Mississippi: A March Resurrects a Movement

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Overcoming disunity, out-of-fashionableness, poverty, and aching feet, the civil rights movement was reborn Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi state capitol, before the executioners’ eyes of 700 Mississippi troopers and police, armed with M-1s, live ammunition, and tear gas.

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1000 after the baptism of spit in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon. And they were 15,000 Mississippi Negroes, their biographies etched in their bent spines and gnarled hands. There were a few clergymen, 100 New Left types, a small group of 1930s liberals like Paul O’Dwyer, and a handful of dreamy Dylanesque kids, but mostly they were the porters, maids, and high school students of Jackson, giving a great movement the rare gift of a second chance to redeem its country’s greatest sinner.

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The anemia of the civil rights movement, inflicted by ghetto riots, integration next door, and the rhetoric of LeRoi Jones, has been cured — at least for a moment — by a cathartic wave of blackness and bitterness. One senses that the obscenely banal comments of the President and the Attorney General after the tear-gassing in Canton were too much for even the generous, ecumenical soul of Martin King. They helped the paralyzed move­ment turn a difficult corner; ex­cept for the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this is still a reformist rather than revolutionary movement, but its opposition is now total and its energy renewed. Next week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have 35 organizers in the 15 rural counties the march passed through, and SNCC will have a dozen. Mississippi II is about to begin.

The mood of the march redirected the too many dreams deferred since the hike from Selma 14 months ago. The unseating of Julian Bond, the failure of the war on poverty, the triumph in Alabama of Mrs. Wallace, the gerrymandering of the Mississippi congressional districts, and the tear-gassing in Canton, they have all driven the ambrosia of liber­als — love — out of the Movement. The spirit of Gandhian agape that hung like a halo over Selma, with its nuns and angelic-faced students, was gone, replaced by a clenched militancy fueled by a despair expressed by Martin King’s admission that his dream of Washington 1963 has turned into a “nightmare.”

The march created its share ot small, memorable moments. Singing, Sunday-dressed kids on unpainted porches waving Amer­ican flags. Marlon Brando limp­ing along anonymously between a 66-year-old cotton picker and a 16-year-old student from a segregated Jackson high school. The shame in the eyes of the old Negroes when they turned away from pleas that they join the pilgrimage. Bob Parris, who started this particular arc of his­tory in 1961, hovering unnoticed and sad on the edges of the crowd. (He is now quietly organizing in Bolivar County.)

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But more enduring than such vignettes is the hard political significance of the 21-day journey down sunbaked U.S. 51. The confirmation of Martin King as the soul and pivot of this movement; now even the kamikazes of SNCC admit “King’s got balls,” after the trials of Philadephia and Canton. The barring of the NAACP from the climactic rally program at the capitol because “they are part of the Administration, not the Movement,” as a militant minister put it. The new path SNCC has charted for itself, as it begins to march to the sound of a different drummer. Every SNCC worker explains the slogan Black Power differently, and so does every journalist. (In Canton, when Stokely Carmich­ael screamed, “This will separate the men from the mice,” the AP wire quoted him as saying, “This will separate the men from the whites.”)

Cleansed of its tumescence of hate, Black Power is an obviously effective strategy for about 40 rural counties in the Black Belt. Explained intelligently, it is perfect psychotherapy for Negroes ashamed of their blackness. As a stance, it is certain to capture the loyalty of many young ghetto Negroes who have felt themselves orphans since the assassination of Malcolm X. But as a program for a movement, it is the fantasy of victims.

Saturday night, about 2000 marchers, plus about another 9000 Jackson teenagers, filled the grassy athletic field of all-Negro Tougaloo College for what Car­michael called “a party.” Sammy Davis sang show tunes and then flew out on a private jet to Las Vegas after march leaders tried to shame him into staying for the procession to the capitol the next day James Brown, who makes Elvis Presley look like a paraplegic, re-created the am­bience of the Apollo with his blues. Marlon Brando told them, “You are the heroes of America … I should be out there and you should be up here.” Carmi­chael, addressing their buried pride, said, “I know you’re out there. Smile so I can see you.” Dick Gregory said he “wished LBJ was the Pope, so that way folks would only have to kiss his ring.” Then the rally ended about 10 p.m., and the leaders retired to continue their public debate that has gone on since Memphis, when Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young went home, and Bayard Rustin rejected  King’s plea that he come to Mississippi to handle the logistics of the 220-mile procession. To the fury of much of the Movement, Rustin claimed he had to finish an ar­ticle for Commentary. SNCC was dissuaded from the civil disobedience, the NAACP barred from the platform because of Wilkins’ antagonistic remarks, King’s most gifted aide, Andrew Young, chosen to emcee the capitol rally, and the divinely inspired Meredith granted the longest speaking time along with King.

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Toward Capitol

At 11.30 Sunday, the procession, 3000 strong, began to file out of Tougaloo toward the capitol, nine miles away. An FBI agent rode in the first car and an integrated SNCC couple in the second, a Black Panther bumper sticker was flapping on the rear. They were singing, “We’ve got the light of freedom …”

The conflict between SCLC and SNCC was played out all along the march. When SCLC arganizers distributed American flags, SNCC’s Willie Ricks took them away, and the Reverend John Morris gave them out again. The SNCC kids chanted “Black Power” and the SCLC staffers chanted, “Freedom,” and usually carried the marchers with them.

What two weeks ago had seemed a meaningless contrivance for the media was slowly transformed into a moving spectacle as the column inched through the unpaved Negro slums of Jackson. Wave after after of Jackson Negroes poured into the column, dressed for Sunday church, badly concealing their pride, and many clutching American flags, that were waved like magic wands every time whites on the sidelines showed their Confederate flags.

It was hot, about 95 degrees, and on almost every block a Negro family was waiting to offer ice water to the marchers. They threw kisses, smiled, prayed, and many joined the swelling, uneven line.

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At a shopping center there was the surrealistic scene of 30 whites, their faces looking like they were recruited from central casting, shouting epithets and taking pic­tures of the marchers. They were guarded by a cluster of 10 Negro highway patrolmen. A little kid with the words “Give me free­dom or give me death” crudely painted on his CORE tee shirt tried to give one of the whites a Black Panther bumper sticker and a Negro patrolman pushed him back into the march.

When the column passed the next large clump of whites, the pilgrims broke into a rendition of “Dixie” and the whites looked like they were watching Robert E. Lee’s tomb being vandalized.

By the time the exhausted, sweat-drenched marcher’s reached the capitol it was almost 4 p.m. Sullen whites, about 1500, ringed the appointed rally area. Shoulder to shoulder, encircling  the stained-glass capitol, stood 700 state troopers, city police, and guardsmen, defending the government of Mississippi from its own unarmed citizens. On the platform sat the unique leadership of the Freedom Movement, and one could not help but measure men like Martin King, Reverend Ed King and Larry Guyot of the MFDP, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and even emotional, visionary Carmichael, against the leadership of white America. Martin King or LBJ, Reverend Andy Young or Cardinal Spellman, Guyot or Ronald Reagan: who are better qualified to lead this nation?

Inscrutable James Meredith spoke first and was honored by a standing ovation from the platform as well as the multitude.

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They Larry Guyot, the panda-like chairman of the MFDP, rose to talk, unspeakable memories of white violence charging his voice and sending tremors through his body. He said, “Black people must learn three phrases starting at birth: white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and black power.” With that, Carmichael, perched on the edge of the platform, leaped up screaming like a teeny bopper at a Rolling Stones concert. Guyot closed with the prophetic words: “This is not the end; this is the beginning.”

Then is was Carmichael’s turn in the subtle contest for the heart of the resurrected Mississippi Movement. Lean, lithe, with bulging eyes like James Baldwin, he took off his shades as he began his talk with the words, “I want to talk to black people across the this country …”

In private, Carmichael’s description of the ideas behind his slogan of black power is persuasive. But excited by 15,000 black faces, network cameras, and a five-minute deadline, the 25-year-old leader of SNCC was reduced to slogans to explain a slogan. He transposed his words, spoke in a false Southern accent, and at the end the rehearsed chant of black power organized by the SNCC staff failed to engulf the rally.

Then it was time for King, the 37-year-old preacher who holds the unity of this amoeba-like movement in his healing hands. The speech he offered was merely a variation of his inspirational sermon delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. He told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.

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Then it was 6 p.m. and it was ending. Meredith still had the shotgun pellets lodged in his body, a beaten marcher was still in a Canton hospital with a collapsed lung, 5000 newly registered voters were in the rolls in 15 counties. The crowd reached out to grab strong but unfamiliar black hands and sing the holy song of the movement:

“God is on our side. We are not afraid …”

SNCC’s Willie Ricks, who has the look of a Times Square evangelist, began to scream, “Black power, black power, black power …”

But he was drowned out by the rising voices of 15,000 Negroes singing, “We shall brothers be — black and white together — we shall overcome — someday.” ❖


Black Boomers Wax Nostalgic for the Days of Jim Crow

Dangerous Dreams

Of course the Nazis’ genocidal regime was terrible, and it’s really good that it was defeated. Bad as it was, though, it certainly brought the Jews together. They were a united, mutually supportive community in the camps in a way that they haven’t been since; they experienced a commonality that transcended class, gender, and other differences. It’s ironic and a bit sad that Hitler’s defeat came at the price of sacrificing the basis for that sense of community. So we should pause to celebrate and perhaps mourn the passage of that world of Jewish to­getherness, lost with the liberation of the death camps.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Of course, no one in their right mind would propose such a view seriously. Yet it isn’t so different from what has lately become a conventional narrative about black Americans and the regime of racial segregation that prevailed in much of this country for most of this century. The Third Reich was a sui generis horror: a state resting on systematic mass murder as a central goal and organizational principle is a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportion. But as Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman detail in The Racial State 1933-1945, the conceptual foundation of that all-too-real nightmare is a commitment to racial ideology as the lens through which to make sense of and to order social life.

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From that perspective the difference between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South is one of degree rather than kind, a matter of having the impetus and capacity to follow the ideology to its logical conclusion. Noting that the Holocaust is a species within a larger genus in no way diminishes it as an un­paralleled event. My point, rather, is to highlight why current nostalgia for the organic community black Americans supposedly lost with the success of the civil rights movement is so frighteningly shortsighted and dangerous.

That nostalgia is everywhere — in every major newspaper and excuse for a news magazine at the supermarket checkout line, in the classroom, in the bar, across the dinner table, in cultural criticism, in foundation boardrooms and policy papers, on the talk show circuit. Political left, right, and center embrace it equally, and it’s the staple hope of a burgeoning black memoir industry. Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People is a reflection on the idyllic world of his Jim Crow youth in West Virginia, a yearning for a prelapsarian black communal order. Harold Cruse’s Plural but Equal, dresses this nostalgia up as social theory; arguing that it was mistaken for blacks to have fought to overturn the Jim Crow system precisely because its defeat unraveled community life. William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged also trades on the Decline From Segregation narrative, though he ducks its implications by discussing only northern cities. Wilson conjures up images of a 1940s Harlem where people could pass hot summer nights sleeping safely on fire escapes, in contrast to the chaotic heart of darkness created when desegregation allowed the black middl class to escape inner-city ghettos, leaving the poor without stable institutions and  role models for upward mobility.

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This sort of nostalgic theory is dangerous on two counts: it falsifies the black past, and it serves reactionary and frankly racist interests in the present. Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (originally published by a small press but reissued by Penguin), and television actor-director Tim Reid’s current feature-film adaptation of it, provide a good template tor examining both problems. The inspirational memoir is this Once Upon a Time When We Were Segregated and Happy tale’s natural home, where the cheery tone of personal triumph wash brightly over the backdrop of codified racial subordination. Once Upon a Time recalls Taulbert’s first 17 years, spent in the Mississippi Delta town of Glen Allan.

Taulbert’s story is particularly resonant for me. He and I are about the same age, we graduated from high school
the same month. I don’t know his hometown, and I doubt that I know the Delta region as intimately as he. I do know it, though, and my experiences of it roughly coincide in time with his. My father’s family comes partly from that area, but on the other side of the river and therefore across the state line. Not that state lines mean much down there, in that zone of transhumance that laps across the northeast corner of Louisiana, southeast corner of Arkansas, and northwest Mississippi. Eudora, Arkansas, the town from which that branch of our family emanatcs, is eight miles from the Louisiana line and 30 miles from Greenville, Mississippi. As it was for Taulbert’s Glen Allan, Greenville is Eudora’s re­gional city where air travelers and mall shoppers go, and it seems to be about equidistant from the two towns.

Taulbert’s book and Reid’s film differ sig­nificantly and interestingly, but in ways that to­gether flesh out the components of a shared ide­ology. Reid mutes black Glen Allan’s status hierarchy, while Taulbert notes it matter-of-factly, exulting in his family’s elevated position. Reid’s vision so stresses fastidious morality that he goes our of his way to link the mildest devia­tion with mortification, even inventing a vignette in which the beloved great-aunt Ma Ponk makes a onetime visit to a hooch show only to pay by being absent from her mother’s deathbed. In Reid’s telling, elders counsel picnicking children not to drag an American flag on the ground because colored boys are dy­ing in Korea to defend that flag. Taulbert recalls a quite different admo­nition: “Boy, don’t you know if white folks see you messing with this here flag like this, they subject to kill you?” Poppa, the great-grandfather patriarch, is much more prominent in the movie than the book, as Reid responds to the yearning for patriarchal order that suffuses this new Up From Slavery narrative. Simi­larly, Reid reinvents Ma Ponk as a culinary won­der, while Taulbert says she was so little a cook that she relied on “plain store-bougbt
cake and chicken fried by my mother” for her contribution to the big church function. Here, also, art imposes ideological order on a messy world.

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Both Reid and Taulbert mistake the apparent simplicity of childhood for the simplicity of a social order, an elision that feeds aging black boomers’ wistfulness about lost-youth and innocence. It’s propelled by a naive trope of modernization that presume our world to be constantly increasing in complexity and divisiveness, contrasting it to a comfortingly static past. This vision authenticates itself by dipping into a common reservoir of experience. The scene in which the neighborhood gathers to view the Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano fight stimulated a Pavlovian recollection of my own experience of the fight in a different part of the country. We were at my uncle’s house, my younger cousin and I were playing on the floor in front of the sofa, and I recall my father’s lament that this would be our only memory of seeing Joe fight.

Some stimuli are generic: the first day of school, the doting (female) relative who dresses you like a geek for your own good, the excite­ment of little outings with an adored grandpar­ent, the pleasures of running around with schoolyard pals. Some are more racially specific: first encounters with Jim Crow etiquette, truck-loads of black people headed to the cotton fields, witnessing adults assert their contingent dignity in small encounters with whites. Instructively, though, it is only Reid who suggests these as­sertions. Taulbert recounts no such incidents; it was the Mississippi Delta, after all, and his folks weren’t the sort to make waves.

