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En este artículo del historiador Garret Felber  (The Univertsity of Mississippi), se analizan nuevas fuentes que podrían obligar a revaluar el legado del gran líder revolucionario afroamericano Malcom X.

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The Missing Malcolm X

Garret Felbert

Boston Review, November 28, 2018

More than fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a polarizing and misunderstood figure. Not unlike the leader he is too often contrasted with—Martin Luther King, Jr.—he has been a symbol to mobilize around, a foil to abjure, or a commodity to sell, rather than a thinker to engage. As political philosopher Brandon Terry reminded us in these pages on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death this year, “There are costs to canonization.” The primary vehicle of canonization in Malcolm’s case has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has been translated into thirty languages and has been widely read—by students and activists alike—across the United States and abroad.

The project first took shape in 1963, when Malcolm signed an agreement with journalist Alex Haley to co-author the book for Doubleday Press. (It was the first book for both writers.) The contract stipulated that Malcolm would have ultimate say over the final version: “Nothing can be in the manuscript, whether a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, or more that you do not completely approve of.” But Malcolm would never see the final book, which was published instead by Grove Press after his assassination in 1965. Fearing it would be too controversial, Doubleday withdrew its contract after Malcolm’s death in what biographer Manning Marable called the “most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book sold six million copies by 1977 and would later serve as the basis of Spike Lee’s influential 1992 biopic. It has shaped generations of activists and helped to define our collective understanding of race in the United States. The book is viewed as a crystallization of Malcolm X’s political vision, yet that vision is all too often overshadowed by—or conflated with—the man himself, portrayed in the book as a charismatic leader defined by dramatic personal transformation and tragedy.

That understanding—both of the person and of the politics—now stands to be reexamined. This summer previously unpublished materials that had been seized from a private collector, who acquired them at the sale of Haley’s estate in 1992, were auctioned to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The items acquired include various notes from Malcolm, a draft 241-page manuscript of the autobiography with handwritten corrections and notes from both Malcolm and Haley, and—perhaps most importantly—a previously unpublished 25-page typewritten chapter titled “The Negro.” (This week, the Schomburg Center made these items available to the public by appointment.) There have long been rumors of three missing chapters among scholars; some think Haley cut them from the book following Malcolm’s assassination because their politics diverged or the book had transformed during his tumultuous last year. Whatever the reasoning, “The Negro” is a fragment of the book Malcolm intended to publish—a book that would be virtually unrecognizable to readers of his autobiography today. We will never fully know that book, of course, but “The Negro” chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.

The published book charts a series of personal transformations: from his birth in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little to his nickname “Detroit Red” (he had reddish hair) in Harlem, then “Satan” while he served time in prison, to Malcolm X when he embraced the Nation of Islam, and finally, after making the pilgrimage in 1964, to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Spanning five hundred pages and nineteen chapters, including an expansive epilogue by Haley, it is a story of dramatic metamorphosis. Malcolm Little, born one of seven children in 1925 to disciples of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, was imbued with black self-reliance during his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. His father, Earl, was killed under suspicious circumstances—many suspect the Black Legion, a white hate group—when Malcolm was six years old. When his mother, Louise, was admitted to a mental institute in 1938, Malcolm first went to foster care and then to his half-sister’s home in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Traveling back and forth between Roxbury and Harlem, the young Malcolm met musicians and entertainers and became involved in a life of petty crime before being arrested and sentenced to 8–10 years for a string of home robberies. In prison, the published autobiography relates, Malcolm undergoes a religious and political awakening that culminates with his conversion to Islam; he became the chief minister of Harlem’s Temple No. 7 in 1954. Seven years later, he was named the Nation of Islam’s national representative and had become its public face. The book concludes at a dizzying pace as Malcolm experienced the turmoil of his ouster from the Nation of Islam, his founding of two independent organizations (Muslim Mosque Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity), his travels abroad in 1964, and eventually his assassination in early 1965.

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Muhamad Ali y Malcom X

Haley originally intended this narrative arc—comprising the full scope of the published autobiography—to fill only three brief chapters that would merely serve to introduce the book’s main author. According to the original chapter outline, after the biographical details, Malcolm would tell the story of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s life in a lone transitional chapter before writing the bulk of the book: eleven speech-like essays on a range of topics, including “The Liberal,” “The Brutal Police,” “The Farce on Washington,” “The Potential Twenty Million Muslims in America,” “Questions I Get Asked” and the Nation of Islam’s ten-point program “What We Muslims Want. . . What We Believe.” While these themes appeared in many of Malcolm’s speeches and were interspersed throughout the final book, the chapters as originally titled were never realized.

Instead, Haley delivered “The Negro” to Doubleday in October 1963. A month and a half later, after Malcolm called President John F. Kennedy’s assassination a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” Elijah Muhammad publicly chastised Malcolm and forbade him from public speaking for three months, which proved to be the most productive period of the autobiography’s writing. Haley would type as Malcolm spoke aloud, gathering napkins he had surreptitiously placed for Malcolm to scribble his thoughts. Around this time, Haley wrote his editor and agent that Malcolm was “tense as the length of his inactivity grows—and it eases him when I come and talk the book with him.”

Malcolm began to reflect more openly about his past, likely ballooning the personal narrative at the expense of the essays, and Haley began to describe the “first half of the book” as “the man’s life story.” With his restlessness producing more material, “The Negro” was now intended to be one of three, rather than eleven, essays for the remainder of the book. The others would be “The End of Christianity” and “Twenty Million Black Muslims”—the three essays serving to summarize Malcolm’s religious and political point of view.

With the book, Malcolm had hoped to subvert the generic conventions of autobiography that elevate the singular, private person over the collective, political public. Personal storytelling could be a means for collective liberation. Indeed, the weight given to Malcolm’s political vision in the book at times led to tensions with Haley. Just months after Haley and Malcolm signed the contract with Doubleday, Haley requested that his role be changed from “co-authored by” to “as told to.” “Co-authoring with Malcolm X,” he wrote, “would, to me, imply sharing his views—when mine are almost a complete antithesis of his.” He remembered Malcolm scolding him: “A writer is what I want, not an interpreter.”

Malcolm wanted his autobiography to be the story of a people and the social forces that shaped their lives, but in the end it became the story of an exceptional man’s life. Marable’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Malcolm, twenty years in the making, grew out of his frustrations that the autobiography did not accurately represent Malcolm X’s political thought. Both during his life and after his death, Malcolm has often been reduced to a bare vessel of emotion, caricatured as an incisive critic who lacked a solution to the structural racism he so eloquently denounced. The autobiography itself was first marketed this way, as the story of “America’s angriest black man.” James Farmer, one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, once quipped at Malcolm during a debate: “We know the disease, physician, what is your cure?” Marable had speculated that the unpublished chapters would reveal a more holistic political vision, and “The Negro” partly fulfills that hope. Indeed, in its twenty-five pages, Malcolm X both outlines sicknesses and, quite explicitly, offers potential cures.

Haley excitedly wrote that “The Negro” was “guaranteed to upset the NAACP and [White] Citizens Councils, alike.” But the chapter, crucially, is more than just provocation. Today the essay’s title may sound like the product of a bygone era, but to Malcolm the term was always outdated, an ideological fiction of white supremacy. The “Negro,” he wrote, was a “white creation”:

Part of the ‘Negro’s’ survival technique until this day has been to let the white man hear what he knew he wanted to hear from his creation, and to show him the image he wanted to see. And the white man has gullibly believed the Negro survival ruse. It has helped him not have to face the enormity of his crime.

A classic lecture Malcolm gave as minister of Harlem’s Mosque No. 7 traced the root of “Negro” back to the Greek word for death, “nekro.” This folk etymology pointed not only to the Nation of Islam’s conviction that 85 percent of black people were “dead” in the sense that they were “deaf, dumb, and blind” to their own history, but also to its contention that the necessary and proximate death of the “Negro” race would lead to the rise of the Earth’s “original people.”

There is rage in “The Negro,” but it is accompanied by reason. It argues for politics over personality. The chapter is a kaleidoscopic tour through Malcolm’s searing critiques of black political leadership, integration, liberal incrementalism, and white philanthropy. The tone throughout is characteristically pointed, speech-like, and conversational:

One of the white man’s favorite tricks, through his ‘liberals’ and through his puppet ‘Negro leader’ mouthpieces, is to keep flooding the black masses and the rest of the world with propaganda that the black man here is getting better off in America in every way, every day. But the true nature and the true intent of the former slavemaster is glaring every way and every day in the headlines:

You Can’t Enter Here

You Can’t Ride Here

You Can’t Work Here

You Can’t Play Here

You Can’t Study Here

You Can’t Eat Here

You Can’t Drink Here

You Can’t Walk Here

You Can’t Live Here

At the center of Malcolm’s analysis in “The Negro” is the farce of liberal incrementalism. As an identity, “Negro” elevated a few black leaders to speak on behalf of all black people, propping up liberal narratives of incremental racial progress through tokenism and the facade of inclusion. Malcolm argued that racial integration was predicated on a discourse of inferiority: “sittin-in and kneeling-in at the bottom of the ladder, looking up and hollering ‘I’m just as good as you.’” He saw white philanthropy and civil rights leadership as a “black body with white heads.” And for those who said the Nation of Islam preached hate, he reminded that the “white man is in no moral position to ever accuse any black man of hate.”

