Archive for civil rights
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. The girls’ death and the long wait for justice raises important questions about civil rights, racism, and the nature of restorative justice.
(Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14),
Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11), image source.)
If you’re not familiar with the case, you can begin by listening to this interview from 2008, Mr. Christopher McNair – father of the youngest victim – offers his recollection of that devastating day with NPR reporter Michele Norris. And, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing, “4 Little Girls,” which is quite compelling.
This year, President Obama awarded the four girls with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civil honor. However, it took many decades before the bombers – four white supremacists, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry - were brought to justice.
The decades-long-delay in prosecuting the assailants in this case raises vexing questions about the nature of “justice,” questions that Willoughby Anderson takes up in a 2008 analysis (“The past on trial: Birmingham, the bombing, and Restorative Justice.” California Law Review 96, no. 2 (2008): 471-504). Anderson writes:
“The community, media, and scholarly responses to these trials point to the way that a crime’s effects can reach far beyond the individual perpetrator and victim. In the context of unresolved civil rights-era violence, one murder or bombing inevitably expands outward and into the larger story of segregation and massive resistance; into the systemic, racially-based injustices of southern law enforcement; and to the New South’s willingness to move quickly forward without reconciling its troubled past. Restorative justice theory, a reform movement within the criminal justice system, can help contextualize the broad consequences of these crimes. Taking the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as an example, I use restorative justice theory to expand the concept of harm resulting from this one incident. Rather than understanding the crime in traditional terms as an abstract harm against the state, we must imagine it as an act with consequences for the victims, the community at large, the offenders themselves, and the relationships between all three.”
“But what can this criminal justice reform movement teach us about approaching historic unsolved crimes from the civil rights-era? The responses of communities, the media, and scholarly observers to renewed civil rights-era investigations were critical and mixed. Some saw justice long-delayed, but ultimately achieved. Others questioned the value of trials delayed for so long. Most simply wondered about the years of non-prosecution. Murder trials have a limited ability to address broad concerns about systemic injustice and the passage of time between an offense and its prosecution. These infamous crimes exposed the harm inflicted on whole communities through the violence of segregation and selective enforcement of criminal laws, a harm that cannot simply be understood as Alabama v. Defendant.“
“The criminal justice context also overlooked the plight of the families of the perpetrators. The effects of the crime on Cherry’s family strife illustrate how the bombing’s harms were not restricted to one side of the equation. Thomas Cherry, estranged son of the bomber, describing how his childhood was blighted by the crime, forcing his family to relocate to Texas, and providing the subject of conversation at every family reunion. The son was subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury, and the newspapers described him as “anguished over his father but . . . also haunted by the bombing.” After the verdict, Thomas Cherry tried to explain how the crime cast a long shadow: “[i]t leaves you an awful empty feeling in you [to] know that your father is going to the penitentiary for the rest of his life.” Cherry’s trial also featured conflicting testimony from ex-wives and a loyal grandson as to his character, the meaning of his Klan membership, and his motives for racial violence. After the verdict, the Birmingham Post-Herald ran a large picture of Cherry’s daughter Karen Suderland sitting on the ground weeping. One wonders what the effect of the competency protests might have been on this wide spectrum of family members, both estranged and otherwise. How could the trial possibly have brought them a sense of closure? In evaluating harms and victims, an inquiry into the effects the crime has on the offenders’ families is necessary, no matter how much this complicates otherwise simplistic condemnation of criminal offenders.“
Fifty years on from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls we are still struggling to understand what the nature of restorative justice might look like in a society that remains mired in racism.
At the conclusion of the forthcoming third edition of Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, he recommends that a new constitutional convention for a true multiracial democracy begin with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948. Feagin points out that the United States has never had a constitutional convention that represented all or even the majority of the population. As he notes, the original constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 was comprised of 55 white men, representing only 5 percent of the population, and did not include white women, Native Americans, or African Americans.