Memory is a great liar. Sure, you’re con­vinced that the strawberry floats tasted better then, but remember how much smaller your old room seemed the first time you returned in adulthood? The house didn’t shrink, did it? Of course life was simpler then; we were kids, and its complexities were lost on us. Of course the world seems in retrospect to have been nurturing; as kids, being nurtured was our job de­scription. Or rather, it was for some of us.

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Although it has attained a nearly universal status in black public discourse, this nostalgic narrative is in crucial ways a class vision. My father used to say that the story of the lion hunt would be a different tale if the lion had a typewriter. And that prompts an insight in­to the pervasive romanticism about segregated black schools: those who recall the Jim Crow schools so fondly are those who most likely were nurtured and catered to in them. Think about it. Who goes on to publish well-marketed memoirs or otherwise speak into the public microphone besides those marked early for success, those who have been encouraged and attended to? And who, by and large, are they but the children of community notable and elites? Are we certain that the recollections of universally nurturing black schools don’t generalize synecdochically from personal experience, which comes, after all, via the limited perspective of a child?

At any age, privilege tends to be recollected in the tranquil­ity of oblivion, with no recogni­tion that others weren’t comparably entitled. Think of the class reunion in which former in-group members are genuinely shocked to learn what a radically different place the school had been for the outsiders. An exam­ple from a context not too unlike Taulbert’s is suggestive. My mother taught for a time at a small Baton Rouge school run by an order of black nuns who came from the same social network and many of the same families as the students. As an outsider, she saw clearly how family standing influenced judgments about students. Expressions of good will and encouragement, assessment of talents, and allocation of awards and special opportunities — the concrete stuff of nurturance — were as likely as not shaped by personal attachments or vendettas and per­ceptions of family status. This pattern of invidi­ous treatment was part of normal life,  requiring neither justification nor explanation even when it extended to extraordinary interventions: “Let’s just change a couple of these numbers so that the Patin girl can be valedictorian. She’s such a love­ly girl and comes from such a nice family.”

Of course, this kind of behavior is hardly re­stricted to the world of Jim Crow. It’s really an intraracial manifestation of the sort of class-based quotidian injustice that assumes racialized forms in integrated environments. Black people are neither more nor less capable of pettiness and class prejudice than anyone else. Race is just not an active category in the calculus of judgment in an all-black context, and black students, therefore, don’t get the short end of the stick simply be­cause they’re black. However, the harsh facts of segregation mitigate that benefit. Skin tone, family connections, and even more arbitrary considerations all created fissures in the phan­tom unity of the pre-civil rights black commu­nity, just as they do today. And a situation de­fined by woefully inadequate resources breeds unfairness; there’s not enough of anything to go around, so arbitrary criteria become necessary.

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The white supremacist system made teach­ing one of the few avenues available tor middle-­class employment, increasing the likelihood that individual teachers were there by default and suffering with frustrated ambitions. The demoral­izing effect of those limitations combined with the reality of “second-class citizenship” to sup­port a communitarian excuse for an internal pecking order: we can wink at abstract principles of fairness in the community because it’s just us, and those elevated notions don’t really apply to dealings among the folk; we all know how it is. In these circumstances what can we expect to be the lot of the unattractive, timid, slightly slow, or sullen child of poody regarded sharecroppers? What would her memories be of the Golden Age of segregation? We can find dues by sitting in classrooms or listening to teachers in today’s underfunded inner-city schools.

Class ideology, in fact, permeates and drives the current nostalgia. While it reflects a generic sentimentality about lost innocence, it is also black boomers’ racially distinctive variant of a historically specific class yearning, one that ap­pears among their white counterparts as wistful attachment to a mythical Victorian or Edwar­dian era, the collective dream on which PBS and the specialized home-improvement industry thrive. In both cases, it’s about the wish for a world that is simpler and more settled to be sure, but simpler and settled in ways that clarify and consolidate the status of the upper middle class as the social orders presumptive center. The vision — equally false as history in both col­or codings — is of an organic, face-to-face community in which everyone has a role, status markers arc clear, and convivial, automatic deference and noblesse oblige are the social or­ganism’s lifeblood, the substance of its mutual regard.

Among whites this typically trans­lates into images of a close-knit world of little shops where one is known and served cheer­fully by contented proprietors and their energetic employees, where one is recognized naturally as the center of the community, the embodiment of its best values and aspirations, its pivotal consumer. The black vision is more folkish in its mythology, but no less aestheticized. Where white Fairfield County yuppies imagine themselves in a sleek Merchant-Ivory fantasy of a fin de siecle drawing room, their black neighbors shoehorn themselves into a colorful down-home juke joint sprung to life from the canvases of Varnette Honeywood or Ernie Barnes. The black vision includes as well being respected as a role model and natural leader of the race. Nostalgia for the Jim Crow black world, particularly when it masquerades as social science, keys its imagery of the Fall to the putative loss of petite bourgeois authority in the bantustan — for instance, in William Julius Wilson’s prat­tle about the middle class as a force for moral or­der and propriety among the poor. In a concocted scene in Reid’s film, Poppa confronts the impov­erished tenant farmer whose son has sired a child out of wedlock. When the father refuses any obligation to the young mother and baby, citing his inability to add two hungry mouths to his household, Poppa tells him sternly, “Having nothing don’t mean you don’t know what’s right.”

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Taulbert is serenely candid about the class stratification of his cherished “place where people nurtured and protected and enjoyed each other.” He establishes at the very beginning of his book that he is descended from black planters and recounts with loving pride how his elderly aunt showed him the records that verified their once-exalted status. His mother’s family lost the plantation but retained elevated status in black Glen Allan. Poppa was “a well-known and respected Baptist preacher who was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances served as a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving the whites,” and Taulbert points out that they owned “a large rambling house with separate bedrooms, a formal dining and living room with two screened-in sun rooms.” He notes that Ma Ponk “always made it a point to talk with Miss Lottie because she was among the upper-class coloreds” and insisted on riding the train because she felt that “only the poor coloreds rode the bus”

None of this is unusual. Memoirists who pine for the lost community of Jim Crow tend to have middle-class parents, who typically strove to insulate their offspring from the regime’s demeaning and dangerous realities, es­pecially from contact with whites. Except in New Orleans, I can’t recall having more than a couple of interactions with whites of any age in the South (not counting priests and nuns) until I was in high school. It is less commonly recalled that petite bourgeois  parents worked equally hard to shield their kids from black social inferi­ors. The leveling effects of discrimination made the latter more difficult, but this dedicated to class insularity found ways to adapt. The Jack and Jill clubs (from which, thankfully, my parents’ politics saved me) existed to provide an ­explicitly class-conscious local and national social network for the black bourgeoisie’s children in the same way that fraternities and sororities, the Links, the Girl Friends, the Boulé, and other such organizations did for adults. And only mid­dle-class children who were protected from its social and institutional realities — or those who didn’t live it at all — could remember the segre­gated world so fondly, as a naive, communitarian metaphor. When it came time for Taulbert to negotiate the regime as an adult, he left, telling us only that “Glen Allan could not make my dreams come true.” He never confronts the fact that what he knew and recalls as a warm, nurturing world was compensatory, an artifact of a hideously unjust social order that brutalized lives and crushed aspirations.

Although its wrongheadedness may seem merely misguided, this class-inflected nostalgia plays a decidedly sinister role in contemporary politics. Not only does it rest on sentimental notions of family that sanitize gender inequality, it naturalizes current class privilege by projecting it fantastically backward in time. PBS subscribers imagine their earlier lives in genteel domestic settings, not sweatshops or stockyards, and Afro-centrics don’t envision themselves as less than, say, the pharaoh’s majordomo or attaché. The black memoir strain goes one better: it draws the dots connecting present and past privilege and lauds the continuity as race pride. The ubiqui­tous grandmother in these narratives may have been a strong-proud-black-woman-race-leader-­and-closeted-lesbian, but she was first of all a member in good standing of the Talented Tenth. The message is clear: our very bloodline is elite. We’re just as authentically bourgeois — in our distinctively black way — as our white counter­parts, and we’re the race’s natural aristocracy. Gates tells us of his maternal family’s place in the local social order: “The Colemans were the first colored to own guns and hunt on white land, the first to become Eagle Scouts, the first to go to college, the first to own property.”

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This bias comes through in another of Reid’s inventions. He has the good folk of Glen Allan decide to stand up to the white supremacist order, not for their citizenship rights or to chal­lenge discrimination, lynching, or their ex­ploitation in the cotton economy. In his vision, they assert themselves in defense of Taulbert’s Uncle Cleve, the ice man supposedly being dri­ven our of business unfairly by a big white firm from Greenville. Reid’s townsfolk refuse to work the cotton fields in protest, noting Cleve’s — and thus black entrepreneurialism’s — paramount symbolic importance to the entire black popula­tion; they cared more about his welfare than their own. (Taulbert says of his uncle, by the way, “Surely if my Uncle Cleve were alive today, he’d find a reason to be a black Republican.” And the author himself is no leftist; he chortles at enforcement of child labor laws and expresses re­lief that his parents, despite tough times, were able to avoid becoming part of the welfare “sys­tem.”) This is an absurdly self-serving image of petite bourgeois grandeur. I’ve filed it in my collection of Perverse Appropriations of Popular In­surgency, right next to that of a student who told me a few years ago that the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to make sure she could attend Yale and then go on to work at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. Sadly, this perversion capturcs the moment of bourgeois triumphalism in black political life.

An insidious slippage between I and We drives black communitarian rhetoric and makes possible the bizarre claim that intraracial stratifi­cation is benign because it’s organic. This view has no room for class tension or contradictions, because it disconnects class from position and role in the reproduction of the social system. Pop­pa “mediated” with the whites; he didn’t occupy a managerial niche in the Jim Crow order. A family friend was a labor contractor for the white planters and acquired rental property originally built to house interned Japanese Americans dur­ing World War II. Taulbert never imagines that these business endeavors might have put him at odds with some of Glen Allan’s black residents, or muses about the irony of a black man profit­ing from internment. Such ruminations aren’t consonant with this narrative’s objectives.

The point of the nostalgia narrative is that that are no internal tensions; there is no significant differentiation. Perhaps this yearning for a seamless black world partly reflects status anxiety within the current black middle class, an anxiety that can take several overlapping and even contradictory forms. It could express the famous guilt that middle-class blacks supposedly experience about the growing black poverty that con­trasts with their success — though I’ve never seen a case of it in anyone over undergraduate age that wasn’t a backhanded form of self-congratu­lation. It could also reflect just the opposite. Lev­eling the black experience also levels racial oppression and thereby equates the middle-class experience of racism (“I couldn’t get a cab,” “I got stopped by the cops on Metro-North,” “My col­leagues don’t respect me,” “I can’t get a promo­tion”) with me borderline genocidal regime tightening around the inner-city poor. One of­ten hears the lament: we suffer too. And the communitarian idyll can be emotional solace for those middle-class blacks who work and live in racially integrated environments, a dreamworld respite from racialized tension — the necessary, constant anticipation of affront that permeates their daily reality. An analogue is 1960s black cultural nationalism, which was largely the product of black students on white college campuses.

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No matter what emotional needs it addresses, though, this communitarian nostalgia propounds a political message that what an in­creasingly fractured black “community” needs is to entrust itself to the loving care of its “natural” leadership. Some middle-class blacks opposed the Jim Crow order because it limited their op­tions, constrained their career and social opportunities, and didn’t make appropriate class dis­tinctions among blacks. This criticism isn’t necessarily hinged to a broader egalitarian social vision. Therefore as the rightward thrust of na­tional politics and the realities of the glass ceiling imperil possibilities for absorption — on black and proud terms to he sure — into the mainstream elite, a latter-day accommodationism can seem consistent and attractive. Like Milton’s Lucifer, many middle-class blacks are finding it more desirable to reign in the bantustan than to be dissed outside, especially now that the basic accomplishments of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation — guaranteeing the rudiments of equal citizenship — seem solidly established. This impulse supports an accommodationism that trades on the rhetoric of racial difference to assign the petite bourgeoisie a tutorial, agenda-­setting position vis-a-vis the rest of the race. The Nurturing Black Community, therefore, re­hearses an elitist communitarianism of lengthy pedigree (shared, for example by Booker T. Washington and the young Du Bois), and it secures a functional role for a separate-but-equal black middle class: official management and administration of inequality. This includes, besides role modeling and running the institutions of public authority, directing public policy — in the form of “community revitalization” — to clear away suitable enclaves for the occupancy and consumption needs of the new uplifters.

A friend of mine remarked years ago, as we observed the rise of the first stratum of black public officials, that they generally presume that all that stuff about due process, participation, citizenship rights, equality, justice, and the rest stops at the entrance to the: bantustan. We didn’t realize at the time that formalist democracy goes against the grain of the communitarian ideology on which black leadership grounds itself. Nor did we recognize that this antidemocratic impulse rests on a solid pragmatic foundation. After all, you don’t want a lot of discussion among people if your job is to herd them into camps, do you? ❖

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes


Race, Gender & Rudy Giuliani

Rudy’s Record Could Be Better

RUDOLPH GIULIANI has yet to name the time and place, but he cer­tainly has made his in­tentions clear. And late last month, the wan­nabe-candidate signaled the tenor of his campaign by picking a fight with Ed Koch over race relations in New York. Giuliani charged that blacks and Hispanics had been excluded from positions of power in city government. It was as much a pitch to liberals as a punch to the gut, and Koch cried foul. “How many blacks or Hispanics did Rudy Giuliani appoint to leadership positions in the Reagan Justice Department and as U.S. attor­ney?” the mayor shot back.

So how good is Giuliani’s hiring rec­ord? A Voice investigation shows that, during his five-and-a-half year tenure, the U.S. attorney hired proportionally fewer black and Hispanic lawyers than other prosecutors. Figures made public by the U.S. attorney’s office show that, be­tween June 1983, when Giuliani was ap­pointed, and January 1989, when he re­signed, racial minorities represented 10.9 per cent of the attorneys hired. Women represented 34 per cent. Both figures compare unfavorably with hiring by Manhattan district attorney Robert Mor­genthau, Brooklyn D.A. Elizabeth Holtzman, and state attorney general Robert Abrams.

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How does Giuliani account for the dis­parity? He did not return phone calls from the Voice, but several associates of­fered explanations. Unlike the other agencies surveyed, the U.S. attorney’s of­fice rarely hires lawyers fresh out of school. “Our general rule is two years of experience,” says Federico E. Virella Jr., executive assistant U.S. attorney, whose responsibilities include hiring lawyers. “Sometimes, we waive that rule,” he adds, but not because of an applicant’s race or gender. About a quarter of the law students in a summer intern program are nonwhite. “We’ve offered positions to quite a few of those people,” Virella says. “When they graduate, it’s up to them to apply after they get one or two years’ experience.”

