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Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

MedgarEvers_02281Conservatives’ rejection of all things “public” as “white flight”

“The gifts of God . . . should 
be enjoyed by 
all citizens in Mississippi.”  Medgar Evers (1925–1963)


Fifty years ago today, Medgar Wylie Evers was killed in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, after returning from an NAACP meeting at a nearby church. Evers, a graduate of Alcorn A&M whose application to the University of Mississippi law school was rejected on racial grounds, had served as the NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi since 1954. One of his tasks was an investigation of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. He was one of the first members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, est. 1957). The assassination of Medgar Evers was commemorated in Bob Dylan’s song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964) and more recently in season three of Mad Men. Evers, who had served in the U.S. Army in France in World War II and was honorably discharged as a sergeant, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

It was late on the night of June 11, and the killer was hiding behind a bush. Myrlie Evers found her husband on the front steps where he had managed to drag himself after being shot in the back. His car keys were still in his hands, and in his arms was a stack of T-shirts reading JIM CROW MUST GO. For thirty years the murder went unprosecuted (a trial in 1964 ended with a hung jury), until Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994. Throughout the 1994 trial De La Beckwith wore a Confederate flag on his lapel. MyrlieEvers@LIFE

On the night her husband was assassinated, Mrs. Evers and her children were watching a televised address to the nation by President John F. Kennedy in response to recent civil rights events, including Alabama Governor George Wallace’s refusal to allow two black students to register at the University of Alabama. (The president announced, “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 an excellent 10-minute overview of the Jim Crow (segregated, apartheid) South into which Medgar Evers was born, and of early civil rights protests such as the lunch counter sit-ins, Rachel Maddow last night mentioned that, rather than cooperate with the legislation that ordered integration of schools and other public facilities, many white southerners opted to withdraw from desegregated public society. (“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” as George Wallace put it.)

Rachel explained:

The southern part of the United States was forced to abolish its segregation laws. But it was a bloody, bloody fight. Throughout the old Confederacy, white people were asked, first as a matter of conscience, and then finally they were ordered as a matter of justice, to integrate on racial lines. And when the white people who had control of the laws and the government and the schools and the businesses, when the fight to hold on to segregation laws was a lost fight, and they knew they had no choice but to integrate the society they lived in, in many cases, instead of going through with that and living through that kind of change, a lot of them just decided to quit that society, they gave up public pools and public schools and in some cases movie theaters. They gave up whole cities and moved away. They called it white flight. The census from 1960 records a Jackson, Mississippi, that was majority white, almost two to one. By 1990 Jackson’s population had made the turn toward getting much smaller and it was much blacker. By 2010 Jackson, Mississippi, had become the second most African American city in the nation. White people in the previously legally segregated South, and really across the nation, abandoned places rather than see them change. [bold = LNW’s emphasis]


Todd Gitlin on Port Huron Statement’s 50th Anniversary

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Early ’60s idealism: The mimeographed mission statement of a new generation

[ Part 1 of a 2-part series | also @ DailyKos ]

“The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely . . .

“The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. . . . SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

“There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document.”   Todd Gitlin, April 12, 2012


As we were strolling through Washington Square Park Thursday evening we saw a light shining from the south, from the NYU library at 70 Washington Square South, and, behold, the brightness was the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives on the tenth floor.

We followed the light and found a gathering of luminaries to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, featuring Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Robb Burlage, and Martha Prescod Norman Noonan (Students for a Democratic Society) as speakers. In the audience sitting among the ordinary folks like us were history-making New Left activists and organizers you may not have heard of, such as Alan Haber, the first president of SDS, and Charles McDew of SNCC, but their work in the civil rights, free speech, anti-war, and anti-poverty movements changed—that is, made more humane and more democratic—the world we live in today. In many cases, they also risked their very lives.

