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.

 

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

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.  

 

16. July 2013 10:37
by Administrator
7 Comments

Connecting the Dots “Slavery is Human Trafficking Evolved” By Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter

16. July 2013 10:37 by Administrator | 7 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

5. February 2013 10:36
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

"Hour of Freedom"

5. February 2013 10:36 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

 Click here to see the entire speech in Reverend Shuttlesworth's handwriting FS_Freedom scan.pdf (1.10 mb)

In 1958 at the 131st Emancipation Celebration in Canada, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech arguing that the “hour of freedom” had now arrived for African-Americans.  Fifty years later, his words transport us back in time to an era, nearly one hundred years after slavery had ended, but for African-Americans an era that continued to be defined by discrimination and fear.  You can hear his anguish at being denied freedom and the fervor with which he desired it. 

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech reflects the time in which he gave it.  He appealed to the audience’s intellect and morality arguing that freedom has a price but emphasizing the importance of a non-violent struggle.  As one denied basic freedoms he compared the ideologies of Communism and Democracy arguing that Democracy’s survival depended on guarantees of freedom for all citizens.  He pointed out the irony of man’s intellectual capacities to advance technologically while, remaining unable to overcome prejudices.  Unlike other speeches of Reverend Shuttlesworth this speech could not be delivered today, but as we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, his words remind us of the value of freedom and the long struggle to obtain it in the United States.    

[…]

[R]eaffirming once again my conviction that this is the Hour of freedom, and that whenever men and women of goodwill meet upon whatever occasion they meet, the chief ingredient of life to them and for them is freedom, justice, equality, humanitarianism and fair play. 

The Hour of freedom for all mankind is upon us, however much some men may misread history, misjudge the present and misinterpret the future.  All around the world, from the Artic regions of the North to the Tropics of the south, from the bushes and backwoods of Africa to the Isles of the Seas, men seem to have sensed the importance and possibilities of this hour, and their feet march with rhythmic tramp as they move to the cherished goal of freedom.  Nothing can stop this march to freedom.  It appears that the God of this universe has intervened in men’s affairs to teach them that there is but one race – the human race; and that of one blood.  He hath made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.  I call it a divine struggle for the…[exaltation] of the human race. 

Is it not strange then that after centuries of wars, of studies, and of knowledge, that the greatest bar to human progress and happiness is the color bar?  How ridiculous it is that men have learned from science how to send men over 100 miles up to orbit at nearly 18,000 miles per hour, but have not heard from the Bible to let men walk 10 blocks on earth at less than one mile per hour, without finding discrimination, segregation and in-humanitarianism?

We meet today as free men, as citizens of the two greatest democratic countries on earth.  Yet we meet to gain unity in our struggle for freedom.  We read in your brochure that a valiant Queen whipped out slavery with a stroke of a pen 132 years ago, but true freedom for all subjects of the Commonwealth without discrimination is not a reality today.  America, with its beautiful and sacred Constitution is finding it difficult at this moment to guarantee to all its citizens the same rights and privileges.  Democracy is on trial around the world, and you and I today are on the witness stand, testifying on its behalf.  Communism seeks to prove by the very faults and inequalities of our system that democracy will not work.  

This is a battle for men’s minds.  Both Russia and the Democratic countries can shoot rockets over the seas with accuracy; can send men into outer space and bring them back again; can photograph the moon and shoot at the sun.  The war is over moral and ethical practices now more than scientific or technological advances.  Which system can guarantee that all men must act like brothers, and none can be masters?  Which can ensure that a man’s color or origin of birth will not be a continuing obstacle throughout his life?  And which can guarantee the most benefits with the less friction?  The greatest good for the greatest number?

We believe in Democracy and that Democracy can best supply the answers for a confused mankind.  This is why we must contend for freedom now.  Time is short!  This is a glorious hour for it is a dangerous and challenging hour in man’s history.  The Negro’s great contribution to Society will be to prove in the 20th century that Love is the greatest force in the universe, that freedom is worth fighting for – even if some must die for it; and that there are those today who believe that spiritual weapons of faith, hope, and love with perseverance, will overcome the evil which has lasted for generations. 

I stand before you today as an American, one proud of my country despite its faults.  I come from one of the darkest spots on the North American continent – Birmingham, Alabama.  This is the spot where over 40 bombings have occurred in 10 years, where mobs in the past have roamed with impunity, where the police in the past have been noted for brutality, where the Police Commissioner has been quoted as saying “Damn the laws, down here we make our own laws.” 

In B’ham I have been in several mobs, and have been nearly killed three times at the hands of bombers or mobsters.  Here is a place where it seems that justice has declared a holiday; and today I am involved in more than 30 cases either civil or criminal ranging from the lowest inferior courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.   