Apparently, not many do. Of 600 appli­cants interviewed by Giuliani’s office between 1985 and the present, only 38 were ­nonwhite. Of those, 11 were retained. Why the low numbers? “To be honest, the U.S. attorney’s outreach hasn’t been as widespread as other agencies,” says Londell McMillan, northeast regional di­rector of the Black Law Students Association. “They’ve attended our job fair for the past few years, but that’s certainly not enough. We receive large amounts of mail from various legal institutions, but not from them.” McMillan says black lawyers are less likely than whites to take a job and then leave it in two years to work for the U.S. attorney. “Black law students have a difficult time making their mark. They have to start at a place where they see a future and work dili­gently to secure a permanent position.” The two-year rule at Giuliani’s office, McMillan believes, works as “a deter­rent” to minority applicants.

Still, David Denton, chief of the U.S. attorney’s criminal division, maintains that, of the minority attorneys who do apply, “it’s my impression that we hire proportionally more, and certainly a lot more than private law firms.” That’s true: While blacks make up 5 per cent of the country’s law students, they represent only about 1.4 per cent of all lawyers in the state’s 52 largest firms, according to a report in the New York Law Journal. (Hispanics represent just under 1 per cent.) The U.S. attorney’s office draws its hiring pool mostly from private firms, prompting Giuliani spokesman Dennison Young to remark that “the number of minorities hired during Giuliani’s tenure was two or three times their proportion in the available labor pool. I think when you look at those numbers, you can say that the U.S. attorney’s office was very successful.”

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In addition, Young says it was Giuliani who recommended his successor, Benito Romano — the first Hispanic U.S. attor­ney in the Southern District. (Giuliani lured Romano — who, in 1987, he had ap­pointed to the number three spot — back from private practice.) But Giuliani made that move on the brink of his decision to run for mayor of New York, with its large Hispanic swing vote. The Justice Depart­ment would not say, and Young could not recall, how many minorities became U.S. attorneys while Giuliani was associate at­torney general, a position that included oversight of such appointments.

If the labor pool is so small, why have Morgenthau, Abrams, and Holtzman been able to lure more minority lawyers to their offices? On the record, Giuliani associates say their cases are more com­plex than other agencies’, requiring more experience and exposure to the practice of law. But when they retreat from the record, a blunter explanation emerges. Giuliani’s colleagues regard the U.S. attorney’s office as the city’s premier prose­cutorial agency, and they imply that, if fewer women and minority attorneys qualify for employment there, it must be because Giuliani set higher standards than other prosecutors. “I know all kinds of attorneys, regardless of race or gender, who shy away from applying to this office because of its reputation of demanding excellence,” says one Giuliani associate. “The perception might be that it’s easier to get into one of the city offices, and you know what? It probably is.”

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Morgenthau, Abrams, and Holtzman have formal affirmative action programs run by specially designated officers (in keeping with state policy), but federal law does not require that of U.S. attorneys. Still, Young and Denton mention infor­mal mechanisms, including a group of minority attorneys who attend job fairs and work on outreach efforts. “Before Giuliani, you probably could have count­ed the number of minority attorneys on one hand, and still had a few fingers left over,” says Virella, who is Hispanic. But criminal court judge Patricia Williams, who served in the U.S. attorney’s office from 1977 to 1986, remembers it differ­ently. She says the real increase in wom­en and minorities occurred under Giu­liani’s predecessors, John Martin Jr. and Robert Fiske. Williams, who was the third black assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District, and the first woman in its criminal division, sat on the office’s hiring committee. “I don’t believe Giu­liani made any effort to attract minor­ities, or even to continue the policy of attempting to increase minority applica­tions,” she says. “I did not have the per­ception that that was a priority.”

Williams has the same perception about civil rights cases initiated by Giu­liani: “His priorities were organized crime, corruption cases, and dealing with street level narcotics. I am not aware of any priority laid to civil rights.” Ronald Stroman, an aide to Congressman John Conyers, spent a good deal of time in New York City last year, investigating charges of police brutality. “In preparing for a possible hearing, we began to look at civil rights cases in the city,” Stroman says. “All the local officials and commu­nity groups we spoke to indicated that Giuliani hadn’t done anything.”

The U.S. attorney’s office has a differ­ent view. “Our marching orders by the Department of Justice are to investigate, but once the local authorities are taking action, not to prosecute,” says Harriet Goldberg, chief of the Civil Rights Unit. Goldberg maintains the office did investi­gate both the Michael Stewart and Elea­nor Bumpurs cases, and, after the police were cleared, “determined there was no reason to proceed with federal action.”

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On another front, Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union says Giu­liani’s office turned a deaf ear to com­plaints of police brutality in Tompkins Square. “One would have thought that Mr. Law-and-Order would have had his office do something affirmative in regard to civil rights violations,” Siegel says. “But they’ve done zip.” Goldberg, Giu­liani’s civil rights chief, insists her unit worked behind the scenes to get local authorities to act. “Our investigation is not yet closed,” she adds.

There are a few civil rights cases Giuliani prosecuted aggressively. His office won fair housing case against J. I. Sopher, the city’s largest rental realtor, and successfully pressed a discrimination claim against the Yonkers Police Department. But both these cases were initiated under Giuliani’s predecessor. More re­cently, Giuliani’s office won a conviction against two transit officers who had falsely arrested minority passengers. But Giuliani did not celebrate these victories with the panache with which he publi­cized his coups against crime and corrup­tion. No wonder the perception among many civil rights activists is that their issues took a back seat during Giuliani’s tenure. Civil rights are simply not part of this crimebuster’s image.

But how much could Giuliani have ac­complished against a profoundly conservative Justice Department? The answer is that, when this prosecutor chooses to, he bucks his superiors. For instance, ac­cording to Goldberg, when the Reagan administration instructed U.S. attorneys to refrain from filing class action suits against the Social Security Administra­tion, “Giuliani established a policy where we refused to represent that position.” Why didn’t Giuliani put more steam into issues of concern to minorities? Why didn’t he beef up his civil rights unit? Precisely because the Justice Department was unlikely to require him to take such actions, Giuliani’s record on civil rights and affirmative action is a fair measure of the man.

And what does the Liberal Party think about that record? Party chairman Raymond Harding told the Voice: “No comment.” ■


Thinking About the ’60s: The Black Experience

In these times what black folk need most is a lot of patience and a sense of irony.
— Junebug J. Jones, “White Folk’s Ad­dress,” Jackson, Mississippi, 1964

IT IS A BEAUTIFUL, unseasonably warm fall day in 1967 in Washing­ton, D.C. The sunlight sparkles over acres of green lawn at the cen­ter of which is a government instal­lation ringed by troops of the 101st paratrooper division recently rotat­ed out of Vietnam. The troops are in full battle dress, carrying, as I recall, bayoneted rifles, and look both grim and nervous. They, in turn, are ringed by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of demonstrators. The demon­strators are white and young, very young. All day in this mass of white America I have seen no more than 50 blacks — ex­cept for the troops. There is a curious air of unreality as the ring of demonstrators, laughing, almost dancing, their faces flushed with excitement, advance steadily toward the bayonets. Their total un­awareness of danger seems strange given the violence of their revolutionary slo­gans. When we are about 70 yards away I hear an order and the chilling, metallic rattle as the troops “load and lock.” The demonstrators do not even pause. I know it’s time to go and turn around. Two hundred yards down the line another sol­itary figure emerges, also heading back. Just a speck in the distance. We stand out dramatically from the vast crowd be­cause we are the only two figures moving away. I listen for the first shots, which I know to be inevitable and watch the other figure curiously as our paths gradually converge. Soon I can see that it is a man. Then that he is black. Then, as we come together at the entrance, that we know each other. We greet each other with loud, nervous shouts of recognition and eyes flooded with apprehension and horror.  

Julius! Mike!

Shit man it’s gonna be awful.

I know it, man. Let’s get the hell outta here.

We were both veterans of the southern movement and remembered too many of our dead. Age set.   

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BECAUSE OF EXPLORATORIES from Voice editors, I was thinking about the “dreadful year” of 1968, which came hard on the heels of that Pentagon demonstration, and an institution of traditional African cul­tures known as “age set,” when my phone rang. I was thinking of how those white children had approached the waiting guns unhesitatingly. They were right, it turned out, and we were wrong. Not a shot was fired that day.

Today, as a consequence of an incident of racist violence on campus, the black students at the University of Massachus­setts have occupied the building where I teach, called, not insignificantly, the New Africa House. A mildly ironic déja vu. Automatically, I call a member of my “age set” — one of the few left close by­ — and the result is predictable and satisfy­ing. Our responses are almost identical­ — the same questions occur, the same concerns and hopes surface, the same refer­ences salt the conversation — in short, we assimilate the event and its meaning and resonances of meaning in much the same ways — “age set.”

In the traditional wisdom of our Afri­can forebears, this phenomenon is recog­nized, brought forward, and institutional­ized in profound and consequential ways. The young men and young women of the clan who undergo together the various initiations that mark rites of passage are an age set. They are given appropriate names, reflective both of the group’s col­lective personality and their history — ­that is to say, experience. Members of an age set have at different times — as they mature — clearly graduated responsibil­ities toward their community. They are also invested by tradition and ceremony with a binding collective obligation to each other.

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Chinua Achebe writes of a character — ­a venerable and tough elder — that in his fullness of years the only words that ap­peared capable of really entering his ear were those from the few surviving mem­bers of his age set. There is excellent reason for this: It is not merely that being of like age the members share historical experience — that’s the obvious part. What’s important is that in the context of the culture this reality is formally rec­ognized, and their assimilation of a given historical event is mediated not only by their level of experience, therefore of understanding and capability, but by an awareness of collective responsibility.

For example, a plague of crop-destroy­ing locusts creates the threat of famine. This catastrophe presents itself quite dif­ferently to the perceptions and memories of the 12- to 15-year-olds than it does to those of the 40- to 45-year-olds. The ado­lescents, as a formal entity, would also be expected to discuss and respond in a manner appropriate to their unique posi­tion, abilities, and awareness within the community. Thus, “We the age set called ‘Simbabwenna‘ believe that we can and must do the following … ” Or, “Can reach no decision and ask the elders to help us … ”

So what they share is not only going through life seeing events through eyes of similar age, but a formal responsibility to collectively address, assimilate, and re­spond to those events appropriately. Thus, after ancestral lineage, one’s next level of identity and loyalty resides in the age set. Nothing quite so anchoring, wise, and functional is to be found in the West. Old boy networks aren’t nearly the same thing.

Now, 1968 may not really have been so malevolent a year after all. It may simply have been unlucky, the hapless victim of bad timing (or, in the argot of the time, a year with bad karma, a burden of sins committed in previous incarnations in earlier centuries; surely by now some ma­gus will have checked 1768, 1868 or other of the year’s ancestors for indications of past moral failure). What is clear is that the seeds of all the villainy for which the poor wretch stands convicted were plant­ed without fanfare earlier in the decade, or even before. Had causes worked their effects out at a more leisurely pace, 1969 or, if history were neater, 1970, the year that formally ended the decade, would more appropriately have taken the rap.

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Seedings: A big one in Washington in 1960 when military “advisers” are dispatched by Camelot’s best and brightest to an obscure Southeast Asian country few Americans could identify. Another in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. In 1964 at two locations: first, Neshoba County, Missis­sippi, then Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in Har­lem. The list could go on. But the seeds germinated, quietly grew, and lurched into fruition in ’68, consecrating in that year a terrible, resounding, summarizing coda. A hostage-taking, score-settling, ass-kicking, head-whipping, dues-taking, hypocrisy-exposing, innocence-destroy­ing, delusion-ending coda of a year. In that year the seeds of the ’60s burst into grotesque and poisonous flower, then per­ished. only to be replaced by something else more toxic if less clearly exotic. A thing ended and something else definitely began, though, of course, neither was immediately clear. Different sides of the same coin, mirror images of something distorted in the pathology of the Ameri­can body politic, and a profound crisis of values and identity in white American culture.

What ended? The smug Western tech­nological arrogance represented by the Vietnam intervention ended. Small brown men in black pajamas demonstrat­ed to the greatest military force in history that in their own country, they could go where they wanted, when they wanted, and that no power on earth, not even death, could prevent them. So on the eve of Tet, at the break of day, they material­ized, as if by magic, in hundreds of loca­tions across the length and breadth of the country. Everywhere and anywhere — in­side the walls of the U.S. Embassy and within the perimeters of military bases, on airport tarmacs — in a sudden, dramat­ic, bloody, vicious firefight that took not an inch of territory, yet was the most final of statements.

It was literally impossible; the pains­taking, pinpoint coordination of planning, movement, timing, and conceal­ment. Yet, the massively deployed machinery of U.S. intelligence had not a ghost of an inkling. The surprise was utter and complete. The day before, com­pounding insult with injury, the North Korean navy had seized an American warship on the high seas, and would hold both ship and crew for months. Not a shot was fired in resistance. Psychologi­cally the war was over — all the rest was bombast, compensation, and saving face.

The nonviolent direct action move­ment had earlier stirred up the entire process within the country, and had qui­etly passed from the scene. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. crudely punc­tuated that reality with the gratuitous and tragic excess for which the year is remembered. Another ending, another beginning. “We have to ask ourselves,” a visibly horrified Bobby Kennedy chal­lenged the nation, “just what kind of peo­ple we are?” Not three months later, apparently en route to his party’s nomination after a crucial victory in the California primary, and in the full glare of national television, he received an an­swer, final and unambiguous in its fatal and irrational brutality. Kennedy had be­come the American politician most changed by and responsive to the issues of the decade. With those shots some­thing else ended. Something else began. And still the bag of tricks of this improb­able year was not exhausted.

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That May, thousands of French stu­dents mobilized in Paris in demonstra­tions that would eventually topple a government. In Mexico, another government would call out the army on its students, killing scores. Across this nation, stu­dents incensed by the major escalation in reply to Tut would close universities and take buildings. The “youth movement” changed from the hippies — the gently bemused, peaceful flower-bearing love chil­dren of the “counterculture” to the fren­zied, confrontational yippies of the Youth International Party. A militant “van­guard” faction of SDS calling themselves “weathermen,” geared up for their an­nounced “Days of Rage” in response to the police riot at the Democratic Conven­tion in Chicago, and Mayor Daley’s police obliged them. The nomination Hubert Humphrey received there was of debased coinage, the election of Richard Milhous Nixon being assured. The mean-spirited age of Reagan and the lunatic right lurked in the wings, slouching toward Washington, stalking a chance to be born. Something had ended, another thing had begun.

