Tag Archives: Brown v. Board of Education

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.


Difference Maker Thurgood Marshall speaks through his letters

Thurgood Marshall's edited letters are the substance of this worthwhile book.

Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 82 a week from today.

The civil rights leader’s birthday has been a national holiday for a quarter century.  During this time a generation of schoolchildren have listened to his epic “I Have a Dream” speech and written countless essays on his non-violent contributions to the nation.

This acclaim is certainly well-deserved, and Professor Michael Long makes the following assertion in the beginning of his introductory essay to Marshalling Justice, a collection of Thurgood Marshall’s letters that he edited:

“The twentieth century saw the emergence of the two greatest civil-rights leaders in the history of the United States-Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

Commentators often state that the time was right for King to emerge as forcefully as he did, and king himself talked about the zeitgeist of history being far more important than his own role in galvanizing the civil rights movement.  But what many of us fail to note is that the time was right exactly because Marshall had already pushed the clock ahead, sometimes singlehandedly.  For twenty long years before King assumed leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Thurgood Marshall, the young NAACP attorney known to everyday blacks as “Mr. Civil Rights,” struggled day and night against racial discrimination and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, businesses, voting booths, courtrooms, and neighborhoods.”

Long’s book seeks to fill that void in understanding about the depth, range and time frame of Marshall’s actions toward social justice.  I am more than one third into the work and finding it enormously enjoyable, informative and stimulating.

Continue reading

Carol Anderson on taking eyes off the prize.

One of my favorite documentary series ever, Eyes on the Prize begins each of its episodes with a rousing rendition of the civil rights anthem:

You know the one thing I did right

was the day I started to fight

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on, hold on.

Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on.

The prize, according to the men and women marching in silhouette and singing with courageous gusto: full social equality.  The realization of that long-held and vigorously pursued goal was often thwarted by law and practice in the officially segregated South and actually segregated North. Nevertheless, during the period chronicled in Henry Hampton’s films, the modern civil rights movement vanquished legal apartheid.

According to many historians and movement members, the period from 1954 to 1965 or so represents a high point in the push for social justice in American history.  The beginning of the era is marked by the unanimous ruling in May 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated facilities are inherently unequal.

That victory was the product of more than 20 years of ceaseless struggle by Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Charles Hamilton Houston, Robert Carter and other members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund-a history Richard Kluger writes about vividly in Simple Justice.

According to Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University, the legal victory, as important as it was, came at the end of a decade in which the NAACP and others in the struggle for justice had taken their eyes off the prize, rather than beginning a time in which eyes were on the prize.

The difference in part is of definition. 

Anderson says the prize is human rights and social equality, not just the former. In her provocative and insightful book, Eyes Off the Prize, she details the fascinating and painful ways in which Cold War developments, determined opposition,  tepid behavior by allies and organizational rivalries interacted to have the NAACP give up the focus on international rights and issues, and instead retreat to a domestic emphasis.

Anderson opens her book at the end of World War II, and traces with intelligence and insight the interrelated rise of the Cold War and growth of efforts to establish international human rights.   On the one hand,  the attempt to codify the latter seemed inarguable, especially given the horrors of the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities. 

Yet Anderson shows effectively how the Soviet Union used that concept to attempt to score propaganda points against the United States because of its treatment of black people.  Unfortunately, they had plenty to point to, as Anderson explains in gruesome detail how many black veterans who had put their lives on the line to keep democracy safe were murdered when they returned to the country for which they had fought.

In an ironic twist, then, anti Communism became a vehicle to oppose the extension of the burgeoning concept of human rights to black people.

Some of the anti-Communists were people like Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, while others were some of the same implacable opponents to black equality in the United States like James F. Brynes.  He was Truman’s Secretary of State who had a lengthy pro-segregationist career in South Carolina, one of the states in which the legal fight that culminated in Brown v. Board began.

Yet, as bad as things were under Truman, they got far worse under Eisenhower.  Anderson has a gripping analysis of Truman’s ambivalent and pragmatic moves toward greater social equality for black people.  NAACP chief Walter White applauded Truman’s announcement that he planned to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, yet Truman did very little after his initial statement to advance the plan.  On the other hand,  NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois supported Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency.

This disagreement was only one in an increasingly bitter series of interactions between DuBois and White: their internecine squabbling was another element in the retreat from international human rights that Anderson describes.

Even had White and DuBois been united, though, it’s not clear that the effort would have succeeded, in part because of the lukewarm support by human rights stalwarts like Eleanor Roosevelt and Universal Declaration of Human Rights architect Rene Cassin.   In some ways, Roosevelt’s actions, coming as a contrast to her previous support of black people in many significant and public ways, was even more difficult for people in the movement to accept than the expected and received opposition of people like Byrnes and other of his ilk.

In the end, through this stew of unhappy ingredients, the NAACP, despite serious and somewhat sustained attempts, did not succeed in reaching the prize under Anderson’s definition, instead taking their eyes off it to focus almost exclusively on the domestic front.

