21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

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.

 

7. January 2013 14:11
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Growing Up & Segregation

7. January 2013 14:11 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

 

The below collection of excerpts of interviews with various foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement provides some glimpses into what it was like to grow up in segregation.   A couple of the interviewees reveal how children saw the police as enemies.  The anxiety created by the Klu Klux Klan through their activities including burning crosses and bombings can be gleaned from a few of the statements.  All of the statements reveal the emotional wounds and humiliation of discrimination.  

Miriam McClendon

I had always felt that there was something wrong between the races and I wasn’t really sure what that “something” was.… I didn’t like the way the black people in my community would respond when a white bill collector would come around.... They were normally very proud, aggressive men.  But, then, all of a sudden they would become rather subservient in their demeanor.

Carl Grace: 

 [T]here were several racial incidents from outside of West Field [the neighborhood where I grew up].  I remember the Fielder twins…the police from Fairfield…putting them in the car and taking them out to the city dump [where the police beat them]…until they were unrecognizable.  [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] came…on several occasions…. They would burn crosses.  I can remember a time when one guy with a hood and a rope attempted to enter in through the bedroom while I was sleeping…  I hollered out and my father came with the shotgun and ran him out…. [M]y father was the one that headed up the movement of the NAACP in West Field… He was very instrumental in voter registration and so forth.  [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] really wanted to stop him.    [Another memory concerns a childhood friend of mine, who was detained as a juvenile for] looking at a white girl…. [He was detained] for approximately ten days; [they] shaved all of his hair off and charged him with reckless eyeballs.       

Bernard Johnson

[R]ace was something that was there and we knew that it was there….[I thought] that white people were different, even superior…cause they were the ones that were primarily show in a cleaner light than we [the blacks] were shown.  We saw that through television:  Leave It to Beaver.  They would open the refrigerator and they had a ham, a carton of milk, and a dozen eggs…  Well, you open a refrigerator in my neighborhood and you can’t really recognize what’s in there…. [T]hat had an influence on me as to how I felt my life should be, but it wasn’t that way….

[Then] Emmit Till was killed and...I discovered that there was something wicked that existed in the white world.… [T]he mothers would tell [their sons] not to look at a white woman because of what happened and not to travel or go anyplace alone.... I imagine…I was [around] nine years old [when two white men brutally killed Emmit Till in Mississippi for having flirted with one of the men’s wife.] …. [T]he racial point was made with me at that time.  I knew exactly how to survive from that day on.  One of the mechanisms was not to give the white man an excuse.

John Henry Lee

We didn’t want to see the police.  It wasn’t a positive thing to see the police coming.  Something was out of hand or they were coming in to suppress something. 

Floretta Scruggs Tyson

[After the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church] I was devastated and frightened terribly.  It was just a big shock.… I can remember that a house was bombed about two blocks from where I lived….[My father] and other fathers, went outside with guns.  I just remember him telling us don’t come outside.  I don’t know what they were looking for but everybody was upset, because… [of] what had happened earlier that day with the church being bombed [and the four little girls being killed]….It was very frightening….We didn’t know what to do.  It was so many things that were going on….incidents [were] happening… [T]hings that you hear about and my mother would tell us to be careful.  You know like, the whites were so angry.  If people would stand on the corner to catch the bus…[the whites] might be throwing rocks or anything or just shooting at you…It was just really dangerous. 

Danella Jones Bryant

[O]ne incidents…sticks out in my mind very well.  I was coming home from school one day with some of my girlfriends and were walking….[T]his pick-up truck passed by…[with] three white guys…[T]hey yelled out….[h]ey you nigger.  You niggers go home…..I was really hurt about it….It made me realize [that] things were not right in Birmingham…

I [also] remember every time I got on the bus; if it was crowded in the back and there were seats in the front, I had to stand up…. I felt that was unfair.  I remember not understanding why I couldn’t go to the Alabama Theater [which was the nicer theater in town].  I had to go to the Lyric and sit upstairs where there were rats and roaches….. 

[The police also stopped me and a friend one time.   The officer] asked my friend for his driver’s license and he showed it to him.  [The officer] …was saying something nasty to him… [H]e told him to get out of the car and that he was going to arrest him.  By this time I had gotten out of the car and I asked him, “Sir, why are you arresting him?  What have we done?  We didn’t run a red light.  We didn’t do anything?”  …[H]e pushed me to the ground…..and put a gun to my head…[saying] “I could blow your brains out and no one would even care.”….[H]e looks to his partner and he says, “Oh, this is a nigger bitch.”  So he told me to get up and run and don’t look back.  He said, “I mean you better not look back.”  And that is what I did.  I was scared…..I ran.

