Tag Archives: Rosa Parks

On Dr. Martin Luther King’s Struggles and Strength

The arrival of the annual King holiday prompts reflection on the state of the country relative to the lofty dream he articulated first in Detroit, and then most memorably on the Washington Mall in August 1963.

But it’s also an opportunity to consider the man and how he was able to persevere in the face of the consistently vicious opposition he encountered during the final third of his life.

One part of the key may lie in a speech he gave in Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967, about a year after his campaign to bring about the “unconditional surrender” of slum housing conditions in what was then the nation’s second-largest city.

The experience he recounted happened late one night in the kitchen of his Montgomery home.

King, who had not originally sought out a church that would become the center of international activism, had emerged as a leader in the boycott sparked by seamstress, NAACP member and former Highlander Center alumnus Rosa Parks. (An interesting side note is that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same violation the year before Parks, but had not been considered a sufficiently appropriate face of the moment by the local black power structure.)

The decision came with heavy costs.

King’s house was bombed one night while he and his family were in it.

He received daily death threats for the following 13 years until his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

It was at midnight, King told the Chicago audience, when he received the call. (You can hear King start to tell the story at 18:32 on the recording.)

The message was simple and laced with a racial epithet:

We’re tired of you and what you’re doing.

Get out of town in three days, or we’ll kill you and blow up your house.

Although he had encountered many similar such threats, this one jolted King.

He could not return to sleep.

He eventually went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.

He started thinking about the theology he had studied for years, about his beautiful little girl, about his dedicated and loving wife.

Nothing worked.

King then thought of reaching out to his father, a well-respected preacher, but he was 175 miles away in Atlanta.

He even considered contacting his mother.

Then he realized he needed to pray, to call on his profound belief and to ask for help from the god in which he believed so fervently.

With the crowd clapping and calling out its approval and support, King said that he bowed down over the cup of coffee and uttered the following prayer:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

King’s voice rose as he told the crowd that he heard a voice telling him, “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”

It rose even further as he roared his belief:

“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.”

Based on the strength he drew from the voice he heard, King gathered himself to continue the fight for justice and equality.

He fought from victories in Montgomery and Selma to setbacks in Albany, Georgia and here in Chicago.

He expanded his geographic focus from the southern part of the United States to the north to the entire world (The bombs dropped in Vietnam fall in American cities, he said in one address.)

Animated by his faith and the comfort he received by not being left alone, motivated by what he called the fierce urgency of now, King gathered himself and fought until he drew his final breath in Memphis.

He did so in the face of disappointment, and, as he told the church crowd, in spite of battles with discouragement:

“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you.” [applause]

The message he delivered in our city, a place where he achieved decidedly mixed results, can help us arrive at a different understanding of the man than one often reads and hears about in history books.

That King is portrayed as a lofty dreamer, a towering giant who stands enshrined in a massive statue on the very mall where he delivered his most famous address.

But his Chicago sermon reveals an imperfect man who grappled with insecurity, yet who found through his faith, his circle of loved ones and his own inner resources, the strength and courage to continue to fight for a cause he believed in so deeply he gave his life to it.

We are grateful and better as a country for his sacrifice, and closer to him as a man for his having shared his inner struggle.

Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXVI: Presenting about Dr. King’s Life and Legacy at St. George’s

As people throughout the world know, today marks 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I have a Dream” speech in front of an estimated 250,000 people who were also attending the March on Washington.

This morning, Dunreith, dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters, and I traveled to St. George´s School, where I presented at Angelica Garrido’s invitation about Dr. King´s life and legacy.

Located on the outskirts of the city, St. George´s is an institution which has both a rich tradition of working for social justice and many very wealthy students. The campus, which is nestled near the base of the Andean cordillera, has clean and cool air that felt markedly different than what we breathe in our Providencia neighborhood, about 2,000 students, many of whom walk around in uniforms with blue sweater, a tie and either a skirt or slacks, and acres and acres of grounds and many newly constructed buildings.

The film was the subject of Machuca, St. George´s alumnus Andres Wood´s film about the school that depicted the harrowing days before, and just after, the Sept. 11 coup in 1973. Dedicated to Father Gerardo Whelan, the movie centers on the relationship between a white and comparatively wealthy student at the school and a much poorer, indigneous boy who joins the ranks of Georgians.

Father Jose Ahumada, the current rector at St. George´s, graduated from the school in 1972 Father Ahumada lived with Father Whelan, who played a major role in his becoming a priest, around the time of the coup.