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

Americans want to believe many things about themselves that are not true. Ne­groes want to believe a great deal about themselves that isn’t true too. Part of the dilemma, I think, of being an American Negro is that the Negro has been forced for a long long time in many many ways to mantle himself on a society that is essentially incoherent … that is to say mantling himself on someone who doesn’t know who he himself is … and in this very strange confusion, … the writer is trying to find out where the truth is, and how this truth relates to the American myth, how it relates to the situation of young people — black and white — who are lost in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present in the republic …

These prophetic words are James Bal­dwin’s. He was speaking very early in the decade to a group of us at Howard Uni­versity — mostly black but with some good white allies present. Most of the group were already in the “movement,” some would achieve great, if transitory, prominence therein. Mercifully, the long gray winter of the Eisenhower years had passed and was it not springtime in Cam­elot? “Ask not what your country can do for you …” (They promised the Peace Corps but gave us the Mekong Delta, where some 50,000 of the age set would learn what they indeed could do … ) We applauded Baldwin’s words but felt them perhaps unduly pessimistic — that we were not “lost in despair” but rather locked in struggle, and hoped that there were values in the republic, even within the White House itself, that could be evoked in changing the nation into a soci­ety more closely approximate to its lofty self-description.

For that was all we intended then. To take all the liberal pieties, the high-mind­ed platitudes and rhetoric of the Ameri­can Dream as articulated by whites­ — freedom and justice for all, popular de­mocracy, economic opportunity if not justice, racial tolerance and cultural re­spect, equal protection, and due pro­cess — and turn them into living reality.

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The motion begun with the black com­munity once more taking America at its word. But with a cautious optimism mixed with skepticism — a sense of iro­ny — our fingers, so to speak, crossed behind our backs.

Not so however, for Dick and Jane, those clear-eyed, apple-cheeked heirs and beneficiaries of the whole schmear. The baby-boomers had imbibed almost with their mother’s milk — or, more likely, Gerber formulas — the great myths of the mainstream. The cops were their friends; the Marines brave and decent soldiers of freedom, defenders of the world’s weak. America — the last great hope … So, ev­erything being exposed by the agitation­ — from domestic poverty, racial oppression, military adventurism, to economic impe­rialism — while shocking, had to be mere lapses, aberrations, accidental blemishes rather than lethal cancers on the body politic. They were, therefore, easily correctable.

So they came to the movement, Ameri­ca’s children — in ways we never pre­sumed to be — from the embalmment of suburban calm, convinced that with their involvement the nobility of the myth would be restored to social reality within months, a year at most. America, the beautiful once more. How could they have dreamt that when they confronted their elders with their own homilies and platitudes of American self-delusion, they would be received as though implying a totally new, threateriing, and revolution­ary conception of the universe?

The early years of the resurgent stu­dent movement were marked by a disci­plined idealism and pragmatic political activism within the framework of a radi­cal critique that was respectful of evidence and firmly rooted in the possible. I thought that the early SDS had some of the most realistically intelligent, morally responsible, articulate, and impressive young white Americans I had met. So it was with SNCC, but with one important difference — a much broader spectrum of race and class; and operating as we did, in the rural South, we had the immense benefit of the traditional black culture, which at once inspired, educated, in­structed, and civilized us in values no longer evident in the industrial/technolo­gical mass culture of the mainstream.

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After the Cuban missile crisis, Norman Mailer observed that American youth had no domestic heroes, and had to im­port them from the Third World. Hence Fidel, Che, Lumumba, Fanon, Chairman Mao, Uncle Ho. He might have added Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

With its insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation, the media proceeded to identify and proclaim a bewildering suc­cession of “revolutions,” “cultures,” and “movements,” each more insubstantial and faddist than the last. We had drug, hippie, rock, youth, and counter “cultures,” sexual, youth, moral, green, and spiritual “revolutions,” and speech move­ments — both free and filthy — as well as the peace, ecology, and generic youth movements, and I’m sure I must have forgotten some. The truth of the matter is that none were revolutions nor could they have been, nor were they in any sense cultures, and only a few were move­ments. In the media’s projection they were instant and disposable, the stuff of packaging and consumerism, and the me­dia’s pernicious and promiscuous debase­ment of language. See Dick run. See Jane run. Run Jane, run Dick!

They ran because America’s children were disillusioned, and this disillusion­ment was profound: the noble illusions and comforting myths on which their en­tire identity was conditioned during the warm cocoon of avoidance of the Eisen­hower years were brutally demolished one by one. The social defects and moral ex­cesses being exposed were proving not aberrant at all but fundamental and intransigent. National leadership seemed arrogant, manipulative, and insensitive; institutions inflexible, bureaucratic, and exploitative. Their flamboyant rejection of the culture was an exact measure of the depth of their previous condition of innocence, idealism, and ignorance. Feel­ing themselves deceived by America, they now abandoned her. “Young people … in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present …”

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Some retreated into spiritualism, but even this had to be foreign. Adorned with feathers, beads, flowers, and face paint; wearing saffron robes, shorn skulls, exot­ic vestments of prayer and meditation, they sought gurus, shamans, prophets, adepts, mystics, and patriarchs to help them form sects, cults, ashrams, com­munes, families, and tribes. In a curious way it recapitulated their elders’ preda­tory consumerism and casual arrogance toward non-Western cultures. The Third World was no more than a giant “spiritu­al” supermarket in which to shop for whatever brand of exotic mysticism afforded an instant new identity. A naïve arrogance, but harmless to few save themselves. The overwhelming irony was, of course, that the self-indulgence of “counterculture” spiritual withdrawal is quite impossible in the scarcity econo­mies of the cultures they aped. It was subsidized by the production surpluses of American affluence and a consumer soci­ety’s waste … a society essentially inco­herent, a very strange confusion, indeed.

The political element was different. The only revolutionary tradition they were truly heir to had been bestowed on them by the pronouncements of the me­dia. And perhaps by the nervous overreaction of the establishment, which in­vested modest demands for implementing their own social rhetoric with dangerous revolutionary implications. So, having been pronounced “revolutionaries,” they, like their mystic counterparts, also went shopping about the Third World, and im­ported revolutionary ideologies that had no roots in domestic social experience, and strategies without reference or rele­vance to concrete political conditions. But the rhetoric was militant, the postur­ing theatrical, and the implications negligible.

What had been a coherent and very effective student movement was trans­formed into a parade of “instant” revolu­tionaries, projecting their fantasies in a kind of guerrilla theater aimed at the media. They appeared to have no stom­ach for hard, tedious, daily organizing, no respect for and little contact with the people in whose name they claimed to be acting. Therefore, they adopted a language proclaiming “vanguard parties” and espoused that contradiction in terms known as “revolutionary suicide.” Natu­rally, the people avoided them. Just in case they really meant it.

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AMERICA’S CHILDREN could indeed gambol merrily over the green to­ward the waiting guns, confident in the knowledge that the system has vastly different rules for Dick and Jane than for Leon and Leroy. Kent State was yet to come. The general com­manding the troops at the Pentagon said later, if memory serves, that no live am­munition had been issued to the troops.

All this presented itself to the black community quite differently than to the white community. We knew — except for the Panthers — that we were not afforded the luxury of that kind of acting out.

Exotic Eastern religions, fine! Roman­tic solidarity with distant revolution, cool! One could now even make a fashion­ably revolutionary statement, with clothes, designer accessories — fatigues, berets, jungle boots, bandolier belts. But still something closer, more immediate and satisfying, was needed.

The Panther leadership — if that is the right term — allowed the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary van­guard, and their followers predictably paid a terrible price. They had style, their black leather jackets — a variation of youth gang colors — black berets, and fire-arms either visible or implied. An expression of ghetto youth culture, their leader­ship had a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle. They were creatures of the media and the radi­cal chic of the sentimental left-but ex­actly who was hustling whom?

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The Panthers appeared, as if on cue, out of America’s Third World. Home­grown surrogates for the Viet Cong. The black, virile, menacing, hip guerrilla, a white American fantasy incarnate. Revo­lution no longer needed to be distant, alien, or remote; it could be brought home to the nearest ghetto in all the immediacy of full color. The revolution­ary of the mass culture: instant and dis­posable. Conjured up, it seemed, out of the voyeuristic mission of the media ca­tering to the vicarious impulses of the audience.

Would it had been only theater; then it would have mattered not a whit that they had neither precedent, roots, connection, base, nor support in the political tradi­tions of the black community. To dress the role and act the part would have sufficed.

Bul America has different rules for Leon and Leroy … The police were is­sued live ammunition. Curtain. Lights.

And some very good people got badly hurt, some lives even were changed, but what is odd is that so few were, despite the rantings about revolution.

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IT IS EARLY 1962, I think. It is one of the collegiate editor’s conferences that the Reader’s Digest used to have. The workshop is on national politics. I particularly remember the editor of the Michigan Daily and the managing editor of the Yale Daily News. The Mich­igan editor is very articulate, political, and informed; so am I. We lead the charge from the left, talk about poverty, racism, foreign policy, and support each other’s arguments. The Yalie is an engag­ing young man, clean-cut, clear-eyed, ear­nest, intelligent, and very preppie, from a politically prominent Republican back­ground. He is astounded at our criticism of America, seems genuinely upset. Tries to argue but we have the facts. After the session we talk for a long time. The Yale man keeps saying, “That can’t be … I can’t believe …”

“It really is, man, check it out!”

We shake hands and part; he walks away troubled, but promising to check it all out.

”I kinda like him. What do you think?” I ask Tom Hayden, the Michigan editor.

“He’s very decent,” Tom says, “but very innocent.”

It’s now 1964, SNCC office in Wash­ington. A group of volunteers for the Mis­sissippi Summer project from the Ohio orientation stop in on their way south. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney have already disappeared. I recognize among the volunteers the tall, handsome Yalie. He seems no longer troubled. It is a very brief, unexpected, but emotional reunion, in especially emotional circumstances. We are genuinely glad to see each other there.

I have never seen Stephen Mitchell Bingham again, but was deeply saddened when his name surfaced as the radical lawyer being sought by the FBI in the George Jackson shoot-out. He came back from 13 years of exile in July 1984. I’m glad he beat the rap. Age set.

And extraordinary young people got hurt.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724970″ /]

Feather was a young black man from the inner city. He came one day early in 1974 to the SNCC Washington office and volunteered to help “in any way I can.” He was different from the other volun­teers — spirited, mouthy kids from the suburbs. A little older, he was a beginning high school teacher. Calm, serious, disci­plined, he showed up every afternoon after school, still dressed in a white shirt and tie. He had a lean, wiry frame that hinted of the explosive, yet controlled grace of the all-metropolitan point guard he had been in school, still a legend of the D.C. playgrounds. There was a quiet, un­derstated authority in his bearing.

Easygoing too, without ego or bombast, he had a gift for friendship, willingness to work, and a talent for organization. He was soon in charge of the volunteers. He led by example, and inspired confidence. That spring, Feather and his troops gath­ered, packaged, and moved an unbeliev­able quantity of food and clothes to Mis­sissippi. Not glamorous work or “revolutionary,” but whatever be did, he did well.

I’ll never forget the day that spring when he said, in his usual quiet way, “I want to go to Mississippi on the Summer Project.” The office was noisy so we sat outside on the pavement, looking across at the FBI agents wasting taxpayers’ money in the car that was always parked across the street, and talked. I painted as fearsome a picture as I could.

“I’ve thought it out, man,” he said so­berly. “I know we not all coming back. But it’s our people, our struggle. I’m not married, no responsibilities, so … I can afford to go, it’s as if it’s my duty.”

After the orientation he passed through the D.C. office on his way south. He was the most ebullient I’d ever seen him. His eyes shone with banked excite­ment and happiness. In less than a week of orientation, the Mississippi staff had recognized the same qualities we had. Bob Moses had named him assistant co­ordinator of the freedom schools.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725673″ /]

That summer, from time to time, folk passing through from Neshoba County talked about Feather with awe: The night he talked the pistol away from the drunk­en and homicidal cracker who busted into the Freedom House. The Freedomday at the courthouse when he faced down the murderous deputy Cecil Price in front of his Klan cronies. How Sheriff Rainey and Price could not conceal the grudging re­spect they developed for this young “Northern” nigger. “In every crisis it was ‘Where’s Feather? We don’t talk to no one but Feather.’ ”

The local folk — the church ladies and old men loved him. They called him their son. When I saw him at meetings it was clear that as his spirit and devotion en­hanced the movement, so had the move­ment brought him a deep inner fulfillment.

But things change. There are hidden costs.

In 1965, before I left the movement, I saw him. He’d moved back to D.C. and was living in a little spartan room, a monk’s cell. His frame was very spare and his gaunt face almost luminous. He exuded a quality of extreme asceticism. He was now talking about revolution, but in the same quiet voice.

Before I left he reached under the nar­row bed. “I wanna show you something,” he said with suppressed excitement. The “something,” he said, was an AK-47 at­tack rifle, ugly, ominous, lethal, cradled like a baby on his lap. I begged my broth­er to get rid of it. I don’t know if he did. Not long after he was blown to pieces by a car bomb in ambiguous circumstances, the truth of which has never been satis­factorily explained. Of the age set, Feath­er was certainly among the very finest, the best among us.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721674″ /]

MY PHONE RINGS, a very senior white administrator, a friend, an ally even. Age set? We talk about New Africa House. I ex­press certain reservations about organization and discipline. “Come on, Mike, they can be a little irrational. You were once. We all were.”

“No,” I snap. “Not all of us.” Some of us could afford it less than others …

But Amherst is a civilized enclave. I know nothing bad will happen. And I need not have worried; the young people pull the action together beautifully, show seriousness, determination, and an en­couragingly pragmatic political sophisti­cation. They compel the institution’s respect.

The phone rings again. This reporter seems disgruntled, puzzled but also vaguely aggrieved. He keeps saying, with an edge of complaint in his tone, “It’s just not like when I was in college.”

“How so? What’s like out there?” I ask.

“It’s so goddamned neat. I’ve never seen such nice young people. It’s like a parliament over there. They are discuss­ing issues. You know what they told me? ‘We’re not revolutionaries. We’re reasonable people, with reasonable demands who intend to be taken seriously!’ They actually said that!”

“Now ain’t that a bitch,” I sympathize, “It’s sure not like 1968, is it?” But like the medium he serves, this reporter has little sense of irony. ■

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

From Liberty in Miss. To Justice in D.C.

The Gap Between

LIBERTY, MISSISSIPPI — In the mythology of the Movement, Amite County is synonymous with the Ninth Circle of Hell.

It was to this impoverished, re­mote area of southwest Missis­sippi, on the border of Louisiana, that Bob Parris (Bob Moses) came in August of 1961 to at­tempt SNCC’s first voter regis­tration campaign. Beaten twice and jailed three times, Parris left for Jackson four months later.

