by self-promoting “white saints.” Integrated junior- and high schools may have been more convenient for students to get to (the argument for desegregation for Oliver Brown personally centered on the fact Linda had to cross train tracks to travel an hour by bus to the all-black school), but they did not find the same educational support as they had at their all-black elementary schools, a pattern that would continue through generations to stunt the educational growth of black students and negatively impact their ability to compete with their white counterparts in the workforce.

But we don’t talk about these complex issues of blackness in America, and we interchange a photo of one black girl for another. This is America.

brownpic

Edwina Hudson Smith Moss

There is not a lot written about Edwina Hudson Smith Moss. There’s not even a Wikipedia page. Yet, Moss worked for the first Executive Directors (first Wyatt Tee Walker, then Andrew Young) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1961 – 1966. She sat in on strategy sessions, and with the other women of the movement, she took notes, and planned and implemented the organization needed to carry forth the movement. But when you google Edwina Moss (or any combination of her names), you find a sentence or two about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr officiating the wedding between Edwina Hudson Smith and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr, and perhaps about the children they had. You find two clips on YouTube of Edwina Moss talking about leaders of the movement- And that was just about it, until now. What follows is a short history of Moss’ work with SCLC, gained from a phone interview April 4, 2018.

Edwina Hudson was born in Atlanta GA, and while her family lived in the housing projects, University Homes was located in the middle of Clark College, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, “where it was like a playground,” Moss explains, “I was in a very supportive and educational environment. …That was my early life. Being exposed.” Education and the Church were the cornerstones of Moss’ childhood. When her mother and father broke up when she was 13 or 14, and she moved to Vallejo CA, the racism she was exposed to in that city led her to join the Youth Council of the local NAACP chapter, and become its President, building supervision and direction.

Edwina Hudson Smith moved back to Atlanta GA after a failed marriage and the birth of her first child. She took a job working for her uncle’s insurance company, Alexander & Co., where she met Wyatt Tee Walker, the Executive Director of SCLC, whose offices were in the building owned by Moss’ uncle’s company. Walker would pick up SCLC’s mail from the insurance company’s office, and, after a short time asked Moss to come work for the SCLC. Moss recalls attending a rally “where the students were really upset with the adult community” over an agreement with a local department store. “The place was packed,” Moss recalled, “students were hanging off the rafters- and when [MLK] walked in, and started talking, the whole church calmed down. And he was the only speaker who was able to redirect the anger in that crowd. And it was after that that I went to work for the organization.”

Moss focuses on her “strong feeling about unfairness, and racism” gained in her girlhood as her impetus for working with SCLC. “I guess I was kind of a militant from a little girl,” she said. “When I look back on it,” she explained, “it seems like the natural order of my life, and I didn’t necessarily make the decisions to do what I did- it must have been a part of me. Being around a grandmother, who started a school in Atlanta, and also was very militant, and so was my mother. So I think it was just the natural order of things.” What also came naturally was the kinship between the women who made the backbone of the Civil Rights movement. Women like Jean Young, Elizabeth Knox Blackwell, Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker were the organizers, logistics experts, sometimes the spokespeople. And all the while, they were also the support group knitting the families and the movement together, stepping in to care for each other’s children as naturally as it was necessary. “So it was like a family, a close-knit family, to all of us. That was our survival.”

“It really brought me back to the Church,” Moss said of her work with SCLC, “…listening to the real meaning of the life of Jesus. And then, getting in an environment with a Martin Luther King Jr, who didn’t just talk about it, he was implementing it- this non-violence. That was what, I think, drew me into the center of the organization.” Her relationship with the Church brought her something else, as well, “It led me to the marry the man I am married to today- which has been the greatest blessing of my life. What is it? 50… 52 years this year. I have to stop and add up!” Otis had that one quality Edwina prized above all- “a person with the same spirit of a Martin Luther King Jr. Steeped in the holy issue of non-violence.”

 

The full transcript of the phone interview April 4, 2018 for the Johns Hopkins Black Faculty Staff Association Newsletter follows:

My question is actually about what brought you to work in Civil Rights, what brought you to work for the SCLC?

I don’t know whether I need to start early in my life, or at the very point of going to work for the organization. But to give you a little bit of background, I was born in Atlanta Georgia- and I am going to say this, a lot of this will not be relevant, but you will be able to listen to it, and decide what information is critical, important, would be good to know, for the article- But, I was born in Atlanta, which was really a very different time to be one of these folks, with many many young people who grew up in the South. And I was born in the 30’s. At that time, I lived in an area- I lived in the housing projects, University Homes, right in the middle of Clark College, Morehouse College, Spelman College, where it was like a playground for me. I was in a very supportive educational environment. And I went to Spelman Nursery School. That was my early life. Being exposed.