Ahumada was one of more than 80 ninth- and tenth-grade students and faculty members who filed into the auditórium for the presentation.

I explained that I wanted the session to be useful for them, that it should be a conversation and that I wanted to start with hearing what they knew about Dr. King.

The request elicited quite a bit of Spanish-language conversation, but no volunteers for what felt like closet to a minute.

Eventually, a short boy named Andres raised his hand and shared that Dr. King was someone who died while fighting for justice.

We gave Andres a round of applause.

Another student offered that Dr. King believed in working for change in a non-violent manner and that he struggled against segregation before I began the discussion in earnest.

I took the group through a chronology of King´s life, starting with his birth in 1929 in Atlanta to a middle-class family with a tradition and history of preachers. I explained that, growing up in the segregated South, his family were able to shield him for a while from some of the system´s painful incidents.

When that inevitably happened, King, who had a positive sense of himself, was wounded but not broken.

We talked about his attendance at college at age 15, about how he then went to Morehouse College, where King came under the influence of Dr. Benjamin Mays.

Like generations of Morehouse students, King was exhorted on a daily basis to take his education, go out in the world and work to make it better.

He did not initially heed the call.

Rather, he got his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University and married Coretta Scott before moving to sleepy Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks was arrested about a year after King arrived there.

While he rose to national prominence during the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott, King was initially chosen by leaders in the community to be the face of the movement because he was new in town and had no known enemies.

That soon changed.

King started receiving death threats on a daily basis-threats he lived with for the remainder of his life.

They were not idle.

During the boycott, someone bombed King´s house in an effort to kill him and his family.

An angry crowd gathered at King´s house, ready to take violent action if he gave the word to do so.

Instead, he instructed them to act in a nonviolent manner.

I did make the point that King and other members of the civil rights movement´s endorsement of nonviolence, especially during this period, was not absolute. A number of top members of the movement carried guns with them.

Eventually, the boycotters won a victory in the Supreme Court, and another part of the wall of legal segregation had
been chipped away. (The court had already ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case the year before that the doctrine of “Separate but equal” did not hold legal wáter.)

The fight continued over the next eight years.

King played a critical role, but was one of hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the movement, which had starkly different visions of how to achieve social justice.

Sometimes, he experienced setbacks, as in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, when Sheriff Laurie Pritchett blunted the movement’s efforts to spark dramatic confrontations that would often lead to calls for change.

In 1958, King was nearly killed by Izola Curry, who stabbed him with a letter opener.

King was told later that he would have died had he sneezed.

In the final address he ever gave, he talked about how glad he was that he did not sneeze, and what, because he lived, he had been privileged to see.

The March on Washington was one such event.

I showed a clip to the students of King´s legendary speech, but focused on his core message that 100 years after Lincoln, in whose shadow he and the other marches had gathered, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, black people were not free.


The section starts at 2:30.

When it comes to black people, the check based on the country´s architect´s lofty promises had come back marked “Insufficient funds,” King said to the roar of the crowd.

We talked about how King continued to push on, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, encouraging crowds as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, fighting against unfair housing conditions in Chicago in 1966, speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967, and, finally, working for the Poor People´s Campaign in April 1968.

It was there that he gave his final speech, one in which he made it clear that he had understood, and accepted, long before that he might not live a long life.

I may not get there with you, he declared, as the crowd in a Memphis church cheered and clapped, but I know that we as a people are going to make it to the Promised Land.

James Earl Ray shot King dead with a sniper the next day.

Before moving to King´s legacy, I made the points that he had made enormous contributions to the country, but was not a perfect man and did not do so alone. Youth and music both played major roles in the gains that were realized during those years and afterward.

I asked the students to define legacy.

One young man answered that it´s what influence remains after you retire or die.

We talked about King´s family, his books, his speeches, the hundreds of schools and streets and even a national holiday that are named after him.

I also encouraged the young people to think about the influence of people who King inspired and from whom he learned.

People like Bayard Rustin, a gay oragnizer and activist who pulled together the logistics of the March on Washington in just about two months.

People like Father Michael Pfleger, who witnessed the hatred that King and other marchers endured in his home neighborhood in Chicago and who has dedicated his entire life to serving the community and improving social conditions.

People like Barack Obama, who honored King in his second inaugural address and in the title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope.

And people like personal hero Leon Bass, a black veteran who served in the segregated United States Army, witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration camp, and became influenced by King during the bus boycott.

