21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe
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Another Crossroads?

21. August 2014 09:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

 

My road trips in search of historic sites related to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement have taken me in a number of directions.  One of the most confounding was a visit to a “Faithful Slave” Monument built in 1895; its mere existence stunned me to the point that I had to sit down and call home to talk it through.  I just could not imagine how even in 1895, someone could have not seen such a monument as anything but utterly demeaning.  So, what does the fact that this monument still stands in pristine condition say about where we are today in “race relations” in the United States? 

As the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri scream out, we are not in a post-racial America.  We can look at all the remaining gaps that allow for discrimination within the cycle of our justice system from the police to the prisons despite passage of key civil rights legislation.  These gaps merit attention, but I’m not sure that this will lead us to a colorblind justice system without a corresponding close examination of our American psyche. 

In 1895 America was at a crossroads.  Debates over Jim Crow were in their early phases. Freedmen in the 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been regulated to subordinates in American society throughout the country.  Lawful segregation had not yet become the norm, and African-Americans (except Mississippi) exercised their right to vote.  However, within a decade Jim Crow was law in the South, and de-facto segregation took hold in the rest of the country.  Rather than moving in a constructive direction towards freedom for former slaves, and equality and liberty for all Americans, many of our ancestors, including mine, chose to pursue a new form of racial oppression. 

This separation of the races soon became accepted as natural.  As I’m learning from oral history interviewees with those who once opposed integration, segregation structures and practices were a part of social conditioning.  For my first interviewee, Mr. Andrews, in the Oral History Project Reconciling with the Past:  The Legacy of Segregation, the structures of segregation were foremost in his memory.  Drawing on a song in the South Pacific musical, he stated: “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.” While Mr. Andrews’ experience is his own, he describes a rather typical Southern society that sent a very clear message to its children: “Blacks and whites, we were not supposed to socially mingle.”  He elaborated: “They went to their own restaurants.  We went to ours.  You weren’t suppose to drink from the same water fountain as a black person.  I remember going to the train station in Tuskegee to take the train to Washington.  We had a black waiting room, [or as known then a] ‘colored’ waiting room, and a white waiting room.  You couldn’t sit together in a train station.  I remember going to the doctor’s office.  The blacks waited to see the doctor in a different room than where I sat.”

The memories of Mrs. Evelyn Ray Dauphin, who sat for an interview last month, revealed how insidiously the system secured its existence.  Like Mr. Andrews, as a child she saw the institution of segregation as a matter of fact:   “Other than being glad that I was white instead of black, I don’t have too many memories of racial instance because it wasn’t something that we thought about.  It was just, that was the way things were.”  She makes this last point clear in her remembrance of a childhood playmate, Katy-Lou.  Katy-Lou was the daughter of the black sharecropper family who worked on the Ray farm.

“The little girl, Katy-Lou would come and play.  It was just she and I playing while our mothers worked.  We played in a little shed….  We enjoyed each other’s company, I guess.  I don’t really know if she enjoyed it or not.  But I did.  She was my only playmate… There was no conflict between us…because I was always in charge.  We never argued like our other friends later because, [pause] it wasn’t like let’s play together: you do something like you want to do, and I’ll do something like I want to do.  I got to do what I wanted to do and she just did it.”  

Such memories suggest that segregation practices and white supremacy were like air:  even young children—too young to go to school yet—adapted white supremacy into their play, just as we instinctively know to breathe.    

In listening to these interviewees, I’ve thought back on a warning offered by Lillian Smith in the 1940s.  She described segregation as “spiritual lynching,” and she focused on the harmful effects of segregation on both whites and blacks.  In the interviews, I am finding specific examples of the harm Smith enumerated for whites:  “No white child, under the segregation pattern, can be free of arrogance and hardness of heart, and blindness to human need."* 

Mrs. Dauphine is an example of how profound this “hardness of heart” can be.  Listening to her memories, I felt as if she was still in disbelief, and frustrated with herself for how long it took her to believe in race equality.  As she exclaimed: “Finally, it took that long for me to get to that point.  This was [in the] ‘80s.”  In trying to understand why it took so long, I’ve taken note that she never recounted a traumatic event with a black person.  In fact, her contact with African-Americans was extremely limited.  The most contact she described was as a child with her playmate Katy-Lou, who epitomizes a benign contact.  As she noted early in the interview, “It was just that was the way things were.”  Near the end of the interview she commented, “I don’t believe that I ever hated.”  Yet, it took her decades to overcome the messages of white supremacy that she absorbed in her childhood.    

Mrs. Dauphine intentionally faced her conditioning and notions of white supremacy.  But has a similar effort occurred at a community, state or national level for the American psyche?  Racism was cultivated in the 1600’s to justify the enslavement of fellow humans.  Political support for slavery entailed social conditioning, which taught that the black “race” was innately inferior and it was in their best interest to be enslaved.  This fed notions of the benevolence of slavery. The inherent contradictions of the founding of the United States − freedom, liberty and equality for all men − with slavery and segregation signal how carefully taught Americans have been for centuries.   With all the racial incidents that have preceded Ferguson, can we finally see ourselves at a crossroads?   Are we courageous enough to face a longstanding history of racial oppression by carefully examining remaining remnants of racial social conditioning in American society, such as pristine “Faithful Slave” Monuments?      

