26. August 2015 10:48
by Administrator

BCRI Interview with Hurricane Katrina Survivors Myrna and Glennon Bazzle

26. August 2015 10:48 by Administrator | 0 Comments

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation she left in her wake. Many cities have recovered and many have not. Many of her victims became permanently displaced, finding new homes far away from their actual homes.

One city that physically lost residence, but not emotionally, was New Orleans. Many of its residents moved to Birmingham, Alabama after the storm and many of them made homes here, only going back to New Orleans to visit. But if you ask one of them “where is home,” they will most likely say, ‘New Orleans.”  That never changed after the storm because for people from New Orleans…New Orleans, home is where the heart is.

I had the privilege to speak with the Bazzle family, Glennon and Myrna, who grew up in New Orleans and only moved to Birmingham due to Hurricane Katrina. This is their story. Birmingham is their new home…but New Orleans is always home.

-Kendall Chew (KC)

BCRI Education and Exhibitions Assistant


KC: Where did you live when Hurricane Katrina hit?

MMB: We lived in New Orleans East.

We were located less than a mile from Lake Pontchartrain between 1-2 miles from the Industrial Canal. Being in New Orleans East we weren��t far from the outlet of the Mississippi to our South) and to the East of us was the Bayou Sauvage Natural Wildlife Refuge… so we are essentially surrounded by water. We were in a bowl. The house was four feet below sea level. There was seven feet of water inside the house.

KC: When did it flood?

MMB: We weren’t at home. Glennon was in Atlanta and I worked from the Friday before the storm. Then storm evacuations became mandatory for surrounding parishes of New Orleans, so that Saturday I left.

I went to my brother’s home in Baton Rouge, which became the family staging area. My sister and her family road the storm out there as well. But then we stayed. We were not used to staying. We weren’t allowed back into New Orleans until October. There was no going back.

[Glennon and I] were separated until mid-September. Glennon had friends in Birmingham and got temporary housing in the hotels there. Friends encouraged us to relocate to Birmingham. I was still in Baton Rouge. But we couldn’t stay there because of the chaos of all the people there. I drove to Birmingham.

After they allowed us to go back in October, we did go back. It was shocking, very emotional and I couldn’t go inside. My husband did. It was all a loss. I didn’t want anything from inside. My mother’s dishes were all I hoped for because they were passed on to me. The dishes were [found] totally intact.

We go back frequently and we were able to sell the house. The person who bought it did a great job restoring it to the point I wanted it!  New Orleans East homes and businesses are coming back, but regrettably portions of New Orleans East and the lower Ninth Ward, where the levees were breached look untouched since Katrina.

KC: What do you miss the most?

MMB: I have to say it’s everything you know the city for: the people, the music, the arts, the joie de vivre…everything that makes New Orleans, a unique, cosmopolitan gumbo mix of a place. It’s part of your life blood. It will always be home.


KC: What are some of your first memories of New Orleans?

GB: Sixth Ward, Lafitte Projects or what 2015 would call Treme, but don’t let them fool you.

The music was my first memory:  the second line, dancing in the street, playing with my friends and never having to worry about being intimidated and messed with.

And we had a great time. We did everything and supported each other. The schools, the teachers were family members and lived in the neighborhood. There was somebody always “observing” you.

[I had] a wholesome upbringing. My favorite time, we played, we traveled…

The music…there is a lot of stuff that has to be contributed to NOLA music. There is still today, this very moment people going to NOLA from around the world listening to music and writing the music and they try to play the music. They can play it correct, but they can’t play it right. Because the right stuff comes out the ground. You can tell when a two year old starts dancing, you can’t buy it.

The desegregation part of stuff messed everything up. I don’t go where I’m not wanted…in any city. That hasn’t changed. It’s a new generation, but the DNA comes out the ground. I just don’t put myself in that situation. It is still the same.

On Birmingham

Birmingham wasn’t even a thought. My friends would say, “Not you in Birmingham. How’d you end up there?” In my travels I’ve lived in big cities. To wind up in Birmingham was laughable. It wasn’t my choice. When Katrina hit, I was in Atlanta helping my son move.

I had a high school buddy that relocated here and called: “Glennon. You gotta move to Birmingham. They got plenty golf courses here. It’d be a good opportunity for you.”

KC: What do you miss most about New Orleans?

GB: I miss “the openness and the tempo of the city (snaps fingers quickly). Birmingham is more (snaps finger slowly) It’s slow boo.”

People in Birmingham ask, “Which church do you belong to?” In New Orleans, they don’t ask, they just say, “Let’s go get a drink.”

