I find that as I age, I am more focused on historical events that changed the course of America, in particular from Black Americans. It has been said that in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you come from. For millions of Black Americans, the question of identity has been a difficult one to answer. Some prefer the term African-American while others prefer Black-American. And there are some who prefer Afro-American or just simply Black. Regardless of the label, there is a shared history of pain, struggle and the never ending goal for full integration American society. Over the past fifty years, tremendous progress has been made in the United States but there is still much work to be done. But one of the greatest things about America is our ability to correct and learn from mistakes that have lingered for too long. The young generation of today lives in a world far removed from only twenty years ago. Their world is one in which technology is ingrained and life moves at an even faster pace. My father often thinks back to the period of integration and the times where it seemed as if America was going to tear itself apart. Even to him, as a kid it seemed as if the accomplishments by Black Americans over the years were just a pipe dream.
The Civil Rights Movement was a platform not just for Black-Americans but for all people that had been denied basic civil rights to which everyone is entitled, whether here in the United States or around the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been seen as the “leader” of the American movement. The reality is that he was one of endless figures who displayed unparalleled bravery and dedication. But he is easily the most recognizable. But behind him, was his wife Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), who in later years became even more vocal in her commitment to Dr. King’s legacy and the movement they both believed in. This book is her autobiography so that the world can learn more not about Mrs. King but about Coretta.
Her story begins in 1927, in the small town of Heiberger, Alabama during the Jim-Crow Era. Readers sensitive to the subject matter might find this part of the book a little unnerving. Although there are some low points, there are equally many high points as well and the pride and dignity with which the Scott family carried itself offsets the darker memories that she recalls. From an early age, she is independent, tough and open to change. Those traits would prove to be invaluable later in life when a young bachelor named Martin Luther King, Jr., walked into her life. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up speed at an extraordinary pace.
Martin’s story is well-known and he remains one of the most iconic figures in world history so I do not think it is necessary to go into detail about his life in this post. Plus, Coretta does that for us but not in the position of a biographer, but simply as his wife and the mother of their four children. This is the behind the scenes look into their very private life which might surprise some. In contrast to the public version of Dr. King which was cool, controlled and always prophetic, the version shown by Coretta is humble, playful, a homemaker, a prankster and a father. The movement is never far away and Coretta explains early on that they both believed that the movement was a higher calling than anything else. And each would maintain that belief until the end of their lives.
As the story moves into the 1960s, the movement gains momentum and Coretta revisits all of the critical moments that changed America. The bus boycotts, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), Bull Connor (1897-1973) and Jim Sharp (1922-2007) are just some of the events and figures that she discusses. She also discusses the much darker moments that occurred such as a the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and her beloved Martin, whose death rattled the globe and changed her life permanently. Following his assassination, she became the heir apparent to the King legacy and she has never wavered in that task.
The book changes gears after Martin’s death and the focus shifts primarily back on Coretta. Her children also come into sharper focus and she discusses how each responded to their father’s death and what he meant to them. Although Martin was gone, Coretta was still in high demand and the movement never stopped. Her circle of friends and acquaintances changes slightly but the core group of support remains intact. Later in her years, she finds herself in what some would call the widow’s club but to her, it was far from that. She was a survivor of the movement who understood that death was a constant threat to anyone who dared to challenge the system.
There is one part of the book that did strike me and that was her discussion of rumors of Martin’s infidelity. Accounts of philandering, allegedly picked up through FBI wiretaps has circulated for years. It is true that tapes were mailed to their house and Coretta elaborates on what they contained. She also has choice words for J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau. King’s friend Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990) comes under fire here for his statements in his autobiography And The Walls Came Tumbling Down wherein he discusses Martin’s transgressions. Coretta remains firm in her beliefs about Martin’s actions outside the home and Abernathy never changed his position. All are now deceased, leaving us without the opportunity to clear up the issue. What I can say is that I have never seen any photo evidence of such activity and the main source for the information came from the very agency whose job it was to discredit him. I will leave the issue up to the reader to research.
Dick Gregory once said that Black History is American History. One month in February does not come close to telling the full story. But that is easily circumvented through books such as this, written by those who were present during the defining moments in the American experience. Coretta is no longer with us, but her words of wisdom and guidance remain as a light to lead us through our darkest times, some of which have yet to come. Highly recommended.