Buried in the last three pages of the chapter are its greatest revelation. “‘First things come first,’ we are taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Malcolm writes. That first step, however, will come as a surprise to many: political bloc strength. Malcolm and the Nation of Islam are often characterized as having been antagonistic to procedural politics—voting, legislation, and the like. But here Malcolm suggested that the black voting bloc could “overnight, take hold of the black man’s destiny in America.” He goes on to credit Muhammad as “advising the black masses to activate America’s greatest untapped source of political bloc strength.” Indeed, a year earlier Muhammad had declared that the future of black Americans “lies in electing our own.” The Muhammad Speaksnewspaper claimed that the Nation of Islam might soon endorse candidates and participate in a nationwide voter registration drive in preparation for the 1964 election.

It was a sign of political maturity, he believed, to first register black people, then organize them, and to vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

Malcom X y Martin Luther King

“The Negro” thus complicates narratives of rupture which position Malcolm’s foray into electoral politics as his first major shift after leaving the NOI. Even as Malcolm composed the chapter in 1963, a shift toward black bloc voting, voter registration drives, and black political parties was already underway. The all-black Freedom Now Party had been established in August 1963 during the March on Washington. The next year the activist Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her historic speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought seats at the Democratic National Convention. Soon after Kennedy’s assassination, Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy as the Republican challenger in the 1964 election, and throughout the election Malcolm would return to one of his favorite folk metaphors: the fox and the wolf. Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was a liberal fox who would eat you with a grin. Goldwater, by contrast, was a vocal opponent of the Civil Rights Act, the wolf who would eat you with a scowl. But both the fox and the wolf, Malcolm was fond of pointing out, belong to the same family. In “The Negro,” he called Democrats and Republicans “labels that mean nothing” to black people. Elsewhere he noted how in the United Nations, there are those who vote yes, those who vote no, and those who abstain. And those who abstain often “have just as much weight.” A sign of political maturity, he believed, was to first register black people, then organize them, and vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

This analysis culminated in one of Malcolm’s most famous addresses, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Delivered in April 1964 shortly after breaking with the Nation of Islam and forming his independent organization Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm told a Cleveland audience, “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” Many historians have seen the speech as Malcolm’s first ideological break from the Nation of Islam, an index of his developing political thought. “The Negro,” by contrast, shows this thought as an extension of the Nation of Islam’s political development rather than a departure. Even the title of his speech may have been borrowed from the pages of Muhammad Speaks; in 1962, a front-page story about the struggle in Fayette County, Tennessee, to register black voters was subtitled: “Fayette Fought For Freedom With Bullets and Ballots.”

Similarly, the outline of black bloc voting in “The Negro” was a precursor to Malcolm’s later, more expansive goal of bringing the United States before the United Nations. In 1964, he connected a domestic black voting bloc to a global “African-Asian-Arab” one. “Today,” he urged, “power is international.” Electoral engagement was a tool, but hardly a panacea, for collective liberation.

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What significance does this revised understanding of Malcolm X and his autobiography have for social movements now?

By reanimating the autobiography’s original aim to tell the story of a people, not just a single person, the newly uncovered materials let the air out of the persistent myth that we should look—and, by implication, wait—for this generation’s King or Malcolm. This was always a convenient fiction, relying on the marginalization of women and grassroots activists. “The movement made Martin,” as Ella Baker pointed out, “rather than Martin making the movement.”

The new materials emphasize how quickly autobiography shades into hagiography when we erase the collective political context.

Indeed, today’s activists are mostly decentralized, group-centered, and hyper-local. They eschew—in many cases, outright discourage—cults of personality and dependence on a singular spokesperson. They have insisted that they are not leaderless, they are leader-full. Historian Barbara Ransby writes in her new book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, that “this is the first time in the history of U.S. social movements that Black feminist politics have defined the frame for a multi-issue, Black-led mass struggle that did not primarily or exclusively focus on women.” Today’s activists are as likely to draw on Baker, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective as on Malcolm X.

Some students and activists still bemoan the absence of charismatic leaders, but the new materials emphasize how quickly autobiography shades into hagiography when we erase the collective political context. Malcolm X has come to look exceptional and distinct, disconnected from the political tradition handed down by his parents: his mother Louise wrote for the Universal Negro Improvement Association newspaper Negro World, and his father Earl was a Garveyite preacher. Properly contextualized, these new materials reconnect Malcolm to the intergenerational black nationalist tradition that he hoped his personal story might embody.

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The rediscovered material reminds us that Malcolm sought a politics that was collective, and not solely reliant on his—or anyone’s—leadership. Just two months before his assassination, he introduced Hamer to a Harlem audience and pledged they would soon launch a massive voter registration drive to register black people as independents. “Policies change, and programs change, according to time,” he told a crowd that same day. “You might change your method of achieving the objective, but the objective never changes. Our objective is complete freedom, complete justice, complete equality, by any means necessary.”

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La década de 1960 fue testigo de la lucha de los afro-estadounidenses  por la igualdad social y política. Tras el fin de la guerra civil, los afro-estadounidenses  disfrutaron de un corto periodo de libertad e igualdad. Durante este periodo, ciudadanos negros llegaron ser electos alcaldes, gobernadores y representantes. Sin embargo, a finales de la década de 1870, éstos habían perdido sus derechos políticos gracias al desarrollo de un sistema de segregación racial. Este sistema conocido como “Jim Crow”  creó formas para negar  o limitar el derecho al voto de los afro-estadounidenses,  además de marginarles social y económicamente. Con el fin de separar las razas, se aprobaron leyes segregando racialmente las escuelas, los parques, y hasta las fuentes de agua. Los matrimonios entre blancos y negros fueron declarados ilegales en varios estados de la Unión.

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Los afro-estadounidenses  no sólo fueron arrebatados de sus derechos políticos, segregados y marginados, sino también fueron víctimas de la violencia racial. Entre 1880 y 1920, miles de afro-estadounidenses  fueron linchados por el mero hecho de ser negros.  Durante este largo periodo, el gobierno federal dejó abandonados y sin protección a miles de sus ciudadanos negros.

En los años 1960 se dio un renacer en la lucha de los afro-estadounidenses  por el reconocimiento de sus derechos políticos y por el fin de la segregación racial. Bajo el liderato de personas como Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Rosa Parks, Huey P. Newton y Bobby Seale, los afro-estadounidenses  usaron diversos tipos de medios para luchar contra quienes les oprimían y maltrataban (boicots, marchas, resistencia pacífica, resistencia armada, etc.). El resultado de esta lucha fue el desarrollo de un vasto movimiento a favor de los derechos civiles que logró la aprobación de leyes federales protegiendo los derechos de los ciudadanos afro-estadounidenses . Sin embargo, esta lucha constituyó una verdadera revolución, pues cambió considerablemente las relaciones y actitudes raciales en los Estados Unidos.

 Martin Luther King

Rosa-Parks

Rosa Parks

Una de las figuras claves de la lucha por los derechos civiles fue un joven pastor negro llamado Martin Luther King. Nacido en Atlanta en 1929, era hijo y hermano de pastores y vivió desde muy niño la segregación racial.  En 1954,   King se convirtió, a los veinticinco años de edad, en pastor de una iglesia bautista de la ciudad Montgomery. Un año más tarde, una mujer afroamericana llamada Rosa Parks se negó a cederle su asiento en un autobús público a una persona blanca, por lo que fue arrestada por violar las leyes segregacionistas vigentes en el estado de Alabama. En respuesta, el reverendo King encabezó un boicot contra el sistema de transportación pública de Montgomery que duró más de trescientos días. En 1956, el Tribunal Supremo declaró ilegal la segregación en los autobuses, restaurantes, escuelas y otros lugares públicos, lo que marcó el fin del famoso boicot de Montgomery.

LBJ & MLK

Martin Luther King y Lyndon B. Johnson

King le dedicará los próximos trece años de su vida a la lucha por la igualdad racial por medio de marchas, boicots, bloqueos, toma de edificios, etc. Creyente en la resistencia pacífica promulgada por Henry David Thoreau y Gandhi, King rechazó el uso de la violencia y se opuso a la intervención de los Estados Unidos en la guerra de Vietnam, por lo que ganó el Premio Nobel de la Paz en 1964.

King no sólo defendió el pacifismo, sino que también optó por aliarse con los sectores liberales en busca de reformas. Para él, la integración racial era posible y necesaria. King creía que sólo el cambio pacífico a través de la colaboración con los blancos traería el cambio que los afro-estadounidenses  estaban esperando y del que eran merecedores.

Este gran líder estadounidense fue asesinado el 4 de abril de 1968 en Memphis.  Su muerte provocó fuerte disturbios raciales, pero no frenó la lucha de los afro-estadounidenses  por sus derechos civiles.

La Ley de Derechos Civiles

El asesinato de  John F. Kennedy en noviembre de 1963 ocurrió en un momento que la lucha por los derechos civiles había ganado fuerza y contaba con el apoyo del presidente asesinado. La actitud que asumiría el nuevo residente de la Casa  Blanca preocupaba a los líderes negros, pues Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) no se había caracterizado por sus simpatías hacia la lucha de los afro-estadounidenses . Por el contrario, como Senador Johnson había bloqueado legislación a favor de los derechos civiles.

Afortunadamente para los afro-estadounidenses ,  LBJ entendió que la lucha por los derechos había cambiado el panorama político estadounidense. Además, éste quería unir a los Demócratas y demostrar que era un líder nacional por lo que adoptó el tema de los derechos civiles. Johnson hizo claro que estaba dispuesta a transar y uso todo su poder e influencia para conseguir que el Congreso aprobara  una ley de derechos civiles en 1964.