And a Church- Wheat Street Baptist Church, with the Rev. William Holmes Borders, who would invite people in to speak, like a Mary McLeod or Lillian Smith, who wrote Strange Fruit, a white woman, and Du Bois, and as a kid, these are the kinds of voices I heard. With the messages coming from these kinds of voices. And all of that has an impact on you over time. I was in a family that really valued being a part of an educational community. And I see that in really a kind of a backdrop of giving me strength.

And my mother and father broke up when I was about 13 or 14 years old, and we moved to a little town in California called Vallejo – it’s spelled VALLEJO, it’s spelled like Valley-Joe, but it’s really Vah-le-ho- And it was a very different kind of community, very racist, and my experience in that town was not a good experience. And I got involved with the Youth Council of the NAACP, and became president of that Youth Council. It was very good; I built supervision and direction. Even going to some retreats with leaders like, Franklin Williams- you may never have head of some of these names, but these were key people, early on in my life, who took me in, and kind of mentored me.

Well, I later, after a failed marriage and a child, I moved back to Atlanta GA, and I went to work for my uncle who owned an insurance company, Alexander & Co. They were a very well-off part of my family. They were considered black millionaires of the South. He owned an insurance company, and I went to work for him. And working there, he owned a building- the insurance company owned the building- and Wyatt Tee Walker was the Executive Director of SCLC, and he would come in our office and pick up SCLC’s mail every day. And one day he approached me, and asked if I would come to work for SCLC. Well that was really the beginning of my relationship.

I had heard of Dr King when I first went back to Atlanta. I went to a rally where the students were really upset with the adult community because they felt that they had agreed to something with the Rich’s Department store and they were not happy about it. That was my first observation of Dr. King. And I saw how he managed those students. The place was packed, students were hanging off the rafters- and when he walked in, and started talking, the whole church calmed down. And he was the only speaker who was able to redirect the anger in that crowd. And it was after that that I went to work for the organization, working for Wyatt Tee Walker who was the Executive Director of SCLC. Wyatt later left and moved to NY. In the meantime, Andy Young came to SCLC, and he became the Executive Director, and I worked with Andrew Young, until I married and left the organization in 66, before Dr. King was murdered.

So that was my introduction into the organization, and my responsibility was working with Andrew Young, who was the number 2, just like working with Wyatt- the number 2 person. So I was in on many of the meetings. I would travel with the organization -not on all trips- but on many. To Birmingham, to Albany CA, down to Florida, St Augustine; because they needed staff to work with them at that time. And there were a couple of us that went in order to help with news releases, keep in contact with the staff- so you are really a part of the core- the intimate part of the organization- so that’s how I got involved.

I don’t consider myself one of those brave soldiers who got out and marched, even though I did in St Augustine- which was one of the worst experiences of my life! But, that is my entry into the organization and I worked there from 61 until 66, when I got married.

 

Why was it important for you to go to work for SCLC?

Well, that’s why I wanted to give you the backdrop- I had, I guess, a strong feeling about unfairness, and racism, because all the experiences that I had had in Vallejo CA- we had to challenge them because they were painful, and I didn’t like it. I guess I was kind of a militant from a little girl- and wanted to challenge what was, and wondering why it had to be. So this was really predictable, even though at that time, none of that was my design. It wasn’t something that I figured out. When I look back on it, however, it seems like the natural order of my life, and I didn’t necessarily make the decisions to do what I did- it must have been a part of me. Being around a grandmother, who started a school in Atlanta, and also was very militant, and so was my mother. So I think it was just the natural order of things. And why I chose it- if I had to think about it- at that time, I probably would not have- because of the danger- because my family was not happy about it. They thought it was too dangerous, because I had a child, from my first marriage, and he was just a year old. You know, mothers are supposed to be at home with their kids- because, what kind of life would your child have, if you weren’t going to come back?

 

And how would you answer them, when that was their question?

You know, I really don’t know… I can’t think of any way of really answering then. I guess I didn’t answer them. Because I kept doing what I was doing. Because I guess they were afraid for me. Not knowing sometimes, I was afraid for me, too. But, I think they were afraid. And they just felt that I should be at home. And I was at home. My child was with me. I just didn’t take him whenever I went on these trips.

I had a very good friend- Fortunately, I had a very close relationship with Jean Young, Andy young’s wife. We were very close. Like sisters. And whenever I had to travel- because my son was very close to their family, he would stay there.