The tempo of the city I miss most. I brought the cook and I am the music…

30. July 2015 16:38
by Administrator

Race Was a Lie by Wanda Benvenutti

30. July 2015 16:38 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 I understood from a very young age that race was a lie.

The heartbreak began right before dinner at my aunt’s house. The first time I learned that I was seen as different happened on a bitterly cold winter evening in Rochester, New York. My cousin started cracking jokes about the snow as we walked through the front yard. I stared at the sky and asked out loud about Puerto Ricans on the North Pole. 

“Did we have any up there?” We laughed and kicked snow around the edge of the driveway, taking our time. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for at leas another half hour. Cartoon music began blaring from the living room and I started to wonder if it was a new episode of Danger Mouse when I felt my cousin’s hand tug on my arm.

“Whoa.”Her mouth was wide open, her face an odd mixture of fear and anger. I immediately got scared. I’d never seen my amazingly cool, older cousin, who allowed me to hang out with her whenever I felt like it, look scared in my entire life. 

She turned to look at me, asking if I was okay---was someone calling their dog?

“Hey! Yeah! YOU. HEY!” 

It was the New Lady from across the calle and two casas over. She lived in the only apartment on the block. None of the neighborhood kids knew anything about her, except that she was mean to everyone. Mean, every day mean, the kind of mean that can get away with things when your parents’ backs are turned. Casual. We only played with her daughter when she was at the store buying cigarettes because she tried to spit at us once near the neighborhood bakery. When she got caught by another adult she said she had ‘violent phlegm.’ 

After several attempts at finding a medical definition for this new ailment I’d never heard of, I had to ask several adults if it was real. ‘Violent phlegm?’ We all knew she hated us, she just never told us why until she started yelling at us, louder now, from across the street.


Now I started to feel sick to my stomach. I kept ignoring her and started to panic, reaching for my cousin’s hand. She took a few steps forward into the street and turned to my cousin.

“You tell that little nigger to stop playing with my daughter. You hear me?” she asked and lowered her voice, turning now toward me.

I was eight years old.

“I don’t want my daughter playing with any niggers.”

She made a move to spit again, her mouth kept moving but my ears filled themselves up with Johnny Cash songs, ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time,’ I remembered learning the year before at Girl Scout camp. Somehow we had started to walk up the driveway toward the house, my cousin pulling me because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop staring back at the lady’s face. It was still a person somehow, over there, screaming at me...wasn’t it?

I kept trying to understand. I kept not understanding.

It didn’t happen every day, but I was used to being called names as a kid, especially when I was speaking in Spanish. She didn’t call me spic, which is what I typically heard. I knew that we are equal citizens under the law [because] we’d just started on the three branches of Government at school. This made no sense, why was she so angry? Didn’t we all have the same rights?

Her hatred broke my eight-year-old heart, hatred that churned in my guts. This lady really thinks I am nothing. She called me an ugly, terrible word because she thinks she’s better than me, a kid! Did she want me to die? I knew I had done nothing wrong, and that it didn’t really matter because I’d seen it before. I just didn’t know what it was until that winter night before dinner.

My cousin kept walking me back, saying comforting things that at first I couldn’t hear. She told me later I was crying so hard my swollen eyes looked like I’d lost a fight. Finally I could laugh a little, asking over and over again, “Why does she hate me?” when my cousin looked me straight in the eye.

“Because she’s racist, and racist people are dumbasses,” [she said]. Before I could ask what a racist was, she sighed, “Acting racist is when a white person hates anyone else that doesn’t look exactly like them, anyone that isn’t exactly like them. Slavery, in America, it started with that. They just took people.” When I asked about all of the people in our family who have white skin, she sighed again and sat in silence for a while.

She knew more than I did, being a teenage woman of the world who flew to California once for an entire summer. Afterward, we talked about how the girls out there couldn’t really dance, but they got to live right near the beach. We couldn’t really be jealous. The world was changing even though some people refused to accept it, like the lady across the street.

We sat on the back porch and I started to cry again. Now my skin was seen as different, and that meant that I had a real reason to be afraid. Finally she tried to explain the rage from across the street. “That’s why some people in America get confused by Puerto Ricans. We’re Americans, we have everybody, every color in our family, and it’s not a big deal. Everybody else thinks it is, but they’re dumb like that lady.”

I started to shake from the cold as we walked through the kitchen door. Arroz con pollo never smelled so good. I began plotting ways to never see that terrifying lady ever again.

That expression of blind rage is something I will never forget. It is the same blind rage violently erupting over and over again throughout the United States today, a rage born of a system of thought that normalizes race as logical, white supremacy. This same rage claimed the life of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Ohio, and countless others targeted by the color of their skin.