It was in Amite County that Herbert Lee, a 52-year-old father of nine, was shot to death on September 25, 1961, by a member of the Mississippi state legisla­ture, E. H. Hurst. Lee had been one of the few local Negroes to attend Farris’s voter-registration school.

It was in Amite County that Louis Allen, a witness to Lee’s slaying, was shotgunned to death in his home on January 31, 1964, after he had made contact with the Justice Department. Amite County Sheriff Daniel Jones, six-­foot-five, is the son of Brian Jones, who reportedly leads the Klan in the area.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725662″ /]

It was Amite County that, be­cause of its history of lawless­ness, saw not a single volunteer during the 1964 summer project. It was Amite County that, until six months ago, had only one registered Negro voter, despite the fact that Negroes make up a majority of the county’s population. It is Amite County that today remains totally segregated, and has never experienced a civil-­rights picket line or a direct-ac­tion demonstration.

Amite County is rural, red-­clay country outside the flow of history — but not just in terms of civil rights. It has missed the in­dustrial revolution as well. Amite is only 80 miles south of Miss­issippi’s capital, Jackson. Its county seat is called — for some reason buried in history — Liber­ty, population 650.

Great numbers of teen-aged Negroes escape to Baton Rouge and Chicago each year because of the unyielding poverty of the county. Experts estimate that the out-migration from Mississ­ippi, in general, has been four Negroes in ten.

Many Negroes in primitive Amite own their own farms, which makes them less vulnerable to economic reprisal by whites than their urban brothers.

This independence, however, probably accounts, at least in part, for the extraordinary record of physical violence in the county.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724970″ /]

Marginal Farms

Most of the Negro farms are marginal enterprises. Attendance at the all-Negro Central High School during November dropped to 50 per cent because so many children were needed to chop cane and pick cotton on the farms. There is only one brick Negro home in the whole county and that one was financed by an FHA loan. More than 90 per cent of the Negro homes have no in­door toilet. Fewer than one in five have telephones. Almost all depend on wells, dug by hand, for water. Food must be pur­chased in Liberty, where Negroes can still be beaten up at random in the street, sometimes by other Negroes paid to do the deed. No white man has ever gone on trial in Amite County for violence against a Negro.

A week in Amite is a bruising experience. Negroes lie to civil­-rights workers and invent ail­ments rather than face the reg­istrar in Liberty. A meeting in a wooden shack called a church approaches Gandhian “agape” with the singing of hymns and preachments of love thy enemy. A 60-year-old farmer tells how his cousin was castrated in 1962 and asks whether there is “any place on earth where colored folks are treated meaner than in Amite County.”

The Movement in Amite, aborted in 1961 by the killing of Lee and the repeated jailing of Parris, was resurrected 11 months ago. At that time, 22-year-old Marshall Gans, a rabbi’s son from California, came to live on the farm of E. W. Step­toe. At the point he began can­vassing the community there was only one registered Negro in the whole county. The man, notorious in the area for being an Uncle Tom, was actually escorted to the courthouse by E. H. Hurst, the man responsible for Lee’s death.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

On Staff

Steptoe, 56, with a face tramp­led by time, is a legendary fig­ure in the county. He first tried to register in 1953. In 1954 he founded a local chapter of NAACP, but saw its first meet­ing broken up by the Klan and the county sheriff with a gun. In 1964 Steptoe was the only Negro in the county willing to shelter white volunteers. Now he is on the SNCC staff.

There have been no flashy Freedom Days in Amite. No dra­matic marches on the  courthouse. No inspirational rallies with big names. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer have never set foot in this isolated community. There have just been long hot days dur­ing which a couple of  SNCC workers and a couple of local Negroes walked the gravel roads talking with terrified, barely literate Negroes.

In June of this year Carol Ro­goff of Brooklyn and Hazel Lee of Panola County, Mississippi, joined Gans and Steptoe in the tedious, repetitive drudgery of organizing. Finally, on June 14, 1965, 22 Negroes went to the courthouse and were registered.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720803″ /]

High Point

By November several hundred Negroes had their names put down on the registry books, but that was the high point. The rest are still frightened, and only fed­eral registrars can induce them to risk the fate of Herbert Lee.

Fear and Love. These are the polarities on which the embry­onic movement in Amite rests. In most other parts of Missis­sippi the civil-rights movement is in disarray. Activists who have been in the state for a year or more are burned out.

On the other hand, the govern­ment’s million-dollar Headstart program is siphoning off young militants who might otherwise have become the Movement’s second generation. The newly formed, integrated, and moderate Mississippi Democratic Council is challenging the radical prophets of the Mississippi Free­dom Democratic Party for the tiny Negro vote. Many of the best SNCC organizers have moved on to Alabama’s black-­belt counties.

Mississippi is no longer a bloody frontier. Bureaucracy is making the rigors of saintliness obsolete.

Amite County is even a generation behind cities like Jackson and Greenville. Eleven years af­ter the Supreme Court decision, not a single Negro in the county attends an integrated school. Seventeen months after the sign­ing of the 1964 civil rights act, not a single public accommoda­tion is desegregated. Three months after signing of the 1965 voting-rights bill, no federal regis­trar has yet appeared in Amite County (Goldwater took 93 per cent of the vote in 1964).

[related_posts post_id_1=”722721″ /]

Special Dignity

The Movement in Amite is in an earlier period than anywhere else in the country. It is pure and religious, uncontaminated by organizational in-fighting and hy­per-militancy. It is just two soli­tary organizers and a handful of local Negroes. The constituency is farmers, who have the special dignity of people who work a meager soil.

But there is also deeply rooted fear and submissiveness.

Five murders of Negroes, including Lee and Allen, since 1961 remain unsolved and unin­vestigated. A few months ago, for the first time in history, a local Negro dared to file a charge against a white who beat him up on the street in Liberty. The charge was thrown out of court.

“Negroes feel,” said Carol Rogoff, “that the courthouse in Liberty is owned by white folks. They remember how Lee was shot right next to the court­house.” She admits that many Negroes remain afraid to be seen with her in public. Even the most rebellious local Negroes think a demonstration in Liberty must wait for another age.

An incident that happened in Amite dramatized the total vulnerability of Negroes to random violence. Four of us — Miss Rogoff, Miss Lee, a local woman named Juanita Griffin, and myself — were putting up posters for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service election. A man in a pick-up truck without a license saw us and began to chase us in his truck by driving up a narrow gravel road. The driver let out a woman, a child, and a Negro who were riding with him. He made three passes; the last time, driving at us head on, he forced us into a ditch. Cursing, he followed us until we reached the main road.

The following day we spoke to the FBI, who claimed “no Jurisdiction.” “File a complaint with Sheriff Jones,” the agent said. The Negro riding with the driver would not talk to us, and cer­tainly not with the FBI.

Yet, the fledgling movement here is characterized by a kind of love. Most Negroes in Amite are deeply religious. Meetings are usually held in churches. There is no tradition of freedom singing. Instead, meetings are begun with Baptist hymns like “Jesus, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race” and “Lord, Come By Here.” Nobody knows “We Shall Overcome.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

Four Meetings

I attended four meetings dur­ing a week here. The first was held in the Mount Pilgrim Church on Steptoe’s land. It was here that Parris conducted his voter-registration classes in 1961. Herbert Lee is buried in the churchyard and his 15-year-old son was among the 75 people who filled the 10 wooden benches.

Reverend Curtis Dawson, who first tried to register in 1961, spoke to the meeting.

“We must love everyone,” he began, as amens welled up from the benches.

“White people from the North care more about us than we care about ourselves.”

“Yes, Lord, say it, brother.”

“They do everything for us. They go farther with us than we go with ourselves, but we have to redish (register) for ourselves. We can do that for them.”

“Right. Amen.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

At another meeting the Rev­erend explained the right to vote in a Biblical analogy.

“God told Moses,” he began, “to pick up a stick. But Moses said it was a snake. But the Lord insisted he pick it up, and when Moses did, it turned out to be a sword. And that’s how go­ing to the courthouse in Liberty seems. Right now it looks like picking up a snake, but once you pick it up, it will becomes the sword of freedom.”

Unfortunately, most of the Negroes of Amite do not have the inner certainty of Moses. Until the federal government con­vinces them that going to regis­ter is not like picking up a snake, Amite Negroes will not register in numbers large enough to di­lute the terror, much less alter their condition.

“Lord, Come By Here. Federal Registrars, Come By Here.” ♦

Equality From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won’t ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians — 40,000 motives and 40,0000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

March on Washington

[related_posts post_id_1=”724970″ /]

New Generation

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters — that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America — Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution — the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: “Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared.” Another read: “Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights.” And another: “SMU Marches for Freedom.”

On the streets of the Confederacy’s cradle that “coalition of conscience” Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang “America the Beautiful” and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720803″ /]

Sleepy Beginning

The day that was to end in triumph and tragedy began in sleepy whimsy at 4 a.m. last Thursday for the 104 participants in the Village Independent Democrats’ “Fly-In” as they pulled out of the West Side Airlines Terminal singing ironic songs about their pilgrimage.

They sang in spirited atonality that quickly disintegrated into anarchy songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “I’m Alabamy Bound” and “Swanee” and “Dixie.”

“Al-a-bam-a, here I come,” roared Bill Tatum, “VIDers, don’t be late, open up that capitol gate. Alabama, here I come, right back where I started from … “

The “Welcome to Montgomery” sign at Dannelly Airport reinforced the ironic mood of the pilgrims, especially for those who noticed that billboard just outside the airport that read: “Get the U. S. out of the U. N. or get the U. N. out of the U. S.”

Within 20 minutes the small airport lounge became congested as flights from Boston and St. Louis also landed, disgorging eager, smiling, scrubbed middle-class faces, some on top of clerical collars.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Minister’s Greeting

A white minister from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) greeted new arrivals, urged them to leave the city “as soon as the rally is over because it will be dangerous,” and directed them to shuttle buses to the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex where the marchers had camped the night before. On the SCLC minister’s lapel was a button that said “GROW.” He explained it stood for “Get Rid of Wallace.”

At St. Jude the predominant mood was gaiety, as thousands upon thousands of visitors swelled the great serpentine line of march that coiled around the vast, muddy athletic field.

Small clusters sang freedom songs during the two hours it took for the whole line to unwind onto the streets towards the capitol, four miles away. The visitors sang off-key versions of better-known freedom songs, while local Negroes, led by either SNCC or SCLC staff members, sang raucous, sassy, taunting songs that came out of the Movement in Alabama’s Black Belt. A group of about 500 from St. Louis stood in a large circle, one small, Negro woman calling out chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Other demonstrators milled around the staging area like conventioneers, wearing name tags and introducing themselves to strangers, pronouncing their home towns with accents of pride — Montreal, Berkeley, Boston, Detroit — and their association with equal pride — ADA, the United Auto Workers, NAACP, the University of Virginia, the American Legion (Gramercy Park chapter).

[related_posts post_id_1=”720797″ /]

To the Capitol

At noon, under one of the day’s brief showers, the procession began to move out, with the bloody-shoed 300 who had marched all the way in the vanguard. With them were barefoot Joan Baez; James Baldwin, nervously smiling, just back from Scandinavia; the angelic looking Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks, who ignited the mythic bus boycott a decade ago; and SNCC’s John Lewis, who walked the whole way from Selma and who had suffered head injuries on “Bloody Sunday” at the Alabama River Bridge. And there was Martin Luther King, to whom Negroes of the Black Belt now sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then kiss his hand.

The streets in the Negro slums of Montgomery were of mud and clay. There were row upon row of run-down shacks, with the very old, the very young, the unemployed sitting on porches.

The First Time

At first the non-marchers were timid and shy. It was as if shame made them look down rather than at the masses that surged past them. But slowly, they looked up, to wave, and when the marchers began to shout, “Join us, come on,” many accepted the invitation and probably protested their plight for the first time in their lives. Marching through the slums was like taking LSD for the soul.

One bent old woman ran off her porch and kissed a white marcher. Children, dirty and scrawny, ran alongside, singing the songs and chanting the slogans of freedom. A very old man, his cane resting between his legs, sat on his porch steps and wept.

About a mile from the capitol we reached the downtown section of Montgomery, with its banks, hotels, movies, stores, office buildings and clean asphalt streets. The sidewalks were almost deserted except for a sprinkling of hecklers and the federal troops at each intersection, standing at attention, their rifles at their sides.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721605″ /]

Traditional Gesture

But against the windows of the office buildings were pressed the white faces of the South. Some shook their heads “no” or gave the thumbs-down sign when the marchers waved at them. A beautiful woman of about 25 stood on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and when the demonstrators waved at her, this flower of Southern womanhood made the traditional obscene gesture of one finger up.

On the lawn of an elegant home a hunched, elderly maid stood in the midst of her sullen employers. She was smiling and waving a white handkerchief at the procession. One wonders what was happening in the minds of her employers at that moment.

Remarked Edward Koch, the Village Democratic leader: “Walking through the Negro section made me feel like I was walking through Paris again with the liberation army. The white section was what it must have been like marching through Germany.”

From the window of the Alabama Bible Society Building hung a blow up of the picture Senator Eastland introduced into the Congressional Record prior to the March on Washington to prove Martin Luther King was “part of the Communist conspiracy.” The photograph shows King at a rally in 1957 at the now-defunct leftist Highlander Folk School, which was burned by segregationists several years ago.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725434″ /]

Turns the Corner

Dexter Avenue is the eight-lane street that leads into the white stone capitol building. As the procession turned the corner of that final leg of the journey the marchers suddenly broke into “America the Beautiful” and sang it with a passion normally associated in the Movement with “We Shall Overcome.”

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” they sang. Hundreds of school children waving little American flag. Ahead loomed the dome of the capitol with its Alabama and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze.”By 2 p.m. all 40,000 marchers, including about 10,000 whites, arrived at the foot of the capitol and stretched out several blocks down Dexter Avenue. The symbolism of the scene was inescapable. At the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, where George Wallace shouted in his inaugural in 1961, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the largest civil-rights demonstration in the history of the South sang “We Shall Overcome” — black and white, together — “We are not afraid today.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722721″ /]

Ten Years Later

In the shadow of the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from whose pulpit Martin Luther King led the bus boycott 10 years earlier, the huge rally was turning into a kind of coronation of the 37-year old minister as spiritual leader of the nation.

“Who is your leader?” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy asked the throng. The answer swelled up. “Martin Luther King!” The only exceptions were veterans of SNCC, who yelled, “De Lawd of Slick.”But even that invidious distortion of SCLC was probably shouted as much in respect as in cynicism.

