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Rising Tide X Is Aug. 29, Tenth Anniversary of Katrina

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

DeRay Mckesson, Social Justice Activist, Is Keynote Speaker

We are registered and all kinds of psyched for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference—“the premier annual new media conference in the GulfSouth”—to be held on Sat., Aug. 29, at Xavier University in New Orleans. Admission is free,  and the lineup is great. Check it out.

The keynote speaker will be civil rights activist (detail of) DeRay Mckesson Sid Hastings:for WDeRay Mckesson, a former school administrator recently profiled by The New York Times Magazine for his organizing genius in using Twitter and other social media to publicize police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Charleston, and beyond, and in popularizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Rising Tide organizer Mark Moseley says Mckesson is “at the forefront of an innovative digital movement to expose and resist systems of racial oppression.” (More about DeRay Mckesson and the NYT profile below.)

Another guest speaker we’re eager to hear—we met him at an RTX planning meeting in May—is former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin, author of the new Katrina: After the Flood, recently published by Simon & Schuster. Rivlin has been praised by Nathaniel Rich as “a sharp observer and a dogged reporter . . . unerringly compassionate toward his subjects.”

Panel Discussions on Environment, Transportation, and Schools

RTX poster from RT-FB.bIn the great Rising Tide tradition, there will be informative talks on such perennial concerns as the environment, and education, and transportation in New Orleans.

The environment panel—of keen interest to this blog—will be moderated by Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (based in Lafayette) and including Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Bob Marshall (now of The Lens, formerly of The Times-Picayune) and Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. (Click here to see Anne Rolfes and Bob Marshall at Rising Tide 6 in 2011, commenting on the BP oil spill.)

The talk about transportation around New Orleans—“a conversation about how New Orleans makes infrastructure an obstacle course”—will be moderated by Megan B. Capone of Public Transit Tuesdays, with Dan Favre of Bike Easy, Rachel Heiligman of Ride NOLA, Jeff Januszek of Fix My Streets, and Amanda Soprano from #NOLATwitter.

The education panel, “Education in New Orleans: The Next 10 Years,” is moderated by Dr. Andre Perry, columnist and 2014’s keynote speaker, and brings together Amanda Aiken, principal of Crocker Elementary; Sharon Clark, principal of Sophie B. Wright Charter School; Karran Harper Royal, parent advocate; Jamar MckNeely, CEO of the Inspire Network; Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent, Recovery School District; and Lamont Douglass, parent and PTA member at Wilson Elementary.

Among other attractions, BrassyBrown.com—“Where women of color are first in line”—presents Black Women Writers, “10 Writers for 10 Years”; Cynthia Joyce, editor of the new anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina; Scott Sternberg talks politics; and Dr. Beth Blankenship surveys social services and domestic violence issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there’s much more. See the Rising Tide blog for further details about the program and the participants, how to register—it’s free—and more.

Click here for Levees Not War’s live-blogging and other coverage of Rising Tide, since 2007.

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Johnetta Elzie & DeRayMckessonNYTMag

More about DeRay McKesson

In a profile of Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie in The New York Times Magazine (shown at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse in St. Louis) titled “Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us,” Jay Caspian Kang writes about the protests in Baltimore following the death-by-police of 25-year-old Freddie Gray:

One protester was DeRay Mckesson, a 29-year-old former school administrator who has spent much of the past nine months attending and catalyzing such protests, from Ferguson, Mo., last summer and fall, to New York City and Milwaukee in December, to North Charleston, S.C., in April. Mckesson, who is from Baltimore, had returned to his hometown not long after Gray’s death to join the protests. . . .

Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists [including Johnetta Elzie] have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media—the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos—with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mckesson and Elzie have helped launch the National Police Violence Map at MappingPoliceViolence.org, a collection of data on police violence fatalities—at least 197 black people have been killed by police so far in 2015—for which they were honored with the PEN New England 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award.

Rising Tide has had many distinguished keynote speakers over the years, solid authorities on all kinds of important subjects—from historian John M. Barry and and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré  to actor Harry Shearer and Treme creator David Simon—but this year’s guest speaker may be one of the most compelling yet. Mckesson will certainly bring a brave and passionate commitment to social justice and a can-do spirit about democracy that we all need to hear.

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Click here for links to previous Rising Tide posts here at Levees Not War. We’ve been going, as often as possible, since 2007, and we hope to see you there.