 

 

*    Gladney, M. R. How Am I to be Heard?  Letters of Lillian Smith.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

 

18. August 2014 07:50
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The Programming

18. August 2014 07:50 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

Michael Brown, 18 year old resident of Ferguson, Missouri, shot several times by police and left in the street for over two hours.  Same old story, new person. As a Black man in my late 30’s, I have unfortunately become accustomed to hearing that something like this has happened.  I am not desensitized to the loss of life, but I have too many instances of things like this happening to look back on. Because I look the way I do, my father made sure to give me the “ins and outs” on how to operate around police. Because he grew up during the Civil Rights movement and had borne witness to Black men and women ending up dead over the slightest (or imagined) infractions, he had to prep me for the reality of my skin color. This was the necessary “programming” to survive as a black male. So, by the time I reached the peak of my highest potential to be a statistic, my teenage years, I was ready…or so I thought. 

Yeah, I had been followed by folks in stores before and had police spend extra time looking at me in public, but my friends and I always laughed it off as business as usual.  Legendary Hip Hop groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions schooled us on what being Black in America looked like.  In 1989, we were all angry in solidarity with the brothers and sisters in New York, when Yusef Hawkins was murdered for walking through Bensonhurst while Black.  We were furious in the spring of 1991, watching Rodney King get beat to a pulp in the street by LAPD. We rocked our Africa and Nefertiti medallions because we were “down.”   Yet, nothing had happened to us. 

 In the summer of 1991, my friends and I went to our little mall in my hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. There was about five or six of us and we were “chilling” and having fun like teenagers do.  We walked into the JC Penny store to exit because I wanted to see if my aunt was working that day. After learning that she wasn’t there, we walked outside and one of my friends said something stupid to me like was I going to cry because I didn’t see my family.  So, I playfully pushed him and we all started goofing off and play fighting like friends do, in the parking lot.  As I stood there on the receiving end of a “noogie” I happened to look up and saw three police cars descend on us out of nowhere.  Five officers jumped out of the car with their hands on their holsters and told us all to freeze. We quickly got into the position we were all taught: Hands up or out. Palms facing the officer. Eyes squarely on their eyes so they knew we were complying.  We quickly started explaining that we were all friends and were just playing around. After we confirmed this about two more times, they began to ease up and those hands, that I kept looking at, slowly moved away from the guns.  They told us to get in our cars and go home and they eventually left. 

We all stood there for a minute, dumbfounded about what just happened.  To us, it was clear that we were playing. Nobody jumps up in the air to deliver an elbow drop (à la Dusty Rhodes) in a real fight. It then dawned on us that someone inside the store called the cops because they thought they were witnessing an actual brawl.  Naturally, we got mad and started talking trash way after the police were gone, but something stuck with me.  When we were confronted by those officers, we successfully jumped right into “the programming” and nothing happened.  We were definitely ready, especially after watching what happened to Rodney King in LA. We weren’t arrested or accosted, but I saw something in one of those officer’s eyes. Fear. Fear of a 16 year old kid.  Fear that could have manifested in one of us ending up hurt or worse, if we hadn’t conducted ourselves in the right way. I felt angry and scared that something so benign could have gotten me shot. 

Just like I had gone through “the programming,” that officer had received programming too. The difference being that we had all gone through that programming as American citizens in regards to Black people.

During the last two years of high school, I remember being angry at what was happening around me.  Right before the summer leading into my senior year, the cops who beat King were acquitted and the LA riots happened.  I didn’t want to see our people loot and riot, but a large part of me understood.  I harbored some of that same pain they felt.  Feeling like there was no justice for people that looked like me.  Feeling like the authorities could do anything they wanted to me and nothing would happen to them.  Feeling like my being black, was reason enough to kill me in America.   I got it, and unfortunately I cheered some of it on.  Ice Cube became our soundtrack as he talked about retaliation and even though I had a good upbringing and my family instilled good things in me and I had never been in trouble…I was mad enough to do something stupid. Fortunately, common sense and the healthy fear of Russell Ward III  (my father) kept me in line.

As an adult who spends an inordinate amount of time talking to young people about the value of peace and how nonviolence turned the tide in the Civil Rights Movement, I sometimes have to reconcile my feelings about police after I see what’s happening now.  I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of teachers during workshops at BCRI.  When the discussion moves to my opinion of race relations, I am as honest as possible.  I notice the looks of horror on grown people’s faces after I explain to them that I still “jump into the programming” when I encounter police officers in public.  Hands out to the side. Palms facing the officer. Eyes on their eyes.  I will probably do that until I leave this Earth. Sad but true.   What’s equally sad is the idea that, according to the eye witnesses in the Ferguson shooting, Michael Brown assumed that position after being hit in the back…and before five more shots were fired.