A teacher in inner-city Philadelphia, Bass brought his students to hear King speak when he came to Philadelphia, and, exactly 50 years ago today, was among the quarter million people who traveled to Washington to attend the march.

Bass, who is now 88 years old, still travels and speaks to young people about his experiences.

During his addresses, he asks students the question, “Is the price too high?” to speak up for justice and truth.

I asked them the same question as I sought to connect King´s life and legacy to their own.

I asked them what they were willing to do.

We adults believe in them and are there for them, and they each had to decide for themselves what choices they would make, I said.

At this point I stopped and asked for questions.

One young woman asked for details about the role that music played in the movement, and I played about two minutes from a Sweet Honey in the Rock song that honored activist Ella Baker, who ceaselessly supported young people and never gave up in her efforts to make the world a better place.

Several students asked what would happen if King hadn´t lived, if the gains would not have occurred.

I said that we could not know because he did live, but that the results in the 1960s were the product of people having worked for change two decades earlier.

One young man asked me what I had done besides talk about Dr. King.

I spoke about running with then-President Donald Kennedy at Stanford, debating apartheid and then writing about for the school newspaper, about working as an educator to improve people´s circumstances, having written about race and poverty issues for The Chicago Reporter for five years and seeking to dig up important information for Spanish-speaking communities in my capacity as a database and investigative editor at Hoy.

I also said we seek to raise our son with values consistent to those of Dr. King, but that one can always do more.

We wrapped up the questions and the students filed out and onto a break.

Angelica showed us around the campus before ushering us to the front of the school.

Reasonable people can disagree about where we are now in the United States and the world compared with 50 years ago, about whether King would be pleased or disturbed by the current state of affairs.

But few could argue that the man and the hundreds of thousands of loyal foot soldiers who stood there and listened to his soaring oratory made a dent in the universe.

In so doing, they showed themselves, their communities and their nation that it is indeed possible to stand up, to be counted and to insist that lofty rhetoric be matched with concrete actions.

We have not gotten to the Promised Land King described, and we stand on the shoulders of those who gave their energy, their commitment and even their lives to help us move from where we were.

Now, it is our turn.

Dr. King’s capacity for growth

The life, death and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 83 on Sunday, has been thoroughly chronicled, analyzed and celebrated.
From a national holiday to hundreds of streets in cities across the country to scores of books, people can learn about King, his message of nonviolent social change, and his epic declaration at the Washington Monument of his dream.
King’s courage in the service of his ideals and his soaring oration have garnered plenty of coverage. So, too, have his marital infidelity, and, to a lesser degree, his plagiarism on his doctoral dissertation.
Yet in all the coverage of King’s life, one quality of his has received comparatively little attention: his capacity to grow and to expand his vision.
King exhibited this ability from the time he was tapped to head the Montgomery Bus Boycott in large part because he had been in town less than a year and thus did not have deep ties to the various factions within the city’s black community.
The first request issued by the Montgomery Improvement Association he came to head in the struggle that launched him to national prominence did not call to overturn legal segregation.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rather the group founded after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress trained in the discipline of nonviolence at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, asked the city to tell its bus drivers to treat them more kindly when asking them to move to the back of the vehicles.
Starting from there, King led a movement that eventually saw its cause vindicated by the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren.
After Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy, King and other clergyman founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Their focus expanded from a Southern city to the entire system of desgregation that was legally entrenched throughout the South.
This effort took years, saw King arrested dozens of times and ultimately led not only to the dismantling of the system that had gained official sanction in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, but also to the affirmation of voting rights in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before the Selma to Montgomery march that preceded then-president Lyndon Johnson’s signature of the landmark legislation. In his address to the Nobel Committee and the world, he used his prophetic voice to signal the ascendance of economic injustice and the devastating impacts of war.
He continued to follow the trajectory he articulated in that address during the less than four years before his assassination at a Memphis hotel in April 1968.
After the Southern campaigns, he moved north to Chicago, where he went up against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in a campaign to eliminate slum housing conditions.
Although there were some victories that came from that effort, including inspiring the lifelong commitment to social justice of a then-teenaged Michael Pfleger, it was largely deemed a failure by observers within and outside of the movement (Longtime strategist Bayard Rustin had one of the more colorful assessments.).
Be that as it may, the effort to address economic conditions showed a broader concern and deeper analysis of American society as a whole than the exclusive focus on gaining access to segregated facilities.
King maintained that focus until the end of his life.
King was killed a day after giving the Mountaintop speech that would serve as his eulogy.  He died supporting the “I am a Man” campaign held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis and while planning a Poor People’s March that would converge in the nation’s capital.
He also started to speak out against the Vietnam War.
Starting at the Riverside Church exactly a year before his assassination, in an address called A Time to Break Silence, King disregarded the counsel of many of his top advisers and broke ranks with the administration that had been a staunch ally.
He did so, he said, because he could not segregate his outrage about what he saw as the needless destruction of Vietnamese life that, based on his religious convictions, he had come to see as equally as valuable as the American soldiers who also died in their service to their country.
This global perspective came from the capacity to reassess, evaluate and expand one’s vision.
King is not unique in that capacity, as fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Jane Addams and Nelson Mandela each demonstrated the same tendency.
Addams started pushing for improved sanitation services in Chicago wards and ended up being one of the world’s strongest voices for world peace.  Mandela evolved from a homophobic firebrand to a leader of national reconciliation and an advocate of all people’s rights.
King’s capacity for growth is not diminished for being shared by other leaders.  Rather it is an indicator that points us toward highlighting the importance of this ability in others who, like King, draw on their successes and failures to make a lost and global impact on the all too troubled world.
So, on the day when we pause to remember the Atlantan who strove mightily to improve life on the planet for millions of people during his less than four decades of life, we would do well to learn from, and seek to apply, this same quality of growth and expanded vision in our own lives.