 

That’s what a lot of women do today- they find partnerships, where they can lean on each other for childcare.

All of us did that. All of us did that. We had a guy with the organization, his name was Blackwell, and his wife- it was the same thing. Whenever I had to work late, one of them would see to it that he was picked up from the nursery school. So it was like a family, a close-knit family, to all of us. That was our survival.

 

So women, even while they were in the background, where very much a backbone to the movement, for that reason?

Without a doubt. And they weren’t necessarily in the background- I think the media, the way it views stuff, often, they miss where the real strength is. Jean Young was a very powerful woman. Quiet. And so was Coretta Scott King. And so was Juanita Abernathy. And we had a woman on the staff; Dorothy Cotton from Ithaca NY, now- she ran our citizenship education program along with Septima Clark, who was from South Carolina. And those women were very important in helping to develop strategies around voting. They were the ones who had to organize. The men just- everybody focused on them- but the people doing the work were the women.

And I think it was because of the time- you know, you live in your time, and you do the best you can. But I don’t think there were many women who wanted to be out front- Ella Baker did- but many of them- being in the role where they could organize, put together news releases, pamphlets that needed to be produced so they could be distributed among the staff- Somebody had to do that. And that was part of my job, working with the field staff.

 

So, were you in more of like a director sort of role?

No. I was in a supportive role, and as the assistant to first Wyatt Walker, secondly Andrew Young.

 

So, you were organizing—

I organized – when I sat in with Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Andrew Young, Randolph Blackwell- when they would sit, I would sit in along with them, and make strategies. And my job, along with some of the other women- it was our job to put it on paper. To get the letters out. To do whatever. And that is a lot of work. That’s not front page work.

 

You did a lot of implementation behind the scenes?

I wouldn’t say implementation. Because the implementation really was done by Dr. King, Wyatt, and Andrew Young. They were the ones in the forefront. We just gave them the kind of support system that was necessary for them to do what they did.

 

Would you say that you naturally excelled at providing that sort of support? …How some people have natural abilities, like they are very artistic, or very musical, or they are very good with numbers or money- maybe other people are very good at providing this type of support, at being able to come up with the organizational details you need to make things happen…

I think so. I think so. When we would have our national convention, it was my task- they didn’t ask me- because a lot of things– We were working in the moment, because none of us had a play book on how this was to be done. There was no direction. Every day was a new day. And, I developed a pamphlet, an organizational tool on how to run a convention. It was just coming to me as I did it, and recorded it with groups, so we would have something to follow- How to get the mail out, How to get the registration done, How to communicate with people who were coming into the city, How to handle when the FBI came in, asking a lot of questions- How do you handle that? Who’s responsible for it? That kind of thing. But in terms of doing the strategy of whether or not they were going out to get the young people to come and participate in the marches in Birmingham- that was our field staff, like James Bevel and those who were out there in the community every day.

 

What was your favorite part of working for SCLC?

It really brought me back to the Church. Which I consider important. Because I had not really developed an appreciation for the Church. When you are in college- a lot of times, all that stuff- you push that in another direction. But, being exposed to many of the leaders in the movement- really, it’s like finding your home of where you’re supposed to be. Like I said, I was probably a militant all my life, but I was comfortable in Wheat Street under a Rev. Borders and listening to the messages about the real meaning of the life of Jesus. And then, getting in an environment with a Martin Luther King Jr, who didn’t just talk about it, he was implementing it- this non-violence. That was what, I think, drew me into the center of the organization.

 

How did you then use that newfound experience with religion through the rest of your life?

Well, it led me to marry the man I am married to today- which has been the greatest blessing of my life. What is it? …52 years this year. I have to stop and add up! It’s been since 66. And, a person with the same spirit of a Martin Luther King Jr. Steeped in the holy issue of non-violence.

And being able to work with a Jesse Jackson- I was on the staff with Jesse, I gave notes to Jesse, a lot- because he was in Chicago, he was running action in an out, I had to commune with them. Plus, there were the checks and everything that needed to get paid- so I was there. Be sure and tell Jesse I was responsible for him.

 

We really covered a lot. If there is anything you would like to add-

The only thing that I can say- that this was one of the greatest experiences in my life. And I wish every young person could have, number 1, the exposure to the mind of a Martin Luther King Jr, the mind of a Andrew Young, the mind of a rebel like James Bevel, the mind of an organizer like Jesse Jackson. If they just had that expose, they would see life in a different way. And make them very determined to change things. And to not be fooled.

