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.

Walking While Black: The Senseless Killing of Trayvon Martin



The recent slaying of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder of the every day presence of racism in the United States. I find it necessary to remind everyone that this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs daily across America for most black men. The difference here is that the normal threats and harassment that Trayvon would typically encounter on any given day as a black man, turned into his innocent death. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man in New York City who was mistakenly shot 19 times by 4 police officers (who fired a total of 41 shots), the decisions that George Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin were done in a “blink of an eye”. His actions, on the other hand, were done in justification of his already conceived (and likely subconscious) thoughts about this young man rather than in response to Trayvon’s clearly non-threatening behavior. Any one of Zimmerman’s compilation of actions that fateful evening, if terminated, would have likely resulted in a different outcome, one where Trayvon would still be alive today. But Zimmerman is operating on societal-based stereotypes and assumptions of anti-black racial frames about black men that has been around since the mid-1600’s and continues in today’s white-dominated society.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would be foolish enough to discount the continuing assault on the black male presence. Black men have always been public enemy number one in white America, and that has not changed much in 400 years. Since slavery times, African American men were seen as threats to white manhood. Unrelenting white racial stereotypes around black male bodies provided the perfect justification for the incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working for his master in the big house.

Black men were clearly not on equal footing with other men, especially white men for centuries. The conditions, stories, received wisdoms and other discourses created by whites about black folk constituted predictable cognitive road maps or frames that white folks enacted on black bodies. Frames are patterned ways of thinking about human differences such as race that apply generally to people at large and influence our legal system, schooling, healthcare, unemployment and housing to name a few. The white racial frames created around “Black” were and remains anathema, which is certainly the case with Trayvon’s senseless death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a man of apparent Latino heritage and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain, mystifies many white observers. Given that both black and brown people in American are oppressed, how could this be? What’s happening here is that Zimmerman is acting on the existing white racial frames that operate as unconscious scripts on how to interact with racial “others” in our society.

White racial framing of black male bodies is a large-scale centuries-old undertaking that not only affects white behavior toward Blacks, but black and Latino behaviors toward each other and themselves. These racial understandings have existed ever since Europeans first stepped foot on the Western shores of Africa and began a long and tortuous relationship with Africans. And this continues today where the steady stream of media portrayals of young black men as “dangerous” predators is too prolific in our society to ignore. Anyone reading this blog can certainly think of one or more stereotypes about black men. When you think of the face of crime, it is easy to conjure the image of Trayvon or another young man of color as the scary and dangerous “other” or the boogey man. Minorities are not immune to this frame or thought process. Latinos, Blacks and other Americans of color receive and act on many of the same white racial stereotypes and impulses, and Mr. Zimmerman is no exception.

Now, take the context of white society from its historical vantage point and see how it continues the play out (albeit less overt at times). Floridians have instituted a law that has resurrected the Wild Wild West, which allows an individual to take the law into his/her own hands. A law seemingly provoked by the looting that occurred following several Florida hurricanes. After filtered media images following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the assumption is that the people looting are black. Thus, the law can be interpreted such that if a black man is stealing, a white man can shoot and kill him. And the onus is placed on the victim from prove he was innocent of a crime before being shot. We have now gone even beyond the egregious “eye for an eye” and moved to a place where a heart can be taken for the loss of a finger, but no one seemed to care that the law implied it was the heart of a black man until it was taken literally. What results is that someone like Trayvon Martin has become caught in the crosshairs of a nation that has yet to truly reconcile its profoundly racist past.

While the nation continues to mount an all out and justifiable assault on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death, let’s not forgot the conditions that gave rise to this young man’s death in the first place: white supremacy, or to put it nicely, a white dominated society. Rest in peace Trayvon Martin; may your death not be in vain.

Please sign this petition and forward to all concerned stakeholders.

Masterful, Witty, Illuminating Letter: Former Slave to His “Old Master”

A recently resurfaced letter, dated 1865, from a former slave to his master is getting some well-deserved online news and social media attention.

According to Letters of Note, the letter comes from a formerly enslaved man by the name of Jourdan Anderson. In the missive, Jourdan appears to be responding to a petition made by his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, requesting that Jourdan and his family return to Tennessee to work as freed laborers on the same land on which Colonel Anderson had enslaved them for 30 years.

Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post summarized the letter perfectly:

In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end.

Jourdan’s letter brilliantly reveals the numerous injustices suffered by enslaved people at the hands of their white masters, as he compares the ways their lives had improved since their emancipation and migration to Ohio. In one exquisitely subtle example, Jourdan addresses the daily disrespect no doubt endured by his wife while enslaved by Anderson, writing “folks here call her Mrs. Anderson.” Similarly, he challenges the absurd promises made by Colonel Anderson to try to entice the family back with sarcastic genius, simultaneously revealing the tragic circumstances of their lives while living as the colonel’s “property.”

The horrors of the family’s enslavement notwithstanding, the letter is worth reading for its comedic richness alone.

(Indeed, how tragic there was no YouTube video in 1865, to capture the expression on Colonel Anderson’s face as he read the sharp-as-a-tack dismissal from his former slave – our full imaginations will have to suffice as we picture the colonel reading Jourdan’s calculations of past-due wages owed his family, along with directions as to how they should be sent!).

Beyond any amusement, however, Jourdan’s letter should put to rest narratives, old and new, of the so-called “happy slave,” showcasing the masterful insights that black Americans of the time had regarding the circumstances of their oppression by whites. Indeed, not only could black Americans like Mr. Anderson well-analyze such matters; as argued by Joe Feagin and others, these Americans of color also held a much more sincere and unsullied sense of justice than most white Americans have, in practice, ever embraced.

Hull House Dies After 122 Years



Sadly, the most famous anti-poverty institution created in the United States had to close–the very influential Hull House in Chicago (now a National Historic Landmark). This settlement house was founded in the late 1880s by Jane Addams, an American mostly known as a social worker but who was also a famous sociologist (much published in sociology journals) and leading social justice activist and author. (See the excellent books of sociologist Mary Jo. Deegan.)

Addams is one of only two sociologists to win a Nobel Prize (for peace activities in the World War I era). Numerous other women, white and black, helped set up Hull House and run it effectively in early decades. Eventually serving thousands weekly, it has continued to have an important impact locally and nationally to its closing this week.

Addams and the pathbreaking white and black women professionals at Hull House played an important role in supporting the research and career of the young Harvard Ph.D., W. E. B. Du Bois, the great sociologist, historian, and activist whose influence continues to impact critical theorists and analysts of U.S. racism. They helped him in his research for the first sociological book that detailed urban racial issues, The Philadelphia Negro, and invited him to Hull House for lectures and consultation. These women were very important in the development of the first important graduate department of sociology at the University of Chicago, where some taught for a time.

An associated press report noted that Hull House had a very high demand these days from poor Chicagoans, some 60,000 a year being served, but had to close and suddenly lay off hundreds because it could not get enough funding in this economic depression. Not surprisingly, they were devastated, as are many of their many clients:

“It’s been my life,” said Dianne Turner, who spent 25 years teaching families in Chicago housing projects how to break the cycle of poverty. “It wasn’t about the pay. It was about seeing a family go from feeling hopeless to being hopeful and feeling like they can do things. …[She] said the organization helped teach her the value of education, how to save money and how to be a leader.
. . . . Regina Boyd, who has been a housing case manager at Hull House … said. “But I love the legacy of Jane Addams, and I’m hoping that someone or something comes along,” to continue that legacy. I feel her spirit. Her legacy is not over in my heart and spirit. It’s not.”

This seems another major sign of our declining times in terms of social justice efforts, unfortunately. Many in this society, and especially much of the white elite that runs key sectors, seem to have lost their moral sense of what a healthy and just society should be. Serving the poor and troubled Americans with meaningful programs aimed at support, survival, and/or socioeconomic mobility are essential, in my view, to the future of any society committed to social justice. And the end of Hull House also marks the end of a key intellectual institution that fostered much early social science research on Chicago, helped to create modern sociology as a discipline, and stimulated much local and national thinking about social justice, including in regard to racism and sexism.

Thinking Black: Derrick Bell and the Living of a Racial Realist Life.