Her straightforward and extraordinarily well-documented work makes a for a quick and highly informative read.  I would say that she understates the significance of Brown v. Board. In my reading, it was far more than a domestic consolation prize, but the culmination of a 25-year struggle that provided the legal underpinnings under which so many other marched and sang and protested during the period Hampton depicts.  She of course might respond that I have bought into the hype around the modern civil rights movement.

In either case, this potential area of disagreement is a minor point when held against the broad scope and detail of the work, which is impressive indeed.   I don’t believe that Hampton’s series should be renamed, but I do think that Anderson’s work deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Daley’s decision, Thurgood Marshall biography

The earthy Thurgood Marshall probably would have words about Richard M. Daley's segregated Chicago.

In the three days since Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rocked the local political establishment by announcing that he will not seek an unprecedented seventh term, there have been no shortage of effusive tributes to the now outgoing mayor.

From Clarence Page to the Sun-Times editorial board have flowed panegyrics about Daley’s devotion to his city and his effectiveness as “Da Mayor.”

Far less has been written about an aspect of Chicago life that remains largely unchanged 21 years after he first assumed the much-coveted position:

The racial segregation.

Chicago remains among one of top five most segregated cities in America, despite the infusion of hundreds of thousands of Latino migrants during the past two decades.

Large swaths of Chicago-enter the South and West Side-are predominantly, if not almost exclusively, African American, while large parts of the Northwest Side are nearly lily-white.

This of course has implications for the city’s schools, which at this point have about one in seven white students.  Long time educational critic Jonathan Kozol writes about the trend toward continued and even intensified segregation in Shame of the Nation.

At one point in the book, Kozol quotes legendary activist and Congressman John Lewis about saying that the celebration of the landmark Brown v. Board decision anniversaries have become just that-a commemoration of an historic event that has little, if anything, to do with lived reality for much of the nation’s residents.

The late, great Thurgood Marshall was one of the masterminds and driving forces behind the 25-year assault on legalized segregation that culminated in the five cases that eventually were called Brown v. Board of Education.

The driven, ruthless, earthy and iconoclastic Marshall is the subject of Michael Davis and Hunter Clark’s Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench.

Continue reading

Carlotta Walls Lanier tells her Little Rock story

Carlotta Walls LaNier's memoir helps us arrive at a more textured understanding of the Little Rock integration crisis.

Our son Aidan takes going to school with black, Latino and Asian kids for granted.

While Evanston Township High School, the school at which he is a junior, has major issues in terms of achievement gaps, being in the building together does not appear to be one of them.

It was not always so, of course.  For that change, we must give great thanks to nine African-American families and their children, who in 1957 put their bodies and livelihoods in grave danger to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A number of books have already been written about and by The Little Rock Nine.  In the 90s, Melba Pattillo Beals wrote Warriors Don’t Cry, her searing memoir of that year.  More recently, Terrence Roberts shared his recollections, while Little Rock native Elizabeth Jacoway has written Turn Away Thy Son, an historian’s look at the year and its subsequent reverberations.

Now Carlotta Walls LaNier has shared her story in A Mighty Long Way, a memoir by the group’s youngest members that adds to our understanding of that turbulent time in several significant ways.

Much of the writing on Little Rock understandably has focused on the build up to the integration that was resisted so bitterly by the city’s white residents and Gov. Orval Faubus and the year itself.   A Mighty Long Way has that information, too.  The early part of the book blends descriptions of Walls’ family that gave her much of the courage she displayed with life in the segregated South that received a major blow with the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court case in which the Warren Court ruled unanimously that separate schools were inherently unequal.

Then there is the year itself.

Walls gives her take on many of the year’s most important elements: the riots that accompanied the opening day and that saw Elizabeth Eckford alone; the continual and grinding physical, mental and verbal abuse from white students; the chili incident near the December holidays when Minnijean Brown dumped a bowl of chili on a white boy’s head and the black staff in the cafeteria applauded; the toll the year took on the nine students’ families and the strength their siblings, parents and grandparents displayed; the unflagging if complicated support of Daisy Bates; and  the sense of exhausted relief when the year finally ended.

A Mighty Long Way continues the story beyond Ernest Green’s graduation, Roberts’ moving to Los Angeles and the city’s schools being closed the following year to tell what happened when she returned to finish her education.  While the 1959-1960 year did not have as much harassment as the first year, it was by no means a carefree experience.   Classmates still read the permissive signals from teachers and showered Walls with spitballs, phlegm and pencils whenever possible.

Walls also adds nuggets like Eckford’s providing support to another member of the nine by entering the school despite her traumatic first day ordeal.  We learn from her book, too, that there were actually ten black students on the first day of the year, but one, Jane Hill, did not return after the year’s opening day.