 

Can I ask you one more question now, based off that response? What would you say to all those kids who are now, I guess, kind of becoming their own Martin Luther King, as they are really stepping into the leadership positions of protesting, whether it is BLM, or gun control and school safety?

I love it, I love it, I LOVE IT! I love IT!! I think it’s absolutely wonderful! And I sit up and I watch it them tv and sit and clap in the room by myself! And say, thank God! They are coming up- popping up out of the ground!

 

What would your advice to them be?

Not to give up, but to stay non-violent. Because they are putting people in the midst of those young people- who will do anything to create confusion. That is the way opposition works. And they did it to us. Many many times.

 

What’s the best way to combat that? How do we keep that from really affecting us?

I don’t have an answer to that. I really don’t know. I wish I did. That would be really important. But, you can talk to people- oftentimes they don’t understand. And, then, it’s -you know- a sign of the times, it doesn’t seem like you all can get fixed up the way we were able to get fixed up. You know, you have to use different strategies, but I think the violent way is just not the way. I feel strongly about that. Because I have seen what it does to the organization- I saw what they tired to do with Dr. King. And you just don’t want to see that. You have to keep your ears propped up, your eyes open, your heart open, your head alert, because it will come from every direction.

 

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs published the original #metoo in 1860, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Following on the heels of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Jacobs knew the real challenge in writing her story, the first Woman’s Slave Narrative written, would be to be believable to the white women of the North- her intended audience. She feared writing the full truth of the sexual predation she and other slave women had endured would only make white women view her as reaching for sympathy she didn’t deserve- she feared victim blaming. “There are some things that I might have made plainer I know… I have left nothing out but what I thought the world might believe that a Slave Woman was too willing to pour out—that she might gain their sympathies” Jacobs wrote to abolitionist Quaker Amy Post upon completing “Incidents” in 1860. (Harriet A. Jacobs, docsouth.unc.edu)

Perhaps because of her relationships with white women abolitionists, like Post, and Lydia Maria Child, who would edit “Incidents,” Jacobs knew well the minefield she was tip-toeing through in recounting how slave owner Dr. James Norcom pursued her through his home beginning when she was 15 years old. Norcom preferred to attempt to coerce Jacobs into acquiescing to his desires, which he would whisper into Jacobs’ ear as she attempted to complete her work in the Norcom house. She lived under the constant threat of knowing, at any time, Norcom could become bored with his games, and simply rape her, if he wanted. And it would be her fault, as the exotic savage tempting her good white owner. It wouldn’t matter that she had constantly rebuffed his advances and avoided being anywhere near him. Her escape became another white man, a local lawyer whom Jacobs found a taste of freedom with- in making her choice of lover. She hoped, also, the lawyer would buy her physical freedom, or at least that of the two children they shared. A hope that would go unfulfilled.

Jacobs was well educated by Margaret Horniblow, the woman who had owned her and her mother. Before her mother died, Jacobs was blissfully unaware, as she recalled, of her status as a slave. She lived happily with her family on the Horniblow property, and her education was overseen by Margaret. At age six, Jacobs’ mother died, and she officially became the property of Margaret, who continued to educate Jacobs, until Margaret’s death, just six years after Jacobs lost her mother. At age 12, Jacobs entered the Norcom home as the willed house girl to Horniblow’s 3 year old niece. Because Jacobs had been educated, she was well aware of the precarious nature of her life at that time; and years later, preparing to publish “Incidents,” she was painfully aware of how the pious society of white women of the North would receive a story of two white men lusting after a young black girl.

She had anticipated her audience well. In 1860, it was easier for her white counterparts to focus on Jacobs’ unwavering determination applied to freeing her people, and then educating freedmen, rather than recall her history with her white owners and lover, and her accounts of the treatment of other women held as slaves at the hands of their white women owners; which were cruel beyond contemplation. Indeed, while “Incidents” was a great motivator in both the States and Europe to end slavery, and Jacobs herself was active in gaining strength and support for the Civil War in the North, her story would not be published again until more than 100 years after the initial publication, in 1973.

Jacobs would have two children by Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the lawyer whom she allied herself with as protection against Norcom. Undeterred by her relationship with Sawyer, Norcom continued to pursue Jacobs, and she continued to thwart his advances. In 1835, 10 years after her arrival, Norcom threatened to send Jacobs and her children to work on his plantation, for the children to be “broke-in” to punish Jacobs. Anticipating Norcom would no longer be a threat to her children if she disappeared, Jacobs made Norcom believe she had run away. Jacobs asked Sawyer to buy his children from Norcom, and to emancipate the children as soon as he could. He bought his children, he did not emancipate them. For 7 years Jacobs lived in a crawl space over a porch storeroom in her grandmother’s home, keeping an eye on her children, hiding from Norcom, until she was finally able to escape North.