Facing History’s Homophobia Workshop, Resources about Bayard Rustin

Rustin

Dunreith facilitated a session about Bayard Rustin at Facing History's homphobia workshop today.

Dunreith co-facilitated a workshop about homophobia today for Facing History.

Unfortunately, while America has made fitful if incomplete progress on issues of race, in many circles the hatred of gays, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning folks is still acceptable.

As a former middle and high school teacher and adviser to a Gay/Straight Alliance at Longmeadow High School, I can attest that young people in these categories have their dignity, self-esteem and even physical safety assaulted, sometimes on a hourly basis.

And, even more unfortunately, many times peers, and even other adults, stand by and do nothing.

This silence gives comfort to the abuser and makes the victim feel even more alone.

This is the context in which Dunreith and her colleague Denise Gelb offered the workshop.

One of Dunreith’s sessions focused on Bayard Rustin.

Rustin’s name has become more recognized in recent years, but the architect of the March on Washington still generally is not nearly as well-known as other civil rights luminaries like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis or other people from that era.

It’s a shame, because Rustin’s brilliance deserves to be recognized, while the pain he experienced from inside and outside the movement also merits scrutiny.

Dunreith drew on a number of resources for her session, which combined aspects of Rustin’s biography-his youth in West Chester, Pennsylvania, his fearlessness about issues of race, his early commitment to nonviolence and serving time in federal prison for being a conscientious objects are just some of his foundational experiences-with information about his being ostracized because of his being gay.

After being arrested in Pasadena in the early 50s on a “morals” charge, he decided to suppress his sexual desires. One of the biggest betrayals of his life came when Dr. King acceded to his resignation after Adam Clayton Powell threatened to charge that King and Rustin were gay lovers.

After a period of exile, Rustin reconnected with King and other civil rights leaders in time to pull off the March on Washington, and to see the civil rights establishment back him when Strom Thurmond started attacking him.

While many see the March as the high point of Rustin’s public life, he continued to push for nonviolent change, receiving heat starting in the mid-60s for backing the Democratic rather than the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. He later was accused of being out of touch as the doctrine of Black Power ascended later in the decade. 

In addition to working on issues of nuclear disarmament, Rustin did finally find committed and long-term love toward the end of his life.

Dunreith weighed looked at two videos, Out of the Past, which has a self-contained section about Rustin, and Brother Outsider, which is a full length documentary feature about the civil rights strategist.

University of Illinois-Chicago and gay studies pioneer John D’Emilio has written an authoritative biography of Rustin, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.  I also read this week a slender book by Rustin about the movement’s past and future directions.

Whatever resource you choose, please take the time to learn more about this remarkable man, who was born to a teenage mother, raised by his Quaker grandparents and worked tirelessly to help the nation be truer to its word.

Kari Lydersen on the Republic Windows and Doors Strike.

 

Kari Lydersen's new book helps us understand the Republic Windows and Doors strike and its larger meaning.