La aprobación de la Ley de Derechos Civiles  es uno de los episodios más importantes en la lucha de los afro-estadounidenses  por la igualdad.  Ésta es, además, la legislación más importante aprobada en los Estados Unidos con relación al tema de los derechos civiles desde el periodo de la Reconstrucción. La ley prohíbe la discriminación en los espacios públicos, ilegaliza la discriminación en el trabajo por sexo, raza u origen nacional, prohíbe la discriminación en programas federales y  autorizaba al Departamento de Justicia a iniciar casos legales para integrar escuelas y otras dependencias públicas.

El “Black Power”

No todos los afro-estadounidenses  adoptaron el pacifismo reformista predicado por Martin Luther King. Otros reclamaron cambios sociales inmediatos y optaron por la confrontación.  Éstos manifestaron su rencor hacia la sociedad blanca que restringía y limitaba sus aspiraciones, así como también  rechazaron la resistencia pacífica, la integración  y las alianzas de King.   Cansados, frustrados y sin fe en la justicia de los blancos, estos afro-estadounidenses  demandaron la creación de un poder negro o “Black Power”,  es decir, la creación de instituciones y movimientos políticos propios que dieran forma a una agenda propia de la comunidad afroamericana. En otras palabras, los defensores del “Black Power” querían definir su destino, no depender de los blancos para ello.

muhammed-ali-malcolm-x-book-review

Muhamad Ali y Malcom X

El movimiento “Black Power” estuvo fuertemente influenciada por las ideas de uno de los más importantes líderes afro-estadounidenses  de la historia, Malcom X.  Nacido como Malcom Little,  éste cambió su apellido a X como un acto simbólico de repudio al pasado esclavista. Tras una temporada en la cárcel por venta de drogas, Malcom fue liberado en 1952 y se convirtió al Islam.  Malcom se unió a una agrupación musulmana afroamericana llamada la Nación del Islam que era dirigida por Elijah Muhammad.  La inteligencia y oratorio de Malcom X le convirtieron muy pronto en una de las figuras más importantes de la comunidad musulmana afroamericana.

El pensamiento de Malcom tenía una fuerte tendencia separatista y nacionalista. Éste insistía en que los negros tomaran conciencia  y se levantaran en defensa de sus derechos para así alcanzar la independencia verdadera.  Según Malcom, los negros debían estar orgullosos de su negritud y de sus raíces africanas.  Crítico acérrimo de King, Malcom insistía que los afro-estadounidenses  debían conseguir su libertad usando cualquier medio posible, incluyendo la violencia.  En 1965, Malcom abandonó la Nación del Islam y fue asesinado por tres hombres vinculados a ese movimiento.

En 1966, Huey P. Newton y Bobby Seale fundaron el Partido de las Panteras Negras, el grupo más famoso en defensa de la autodeterminación de los afro-estadounidenses . Las Panteras Negras recurrieron a la violencia y se enfrentaron a la policía y el FBI en diversas ocasiones, pero fueron encarcelados o resultaron muertos, lo que terminó destruyendo al partido.

Bobby Seale, Huey Newton

Huey P. Newton y Bobby Seale

El movimiento “Black Power” tuvo un efecto importante para los afro-estadounidenses , pues fomentó el desarrollo de organizaciones comunitarias negras independientes de los blancos, ayudó a la creación de programas universitarios dedicados al estudio de los negros estadounidenses y sirvió para movilizar política y electoralmente a los afro-estadounidenses .  Además, sirvió para promover el orgullo racial  y la autoestima de los negros.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, PhD

Lima, Perú

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The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI.(Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.” The FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Lyndon B. Johnson-Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)

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The 1960s are celebrated—and loathed—as a time of political and cultural liberalization. But the decade’s legacy is ambiguous. / National Archives

Forget the Summer of Love. Forget acid, Ken Kesey, and consciousness expansion. Forget the Grateful Dead and the smell of patchouli oil. Forget everything you know about the hallowed 1960s, everything every greying, former hippie has told you about how amazing and paradigm-shifting the whole psychedelic, turn-on-tune-in-drop-out freak show was.

Forget too the bile of right-wing blowhards such as William Bennett and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who seem incapable of blaming America’s perceived ills on anything other than the big, bad Decade of Perdition and the narcissistic navel-gazers it allegedly spawned. Conservative pundits have blamed the ’60s for everything from Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky to, as Robert Bork wrote in his 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah, a “slide into a modern, high-tech version of the Dark Ages,” a Boschian neo-con delirium worthy of the worst mescaline trip.

George Will, another of those right-wing pundits, did manage, quite accidentally, to stumble upon a kernel of the truth. In a 1991 Newsweek essay excoriating Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Will describes the death of front man Jim Morrison as “a cautionary reminder of the costs of the ’60s stupidity that went by the puffed-up title of ‘counterculture.’”

Puffed up it certainly was, but the proposition that the ’60s served as the cultural turning point of the twentieth century, ten years that changed everything, has largely become an article of faith, a shibboleth for an entire Woodstock Industrial Complex of aging boomers. The decade’s icons and totems persist to this day. For example, no man—save, perhaps, a twenty-something hipster at a Halloween party—would be caught dead in a ’70s-vintage leisure suit. But tie-dyed clothing is everywhere, from the sale booths at a Dave Matthews Band concert to the runways of the Milan fashion shows.

Or try this mental exercise. Ask yourself when you last heard John Lennon’s “Imagine,” one of the world’s most popular engines of ’60s nostalgia, written by the decade’s leading secular saint. Was it last month? Last week? “Imagine” has come to signify everything the decade allegedly stood for—a quest for tolerance, peace, brotherhood, and generosity. Granted, Lennon meant well. But the irony of a man who once owned a major chunk of the Dakota—widely considered New York City’s most exclusive co-op apartment building—singing “imagine no possessions” borders on the breathtaking. To his credit, the irony wasn’t lost on Lennon. When confronted with it by a friend, the former Beatle reportedly remarked, “It’s only a bloody song.”

Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that Lennon was shot and killed by a lunatic, Mark Chapman, who believed the singer had turned his back on ’60s ideals—whatever the voices in Chapman’s head told him those ideals were. But “Imagine” is not “just a bloody song.” It is an anthem, and it celebrates everything that the 1960s failed to achieve.

• • •

The counterculture’s most enduring, most emblematic moment came in August 1969, during a large, three-day rock concert in upstate New York. The promoters stopped collecting tickets, everyone got to listen to some really cool music, and the vibe was so cosmic and peaceful that nobody so much as got into a fist fight. A memorable event, to be sure, but the keepers of the ’60s flame want so much more, from the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, from consciousness expansion to the sexual revolution.

To credit the ’60s for the civil rights movement is an insult to that movement’s history and the long struggle for equality. Dr. Martin Luther King may have given his “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963, but the death of Jim Crow owes as much to the activists of the 1950s, such as Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that began the long drive to integrate America’s schools. Or Claudette Colvin, who, as a fifteen-year-old high school student in Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1955, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Colvin was arrested, handcuffed, and forcibly removed from the vehicle. She was followed a few months later by Rosa Parks, who also told the City of Montgomery what it could do with its Jim Crow laws and who was also arrested. Thus was born the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first shot fired in the modern civil rights movement, which itself followed a legacy of protest dating back to the previous century.

The ’60s wasn’t the era that brought forth the Civil Rights Movement. It was the era when well-meaning white people began to notice it.

And the antiwar movement? True, Vietnam was entirely a ’60s affair. The critics were also quite correct when they called the war a hideous waste of human life and national treasure. Our presence there was predicated on policymakers’ fears that we would somehow “lose” that tiny country to Communism, and with it all of Southeast Asia. As the body count grew and the horrendous fallacies of U.S. foreign policy became all too apparent, America’s youth began to question the wisdom of the country’s leaders. Finally, an angry generation said, “Enough!”—there were protest marches, placards, and slogans, the spectacle each night on the Huntley-Brinkley report of young men and women demanding peace and in return being gassed and beaten by the police.

Seeing this, an entire nation slowly woke up to the delusions and reckless arrogance of its rulers. The antiwar movement lit the fire, and America responded. In 1968, a year that saw more than 16,000 killed in action, voters marched to the polls and sent veteran commie-baiter and cold warrior Richard Nixon to the White House.

Indeed, one could argue that the country’s present conservative movement is the most enduring political legacy of the ’60s. Though civil rights foe Barry Goldwater—Nixon’s predecessor as Republican presidential candidate—was decisively beaten in the 1964 election, his followers refused to let the torch of right-wing extremism burn out. The ’60s saw the founding of groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. These groups and their devotees were, at the time, mostly considered punch lines, when they were considered at all. But with the help of William F. Buckley, his friends, and their money, these organizations and associated right-wing lobbying and media campaigns laid the groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

So, while ’60s activism can’t be discounted, the record is mixed and not quite as advertised. But if the results are largely a wash, then what is left? Alas, less than the Woodstock Nation wants us to believe. Whatever the ’60s might wish to claim as a breakthrough in thought and morality, midwifed by its turned-on, tuned-in avant garde, the whole show had been reduced to a crass, corrupt parody of itself long before the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1969.

Take, for example, consciousness expansion. It all began with such promise. In the early days of 1962, we have highly regarded Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary writing to famed author and mescaline connoisseur Aldous Huxley, extolling the progress Leary was making in bringing hallucinogenic drug research into the mainstream. He tells Huxley about students writing their PhD theses on the effects of psilocybin mushrooms and proudly states that a “visionary experience”—code for an acid trip—had become de rigueuramong grad students at the Andover Newton Theological Seminary, which was aiding Leary in his work.

