Category Archives: Civil Rights Movement
Every year that I age, I have noticed that I have a growing appreciation for classic literature and the works of other authors that are no longer with us. James Baldwin (1924-1987) is near the top of my list of authors whose books are critical to American history and the current day state of affairs in the United States. The Harlem native who took his last breath in France, stands out as a commentator on race in America. His observations which he then put into words, were sharp, analytical and deeply profound. Baldwin lived what could only be described as an eventful but complicated life. He was a Black American and homosexual in a time in which both were considered to be crimes of the highest nature. America had yet to see the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and homosexuality was still considered a crime against nature in many states. Baldwin was both and carried himself with an aura of confidence and intellect that has remained impressive many years after his death. In this short but intriguing book, Baldwin comments on race in America based off of his experience and encounters with White Americans and even Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He never joined the nation but his account of his meeting with Muhammad is one of the highlights of the book. Racial discrimination is never an easy topic to discuss and many of us would prefer to discuss more pleasant issues. But Baldwin was a master of taking a explosive topic and relaying it to the reader in a way that forces one to do deep soul-searching if they are not African-American and reevaluate their own existence if they are.
Too often, it is assumed that books about racial inequality are attacks against White Americans. That is not Baldwin’s goal. In fact, Baldwin’s social circle was very diverse, consisting of White Americans, Black Americans, Europeans and Turkish individuals among others. In fact, in the book there is a part in which he feels conflicted about his White friends and his own social situation in America. His experience is not meant to demean or drive a wedge between friends but highlights the inner conflict that can engulf anyone. The key to appreciating Baldwin’s work is to remember that it was written in a time period that is much different from 2017. Jim Crow, voter suppression, poverty and class based war made life deplorable for minorities and poor White Americans. And before the courage of the Loving family, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the country. Every great movement needs voices like Baldwin, to remind of us where we come from and what we need to do in order to move forward. It is a shame that today, his voice has been largely forgotten by a generation that has no connection of one of the greatest writers in American history.
I truly wish Baldwin had completed more books before his death. His mind was uncanny and we are fortunate to have the works that he left behind. This book is not just for Black or White Americans, but for anyone who wishes to examined and understand America’s unpleasant history with racial equality. History is not always pleasant but the darkness in it, helps us not to make the same mistakes again but to try a different path that works and exemplifies what progress truly is. Baldwin does it again with another classic.
In the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn lies Marcus Garvey Blvd, a street named after the late iconic figure in the African-American struggle for civil rights in the United States and abroad. The native son of Jamaica and former resident of London, England, made his name famous on the streets of Harlem, New York through the formation and activities of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The organization’s purpose to build up the moral, economical and social status of Black Americans, combined with his “back to Africa” movement, remain defining movements in the African-American experience. At the time of his death on June 10, 1940, Garvey was a shadow of his former self after several severe strokes had taken their toll on his aging body. His death dealt a sever blow to the strengthening movement for equality. And 76 years after his death, his writings, speeches and life, are still remembered, quoted and analyzed for they remind us of the importance of standing up for what we believe in. Garvey remains one of most magnetic figures of the 20th century.
The rise and fall of the Black Start Line is often the focus of many articles about Garvey. And while the history of the line is unfortunate, the real Marcus Garvey typically remains hidden in the shadows. But who was Marcus Garvey and why is his story so important to the history of the United States and the movement for civil rights? Colin Grant presents to us the definitive biography of the late icon and his controversial and tragic life. Born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on August 17,1887, to the late Malchus Garvey, he would leave his native Jamaica many times throughout his life, making his mark across the world. Grant takes us back in time to witness the rise of the most gifted orators to speak directly to the soul of African-Americans. Garvey’s fiery rhetoric and inviting personality, earned him a legion of believers, intent on following him all the way back to Africa by way of Liberia.
But behind the speeches and mass congregations, the personal life of Marcus Garvey was nothing short of complex, filled with stress, fear, disappointment & violence. As leader of the UNIA, he would face continuous battles with other leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois. His success and influence also earned him the watchful eye of the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, headed by a young J. Edgar Hoover. Once shot and wounded and suspected in the violent deaths of others, Garvey was no stranger to violence and death. Grant has carefully researched the episodes and revisits them here showing the behind the scenes movements that helped Garvey rise to fame and which also caused his demise. At many points throughout the book, the reader is forced to confront the fact that Garvey, for all of his good deeds and intentions, was also a seriously flawed person at heart. But his shortcomings in no way detract from his vision for the complete freedom of Black Americans from the brutal system of racial injustice.