21. December 2012 07:18
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Fear & Intimidation

21. December 2012 07:18 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

In 1996 Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was interviewed as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Oral History Project.  As leader of the Birmingham Movement, Reverend Shuttlesworth was a prime target of hate groups.  Various excerpts of his interview bring out the climate of fear and intimidation that the Klu Klux Klan created in the 1950s/60s to stop the Civil Rights Movement.  His statements reveal a dysfunctional system of rule of law where the police did not protect all segments of the population and collaborated with hate groups, who along with the police acted with impunity.  Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words further expose his courage and ability to forgive, demonstrating his leadership in keeping the movement alive and maintaining its non-violent character. 

And all of a sudden, BOOM!  The lights went out.  I felt a pressure I’ve never felt before….The wall was demolished and the roof came down…The floor came out from under the bed.  [I smelled] that smoke of dust [of an old] house… mixed with… acid smoke [of dynamite]…..Everyone thought I was dead. …I could hear a [police] officer say ‘I’m so sorry….I know these people and I didn’t think that they would go this far….if I were you, I would get out of town as quick as I can.‘  I said officer….go back and tell your Klan brethren that…the war is on and I’m here for the duration.  ….  I went and sat in back of a car….My six year old daughter curled up in my lap and looked up in my face and said, ‘they can’t kill us daddy, can they?’  I said, no darling, they can’t kill folks.   

[This was Christmas night, December 25, 1956.  The Movement had decided to ride the buses to push for desegregating buses in Birmingham as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling to end segregated buses in Montgomery following the 13 month bus boycott.]  The next day,…. [I told] people in the movement…we were going to ride the buses….  There was a need to do what we [said] else we would have been dead, the movement I mean.  I could have been alive and yet the movement would have gone….Now… fear is something.  Most of my board members, I had to order them to ride.  I was moved at how fearful they were…..But we must get to the buses today….  If the Klan made their history last night, we’ll make ours for God.

 In 1957, to push for the implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregation of schools, I attempted to enroll my children at the all-white Phillips High School.  This was another incident where I was right at death’s doors….. A mob had formed, members of which, really intended to kill me….they… were shouting it out, ‘this kid, this S.O.B. …. [I]t’s an amazing thing how you can submit yourself even under pressure.  People must understand that faith goes much further than we believe and we understand.…. [T]he kicks, curses and slanders, people running into each other trying to do me harm; I was struck again with brass knuckles….they were holding me and pulling me and so forth;  I was just stumbling to the car…One guy…was just winging that [bike] chain; he had struck me already with it once or twice.  And I knew if he would hit me, I wouldn’t make it into the car….I just sort of stumbled into him and…began pulling myself up into the car….My feet were sticking out as the car pulled off.  We went on over to the hospital…..I had my wits.  I was calm….

My mind was on the fact that I had to get to the movement [meeting] that night.  Because I knew with the tensions mounting, the police had been harassing us, and with my being mobbed  I had to at least put in a presence at the movement.  I felt I should …let them know what nonviolence meant to us at that moment….  The doctor examined me…quite extensively….[H]e released me reluctantly…..    

[This incident had been filmed by CBS and the police were also present.]  I always announced and sent the police everything that I was going to do, and I must candidly say to you that the policemen that were there were enough to have prevented what did happen, had they wanted to.  [The attackers were aware of the cameras and the police but they] didn’t care….  They intended to kill….  But I wasn’t fearful….[Y]ou feel a sense of sorrow that it has to happen this way….You must understand I had no hesitation if death had come that day.  I believe the Lord would be ready for me.  I was more sorry for these men.  You can’t understand how otherwise, sensible ordinary citizens could allow themselves to be whipped up into a mob….[Y]ou must understand that we are human beings, we are flesh and there’s something about us that’s above and beyond our flesh, our spirit….All of us could do better….Charles Billups felt the same after the  Klan attacked him in 1958 and branded KKK on his stomach.  He was in the hospital….and I could hear him…saying…’you know what, I feel sorry for these men...for they know not what they are doing.’   

[Fear tactics were also directed at white activists.  In 1957 the white Reverend, Lamar Weaver, joined a protest at the train terminal station.]  My purpose was to sit in the station.  That’s the victory…to actually sit in the white [waiting] room…..Lamar Weaver came in…and sat down with us.  You’ve got to admire the man’s courage….[T]he policemen came in…and said ‘where’s your ticket?’  And he didn’t have one.  So they put him out….Into the mob [that had collected] and the mob set on him. …They tell me they rocked his car and almost tore the canvas off….[H]e barely got away with his life….   James Peck, the white activist, who was one of the original Freedom Riders, was another haunting incident.  First time I saw a human skull was James Peck’s.  They had hit him with an iron pipe and just burst his flesh…..The Freedom Riders came to my place.  They couldn’t go anyplace else.  The police intended to turn Peck over to the Klan….There are some instances here that people don’t know about.