Feagin’s identification of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights brings to mind the work of my father, Dr. Hung-Ti Chu, at the United Nations and his great personal admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt who shepherded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to its ratification by the General Assembly. My father joined the United Nations in 1946 during the time the Declaration was drafted as a member of the Human Rights Division, and remained at the U.N. in the Secretariat until he retired more than twenty years later. He recalled that Eleanor Roosevelt considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the Magna Carta for all humankind. She viewed her role in securing adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest achievement. Several years earlier, as a member of the steering committee of the International Student Conference representing the five great world powers, my father had breakfasted with her in the White House and was invited to sit in on FDR’s Fireside Chats over the radio.
My father came to this country as a scholarship student in recognition of his work in the Chinese nationalist movement, receiving his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois in 1937. In 1942, he was invited to become President of Yunnan University in his home province of Yunnan, China, but due to political events and the Communist takeover, was not able to return. After joining the United Nations, he later served as the Principal Secretary of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, and gave the opening speech of the first democratically-elected National Assembly in Korean history.
Following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted a position offered by President Harry Truman on the first United States delegation to the United Nations. At the time she was the only woman on the delegation and in her words:
I knew that as the only woman, I ‘d better be better than anybody else. So I read every paper. And they were very dull sometimes, because State Department papers can be very dull. And I used to almost go to sleep over them, and– [laughs] But I did read them all. I knew that if I in any way failed, it would not be just my failure; it would be the failure of all women. There’d never be another woman on the delegation.
In a perceptive article titled “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” John Sears states that many believe that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that drafted the Declaration of Human Rights would not have succeeded without the skillful leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in chairing the Commission. Without legal or parliamentary training, she oversaw the drafting of the Declaration through weeks of arguing over the meaning of each word and phrase.
The initial commission appointed to recommend a structure for the Human Rights Commission consisted of Eleanor Roosevelt and representatives from Norway, Belgium, China, India, Yugoslavia and the ambassador to the United States from China, Dr. C.L. Hsia. Dr. Hsia was a close personal friend and mentor of my father.
Furthermore, as Sears notes, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted upon the unequivocal anti-discrimination article in the Declaration. She believed it would support the struggle for civil rights in the United States and was aware of the shortcomings of this country in attaining these rights. She even clashed with members of the State Department who did not believe that economic and social rights belonged in a bill of human rights.
The U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 asserts that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncompromising view of universal human rights identifies the source of such rights in events close to home, such as in our everyday interactions:
Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home (…) Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.
In a time when women’s leadership was not widely accepted, Eleanor Roosevelt was truly “the first lady of the United States,” a skillful and practical negotiator, able to maneuver in confidence in male-dominated diplomatic circles, able to build the consensus necessary to forge a lasting testament to the freedom, equality, and dignity of all human beings.
President Obama has selected two human rights activists to give the invocation and benediction at his upcoming presidential inaugural, according to Politico:
Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chair of the NAACP and widow of [the famous civil rights activist] Medgar Evers, will deliver the invocation, and the Rev. Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Atlanta will deliver the benediction, the inaugural committee announced Tuesday.
Evers-Williams fought for justice for 30 years after her husband, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway in 1963. She authored three books about their civil rights work.
Evers-Williams is, like her husband was, one of the important activists–in the historic civil rights movement and for her, also for subsequent decades–that helped to press this country’s white elite and acolytes in the direction of implementing its hoary rhetorical “liberty and justice for all” ideals.
Rev. Giglio has worked diligently with organizations working against contemporary slavery and human trafficking.
The UCLA Chicano Network has a nice summary of the holiday Cinco de Mayo, which is celebrated in Mexican American communities (one such celebration in California a couple of years ago, pictured right, photo credit) and not yet much outside those communities:
Cinco de Mayo is a date of great importance for the Mexican and Chicano communities. It marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Although the Mexican army was eventually defeated, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to represent a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism. . . . Cinco de Mayo’s history has its roots in the French Occupation of Mexico. The French occupation took shape in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. With this war, Mexico entered a period of national crisis during the 1850′s. Years of not only fighting the Americans but also a Civil War, had left Mexico devastated and bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, payments would resume.