Beyond these pieces of information, though, Walls’ story reminds us how deeply the experiences the Little Rock Nine endured stayed with them and the various copious mechanisms they marshaled to deal with the trauma.  After struggling in college and getting married, she moved to Denver, where she did not tell many neighbors what she had been through for 20 years.  Offered in a self-effacing way, this information gives the reader a fuller sense of the year’s toll and a deeper understanding of the contribution these people made to the nation’s moving closer to its stated values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Not yet finished, but worth reading …

I'm loving this masterfully written novel by Orhan Pamuk.

I'm loving this masterfully written novel by Orhan Pamuk.

So … I’m doing the vacation reading, getting in some pages in between throwing the lacrosse ball and Frisbee around with Aidan, eating lobster, playing rummy every night, walking with Dunreith and consuming obscene amounts of candy from Tuck’s.

As a result, I’m part way through a couple of books, both of which deserve mention here and further elaboration later.

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is a beautifully written and intricately woven tale of Ka, a poet who has returned to his native Turkey after 12 years in Frankfurt.  His purpose is to convince Ipek, a beautiful divorcee, to marry him and return with him to Germany.  A heavy snowfall accompanies him as he enters Kars, a small and remote town in Turkey.  Once there, he encounters a wide array of people and issues that range from Kurdish revolutionaries, his own budding religious faith, a theatrical and seemingly real coup, religious fundamentalism and the haunting absence of the Armenian people who were massacred in 1915-an act that the Turkish government denies to this day. 

A Nobel Prize winner, Pamuk ties all these elements together in a graceful way that continually heightens the reader’s suspense and engagement in the work. 

Many thanks to Dunreith for recommending I read the book! 

I’m less far along and less impressed by a biography of “Super Chief,” Earl Warren.   Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made is a biography by Los Angeles Times writer James Newton is an admiring account of the justice whose court was responsible for many landmarks decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, Baker v. Carr and Miranda v. Arizona.

I have been most interested in reading about Warren’s role in the internment of tens of thousands Japanese-Americans under Executive Order 9066.   Attorney General for the State of California at the time, Warren advocated for the removal, but not internment, of Japanese and Japanese-Americans.  Newton makes great efforts to distinguish Warren’s reasons from those of the more openly racist politicians and policy makers of the time-an effort which ultimately is not tremendously successful.

To be fair, Newton also shows how Warren never completely expressed remorse for the decision until his memoirs were published posthumously, and even those words may not have been written by the former Chief Justice.

I am interested in finding out what led Warren to change his position during the 12 years from 1942, when he supported and actively participated in the internment, to 1954, when he insisted on a unanimous Supreme Court rejecting the doctrine of “Separate but equal” that underpinned so much of Jim Crow segregation.

More on both after I finish them, and I’m having fun.

I look forward to learning others’ late summer reading selections, too!

Weekend recommendations: Jabari Asim takes on The N Word while Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes about confidence.


Dave Chappelle's turn as blind KKK member Clayton Bigsby is just one of the many topics addressed in Jabari Asim's book.  For her part, Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes about organizational confidence in Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.

Dave Chappelle's turn as blind KKK member Clayton Bigsby is just one of the many topics addressed in Jabari Asim's book. For her part, Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes about organizational confidence in Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.



We’re deep into Saturday afternoon, Dunreith and Aidan are shopping, I have just finished cleaning the first floor,  and it’s time to get my blog on!

Today I’m writing a quick post about a couple of books I read this week and enjoyed.

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why by Jabari Asim looks at the history and cultural significance of those six letters through the arrival of the first Africans in the early 17th century to contemporary comedians, writers and filmmakers.  The editor of The Crisis, the NAACP publication that W.E.B. DuBois edited for decades, Asim is also a scholar at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus.  He divides the work into historical periods that take the reader through American history, with breaks at key moments like the Civil War or the period after the Earl Warren-led U.S. Supreme Court delivered the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that overturned legal segregation.  

Readers of American history will recognize luminaries like the late George Frederickson and Leon Litwack.  Asim also has an engaging take of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and seems most comfortable and fluid when he is writing about the current moment and performers like the provocative Dave Chappelle.  

As the sub-title suggests, Asim also addresses the issue of the word ‘nigga,’ which some people use and claim is not offensive for a number of reasons. He ends the book suggesting that either five- or six-letter version of the word be retired from common use.  The N Word is a wide ranging read on an often controversial subject.

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written a very different, but also engaging book that has potential application for anyone involved in a sports team, organization or country.  Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End is chock full of details and examples from each of those arenas.   At different points in the book, readers get treated to discussion of the New England Patriots, the BBC, and post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela.  Her main point is that confidence does impact performance and arises from a series of practices that she documents.  By looking at leaders like University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, among others, Moss Kanter show the combination of high expectations clearly articulated, a sense of cohesion, and staying calm under pressure that lead to the building and sustaining of confidence.  She also provides examples of how losing streaks happen and extend, and explores how cultures of losing can be turned around and become confident ones. 

A lot of this material may seem like common sense, and Moss Kanter deserves credit for how she pulls the strands together in an entertaining and informative read.