(The bitterness lurking in the background was based on the fact that SNCC, which had been alone in Dallas County since late 1962, had great difficulty working in harness with King after SCLC took over the Selma campaign in January. There had been serious disputes over strategy and tactics, since King’s basic goal is integration and SNCC’s is a revolution.)

After two hours of speeches by every major leader of the civil-rights movement, King was finally introduced to the crowd. Like the multitude in Washington in 1963, they had become fatigued and restless; many had been awake as long as 20 hours. Overhead, a helicopter and a Piper Cub circled noisily. Behind the platform two dozen green-helmeted Alabama conservation police guarded the steps of the capitol building. Behind them stood a number of members of the Alabama legislature.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721674″ /]

Then King began, his resonant voice and preacher’s alliterative rhythm slowly rousing the audience from boredom. From behind him on the platform came counterpoints of “Amen” and “Tell it, Brother” from other ministers.

In Washington he invoked the phrase, “I have a dream,” the way a blues singer repeats a key phrase. In Montgomery, facing the capitol, it was, “We are on the move now,” that became the launching pad for a series of crescendo-like thrusts.

“We are on the move now,” he said. “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now.”

Now the throng responded with shouts of “Yes, Lord,” and “Amen.”

“The beating of our clergymen will not divert us. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King climaxed his speech by repeating four times with rising fervor, “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And then the cooks, maids, and janitors were crying and cheering at the same time.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722117″ /]


There were supposed to be 26 shuttle buses waiting after the rally to ferry demonstrators from the capitol to the airport five miles away. But 21 of the drivers called in sick, and for two hours thousands milled around in a muddy lot a block behind the capitol while fives buses tried to do all the work. There was pushing, shoving, and maneuvering each time a bus pulled in. Finally an SNCC worker with a walkie-talkie told the crowd, “Come on, you’re acting like kids. This ain’t the New York subway.”

By dusk, the troops had disappeared and the last handful, waiting unprotected in the lot, feeling fear for the first time during the day.

Chaos reigned at the airport. Hundreds sprawled on the lawn, picnicking, sleeping and singing. Huge lines pointed to the lavatories and phones; there were no snack counters. All outgoing flights were late.

After an hour’s delay on the VID flight was ready to be boarded, except that there was no ladder available. So for another hour, the 104 weary passengers stood in a cramped line, 20 yards away from the plane, while a ladder was searched – or, as some suspected, hidden.

Meanwhile, a few yards away, the dean of all civil rights leaders, 77-year old Asa Philip Randolph, had collapsed from exhaustion and Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington tended him while dispatching friends to find a doctor. The Montgomery police seemed uninterested.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

“It’s my fault,” Rustin mumbled. “I never should have gotten him up at 2 a.m. and he never should have walked those four miles.”

At 10:45 New York time, the VID flight left the cradle of the Confederacy amid complaints to the Civil Aeronautics Board about the delay and caustic reflections on “Southern hospitality.” There was no singing on the flight back. Most of the passengers slept. A few talked about the future of the civil rights movement, agreeing at the outset that Montgomery was just a skirmish in a long war whose end still lies beyond the rim of history.

Steve Berger, an aide to reform Congressman Jonathan Bingham, said the new voting rights bill was “pretty bad and very poorly drawn.” Others, activists of the movement, thought no legislation could possibly deal with the specter of firing, beating, and murder that faces any Negro who tries to register in the Black Belt. Other militants spoke eagerly of the next battle – the continuing attempt to unseat the five Congressmen from Mississippi by the Freedom Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Sutherland, who works for SNCC in New York, sat reading a private legal memorandum on the proposed voting bill, pointing out all its flaws and loopholes. “I just hope the registrars don’t get their hands on this memo,” she said.

And there was speculation about what would happen in the Black Belt now that the “civil rights tourists,” Dr. King, the federal troops, and the outside journalists were leaving and the Negroes were left alone to confront the Jim Clarks, the racist registrars, and those terrible faces that looked down from those windows.

When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, its passengers were told it had already happened – murder. Nobody said anything memorable or poetic. They just cursed. ♦

CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

March on Washington: The View from the Front of the Bus

“There’s no place for Uncle Tom on this bus, man.” The voice of the Negro echoed down the neon bathed Harlem street as he mounted the steps of Bus 10 ready to start for Washington.

It was 2 a. m. on the morning of August 28. Anticipation hovered quietly over the 24 buses that lined both sides of 125th Street. Cars and cabs stopped more and more frequently to pour forth bundle-laden, sleepy Marchers. Black, white, old, young zigzagged back and forth across the street trying to find their assigned buses. Bus cap­tains marked by yellow ribbons and rumpled passenger lists stood guard at the bus doors. Small groups huddled around them.

Voices arose above the general din.

“You’ve got to switch me to Bus 10. It’s a swingin’ bus. There’s nothin’ but old ladies on this crate.”

“Hey, is this bus air-condi­tioned?”

“Where can I get seat reservations?”

“Hey, chick, are you on this bus?”


“Is your husband on this bus?”


“That’s all right. I’ll make love to both of you. I’m com­patible.”

“Who the hell is on this bus?” cried George Johnson, the exasperated 30-year-old Negro captain of Bus 10 and organizer of New York CORE’s 24-bus caravan. “People shouldn’t be swapping buses, especially CORE members. It only adds to the confusion. Now everybody get in a seat and stay there. You can’t save seats. This isn’t a cocktail party.”

The reaction to George’s gruffness was a tongue-in-cheek par­ody of the Mr. Charlie routine. “Yassir, anything you say, sir.”

“Don’t you fret now, Mr. George.” “Don’t you go upsetting yourself, boss.” “You knows I always listen to you captain sir.”

There was a general shuffling of bundles on the bus. Index cards with emergency Washington phone numbers were filled out and kept by everyone. “Sit-In Song Books” were passed back.

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Symptomatic Ode   

Outside the window of Bus 10 an old Negro was standing with outstretched arms reciting an impromptu ode to the Black Woman. “Black Woman, you are the queen of the universe. I would give my life for you.” This was less comic than symp­tomatic. It was just one of many signs of the racial pride which is now surging through the Ne­gro people.

A young Negro in the seat behind me, when asked why he was going on this March, re­plied, “Because it’s like your sweater. It’s Black. It’s for the cause. If my people are in it, I am going to be in it fighting, even if I get killed.”

Outside the window of Bus 10 was also a more extreme reminder of this racial pride. Young members of the Black Muslims, neatly dressed in suits and ties, were hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks. This paper is the official statement of the Black Muslim philosophy: Black is beautiful; Black is best; Black must be separate from white.

I swing off the bus to ask the young Muslim if he was going to Washington. With a faint trace of a smile on his lips, he an­swered, “No, ma’am. I have to sell papers. You people go to Washington.” The implication was clear: he was too busy working for his own cause — sep­aration — to be bothered working for integration.

An older man, converted to a Muslim later in life, was not so emotionally untouched by the March and what it stood for. When I asked him why the Muslims were not participating in the March, he gave all the prop­er answers. He said: “The Messenger has not spoke. If he says nothing, we sit still. If he says go, we go.” But then, asked if as an individual rather than a Muslim he would have gone, he replied: “I would have gone.”

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‘A Mockery’

Moving through the crowd, I encountered a Negro I knew to be a fence-sitter between the Muslim and integrationist philosophies. I asked him why he had decided to come on the March. He said, “It’s like St. Patrick’s Day to the Irish. I came out of respect for what my people are doing, not because I believe it will do any good. I thought it would do some good at the beginning, but when the March started to get all the of the official approval from Mastah Kennedy, Mastah Wagner, and Mastah Spellman, and they started setting limits on how we had to march peacefully, I knew that the March was going to be a mockery. That they were giving us something again. They were letting the niggers have their day to get all this nonsense out of their system, and then planning to go back to things usual. Well, if the white man continues to sleep, continues to ignore the intensity of the black man’s feelings and desires, all hell is going to break loose.”

Moving back toward the bus I almost crashed into George Johnson. With a certain Hollywood director flourish, he was telling the driver to rev up the engine. George was being interviewed for radio, and they wanted the sound of departure. Followed by interviewers trailing microphone wires, George shouted, “I feel good because the Negroes are on the march and nothing is going to stop us.” With that, he boarded the bus, signaled the driver, and we began to move. It was 3:40 a. m.

The 49 passengers on Bus 10 settled back. Among them were 10 CORE members, including Omar Ahmed and Wayne Kinsler, both typical of Harlem’s Angry Young Men. Present also were 10 unemployed workers sent to Washington on money raised by CORE to protest the lack of jobs. Also among the pas­sengers were Jim Peck, author of the book “The Freedom Riders,” who took a severe beat­ing on one of the first freedom rides into the Deep South; six members of the Peace Corps who were scheduled to leave for Nigeria; three interviewers from French television, with cameras and sound equipment; and a slightly jaded reporter and a cameraman from the Herald Tribune, both of whom had seen too many Clark Gable reporter movies.

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People began to talk and to question one another. Sue Brook­way, a white member of the Peace Corps, was standing in the aisle speaking to George Johnson. She said, “I think the biggest influence of the March will be to create a greater na­tional awareness of the issue and get more people to make a commitment to the cause. Although I agreed with CORE’s goals, it never occurred to me to become active before this. But now I would join if I weren’t going to Nigeria.”

Omar Ahmed, who had overheard the word Nigeria, turned around in his seat and said, “The Negro on this March has to be very glad of the existence of the Soviet Union. This govern­ment is so worried about wooing the African and Asian mind that it may even give the Negro what he wants.”

“I don’t think the Civil Rights Bill will get through,” commented George Johnson from his seat across the aisle. “I have no faith in the white man. Even Kennedy & Kennedy Inc. isn’t doing this for humanitarian reasons but for political ones.”

After a moment he continued: “CORE has been criticized for its new tactics of civil disobedience. Well, as far as I’m concerned, anything done to get our rights is O.K. It’s remark­able that the Negro has taken it this long.”

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‘A New Negro’

The whites in the group were startled at the vehemence in George’s statement. Omar, not­ing their expressions, attempted to explain. “The white power structure has bred a New Negro,” he said, “and he is angry and impatient. It’s not just the Black Muslims. It’s the man on the street. Come down to Har­lem some night and listen to what’s being said on the street corners. The cops go through and you can see fear on their faces. This isn’t Birmingham. If anyone starts anything, we won’t be passive.”

The kids in the four adjacent seats were twisted around in their chairs listening. Heads pressed together, they formed a roundtable, minus the table. Into this group came Wayne Kins­ler, a 19-year-old Negro. He perched on one of the seat arms. Some crumbled cookies and overripe fruit were passed around.

The discussion turned to the Peace Corps. Frank Harman was asked why, since he was white, he wanted to go to Nigeria. He replied, “I want to go to help these people because they are human beings.”

Suddenly Wayne shouted, “If this thing comes to violence, your’s will be the first throat we slit. We don’t need your kind. Get out of our organization.”

Completely baffled by the outburst, Frank kept repeating the questions, “What’s he talking about? What did I say?”

Wayne, straining forward tensely, screamed, “We don’t need any white liberals to patronize us!”

Other Negroes joined in. “We don’t trust you.” “We don’t believe you’re sincere.” “You’ll have to prove yourself.”

Frank shouted back, ”I don’t have to prove myself to anyone except myself.”

“We’ve been stabbed in the back too many times.”

“The reason white girls come down to civil rights meetings is because they’ve heard of the black man’s reputation of sex.”

“The reason white guys come down is because they want to rebel against their parents.”

“I’ll tell you this, proving that he is sincere when he is working in the civil rights groups is the last chance the white man has got to keep this thing from exploding.”

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Little Comprehension

The other passengers were urging us to stop the argument. Eventually we did. In the lull that followed, the reactions of the whites were mixed. The most widespread one was complete lack of understanding as to why this had all started. There was little comprehension of the effect words like “help you” or “work for you,” with all their connotations of the Great-White-Father attitude, could have on the bristling black pride. Another attitude was one of revul­sion at the ugliness which had been exhibited. Still others saw the argument as a sign that the walls between the races were beginning to come down, that people were really beginning to communicate instead of hiding behind masks of politeness. They felt that with a greater knowl­edge of one another’s sensitivities, lack of understanding, and desires, it would be easier for the white liberal and the black man to work together.

People began to relax and joke again. Gradually they drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Bus 10 rolled on in silence.

With the coming of dawn, the French TV men started blinding everyone with their lights and interviewing those people who could speak French. Being Gal­lic, they made sure to get shots of the romantic duos pillowed against one another. Not to be left out, the Herald Tribune‘s cameraman picked up his light meter and cord and started doing a mock interview of the interviewers.

Someone cheerfully yelled, “Everybody sing.”

He was quickly put down by a voice from the lower depths: “You’re nuts! At seven o’clock sane people don’t even talk.”

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On we went. Sleeping, talking, anticipating. We passed other buses full of heads covered with caps printed with their organizations’ names. On our right was a beat-up old cab with six peo­ple in it and March on Washing­ton posters plastered on all its doors.

At 10:30 — Washington. The city seemed strangely quiet and de­serted except for a few groups of Negro children on corners. They stared curiously at the unending caravan of buses. Police and MPs were everywhere. Traffic moved swiftly. We parked at 117th and Independ­ence, and the people of Bus 10 merged with the crowd moving up the street. The March was on.

The day was full of TV cam­eras, spontaneous singing, speeches, clapping, the green and white striped news tent, the P. A. system blasting “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the ominous Red Cross symbol on a medical tent, March marshals with bright yellow arm bands and little white Nehru hats, the Freedom Walkers in faded blue overalls, Catholic priests in solemn black, posters proclaiming Freedom Now, feet soaking in the reflecting pool, portable drinking fountains, varicolored pennants and hats, warm Pepsi-Cola, the blanket of humanity sprawled in undignified dignity, a Nigerian student with his head bent in prayer, and the echo of Martin Luther King’s phrase: “I have a dream … ”

It was over. The bus moved out slowly. This time there were Negroes on every doorstep. As we passed, they raised their fingers in the victory sign. They clasped their hands over their heads in the prizefighter’s traditional gesture. They clapped. They cheered. They smiled and the smile was reflected back from the buses. On bus 10 there was no one sitting at the back of the bus. All the seats were in the front.

“We’ll be back,” said George Johnson. “If this doesn’t work, we’ll bring 500,000. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll bring all 20 million.”




The Malcolm X Factor

Looking For Malcolm: The Man and the Meaning Behind the Icon
May, 29, 1990

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

There I was, hanging on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, when a low-riding brother and his lady friend strode by, deep in discussion about some­thing very, very, very important. Words and emphasis were, of course, flying every­where, making it impossible to miss this: “That shit was Malcolm.” Meaning, I knew, hype, dope, nice, right, real, as in best. In the ever-evolving vernacular, Mal­colm X has come to mean the real (black) thing, the authentic (black) thing, as close to (black) integrity as close can be.