He also tells Huxley about another experiment he is conducting, administering psilocybin to prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute:

The death-rebirth theme is the center of attention. We are experimenting (collaboratively with the advance joint assistance of the convicts) with more systematic ad hoc rituals in the prisons. Next Monday we are running a last judgment–rebirth sequence for four convicts. The therapeutic force of this approach is astounding.

Leary doesn’t explain in the letter what a “last judgment–rebirth sequence” entails or why it proved so salutary to the participants, but he would later claim reduced recidivism rates among the prisoners in his experiment. However, a follow-up examination of Leary’s work conducted in the late 1990s found no difference in recidivism among the convicts treated with magic mushrooms as compared to Massachusetts ex-prisoners as a whole.

There would be none of Leary’s high-minded vision questing on display a few years later when, in 1967, at the height of the famed Summer of Love, Beatle George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd took a stroll through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The two had dropped acid themselves that afternoon, and decided to go off with several friends to see the hippies and groove on the expected good vibes. In a television interview, Harrison recalled:

We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be this brilliant place. I thought it was going to be all these groovy, kind of gypsy kind of people with little shops making works of art and paintings and carvings. But instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums. Many of them were just very young kids who’d come from all over America and dropped acid and gone to this mecca of LSD. . . . It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like any addiction.

Describing the same incident in her 2007 autobiography, Boyd said the crowd grew hostile after Harrison was offered more drugs and turned them down, prompting the two to beat a hasty retreat to their limo. They left San Francisco later that night, and Harrison said in the interview that he never partook of psychedelics again.

By the 1970s, cocaine was ubiquitous, heroin was finding a larger audience, and the pretense of drugs as a path to a higher spiritual plane was largely gone. The first year of the decade saw the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the former overdosing on smack, the latter choking on his own vomit after mixing pills and alcohol. The aforementioned Jim Morrison would die of a heroin overdose in a Paris bathtub the next year.

But what about the sexual revolution? One need only Google “erotic Greek pottery” or “Pompeian wall paintings” to see that free love, open marriage, homosexuality, group sex, sado-masochism, etc. have long been with us. While it is true that reliable oral contraception—the pill—became available by prescription in 1960, reasonably trustworthy methods of birth control, such as condoms, had been available since the first half of the century, the only potential obstacle to their purchase a derisive scowl from the local pharmacist. Ergo, in a brief appearance in the 1981 film Reds, writer Henry Miller, describing his youth in the early 1920s, said, “There was just as much fucking going on then as now.”

Yet many continue to see the ’60s as America’s defining moment of sexual liberation. That the decade had a tremendous advantage simply by coming after the girdled-and-crewcut 1950s, ten years of nation-wide uptightness on a scale unseen since Victorian-era Britain, is seldom noted. More to the point, though, any evidence that the ’60s set us free from the chains of sexual repression and inhibition is murky and anecdotal, at best. The evidence that it did nothing of the sort is considerably stronger.

In 1970, Albert Klassen and his colleagues at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University conducted a nationwide poll, which found that roughly 75 to 90 percent of the nation still felt homosexuality, extra-marital sex, and pre-marital sex involving both teens and adults was always or almost always wrong. Even masturbation took a hit, with just under half of both men and women labeling the practice as wrong or almost always wrong. These results were recently affirmed by the Institute’s Thomas G. Albright, who re-tabulated the data.

For folks born in the 1940s, who would have been entering early adulthood at some point during the 1960s, Klassen put the total number of lifetime sexual partners at roughly six for males, four for females. Only 3 percent of women polled managed more than ten partners. Klassen summarized the findings by noting that, if there had been some kind of sexual revolution during the ’60s, his research had unearthed little evidence of it.

Today the ’60s are associated primarily with counterculture entertainment, but mainstream artists such as Herb Alpert were massively popular at the time. / Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

One explanation for this grand misperception may lie with ’60s mainstream entertainment, which helped take the commercialization of sex to an all-time high. Not that sex started selling then—it always had, of course—but modern mass media, particularly television, proved very effective at bringing miniskirts and go-go boots into America’s living rooms.

One nudge-wink example was the popular ABC series The Dating Game. Premiering in 1965, the show hooked up eligible, attractive young single men and women for what was billed as the ultimate blind date. The winning couple was shipped off for a week of implied carnality in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, all expenses paid.

On the show, the main contestant would put questions to three unseen prospects of the opposite sex, hidden from his or her view behind a wall running down the middle of the set. The questions were scripted, mainly to keep the bachelors from asking the bachelorettes the most obvious questions, such as breast size or number of sexual partners. Instead, the show’s writers would devise queries brimming with double entendres and not-so-subtle innuendo.

Q: Bachelorette Number Three, if you were a flavor of ice cream, what flavor would you be?
A: (giggle) Cherry.

The show’s background music was provided by trumpeter Herb Alpert and his band the Tijuana Brass. The tunes were vibrant, fresh and effervescent, in grand symbiosis with the youth on display. Though largely forgotten now, the band was at one point the musical face of the Swingin’ Sixties in the United States, outselling even The Beatles in 1966. The Tijuana Brass also laid claim to a memorable piece of sexploitation of their own, with their fourth album Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Released in 1965, the cover featured a photograph of a voluptuous brunette covered in whipped cream, holding a single red rose and looking into the camera with a classic come-hither gaze. Sultry and seductive, it was an image worthy of a Playboy spread and, for a while, just as likely to be found in any well-appointed bachelor pad as was Hefner’s publication.

But as the Kinsey study found, though sexual references and imagery were exploding on television and album covers, in magazines and movies, those pads were rarely rocking.

• • •

Alpert’s former popularity as a mainstream entertainer—his music eclipsed by the memory of such immortals as The Who, Joplin, and Hendrix—should serve as a reminder of how few Americans actually participated in the counterculture. Max Yasgur’s farm held about 500,000 people, a tiny tribe when compared to Americans at large, most of whom couldn’t tell Jerry Garcia from Bigfoot. For the country’s masses, blended scotch and Pabst Blue Ribbon were the drugs of choice, not pot and psychedelics. Hefner’s Playboy Mansion trumped the outdoor rock festival as the ultimate symbol of sybaritic abandon. Acapulco, not Haight-Ashbury, was the hip, happening destination. The Cadillac and the Ford Mustang ruled the highways of our great nation, running the VW Microbus off the road.

The idea of the ’60s as ground zero for a massive cultural shift also becomes suspect when one considers how anomalous the decade was economically. It was ten years of wondrous material plenty, unlike any the republic had previously seen. America experienced both an exceptionally prolonged period of economic expansion and some of the lowest sustained unemployment numbers in the twentieth century. Though few would want to admit it now, much of what came out of those ten years wasn’t prompted by acid-induced vision quests or transcendental meditation. It was purchased through America’s increased affluence, particularly the affluence of its young, who constituted a new consumer class.

On both the left and the right, however, we continue to believe a fifty year-old press release, minting bespoke memories of the ’60s tailored to whatever ideology we happen to champion. A Pew poll conducted in 1999, trying to gauge whether there is a discernible collective memory of the twentieth century, found that the ’60s had made the strongest impression on the national psyche of any decade before or after. “The collective memory of this important epoch,” the researchers determined, was “American Cultural Revolution.”

A truer, sadder epitaph for the era is provided by John Sebastian, who played a solo set at Woodstock and was lead singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful. In When the Music Mattered(1983), by rock journalist Bruce Pollock, Sebastian says:

I think we are devourers of our own culture and cannibalized a lot of things that could have happened out of Woodstock. A media culture can absorb and regurgitate stuff so fast that it loses meaning almost before it’s out of the pot. Somehow every mood that was created was suddenly turned into a marketable item. I regret that more of the spirit that existed at that point in time could not carry over to the sort of cocaine-and-glitter thing that filled the void once it was gone.

And you, dewy-eyed young person with your tie-dyed T-shirt and iPod full of Grateful Dead MP3s, I fear you will always look upon your own era and somehow find it lacking. A great pity, that.

Just remember to forget that Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies, went on to become a shill for snake-oil vendor Werner Erhard and his EST Seminars. Forget that Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver became a conservative Republican and endorsed Ronald Reagan. Forget that Jane Fonda had a boob job. The ’60s will always be whatever we say it is, regardless of what may have actually happened. That is why the song is called “Imagine.”

Hal Stucker is a writer and photographer. His work has appeared in Wired, the New York TimesPhoto District News, and the book Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism. His Boston Review story “Strapped” was included in Best American Essays 2014.