The English, Spanish and French refused to allow president Juarez to do this, and instead decided to invade Mexico and get payments by whatever means necessary. The Spanish and English eventually withdrew, but the French refused to leave. Their intention was to create an Empire in Mexico under Napoleon III. Some have argued that the true French occupation was a response to growing American power and to the Monroe Doctrine (America for the Americans). Napoleon III believed that if the United States was allowed to prosper indiscriminately, it would eventually become a power in and of itself.
In 1862, the French army began its advance. Under General Ignacio Zaragoza, 5,000 ill-equipped Mestizo and Zapotec Indians defeated the French army in what came to be known as the “Batalla de Puebla” on the fifth of May.
Clearly, it was a substantially indigenous army that defeated the mighty Europeans, an early and clear counter-colonialism event. This is an event that all who support self-determination for indigenous peoples and full human rights for all peoples should remember and honor.
The UCLA network account also makes some interesting observations about how this day is differentially celebrated in Mexico and the United States:
In the United States, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to be known as simply “5 de Mayo” and unfortunately, many people wrongly equate it with Mexican Independence which was on September 16, 1810, nearly a fifty year difference. Over, the years Cinco de Mayo has become very commercialized and many people see this holiday as a time for fun and dance. Oddly enough, Cinco de Mayo has become more of Chicano holiday than a Mexican one. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on a much larger scale here in the United States than it is in Mexico. People of Mexican descent in the United States celebrate this significant day by having parades, mariachi music, folklorico dancing and other types of festive activities.
And here is a more detailed discussion of how it came to celebrated by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) over the years in the US. In my view, this is a good holiday for all those Americans who are opposed to colonialism and imperial invasions to celebrate.
Today, we mark the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The memorial is the first to honor an African American on the National Mall and its adjoining memorial parks and is the result of more than two decades of planning, fund-raising and construction. The efforts began early on by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (King had been an active member). It was dedicated in October,2011, making today the first time that we’ve celebrated the holiday with a national monument in King’s honor.
Critics of the memorial, such as this one writing at The Economist, object to the memorial on both aesthetic and political grounds, calling it a ‘blockheaded’ design that is merely state-sponsored ‘propaganda,’ not in keeping with the values of equality that King championed. (One suspects that this critique is rooted as much in xenophobia about the Chinese sculptor and imported granite as it is in the objection to honoring King, but I digress.)
I couldn’t disagree more. I think the King memorial matters for our national conversation about race.
(Photo credit: Julie Netherland)
On a recent visit to the memorial, I was struck by conversations happening all around me about civil rights, about Dr. King’s legacy, about racial equality and justice. (There’s a great art / ethnographic project to be done here, setting up audio recorders to grab snippets of conversations heard around the memorial.)
Along with individual kids with their moms or dads, there were also small and large groups of students with teachers and guides, talking about the quotes by Dr. King etched in stone along the wall behind the large statue, using the monument as a way to teach about civil rights.
Given the monument’s significance as a place for enabling the ‘teachable moment,’ it’s also important to get it right.
One of the inscriptions on the monument reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” The problem? King never said those words, at least, not exactly. The actual quote comes from this sermon about a eulogy someone might give at his funeral, and it goes like this:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
As Maya Angelou notes the shortened, paraphrased text misleads: “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Secretary of the Interior Salazar has issued a statement saying that the quote will be corrected.
Perhaps most striking moment for me on my visit was the scene inside the gift store near the monument. There are no t-shirts or mugs or bobble-head dolls inside, only books and DVDs about the civil rights movement and Dr. King, many of these children’s books. Because the memorial is part of the National Park Service, the bookstore is staffed by Park Rangers.
And, while I was there, you could hear the voice of a Park Ranger reading a children’s book about the civil rights movement to a group of school children sitting on the floor in a circle.
That’s why the monument is important. Attacking Dr. King and his legacy is a key strategy of opponents of civil rights. It’s an object that officially recognizes King’s legacy and contribution to civil rights in the U.S., and it opens up a space for having a conversation about what the legacy means and how it’s relevant today.
And that, I think is priceless.
I did not attend Wednesday’s movie release of “The Help” from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Why, you ask? Because I read the book.
Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an advance screening of the movie and referred to it as “…a story of female grit and solidarity — of strength through sisterhood.” He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” What neither Bruni nor Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.