    Over the last month we have witnessed at least several different instances of black people finding themselves in violent interactions with law enforcement:

July 17 – Eric Garner is killed after a New York police officer places him in a chokehold (which are illegal according to NYPD policy) in an effort to bring him to the ground.   Garner was breaking up a fight when officers approached him and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. The entire interaction was videotaped by onlookers.The city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying neck compression from the chokehold killed him. But the officers involved in the arrest may not face charges if the homicide is found to be justifiable. Garner was unarmed.

July 27 – Rosan Miller who is seven-months pregnant is placed in a chokehold by a NYPD officer after a confrontation about Miller “illegally grilling” in her yard. Miller’s seven year old daughter witnesses the entire episode.  Miller was unarmed.

August 2 – NYPD arrives at a Brownsville apartment building after being called to check on disturbance. 48 year old Denise Stewart informs them that they have the wrong apartment and attempts to close the door. NYPD force open the door and pull her out into the hallway.  Mrs. Stewart had just taken a shower and her towel comes off during the raid. She is detained in the hallway topless for nearly three minutes before a female officer covered her with a towel. Stewart, who has asthma, fainted during the arrest, according to the Daily News. The NYPD arrested Denise Stewart and charged her with assaulting a police officer — she bit an officer’s finger during the scuffle. Stewart was unarmed.

August 6 – John Crawford enters a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio and picks up an air rifle. Police are called to investigate a man waving a rifle in the store.  Crawford is shot in the chest and killed after officers say he did not put the weapon down in a timely manner. The family’s requests to view the video footage from the store, has been ignored although Wal-Mart did turn over footage to authorities.  The family’s lawyer, Michael Wright asked the question: "Why did John Crawford, a Wal-Mart customer, get shot and killed carrying a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns?"

There are other instances in the same time period, notably Ezell Ford, who may have been shot by LAPD while face down and complying with officers. 

Citizens in Ferguson, MO became angry and rioted following the killing of Michael Brown, resulting in damage and looting of stores in their own communities. I still do not and will not condone looting. However, there are thousands of people protesting peacefully in the country who are angry.  There are 16 year olds across America who are watching what is taking place and realizing that they could be killed at any time, by people that are tasked with protecting them.  Mostly due to part of the “programming” of American law enforcement,  that  seems to train them to see that same 16 year old as inherently prone to violence and needing to be feared.  Given that, if someone can get into “the programming” and still be killed, what does that mean for all that training I received and am now trying to give to others? It’s enough to get people angry enough to do something and sadly, part of me understands.

Man, I wish I didn’t understand.

 

Ahmad Ward is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI

 

 

 

 

 

31. July 2014 14:21
by Tammi Sharpe
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Shared History

31. July 2014 14:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

“I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?”

An African American male youth asked this question out loud as he looked at some of the photos hanging in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. In a couple of the photos some white mothers with their young children defiantly stand in protest as African-American mothers lead their children to school. One mother is dressed like Mrs. Cleaver, but with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. The other mothers are more casual in their dress with rolled up jeans, but have the same angry stare. In another photo, white male youths attack a sit-in demonstrator, who is seated at a lunch counter.

In return I wondered, did he ask that for me to hear? Had he noticed that a white female was standing less than two feet from him? Maybe he spontaneously asked the question. He looked like he was in his early twenties. He has probably experienced racism, but as one of the consequences of the Movement has likely been raised to believe in, and stand-up for his rights.

Despite the frequency of my visits to civil rights sites, I have generally sensed that I’m a trespasser. Once I joined a “Heritage Bus Tour” in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the last one on the bus, and I felt the eyes of the other tourists looking at me as I took my seat. I did not feel hostility, but I did feel as if these other participants were querying “Why is she here?” As is common, I was the only white person.

A part of me wanted to bellow out, “Yes, this is an African-American heritage tour, but ‘your’ history did not happen within a vacuum. This is our American history!” Instead, my imaginary conversation remains internal as the bus pulls out of the Charleston Visitor Center.

Our first site is reportedly a location of past lynchings. “This tree marks the spot where lynchings occurred in Charleston,” reports the guide. The guide’s voice fades as I became absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m just staring at this tree, which sits right in the middle of a residential street not far from the historic downtown area. My internal conversation begins again: “how such horrors could have happened? How could such ordinary citizens, mobs of them no less, just get worked up into such a frenzy brutally killing a man, for the color of his skin?”

The guide’s voice then jarred me back into the present as we approach the Citadel. “This base was built to train a militia of white men in the case of slave insurrections.” The legal foundation of the Citadel dates back to 1822 shortly after the almost successful slave revolt of Denmark Vesey. This, however, is not the only slave revolt to have occurred in Charleston. As we cross a bridge towards James Island, the guide tells us about the Stono River Slave Rebellion which happened almost 100 years earlier in 1739. We then pulled up to the entrance of McLeod Plantation, a quintessential Southern Plantation. For me the setting evokes “Gone with the Wind” and the portrayal of the benevolent slave owner, the faithful slave, and Confederates’ brave fight for States Rights. This image contrasts with those of slave insurrections, which clearly grew out of slaves’ desires for freedom, and the Citadel, which testifies to slave owners’ fear of such desires and their clear intention to squash these with force, brutal force, if necessary.