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Rosa Parks, Radicalism, and Remembrance

 

African American Intellectual History Society       February 17, 2015

Its Black History Month, which means that mainstream society pulls out the iconic images of African American freedom fighters including Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks provides an interesting case study in how we commemorate African American history. She is frozen in our collective consciousness as older, respectable woman who, “had been pushed around all her life” and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Indeed, the moment that Mrs. Parks “decided” not to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus has become the symbol of the triumph of the black spirit over white supremacy. This moment, as Parks’s biographer Jeanne Theoharis noted, has become a “narrative of national redemption” in which the country portrays Parks as “an accidental midwife without a larger politics.” [1]

Indeed, Mrs. Parks led a textured activist life that has been largely hidden from public view. This is due, in part, to the fact the her papers (manuscripts, photos, etc.) have been caught up in “controversies around profit, control, and the use of her image.” Parks, in an effort to tell her story to future generations, donated many of her personal correspondences, letters, and memorabilia before her death. The collection, priced 6 to 10 million dollars in 2013, sat in storage because most institutions, particularly those that collect black history, could not afford to purchase it.[2] All the more remarkable then, that the public will be able to view Park’s archive this year at the Library of Congress. [3]

Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, heard about the papers and instructed his foundation to make what would become the winning bid for the collection. The foundation will loan the Parks papers to Library of Congress for ten years.[4] With the 1,500-item collection now publicly available, we will finally get a chance to hear Parks’s thoughts on her community, race relations, and politics. African American women are rarely the subjects of histories. And often, like Parks, we are only represented in a particular historical moment or one dimension of black struggle. For African Americans, access to Parks’s papers is a chance to see our history formally appreciated in the archive, an experience that is still all too rare.

The physical location of Parks’s papers is just as important as how they became available to the public. Housing her papers at a national, government sanctioned and sponsored archive, can represent a moment of national celebration and validation of black struggle. It can also reinforce state-sponsored narratives of black progress. The Library of Congress will incorporate some pieces from the collection in a exhibit called “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” From the title, it appears that Parks will be featured as a key figure in our collective and inevitable march towards achieving the liberal integrated American dream. The aspects of her life that don’t fit into this linear story line – her training at the Highlander Folk School, her criticism of gradualism in the black freedom struggle, her assertion that Malcolm X was her hero – recede from public view.[5] In the very moment that we celebrate the opening up of Parks’s remarkable life, the place in which we house her history possibly forecloses dynamic perceptions of her activism.

Parks’s importance in our national history and her critical role in the black freedom struggle cannot be disputed. But what is gained and lost by white control over the Parks collection and our ability to access her thoughts, ideas, and worldview through a repository designed to foster a national identity? Are we able to collectively shift our understanding her ideas, intellectual development and activist trajectory while encountering her within the walls of an institution invested in a particular narrative of her life? And, if a foundation has the ability to buy, sell, and lend Parks’s legacy as it sees fit, how do we understand the intersection of capitalism, black history, and the valuation of black life today? I don’t have the answers to these questions. And, last month, I argued that we need all the documentation of African American women’s lives that we can get. But if Black History Month is about remembering and celebrating African Americans, their achievements, and their contributions, we should also think about where the national remembering is taking place and who is deploying the images and narratives of remembrance.

Rosaparks_fingerprints

The public can access Parks’s papers at the same moment in which African American women are leading Black Lives Matter protests and when activists are (again) asserting that black life, past, present, and future, is valuable. Parks’s archive and the histories that develop from it are linked to this struggle. Not only because Parks was more radical than our collective consciousness allows. But also because, through Parks, we can better understand how African American women engage in liberation politics, how respectability politics shapes black women’s lives and choices, and how she was one of the many African American women who have consistently worked at the grassroots level to assert the value of black life and humanity.

Parks’s role in the civil rights movement was no more spontaneous than contemporary protests. Both are part of a long, rich history of African American women activists who consistently fight the intersection of racism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Its time we recognize and remember Parks for her methodical dedicated radical activism as much as for her movement symbolism and no longer let institutions and foundations frame black struggle as individualist, respectable, progressive, male-centered, and “accidental.”[6] This seems to be a good use of the short time we have access to Parks’s archive in the short month dedicated to black history.

[1] Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), ix, xi.

[2] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life, xv.

[3] Emmarie Huetteman, “Who Rosa Parks Was, Not Just What She Meant,” New York Times, February 5, 2015.

[4] Library of Congress Press Release, “Rosa Parks’ Papers to Reside at Library of Congress,” September 9, 2014; “Warren Buffet’s Son Buys Rosa Parks Archive,” The Detroit Free Press, August 29, 2014.

[5] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 207.

[6] Theoharis has developed a body of literature intent on reframing Parks. See: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and ““A Life History of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” in Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Ashley Farmer

Farmer%20headshot Ashley Farmer is a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University.

Her manuscript, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power, is the first comprehensive intellectual history of women in the black power movement. The book introduces new and overlooked women activists into the history of black power, examines the depth and breath of their political and intellectual engagement, and shows the relationship between women’s gendered theorizing and the trajectory of the black power movement.

She is also the author of several articles about African American women’s black power activism and intellectual production and her research interests include African American history, gender history, and intellectual history. Her research has been supported by Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Texas-Austin and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It has also been featured on the History Channel. For more information visit http://www.ashleydfarmer.com or follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer

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Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.
AFP/GETTY IMAGES

MLK’s Case for Reparations Included Disadvantaged Whites

Jonathan Rieder
The Root July 15, 2014

What does white America owe black America? To even broach that question 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seems straight-out wacky. Did not the election of a black president redeem the nation? At a minimum, it’s rude—refusing to avert the eyes from that elephant in the room: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy.” That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates deemed it recently in his extraordinary “The Case for Reparations.”

Far from fringe lunacy, the idea of a primal debt was obvious to Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly 50 years ago this month in Why We Can’t Wait, his Harper & Row account of the Birmingham, Ala., protests, he made his own impassioned case for compensation. And yet no matter how much he shared Coates’ desire to square accounts, King would settle on a rival solution for the crimes of slavery and all the forms of racism that succeeded it.

In the rapture of King’s crescendo at the March on Washington, it’s easy to forget the language of bankers that pervaded the first half of “I Have a Dream” (pdf): “America had defaulted on this promissory note” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One year later, in Why We Can’t Wait, he was not coy about the nation’s “need to pay a long overdue debt to its citizens of color.” He retold the story of his 1959 visit to India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recounted all the preferential policies that aided the untouchables: “This is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.”

Invoking the sacred precedent of “our fighting men [in World War ll]” who “had been deprived of certain advantages and opportunities,” King ticked off all the things—the GI Bill of Rights—that were done “to make up for this.” Then King pivoted and pounced: “Certainly the Negro has been deprived” and just as surely “robbed of the wages of his toil.” You didn’t need a course in logic to complete the syllogism.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not diminish King’s zeal for reparations. “Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule,” he told a mass meeting not long before his death. Instead, the nation left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery.” Calculating that $20 a week for the 4 million slaves would have added up to $800 billion, he noted acerbically, “They owe us a lot of money.”

The failure to repair thus added a new crime to the original one. It was like putting a man in jail and discovering his innocence years later: “And then you go up to him and say, ‘You are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money … to get on his feet in life again. Every code of jurisprudence would rise up against that.”

There was still one more twist in the torment to come. All those “white peasants from Europe” who enjoyed the largesse of land grants and low-interest loans “are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. … It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Are the progeny of those “white peasants” readier to reckon with our racist legacy? Thirty-five years ago, a Brooklyn, N.Y., woman fumed to me about the TV program Roots, “If they keep shoving that stuff down our throats, there’s never going to be peace. … that was over 200 years ago that this slavery bit was!”

Today, countless Americans think blacks have received compensation in the form of anti-poverty money and quotas. As one person told political consultant Stanley Greenberg (pdf), “Didn’t they get 40 acres and a mule? That’s more than I got.” West Indians and African immigrants, too, sometimes complain that black Americans are too racial, and many millennials who used to thrill to President Barack Obama’s exalted flights are preoccupied with their own plights and the grit of a post-Lehman Brothers economy.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of whites even reject apologies for slavery, which cost nothing save one’s dignity. Many of the supporters of affirmative action whom Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman queried in the 1990s endorsed the remedy only if blacks were not its sole recipients and the rationale was universal: “help people who are out of work” rather than “because of the historic injustices blacks have suffered.”

It’s possible that attaching a race to the injustice made the respondents squirm. Perhaps it forced whites to dwell on this unsettling fact: Our success in part is a windfall, reaped from the access black exclusion gave us to jobs, slots in housing markets and much else.

In truth, white psyches and circumstances are too varied to sustain such generalities. The woman who recoiled from “that slavery bit” didn’t lack empathy. She filled up with emotion as she observed, “The blacks were treated worse than animals; they were taken up from their own happy soil.” When Greenberg returned to McComb County, Mich. (pdf), before the 2008 election, some of the same Reagan Democrats (or their children) who had seen blacks as the source of all their ills in the 1980s and heard Jesse Jackson’s “Our time has come” as “Your time is over,” could now acknowledge America’s special burden: “We did hold them back, and a lot of people were cheated.” As for Sniderman’s respondents, likely many of them saw universalism as a different, equally righteous take on healing and helping.

Maybe, then, it’s best to settle for those modest moral advances, especially if that’s the price of any coalition of conscience that might some day be motivated to remedy the ills of suffering Americans. Better to leave the fuller atonement to those Deep South museums that have confronted their louche local past; people who exit Twelve Years a Slave in turmoil; lawsuits seeking compensation for specific violations like the racist rampage in Tulsa, Okla. Anything more perfect might be the enemy of the good, even the moral good.

 

Ultimately, in the very chapter of Why We Can’t Wait in which he laid out the justice of reparations, King rejected the idea of recompense for blacks alone. It’s not that he was prepared to abandon this equation of restorative justice: The nation that did something special against the Negro had to do something special for him.

But the special thing that King proposed—“A gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial”—left plenty of room for white “veterans” in the mix. He offered solace to the least of these, no matter what their complexion. Inevitably, there was a shrewdness to this inclusion, part of the effort to woo white allies and crystallize the liberal coalition on race that had been growing since Birmingham. It was also, King underlined, “a simple matter of justice.”