This rage continues to prove that we refuse to acknowledge the truth: race as an idea, as a practice, has failed spectacularly in the United States. It is time for culture, rather than skin color, to be evidence of our equality.

Can we live as a nation free of the idea of race?

The answer is yes, because it is already a reality.

Puerto Ricans are a people and a culture that have lived beyond race in this nation for over 100 years. For the past 16 years I've been cross-crossing the U.S. documenting Puerto Rican culture in every state for my first book, American Boricua. This work serves to eradicate the concept of race through the power of visual evidence.

The BCRI Odessa Woolfolk Gallery will be home to American Boricua’s next exhibition in October 2015. I invite you to explore this new vision of culture in the United States.



Wanda Benvenutti is a New Orleans-based freelance Photojournalist and Photo Editor. She received a B. A. from Oberlin College, and an M. S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, The National Press Photographers Association, and The National Hispanic Journalists Association. Wanda's photographs are also featured in the book, “100 New York Photographers” by Cynthia Maris Dantzic and www.americanboricua.com


10. July 2015 11:23
by Administrator

For Charleston, a lesson in the faith and resilience of Birmingham by Priscilla Hancock Cooper

10. July 2015 11:23 by Administrator | 0 Comments

And you say

What has become of our young that they take life so easily

Without guilt or sorrow

And I say

We have sown seeds of hatred and now we reap a bitter fruit

For we harvest the slain bodies of our children

We have planted them in soil that is centuries soaked in blood

And they have fed from the taproot of violence

And you say

It has not always been so

And the winds of history whisper

"There is blood in the soil."

---excerpt from poem "American Legacy" by Priscilla Hancock Cooper

When I wrote this poem in 1993, I was reflecting on the loss of young black lives through homicides and mourning the loss of innocence of my daughter, then 16, who had lost at least six peers to murder by handgun.  When I was 16, I didn't know anyone my age who had died, much less been killed.  It was a different world.


Today, I read this poem and reflect on the murders of nine African Americans at a prayer service in a church.  The church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina once again galvanized the nation, uniting us in grief, anger and bewilderment.  We empathized with the families who lost loved ones...mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, brothers, uncles....who had done nothing but come to pray.  How many more black people must die at the hands of whites before this nation can banish the demons of racism?   How could a person sit in a church for an hour with the intention of murdering the people there? The questions seem to outweigh the answers.

While homicide continues to be the leading cause of death for young black men ages 15-34, the profile for perpetrators of mass shootings in this country tends to be young, white and male.  From Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook in 2014, our nation has collectively mourned the loss of innocent young lives while trying to understand the anger, rage, hatred and mindset that would prompt someone to enter a school, college classroom or movie theatre armed with weapons for the specific purpose of committing mass murder.

The comments that Roof spewed as he struck down unarmed worshippers echo the racial bias that was forged in the institution of slavery. His remarks reflect the negative images created by a system that defined blacks as "less than human" even as they were stolen, bred and sold to build a nation with their unpaid labor. African Americans are confronted daily, in ways both large and small, with the results of deeply ingrained bias, hatred and fear...the shopkeeper who watches you suspiciously in the store, clerks at the corner gas station working behind barred windows and bullet-proof Plexiglas, and a mother's distress that her son will be mistreated at the hands of the police. We saw it again in Charleston with the added issue of race.  Did Dylan Roof have any idea that the site of his assault, the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been engaged in the African American struggle for freedom since its founding in the 1800s?  Could he have realized that his racial attack came in the same year that this nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 13thamendment that ended slavery in the United States?

Has there been positive change? Absolutely. In Charleston, a white police chief and a woman mayor of Indian descent stood in solidarity, visibly shaken and outraged by this horrific crime.  Law enforcement officers at the local, state and national level combined forces to capture Dylan Roof. The Charleston community, black and white, expressed collective sympathy and grief. An African American president expressed his anguish and frustration that this country has not resolved to end gun violence.

In Charleston, we see the destructive intersection of an American legacy of violence and racism. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we share lessons that address both issues.  Visitors from around the globe come to gain a greater understanding of non-violent protest as a tool for social change. "Foot soldiers" embody the courage and commitment of "ordinary" citizens who risked their lives and livelihood to end segregation. The faces of young demonstrators remind a new generation that they, too, have the ability and responsibility to make a positive difference. 

And across the street, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as a reminder that cowardly, racist murder in a place of worship is not new. The murder of four girls from a bomb in 1963 is indelibly imprinted on our collective memory. By example, that congregation and this community teach the greatest lesson of all - with faith and resilience we continue to move forward. In the words of a Negro spiritual that became a song of the movement:  "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me (us) around."