With three other Negro Ministers, I have been sued for over 3 million dollars, and have lost a car and other valuables.  All of the five other members of my family and I have developed tensions and nevous conditions as a result of the day and night strains of 6 years fighting for freedom.  Like many others, we know what its like to await the sickening blast of bombs in the night, the howl of the mobs, on the commands of some officers who forget that they are servants and not masters. 

Out of it all we have learned that suffering for a just cause brings redemption, and that love with non-violent persistence will make even your enemy respect you. 

And so the Southern Negros have learned the key to racial progress. We have decided that now is the time; and that if now is not the time, there’ll never be another time like now.  We want freedom now, not tomorrow.  We have carried on in such manner that Federal Marshalls became the answer for southern mobsters, and the Justice Department became a prosecutor of law agencies which refused to do their duty.  

In our quest for freedom now, we have decided to fill the jails if necessary, and to transform them from dungeons to meeting places for God’s freedom loving children.  This is why I have been in jail over 20 times, and this is why Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy are in jail in Albany, GA today.  We have learned that freedom is so needful.  Now that we preachers are willing to preach on Sunday, walk picket lines on Monday, and go to jail on Tuesday. 

This is [our] prayer in its fullest sense, and this is prayerful action.  Thus the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides were not wild-eyed schemes for publicity.  Neither were they dupes or persons misled by other men.  They were men, like prophets of old, or the Apostles of the early Christian days, read to say to the Nero’s and the Ceasar’s, “We ought to obey God rather than man.”  They were, and they are, men and women young and old- who are willing to lay their brain and bodies before the mobs or the police, as living sacrifices……

Speech delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Windsor, Canada, 1958

 

 

18. January 2013 04:27
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

In My Country Too?!*

18. January 2013 04:27 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

My work has exposed me to hearing first-hand accounts of a range of human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, brutal beatings, gang rape, amputations, beheadings, cannibalism, captivity, and sex slavery.  In trying to understand how people could reach such depths of depravity, I was struck by the reality that these violations occurred in a theatre of war and/or under the reign of a dictatorship.  This understanding did not excuse the severity of the crime but it placed brutality and cruelty within a surreal context.  With more and more exposure, this surreal context became a grey zone where it was difficult to make unequivocal statements about culpability.

The focus of my work has recently shifted and I am beginning to delve into American history and the violations that have been committed against African-Americans.  I was not ignorant of this past nor did I or do I have a glossy view of the U.S.’ current human rights record, but it has nonetheless, been a humbling experience. 

I’m looking at the post U.S. Civil War-the end of slavery.  Yet, gross forms of human rights violations against freed African-Americans continued, namely in the form of segregation and convict leasing**.  I’ve been shocked at the abhorrent conditions under which leased convicts, primarily African-Americans, labored at private farms and mining companies starting in the aftermath of the Civil War continuing till the 1940s.   Those working conditions were disturbingly similar to conditions of captivity under the Revolutionary United Front-a Sierra Leonean rebel faction.  Segregation not only created a separate, unequal system, it allowed for a climate of terror, which had parallels with accounts Haitians made about living under a repressive  dictatorship.  But the U.S. was neither a dictatorship nor were we at war when these human rights violations were being committed in the U.S.      

How, then, could these abuses happen?  The answer I am finding is not novel.  It involves an extensive web of culpability as is well-illustrated by the convict leasing abuses.  One can first look to the guards at the work sites.  The guards treated these men as less than humans, using leather whips to enforce excessive daily quotas.   But employers-prominent businessmen-not the guards, established the quotas and the work conditions.  The conditions were such that many died, and for some this death sentence could have been for a concocted crime or petty theft.  Sheriffs and local court officials respectively arrested and convicted African-Americans as, like for the employers, convict leasing was profitable for them too.  Yes, this system was authorized by state law.  A number of state legislatures (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) passed laws creating the conditions under which convict leasing flourished as a means of exploitable and cheap labor for businessmen, which in turn benefited the state.   

At the turn of the century, the Federal Government investigated incidents of peonage and involuntary servitude in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  A U.S. Attorney in Alabama also tried to prosecute such cases with an aim to eradicate the practice.  A small handful of defendants pleaded guilty but the number was insufficient to dismantle the system.  In face of the prevalence and profitability of the system, the Federal Government lacked sufficient political will to fully pursue the cases.  The U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama also realized that no matter how substantial the evidence might be against this new form of slavery, sentiments of racism and white supremacy would likely cloud a rational assessment of the cases by juries.  Consequently, it took decades before this system of “slavery” ended. 