Kari Lydersen's new book helps us understand the Republic Windows and Doors strike and its larger meaning.

The Republic Windows and Doors strike captured the attention and imagination of people around the world. 

Coming after Barack Obama’s election and just before former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s federal indictment on corruption charges, the factory takeover by about 250 workers came at a time when the economic downturn was just starting to gather steam and when public revulsion at bank CEOs’ more than generous share of government largesse was hitting its peak. 

In short, the timing was auspicious for the wider public to be sympathetic to workers refusing to be shown the door on essentially no notice. 

The ultimate meaning of the event is less clear, and will be borne out in the months and years to come. 

Washington Post reporter, prolific freelancer and friend Kari Lydersen was there from the strike’s inception to its resolution and subsequent company bankruptcy proceedings and workers’ tour. 

Her coverage of the events through a “live book” -this was essentially two months of extensive blogging-has led to the publication this month by Melville House Publishing of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says About the Economic Crisis.  

This is Lydersen’s third book, and each has been different from the other.  Out of the Sea and Into the Fire was a collection of dispatches that looked at the intersection of environmental, immigration and social justice issues in the United States as well as Central and South America.   Shoot an Iraqi, which she co-authored with Wafaa Bilal, covered the month long experience of the artist Bilal as he did a performance installation that fused technology, art and memory.  

Revolt on Goose Island is a more straightforward expository account of the strike, its multi-level background, the action itself, and subsequent reverberations.  Impressive not only for the sheer fact of having been reported, written, edited and published just about half a year after the strike transpired, the work provides useful context and is a helpful tool to put the strike in a broader understanding of the current moment. 

Lydersen’s pro-worker sympathies-her final acknowledgment goes to “Chicago’s countless labor and immigrant rights activists who have taught us so much and continued the city’s proud history of struggle”-do not stop her from either from trying to contact management or from explaining the immediate and longer-term build up to the strike.  

In turn, she looks at the history of Goose Island itself, Chicago’s history of labor action, the role of immigrants in the current labor movement, the company’s moves to liquidate its holdings on Goose Island, the bank’s history and role in the bailout and the workers’ decision to do something about it.  

Lydersen notes the open discussion about whether the strike was a spontaneous product of workers’ being frustrated with this final indignity-an analysis that is similar to the “Rosa Parks was tired” way of thinking-or whether it was the result of careful planning, and chronicles both the same type of actions Republic owners took with other companies it bought and the ripple effect the strike had on workers in the Colibri Group in Rhode Island when faced with similar circumstances.

In short, Revolt on Goose Island is a highly useful primer on what some say could be the spark to revive a moribund labor movement that has been on its heels for nearly three decades or just a blip on the global capitalist scene.  To her credit, Lydersen does mark the distinction between the Republic workers’ action and the automotive workers’ sit-down strikes more than 70 years ago.  The former was fighting essentially for a severance package guaranteed by law, while the latter was striking for a reasonable wage and benefits package. 

Revolt on Goose Island is not without some minor flaws.  

Some of the statements Lydersen makes do not seem supported by the fact; she says Cleveland has a “relatively healthy rate of unionization” when it is not even 2 percent above the national norm 12.4 percent, for example.   Although generally cleanly written and containing lots of physical description, the book at times contains too many colloquial expressions and the insertion of detail feels a bit deliberate.  

On the whole, though, these problems are far less significant than the thoughtful and detailed book Lydersen has generated in remarkably short time.  While the ultimate meaning of the strike on Goose Island has yet to be determined, Lydersen has already provided useful with a work that both documents the events and gives us a helpful tool for that assessment process.

Black History Month: Bayard Rustin in the Eye of the Storm

Bayard Rustin's life is depicted in a new play and a biography by John D'Emilio.

Bayard Rustin's life is depicted in a new play and a biography by John D'Emilio.

The modern civil rights era produced many iconic images.

Rosa Parks sitting alone and steadfast in a Montgomery bus.  John Lewis and other students bloodied but unbowed during the 1961 Freedom Rides in Alabama.  Bull Connor’s minions turning on the fire hoses and releasing the dogs against protesters in Birmingham in 1963.

And, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. departing from the script at the Lincoln Memorial and proclaiming his dream of racial equality at the March on Washington in August, 1963.

Each of those pictures, and the people in them, have endured in our collective memory.   The courage, determination and tenacity of people like Parks, Lewis and King have been widely acknowledged by the larger society.

Other equally brave people have been less remembered, through.

