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
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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.


21. November 2014 11:38
by Administrator

Selma to Ferguson by Josh Cannon

21. November 2014 11:38 by Administrator | 0 Comments



In the trailer for the forthcoming movie Selma, we see Governor George Wallace, as played by actor Tim Roth, proclaim, “We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.” Not a direct quote perhaps, but certainly in keeping with the actual language of Wallace and others who put up resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, and not that dissimilar to language surrounding current struggles.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, a reporter with Vox.com, watched the Selma trailer, and thought this Wallace line bore an eerie resemblance to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s news conference last week; in anticipation of the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Governor Nixon addressed the press, assuring a robust police presence and zero tolerance of violence.

To be sure, Gov. Nixon is not likely to be confused for Gov. Wallace. For one, he sounds softer and somewhat more sympathetic to protestors than Wallace often did, as when, just before the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Wallace argued against the state providing aid and protection for the “so-called demonstrators,” whom he condemned as “mobs employing the street warfare tactics of the Communists.”

Further, I think we can agree that violence is not acceptable, and law enforcement has a duty to protect. Ironically, as St. Louis Alderman Antonio French illustrated on Twitter, that is a point the majority of peaceful protesters have been trying to make, only aimed in the opposite direction Gov. Nixon intended it.

And for Desmond-Harris, therein lies the problem with the tone of Nixon’s news conference. The governor seemed to place the blame for and burden of violence solely at the feet of demonstrators, while failing to acknowledge the dramatic missteps of the militarized police response which escalated tensions and fueled widespread outrage. This came off as a one-sided deference to law enforcement and a tone-deaf threat of more of the aggressive tactics which so roiled the community and created an international stir in August.

But it was not just Gov. Nixon calling to mind the language and tensions of the 1960s. The first member of the press to pose a question to Nixon wanted to know what “intelligence” law enforcement had regarding outside “infiltrators” and “communists” who might come in to stir up trouble. Members of the KKK reportedly distributed fliers throughout St. Louis County threatening lethal force against “terrorists masquerading as ‘peaceful protestors’ (sic)!”

Beyond Ferguson itself, we don’t have to look too hard to find many in the media using a Wallace-esque script about demonstrators. Many have accused protesters of having a “lynch mob mentality” and demanding “mob justice” --  George Wallace similarly claimed the marchers in Selma sought the “speedy expediencies of mob rule” rather than waiting for the courts to decide the issue.

The suggestion that people should sit back and wait, and wait, and wait, despite long-growing disaffection and feeling that the system fails to represent them, is perhaps as commonplace now as it was in the Jim Crow era. It is worth recalling that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a response to just such a complaint from members of the local clergy over nonviolent demonstrations in the streets of Birmingham, demonstrations the clergy members called “unwise and untimely.” King retorted, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”

Whether “Wait” now means “Never” for the issues brought to the forefront in Ferguson remains to be seen. But that we have very similar perceptions of injustice and are having eerily similar conversations about these matters 50 years after Birmingham and Selma reminds us that the struggle does indeed continue.


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.



17. October 2014 13:08
by Administrator

What Do You Mean My Halloween Costume is Offensive? by Ahmad Ward

17. October 2014 13:08 by Administrator | 0 Comments



Halloween is a time of the year where the young and the young-at-heart express themselves through the use of costumes.  There will be countless parties leading up to October 31st where folks will show off their duds with the hope of impressing others with their creativity.   In the mix of this will most assuredly be costumes that will be borderline (or completely) tasteless, tacky and offensive.  

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

              Oh here it comes.  This guy is going to go on a rant about blackface and I’m tired of hearing about this.

 It’s all in fun, Ahmad. Lighten up! 


Hear me out first. Growing up as a kid, no one flinched at the sight of little children wearing headdresses, carrying bows and arrows and fake tomahawks.  There were also folks sporting huge sombreros and oversized mustaches while making their best attempt at a “Speedy Gonzalez” impression.  As the country started to acknowledge the importance of respecting other cultures, some folks decided these images are potentially problematic.  However, you can still purchase full scale costumes that “mock” other cultures.  Do you know why people frown on “blackface?”  Black people decided to remind the general public about the sordid past of the practice.  “Documentaries such as Ethnic Notions described in great detail the inherent racism attached to blackface and other damaging tropes used in the media to disparage Black people.   Now here is where the rubber meets the road.  Do you know why you do not hear the same furor about headdresses, Day of the Dead costumes and Eastern/Asian cultural appropriation?    Those voices (and they are out there) are not widely respected or taken seriously the way they should be in America.

Ahmad, you’re being too sensitive. Nobody cares about this

It is a lot harder to gloss over America’s history with its citizens from African descent.  The very fabric of the country is girded with the underlying issue of race and oppression.  However, we still feel it is okay to appropriate Native American culture.  You could make a case about how the blood of indigenous people flows through all our veins therefore you can wear the multi-feathered headdress or dress like a “squaw.”  You could go the “it’s a free country and I can dress how I want to” route.  If that’s how you feel…fine. But please look at this excerpt from a piece entitled “An open letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses from the site Apihtawikosisan.com:

For the most part, headdresses are restricted items.  In particular, the headdress worn by most non-natives imitate those worn by various Plains nations.  These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them.  It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is again quite restricted.

So unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one (sort of like being presented with an honorary degree), then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything other than disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended… regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.

Even if you have ‘native friends’ or are part native yourself, individual choices to “not be offended” do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols.

You can read the rest of the post at: http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/

If you take this as a sweeping indictment of people who let their kids dress up like other cultures or who want to show their cultural appreciation, it’s not.   There are plenty of items that are culturally acceptable to wear.  It would behoove us to do the research to see what things are revered in a certain cultures, so that we do the right thing and steer clear of them.  What you will find if you do the research is there is serious dialogue taking place on whether non-Indians can wear Bindis or Saris without being offensive and which Native American items are okay and which are not.  This could actually be a good thing for you and your children because it will expand your world view….and you might just learn something.

Now, if you are pulling a “Katy Perry” and donning “yellowface” while mixing various Asian cultures...THAT, could be seen as problematic.  It comes across like you are fetishizing the culture instead of appreciating it.  Actually any painting of faces to “capture” a culture or dressing up like an over-the-top stereotype of a culture puts you in offensive territory. 

Here’s the thing to remember: If you don't want to wear your costume in a room full of the people you are “appreciating," you probably should get another costume.

Enjoy your candy.



Ahmad is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI




21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe

Another Crossroads?

21. August 2014 09:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 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. Dauphin 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. Dauphin 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
by Administrator

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

Shared History

31. July 2014 14:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 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.