Ms. Cooper is the Interim President and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

19. June 2015 10:58
by Administrator

Price of Freedom, Burden of Terrorism by Ahmad Ward

19. June 2015 10:58 by Administrator | 0 Comments

June 19, 2015 marks 150 years since the ending of slavery in America.  This day is commonly known as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery.  Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now free.  Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which had become official January 1, 1863. Many slave owners sent their slaves to Texas to “stash” them until after the war.  The goal was to retrieve them after a Confederate victory.  Once the South fell, it was finally feasible for the Union forces to come in and effectively free the slaves.  June 19th would then become a day of celebration for newly freed blacks in the South. The Juneteenth holiday should stand as an opportunity for the country to acknowledge “freedom” for all its citizens.  However, the freed blacks were anything but free.

Until the end of slavery, Black people were always depicted as fiercely loyal, docile, and completely devoted to the slave masters. This was done to counteract the work of abolitionists who chronicled the savagery of the “peculiar institution.”   It was only after emancipation, that Blacks inherited the stereotypes of being extremely violent, untrustworthy, dangerous and prone to the need to rape white women. They regaled the masses with the notion that ex-slaves would take over the country and change the American way of life.  The goal here was to hamstring the already difficult effort of freed Blacks to become independent American citizens.   For the next 100 years, Black people would endure the most concentrated form of domestic terrorism on American citizens in the country’s history.   However, America has done its best to avoid calling it by that name.  Despite the night riding of the Klan, the hundreds and hundreds of “sanctioned” lynchings, the various murders of Civil Rights workers, Black people who tried to register to vote, and “troublemakers,” the word “terrorism” has never been used.

Even with one of the most heinous events of Jim Crow, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, it was never called terrorism.   Four girls, killed while getting ready to sing in the choir, on Youth Day, in September 1963.  Why is that?   Is it because violence against minorities in America was part of the status quo?  That was “just the way things are?”  Were people too frightened to take the terminology to the next level, because of what could happen to them? In many occasions in the past, the perpetrators of these crimes were set free or not even brought to justice.  During the last part of the twentieth century, with the reopening of Civil Rights cases, we have seen murderers brought to justice.  Notably, three of the individuals who bombed Sixteenth Street, over fifty years ago.  Unfortunately, these extreme acts have not ceased in America. Shootings in schools, movie theaters and yes, places of worship continue to plague this country.  Although the title of “Terrorist” doesn’t seem to fit everyone.

Earlier this week, a twenty-one year old named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at a historic Black church and murdered 9 people, including the pastor and an 87 year old woman.  As he reloaded his gun, he spoke of the same stereotypes that have been used to denigrate Black people since the end of slavery. “Taking over the country.”  “Raping ‘our’ women.”  The first words used to describe this shooter, like many of the shooters we’ve seen over the last five years who didn’t fit the narrative:  mentally disturbed, troubled, loner, etc. The events in Charleston have been likened to what happened in Birmingham at Sixteenth Street church.  That horrible day in 1963, helped to change the landscape and the minds of America about what was happening in the Jim Crow South.  Perhaps we can see something come out of the tragedy in South Carolina.

Maybe we will actually have honest conversations about race and “cause and effect.”

Maybe we will see that some people will understand that language has power.

Maybe we will start to call this what it is.   Terrorism. Tried and true, just like Racism in America.


Happy Juneteenth.


Ahmad Ward is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI

4. June 2015 14:02
by Administrator

The Holiday Divide by Josh Cannon

4. June 2015 14:02 by Administrator | 0 Comments

In Montgomery, Alabama last Friday afternoon, a radio traffic reporter announced that many people were getting ready for “another three day weekend.” For the life of me, I could not think of what holiday falls on June 1. But I had forgotten an uncomfortable fact about Alabama.

On the first Monday of June, there is an official public holiday in observance of the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. This is only one of three Alabama state holidays commemorating the Confederacy, the other two being Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday. What’s more, in Alabama, as in Mississippi and Arkansas, the state holiday for Robert E. Lee’s birthday is observed on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The state actually lists it as “Robert E. Lee / Martin Luther King Birthday.”

A total of nine southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day, and a few celebrate this holiday on June 3, Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Texas has gone so far as to combine Jefferson Davis’ birthday with Robert E. Lee’s on January 19, to mark what they have called “Confederate Heroes Day.” Every so often, as was the case this year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, always the third Monday of January, has to share the day with this Confederate holiday.

Some of these holidays are more recent creations than you might expect. Texas established its “Confederate Heroes Day” in 1973 (the same year Illinois became the first state to adopt a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday). South Carolina only made Confederate Memorial Day an official state holiday in 2000, a compromise gesture in order to overcome remaining opposition to the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And only since the 1990s have seven southern states annually designated the month of April as Confederate History Month.