Briefly, the Port Huron Statement (1962) was a sort of mimeographed mission statement of the Students for a Democratic Society: a new generation’s call for participatory democracy; an assertion of humane, liberal values; and a critique of the Cold War mentality and the military-industrial complex that were strangling civic action and imagination and diverting precious resources from social needs such as ending racism and poverty. It marked a break from the old left that was anxious to prove itself anti-communist after the ravages of McCarthyism.


1963 SDS National Council Meeting [Photo by C. Clark Kissinger]


Roadmap to the 1960s, blueprint for a generation

SDS, a student division of the League for Industrial Democracy, was founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. The Port Huron Statement, initially drafted by Tom Hayden—22 years old at the time—and elaborated through discussion among fellow SDS members, was adopted at the first SDS annual convention of about 60 members on June 11–15, 1962, at the AFL-CIO’s camp in Port Huron, about 100 miles NE of Ann Arbor, near Detroit.

The statement, intended to be a living document, guided a generation until, with racial and Vietnam War tensions escalating, around 1967 and 1968, younger activists found it not radical enough. Many of SDS’s ideas, values, and methods, however, live on in the energy and activism of the Occupy movement, the Arab spring, and the Wisconsin public workers’ struggle. We are confident that, like the Declaration of Independence, it will be commemorated on its one-hundredth anniversary, too, and well beyond, as long as there is a United States of America.

We will have more to say in the next few days about the remarks of Tom Hayden and others on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Statement, but we begin our commemoration by sharing the eloquent remarks of Todd Gitlin, who was kind enough to give us a copy. A cultural historian and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, Mr. Gitlin is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. He was president of SDS in 1964 and 1965 and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War, in 1965. His remarks Thursday night were energetic and charged with an intimate sense of the beauty and love and also frustration and tragedy that characterized the experience of the 1960s and afterward.


On the Port Huron Statement

Todd Gitlin  |  April 12, 2012  |  Tamiment Library, NYU


The Port Huron Statement was the clearest, most vivid and energetic articulation of an awakening: one of those great uprisings that are the crucibles of America struggling (against much violence and cruelty) to become itself—a commonwealth of free association and mutual aid.

The New Left wanted to make, out of the lonely crowd, the beloved community—the kernel of a moral awakening that would put intelligence to work in behalf of transcendent values and overcome as much human ugliness as possible.

This beloved community would be bound together in what Carl Oglesby would later call “brute love”—an association of free and struggling individuals joining together what an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”

Brute love was distilled from a fierce chemical reaction (and I’m not just referring to controlled substances) which began with a revolt against racist evil and stupefaction, and developed into an intoxication with the vivid solidarities that are made possible, though never guaranteed, by democratic life.

The intoxication was stirred by a discovery of the bonds that could be forged from a conviction that big changes were not only necessary but possible.

The sense of necessity was both moral and intellectual. It’s interesting: There are not, in the Port Huron Statement, extraordinary insights into the crimes and failure and inequities of American society at the outset of the 1960s:

• white supremacy;

• the military-industrial contempt for human possibility;

• the grotesque brandishing of thermonuclear weapons in the Cold War;

• the triumph of empty labor; and so on.

The keen insight of the Port Huron Statement was that a life of shared value mattered—and that it could be lived in common—and that citizenship might matter and might, for some body of people, be practical. The name that was affixed to that insight was “participatory democracy.”

It was, I think, intended more as a principle of social life than as a way of holding meetings. It was not understood as an alternative to strategy or to the collective work of intellect, but as their fruition.

The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely. The intimation that the world could be remade—starting right now and right here—this was the movement’s idea—all of the movement, as Linda Gordon points out in her paper, not just the white guys.

The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. For some in the movement those values were spoken in an other-worldly spirit; for some not. It didn’t matter. All the eyes were on the prize.

SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document. Within the lines, there were a lot of intellectual puzzles that the Port Huron Statement could not solve. No one has since. They may not be capable of solution. For example: What if most people do not want, at least not so much, to make the decisions at affect their lives? Shall we then disband the people and convene another one?