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Top photo of DeRay Mckesson by Sid Hastings for The Washington Post. Rising Tide X illustration by Varg. Photograph of DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie by Christaan Felber for The New York Times Magazine.

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Honoring Rev. King, Recommending “Selma”

Monday, January 19th, 2015

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“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.

“The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishing of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.” 

—“Our God Is Marching On!”, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965

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Selma: A Hard-Won Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

We inserted the advance-screening disc of the new film Selma into the DVD player last night with some trepidation, hoping to like the film, but fearing it would be heavy-handed, simplistic, or possibly loose with the facts, but to our great relief we found it to be none of these. Selma is really good, and we highly recommend it.

The film is focused on a significant turning point in the long Civil Rights movement, when, in February and March 1965, activists decided to make Selma, Alabama, the place to dramatize black disenfranchisement. Of 15,000 potential black voters in Selma, 325 were registered, compared to 9,300 of 14,000 eligible whites. The county sheriff, James G. “Jim” Clark Jr., was a known hothead who wore a lapel pin reading “Never.” Activists knew they could rely on him to overreact and escalate the situation.

The activists’ goal was to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery (once the capital of the Confederacy). The 54-mile march would take them along route 80, the Jefferson Davis Highway. On March 7, some 600 marchers were driven back by police and troopers with tear gas, nightsticks, and bullwhips from crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River. Seventeen people were hospitalized. A second attempt, joined by King, was aborted. The third march was successful. Some 3,200 left Selma on March 21; four days later, 25,000 arrived in Montgomery. (The excerpts above are from King’s speech to the marchers after they had reached their destination.)

Selma_posterThe persistence of the civil rights activists in Selma—aided by televised images of horrifying police brutality against peaceful demonstrators—led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act may sound familiar: it was recently eviscerated by five conservatives on the United States Supreme Court on the dubious grounds that federal, legal protections of voting rights for minorities are no longer needed. (See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past” LNW 6/26/13.)

About the Film

David Oyelowo’s performance is strong and steady—he portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallible human being—and the supporting cast of actors playing Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), John Lewis (Stephan James), the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are convincing and well cast. One strength of the film is that it shows a hard-working and committed network of activists, sometimes in conflict, of which King was the leader, but, naturally, not everyone always agreed with his priorities or methods.

Some good dramatic tension is shown in repeated disputes between members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56), of which King and Abernathy and others of their generation were leaders, and the younger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “snick”), which played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington and Freedom Summer (1964). Some of the younger activists had lost patience with King’s insistence on nonviolence—particularly after the murders and beatings by white supremacists during Freedom Summer—and some accused him of Uncle Tomism and derided him behind his back as “de Lawd.” A less impatient member of SNCC was its chairman, John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.). At Selma on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, his skull was fractured by an officer’s nightstick; the scars are still visible.

One weakness in the film was needlessly inflicted by the difficult Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. estate (his children, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice). The producers of this film—including Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film—were not allowed to use direct quotations of King’s speeches. “The intellectual property wasn’t available to us,” said the film’s director, Ava Duvernay. Thus, David Oyelowo must paraphrase what King said. And many of his speeches are hotter, more radical sounding—more like Malcolm X (who also makes an appearance in Selma)—than the more polished and scripture-infused oratory of the historical Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

We cannot imagine what harm could be done by allowing the producers of a film that honestly, admiringly portrays the courageous work of Rev. King to use his words. (Perhaps the heirs were displeased by the film’s not hiding—but not depicting, either—the fact of their father’s extramarital affairs.) Even with the formidable influence of Oprah Winfrey, who must have tried to persuade the heirs to allow use of his words, perhaps the price demanded was too high, but in any case permission to quote the civil rights leader was not granted.

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Historians, too, have questioned the film’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as obstinate, delaying, more of an obstacle than an ally, who insists on doing things on his own schedule of political convenience. Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson is good, however, and even if the film’s depiction is contrary to some historical facts, the president’s obstinacy is not extreme, and in the end he bows to the forces of history on the march. (The photo above shows MLK, LBJ, and activists Whitney Young and James Farmer in the Oval Office in 1964 before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Historian William Manchester records the kind of federal assistance the real LBJ sent after Alabama governor George Wallace asked for help in protecting all the outside agitators (including many clergy) who were pouring in in response to MLK’s invitation to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery:

[LBJ] complied by sending 1,863 federalized national guardsmen, 250 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, two regular Army MP battalions, demolition experts to search the roads and bridges ahead of those making the hike, and helicopters to hover overhead. In addition, the hikers were provided with huge tents for overnight stops, a 600-gallon water truck, latrine trucks, ambulances, trucks for rubbish, and scout cars to set up campsites in advance. 