Already in 1964, King was looking beyond the Civil Rights Act. He could grasp its limited power to effect “improvements” in the Negro’s “way of life.” He could see that rights and respect might arrive more quickly than economic equality. He could also see that however much white supremacy left blacks vulnerable to inimical forces, the forces could be unsentimentally free of bigotry and wreak havoc on whites and blacks alike.

At the March on Washington, King invited whites to join the  “we” who could sing, “Free at last … we are free at last,” and thus share in bondage and deliverance. He did something just as generous inWhy We Can’t Wait. Likely it took a Christian whose idea of a fair exchange was blessing those who curse you to offer poor and middling Southern whites this face-saving gift: He defined them not as beneficiaries of white supremacy but as “victims of slavery” who suffered their own “derivative bondage.” This wasn’t masochism talking, but a faith at once hard-boiled and brimming with grace.

What, then, about balancing the ledger for specifically black injuries? Throughout Why We Can’t Wait, there are hints that resolving matters of policy and politics didn’t still all the feelings churning within King. “A price can be placed on unpaid wages,” he underlined, but “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries.” He rejected an easy “four-minute atonement” as inadequate to “400 years of sinning.”

Atone, you sinners! That is the sound of the muffled voice of the preacher rising up through the printed page. And in the end it seems Coates, too, is seeking something similar: recognition as much as reparations; “not a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe” but “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”

King harbored no illusions that whites as a whole had the moral gumption to undergo that ordeal. In the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, he observed, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”

The evidence for pessimism only intensified as 1964 unfolded. George Wallace broke out of his Southern lair. White backlash quickened in the North. By 1968 King could warn, “a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp … could put black people in concentration camps.”

And so, in the absence of full justice, the preacher could be a chastising prophet, who once told a mass meeting: “Do you know that in America the white man sought to annihilate the Indian, literally to wipe him out, and he made a national policy that said in substance, the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Now, a nation that got started like that has a lot of repentin’ to do.”

But even rebuke did not close the case. There remained the work of memory and mourning. King never stopped honoring that history, whose pain could not be fully assuaged by rebuke or recognition. In the refuge of a black church, in the nurturant embrace of his people, he grieved: “We read on the Statue of Liberty that America is the mother of exiles.” But whites “never evinced the maternal care and concern for its black exiles who were brought to this nation in chains. And isn’t it the ultimate irony … that the Negro could sing in one of its sorrow songs, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’”

As the audience erupted in applause, King demanded, “What sense of estrangement, what sense of rejection, what sense of hurt could cause a people to use such a metaphor?”

Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author most recently of Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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Mississippi Burning: 50th Anniversary of KKK Murder of 3 Civil Rights Workers

Democracy Now   June 20. 2014

UnknownSaturday marks the 50th anniversary of the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, a pivotal moment in the 1960s struggle for equality.

On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were ambushed by a gang of Klansmen. The three were beaten and shot, their bodies found weeks later buried in an earthen dam. They had come to Mississippi to register African-American voters as part of the Freedom Summer campaign.

A number of Klan members were convicted on minor charges, with none serving more than six years. It took 41 years before a murder conviction was handed down in the case, with former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen found guilty of manslaughter in 2005.

Democracy Now! aired a special report on the murder case in 2010, which was featured in the documentary, “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom.” Although dozens of white men are believed to have been involved in the murders and cover-up, only one man, a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, is behind bars today. Four suspects are still alive in the case.

In this report, we air excerpts of “Neshoba” and speak with its co-director, Micki Dickoff. We are also joined by the brothers of two of the victims, Ben Chaney and David Goodman.

civilrightsworkers.jpg.CROP.rtstoryvar-large

We also speak with award-winning Mississippi-based journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger, who has spent the past 20 years investigating unresolved civil rights murder cases, as well as Bruce Watson, author of the book, “Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.”

Click here to watch this special report.

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Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155821#sthash.pv6BHGCY.dpuf
Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155821#sthash.pv6BHGCY.dpuf
Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155821#sthash.pv6BHGCY.dpuf
Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155821#sthash.pv6BHGCY.dpuf

Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein

Robin Lindley

HNN June 9, 2014


“Culture was a key battleground of the civil rights movement,” writes historian Dr. Ruth Feldstein who explores race and gender as well as the connection of art and activism in her compelling new study, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press).

Dr. Feldstein’s book focuses on the activism and influence of six prominent black performing artists: Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Miriam Makeba, Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll. As these women entertained America they also spoke out in various ways for equality and justice in support of the civil rights struggle.

The trailblazer, brilliant vocalist and star of stage and screen Lena Horne, led the way with her performances in the 1930s and 1940s that introduced wide audiences to a fresh and novel talent, and her activism that grew, crossed many divides, and matured in the 1960s. In the shadow of Horne, the five younger artists each broke new ground in her own way to transform American culture and to reshape outdated views of race and gender, forging black power and evolving feminism.

In her sweeping account, Dr. Feldstein details the work and struggle of each of these women who achieved fame in male-dominated cultural industries while resisting racist and sexist stereotypes. She discusses the how South African singer Miriam Makeba connected the American civil rights movement with the anti-apartheid campaign in her native land; how jazz icon Nina Simone confronted audiences with the brutality of racial discrimination in her fiery, moving songs; how the outspoken vocalist and actress Abbey Lincoln broke new ground in music and film; how actress Diahann Carroll made history as television’s Julia in 1968 and then struggled with the ways she was typecast; and how award-winning actress Cicely Tyson advocated for human rights and for dignified portrayals of African Americans on screen and television as she starred in renowned films such as Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

How It Feels to Be Free has been praised for its originality, insight, and its blending of political and cultural history. Dr. Daphne Brooks of Princeton University wrote: “By placing black female musicians and actors at the center of Civil Rights history, Ruth Feldstein has written a tremendously important study that challenges readers to consider the imaginative activism of artists who performed progressive representations of black womanhood. How It Feels to Be Free takes readers on a critical journey across the mid-twentieth century freedom struggle by way of women performers who rehearsed, remixed, and renegotiated civil rights and black power politics, as well as emergent feminisms.” And Peniel E. Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life commented: “How It Feels to Be Free stands out as an enormous act of historical recovery. Ruth Feldstein masterfully illuminates the way in which black women entertainers actively participated in the civil rights struggle and helped to transform American and international race relations. A powerful and thought provoking book that will change the way we look at gender, civil rights, and the black freedom movement.”

Dr. Ruth Feldstein is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark.  Her teaching and research focus on the intersections of gender and race and the relationships between culture and politics. Her first book was Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965, an intellectual and cultural history of liberalism and race from the New Deal to the Great Society.

Dr. Feldstein graciously responded by email to a daunting series of questions on her new book.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to write about the civil rights movement through the stories of this group of black female entertainers?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: For one, I wanted to tell the stories of women whose voices have not been heard. While it is a bit ironic to say that about amazing vocalists like Lena Horne, Nina Simone, or Abbey Lincoln, these and other women have been marginal to our political histories of these decades. Theirs are not the melodies that we tend to hear at Martin Luther King Day celebrations each January. Yet there was far more to civil rights than “I have a dream,” and there was far more to culture and civil rights than “We Shall Overcome.”

I also wanted to consider how politics and social movements were relevant to the thousands upon thousands of Americans and non-Americans who did not (or today, do not) consider themselves particularly political. After all, plenty of people never marched or boycotted or worked on behalf of any particular candidate in the late 50s into the 70s. Nevertheless, they encountered black activism when they bought certain albums or listened to certain songs or watched particular films or television shows. In other words, we need to expand the parameters in which we see people acting politically. When we do so, we can see that these six trailblazing women were critical to what were arguably the two most transformative social movements of the twentieth century: civil rights and women’s liberation.

Abbey Lincoln

Robin Lindley: How did you choose the six women you focus on in the book? What connections did you find in terms of the civil rights movement?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: That’s a great question, and plenty of readers offer me lists of their favorites who could have been included. I chose to focus on these six women because of their diversity and because of what they had in common.

In terms of their diversity, the book traverses television and film, jazz and pop music, the NAACP and the Black Panthers, Selma and South Africa. That is, I incorporated women entertainers who worked across different cultures and industries—and not just women in jazz or women on television; I also wanted to tell a story that cuts across national boundaries and typical political divides of liberalism and radicalism.

On the other hand, even with these differences, the six women I write about did have a lot in common: they all had relationships to organized political movements for racial equality; they all were popular within, and beyond, the United States; and they were all were political subjects and intellectuals and not “merely” entertainers. Perhaps of greatest significance, though, they shared a loosely connected community. The women in How It Feels To Be Free were essential to a larger interracial group of activists/entertainers that came of age culturally and politically in New York—primarily in the Village and in Harlem–in the late 1950s. Their communities included HarryBelafonte, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, and Ossie Davis,to name just a few. The book is a history of that urban subculture and its gendered dimensions at the same time that it offers snapshots of particular figures.

This is not to say that there were not many other black women entertainers from this period whose careers mattered to the civil rights movement. I feel lucky to have been researching and writing this book when other writers and scholars have told wonderful stories about other women, and I look forward to reading more of this exciting work.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process? Did you have an opportunity to interview any of your subjects?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: My process was to research and write, research and write, chapter by chapter; initially, each chapter felt relatively independent. As the process continued over time, I started to see more and more links between and among the women. In fact, they were connected to each other in all sorts of ways. But this wasn’t necessarily obvious at the outset because critics from the late 1950s—when Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson all came of age professionally—wrote about each one in isolation. It took time for me to see that they were an emergent collectivity of ambitious black women performers who together were building their careers, innovating, and making political commitments.