Movement strategist, dedicated social justice proponent and March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin is one of them.

During the past few years, though, Rustin and his accomplishments have been pulled out of obscurity, where they languished in part due to people’s discomfort with his homosexuality.

Tomorrow, Eye of the Storm, a play about Rustin’s life, will debut at the William Hatch Auditorium, 1000 North Ridgeland Avenue, in Oak Park, Illinois. 

Performed by members of the Open Door Repertory Company, the play will be attended by luminaries like U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, the Honorable David Pope, President of the Village of Oak Park, State Senator Don Harmon, and both State Representatives Karen Yarbrough and Deborah Graham.

People interested in purchasing tickets or who want more information can call 708-802-1723 or visit www.opendoorrep.org.

For those who are unable to attend the play or who simply want more information about Rustin’s complex and contributory life, there is University of Illinois-Chicago Professor John D’Emilio’s award-winning biography, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.

Rustin lived a rich, long and fascinating life, and D’Emilio, who co-authored with Estelle Freedman the pioneering Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, is more than up to the task of rendering it in vivid detail and a coherent framework. 

The Rustin that emerges on the pages of Lost Prophet is a gifted, charismatic man with a lifelong and passionate commitment to social justice and a near unparalleled strategic vision.   Yet, because of societal prejudices against gay and lesbian people, Rustin endured repeated periods of being outcast from, and betrayed by, members of the movement. 

His protests against injustice began early. 

D’Emilio draws on interviews with aging residents of Rustin’s home town in West Chester, Pennsylvania, who recalled his refusing to leave a restaurant where he could not get service until he eventually was ejected.

As a young man, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he was powerfully influenced by pacificst A.J. Muste.  Rustin showed himself willing to sacrifice for his ideals by serving 28 months in prison, starting in 1944, for refusing to register for, and serve in, the United States Army. 

This experience, and his subsequent travel to India, where he was formally trained in the Gandhian discipline of nonviolence in many ways formed the crucible on which his unyielding commitment to social change was forged.

Rustin first intersected with King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where King initially was a compromise choice as leader because he was new in town and thus had no prior negative history with different factions within the black community.  The two formed a close bond, in which Rustin served largely as mentor and tactician.

It was a fruitful partnership. 

Although Rustin worked tirelessly for the causes he believed in so fiercely, he preferred to stay in the background and out of the public limelight.  King emerged as the face of the burgeoning movement, helping to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and taking the effort to dismantle legal segregation throughout the South.

There was a catch, though.

Even during his days in prison as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin experienced difficulty due to his being gay in a society that arguably opposed homosexuality even more vehemently than it suppressed the rights of African Americans. 

His 1953 arrest in Pasadena, California for “lewd”conduct-Rustin was performing oral sex on a man in a parked car-was just one of the times his sexual orientation became the source of public sanction and later ostracism from within and without the movement.

Rustin endured many painful periods in his life in which people dear to him, from Muste to King, either urged him to “discipline” himself by essentially repressing his sexuality  or cut ties with the man who had been responsible for much of the organization’s success.

It is important to note that some of the attacks came from within the community.  Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, for example, called Rustin out, precipitating King’s shunning Rustin during a very dark period for Rustin in the late 50s. 

D’Emilio effectively shows the sense of betrayal Rustin experienced on a personal level while also analyzing the anti-gay pressures and structures that existed in the society at the time.

At moments, the movement held firm. 

Before the March on Washington, South Carolina Senator and former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond started raising the issue of Rustin’s homosexuality as a way to distract from and discredit the impending march.

Where previously other leaders had forced Rustin into exile from the action he cherished and believed in so deeply, this time they confronted Thurmond and defended the march’s planner.  A. Philip Randolph emerges during this part of the book as a particularly staunch supporter of Rustin.

Like many advocates for nonviolence, Rustin found himself at increasing odds with members of the Black Power movement as the 60s progressed.  D’Emilio also explores Rustin’s surprising reluctance to forthrightly denounce the War in Vietnam, showing how his support of Democratic Party nominee Hubert Humphrey during the 1968 presidential election left him estranged from black militant and white antiwar protestors.

During that time, Rustin was  called a strategist without a movement-a label, which, if accurate, was not permanent.

During the last two decades of his life, Rustin turned his focus to global issues, working for the rights of Southeast Asian refugees and supporting the efforts of Lech Walesa and others in the Solidarity movement.

He also spoke out about gay rights.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner  and a source of great joy during the last 10 years of his life, encouraged him in that cause.