But the Port Huron Statement did not say: Follow us from Point A to Point Z. It said: Here we are, a bunch of people, “raised in at least modest comfort,” who are going to make the effort to live lives we are not ashamed of, in order to live in a country we are not ashamed of. And that was a very great thing.

At the same time, we are all well aware of what we could not accomplish in the movements of that time. And that is why we ought to be refreshing the language of values, and reawakening the awakening, and acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with our better angels.

I mean not just ourselves, the core of a movement and its passions. I mean also the vast outer movement. Just as there was a conspicuous ’60s, the one recorded in the photogenic confrontations and iconic images of courage and horror, there was also a subterranean ’60s—less well known but just as important. The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should I do?

That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.

What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.

Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Todd Gitlin is the author of many books. His latest, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, will be published in August by !t books, a division of HarperCollins. It will be available as a Kindle ebook in May.

The Port Huron Statement was typed and mimeographed by some of the people, now in their sixties and seventies, who were in attendance Thursday night. The first mimeographed printing, in August 1962, was of 20,000 copies; the second printing, of 20,000 copies, was in December 1964. Copies sold for thirty-five cents each. It is now a paperback published (2005) by Thunder’s Mouth Press, a good deal at $14.95.


Photo of 1963 SDS National Council Meeting by C. Clark Kissinger, found at TheNation.com. Photo of Todd Gitlin by Piotr Redlinski.

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years

Friday, January 6th, 2012


Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance

This is the mug shot of Joan Trumpauer, a 19-year-old Duke University student and SNCC member who was arrested by the Jackson, Mississippi, police with eight other activists as they arrived on a train from New Orleans to participate in Freedom Rides in early June 1961. Joan Trumpauer had already participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. (She is the student having sugar poured on her head in this iconic image.) The photos above and several dozen other powerful images from 1961, mostly by American news photographers, are part of an impressive collection posted by The Atlantic Monthly. See more below. (H/T to A Continuous Lean.) Some of the viewers’ comments on the photos are instructive; others, particularly about civil rights, are disturbing, depressing.

The caption to Miss (not yet Ms.) Trumpauer’s mug shot explains:

A Jackson Police Department file booking photograph of Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, taken on June 8, 1961. 19-year-old Duke University student and part-time secretary in the Washington office of Senator Clair Engle of California, Trumpauer arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to take part in the June 4, 1961 Mississippi Freedom Ride. She and eight others were promptly arrested and refused bail. Trumpauer served three months in jail, later enrolling in traditionally black Tougaloo college, which had just started accepting white students. 

In a column worth reading in full, “Toward a Manifested Courage,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, quotes a prison superintendent’s reply to Trumpauer’s mother (a native of Georgia whom Joan later described as “an unrepentant segregationist”):

Your daughter is receiving plenty of food, has been provided with a toothbrush, tooth paste, and whatever else she actually needs. 

I notice that you state that as a mother of a minor that you want to be notified in the case of any emergency. What I can not understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence.

The Trumpauer photograph appears among many other portraits in Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge. Click here to see more images. And see the gripping American Experience (PBS) documentary “Freedom Riders,” available through Netflix.

We detail the Joan Trumpauer experience at some length here out of admiration of her (awe-) inspiring personal courage (“Now if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white schools, what were they going to do if a white student went to a black school?”) and as a prelude to, an early honoring of, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 16).

Now, some selections from the Atlantic photo feature “50 Years Ago: The World in 1961.”


George Lincoln Rockwell, center, self-styled leader of the American Nazi Party, and his “hate bus” with several young men wearing swastika arm bands, stops for gas in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 23, 1961, en route to Mobile, Alabama. (AP Photo)

A policeman orders his dog to attack a man who was too slow in obeying his order to move away from in front of police court, shortly before nine African-American college students went on trial for sitting-in at a (white) public city library, on March 29, 1961, in Jackson, Mississippi. (AP Photo/Jackson Clarion-Ledger)


 A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames after a firebomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Alabama, in May of 1961. (AP Photo)