—William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (p. 1060)

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Selma to Montgomery in Photographs

Two excellent photo portfolios are A Long March into History: Stephen Somerstein Photos in ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ in The New York Times and “The Long Road,” photographs by Steve Schapiro in The New Yorker online.

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More about Civil Rights at Levees Not War:

Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past (6/26/13)

The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South (7/11/13)

Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer (6/26/14)

Marching on Washington for Economic and Social Justice (8/29/13)

Read All About the 1963 March on Washington (8/27/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica (6/12/13)

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street (1/16/12)

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance (1/6/12)

. . . or just click MLK

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Color photograph above, showing David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma (2014). Black-and-white photographs below by Stephen Somerstein, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. The first photo shows John Lewis of SNCC, center, and, behind him to his right, Andrew Young of the SCLC (later U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta). Click on any picture to see a ten-photo slideshow. “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein” is on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 19, 2015.

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Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1950)

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On the night of the Mississippi GOP primary runoff between U.S. senator Thad Cochran and state senator Chris McDaniel, PBS aired Freedom Summer, a powerful American Experience documentary of the summer of 1964. Fifty years ago, on the invitation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), some 700 college students, mostly white and mostly from the North, volunteered to work in Mississippi to register black people to vote and to teach children and adults. The contrast, and the overlaps and continuities, between Tuesday’s election and 1964’s Freedom Summer are striking.

Many Americans do not know that in the early 1960s black people in Mississippi (though not only in Mississippi) risked being murdered simply for registering to vote. At the least, they could be fired from their jobs or driven from their homes. At the time, only 7 percent of the African American population of Mississippi was registered to vote, compared to about 50 to 70 percent in other southern states. Cochran won, but McDaniel has not conceded. It was widely reported before the election that the Cochran campaign realized they must appeal to Democratic voters, which in Mississippi means primarily black voters, to come out and vote for longtime senator Cochran. Mississippi has open primaries, which means that anyone of any party can vote for any candidate. The McDaniel supporters—mostly Tea Party conservatives who regard Cochran as a Democrat-like sell-out—are furious, and some are urging a break from the Republican Party, which they see as not much different from the Democratic Party.

Is It OK to Vote in Another Party’s Primary?

We confess to having some misgivings about the idea of large numbers of citizens who usually vote for one party getting involved in a primary election organized by a different party. We did not like it when, apparently, GOP operatives were behind the 2010 candidacy of an unemployed African American veteran in a senate primary in South Carolina ultimately won by Jim De Mint; this unemployed veteran’s candidacy drew Democratic votes away from other, more serious Democratic contenders. (Then–House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat, also found the whole affair very suspicious.) In short, Republicans have played so many dirty tricks on each other and on Democrats over the years that we have no sympathy when fair play brings about a result that displeases one of their candidates. (And, anyway, the McDaniel campaign was behind the sneak-in photographing of elderly Mrs. Cochran in a nursing home for an anti-Cochran video—in connection with which a Tea Party activist has now committed suicide—and just after the June 3 primary several McDaniel supporters were found after hours in the Hinds County Courthouse where the ballots were kept; that still has not been explained.)

In any case, though, it strikes us as reasonable that in a state with an open primary law, which allows any registered voter to give their ballot to any candidate they choose, to vote against a candidate who one has reason to believe will be harmful to oneself or one’s state. It was clear that McDaniel would not continue the flow of federal funding that Thad Cochran has succeeded in bringing to the very poor state of Mississippi, which needs all the money it can get for better roads, schools, water purification systems, and the like. An anti-government Tea Party firebrand like McDaniel somehow did not instill the same confidence as the 36-year veteran of the Senate. So, if you legally could, why not vote against him?

As reported in Talking Points Memo, McDaniel said, “Naturally sometimes it’s difficult to contest an election, obviously, but we do know that 35,000 Democrats crossed over. And we know many of those Democrats did vote in the Democratic primary just three weeks ago which makes it illegal.”