In two weeks, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Given that, it is particularly worth considering the significance of all of these Confederate remembrances, not to mention the myriad physical Confederate memorials and monuments littering the U.S. landscape.

Amid state celebrations of the Confederacy today, you would probably be hard-pressed to find public approval of or fondness for slavery. In fact, you might not hear any mention of slavery at all. But, dig down a bit, and instead, you will still find the revisionist denial that the Confederate cause had anything to do with slavery. Dig a little deeper still, and you might find suggestions that slavery in the South was really not so bad.

It is the persistence of these self-serving revisions and lies that allows a misplaced honor and veneration for the Confederacy to continue to this day. The whitewashing of the centrality of slavery to the cause, and our national failure to tell and show the truth of that slavery, cloud otherwise clear contradictions in our national memory.

The Confederacy cannot be truly recognized apart from either American slavery or the racial subordination which defined that slavery. Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, stated in 1861 that the “cornerstone” of the new Confederate government “rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

Also in 1861, in its declaration of causes of secession, the state of Texas proudly defended what they called the South’s “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery” and held that “the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color” was a “debasing doctrine [...] at war with nature.”

Four years later, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War was over and all slaves were now free. Hence, Juneteenth. In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then, more than 40 other states, including Alabama, have chosen to recognize the day.

But something is amiss when Texas celebrates both the end of slavery and their “Confederate heroes.” Or when Montgomery proudly holds itself up as both the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” It is important that we tell ourselves the truth about the Confederacy’s primary concern for protecting and expanding slavery, and especially racial hierarchy, not just so we can unequivocally celebrate the end of slavery in 1865.

In addition, we need to tell that truth in order to have proper context for the decades of terror, violence, and racial subjugation that followed Reconstruction, for the violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later, and for the ways this history still impacts our society today, particularly in policing and the criminal justice system.

In short, if we are not fully honest about our past, and clear about what we celebrate and why, and what we should not celebrate and why, how can we hope to be honest and clear about the continuing, related struggles of the present?

 Josh Cannon is Deputy Program Manager with the Equal Justice Initiative 

7. May 2015 15:36
by Administrator

Can Freedom of Speech Go Too Far? by Ahmad Ward

7. May 2015 15:36 by Administrator | 0 Comments

On May 3, 2015, in Garland Texas, a “Draw Muhammad” contest was taking place, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI).  The founder of AFDI, Pamela Geller is also president of the Stop Islamization of America and has been known for promoting anti-Islamic ideas.  Contest participants were asked to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad (which is considered blasphemous by many in the Muslim community) for an opportunity to win $10,000.   As the event was ending, two men armed with assault rifles opened fire on the venue, wounding a security guard.  The two men were shot and killed by a traffic officer working security for the event.  There was a S.W.A.T. on hand as well because of the heightened risk.    This event mirrored the attack on the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hedbo, where 12 people were killed by gunman, upset by the magazine’s publishing of cartoons depicting Muhammad.  After the Garland attack, Geller said: "I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages. This is Freedom of Speech and these cartoons are political critique."

No one’s life should be threatened because of the things they say or the beliefs they hold, no matter how distasteful.  However, when does your right to Freedom of Speech meet a barrier?    It is well-known that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are frowned upon and have historically been followed by credible threats.  Charlie Hebdo has shown that the practice of “insulting” Muhammad cannot be taken lightly.  So why do it?  Many people have stated that they believe Geller created the event to purposely “thumb her nose” at Islam and some even believe that she was hoping to provoke a response to show the “danger” inherent in the religion.   There are bad people in each and every religion and things like violence and intolerance are not tools of any one faith.   We do a disservice to the millions of people who practice Islam when we cast all of them as radical extremists bent on destroying Western civilization and Christianity.   When we call all Muslims “radicals” and violent, we are disrespecting the countless members of our community that are our doctors, teachers, community leaders, public servants and military.   President Obama recently discussed the “complicated” histories of other organized religions, including Christianity, in regards to violence.   We must take a realistic look at history and put these events in the proper perspective.   Violence must be condemned and the perpetrators must be punished, but we must be careful not to condemn and punish the religion associated with those events.

Geller said Sunday's attack showed how necessary the event was, and that she plans to hold similar events in the future.  While we have to protect free speech, as civilized people, we have to use common sense and discernment to determine whether we are causing harm.   It really boils down to one of my favorite statements:  Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should do it.