To the youth of today, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and even apartheid are old terms relating to an era to which they could never relate. But for many older Americans and people abroad, the dark periods that exemplified some of the worst actions humanity has ever witnessed, remain fresh in the mind as if they happened yesterday. While it will be rare to find someone alive today from Garvey’s generation, there are those among us who can relate to us the importance of his life. Many years after his death, he was named a national hero in his native Jamaica and across the world his name is still remembered. He is no longer with us, but left us many writings and speeches to remind us of the importance of self-preservation, respect and the well-being of all of our brothers and sisters from all backgrounds. For those interested in Garvey’s life to see who the man behind the speeches was, this book is an excellent place to start.
On November 15, 1998, Kwame Ture died at the age of 57 in Conakry, Guinea following a long bout with prostate cancer. Ture was formerly known as civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael, a native of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, became a leading icon of the American civil rights movement as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His writings and speeches on equality, integration and the advancement of minorities are some of the most passionate ever recorded and are widely read and studied by students of the movement and revolutionary ideology.
This collection of writings takes us back in time during a turbulent time in American history that some believed would result in the downfall of the United States. For others, their belief in the government would be permanently altered following the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. And even today, the 1960s ranks among the most dangerous and feared decades in modern American history.
The United States has changed dramatically in recent years, but not too far in the past, the political, social and economic landscape of this nation was vastly different. There are those today that believe nothing has changed, but instead, things are more carefully masked. However, I do believe that if Stokely were alive today, he would be proud to see the many steps forward that have been taken and optimistic about the work that lies ahead. As we do move forward in building a better nation, it pays for us to revisit his writings as they touch the very core of the American soul. Stokely forces us to confront our basic human nature and re-examine everything we thought we knew about racial discrimination, war, poverty, capitalism and politics. And like a master surgeon, he methodically dissects each subject putting it into a completely different perspective that some of us have never considered.
Perhaps one of the biggest tragedies of the civil rights movement, is that much of the outstanding literature published during the time is scarcely revisited and on the brink of being lost to future generations. The voices of Che, Malcolm, Fidel, Fanon and Chairman Mao are relics for the youths of today. However, it’s often said that in order to know where you’re going, it’s important to know where you come from. Stokely does his part in helping us figure out both.
Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South -William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavis and Robert Korstad
In the United States, the month of February is dedicated to showcasing the achievements and centuries long plight of African-Americans. Stories and images from the slave trade, emancipation, Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement flash across television screens, social media and the Internet. My parents can still vividly recall their memories of the movement and the mistreatment of minorities of all backgrounds before the passing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Following the passage of the bill, many more years would pass before American society began to make bigger strides in social equality. And even today in 2016, there is still much work to be done. The faces may have changed, but the actions and unfortunate consequences that come with discrimination are still an issue which America finds itself being confronted with regularly. It’s nearly impossible for the generation of today to even imagine what life was like during Jim Crow. To most it seems like an ancient period in American history. But let us not forget that this era was less than 100 years ago and many of those alive today from that era still carry mental and physical scars that may never heal.
William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavis and Robert Korstad have compiled this incredible book which features a collection of memories from people who lived in the south during Jim Crow and what they remembering growing up among a violent and fiercely oppressive climate of racial discrimination. In most elementary schools, children are taught about the slave trade, emancipation and the civil rights movement, but books such as these are typically nowhere to be found. I firmly believe that every American should read this book. It is often brutal at times, but it serves as reminder of a not too distant past that continues to rear its ugly head today. One of things that make the past so valuable is that we can continue to use it as a tool by which to learn. America has come a long way, and as Robert F. Kennedy accurately predicted more than 50 years ago, we did have our first president with African-American ancestry. This nation still has a long way to go, but the commitment to change and improvement is what makes this country the great nation that it is.
October 13, 1970-Angela Davis is arrested in New York City and extradited to Marin County, California, where she is charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The charge stems from the death of Judge Harold Haley, taken hostage by Jonathan Jackson and accomplices in an effort to free the Soledad brothers and all political prisoners from United States federal prisons. Davis’ arrest and trial became a focal point in the struggle against an unjust and discriminatory judicial system in which the privileged often found themselves defenseless in frivolous trials resulting in equally absurd prison sentences.
Bettina Aptheker, close friend and supporter of Davis, penned her recollections of the trial and the hurdles and obstacles in the way of Davis’ path to exoneration. Set in Palo Alto, California, a stronghold of conservative political views, the defense became embattled in a David and Goliath struggle against a prosecution bent on Davis’ imprisonment. There are many highs and lows in the trial, but the shining moments are the selected readings of Davis’ letters to George Jackson, at the time incarcerated at San Quentin. Davis and Jackson had become deeply involved with each other and Davis’ confession of love are moving and revealing.
The book isn’t always an easy read, there are parts where the ugliest side of human actions are shown. Racism, sexism and political suppression are shown unrestricted for the reader to digest. Her standing as a professor, civil rights activist and communist thrust her into the spotlight and her trial was one of the most important in the history of this nation. Her acquittal would force America to re-examine itself and the concept of justice. All of the negative aspects of society are brought to the surface bringing the past to life. The very pitfalls common in that time period, while tragic, are also the same pitfalls that do make this nation great. Our ability to constantly examine and self-criticize are the tools of any great democracy. Our constitution says that all men are created equal, but for hundreds of years, minorities, women, the disabled, LGTB and many others of society have struggled in their cause for equality. Angela’s story reminds us that while it may seem difficult, justice can and does prevail.