In 1987,  after a lifetime of working for social change, Rustin died.

Hopefully, D’Emilio’s textured portrait, the play and other efforts to preserve Rustin’s legacy will lead to this dynamic and valiant warrior for social justice being remembered by a grateful society for the vital contributions he made.

Black History Month: Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Many civil rights histories have Martin Luther King, Jr. as their subject.

The electrifying orator first came to national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrilled the nation during his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and expanded his focus to economic issues when he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

As I wrote last month, King’s life and actions have been thoroughly chronicled, and deservedly so.

But there was another organizing pattern during the civil rights movement that did not focus on charismatic leaders, that was locally based, and that came out of a community tradition of struggle.

Charles Payne writes about this tradition, the people who forged it and the gains they made in what was arguably America’s most racially recalcitrant and dangerous state in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom:  The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.

Payne starts the book by describing the conditions in Mississippi that activists confronted.

To say that there were daunting would be an understatement.

Efforts at white supremacy enforced by violence, terror and lynching were absolute, as was suppression of the black vote.  The book first chapter is filled with generations of murder, intimidation and oppression of black people by white people in the state.

Yet, despite this climate, in the early 60s, a band of dedicated volunteers worked with local residents to boost the number of voters in places like Greenwood, Mississippi-and succeeded.  Payne writes that by 1964, “Black Greenwood was so much behind the movement that it could have slept a small army of civil rights workers (and did).”

The background to, people involved in, and philosophy behind, this success is the subject of Payne’s book.

He argues that the Mississippi movement, in contrast with the campaigns led by Dr. King, reflected a tradition of “community organizing, a tradition with a different sense of what freedom means and therefore a greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership of ordinary men and women.”

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom explore the tradition and the people who forged it in the decades before the 1960s.  Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry all receive extensive attention from Payne.  Each worked tirelessly with the community, each placed themselves in grave physical danger, and each helped establish a foothold for later workers to use.

Payne also talks in-depth about  the role of the Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton and where Septima Clark taught citizenship classes for many years. Many of the attendees, including Rosa Parks and Dr. King, went on to play significant roles in the movement.

Payne explains that the tradition was not just rooted in trendsetting men or in supportive external institutions, though.  Rather he writes how the organization tradition came out of a feisty, and not always non-violent,  commitment to struggling for justice. 

In one of the book’s more entertaining sections, Payne writes about Mrs. Laura McGhee, a small, soft-spoken and determined woman who punched out a cop, grabbed a nightstick away from another officer and raised three sons fearlessly dedicated to the movement.

Payne quotes a civil rights worker who say that McGhee’s sons  “out SNCC-ed SNCC.”  The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committe  and its grassroots and long-term approach to social change also receive a lot of attention from Payne, with movement “mother” Ella Baker and legendary organizer Bob Moses being people on whom he focuses in particular.

Still, Payne’s overarching focus is on Mississippi natives who worked with these organizers-people like Hollis Watkins, who I had the honor to meet in South Africa in 1996,  and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speech at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City remains a movement highlight.

Together, these people changed the landscape of politics and society in Mississippi.  While the movement did lose steam in the mid-60s-at one point Bob Moses compared SNCC to a boat that simultaneously needed both to be in the water to be effective and to be out of the water to be repaired.  The issue of white people’s role in the movement and the relationship between northern and southern black people both became contentious.

Still, the courage, accomplishments and approach of the people in the Mississippi movement all deserve recognition and gratitude from the rest of us, who have benefited from their efforts.

Payne’s book is a significant step in that important direction.

Black History Month: The Media and the Civil Rights Movement

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff explore the media's role in the civil rights movement.

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff explore the media's role in the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement produced a series of iconic images.

The 43-year-old Rosa Parks sitting alone in a bus in Montgomery.  Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by an angry mob in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The valiant James Merideth writhing on the ground after being shot on a Mississippi highway.  Buses ridden by an interracial group of riders being attacked and lit in flames in Alabama.   Waterhoses blasting hundreds of protesters in Birmingham.  The attack of peaceful demonstators at the Edmund Pettus  Bridge in Selma during what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

And, of course, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered before a crowd of 250,000 at the Washington Mall.

These images, and the courage of the people who placed their lives in harm’s way, changed the nation.

The story of the modern civil rights movement has been told and retold in many different forms.

A less-told story, though, is the role of the media in the movement that riveted the nation, led to the dismantling of segregation and the passage of landmark voting and civil rights legislation.