Ahmad is Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI

13. April 2015 13:25
by Administrator

Avoidable by Josh Cannon

13. April 2015 13:25 by Administrator | 0 Comments

Another day, another tragically familiar police shooting dominates the news. The difference this time is the news only broke at the surfacing of a bystander’s cell phone video, video which clearly shows, contrary to the official account and initial news reports, North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting a fleeing, unarmed Walter Scott in the back.

Another thing that makes this case different than others, including some where video was also available (Tamir Rice; Eric Garner; et al.), it has sparked quick action and outrage across partisan lines. The North Charleston Police Department has promptly fired Officer Slager, and authorities have charged him with murder. Politicians, left and right, have expressed shock and disgust after seeing the video.

This could be a positive development toward holding law enforcement accountable for unnecessary force. Or it could just be temporary damage control of what will still only be officially treated as an isolated incident. But what should be just as troubling to all of us as the video footage is this: without that video, we would likely not even be talking about Walter Scott. Slager’s story would not be intensely scrutinized or doubted, and the case would just be chalked up as yet another presumably unavoidable incident with a well-worn script: an unfortunate but justified case of an officer exercising self-preservation.

The key element of video evidence discrediting the official story from law enforcement raises questions beyond this case, of course. Namely, how many other similar, un-filmed cases have there been that will never be exposed to the same clarity, scrutiny, or outrage? The State newspaper reports that South Carolina police alone have been involved in over 200 shooting incidents over the last 5 years. Only 3 officers involved in these incidents have faced any charges related to improper use of force, and 0 have been convicted, despite several controversial cases.

In one such case, police pursued, shot, and killed a 25 year old black male, Aaron Jacobs, claiming he fit the description of a wanted carjacker, and that he had a gun. Autopsy results reportedly showed Jacobs was shot multiple times in the back of the head and in the back. Not only were none of the officers charged, but authorities resisted release of the autopsy and won a favorable ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court that autopsies are not a matter of public record.

The key takeaway here is this: we need to come to a place in our society where we don’t need a video or perfect evidence to question such common and often suspect use of force. Currently, our laws grant incredibly wide latitude for what is considered “justified” lethal force by law enforcement. But as Professor Seth Stoughton writes, we “ […] shouldn’t ask if a shooting is justified, but if it’s avoidable.” 

The issue is not merely a clear case of a police officer shooting a man in the back as he runs away. The larger issue is, all too often, similar incidents which could end non-lethally end in death, precisely because we have allowed for practically any conceivable interpretation of a threat to an officer’s safety to justify killing. Unless we begin to prioritize the preservation of life on both sides of these scenarios - unless we begin to demand that non-lethal options be prioritized in every case - and lethal options, when used, be sufficiently shown to be clearly unavoidable, what happened to Walter Scott will happen again and again to others in a similar position.

We can and must do better, but we can’t expect to do much better if we have to wait for such rare video clarity to have any hope of receiving justice.

Josh Cannon holds a history degree from UAB.  He will be starting with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) April 15, 2015 as a new Justice Fellow.  He also blogs at http://joshuacannon.wordpress.com.


2. March 2015 13:10
by Administrator

In Defense of Cliff Huxtable by Ahmad Ward

2. March 2015 13:10 by Administrator | 0 Comments

No, this will not be a defense of Bill Cosby, nor will I be trying to litigate his current situation in this post.  However, it is because of that situation, that The Cosby Show is currently not being shown on television.  I won’t defend Dr. Cosby, but I’m here to speak up for Heathcliff Huxtable.  The Cosby Show closed its curtain twenty years ago and its groundbreaking spin-off, A Different World, left shortly after.  Those shows became the first version of “Must See TV.”   Households all over the country tuned in every Thursday night to see the Huxtables live normal lives with normal family situations.   There wasn’t the constant hardship and despair found in shows like Good Times in the 1970’s. This was a family that I actually saw around me growing up in Eastern North Carolina.  We weren’t upper Middle Class like the Huxtables, but I saw plenty of Black doctors and lawyers in my childhood.   Just not on television. 

Black America’s relationship with film and television has been a frustrating one.  More often than not our characters were seen as buffoonish, uneducated or dripping with tired stereotypes and tropes that belied a true depiction of the richness of our experience.  With few exceptions, we didn’t see positive images of ourselves on the screen….if we saw images of us at all.  Here comes Cliff and Claire Huxtable.  Critics called the idea of a Black doctor married to a Black lawyer “over the top” and “heavy-handed.”  We saw people we could aspire to be.  We saw well-adjusted kids in a safe and nurturing environment.   That show would be the topic of lunch table and water cooler discussions every Friday morning.  The episode with the family serenading Cliff’s parents with a Ray Charles classic is a watershed moment in television history that everyone remembers fondly.  Plus my kids love it.