Who Is This Chris McDaniel?

chris mcdanielMany Democrats voted in the primary runoff to keep a Tea Party Republican from replacing a traditional conservative (but comparatively moderate) Republican who at least believes that government can play a beneficial role in public life. McDaniel said he was not sure he would have voted for federal relief funding after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in late August 2005. He has pointed out that education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. This time last year McDaniel delivered the keynote address at a gathering in Jackson, Miss., of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that contends that the wrong side won the Civil War. A spokesman for the group said McDaniel has addressed the Sons of Confederate Veterans on other occasions as well. Mr. McDaniel is certainly free to address any group he pleases, at any time, but what does this affinity of his say about someone who seeks to represent an entire state in the nation’s capital? It seems to us that he is more likely to be anti-government, certainly unfriendly to the concept of the federal government, and will have pro-secessionist inclinations. How well would such a person “play with others” in an institution whose work, at least historically, calls for occasional cooperation and compromise? And—just one more question—how sympathetic can such a friend of the Confederate Sons be to the aims of Freedom Summer?

Red State Republicans ‘Free at Last’

“The Court’s finding reflects well on the progress states like Mississippi have made over the last five decades.  I think our state can move forward and continue to ensure that our democratic processes are open and fair for all without being subject to excessive scrutiny by the Justice Department.”Senator Thad Cochran, June 25, 2013

Freedom Summer handshakeAlmost exactly one year to the day after the Supreme Court narrow-mindedly struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and thus opened the way for new restrictions on likely Democratic voters in the former Confederacy—which GOP-led legislatures in southern states began taking advantage of by introducing new voter I.D. laws and other restrictions on the very day the ruling was issued—a Republican candidate finds himself depending on the votes of the very people his party has worked so assiduously to discourage from the polls. Because the mostly white Republican voter base is increasingly a minority, the party must find ways to prevent the other side from going to the polls in substantial numbers.

[ See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past,” LNW 6/26/13  •  “How Many White Folks Does It Take to Pass a Jim Crow ‘Brain-Teaser’?” LNW 6/30/13  •  and “The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South,” LNW 7/11/13. ]

Now, Mr. Cochran, Stand Up for Voting Rights Act’s Protections

New York Times editorial, “Thad Cochran’s Debt to Mississippi,” asserts that Cochran owes it to the people of his state—particularly those who helped him keep his job—“to return the favor by supporting a stronger Voting Rights Act and actively working to reduce his party’s extreme antigovernment policies.”

Last year, Mr. Cochran praised the Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. He can now make it clear that bipartisanship goes both ways by crossing party lines to support a new measure that would restore the act’s protections, becoming the first Republican senator to do so.

It remains to be seen what William Thad Cochran will do with the power he continues to wield, and whether McDaniel will contest the election, or form a third party. McDaniel has signaled that he has no interest in remaining in a timid, “pastel” GOP that is sometimes willing to compromise (or even to speak) with Democrats. He is clever, articulate, photogenic, and he has a strong base of support—not only in Mississippi: allies include talk radio hosts Glenn BeckMark Levin, Sean Hannity, and a former GOP vice presidential candidate this blog prefers not to mention by name. Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner

Early on, a tragic pall was cast over Freedom Summer by the disappearance on June 21, 1964, of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (left). Goodman and Schwerner had come to Mississippi earlier than most of the other volunteers and met their SNCC partner James Chaney. It was later found that the three were murdered by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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Photo of Thad Cochran (top) by Joe Ellis/AP; photo of Chris McDaniel from campaign website.

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Marching on Washington for Economic and Social Justice

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

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“Timid supplication for justice will not solve the problem. We have got to confront the power structure massively.”Martin Luther King Jr.

“If all the discriminatory laws in the United States were immediately repealed, race would still remain as one of the most pressing moral and political problems in the nation. . . . There would still be a vast, silent, automatic system directed against men and women of color.”Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962)

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This Historic March Brought to You by Socialists and Labor Unions

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Much praise and honor has been given in recent days, and rightly so, to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have a Dream” address at the historic 1963 March on Washington—including a speech yesterday by the president of the United States at the Lincoln Memorial. The nation’s first African American president spoke at the same spot where hundreds of thousands gathered on a hot Wednesday in August 1963 to hear not only the great civil rights leader but also speeches by James Farmer of CORE, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Walter Reuther of the UAW and AFL-CIO, and John Lewis of SNCC, and music by the great Marian AndersonMahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. (It was Roy Wilkins’s sad duty to announce that the legendary black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868, had died just the previous evening in Ghana.)

On this 50th anniversary of the great march we would like to draw attention to its organizational origins and to its practical aims—namely, jobs and improvement of economic conditions. The following account is indebted to well-researched articles published this week by Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect (“The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington”) and by John Nichols in The Nation (“ ‘Timid Supplication for Justice Will Not Solve the Problem’ ”), among other sources.