“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man” -Huey P. Newton.
Those prophetic words spoken the late Huey P. Newton serve as a reminder of the fate is to be accepted when one decides to become a revolutionary intent on change through armed struggle. Successful revolutions throughout history were often violent with climactic endings that forever changed the history of the nation in which they were executed. Here in the United States, some would argue that the revolution for civil rights has never ended. The faces may have changed but the age-old problems remain. While the days of Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao have long passed, their efforts, successes and failures are case studies for the positive and negative effects of armed struggle. The 1960s proved to be a turning point in both American and world history as young men and women found an ideology they could relate to in the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Engels. The Black Panther Party emerged during this decade giving African-Americans and other minorities a source of pride and confidence against systemic discrimination. Created by Huey and Bobby Seale, the party later became a target of the FBI’s illegal COINTEL program which helped contribute to its self-destruction.
Revolutionary Suicide is Huey’s autobiographical masterpiece takes us deep inside his mind and conscience which was always on and moving in several different directions at once. Functionally illiterate by the time he graduated high school, he would eventually learn to read and write and became a voracious reader resulting in one of the sharpest analytical and political minds the civil rights movement ever produced. Earning a Ph.D from the University of California in Santa Cruz, he evolved into a gifted writer full of energy and raw emotion and his words and thoughts are conveyed in an engaging matter bound to keep the reader engaged. His life was anything but ordinary and he was charged and tried for murder more than once. Known to have a hair-trigger, he admits his past mistakes and his disdain for authoritative figures. It was a trend that would continue his entire life. Defiant and stoic, this is Huey in his own words. And if you like this you might also like David Hilliard’s Huey: Spirit of the Panther.
August 21, 1971 – George Jackson is shot and killed at San Quentin Prison. He was convicted in 1961 of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station and sentenced to one year to life. At the time of his death he had been incarcerated for ten years. And as an outspoken member of the Black Panther Party and supporter of Marxist ideology, he became a embroiled in controversy. To this day the circumstances surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery. It was alleged that Jackson had a firearm in his possession but how or when he obtained the gun has never been established. While incarcerated, he began to record his thoughts keeping a journal and writing letters to his family members. ‘Soledad Brother’ is the collection of the surviving letters to his family, friends and acquaintances. A foreword is provided by his nephew Jonathan Jackson, Jr. , whose father Jonathan met his own tragic fate when he was shot and killed on August 7, 1970 in a shootout with authorities during a foiled attempt to force the release of George and two co-defendants. The group was known as the Soledad Brothers and had been charged with the murder of prison guard John Vincent Mills. Also killed in foiled the attempt was Marin County Judge Harold Haley. While it has never been proven that George was involved in the deaths of the guard or Judge Haley, his name is forever linked to their deaths. And during the trial of Angela Davis several years later, their correspondence became the center of the case and helped Davis win her acquittal.
The beauty of the book is the mind of Jackson on full display for the reader. While incarcerated his sharpened his mind and pen through deep analytical thought and extensive writing. Had he not been in San Quentin, he very well could have walked alongside Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. The tragedy of George Jackson is the surreal jail sentence for such a petty crime and his untimely death that has never fully been explained. The youths of today have no idea who Jackson is and most will never read this book. Over time he has been forgotten by students of the civil rights movement and even those committed to prison reform. His life and death are a textbook example of the systematic discrimination that has ended the lives of thousands of young African-American men. There are hundreds of thousands of prisoners in prison today convicted on flimsy evidence and given overly harsh sentences in a criminal justice system that suffers from the bias of those tasked with upholding the blindness of justice.
At first Jackson might come off as angry or even charged. But is necessary to remember the social and political climate in which he lived and died. His letters are filled with his thoughts on the prison system, the civil rights movement and the relationships with his family members in particular his father. In his letter Jackson admits to his faults and its evidently clear that in his life he has acted on some occasions with blatant disregard for himself and others and without a clear mind. He was no angel but far from the demon that he was once portrayed to be. As he found his voice, he became an outlet for the rising anger and frustration of Black Americans and in his writings, he accurately relays the mindset that many of his peers began to develop. And if he had lived, I believe that he would have written books and given speeches about the reality of prison and the movement for civil rights.