I made a conscious decision not to interview the women I was writing about. I made that choice because I really wanted to listen in on the conversations that were happening in that period of time. My main questions were about how people at the time made these women and their careers meaningful—how the women worked to represent themselves and how other people reacted to them and made them celebrity-activists. I felt that talking to them decades later would certainly be incredibly interesting, but would not necessarily help me to answer those questions and, in fact, could possibly distract me from those questions.

Robin Lindley: I think many Americans think first of male leaders such as Dr. King and Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael or male entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier when they think of the sixties and the civil rights movement. What are a few things you would like others to know about the role of women in the movement?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: I absolutely agree with you, Robin. The story of the civil rights movement—at least the one that I learned in grade school, high school and even into college, and the one that my students tell me they are still getting in high school—tends to revolve around male leaders and songs like “We Shall Overcome” as the ubiquitous background soundtrack. Occasionally a woman—usually Rosa Parks—shows up in that story; but even then she tends to appear as the “tired, old seamstress,” who “suddenly” decided not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery (this despite her decades of activism). But when we bring black women entertainers center-stage, the history of civil rights looks different.

For example, in 1963, just a month after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Nina Simone wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam.” The song had an upbeat tempo, but offered incredibly incendiary lyrics filled with anger. Simone rejected the notion that race relations could change gradually and shattered the assumption that African Americans would patiently use the legislative process to seek political rights. She even declared, “But this whole country is full of lies, You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”

In a moment that many people today remember as the high water mark of liberal, interracial, nonviolent, church-based activism that culminated in passage of landmark civil rights legislation, Simone dramatically departed from conventional wisdom and imagined another kind of black freedom. A few years later, the vision that she offered in “Mississippi Goddam” would become known widely as black power.

Nina Simone

Contrary to the neat historical trajectories which assume that black power only arose in the late 1960s, Simone’s album makes clear that black power perspectives were already taking shape and circulating widely years earlier—in organizations, but also on vinyl albums that music fans played around the world. So by listening to this woman’s voice, we can reperiodize civil rights, and mess up what is sometimes an overly schematic story of civil rights versus black power.

But there’s more to it than that. When Simone denounced racism and those who called on black Americans to wait patiently for progress, she did so in ways that emphasized female power. In one verse, Simone sang:

Yes, you lied to me all these years

You told me to wash and clean my ears

And talk real fine, just like a lady

And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie.

But this whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies

I don’t trust you any more

You keep on saying “Go Slow.

When Simone rejected the impulse to “talk like a lady” she was saying that black women did not have to focus on appearance, diction, and manners—to “wash and clean my ears,” to “talk like a lady” as she put it—to claim their rights; she argued that doing so did not stop whites from calling black women “Sister Sadie” instead of their real names. She was saying that women should not have to behave a certain way to be recognized as deserving. Here and in other songs, Simone staged an assault—simultaneously—on racism and on expectations of female propriety. For her, black power was about black female power.

This is just one example of how listening to women allows us to reconceptualize as well as reperiodize histories of the movement.

Robin Lindley: Lena Horne is a pivotal and overarching figure in your book. How did she influence the civil rights movement and the younger women you profile?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: Lena Horne was older than the other five women in How It Feels to Be Free. In the 1930s and 40s, when Makeba, Simone, Carroll, Lincoln were kids, really, Horne challenged long entrenched assumptions about black women. For example, in 1941, she became the first African American woman to sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio, one in which MGM executives acceded to her demand that she not play any maids on film. She rejected definitions of black women as either sexualized Jezebels or as caretaking and subordinate Mammies. These were powerful and deeply ingrained images that had boxed in all black women for centuries. Instead, Lena Horne made it possible for fans across lines of race to imagine a black woman as glamorous, and as an unavailable object of desire. In many respects, then, Horne created the template for the modern and glamorous politicized female black celebrity.

In the late 1950s, younger black women encountered, played with, and bent sometimes beyond recognition that template. Diahann Carroll was a singer and actress who invited numerous comparisons to Horne. Starting in the 50s, Carroll worked to update and maintain Horne’s insistence that that a black woman could simultaneously be respectable, sexual, and glamorous. Other black women performers also grappled with Horne’s image. But they did more to redefine celebrity culture and they transformed meanings of glamour for black women.

Lena Horne

 Robin Lindley: Miriam Makeba was South African but performed extensively in the US. Wasn’t she important in terms of educating many about international liberation movements and conditions in the US?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: Miriam Makeba was a South African singer who came to the U.S in 1959. Within days of arriving, she made her American debut and was a big sensation. But in contrast to her good friend, Nina Simone, Makeba insisted that she was “just” an entertainer, and she avoided confrontations and overtly political lyrics. Nevertheless, she was able to make connections for her audiences in the United States between domestic black activism and anticolonial struggles. Americans who knew little about Africa beyond Tarzan paid attention to anti-apartheid activism when they saw the exiled Makeba on the popular Steve Allen television show and in the commercial mainstream in the early 1960s. In all sorts of ways—with her music, her lyrics, her appearance, her wardrobe, with what she did and said on-stage and off—she was able to get white and black Americans to see and understand black South Africans who lived under apartheid rule. Without ever using the phrase “black power” in this period, Makeba affirmed the power of blackness and affirmed the power of Africa; she offered a vision of black power for women and men across borders.

Robin Lindley: Actress Cicely Tyson may be best remembered now for her groundbreaking roles in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but she was also deeply committed to the civil rights movement. How do you see Tyson’s role?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: Tyson’s commitment to the civil rights movement was not separate from her acting career; in fact, her commitment to civil rights expressed itself directly in relation to the groundbreaking roles she worked so hard to get. For example, she avoided musicals because she felt that so many white consumers assumed that black performers were “naturally” drawn to those roles, and she refused to adhere to those assumptions. Starting in 1959, when she played the part of a young African woman on the television drama Camera Three, Tyson wore her hair in a short, cropped Afro. She maintained her short Afro in her role as a secretary to a liberal white social worker on the critically acclaimed (but short-lived) television drama on CBS, East Side, West Side (1963). It was “my way of picketing” she later said about her hair.

Tyson also did not work for long stretches—in part because she was so selective about what parts she would accept and because she felt so strongly that it was important to represent black women in certain ways. And when her career did take off in the 1970s, many of her most significant roles engaged with the political debates going on around her—from welfare to police brutality, to name just two—even in stories like Sounder that were set in the past.

Robin Lindley: How did these artists affect the feminist movement?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: The women I write about did not necessarily call themselves feminists. But gender was critical to their vision of black freedom. They offered critiques and made demands that became central tenets of feminism generally and of black feminism specifically. I’ll offer just a few examples, but there are many to choose from.

Abbey Lincoln’s career started as in nightclubs; she wore tight fitting low cut gowns and was known as the “sepia Marilyn Monroe.” But by the late 1950s, she had rejected that music and that sexualized image. She had realized “how wonderful it is to be a black woman,” she said, and with that, opted for more experimental jazz vocals and a very different personal style.

A few years later, in 1968, Lincoln, known for her connections to black nationalist politics and her experimental jazz vocals, co-starred alongside Sidney Poitier in the film, For Love of Ivy. Ivy, a young woman domestic (Lincoln in a straight-haired wig), wants to leave her job, is financially independent, hard-working, sexually active, and, as she explains to the Poitier character on their first date, uninterested in marriage. The sex scene between the two stars was one of the first times a commercial Hollywood film featured unmarried black characters in an elegant and romantic setting. “Nobody asks what I want,” declares Ivy, toward the end the film, as she protests the ways that both the white family and Poitier’s character try to control her.

Off-screen, Lincoln talked about the film in ways that highlighted the strength and dignity of working class black women. She discussed the limited options they had for work, and spoke out about her own experiences as a domestic. In other words, Lincoln put the character’s quest for independence and autonomy—economic andsexual—at the center of the story. She anticipated a black feminist perspective that took into account the aspirations and experiences of working-class black women.

In another example, in South Africa, Miriam Makeba was nicknamed the “nut brown baby.” She disapproved of the U.S.-made skin-lighteners that were so popular among her peers in the early 1950s and refused to appear in advertisements for these products that sexualized and celebrated light skinned black women.

Coming back to Nina Simone, many of what we think of as Simone’s civil rights songs emphasized female power. In addition to “Mississippi Goddam,” “Pirate Jenny,” for example, was a song about a poor working class black woman’s fantasies of violence; she feels empowered as she imagines enacting revenge against the white townspeople who watch her “gawking” as she scrubs floors. In the song “Four Women” (1966), Nina Simone sang about four different types of black women from different periods in U.S. history, each of whom wrestled with the combination of racism, sexism, and color consciousness. The final woman in the song, “Peaches” would “kill the first mother I see” because her “life has been rough.” “Four Women” became one of Simone’s most popular songs.

So too, Cicely Tyson’s choice to take on distinctly unglamorous roles had everything to do with both race and gender. Sounder’s emphasis on a loving black family directly countered images of black families as “dysfunctional,” and as caught in a “tangle of pathology” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had put it in 1965. Tyson talked about this when she promoted the film: If it were not for unified, loving black families, she said “we would not be where we are today as a race of people.”