Just look at all the T-shirts, the buttons, the photographs, the records, the film and video appearances. Public Enemy’s sam­pling him, Spike Lee’s quoting him, Tracy Chapman’s showing him — the young and the black are loving him. Malcolm is to­day’s black hero, a black ideal for turbulent times: the steely mirror image we want our­selves to see. We think we want his words too: Pass the tables on the street and you can hear his words proving some sect’s point; listen to the radio, and Rev Sharpton or somebody else is invoking his name to prove somebody’s truth — our truth — in black soundbites, as black as kente cloth. We wear him this way to celebrate our­selves, because Malcolm was what we want to be — a Black person with integrity in a country that doesn’t value the quality very much, especially when its bearer is Black.

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But there are some hard-to-answer ques­tions floating amid the jubilation. Like: Do many of us know Malcolm story(s)? Like: What does “the real (black) thing” mean to us, anyway? Black Integrity has, after all, a very packed — and vague — significance in our collective consciousness, precisely be­cause we haven’t been able to, and maybe never will, figure out what we want Black to mean. What does Malcolm mean to us? And now we’ve gone and attached our strange notion of Black Integrity to Malcolm’s pho­tograph, and thereby constructed a compli­cated, and decidedly vaporous, memory: Malcolm the Essential Black Man, Malcolm the brown and determined and incorrupt­ible and empty face.

Take a step back and look and see: To­day, 25 years after Malcolm’s murder, home folk promote him as the truest black American that ever lived. So true, in fact, that his aspect has taken on an almost reli­gious significance. No joke: pause for a moment and compare the way many of us consider Malcolm to the way Byzantine churchgoers viewed their religious icons, images that flattened out and hid the per­sonalities of their original personages in order to better communicate an accepted religious message. Just as iconography in a Byzantine church reminds the viewer of a body of stories, rules, morals, et cetera s/he’s already supposed to know, Malcolm’s icon should front a traditional story agreed upon by the community. But the young leaders of our Black tribe have attempted to canonize Malcolm without theoretical, ideological, or religious grounding — with­out, in short, connection to, or reflection on, any community-made story(s) by which to define him.

Today Malcolm is, instead, a religious icon without a religion — a vague memory-­image invoked at gatherings and services and rallies as the epitome of the black fight­ing spirit, and by implication, of Blackness. Making little reference to his place in the flow of history, to the complexity of his ideas (which changed over the course of his life), or to his relationship to political pro­genitors, the community’s voices paint Malcolm X in (un)fairly simple, static terms: Malcolm was an African-style town crier who told the truth. Malcolm played the heavy to Martin Luther King’s softy. Malcolm was grass roots, while the other civil rights leaders were bourgie Uncles. Malcolm was “clear” when everyone else was cloudy. The descriptions tend to sug­gest a Black Integrity, an unexplained, and mostly romantic, concept.

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Any people that considers itself a people needs the kind of figure Malcolm cut in life, a figure whose first fidelity is to the tribe, and upon whose bones the tribe can always hang its clothes. Figures, for example, like the Byzantines’ St. George, who’s reappear­ing all over the Soviet Union’s Russian communities as a symbol of the life of the Russian tribe, showing that it still proudly exists. Use of symbols like Malcolm X and St. George allows members to proclaim themselves without explaining everything: Those who should know, know. You know? But fact is, Malcolm’s iconographic status among black people is, as of this writing, so unexamined by us, so unaccompanied by black story or exegesis, as to be nearly va­cant, and utterly manipulable.

And it’s being manipulated plenty. In these changing times, when my bourgie ho­mies from the Ivy League are in less contact with their poorest brethren than at any point in American history, when cleavages in “the black community” are as wide as they’ve ever been, Malcolm’s image pro­vides a stretched-out, nationalist umbrella for us all. This “unity” hides, rather than acknowledges, our own differences. Ah! but sneaking under that umbrella is oh so se­ductively easy — especially when taking out coverage from the hostile white world is as simple as buying a T-shirt. I own several, but I favor the one a friend gave me: on the front, Malcolm with an AK-47 and the words “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”; on the back, the pronouncement “IT’S A BLACK THING! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Never mind the fact that Malcolm purchased the gun to defend himself from black Muslim attack — just check out the message, people. The “you” on back is clearly whitefolk, who are being told that they are not part of the club because the club is black. So the shirt’s the badge. Of blackness. So there. Which makes it useful to a bad brown man leading a city just as badly as the bad pink man before him: Flash the Malcolm memo­ry and you’re as proudly black as the im­poverished and angry 20-year-old sister with a fifth-grade education and a baby with a hightop fade in her arms. Yes, yes, y’all, both the mayor and the sista (and her baby) are Black. But, so what?

If we are to treat Malcolm as a symbol of blackness — as, in fact, the Essential Black Man — we basically have to figure (I) what Black means to us, and (2) what Malcolm means to us and what he doesn’t mean. Do we focus on what we think is important about his life, without regard to how he changed over his lifetime? Should Malcolm the icon mean Malcolm’s life story or his politics? Or both? Wrestling with these questions might even help us figure out what we’re saying when we use the term Black. And maybe such discussion will move us away from the dubious religion of “essential Blackness,” and toward thinking that it’s all much harder than that — just as hard, in fact, as pinpointing a meaning to Malcolm X, or to the Black “we,” or to the Black “I.” These concerns are not as aca­demic as they sound.

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In a world where identity is so often a function of national/tribal allegiance, or of the denial of those things, the proclamation of “I am” without a nation, or an agree­ment not to have a nation, is bound to be so confused as to be, well, silly. We can’t know who “I am” is without knowing who we are. And, we can’t do shit without knowing who “I” is.

As it stands, the Malcolm icon assumes all kinds of undiscussed information, beg­ging the question. In these times, is black identity, as represented by Malcolm’s icon, an adequate instrument for negotiating self­-understanding, our survival?

Brothers and sisters, we need to talk.  

But how do we begin? First by checking out the the place where “Black” was con­structed: in white consciousness, in the white conflation of black resistance and black criminality. (The ancestors came here and then became Black.) Up jumped the Boogeyman: the evildoer from the dark side, the angry true-blood black alien who’s coming to get you (whitey), with cruel vengeance. Just look and you see him — and it’s invariably a him — stuck in all kinds of white conjuring, all over the white Ameri­can imagination. See: WhiteFilm’s King Kong and WhitePolitics’s Willie Horton and Whitefiction’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published just two years after Malcolm X’s assassination. “As a child I had nightmares about Nat,” said author Wil­liam Styron, who was raised in Virginia, close to where the revolt took place. “I grew up with the tale.”

Whereas Malcolm X learned about Nat Turner in prison. In his autobiography, Malcolm talks about what Nat Turner made him feel:

I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave­-master Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man … Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

A few pages later, Malcolm notes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself — or die.” Imbedded in his telling of the Turner tale is a dramatic rejection of the white construc­tion of Blackness, as well as a number of other radical projects: to resist white supre­macism, to reclaim the right to resist, to put fear in the hearts of white people, and per­haps most surprisingly, to tell the white man about himself. The Boogeyman figure makes, of course, this last desire only so radical — whites, after all, have seemingly enjoyed being thrilled by black anger. Even so, Malcolm spent a good amount of his thought (and time) making whites listen, and they did with much fascination. They could not ignore the Boogeyman actually speaking his mind before them.

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White attention and discomfort are the keys to understanding Malcolm’s signifi­cance in black eyes. To put it simply, the principal reasons behind Malcolm X’s suc­cess as a Hector of black self-respect, and particularly, of black male self-respect, were his attempts before white audiences to turn the unwanted Boogeyman into the proud Essential Black Man. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood,” eu­logized Ossie Davis at Malcolm’s funeral. Later, Davis said, “[He] was refreshing ex­citement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of whitefolks, to the smile that never fades.” Not only did Malcolm tell whites off, he heartily chastized black people for acceding to white ideas about African-Americans. In place of the white­-man’s Boogeyman, Malcolm put forward himself, and the Nation of Islam, as the real examples of the spirit of black resistance, the supposed “heart” of American black identity. In countless speeches, Malcolm announced “I’m a field Negro,” indicating to anyone with ears that he was proud of his resistant and basic blackness, his fightin’ Negro/Essential Black Man-ness.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malcolm’s icon finds its textual counterpart in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A smoothly laid-out, quasi-mythological ac­count of Malcolm’s life, the book resembles the Biblical Saul-to-Paul story — Malcolm as a lost man who finds his way to truth through two revelations: first, the embrace of his black Muslim identity; second, the embrace of human commonality.

“If it were not for that book,” Alex Haley told me, “by now I suspect Malcolm’s life would be a pastiche of apocryphal stories. A jello of stories.” The stories in Haley’s book come from one source, Malcolm X. “One of the understandings that we had from the beginning, and it was followed to the letter, was — and this was his stipula­tion — that the book would not contain any­thing he didn’t want in it. And I respected that absolutely,” says Haley. What resulted is a true autobiography, a life story almost entirely manipulated by its bearer, Mal­colm X, in order “to help people to appre­ciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people.” Malcolm’s project was to make his life, once written down, the prin­cipal testament to Muhammad’s Truth, a combination of holy text and ex-slave narrative.

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And thanks to this strategy, black folks who’re looking to put flesh to Malcolm’s icon (and many don’t even try) have a book that gives them — and particularly the black male — a model for being black. Inevitably the autobiography also suffers from the agenda; tailored to make points, the book ultimately fails as a comprehensive life-­and-times telling. Malcolm knew this, and offered, after his break with Muhammed, to remake the story along post-Nation, hu­manist lines. But Alex Haley vigorously dis­couraged his subject from making changes, suggesting instead that Malcolm tack on the story of his Mecca trip. That addition — a second strategy — confuses the first strategy by recasting Malcolm’s Black Muslim reve­lation in Black humanist light. What, we just have to ask is: what did Malcolm really stand for? Ultimately, the autobiography says too many different things to be politi­cally or religiously pedagogical, in a coher­ent way. And it ends up concealing Mal­colm X.

Read the autobiography alongside Mal­colm’s speeches, or against some of his var­ious proto-biographies, and its holes be­come plain. Just a few days before his death, Malcolm told a Harlem audience about the Nation’s — and his — involvement with the Ku Klux Klan:

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and there­fore lessen the pressure that the integration­ists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered. Now, this was in December of 1960 …

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What Malcolm relates in this passage is deep: In an effort to secure a separate black homeland, the Nation of Islam had taken part in secret negotiations with the Klan, when the group was killing black people. But this important event is absent in our collective (mis)understanding of the man, and in our projection of him. And though it doesn’t invalidate Malcolm’s spirit of resis­tance, it ought to force a rethinking of Mal­colm’s form of resistance: Is the kind of nationalism Malcolm espoused during most of his career naïve, and racist, by nature? Maybe. It’s plain, my people, that facts like these make any simple equations of Mal­colm and Black Integrity very foolish in­deed. And to figure things out, we need more than the iconographic flesh the offi­cial history — the autobiography — supplies.

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

What would help is some voices, voices that help us better see the actual man. Though Alex Haley’s epilogue gives an overview of Malcolm’s life and reveals the process of making the autobiography, Mal­colm’s book does not provide a second opinion of the man (how could we expect it to?). Thing is, the black intelligentsia has failed to fill the void, which has led to problems: On the one hand, Malcolm’s flaws — most notably his sexism — go unex­amined, and on the other hand, Malcolm’s legacy gets shaped by those who do choose to write about him. Inside the black com­munity there’s too little critiquing, and out­side of it, there’s more than we can handle.

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Malcolm’s attitudes toward women, for example, are perfect subject matter for a black feminist critique, but the critics are quiet, or being ignored. You only have to turn to Malcolm’s autobiography to eyeball Malcolm’s straight-up anti-woman senti­ments, but rarely are they acknowledged by the community. Listen to Malcolm, for in­stance, on why men visited the prostitutes he befriended as a young man:

Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagree­able and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. More wives could keep their hus­bands if they realized their [husbands] greatest urge is to be men.

Men see prostitutes because their wives, with their hen-pecking ways and their disre­spect for mens’ manliness, drive them to it. To this Malcolm later adds, “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: They are attracted to the male in whom they see strength,” a thought echoed in one of his last speeches. “[The press does] know that if something were to happen and all these [NOI] brothers, their eyes were to come open, they would be right out here in every one of these civil rights organizations mak­ing these Uncle Tom Negro leaders stand up and fight like men instead of running around here nonviolently acting like wom­en.” Again, women are weak. While Mal­colm’s sexist stance was shared by many of his contemporaries, his equating of the in­tegrity of black manhood with the integrity of the race makes the sexism more trou­bling. Is this the kind of thinking we cele­brate when we celebrate Malcolm X? Yes, if we don’t critique the man, and interpret his self-made history. We simply need more critiques.

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And the critiques must come from us, because we already have several non-Black voices framing Malcolm’s textual legacy. Most prominent among them is the Social­ist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group that has long embraced African-American strug­gle as revolutionary. In July of 1939, the SWP — with the encouragement of Trinida­dian Marxist C. L. R. James and the blessings of Trotsky himself — had adopted a res­olution entitled “The SWP and Negro Work,” which began: “The American Ne­groes, for centuries the most oppressed sec­tion of American society and the most dis­criminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary element of the population. They are designated by their whole histori­cal past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolu­tion.” The document goes on to argue that the SWP must help form this adequate leadership “through the work of the party among the Negroes and in wider fields in­fluencing the Negro masses to recognize in the SWP the only party that is genuinely working for their complete emancipation from the heavy burdens they have borne so long.” In one stroke, the SWP had begun, according to its own literature, “to present the only consistently revolutionary attitude to black nationalism when that tendency began to assume mass proportions in the 1960s.”

Through two decades the party diligently pursued its objectives, and when Malcolm appeared on the scene, they were ready. By covering Malcolm’s activities in their news­paper, The Militant, and, after his break with the NOI, by offering him places to speak, the SWP tried to help Malcolm throughout his career. The party even helped care for his family after the assassination. “Checks came in from all over the United States and [they] just said, ‘Buy milk for Malcolm’s babies,’ ” says Mal­colm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. “No strings attached.” Shabazz eventually signed an agreement permitting SWP’s Pathfinder Press to publish her husband’s speeches, many of which they have faithfully kept in circulation. They’re white, and they’re Marx­ists, and for 25 years they’ve been doing the most of anyone to foster Malcolm’s legacy.