The march on Washington had been building for decades. A mobilization of some 100,000 almost took place in 1941, then again in 1948. Each time, the organizer was invited to the White House, where he won concessions from the president and called off the planned march. By 1963, despite John F. Kennedy’s invitation to the White House, there was no way it was not going to happen.

The man who introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd of some 250,000 gathered before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, was the formidable organizer A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979, pictured below), the founder and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the first two black vice presidents of the AFL-CIO. Randolph is rightly regarded as not only the father but also the grandfather of the March on Washington. He was the man with the gravitas. Murray Kempton, who covered the March for The New Republic, wrote that in the civil rights movement, where not all the leaders got along, Randolph embraced everyone. (After a meeting with Malcolm X, Randolph helped the younger man on with his coat and saw him to the door. In Kempton’s account, Malcolm later said that all Negro leaders are confused, but that Randolph is less confused than any of them.)

“The reconstruction program for the Negro must involve the introduction of the new social order—a democratic order in which human rights are recognized above property rights.” —A. Philip Randolph (1919)

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Meyerson writes:

As the nation began to gear up for World War II, [Randolph] saw an opportunity to advance the legal and economic status of blacks. By late 1940, the nation’s burgeoning aircraft factories were employing fully 100,000 workers, but only 300 of them were black. President Roosevelt, Randolph realized, could remedy this situation by an executive order, and so, in January of 1941, he conceived the idea of a march on Washington. Fully 100,000 blacks would come to Washington, he said, for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. They would demand the desegregation of both defense work and the armed forces themselves, and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce the desegregation of the defense industry. “We loyal Negro-American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country,” Randolph proclaimed.

When Franklin Roosevelt tried to charm and persuade Randolph to call off a march on Washington of some 100,000 Negroes planned for the summer of 1941, the labor leader refused to back down. Instead, FDR caved in and signed an executive order desegregating factories working on defense contracts—thus enabling African Americans, too, to share in the work and wages of defense work—and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to ensure compliance.

Randolph threatened a similar march after World War II to push President Harry Truman to desegregate the military. Truman invited Randolph to the White House to try to talk him out the march idea, but Randolph held firm. Desegregate, or we’re coming to Washington. Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. military in July 1948.

250px-BayardRustinAug1963-LibraryOfCongress_cropSome fifteen years later, the organizing genius was Bayard Rustin (right), who had passed through the Communist Party in the 1930s before shifting to the Socialist Party. He and fellow socialist James Farmer cofounded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and during World War II he was imprisoned at Leavenworth for protesting the segregation of the U.S. armed forces. He traveled to India to study tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience with followers of Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement. In the mid 1950s Rustin worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize a nationwide network of support for the Montgomery bus boycott that began in 1955 following the arrest of Rosa Parks.

100 Years after the Proclamation, an “Emancipation March for Jobs”

In 1961, as chair of the Negro American Labor Council, Randolph asked Rustin to help formulate a plan to improve the economic conditions of urban black workers. They began developing plans for a national demonstration. Rustin, with Tom Kahn and Norman Hill, wrote a paper calling for an “Emancipation March for Jobs,” envisioning a mobilization of some 100,000 demonstrators converging on Washington. So, the original focus of the 1963 march on Washington was on the economic plight of northern urban black workers (or would-be workers).

The marchers’ demands would focus on legislation banning racial discrimination in employment and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce it (Roosevelt’s FEPC order had expired at the end of World War II), a doubling of the minimum wage, and a federal commitment to job creation.

37affd7120806b737473abaff325e754Meanwhile, events in the South began to intensify as King and the SCLC pursued a nonviolent but persistent campaign to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. When national television audiences saw the municipal fire hoses and police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor’s German shepherds loosed on peaceful, well-dressed, well-behaved protesters, many of them small children, the public was shocked by the brutality. Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama governor George Wallace was making his infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, wrangling with the U.S. Justice Department, defying Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, obstinately blocking the admission of two qualified black students to the University of Alabama.

On the night of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation to announce that he was sending a civil rights bill to Congress that focused on public facilities. “I am . . . asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” (In a profile of A. Philip Randolph for The New Republic in June 1963, Murray Kempton wrote that the labor leader’s remark to Kennedy after the address “was at once a stately compliment and a measured reminder: ‘It was a magnificent speech, but it was, unfortunately, made rather late.’ ”) That same night, in Jackson, Mississippi, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot dead in his own driveway after returning home from a meeting at a church.