Tyson was also countering images of black women—and black mothers specifically–that were popular in the late 60s early 70s: as promiscuous “bad mothers” who were only concerned about getting the next welfare check. After seeing Sounder, one white woman wrote to Tyson that “I never knew that kind of love went on between a black man and woman. I thought you were sexual animals.” This comment is just one indication that Tyson’s performances were never just about race and civil rights, or just about gender and women’s liberation, but were always about both. Tyson’s portrayal of Rebecca spoke to how intertwined issues of race and gender were in the performance and consumption of black womanhood.

Cicely Tyson

Robin Lindley: Didn’t each of these women artists suffer career setbacks because of their political expressions and promotion of black activism?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: The women I write about were enormously popular, in the United States and around the world. Miriam Makeba sang at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1962 (where Marilyn Monroe made an even more famous appearance!), and was the first South African singer to receive a Grammy award; Diahann Carroll won a Tony award for No Strings in (1962); and Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll each received Oscar nominations for best actress in a lead role for their performances in Sounder (1972) and Claudine (1974).

At the same time, it is worth emphasizing the risks that black women took when they straddled the worlds of culture and politics. After one influential critic accused Abbey Lincoln of being a “professional Negro” for singing songs that had political content on the album Straight Ahead in 1961, she did not record an independent album for over a decade. Miriam Makeba was exiled from her home country of South Africa for decades because of her associations with anti-apartheid activism. She was initially very successful in the United States but, when she married Stokely Carmichael in 1968—an activist known for his connections to black power—she was effectively blacklisted in the American entertainment industry. Nina Simone faced criticism and threats of censorship when she wrote and performed songs like “Mississippi Goddam” that challenged white Americans and denounced interracialism. Cicely Tyson waited years between parts, and almost gave up acting altogether, because she refused to accept roles that she felt sexualized or otherwise demeaned black women. When Diahann Carroll—long associated with glamour and high fashion—took on the part of a working class, single black mother (in the film Claudine, in 1974), she earned an Academy Award nomination, but she also faced a tremendous amount of criticism—for “slumming,” for being incapable of playing the part of a poor black woman in an “authentic” manner, and more. She felt her career floundered after that.

It was never easy, and the women I write about negotiated their ambition and talent and their political commitments in all sorts of ways.

It’s also worth adding that this pattern of silencing them persists today. Nina Simone has become an increasingly iconic figure, especially since her death. A few years ago, my daughter’s public school teacher asked me to come in and talk to the class about music and civil rights. I prepared a program for them about her and about “Mississippi Goddam.” The morning I was scheduled to go in, I got a call from the assistant principal saying that they would not let me play that song to middle schoolers. “Mississippi Goddam” remains deeply controversial in some places.

Robin Lindley: One interesting theme was how several of these black women challenged mainstream white standards of beauty—and that seems an important part of this story. How did some change their appearance and how did white audiences respond?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: That’s a great point, Robin. All of the women I write about were involved in a process of politicized self-fashioning. This was a process in which race and femininity played intersecting parts.

In the 1940s, for example, Lena Horne became known as the first “black pin up girl.” It’s easy for us to forget that in the 1940s the very idea of “beauty” was racially specific. A black woman couldn’t be a “sex symbol,” according to this twisted racial logic, because for centuries, so many whites believed that black women were inherently available to white men. But Horne said no; through her appearance, she claimed—and was granted access—to the category of beauty. Lena Horne made it possible for fans across lines of race to imagine a black woman as glamorous, as someone who white and black men could look at but not have.

Twenty years later, Makeba, Simone, Lincoln, and Tyson also insisted that how they looked mattered to their racial politics. But in contrast to Horne who claimed that black women had access to definitions of beauty and glamour that historically were associated with whiteness, they did more to transform or reject these definitions of beauty altogether. Hair was one of the crucial props that that they drew on to do so.

Diahann Carroll

In the late 1950s, for example, when singer Abbey Lincoln left the world of nightclubs and declared that “I demand that I be respected as a dignified Negro woman,” she simultaneously embraced modern jazz vocals and started to wear her hair natural. Similarly, starting in 1959, Tyson also wore her hair in a short, cropped Afro. Nina Simone wore her hair in dramatically different styles from one performance to the next, including straight-haired wigs, but as early as 1961 these styles included a natural Afro style. In South Africa in the fifties, Miriam Makeba had refused to appear in enormously popular ads for skin lighteners; from her opening night at the Village Vanguard in 1959 and during all of her years of celebrity in the United States, she refused to straighten her hair—opting instead for what she called her “short and woolly” style.

These women—and others, it’s worth adding, including Odetta, Melba Liston, and Maya Angelou, to name just a few—were not glamorous in the ways that Lena Horne had carved out and claimed that category. But they redefined glamour in the context of their politics. They insisted that how they looked made them desirable and desiring—and political—black women.

Robin Lindley: These stories resonate today—a half century later— as Americans continue to grapple with issues of race, the role of women, voting and other civil rights, and more. How do you see that resonance now?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: I think that the question of who gets to tell black women’s stories, how those stories should be told, and what these stories mean are very much with us. We see this in so many places—from debates about Beyonce, to fierce disagreements about Lupita Nynong’o’s wardrobe and body and hair, to questions about Michelle Obama’s arms. I also think that black feminist criticism has flourished. There are many brilliant black women writing and thinking and speaking about these questions of race and women and sexuality and popular culture. They’re doing so in and out of the academy and making tremendous contributions to conversations about these critical issues.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything else you hope students of history and other readers take from your book?

Dr. Ruth Feldstein: I hope that readers see that history is messy and complicated, and that not everyone or everything “fits” into the categories we’ve established as “important.” I also hope that readers see that Americans and non-Americans have expressed political demands imaginatively as well as with marches and boycotts, and that politics did, and still can, happen in what might seem to be unlikely ways and unlikely places.

Robin Lindley: Thank you so much Dr. Feldstein for sharing your insights on these accomplished artists and the civil rights movement.

 

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney, and the features editor for the History News Network. His writing also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, Documentary, NW Lawyer, and more.  He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com. For a full list of Mr. Lindley’s interviews for HNN, click here.

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The Civil Rights Project    May 15, 2014

Segregation Increases after Desegregation Plans Terminated by Supreme Court

LOS ANGELES: Marking the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (CRP) assessed the nation’s progress in addressing school segregation in it’s new report released today, Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future, and found that the vast transformation of the nation’s school population since the civil rights era includes an almost 30% drop in white students and close to quintupling of Latino students.

Brown at 60 shows that the nation’s two largest regions, the South and West, now have a majority of what were called “minority” students. Whites are only the second largest group in the West. The South, always the home of most black students, now has more Latinos than blacks and is a profoundly tri-racial region.

The Brown decision in 1954 challenged the legitimacy of the entire “separate but equal” educational system of the South, and initiated strides toward racial and social equality in schools across the nation. Desegregation progress was very substantial for Southern blacks, in particular, says the report, and occurred from the mid-1960s to the late l980s.

The authors state that, contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation beforeBrown. It has, however, lost all of the additional progress made after l967, but is still the least segregated region for black students.

Since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed desegregation law, states the report, and many major desegregation plans have ended. CRP’s statistical analysis shows that segregation increased substantially after desegregation plans were terminated in many large districts including Charlotte, NC; Pinellas County, FL; and Henrico County, VA.

“Brown was a major accomplishment and we should rightfully be proud. But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools,” said Gary Orfield, co-author of the study and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “It is time to stop celebrating a version of history that ignores our last quarter century of retreat and begin to make new history by finding ways to apply the vision of Brown in a transformed, multiracial society in another century.”

This new research affirms that the growth of segregation coincides with the demographic surge in the Latino population. Segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s but segregation has soared since.

The report stresses that segregation occurs simultaneously across race and poverty. The report details a half-century of desegregation research showing the major costs of segregation, particularly for students of color and poor students, and, conversely, the variety of benefits offered by schools with student enrollment of all races.

Among the key findings of the research are:

  • Black and Latino students are an increasingly large percentage of suburban enrollment, particularly in larger metropolitan areas, and are moving to schools with relatively few white students.
  • Segregation for blacks is the highest in the Northeast, a region with extremely high district fragmentation.
  • Latinos are now significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.
  • Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.
  • Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.
  • California is the state in which Latino students are most segregated.

The report concludes with recommendations about how the nation might pursue making the promise of Brown a reality in the 21st century–providing equal opportunity to all students regardless of race or economic background.

“Desegregation is not a panacea and it is not feasible in some situations,” said co-author Erica Frankenberg, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Where it is possible–and it still is possible in many areas–desegregation properly implemented can make a very real contribution to equalizing educational opportunities and preparing young Americans to live, work and govern together in our extremely diverse society.”

Brown at 60 is being released from New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, where Orfield delivers the keynote address, on Friday, May 16, 2014, for Brown 60 and Beyond. The report includes various tables showing segregation state-by-state and can be found here.

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About the Civil Rights Project at UCLA

Founded in 1996 by former Harvard professors Gary Orfield and Christopher Edley, Jr., The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles is now co-directed by Orfield and Patricia Gándara, professors at UCLA. Its mission is to create a new generation of research in social science and law on the critical issues of civil rights and equal opportunity for racial and ethnic groups in the United States. It has monitored the success of American schools in equalizing opportunity and has been the authoritative source of segregation statistics. CRP has commissioned more than 400 studies, published more than 15 books and issued numerous reports from authors at universities and research centers across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollingerdecision upholding affirmative action, and in Justice Breyer’s dissent (joined by three other Justices) to its 2007Parents Involved decision, cited the Civil Rights Project’s research.

 

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