This brings me to my cause for Dr. Huxtable.  Who do my children see when they watch television?  The reason why they are familiar with The Cosby Show and A Different World is because my wife and I felt so strongly about what those shows taught us.  The Cosby Show pushed little Black children to think about becoming doctors and lawyers.  A Different World gave insight to the Black College experience and convinced more than a few teenagers to enroll in higher education.  Now before you say, “It’s the parents’ responsibility to instill those ideas in their children,” let me remind you that every situation is different and studies have shown the impact that positive images have on young children.  The last twenty years have seen some decent shows depicting Black families come and go.  However, our recent images have been problematic examples of the worst aspects of our perceived culture. The push for higher ratings compels people to act in ways that only serve to reinforce stereotypes, that Black people have fought to destroy for centuries. 

Obviously, the top rated shows on the tube now have major black characters.  Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Empire are blockbuster hits.  However, I can’t let my nine and six year olds watch any of those shows because of the subject matter.  Blackish (despite the controversy around the name) is a welcomed addition and does provide the representation that is currently lacking, but it is only one show, when it seemed not too long ago, there were several.   I can only hope that the success of those shows will lead to a renaissance of positive images for not only Black people, but all other groups that are sorely missing from the landscape.   America is much more diverse than broadcast television and award shows (*cough* The Oscars *cough*) would have us believe.

It saddens me that my daughters don’t have the luxury of seeing characters like Theo, Rudy and Vanessa grow up with them. They can’t root for Denise to succeed in school and see how people struggle to find their way to adulthood.  I would love for a character to come along like Whitley Gilbert for my kids to see mature from a spoiled brat to a capable strong woman.  I want my girls to see how Claire Huxtable juggled the practice of law and rearing children with style and grace.  I have NO problem admitting that I still have a crush on Claire. Don’t judge me. Fortunately, I have my very own “Claire,” complete with style and class, (also a law degree) as my better half.

Of course we have to create those examples for our children, but man, it sure made us feel good to watch those shows and look at those characters like family members.  That is missing right now and it stinks.   I know why The Cosby Show is not on television right now.  However, until the next Huxtable clan comes along, my kids need Cliff and Claire around.  Maybe I do too.
By Ahmad Ward, BCRI Head of Education and Exhibitions

28. January 2015 07:07
by Administrator

Trying to Grasp a Force of Nature: The Selective Buying Campaign of 1962 by Donna Dukes

28. January 2015 07:07 by Administrator | 0 Comments


How do you explain the world’s continued fascination with the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement? How do you begin to understand a time in history that is as motivating as it is complex? Perhaps by looking at one of the key events that, inarguably, laid the foundation for the force of nature known as “The Movement”.

In a day and age where the social consciousness of young people is most often measured by “Likes”, “Hits” and “Views”, the incredible bravery shown by a group of students in 1961 & 1962 is not only noteworthy, but awe inspiring. As the daughter of one of the students, I am honored to pay homage to the Selective Buying Campaign of 1962, which, in my opinion, showed the incredible feats that can be accomplished when one stops to think, instead of giving in to the primal instinct to react first and think later.

In the Spring of 1962, a group of students from Miles College led by my father, Frank Dukes, who was their 31 year old Student Government Association President, created and launched a Selective Buying Campaign. The campaign was a boycott of Birmingham’s downtown merchants. Question: Why was a boycott necessary? Answer: At the time the campaign began, Blacks in Birmingham were spending $4,000,000.00 a week in downtown stores. Yet, they could not eat in the cafeterias, or try on the clothing or shoes that they purchased. Supporting the students were Miles College President Dr. Lucius H. Pitts, selected faculty, local housewives, and members of Birmingham’s White community. These factions brought about significant desegregation before Dr. King's arrival to the city in 1963. In fact, it is widely held that the success of the Selective Buying Campaign of 1962 was the impetus for the triumph of Dr. M. L. King, Jr.’s climactic demonstrations of 1963.

When asked why the Selective Buying Campaign of 1962 led by my father succeeded, and the seven previous attempts led by the indomitable, courageous Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth failed, my answer is simple—the Selective Buying Campaign of 1962 succeeded, because it contained key components missing in other boycotts, i.e., the rejection of emotionalism, thinking outside of the box and embracing inclusiveness. Women were welcomed and allowed to play leadership roles, the White populace of Birmingham was allowed to participate, and the irrepressible optimism found in such great abundance in the minds of college students was nurtured and allowed to run free. How else could one explain the fact that a campaign created and executed by students from a small, relatively unknown historically black college on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama brought about the desegregation of two major department stores before the coming of King in 1963?