This book is a forgotten gem that should be added to the library of the many books of the struggle for civil rights in America. Jackson is either loved or hated but his words are accurate and necessary in the process of reformation to correct the horrors of discrimination. For those who want to know more about this controversial and enlightening figure, this is the place to start.
On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met with a group composed of authors and civil rights icons at his Central Park South apartment. Among those in attendance were Lorraine Hansberry and her friend and fellow author, James Baldwin (1924-1987). The meeting quickly became volatile as the activists accused the Kennedy administration of dragging its feet on civil rights legislation. Their frustrations at the rampant discrimination in the United States and the inability of the government to take action, boiled over and Kennedy found himself in a hornet’s nest of raw emotion. The meeting left a permanent mark in his memory but in time he would become a vocal advocate for equal rights for all American regardless of race, creed or gender. His resurgence as the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden became the basis for his 1968 president campaign that ended tragically with his assassination in Los Angeles on June 5 ,1968. Baldwin outlived Kennedy by nineteen years and today both are remember for their efforts to transform the American conscious and way of thinking. In recent years, his work has been rediscovered and studied for its messages that were accurate then and are accurate now. Baldwin’s public stance of many topics was blunt and non-confusing. He did not mince his words and his delivery was direct and always mean to stir thought. But for all of his public actions, his private life is a story on its own that shows the author in a completely different light. His friend for many years, David Leeming, wrote this biography of his late friend to show the world who the real James Baldwin was. And what he has composed is a definitive account of the life of the late author.
The story of Baldwin’s life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. As a Black American born during the Jim Crow era and an openly homosexual, he was in unique position to observe the world classified under two groups of individuals openly persecuted in American society. The New York native struggled to find himself and his journey in life took him back and forth across the ocean to Europe where he would find a second him in France. And it was in France that he took his last breath after succumbing to the effects of a protracted battle with lung cancer. During a visit to Istanbul, Turkey in 1968, he met Leeming and the two formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of his life. Leeming was present when Baldwin passed and had also become close to Baldwin’s brother David who is featured throughout the book.
Homosexuality was a topic that Baldwin had no fear of addressing. His classic Giovanni’s Room tackles the taboo subject and did so at at time when such topics were only discussed in secrecy. However the book breaches a subject to which millions of people can relate as they face the same struggle daily. And when he wrote the all-time classic Go Tell It On The Mountain, he took us deep inside a blended family with a long history that continues to affect present day affairs. The book’s protagonist John, is forced to navigate this world as he finds his true calling in life. The reality of his works is that his own personal experiences helped shape his literary accomplishments. The same can be said about other authors such as Lorraine Hansberry, John Steinbeck Ernesto Che Guevara, M.D. Baldwin’s personal life and his orientation proved to be his most difficult challenges and throughout the book we are witnesses to his enduring struggle to find true love. In an ironic twist, the author who loved his people and his country, never found that love at home but instead traveled the world in search of it and himself.
Baldwin has been gone for nearly thirty years but I believe that in the next few years, his voice will become heard again as America continues to deal with discrimination. The cause in which he enlisted is far from over but his voice remains to guide us along the way. After reading this book, I felt inspired by his courage and gifts to us and ashamed for not having known more about him prior to this. For some he may come across as a radical too outspoken but for others, he is an icon and a voice of truth when most did not want to hear it. David Leeming has done a great service to his friend with this excellent biography with one of America’s greatest writers.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X (1925-1965) was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York. The image of him laying mortally wounded while surrounded by his close aides shows the savagery employed by his killers. His death was violent and unmerciful, taking place in front of his wife Betty and their six daughters. From the initial volley of shots, it was clear to most that Malcolm’s wounds were fatal. First aid was administered to no avail. Among those who rushed to his side was a friend and dedicated civil rights activist named Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014). She is rarely mentioned in stories about the legendary Muslim leader but her life was one of dedication to civil rights for all human beings.
