Birmingham, the Bombing and Restorative Justice

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.”

I find Anderson most persuasive in his argument when he takes up the “harm to community” from these crimes, and offers a context for the return to prosecution after many decades. He writes:
“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.
His argument, to take a restorative justice theory frame to examine the Birmingham bombing, is less well developed when it comes to the perpetrators.  In discussing the impact of the trial on the family of Bobby Cherry, Anderson writes:
“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.
While I’m generally in favor of restorative justice as at least one, possible way out of the current mass incarceration debacle, I’m skeptical of such an approach here. Anderson seems well aware of the context of racism and white supremacy in creating the harm of the bombing, but once it comes to the perpetrators and their families, those slip from view. Instead, Cherry becomes merely an “offender” whose family has suffered because of their “crime.” When Anderson writes that the son was forced  “to relocate to Texas,” and discuss the bombing “at every family reunion,” speaks to a kind of minimal (if any) harm.  What this version of restorative justice doesn’t address all the ways in which the descendants of the perpetrators still benefit from and are complicit with certain forms of white supremacy.

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.

United Nations’ Universal Declaration Of Human Rights: A Personal Perspective

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.

Idle No More: Indigenous Protest Movement Confronts Canada’s Inconvenient Truth

Métis activist Chelsea Vowel brilliantly captures the essence of a grassroots indigenous movement currently unfolding in Canada:

Although thousands of indigenous people all over Canada rallied together under the banner of ‘Idle No More’ … there has been very little media coverage on the movement. Most of what is being said in the mainstream media is focused on Bill C-45. I’d like to make it clear…they’re getting it wrong … Canada, this is not just about Bill C-45 … In short, Idle No More’s Manifesto is what we have always been talking about, whether the particular focus has been on housing, or education or the environment, or whatever else. What lies at the heart of all these issues is our relationship with Canada. And Canada? This relationship is abusive … I can go find dismal statistics on pretty much any aspect of life for indigenous peoples in this country; trot them all out and say, ‘look it’s really bad’ and you will nod and say, ‘wow it sure is’, but that still won’t make it clear for you. I need you – WE need you, to see the forest and not just the trees.

The “forest” to which Vowel refers is the on-going colonial relationship Canada retains with its indigenous population, a relationship many Canadians believe no longer exists. Or, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a relationship they conveniently deny or ignore, precisely because it does not serve their economic interests.

The message of the Idle No More Movement is an inconvenient truth – a threat to the Canadian government’s neoliberal agenda.

As Vowel puts it:

It is time for Canada to end discriminatory approaches dating back to colonial times and honor the rights of indigenous peoples as secured in Canadian and international law.

April Blackbird is a sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Myrlie Evers-Williams will give the invocation at inaugural

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.

Frederick Douglass: What, to the American Slave, is Your 4th of July?



On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.

ADDENDUM
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

[Reposted from blog archive]

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!



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.

The End of Civil Rights Revolution: Dr. King’s Assassination



April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 44 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too

In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this day, April 4, 2012.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Why It Matters

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.

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(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.

The Meaning of Dr. King & the Movement: Ending White Terrorism



There is a very insightful and provocative post by HamdenRice on Dailykos.com. This is a central argument in there:

But what most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind. . . . I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech. My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.” Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this.

The evidence for this impact of Dr. King and many other African Americans who fought a real system of totalitarianism and terror, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow south, can be found in much research literature and popular accounts, for example here. But somehow has not made it into the mostly white-controlled media or educational curricula.

Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help

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.