10 years after her escape North, Jacobs found both her children and brought them to live with her in Boston, close to the home of her abolitionist employer, and the man who would finally emancipate her, Nathaniel Parker Willis. After the publication of “Incidents” and the end of the war, 5 years later, in 1865, Jacobs and her daughter, Louisa, would go on to open a school for freedmen in Alexandria, VA. Jacobs continued to be active in Reconstruction Era relief work as long as she could, even returning to volunteer in the town in which she had lived as a slave. Jacobs died a free woman in DC in 1897.

Jacobs understood the value of education in navigating a world built to use, abuse, and erase you. A world willing only to peek at its darkness before hiding it again for 100 years. A world that invests in and profits from victim blaming and silence. Education is our weapon to break the silence, to face the darkness, and emerge from the ashes, together.

 

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Alex Haley

Alex Haley never suffered from writer’s block. Indeed, he would often write two books at a time, switching between them as his inspiration, or frenetic energy dictated. It was isolation he sought as he boarded cargo ships years after his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959 as the first Chief Petty Officer Journalist- a rating created in recognition of his literary skill. The Coast Guard now awards the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award annually. Though Haley did not enter the Coast Guard as a journalist.

Haley began following in his father’s (a professor of Agriculture at Alabama A&M) footsteps, enrolling in Alcorn State University at age 15. But a year later he transferred to Elizabeth City State and at 17 he withdrew from college. At 18 Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 20 years, developing his writing career between cooking leftovers. A career that began with drafting love letters for his fellow guardsmen, whom he referred to as his clients. Portentous of his later work with Malcolm X, Haley would take notes while talking with his “clients” and the next day draw inspiration from the sea as he wrote what he described as “successful” letters for the guardsmen.

When he wasn’t writing, Haley was reading. He luxuriated in the writing of the great men of his time. James Baldwin “could take a comma and make it crack like a black snake whip,” he said during his 1991 University of Washington’s Upon Reflections Interview, “Digging up the Root of ‘Roots.'” He went on to talk about Hemingway; “you felt the fish bite.” Haley would come face to face with one of these great men.

Upon leaving the Coast Guard, Haley was determined to become a writer. He wrote letters to the writers whom he was most influenced by, asking them for help, advice, some direction to set him down the right path. James Baldwin lived 8 blocks from Haley at the time, and he walked down to Haley’s modest home, which became more so to Haley as he sat across from this great man. Baldwin settled in and spoke with Haley as if they were old friends, which, years later they would indeed become. Up to his death, Haley was diligent in replying to young writers’ requests for advice, passing along the invaluable favor he once hungrily received from Baldwin.

Haley is best known for “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” His novel about his family’s history which became a ground-breaking mini-series with 130 million viewers, in 1977. “You don’t try to top it,” he said, “you become a spectator” after you send off the manuscript. He was sincerely humbled by his own work- by the value his fellow citizens found in it. Of course, that doesn’t preclude him from his own opinion; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, ” he said, “was much better written, from a professional point of view.” Haley wrote X’s Autobiography from notes from 50 interviews, a couple to several hours a piece.

He also interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for Playboy; the longest interview Dr. King granted any publication or media outlet. Haley had previously made history with Playboy, writing the first interview for the publication; on Miles Davis, in 1962. Haley made a career of interviews and compiling histories. His earnest approach to personal histories encouraged those around him to grant him access. He became friends with his hero, James Baldwin, and he also became intimate with both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Haley said of the two men, “They were two dear friends in that time, him, Malcolm X, and Dr. King. …The two were so similar, had you given either the other’s background, they would have become the other.”

It was this earnest interest in telling the stories of our people that propelled Haley toward greatness with “Roots.” “‘Roots’ really was about a family. And that was- it seems to me- the common denominator that made it universal.” When a book could trace a black family that far back, he said, it challenged others to trace theirs. Haley described “Roots” as providing “understanding” of the Black experience, rather than “empathy.” “The timing was absolutely a major part,” he said. By 1976 the country had been exposed to what was happening, to the effects of racism, people were ready conceptually, he explained. “People were subdued, both black and white, by what ‘Roots’ portrayed,” Haley explained, they became more interested in finding common ground. In 1991, he observed that the people had “been deluded- in historical terms.”

17 years after 1991, perhaps, in remembering Alex Haley, we should do our part in undoing our delusion, and seek out our own histories and find our way to understanding each other again.