If you want to learn more about the Selective Buying Campaign, I recommend that you watch the documentary ““STAND! Untold Stories from the Civil Rights Movement.”  The film chronicles the key events which led to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), selecting Birmingham, Alabama as the site for the now famous 'Project C' (Project Confrontation) in 1963.  The film brings to light often overlooked and unknown facts about the system of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, “STAND!” features the brave men and women who risked all to bring about its demise. “STAND!” dismisses many myths that the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement was all Black, all male, and led by ministers who rallied in 1963 and liberated a city.

How do you grasp a force of nature? With awe…with awe.

For more information on the film, please visit its website:standthedocumentary.com


Donna Dukes  is an educator and founder of Maranathan Academy

8. December 2014 12:11
by Administrator

Demanding the Perfect Victim by Josh Cannon

8. December 2014 12:11 by Administrator | 0 Comments



From leaving Michael Brown’s body in the street for four hours on the afternoon of August 9th, to the November 24th late-evening announcement that the grand jury had not indicted Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death, authorities in Ferguson / St. Louis seemed to be writing the handbook on how not to ease tensions and cool the anger of a grieving community.

Since St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s badly timed, riot-inducing announcement, peaceful protests all around the country have grown, while many people have become more deeply entrenched in their preexisting biases regarding the case.

On one side, those who never trusted the authorities, and particularly McCulloch, to fairly handle the case, believe the grand jury was set up to fail, pointing to the unusual approach prosecutors took. Those on the other side who so readily clung to the early narrative of Brown as a doped-up “thug,” looking for a fight, have no trouble believing Wilson’s extraordinary testimony (which includes description of Brown as a demon-like superhuman, able to run through bullets).

As ever, there is a wide racial divide over what to make of Ferguson and over views of policing generally. Moreover, the murkiness of this case has led some, who may or may not be sympathetic to the broader issues it raises, to question building a movement around Michael Brown.

One must wonder, though, if pointing to a clearer case with a more clearly blameless victim would break through our racial and political polarization, or, rather, if that idea is often just another well-worn, victim-blaming dodge -- a distraction from seeing in full a broader pattern of excessive force and racial disparities.

And there is clearly a pattern. Darren Wilson’s wild, superhuman description of Michael Brown was not unique, but consistent with long-standing racial stereotypes. In fact, one recent study found that whites tend to have a "superhumanization bias" toward black people, often associating them with superhuman and magical abilities. Other studiesfind that whites overestimate the amount of crime committed by blacks and Latinos. And still another study found that people regularly view black children as “less innocent and less young.”

We have seen too many recent cases where one or more of these biases have tragically worked against black males in encounters with police. Take the recent case of TamirRice. Because of surveillance video, we now know that, instantly upon exiting his police vehicle, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Rice - a 12 year old black boy - because the boy had an (admittedly realistic) air pellet gun. What’s more, the police officer assumed that Rice was 20 years old.

You would think if any case could produce a clear, united wake up call, the shooting death of a young boy, who was simply playing like young boys do, would do it. Yet, in some corners, all too familiar rationalizations and deflections abound, as does the tendency to more intensely question the young boy’s judgment and background than that of the adult police officer. Even Northeast Ohio Media Group thought it appropriate to quickly report on the violent pasts” of Rice’s parents, in order to, as the VP of content, Chris Quinn, writes,“shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park.”

Or consider the case of Eric Garner. Wednesday, in a similar fashion to Ferguson, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold (a practice banned by the NYPD), resulting in Garner’s death, later ruled a homicide. Police had approached Garner, a 43 year old black man, for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Garner was unarmed, and in no way a threat to the officers who choked and smothered him while placing him under arrest. Yet, somehow the grand jury found no reason to indict, and the city’s police union places the blame squarely on Garner for resisting arrest.

And therein lies the problem with demands for a “better” victim. Certain victims, it seems, can never be perfect enough to avoid the easily modified template for judging the dead in order to shift any blame from the living and the powerful. “Why would you pick a fight with a cop?” is easily interchanged with, “Why would you play with a toy gun?”, “Why would you resist?” or, “why would you wear a hoodie?”, as if any of those things deserve death.

These cases show precisely what is at the heart of the protests branching out from Ferguson. The rallying cry “Black Lives Matter,” born in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing, anticipates and responds to the predictable demands that such black victims be perfect. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about deserving the equal chance to go on living just as any other imperfect human being.



 Josh Cannon holds a history degree from UAB and is hoping to pursue a master's degree in Community / Urban Planning. He also blogs at http://joshuacannon.wordpress.com.