Thus the economic agenda of the march on Washington was joined to the civil rights movement. King saw both as inextricable, indivisible. Meyerson writes, “For Rustin and Randolph, as for King [and others] . . . the challenge confronting African Americans was always two-fold: to tear down the legal edifice of segregation that imperiled and degraded Southern blacks, and to remake the American economy into a more egalitarian social democracy under which—and only under which—black Americans could actually prosper.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was an early sponsor of the march, along with the Negro American Labor Council, of which Randolph was chair. The NAACP and the Urban League at first were cool to the idea of a mass mobilization; they thought energies would be better spent lobbying members of Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill.

Kennedy invited Randolph and other organizers to the White House in an effort to dissuade them from going forward with the march. “Some of these people are looking for an excuse to be against us; and I don’t want to give any of them a chance to say, ‘Yes, I’m for the bill, but I am damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.’ ” Murray Kempton wrote, “Philip Randolph answered that he was afraid the choice was no longer whether Negroes came to Washington or not. ‘The choice, Mr. President, is between a controlled and non-violent demonstration and an uncontrolled and violent one.’ ”

The Freedom Budget and the Poor People’s Campaign

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The world well knows what Martin Luther King Jr. said that day, and his great voice still resounds from the Lincoln Memorial, from mountaintop to mountaintop, through the cities and farms and forests and fields, for all those who have ears to hear.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

What is not so well known is the economic agenda that motivated the organizers and marchers and motivates us still in this land of stark and growing inequalities. John Nichols explains that Randolph, Rustin, and King collaborated to develop a “Freedom Budget” that called for:

    1. crowd-cheers.Flip Schulke_Corbis1. The abolition of poverty.
    2. 2. Guaranteed full employment.
    3. 3. Full production and high economic growth.
    4. 4. Adequate minimum wages.
    5. 5. Farm income parity.
    6. 6. Guaranteed incomes for all unable to work.
    7. 7. A decent home for every American family.
    8. 8. Modern health services for all.
    9. 9. Full educational opportunity for all.
    10. 10. Updated (and expanded) Social Security and welfare programs.
    11. 11. Equitable tax and money policies.

Vauhini Vara writes in a blog piece for The New Yorker titled “Race and Poverty, Fifty Years after the March”:

Back in 1963, the Washington marchers made these four economic demands: a higher federal minimum wage, a law barring discrimination by employers, a massive job-training program, and an increase in the areas of employment covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938—the law that established standards such as overtime pay. The policy changes brought about by the protesters’ demands, and the civil-rights movement at large, were significant, if not as numerous as King and his allies sought. In January of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the policies that became known as the War on Poverty; that July, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through the sixties and into the seventies, the government started job-training programs and deliberately hired more black people into government jobs, among other measures.

Where Do We Go from Here?

To the very end, Martin Luther King Jr. held fast to his commitment to social justice combined with economic opportunity: he was working on the Poor People’s Campaign and had come to Memphis to show support for the sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The following remarks are excerpts from the speech “Where Do We Go from Here?”, King’s last address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to its members, in Atlanta, on August 16, 1967. (See also King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?)

We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. . . . Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. . . . 

. . . our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available. 

. . . John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth. . . .

. . . as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” . . . the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. . . . We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. . . . 

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrow. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

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masses@Lincoln.Mem.8-28-63

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For more about how socialists and labor unions organized the March on Washington, we recommend the fine, long piece that Harold Meyerson wrote for The American Prospect, along with John Nichols’s account in The Nation. For even more detail, see John Nichols’s The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism, particularly the chapter “For Jobs and Freedom: The ‘Militant Radical’ Who Dared to Dream of a March on Washington.”

Read “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom” by Mark Engler in The Nation

Murray Kempton’s account of the March on Washington for The New Republic, August 1963

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“Nineteen Sixty-Three Is Not an End But a Beginning . . .”

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

hands-across-America

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Another Sweltering Summer of Legitimate Discontent

In this disheartening summer that has seen the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—because, the chief justice tells us, its protections are no longer needed—amid vigorous rollbacks of voting rights and access in states with Republican-controlled legislatures; and that has seen a shockingly unjust verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, the moderate-to-liberal American majority that believes in “liberty and social justice for all” sorely needs uplifting, inspiring. These dispiriting events, along with the 50th anniversary in June of the assassination of Medgar Evers, call to mind King’s reference to “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.”