I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of the criticism it has received. I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are. The novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old, social climbing Miss Leefolt. The plot unfolds when her “friend” and the novel’s antagonist, Miss Hilly, the President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League, announces that she will support legislation for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)
We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea. By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt’s maid Aibleen, “Do you ever wish you could…change things?” This lays the groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black female domestics in Jackson.
The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her. But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch). As a Black female reader, I ended up feeling like one of “the help,” forced to tend to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness over the loss of her maid (whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her social trials regarding a clearly racist “Jim Crow” bill.
What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter. This character is not a true white civil rights activist like the historical figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965), a mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama. Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone and that she is “stuck” with her parents. She remarks, “I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.” (81) Constantine is Miss Skeeter’s Black maid, and it’s pretty transparent that Stockett is writing about herself. We learn this in the novel’s epilogue, “Too Little, Too Late: Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.”
“My parents divorced when I was six. Demetrie became even more important then. When my mother went on one of her frequent trips[…] I’d cry and cry on Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad I’d get a fever from it.” (p. 527)
“I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.” (p. 530)
It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for understanding. And the result is that The Help isn’t for Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another novel by and for white women.
But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous. Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through. Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.
So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her. She is depicted as a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave. But in reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind. In my experience, the Skeeters of the world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.
In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the second wave. For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by middle-class white women. Black women have asserted their voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the 2008 Presidential election.
It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry) surrounding Steinem’s New York Times op-ed about then-Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, I’m troubled that our popular culture obsession is with the “largely fictional” book, The Help. Sounds like an opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some serious deconstructionist critical analysis.
Or maybe not.
Once again, it seems that the sisters who make up the “sisterhood” are left to fend for themselves, while second wave feminists like Salon.com writer Laura Miller give a tepid analysis of the legal controversy surrounding the novel.
In February, Ablene Cooper, an African-American maid and babysitter working in Jackson, Miss., where “The Help” is set, filed suit against Stockett. Cooper accused Stockett of causing her to “experience severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and outrage” by appropriating “her identity for an unpermitted use and holding her to the public eye in a false light.” In her article, “The Dirty Secrets of The Help,” Laura Miller writes:
“Cooper’s lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on an otherwise glowing portrait.”
Here’s one of those “tiny scratches” posted on ABCnews.com.
“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor,” Aibileen says in the book. “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”
Laura Miller sees no problem with this, and focuses more on the depiction of the white women in the text:
“Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone would feel “outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress” at being identified with the heroic Aibleen, her employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain, status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League, Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate “colored” bathroom to her garage. She does this partly to impress Miss Hilly, the League’s alpha Mean Girl (and the novel’s villain), but she also talks obsessively about the “different kinds of diseases” that “they” carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter, speaking wistfully of a vacation when “I hardly had to see [her] at all.” Like all of the white women in the novel (except the journalist writing the maids’ stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful — and her maid has almost the same name as Stockett’s sister-in-law’s maid. Fancy that!”
Of course, Miller insinuates that the real life Aibleen lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that Stockett’s sister-in-law surely coerced her.
I have never met the real-life Aibleen, but if she went to the grocery store yesterday, she would have seen that The Republic of Tea introduced its new limited-edition The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, and despite her educational background, she would have understood that she won’t get a cent of the royalties. According to the website, The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, is inspired by Aibleen’s best friend Minny’s famous caramel cake. The tea is being marketed to drink with friends in celebration of a movie where a “remarkable sisterhood emerges.”
What no one wants to acknowledge is that the fictionalized Skeeter leaves the Black domestics in the South—similar to the white freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement. In real life, after appropriating the voice of working class Black women, profiting, and not settling out of court, Kathryn Stockett admits in a Barnes and Noble audio interview that even her own maid was not fond of the novel: “My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home for her,” Sockett reports seven minutes and 35 seconds into the 10 minute interview with Steve Bertrand. So, in the end, The Help and the lawsuit are about white women who don’t want true sisterhood. They just want Help.
~ Duchess Harris, PhD, JD is Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College, and the author of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton and Racially Writing the Republic. This post originally appeared on FeministWire. You can follow her on Twitter @DuchessHarris.