We gradually make our way back to the historic part of Charleston passing by a number of sites that point to African-Americans’ efforts to educate themselves, and their continued struggle for basic civil and political rights in the United States. What transpired at these sites underlined the work of scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois that white American historians ignored in the first part of the 20th Century. The neglect of these historian led to an understandable need to promote African-American studies, but does this still remain the case? Do we still need to refer to “African-American History”? Is “African-American History,” a misnomer?

DuBois’ works are now readily recognized in traditionally white academic circles. The National Park Service has incorporated the centrality of slavery in the U.S. Civil War into their exhibits alongside a host of museums, books, art, and films that document the injustices of slavery and segregation. I admit this took too long. Much more remains to be acknowledged, and absorbed into the American psyche, to fully dig up the racism that underpinned crimes, and continues to permit racial discrimination and defacto segregation. But doesn’t this require mutual recognition of this past?

While the other tourists have idly chatted with me, no one has asked why I’m here, or what I’m thinking after having traveled back in time with a focus on white Americans’ oppression of African-Americans. What if I had told them my ancestors have a degree of culpability for the crimes committed against their ancestors? What if we began such dialogues? I recently interviewed a white Southern man whose adolescence was seeped in segregation and who after much reflection, described his parents as “wrong, but not evil.” He also put forth that all whites associated with segregation should feel “twangs of guilt.” Like the majority of Southern whites, his parents were not Klan members, nor were mine. Isn’t it time to begin to explore all the complexities of our horrific past? We cannot fully understand, nor possibly reconcile, with this past until we closely examine all the contrasts of our torn, but interwoven history. When we integrate the pieces together our tapestry will more accurately reflect our history.

Maybe at all the other historic sites related to slavery and segregation the African-American tourists were simply too polite to ask me. So, when that young man asked “I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?” I seized the opportunity, turned around and responded, “Me too!”


Tammi Sharpe has recently returned to BCRI as the Human Rights Fellow.  Prior to her return she had been on a four month emergency humanitarian mission to the Central African Republic with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and completed a Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellowship at Columbia University. In partnership with BCRI and Columbia University she is conducting oral history interviews with Americans who opposed integration to enable more comprehensive historical research into the legacy of segregation and to create opportunities for dialogue about a sensitive past.

If you might be interested in participating in this project please contact Ms. Sharpe at tsharpe@bcri.org.  

 

1. May 2014 11:58
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The REAL face of racism by Ahmad Ward

1. May 2014 11:58 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

 

On April 29, 2014, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver held what will probably be the most important press conference of his tenure, even though he had only been in the position for 88 days.  During the press conference, Silver banned Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers since 1981 from the NBA for racially charged comments made during a conversation with his female friend. Silver also fined Mr. Sterling 2.5 million dollars (the highest amount under the bylaws of the NBA Constitution) and set the wheels in motion to convince the other 29 owners to force Sterling into selling the team and relinquishing all rights.   The entire situation became a watershed moment for the league and maybe even the country.  Sterling’s comments are reminiscent of times thought long past and ideas that America wishes to forget about.  However, Sterling is by no means a first time offender.

Former General Manager Elgin Baylor charged in a racial discrimination suit that Sterling ran the Clippers with the "vision of a Southern plantation–type structure" asking him to create a team of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” Sterling paid the highest fine ever levied (2.75 million dollars) by the Department of Justice in a housing discrimination suit, for systematically denying rental opportunities to Black and Latino families at his Southern California properties.  In official court documents, he stated that "Black tenants smell and attract vermin."  His estranged wife, Rochelle Sterling, who distanced herself from the remarks, has recently been found to have played a role in the discrimination suit herself. Court documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times show that Mrs. Sterling posed as a Health Department inspector and during a site visit, remarked: “Oh, my God. This is so filthy. I can’t remodel my apartments the way that I want because Latinos are so filthy.” The Sterling’s employees refused rent checks from Black and Hispanic families and then accused them of nonpayment. They refused to do repairs and surprised these tenants with inspections, which opened them up for eviction for violating building rules. 

By all accounts, the Sterlings appear to be horrible people.  As despicable as their comments towards Black and Brown people are, it is the actions against those people that are the true offences.  Some questions should be asked: “Why didn’t the NBA force him out when these actions first came to light?” “How was he able to maintain his status in the community?”  “Why did the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP give this man a Lifetime Achievement Award and set up this year to give him another?”  Hmmm…

This situation happened right after Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who is in a “tug o war” with the Bureau of Land Management gave his opinion on whether Black people were “better off during slavery” in regards to their family structure.  Mr. Bundy, who had been placed as the poster boy for individual rights, was quickly excoriated by the same people who had supported him, once those comments saw the light of day.  Bundy and Sterling may be card carrying racists, but words…as strong as they are, do not hold a candle to deeds, in regards to racism. America has apparently transformed racism into verbal offences without looking at the systematic issues that still hover over this country like a dark cloud.  