So it is no wonder that many of us look with a kind of hungry, yearning nostalgia to the idealism and promise signified by the great 1963 March on Washington that took place 50 years ago today. That march, with its hundreds of thousands of peaceful marchers of all colors—the largest demonstration Washington had ever seen—would have been an historic event anyway, but it was lifted to majestic heights that will be looked to for decades, centuries to come by the exalting oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., in a speech whose original script did not include the words “I Have a Dream.”

Why We Still Need the March on Washington

The general American public—those who are not right-wing reactionaries putting party before nation and ideology above party—has elected an African American president by strong majorities in two straight elections. We can all take pride in this fact. In five of the last six presidential elections (counting 2000) the popular vote has gone to the Democratic candidate. And yet it seems that the election of our first president of color has also pushed a certain kind of button, activating some rather scary retro-reactionary machinery that would drag the nation backward, ever backward into a darker and less civil and humane society. Since late 2008—when, you might recall, the entire economy was in free fall—the forces of extreme, radically conservative reaction (with help from one very influential cable news network) have shifted into overdrive to resist and revoke rights and protections hard-won by minorities over the past decades—indeed, they seem to be trying to roll back the entire twentieth century.

Although this chief executive has endeavored to be a president of all Americans, of whatever complexion or political orientation, and though he has tried time and again to accommodate the opposition’s concerns, the Grand Old Party’s “massive resistance” to even the simplest and most routine bills and nominations, and even to legislation originally proposed by Republicans, has strangled and poisoned the body politic to the point of paralysis. Every initiative proposed by this president and his party is stonewalled, achieved only through protracted struggle and deal-making, and then, even after passage, is vilified daily, as though expanding access to health care or investing in the repair of roads and bridges is a betrayal of the public trust.

Energetically and as secretively as possible, a well-organized and richly funded minority is busy revoking or strangling minorities’ and women’s rights while the rest of the population—those paying attention, anyway—watches in horror and disgust. Some protest, while most of the public is simply trying to survive or hold on to the job (if any), or is so exhausted or beaten down by hard luck and grim times that they can’t stand up to fight.

But times have been hard before, and these storms, too, the republic shall survive, if enough of us work together. And for an example of how we can work together for a better society and economy, and get results, we look to the words and actions of those who brought us the 1963 March on Washington.

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Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the similarities between 1963 and 2013, and at the socialist and labor union origins of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963.

 

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Read All About the 1963 March on Washington

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

MarchOnWashington_360x217Recommended Reading about a Movement Still Moving

While we’re working on a longer piece about the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, we’d like to point you to some writings about the event that we think are worth spending some time with.

•  Harold Meyerson at The American Prospect writes a good long piece about how socialists and labor union organized the event, “The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington.”

•  Speaking of socialists, John Nichols at The Nation writes a strong piece making many of the same points and also focusing on labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the great organizer Bayard Rustin, “ ‘Timid Supplication for Justice Will Not Solve the Problem’.”

•  The Atlantic shows some fine photographs from August 1963 in “An Intimate Look at the March on Washington.”

•  Tomorrow (8/28) the Film Forum in New York City will show the 1970 documentary, “King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis.” We’ve bought our tickets. Described by the Film Forum as “an epic record of the greatest American social movement of the 20th century, focusing on its greatest leader, all taken from news footage of the time. . . . Originally shown just once—across the country in hundreds of theaters in a single day—this unique record has been restored by the Library of Congress. Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary.”

And Also Recommended . . .

See our piece on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, “In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica” (6/12/13), which was only 2 1/2 months before the March on Washington.

Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past

The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street

RFK, MLK: “This mindless menace of violence in America”

SNCC 50th anniv. @ California Newsreel www.newsreel

4/4, 44 Years Ago . . . 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968

“Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam”

Rev. King and Gun Violence: “Study War No More”

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A Return to Literacy Tests? Take This.

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

How Many White Folks Does It Take to Pass a Jim Crow ‘Brain-Teaser’?