It equally took decades to overturn the legal system of segregation that was also installed in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.  Again, evidence of the injustice existed, and culpability was extensive.  Photos of lynchings starkly depict the climate of fear that reigned.  Some of these photos also point to the wider public’s engagement:  it is not so rare to find photos of lynchings with bystanders smiling as if they were at an entertainment event rather than the scene of a murder.  Similar to the power of juries, the approval of these bystanders allowed, in part, for these crimes to go unpunished. 

Chuck Morgan,*** a white lawyer in Birmingham captured extensive culpability in a speech following the death of three girls in one of many church bombings that earned the city the name “Bombingham” in the 50s and 60s:

                        “And who is really guilty?  Each of us.  Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, each citizen who has ever said ‘they ought to kill that nigger,’ every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag [Confederate Flag]; every citizen and every school board member and school-teacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” 

Morgan’s words lay bare a culpability that I had appreciated, but one which I did not have to consider so plainly until I began looking at human rights violations in my own country, which was a democratic state and was not at war during these times.  This type of culpability is even more difficult to rationalize, but to prevent reoccurrences of the same or those of a similar nature we need to understand the causes.  It is also disturbing to have to admit that this is part of my country’s history and therein part of my American identity too.    

 

* A longer version of this post discussing experiences aboard can be found on my personal blog http://www.journeytoreconciliation.com/blog.html

** For more on convict leasing see Blackmon, D., “Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” Anchor Books, New York, 2008.

*** Charles Morgan’s full speech can be found in his autobiography:  Morgan, C., “A Time to Speak, The story of a young American lawyer’s struggle for his city and for himself,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1964.

20. December 2012 10:14
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Wait!

20. December 2012 10:14 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

‘Wait!’  With this one word, in his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in March 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King captures so much of the historical struggle for racial equality in the United States (US).  As far back as the founding of the US, the framers of the Constitution indirectly made a request to slaves to “wait.”  By incorporating compromises into the Constitution, the framers allowed for the continued practice of slavery notwithstanding the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  The contradiction of the situation was not lost on the founders.   Thomas Jefferson, a framer and the author of the Declaration of Independence, said:  “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”  He also was not naïve on the gravity of this human right violation:  "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”  His words make me query, if not then and not him, when and whom did he think would resolutely tackle slavery?    

It was not the next generation.  It took a few generations and a war for decisive action to be taken.  President Lincoln, by issuing in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, decided de-jure for the nation that securing freedom for some four million people, about 13 per-cent of the population, was vital to the future of this nation.   The adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Congress further endorsed this view, substantively changing the legal framework of this nation.  Abolitionists, who assiduously labored to rectify the human rights violation that was slavery, saw this as a great leap forward. 

Yet, genuine freedom and full citizenship were still not realized.  Instead, segregation, denial of voting rights, lack of access to justice, and forced labor supplanted slavery.  A freed black was not even physically secure: lynching occurred with impunity and men were arbitrarily arrested.    In response, civil rights advocates replaced the abolitionists in the courts, in the media, in the Federal and State Legislatures, and in the street lobbying for change.  Some successes were realized but not until the mid-1960s were practical measures put in place to protect the human rights articulated in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments for African Americans.   Dr. King’s “wait” captures the justified frustration and outrage of African Americans being asked for centuries to wait for some of the most basic human rights and dignity as a human being.

“Wait” also illustrates the complexity of upholding human rights.  Dr. King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as political and legal structures of segregation were gradually being eradicated but when their termination was far from assured.  He addressed his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham.  This clergy was sympathetic to the cause but desired for protests to be halted to allow for a new local government to be instated.  This can be viewed as a judicious request from their perspective.  New government officials and the structure within which they sat represented  a sort of coup d’état:  a petition calling for a referendum on the type of local government structure had been successfully filed; the referendum had passed and new government officials, who were not rigid segregationist, had been elected.  The clergy wrote to Dr. King with the belief that this new power structure opened up new political and legal opportunities to overturn segregation.  This change of government structure was symbolic of considerable social upheaval within the white community when it came to perceptions of the legitimacy of segregation. 

“Wait,” while inadvertently, also captures the issue of trust and miscommunication between the writer and the receiver and between the larger communities of which they were members.  As indicated by the long history of the struggle for racial equality, asking to further “wait” could be interpreted by those oppressed as insensitivity to the scale of their suffering for centuries.  At the same time, the inability of the nation to rectify the paradox between the founding equality principles of this country and the overt practice of inequality throughout these centuries signifies the importance of the general public’s notions of legitimate laws and practices as well as the enormity of changing perceptions of what is legitimate.  This appears to have been the reality with which the clergy was grappling.  Reportedly, they were too ill at ease over the letter to have responded. 

As history shows, protests in downtown Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 were not halted.  While not immediately, they were successful in overturning segregation.  What we cannot resolutely know is whether passivism could have also worked.