As a (possibly jaded) Black man in his late 30’s, Bundy’s and Sterling’s comments are just stupid and run of the mill to me.  It is Sterling’s actions as a property owner, that are much more divisive. It is the notion that some of the core tenets that Bundy ascribes to, are formed in early twentieth century White supremacist doctrine, that is more problematic than his “prescription” for “Negro” people.  Institutionalized racism continues to be the most potent and effective “engine” of the social construct.  Yet, people who know better have been convinced that the vestiges of centuries of sanctioned oppression have all but dissipated in the mythical “post-racial society.”  The biggest example of this currently you ask?   While we have been hanging on every inch of the Bundy and Sterling sagas, a group named Boko Haram kidnapped 234 girls from a dormitory at Chibok school in Nigeria on April 16th and this story has been largely absent from mainstream media outlets.  Ask yourself this question, if 234 students had been kidnapped from a European school, would it have taken two weeks for you to hear about it?  Systematic racism devalues certain members of the human race based on centuries of pattern-based thought.  The very notion that this girls are missing should horrify us, yet they are barely given a first thought, let alone a second.

Adolf Hitler created the concept of "The Big Lie." It is a story so outrageous that nobody of ordinary decency can imagine somebody making it up. The Big Lie is then repeated, loudly, until it becomes something everybody ‘knows.’ “The Biggest Lie” currently in circulation is convincing the populace that institutionalized, systematic racism does not and has never existed. This lie is incredibly successful in spite of what your eyes and ears experience. Donald Sterling’s words mean less than nothing. The “engine” that has allowed him to maintain and prosper, in spite of his actions, means everything.

 Ahmad Ward is Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI

 

13. February 2014 10:41
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Do We Need a Black History Month? by Ahmad Ward

13. February 2014 10:41 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

 

It is the middle of the busiest time of the year for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI)--Black History Month.  From the Dr. King Holiday through the second week in March, thousands of people visit our facility and our Education Department conducts numerous presentations throughout the state and the region.   We are happy to have each and every one of those visitors come and learn about the important story of the Civil Rights Movement.  My staff and I enjoy sharing information about various topics for K-12 students, day cares, nursing homes, churches and the like.  Having said all that, truth be told, I would rather not have Black History Month.

Let me explain.  In a perfect world, the accomplishments of all Americans would be taught in schools and widely held as strict American History. African Americans have contributed in major ways to the American fabric over the 400-plus years they have lived here. However, that history, for various reasons, had mostly been obscured until the early part of the 20th Century.   Let’s examine that time period for foundational purposes. 

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson started “Negro History Week,” to bring attention to the accomplishments of Black Americans and to foster pride in a people who were unaware of their history.  Woodson was born in 1875 to former slaves in New Canton, VA.  Because their family was poor, Woodson was not able to regularly attend school.  At the age of 20, he attended Douglass High School in West Virginia and gained his diploma in two years.  Five years later, he would return to the school as the principal.  He would later graduate from Berea College in 1907, serve as a school supervisor in the Philippines, and gain his Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in 1908.  Woodson would become the second African American to gain a PhD from Harvard University in 1912, following W.E.B. DuBois.

Woodson and Jesse Moorland founded the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915.  This organization helped raise awareness about the accomplishments of the Black race.  Woodson believed that publishing scientific facts about the Black race would prove to the world that Africa and its people have played an important role in the creation of civilization.  Woodson initially chose the week of February 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) and February 14 (Frederick Douglass’ birthday) as the official Negro History Week.  Woodson would write several books, including the seminal piece on Black History, The Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933.  Negro History Week would become Black History Month during the bicentennial year of 1976.  Woodson himself said that he longed for a day when a specific time honoring Negro history would not be necessary because America would have incorporated that history into its own.   Unfortunately, that has not happened.

On a regular basis, BCRI’s outreach efforts uncover young people who don’t have basic knowledge of Black history.  Through no fault of their own, our students do not know of the works of an Alain Locke, the spirit of a Bessie Coleman, people like Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, and Mary McLeod Bethune.  There is no grasp of the scientific accomplishments of Ernest Everett Just, Garrett Morgan, Granville T. Woods, Lewis Latimer and Charles Drew. There is no account of the activism of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Sherrod.   Somebody has to share this information and as uncomfortable as this will be for some people to hear, there are those among us who willfully obscure these things.    There are people who don’t feel like any culture should have its own month.  There are people who don’t think that African Americans have done enough to merit the attention.  There are also people who could care less. 

The beautiful thing about America is those folks can freely feel the way they feel.  That does not change the necessity of having the knowledge in question.    This is why Black History Month and other celebrations such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, etc.  are still necessary.  The American story is built on the diverse groups of people who make up this country.  That diversity is to be celebrated as a core tenet to American greatness. I don’t think I will see a time when there will not be a need for a Black History Month.  However, I also never thought I would see an African American President either.   Happy Black History Month!