With the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in Shelby County v. Holder overturning Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and with Republican Jim Crow re-enactors “free at last” to get their electoral racism on, will the United States see a return of the literacy tests once used to block African Americans from voting? We fear they may. Within two days of the decision, two thirds of the states covered by Section 4—including the old Confederate states of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Virginia—had already rolled out legislation to limit voter participation. ThinkProgress reports:

Less than 48 hours [after the Court’s ruling], six of the nine states that had been covered in their entirety under the law’s “preclearance” formula have already taken steps toward restricting voting. . . . many of which [would] have adverse effects on the abilities of minorities, young people, and the poor to exercise their right to vote

The page below is a word-processed version from a literacy test used in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, in 1964, published by Slate, from the archives of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans. See “Louisiana Literacy Test and How It Worked to Deny Black Voting Rights” by a volunteer in the Freedom Summer of 1964, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Try it. See how well you would fare on this test, and on the pages that follow. Remember, “One wrong answer denotes failure on the test.” Good luck!

 

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Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

ProtectVote

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“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting opinionShelby County v. Holder

 
Re-Legalizing Electoral Racism; Red State Republicans ‘Free at Last’
 

June 25, 2013, will go down in infamy as the day when a radically conservative majority of the Supreme Court ripped the guts out of the historic protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, “the crown jewel of the civil rights movement” that was so proudly signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Congressman John R. Lewis, who was beaten nearly to death by state troopers in the famous “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 (see photo below), declared the decision “a dagger in the heart” of the Voting Rights Act.

What the 5–4 decision, signed by Chief Justice John Roberts, does, nearly 50 years after its signing, is declare unconstitutional the single most important part of the Act (section 4), which identifies the states and counties that must submit to oversight (or preclearance) by the Justice Department before changing “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting” in any “covered jurisdiction.” In effect, the conservative majority struck down section 4 as a sneaky way of nullifying section 5, without actually ruling on the constitutionality of section 5. As the New York Times’s Adam Liptak explains:

The majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975, was unconstitutional. The section determined which states must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they made minor changes to voting procedures, like moving a polling place, or major ones, like redrawing electoral districts. . . .

The decision did not strike down Section 5 [which sets out the preclearance requirement], but without Section 4, the later section is without significance—unless Congress passes a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

These jurisdictions that were required to seek preclearance include the very states—mostly in the Old Confederacy—that were the worst offenders against minorities seeking the right to vote. Indeed, it is no accident that it was Shelby County, Alabama—i.e., Birmingham—that brought the suit against the U.S. Justice Department. In the 1960s it was the Justice Department, very often backed up by the National Guard, that was on the front lines of protecting southern blacks against discrimination, vicious racism, and murder.

selma42.bloody-Sunday

In “An Assault on the Voting Rights Act,” the New York Times editorial board declared the decision “damaging and intellectually dishonest,” and that was just in the first sentence. In a Times op-ed, Richard L. Hasen, author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown, writes:

The court pretends it is not striking down the act but merely sending the law back to Congress for tweaking; it imagines that Congress forced its hand; and it fantasizes that voting discrimination in the South is a thing of the past. None of this is true.

In the Shelby decision, we see a somewhat more open version of a pattern that is characteristic of the Roberts court, in which the conservative justices tee up major constitutional issues for dramatic reversal. First the court wrecked campaign finance law in Citizens United. On Tuesday it took away a crown jewel of the civil rights movement. And as we saw in Monday’s Fisher case, affirmative action is next in line . . . 

John Roberts, who has long sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act, wrote in the majority opinion that because voter registration among black voters is higher than it was at the time the Voting Rights Act was passed, the protections afforded by the Act are no longer needed. (Click here for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s scathing dissent, in which she wrote, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA. . . . The court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision” to reauthorize the Act.) As though mere registration is the same thing as actually being able to vote, or your vote actually being counted. Ask the citizens of counties in Florida and Ohio in the contested elections of 2000 and 2004, or those who were forced to wait in interminable lines in 2008, 2012. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson points out:

Ginsburg quoted an F.B.I. investigation of Alabama legislators who referred to black voters as “Aborigines” and talked about how to keep them from the polls: “These conversations occurred not in the 1870’s, or even in the 1960’s, they took place in 2010.”

The United States Senate approved an extension of the law in 2006 by a  98–0 vote, and the House by a 390–33 vote; 33 Republicans (all white men, except one white woman, from North Carolina) voted against it. Former President George W. Bush, who nominated Roberts as chief justice, said many fine words about the importance of the Voting Rights Act in a ceremony at the White House. If you watch the videotape he sounds sincere; perhaps he was. Had the Voting Right’s Acts provisions been truly observed and enforced in the election of 2000, however—and had a similar 5–4 Supreme Court decision not ruled that Florida’s recounting of votes be stopped—George W. Bush would not have been in the White House.

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