The Negro, in the universities and colleges of Europe and America, has to do his thinking and his reading in…the white man’s language…Our environment makes us think white, and some of us think white so persistently that we haven’t the time to think Black. I urge upon you…to help, with voice and pen, to hasten the coming of the morning when Negroes all over this broad land will wake up to the importance of thinking Black. (John Edward Bruce—“The Importance of Thinking Black”—1917}

The academic production of “race theory” is itself fraught with a dishonesty that few care to admit. To speak about race without attending to the very real social, economic, and political consequences of racism, says Barbara J. Fields in “[w]hiteness, Racism and Identity,” is to afford whites a symmetrical parity in our academic discourse that not only contradicts reality, but exposes the very content of our academically approved “race theory” to be little more than the careful arrangement of euphemisms taught to us by our white oppressors to obscure the deliberate machinations of racism. The life of Derrick Bell stands in sharp contrast to this practice, as only a life lived with Black people in mind can. His body of work is not only a testament to John E. Bruce’s call, but a literature that shames, even today, our irreconcilable attempts to rationalize our cowardice and maintain détente with white racists, despite their tyrannical reign throughout the university and in American society.

It is standard practice of scholars to honor their intellectual fore-parents who have been caste into the shadows of history, we eulogize their memories and praise their life’s work as a goal to which we should all aspire, but Derrick Bell’s life is the stuff “Black thought” is made of and resists such “fluffy-ization.” Derrick’s courage rang with the testament of Black thinkers from beginning to end. When I dared to suggest back in October of 2007 that philosophers were trying to make sense of his work next to Marx and Nietzsche, he told me that he considered himself

the academic counterpart of Errol Garner, the late jazz pianist from my hometown, Pittsburgh, who never learned to read music fearing, as I understand it, that it would ruin his style. I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since. I am writing this in Pittsburgh where I have been celebrating my 50th law school reunion from Pitt Law School. I do care more about the thought and writings and actions of Du Bois, Robeson, Douglass, et al. I think during my talk at UCLA, I read from the 1935 essay by Ralph Bunche about the futility of using law to overcome racism. It made more sense than so much of the theoretical writings on law, past and present, that I can barely understand and have great difficulty connecting with my experience. And you are right. At almost 77, I do not care to write in ways that whites can vindicate.

Throughout our many exchanges concerning his thought, Derrick remained convinced that attacking racism, the deliberate system of social, political, and legal subjugation of Black people, was the task of the Black Intellectual. He believed whole-heartedly that equality, even under Obama, was little more than illusion. In a speech he sent me entitled “On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress,” he said that

every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and Inauguration has been covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. His taking office as the first black president is deemed a racial breakthrough….[but], in our celebrations, we should not confuse progress with fortuity, as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances.

As early as 1976, Derrick Bell had already formulated the basis of his now famous racial realist thesis—the idea that

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress,’ short lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance”—in the realization that “white self-interest will prevail over [B]lack rights.

Following the teachings of his mentor Robert L. Carter, Bell understood well that integration offered Blacks nothing but proclamations of equality without daring to question the white supremacist organization of society. While the Black bourgeois continue to market  the suffering of poor, disenfranchised, brutalized and terrorized Black people as a means to gain visibility and compassion from white gatekeepers, Bell lived a life that demonstrated struggle amidst the permanence of white supremacy, not because he believed in a “mythical hope” in whites’ moral character, but because he saw Afrolantica and knew just as his hero Paul Robeson that Blacks could create a world here in America unseen by the tyrannical gaze of whites and unrecognizable to those who simply cannot “THINK BLACK.”

I will always remain grateful for his friendship; his time, and his patience in helping me understand the totality of his thought while writing my dissertation on his work. He has certainly earned his place at the table of our ancestors. To his remembrance.