You may be wondering why you have not heard of Kochiyama before. I asked myself the same question. I never learned anything about her in school and her name does not appear in any history textbooks. But by chance, I discovered her as I studied the photo of Malcolm’s final moments. Curiosity set in and I kept asking myself who was the Asian woman in the middle of Malcolm’s followers? After learning her name, I found this excellent biography by author Diane C. Fujino, a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
Kochiyama’s story begins in San Pedro, California and her youth is centered around the detainment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. The experience would never leave her or millions of Japanese who struggled to be accepted in the United States as suspicions about their loyalty to Japan mounted. Her internment in Jerome, Arkansas may have possibly been the spark that resulted in a life-long pursuit of justice and equality. As she matures to adulthood, she meets her husband Bill and the couple would produce six children. The Kochiyama family settled in New York City and became a fixture in the struggle for civil rights, operating out of their apartment in Manhattan. Fujino met personally with Kochiyama, her family and those who knew her, conducting interviews and recording the memories about her life. The end result is an incredible biography of an incredible woman who’s life story is as American as the reader could possibly ask for.
Yuri’s fateful encounter with Malcolm X at the Downstate Medical Center protest took her life in a new direction and allowed her to fulfill the destiny that awaited her. Her efforts on behalf of the movement have earned her a place on the list of those who frequently went above and beyond. Her story is inspiring, encouraging and allows us to see the good in humanity. Horace Mann once said that we should “be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity”. This is never more true than in the life of the late Yuri Kochiyama, who’s life should be studied in every school in the United States. The amount of work undertaken by the family is nothing short of staggering and their doors were seemingly always open. But they never complained and continued to press forward. The recollections given to Fujino are simply awe inspiring but critical in giving the most accurate picture of a forgotten icon.
On June 2, 2014, Yuri Kochiyama died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 93. Incredibly, she had outlived nearly all of the iconic figures from the Civil Rights Movement. And as her health began to slowly decline, she continued to partake in the movement giving her voice and wisdom when needed. She is now gone but her memory lives on through her work and this definitive biography by Fujino. This is the life of Yuri Kochiyama and the heartbeat of struggle.
“Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another” – Yuri Kochiyama
April 17, 1990-Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. dies at the age of 64 in Atlanta, Georgia after suffering cardiac arrest following a lung scan by doctors after suffering strokes a few weeks prior. The late Abernathy is best remembered as co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and close friend of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Abernathy was King’s side after he was shot and fatally wounded on April 4, 1968. The two icons, along with Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Stanley Levison and many other prominent proponents of civil rights, drove a movement that culminated with the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act signed in law by then President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The marches of Selma and Washington stand out as Dr. King’s shining moments, but behind the scenes there was much more than transpired and many unsung heroes. The road to the passage of the Act was wrought with incarceration, physical assault and even murder. The 1960s remains one of the most violent in American history as political figures were assassinated and the world came to the brink of nuclear war.
This invaluable autobiography by Abernathy also serves as a historical record of the effort required to finally end Jim Crow segregation that demoralized American society. Abernathy recounts his beginnings in Linden, Alabama as one of 11 children. From an early age, his drive and passion for his goals and visions is readily apparent as he takes us back to relive his experiences as young African-American male in the heavily segregated American South. His early life is full of incredible achievements and in 1954, when he meets King, his life changes yet again, but this time on a grand scale. Because the book deals with a critical part in American history, which unfortunately is also highly regrettable, several well-noted infamous characters make an appearance such as James “Jim” Clark, the former sheriff of Dallas County Alabama and Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the former Commission for Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama.
There’s a section of the book that apparently caused much consternation when it was published. As is known today, infidelity was an issue that came up more than once during King’s campaign or social justice. Abernathy doesn’t avoid the issue but he doesn’t condemn King either. And as close friend, I wouldn’t expect him to. The point of the book is that this Abernathy’s life story supplemented with a factual record of how the breakthrough Act was put into law. To devote time and attention to any and all rumors of infidelity would detract from the overall purpose of the book. And on the other hand, if he didn’t address it, it would also detract from the book as not being historically accurate. I feel Abernathy took the most balanced approach to a very taboo subject even today.
Many years have passed since the events in this book transpired, but the lessons we learn from it continue to be relevant today. As American finds itself in the midst of a looming social revolution, Abernathy and King’s words will stay with us and remind us that the movement never ends. And when the horrific, cruel and inhuman system of Jim Crow was broken, it signaled a step in a new direction for all Americans. This is American history, the good, the bad and the regrettable.