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell that story and do it considerable justice in The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and The Awakening of a Nation.

The Race Beat starts with Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal’s classic two-volume work, An American Dilemma, in which he outlines the nation’s injustice and admits of the possibility of change.

The book is largely chronological, and follows the movement from the post World War II period through the unanimous Brown v. Board decision that overturned decades of legal segregation officially sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and continuing through the major civil rights battles and setbacks in the South. 

The book takes at its climax the moment of Bloody Sunday, with a brief coda that mentions John Lewis’ election to the U.S. House of Representatives as evidence that the problems Myrdal identified had been resolved to some degree.

This arc has been traced many times before, but never in such depth this way. 

Roberts and Klibanoff show how for years the black press had almost exclusive access to civil rights stories because white newspapers did not consider the story worth covering.  Once the issue got wider attention from mainstream media publications, journalists from black publications were often pushed aside while their counterparts from bigger newspapers got more and better access.

This replication of power relations within media coverage is just one of many praiseworthy aspects of the book. 

Roberts and Klibanoff have a keen feel for the southern media landscape, which included giants like Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill, whose views evolved with the movement, and right-winger James Kilpatrick, whose writing about the doctrine of interposition gave desegregation opponents intellectual ammunition.

Roberts and Klibanoff effectively show the interplay between events, and the coverage of them, in the gradual broadening of attention given to the movement, and in the impact the movement had on the nation’s conscience.

Neither progressed in a straight line.

Roberts and Klibanoff do not hesitate either to show moments where the movement sustained defeats, like in Albany, Georgia, where Chief Laurie Pritchettavoided the kind of newsmaking scenes that garnered headlines, stirred consciences and forced legislative action.  Similarly, they take venerable publications like The New York Times to task for missing the story’s significance for years before assigning Southern-born Claude Sitton to the area.

In addition to tracing the movement’s growth and the role the media played in it, The Race Beat is a story of engaging individuals living through an era when the world as they had known it was undergoing decisive shifts and changes. 

The authors devote extensive time to journalistic legends like McGill, but also to lesser-known people like Harry Ashmore, editor of Little Rock’s largest paper, or Joe Azbell of the Montgomery Advertiser, or Gene Patterson, the Journal-Constitution editor who wrote a haunting piece after a bomb blast killed four little girls in a Birmingham church. 

Patterson’s essay was remarkable for its imagery-it returned over and over to a shoe held by one of the mothers-but also for its assumption of collective responsibility by white Southerners, rather than simply the extremists who bombed the church.

“We hold that shoe with her.  Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson wrote.  

The juxtaposition of the hearbreaking reminder of the girl’s innocence, her brutal death and the role bystanding Southerners had played in the murder was groundbreaking and, as with McGill, represented an evolution on Patterson’s part.  Walter Cronkite later asked Patterson to read the entire column on his newscast, and thousands of viewers responded to Patterson’s moral outrage. 

The authors do not only focus on white journalists; black journalists like the late photographer Ernest Withers, James Hicks of the Amsterdam News and L.C. Bates all receive treatment.  Roberts and Klibanoff show neatly how for many of these journalists, the issue was more than one of professional concern, but was part of a mission of community uplift.

Above all, The Race Beat is the story of a time of wrenching, painful and often bloody change in the nation, but also an evocation of a bygone era in journalism. 

During this time television had not completely ascended and editorials, decisions made by daily editors and coverage by their correspondents shaped public perception to a far greater degree than today, when an increasing number of readers get their information throughout the day via the Internet.

The stakes were high, the stories were raw and waiting to be told, and daily print journalism truly was “the first draft of history.”   The beauty of  The Race Beat lies in how Roberts and Klibanoff depict both so vividly.

The book is not perfect.

The civil rights movement in the north gets scant attention, and then only in the context of Dr. King’s struggle in Chicago.  The later electoral gains of the 70s and 80s are similarly ignored.  And the degree to which racism has been vanquished is a subject that is up for legitimate debate.

Still, in a time in which we have seen the initial presidential actions by America’s first black president, and during a month in which we honor the contributions of African Americans to the nation, it is fitting to reflect on the modern civil rights movement and the role that hundreds, if not thousands, of people played in documenting that valiant effort to close the gap between the nation’s lofty promises and its often sordid reality. 

The Race Beat does so, and do so with honesty, elegance, and, at times, even grace.  I recommend it highly.