Ahmad Ward is Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI

 

 

 

6. December 2013 15:58
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The A.G. Gaston Hotel: Once Birmingham's Premier African American Resort

6. December 2013 15:58 by Administrator | 0 Comments

by Marie Sutton

 

On the eve of Mother’s Day 1963, Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the one place where civil rights activists, world-famous journalists and African-American celebrities regularly came for refuge; the only place they could stay overnight in segregated Birmingham: The A.G. Gaston Motel.

Located in the heart of downtown, the Gaston opened its doors in June 1954 and was where African Americans could go for first-class accommodations. The brain-child of Arthur George Gaston, one of the wealthiest African-American men in the country at the time, the motel quickly became more than a revenue stream, but a feather in the cap of the black community.

The Gaston was the backdrop for African-American culture and celebrations. It was a welcomed haven in a city being crippled by Jim Crow laws. It was where ladies, dressed to the nines, came for sorority meetings, where teens feasted on fine shrimp dinners before prom, where lovers hosted their glitzy wedding receptions and where men took their ladies on first dates to impress. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife Alma spent their honeymoon night there. American novelist James Baldwin smoked cigarettes and chatted with colleagues there. Folk singer Joan Baez feasted on breakfast with famous photographer Bob Adelman. Civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young and the like were regular patrons.

And, since Birmingham blacks weren’t allowed to eat in area restaurants during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Gaston featured a fine dining bistro as well as a New Orleans-style bar and lounge with a packed jukebox and a stage that was graced by some of the greatest performers of all time. The Gaston was a must-stop on the Chitlin Circuit with doors that revolved and featured Sam Cooke, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and the list goes on.

In the wee hours of the night on that Mother’s Day in ‘63, the KKK’s bomb detonated in the two-story motel. It was planted beneath room 30 where Dr. King regularly stayed. His suite was dubbed the “War Room,” because it was there where he, along with a laundry list of civil rights activists, regularly met to strategize some of Birmingham’s most historic events.

King had checked out of the motel before the explosion, and the KKK’s plan to silence him and shut down the Gaston were unsuccessful. In the end, though, what would close the doors of the motel would be wrapped in irony. When integration began legal, and blacks had a choice of venues, many chose otherwise.

Author's Note: The Gaston was an oasis for a people bereft of justice, but its stories are little known. I’ve set out on a journey to find those stories and will tell them in a book slated to be released in October 2014. If you have stories of the Gaston, email me at marieasutton@yahoo.com

 

Marie Sutton is a former journalist who works in higher education.

 

 

 

22. November 2013 08:59
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The End of Innocence by Ahmad Ward

22. November 2013 08:59 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

“I remember where I was when…”     Most baby boomers can still tell you exactly where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.    That November day in Dallas, TX changed the landscape of the country for years to come.   United States’ history had long been built on the idea of “American exceptionalism.”   According to us, all countries looked up to and wanted to be like the USA.   The Kennedys were the poster children for this ideal in the early 1960’s.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy hailed from a powerful Northeastern family and had the looks, charisma and background to be the head of “Camelot.”  His family was young, beautiful, and decidedly American.   JFK’s presidency became the first to have an official White House photographer and the images taken from his time in office adorned every major US magazine.  These were the glory days, even as the country struggled with Vietnam, an untenable racial situation and the burden of the Cold War and the “Soviet Menace.” 

And then November 22, 1963 happened…

The murder of JFK ripped the golden blinders off of the nation and exposed a stark reality.  No one was safe.   Despite the fact that American history is rife with violence against brother, neighbor and stranger, somehow a large number of the country saw no real issues.   In the middle of segregation, war and internal strife, there was a patriotic cloud that covered the eyes of Americans who were either on the fence in regards of those issues or blissfully unaware.  There are myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, which will not be named here.  Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Act is often seen as one of the reasons he was killed.  The following are few of the bloody events that happened from that point in November through the rest of the decade:

1964       June 21: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Freedom Summer activists,  are abducted and killed by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

1965       March 7: Bloody Sunday: In Selma, Alabama nonviolent activists begin their march from Selma to Montgomery in protest for the right to vote. After they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge they are attacked by state troopers.

March 11: Rev. James Reeb, a volunteer marcher from Boston, is beaten to death in Selma,Alabama.

August 11: a riot breaks out in Watts, an African-American suburb of Los Angeles, California, after a fight erupts between a white traffic officer and an African-American man accused of drinking and driving. The officer arrests the man and some of his family members who had arrived at the scene. Rumors of police brutality, however, result in six days of rioting in Watts. Thirty-four people, mostly African Americans, die during the riot.

1966       June 6:  James Meredith embarks on a "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote. Near Hernando, Mississippi, Meredith is shot. Others take up the march, joined on occasion by King.

1967       July: riots break out in northern cities, including Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.

1968       April 4: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at the Loraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, fighting for the rights of sanitation workers.