In March, 2014, I had the privilege of seeing Denzel Washington on Broadway when he starred in a new production of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin In the Sun’. Hansberry’s classic play has graced the Broadway stage repeatedly throughout the years and even caught the eye of Hollywood being adapted to movie and television formats. When she wrote the play, I don’t know if she knew then that it would go on to become a classic, but I do believe that she was fully aware that her play would have an impact on American society and the never-ending issue with race. The play is set in a time where segregation and racial discrimination were highly prevalent throughout the United States. We are introduced to a small American family struggling to live the American dream. Living in a small apartment as a typical nuclear family, Walter Lee, Ruth, Travis and Lena, represent the social status of millions of African-Americans at the time. The death of Lena’s husband results in a life insurance payout and the family now is faced with the question of what to do with the settlement. While Walter Lee has his own idea, Mama has her own plan, one that will test every member of the family. Her vision to buy a house in predominantly white neighborhood is the crux of the play and the most intense. The visit by Mr. Lindner on behalf of the resident’s association highlights the discrimination and fear that gripped suburban communities as minorities attempted to leave the turmoil of the inner city during the middle of the 20th century.
Although the issue of the house is critical to the development of the play, the characters we meet are equally just as important. Through them we are able to re-evaluate our own thoughts on marriage, religion, parent-child relationships and the relationships we have with our friends. Hansberry’s masterpiece continues to open eyes and hearts and is a crucial piece of literature that ranks high among the works of all celebrated authors. The true tragedy is that she didn’t live to see the legacy her play developed following her death. Had she lived, I think she would be amazed at how far America has come since the Youngers dared to challenge social norms and make a case for integration on their own. And she would never hesitate to remind that it’s okay to sit awhile and think.
On August 22, 1989, Huey P. Newton was shot killed on a street corner in Oakland, California. He was 47 years old. The charismatic Newton was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Bobby-Seale and became an icon for revolution. The image of the Newton sitting with a rifle in one hand and a spear in other while wearing the Panthers’ trademark leather jacket is one of the most recognized of the era. It is the cover of this book but only tells part of the story of the late icon’s life. David Hilliard served as chief of staff for the party and became well acquainted with Newton. This is a collection of his memories from his time with Huey, the Panthers and the movement watched by entire world. Newton himself wrote several book, as the best-selling Revolutionary Suicide, could be considered a semi-autobiography. However its main strength is also its main weakness for that Newton is the only one telling the story. Hilliard’s account proves itself valuable as another look at Newton and his significance to the party and the movement.
Complex is an adjective often used to describe some of history’s greatest figures. For Newton, this adjective is highly accurate. Here we are presented with the good, the bad and at times, the ugly. His studies of Marx, Engels, Mao and Fanon served as the basis for his belief for armed struggle and the willingness to use violence whenever necessary. For most of his life, he was a functional illiterate as he pointed out himself on multiple occasions. Fighting resulted in expulsion from several schools in the Oakland area. And as an adult, he went on trial several times for the charge of murder only to be acquitted in the end. His extreme rhetoric and descent into drug use cast him down a hill from which he never recovered. However, as Hilliard shows us, there was a good side to Newton and his commitment to the cause sprang from emotion and strong convictions. Newton himself once said that the first thing a revolutionary must understand is that he is doomed from the start. It is a tragic fate that those committed to social upheaval must be willing to accept as they put their lives on the line in the service to humanity.
The book features two guest writers, Gwen Fontaine and Fredrika Newton. Fontaine was Newton’s first wife and was married to him from 1974-1983. As a mother of two children, she invites Newton into her life and the lives of her children. Her memories of life with Newton highlight his erratic behavior at the time and the demons he began to face as his drug use escalated. And as he continued to spiral downward, a strain was placed upon the relationship fracturing it past the point of no return. In 1984, Newton married his second wife Fredrika who remained with him up until the time of his death. Her words serve as the last testament to Huey’s life and legacy.
Hilliard is currently a visiting professor for the University of New Mexico where he teaches courses on the history of the Black Panther Party. He and Fredrika founded the Huey P. Newton Foundation in 1993 with its base of operations in Vallejo, California. The Panthers are a shadow of what they once were during the turbulent 1960s. The United States has made much social progress over the past 50 years but the stains from the policies of Jim Crow and legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination haunt the nation as it confronts its past. But if we are to understand our past and how we can shape our future, we will do a service to ourselves to look to books such as this for a look into a time in American history where the nation almost became completely unhinged as a new brand of revolutionaries made their voices heard.