Professor Curry teaches and researches philosophy at Texas A&M University

More Wisdom from Frederick Douglass: The Struggle



Clearly, much discussion about continuing struggles over racial oppression is generated daily across the country, although often outside the mainstream media and political sectors. Given the racial realism so well argued by Derrick Bell (see philosopher Tommy Curry’s provocative summary of these issues here), one has to wonder, can real multiracial democracy ever come to the United States? I ran across some provocative writings of Frederick Douglass today that always make me pause and think deeply about the ongoing struggles for justice and equality in this country.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the three or four greatest Americans ever in my view, said this in a famous speech in Canandaigua, New York, on August 3, 1857:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. (Frederick Douglass, “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” The Frederick Douglass Papers, ed. John W. Blassingame [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], Volume 3, p. 204.)

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.

Research on Englanders’ Arrested in Urban Revolts



Peter recently noted some Guardian reporting on the urban revolts in England. Let me add a little to that. The Guardian paper in England has reported on an analysis by Liverpool professor Alex Singleton on some 1,297 people who had their first hearing in magistrate courts on charges associated with the people’s revolts in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. Most are Londoners.

As any social scientist who has studied such revolts in the U.S. could have told them in advance, most of those who revolted were the young male residents of very impoverished areas. That is exactly what the Singleton/Guardian analysis reports for these urban revolts. Singleton discovered most arrested lived in very poor urban areas, with a high percent in extreme poverty areas:

. . . with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010. . . . Only a very small number in our data were aged over 30. More than 90% are male.

Others have noted that people of color engaged in revolts in their areas, and impoverished whites in yet other areas. Most have been charged with theft, having stolen goods, burglary, or violent disorder. Increasing impoverishment and unemployment in an age where people expect a decent standard of living is the stuff out of which such urban revolts is made. The Guardian, to its credit, takes on the centuries-old rationale of the rich and elites in society, who always see “rioters” as criminal or just rioting for “fun and profit,” to quote a conservative U.S. social scientist on the African American revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. They note:

David Cameron [white conservative British prime minister] said this week that the riots “were not about poverty”, but the Guardian’s database of court cases raises the question that there may be, at the very least, a correlation between economic hardship and those accused of taking part in last week’s violence and looting.

Indeed, it does. And it always will be thus for this type of urban revolt. And the white racial framing denying the real reasons for such revolts seems to be age-old, suggesting some problems with theories like that of “racial formation theory” that substantially neglect issues of institutionalized racism and entrenched systemic racism and that tend to accent dramatic changes over time in a Western society’s “racial formations.” At least in whites’ racial framing of events like urban revolts by people of color, changes are much less than such optimistic theories of “race” typically suggest. This is true, too, for many other areas of systemic racism.

Whose Freedom Day?: Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852



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]

Middlebury to the Bronx: Reflections on Integenerational Insurance against Integration

Along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable. At each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is the first part (of three, two more to come) of a reflection on my experience.

Bronx, #1 train stop at 231st Street
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Susan NYC )

Each morning my alarm goes off at 6 am. I hurriedly prepare for the commute from my comfortable host family’s apartment in Greenwich Village to the poorest Congressional district in the country. With the passing of each stop in the subway the demographics of the passengers drastically changes. Soon I am the only white person left in the train. As I get off the subway in the South Bronx I emerge to a different world.

I am not alone in having a long commute. For our New York City Urban Education Internship we were graciously provided housing with current Middlebury parents, staying in the beds their children vacated while in Vermont. Although nearly all of us were placed in public schools in the Bronx, not one of us was placed in housing there.

While the Bronx is comprised of a diverse and impoverished population, Middlebury is an elite private institution with a tremendous wealth bias in its admission practice despite its boasting of a “need blind” policy. This bias is precisely why none of us were staying in the Bronx and why one host family even had a private elevator that opened up directly to their living room. Another had not only a housekeeper at their assistance all day, but also an entire additional apartment in the elaborate residence that presently sits empty, waiting to be occupied by their son when he graduates.

Housing segregation in America maps along with class inequality and is a long-term consequence of slavery, a form of systemic racism that is, as explained by Joe Feagin in Racist America: “maintained by social inheritance mechanisms that transmit wealth and privilege over the generations.” As whites have accrued economic benefits and built up housing equity, often red-lined and deed-restricted into being the only group able to do so throughout most of our history, they accrue intergenerational wealth easily converted into educational capital.

~ Jay Saper is a student of sociology at Middlebury College