1968       June 5: Robert F. Kennedy is shot at close range in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the state primary race for presidential candidacy.  The following day he was pronounced dead and the nation mourned.

1969       December 4: Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party, is shot and killed by police during a raid. A federal grand jury refutes the police's assertion that they fired upon Hampton only in self-defense, but no one is ever indicted for Hampton's killing.1964       June 21: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Freedom Summer activists,  are abducted and killed by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Granted, these events would have likely happened whether Kennedy was alive or not.  The point is the assassination (along with the murder of four children in 16th Street Baptist Church months earlier) caused people to accept that maybe their country wasn’t as perfect as they once thought.  The country experienced these other instances and emerged changed and inquisitive about the real direction of their home.   We were unable to run from the hard truths of our history and standing in the world.  Maybe….just maybe the “Greatest country in the world” still had growing to do.

Kennedy was not the only one who died on November 22, 1963. The “innocence” of America expired as well.

 

Ahmad Ward is the Head of Exhibitions and Education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. August 2013 07:34
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"What's a Racist?" by Ahmad Ward

2. August 2013 07:34 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

 "What's a racist?”

That is the question my inquisitive eight year-old daughter asked me, as we watched a story on the Today Show, about Philadelphia Eagles Wide Receiver, Riley Cooper, who was caught on video using the “N-word” at a Kenny Chesney concert.   The first word out of my mouth was “wow.”   It occurred to me as I was ironing my shirt for work, that we have discussed the Civil Rights Movement, but had not used that word in her presence.  As I tried to explain the things that constitute racial attitudes and actions and tried to use examples, the next question was: “What’s N*gger?”  At that point, my wife and I just looked at each other in amazement.  This word that had lived with us like an unwanted relative all of our lives.  This word that has been used to demoralize, stigmatize and degrade.  THAT word that has been part of a pop culture tug-o-war over the last twenty years of the Hip Hop generation…….had not touched her little world.

During a week where Mr. Cooper’s drunken rant went viral,  an unarmed  black man looking for a cigarette in his mother’s car IN his mother’s driveway was nearly killed by Florida police officers because he “didn’t comply,” a national politician said that undocumented immigrants had calves the “size of cantaloupes” from smuggling drugs across the border, and a close friend’s wife overheard a conversation at her workplace in which Brazil nuts were referred to as “N*gger toes”……comes my little angel’s question.

“What’s a racist?”

Part of me felt glad that she had not had to deal with that notion.  Part of me felt like my wife and I had done a decent job of enforcing the idea that “everybody is equal” to her and her little sister.  However, part of me felt like I had done her a disservice.  Although I have tried to be frank with her about how black people and other minorities have been treated throughout history.  Although I have explained to her that some people will hate her just because of her skin color, I wondered if I had left out too much.  In my effort to shield her from the ugliness of racism, have I not started equipping her with the tools she will need to cope with it?  Since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, the scab of racism has been peeled off in a new way.  Everyone from TV pundits, “leaders” and politicians are debating whether or not “it” still exists.  Even as I am writing this piece, I see Internet “commentators” condemning the 60 year old that was shot looking for his cigarette, because “he was acting suspicious looking through his car” or “why was he outside at 3 am?”

Everything happens for a reason, so I feel the events of the last month are happening so we can take yet another look at race in America.  Because this country refuses to have honest conversations about systematic racism and the specters of race and class structure, it is cursed to continue to struggle with this issue.  As for me and my house, it starts with answering that particular question in detail from here on out.

“What’s a racist?”  

 Little girl, for the life of me….I wish I didn’t have to tell you.

 

Ahmad is the Head of Education and Exhibitions, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

 

16. July 2013 10:37
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Connecting the Dots “Slavery is Human Trafficking Evolved” By Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter

16. July 2013 10:37 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 

I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves”. ~ Harriet Tubman

 

 

When most people think about slaves and slavery, a few images come to mind: black men, women and children standing on the auction block being checked, poked and gazed upon like property, the overseers managing the cotton fields and the substandard living conditions..  Slaves were kept uneducated and fearful of their master. Although they outnumbered their owners by hundreds, sometimes thousands, slaves endured the abuse and harsh conditions with few even trying to escape. They walked around freely, cooked in homes, cared for the children of their owners, had no access to sufficient medical care, ate what they were given, worked for little to no pay at all, and even the children worked long days and nights. Yes, from that history we have evolved.

 

The visual picture of chains, battered and broken bodies and innocence hung from a tree is a constant reminder of families dismantled and human lives that were forever changed.  The buying, selling and exchange of slaves was not a secret.  The rape, torture and sometimes murder of slaves was not a secret and rarely classified as a crime. The sexual exploitation and intimidation of slaves was not a secret, much less a crime. Not even when given the opportunity of escape would slaves run for their Freedom! Yes, from that history we have evolved.  

 

"As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery." ~ Martin Luther King

 

But if we start resting comfortably on the pedestal that we have somehow arrived and humanity is far removed from the stench and stain that was tolerated, participated and most often ignored, then we shouldn’t get comfortable at all.  The term has changed; the victims vary in race, gender, age, ethnicity and social class.  There are laws on the books. People are more aware and yet others have no idea at all.  This is not only a women’s or children’s issue.  It’s a victim’s issue and it’s happening in Alabama, in Birmingham and throughout cities and neighborhoods across the country.   It is a billion dollar industry and profit is available on all sides.  Yes, we have evolved and its name is Human Trafficking!

 

It is easy to infer a connection between the slavery of yesterday and the human trafficking of persons today. Although the criminal activity surrounding the trafficking of persons is still extremely lucrative; it has become more organized.  The use of technology allows perpetrators to snatch victims from the comfort of their home (figuratively speaking).   The creation of false documents is more prevalent than ever, especially with respect to international victims coming and domestic victims going. The ability to sell, trade and barter victims from any location can sometimes make it more difficult for law enforcement and for the advocates who work with escaped or rescued victims.

 

There is significant victimization and collateral damage associated with human trafficking and it resonates deep within the psyche of its victims, often showing up as the Stockholm syndrome or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Due to the vast nature of sexual and labor exploitation, the visual perception tends to be less accurate than the reality.  Even more difficult is trying to convince the world that slavery still exists and the dehumanization of victims is a daily occurrence here in America and across the world.  I can hear the echoes of many voices …

 

“It’s happening everywhere but not in my city, not in my neighborhood.”

“The victims look like anyone other than me, anyone other than the people in my circle, the people in my class.” 

“They are foreigners brought from some other countries, they are prostitutes who are willing and able (surely they couldn’t be forced to do this and not escape).” 

“They are taking good jobs from me and those I know.”

“They don’t even have a right to be in this country”

“It’s their fault! It’s their fault! It’s their fault!”

 

I would be remiss if I let you forget about the perpetrators.  Who are they? They are your Wall Street executives, elected officials, blue collar workers, street pimps and hustlers.  They are men, women and even the children who attend school with your children (“groomers” as we call them).  They are “the demand” and the victims are “the supply”.  

 

Imagine how many lives would be saved it we just stopped ignoring what we see.   If we stopped making excuses and worked on developing solutions.  Human Trafficking is not new; it’s just the evolution of an old crime that many ignored then and are continuing to ignore now.   

 

 

 

Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is a local and national motivational speaker, law enforcement instructor, facilitator and consultant.  Slaughter is a subject matter expert in victimization and crimes against persons (domestic violence, sexual assault, teen dating violence, human trafficking and child abuse).  Slaughter is a federally certified law enforcement instructor and consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, GA.  She has worked with various United States Attorney’s Offices, the FBI in Birmingham and Huntsville, the Office of Victims of Crime and the Technical Training Academy in Virginia.  She also specializes in public relations/ marketing and event management services. You can reach her at  https://www.facebook.com/sunny.slaughter

25. April 2013 10:35
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Reconciliation and Forgiveness in the US Civil Rights Movement by Rami Khouri

25. April 2013 10:35 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 For more information on the upcoming symposium click here:  http://bcri.org/education_programs/symposium2013.html

As we and others gather today in Birmingham, Alabama to commemorate the events of 1963 that gave the civil rights movement a great push forward towards achieving equal voting and other rights for all Americans, I think this moment is an opportunity to remember some of the core values and principles of the non-violent protests and civil disobedience campaigns that characterized the movement, and led to its ultimate success. I was reminded of that recently upon reading the news of the death of a certain Mr. Elwin Wilson, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, a racist who ironically would ultimately stand out as an icon of what the civil rights movement was, and is, all about.

He was one of many white southerners who beat up the Freedom Riders, white and black young men who integrated bus services and bus stations throughout the south in the spring of 1961, often subjecting themselves to vicious beatings. Among the Freedom Riders he once assaulted were Albert Bigelow, a white man, and John Lewis, a black man, who were in a whites-only waiting room at the Greyhound bus station. Lewis later became a prominent civil rights activist and U.S. Democratic Congressman from Georgia.

Elwin Wilson said he had an awakening after Barack Obama was elected president, and telephoned a local newspaper in 2009 to admit that he had beaten Freedom Riders and other activists, and apologized for his deeds. When he learned that Lewis had become a U.S. Congressman, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet him and apologize in person, and ask forgiveness. Lewis quickly expressed his forgiveness, and the two men made several media appearances after that to promote social reconciliation and forgiveness.

Lewis later said in an interview that Wilson's was the first apology he had ever received for the violence committed against him during the civil rights movement; he added that he did not hesitate for a moment to accept it. Upon learning of Wilson's death earlier this year, Lewis said that accepting the apology and expressing forgiveness, "is in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence. That's what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation."

The sheer human courage and drama of both Wilson's apology and Lewis' forgiveness are a timely reminder of the underlying goals of the civil rights movement and any other quest for social justice: not just to achieve equal individual rights for all, but to heal past grievances and wounds, and therefore to be able to push society forward to a condition of well-being, stability, and dignity for all citizens.