Yo, we black folk should be ashamed. The SWP also does its critical work: in the form of introductions to the speeches Path­finder publishes, in the form of analyses of the man’s politics, in the form of discussion groups about the meaning of his life. They’re making a Malcolm all their own. It should come as no surprise, then, that their critical approach, while recognizing Mal­colm’s anti-white supremacy project, places emphasis on his last year, underlin­ing an increasing openness to the possibility of working with white revolutionaries, and of adopting ideas important to Trotskyites: anti-imperialism, internationalism, militant activism, and political organization. Ac­cordingly, Pathfinder’s flagship text, Mal­colm X Speaks, contains only one speech made prior to Malcolm’s break with the Nation, while their The Last Year of Mal­colm X provides an excellent explanation of the last year’s speeches from their own point of view. Can’t blame them too much; the’re just doing their jobs. And we aren’t.

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Brothers and sisters, we got to talk.

Surely, the words of a man held sacred by the African-American community should be considered by that community, and wrestled with by that community. Where are the Black Muslim speeches Malcolm made prior to his break with Muhammad? There are smatterings published in Path­finder’s books, or they’re out of print, or they (mostly) have never been published. And where are the black biographical maps that would interpret Malcolm’s words­ — and life — from “a black perspective?” Writing in the VLS (July, 1989), scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:

Although over 300 collective black biogra­phies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreat­ed the lives and times of other blacks.

The dearth of frank, black discussions of Malcolm X, is, to put it plainly, scandalous. The crisis of quiet in our community extends far beyond any discussion of Mal­colm X. We simply don’t talk honestly enough to one another — the legacy, perhaps, of always whispering when Massa was around. We’re still afraid of who’s looking. “Edit the negative and hold the line!” cries much of the local, and certainly the nation­al, black press. “Edit the negative!” And as a result, ain’t any national places for black writer/thinkers to lay down thoughts for general consumption. Let’s move toward a black perestroika. It’s a wicked irony that Malcolm’s legacy should suffer from our tendency to keep quiet: He spent, afterall, his lifetime trying to raise his (Black) voice. Ours, too. And so we answer with silence, out of fear (of whitefolks, of blasphemy, of tribal traitorism, of losing the badge, of splitting up the community), and we treat Malcolm’s image as a kind of precious cur­rency, hiding his philosophies and leaving his thoughts largely un-critiqued and unengaged.

If we talk, maybe we can put a story to his face, and maybe we can come up with a coherent meaning — a meaning for today — ­of Blackness. Look around, my people, and deal with it: Black masks just ain’t working right. We got to look at each other, and we got to check out the mirror, and we got to see what we see. Malcolm’s face is a fine place to start: We only have Malcolm, and ourselves, to fear. ■


An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

One day, sometime during your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. But no one publicly condemned it and always the murderers went free. And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A “nice white girl” could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devot­ing his life in service to his people.
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949

I WAS AN ADULT BEFORE I ever saw the picture. But even as a girl I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story: The night it happened back in 1930 someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather, whose shift at the post office began at three in the morn­ing. “Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work,” the caller said. “You might see something you don’t want to see.” There was laughter at the end of the story — which puzzled me. Something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter.

I now know that, in the 1920s, Indiana had more enrolled Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the union, and that my grandfather was one of them. Learning this after he died, I couldn’t assimilate it into the frail grandpa I’d known. Couldn’t really assimi­late it and for a long time, didn’t try. He had been an intensely secretive man, and certainly, there’d been other obfuscations. He always said, for example, that he was an orphan, that his parents had died in a wreck when he was three. I accepted this, but the grown-ups knew better. After grandpa’s funeral, my father dis­covered there’d been a safe-deposit box and hoped at last to find a clue to the family tree. Instead, he unearthed this other secret: a Klan membership card. All my father said was, “I never saw a hooded sheet. He’d go out. We never knew where he was going.”

So much of this story is about shame. My grandfather was a bastard, a fact that someone born in small-town Indiana in 1886 would rather die than discuss. And so he did. But if that particular humiliation seems foreign today, what about the other secret? A lot of us who are white come from… something, and it is not discussed. “That’s in the past,” we like to say, as if that did more than give us another hood to wear.

I remember, for example, when I first saw the picture a few years ago. Two black men in bloody tattered clothing hang from a tree and below them stand the grinning gloating proud and pleased white folks. I remember looking anxiously for my grandfather’s face. But of course, he hadn’t been there. I recalled the family sto­ry. There’d been something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter. And as I began to tell people this story, that became the detail I left out, because it shamed me: there was laughter.

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FOR YEARS NOW I’ve wondered if I should ever write about these things. Part of me thinks — why my family? I knew my grand­father well enough to feel sure that he was a follower, not a leader, not evil, not really different from other white men of his gen­eration. Would “removing the hood” illu­minate anything? Or merely cause pain? I discussed this with my brother, inconclusively, but shortly thereafter he sent a news­paper article he happened to see while visit­ing my sister. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.

Because there’d been a third man lynched in Marion that night — and he’d survived. He was living in Milwaukee.

Somehow a survivor hadn’t made it into the family story. But the clipping my broth­er sent said that this man, James Cameron, had opened a museum devoted to the histo­ry of lynching. And I know it mentioned that Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror, would soon be reissued by Black Classic Press. I reread the article many times, then lost it at some point along the swing shift of my ambivalence. Even so, I knew I would have to meet this man or regret it for the rest of my life.

James Cameron came so close to dying in Marion’s courthouse square that he had rope burns around his neck from the noose. He’d been dragged from the jail and beaten bloody and carried to the tree where the other two men were already hanging. In those last moments — certain he was about to die — he had a vision. Then, miraculously, he didn’t die. The mob let him go, just let him walk away. He was 16, and he believes he was saved by divine intervention, sent back to us with news — our Ishmael. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 

Yet who would hear what he’d come back to tell? For over 45 years, Cameron tried to find a publisher for his story, prob­ably the only written record by a lynching survivor. Finally, in 1982, he mortgaged his house for $7500 and published A Time of Terror himself. Now he’s struggling to reno­vate his museum building, an old boxing school/fitness center donated by the city of Milwaukee. He doesn’t have a working boiler. He pays electric and phone with his Social Security. He figures he needs $200,000 for renovations, and he’s certain that this — more than the book, even — is the true work for which God saved him. But Cameron is worried. He is about to turn 80, and this time he won’t have 45 years to get it done.

But here I get ahead of myself. First, you must hear the story of the lynching — and the miracle.

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IT BEGAN ON THE EVENING of August 6, 1930. Cameron, 16, had been pitching horseshoes with a school friend, Tommy Shipp, 18, and an acquaintance, Abe Smith, 19. The three decided to go out for a joy­ride in Shipp’s car. As they drove past the Marion city limits and into the countryside, Smith announced that he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car of his own. Cameron wavered inside; he immedi­ately wanted to get out, yet he didn’t get out. They drove to Lover’s Lane to look for a victim. Spotting one parked car, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, handed it to Cameron, and ordered him to tell the white man and woman inside to “stick ’em up.” Cameron didn’t even know Smith very well, and later he would tell the sheriff that he didn’t know why he’d followed Smith’s orders. But he did know: once more, he had wavered. While something inside him said “go back, go back” even as he approached the car, he had been pushed forward by someone with a stronger will. And it was a last but fateful moment that this would be true of him.

There he stood, pistol in hand, telling the driver and his girlfriend to get out. And when the driver did so, Cameron realized that he knew this man — Claude Deeter — a regular customer at his shoeshine stand, someone who’d always tipped him, some­one who’d always been decent to him. Now he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He handed the gun back to Smith, and ran. A few minutes later, he heard shots, and he wondered what had happened back there, but he never stopped running. As it turned out, Deeter had been mortally wounded.

Cameron arrived home with new eyes, because he saw the gulf that had opened between past and present. He saw his moth­er differently, feeling sorry for her for the first time in his life, though he lied when she asked him why he was so agitated. He couldn’t sleep. He kept telling himself he hadn’t really done anything wrong; he’d just been foolish. “The trouble was,” he wrote in his memoir, “this was Marion, Indiana, where there was little room for foolish Black boys.” Cameron hadn’t been in bed long when the police arrived — guns drawn, surrounding the house, raking it with searchlights. He could hear his mother getting up from the sofa bed to answer the pounding at the door.

Shipp and Smith had already been locked in separate cells on the first floor of the jail by the time Cameron got there. He remem­bers the three hours of interrogation, the kicks and punches delivered when it was over, the confession he then signed without even reading it. The officers tossed him into an upstairs cell block with 30 black men arrested for riding a freight train.

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By the next morning, rumors were circu­lating through Marion that the white wom­an in the car had been raped. She would later testify in court that she hadn’t been touched, but the spark had been lit. Camer­on writes that there was no particular “race problem” in the town, just the strictly en­forced segregation common to so many towns, just an everyday sense of limits, if you were black. “And once the boundary was crossed, anything might happen to the trespasser.… The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived.”

He noticed a crowd of white people gath­ering outside the jail right after breakfast, some pointing to the windows of the cell, some shaking their fists. He could feel the tension among his older cellmates, who’d abandoned their usual card games to pace. Small groups of white people kept coming up the steps to stare into the cell block. A white prisoner assured Cameron that “peo­ple in this part of the country wouldn’t lynch anybody,” but a black prisoner coun­tered that the white guy was “nuts.” Hadn’t Cameron been charged with the rape of a white woman?

The mob outside the jail grew steadily larger. Then, sometime during the after­noon, Deeter died. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole. As Cameron learned later, local radio stations announced that a lynching was imminent, and white people began to stream in from surrounding small towns, while entire black families fled Mar­ion. Around 5:30, a reporter from the Mar­ion Chronicle came by to interview Camer­on. He told the journalist his story, but he could see that he wasn’t being heard, that the truth didn’t matter. “Ask the girl,” Cameron finally implored him. But the re­porter just smirked, “You’ll never get out of this.”

In his book, recalling how he felt as that day built toward its violent climax, Camer­on can’t quite fit the dimensions of his fear into words. “At times, even now,” he writes, “I awaken in the middle of the night, reliving that whole day — and night… I can never return to sleep. I suf­fer headaches all through the night. I just lie there, thinking, praying, saying my rosary, hoping, reassuring myself that it all hap­pened a long, long time ago. I am not the same man. I am somebody else now.”

At dusk of that fateful day, August 7, Cameron could peer out from his second­-floor cell block and see white faces for as far as he could look in any direction. He could hear people demanding “those three niggers.” And they began to throw rocks at the windows of the jail. Some carried shot­guns. Some carried pistols. Some carried bats, clubs, crowbars, or stones. And among them, Cameron recognized people he knew: customers from his shoeshine stand, boys and girls he’d gone to school with, people whose lawns he’d mowed. He saw Klan members in robes and headgear, faces un­masked, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd. He sensed a carnival air. And there, laughing and talking with them all, were the scores of policemen ostensibly protecting the jail.

The assault on the building began at nightfall. Some men ran into the alley with gasoline cans and doused the brick wall, but they couldn’t get it to burn. Then, for the next hour, men took turns pounding with a sledgehammer on the steel door of the jail and the brick casement around it, while the mob chanted itself into a frenzy, and, as the frame began to give, people pulled bricks out with their bare hands and four men­ — adrenalized by hatred — lifted the entire door jamb out of the wall. Cameron could hear Sheriff Jacob Campbell ordering, “Don’t shoot! There are women and children out there!”

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The ringleaders burst in and pulled Shipp outside first. As Cameron wrote, “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view. It seemed to me as if all of those 10 to 15 thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.” Clubbed and stoned and then garroted at the bars of a jailhouse window, Shipp was dead long before the hysterical mob ever got him to the tree. So was Smith. Someone rammed a crowbar through his chest, while souvenir hunters cut off Shipp’s pants and distributed the pieces. Shipp was then dressed in a Kluxer’s robe, and the crowd dragged both bodies over to the courthouse square and strung them up. Cameron couldn’t stop watching: the deliri­um, the sadism, and finally, a weird ecsta­sy. Over at the tree, “people howled and milled around the lifeless bodies, their voices a mumbo jumbo of insane screams and giggles.” He could see them posing for pictures with the bodies.

And then he could hear the men coming up the steps to get him. Cameron remem­bers what they carried — ropes, swords, ri­fles, a submachine gun. He remembers the chanting outside: “We want Cameron!” But when the ringleaders rushed into his cell block, they couldn’t pick him out. At first, none of the other prisoners would identify him either, but the white mobsters threat­ened to “hang every goddamn one of you niggers,” and Cameron watched in horror as about half of his black cellmates dropped to their knees groveling, “Don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks.” Finally, one old black man pointed him out.

He remembers the white men gripping him viselike, and the chorus of voices yell­ing “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” as they got him outside. He remembers the bricks and rocks and spit that hit him as they carried him toward the courthouse, and the crow­bar glancing across his chest, and the pick­ax handle hitting his head, and children biting his legs. “Once or twice, I thought I saw a kind face in the press around me. To each of them I called out for some kind of help.… But nothing happened.” Police be­gan clearing a path to the tree where the other two bodies were hanging, and some­one called out for the rope. Cameron felt numb, encased in ice, and as someone put the noose around his neck and snaked the other end up over a branch, he remembered what his mother had told him about sinners facing death, about the thief on the cross, and he prayed, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Have mercy on me.” In his mind and body and soul, he was dead at that moment, and he stopped thinking.

Suddenly a woman’s voice called out, sharply and clearly, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!”

A silence fell over the mob, as Cameron remembers it. Or perhaps, it was part of his vision — because he recalls that the people around him were struck dumb, that every­one froze, and that he suddenly felt himself surrounded by what seemed to be a film negative and on it were the images of the people in the crowd, and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

Then the spell broke. “And hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. Now, they were ca­ressing hands!”

Then the crowd drew back. He saw that many bowed their heads. They couldn’t look at him as he staggered back to the jail.

In the years since the lynching, Cameron has spoken to many white people who were present in the square that night. And no one heard any voice. No one but him. “You were just lucky,” they tell him. But some­thing had stopped the rampage cold, and Cameron knows he didn’t imagine the voice. Sometimes, he can still hear it.

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AND AT WHAT POINT in that evening did someone call my grandfather? To tell him there was something out there he didn’t want to see. Perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t want to see. I was thinking about Cameron’s vision. And that’s my term for it, not his. For in this story of signs and wonders, why should there not be a “vi­sion.” I mean that moment of suspended animation when everyone around him froze and became an image, a negative, and he could no longer tell if those people were black or white. But why didn’t this “vision” appear to the white people — who needed to see it? Maybe it was something they didn’t want to see. Or maybe it had to be entrust­ed to someone whose life depended on it.

In the first hours, days, months following his narrow escape, however, Cameron had a heightened sense of black and white — as the blacks got angrier and the whites got more cruel, or more ashamed.

The four detectives who drove him out of Marion right after the lynching, to a jail in nearby Huntington — they were white. They ordered this beaten and traumatized kid to lie on the floor of the back seat the whole way, for safety, while they cracked jokes like “this nigger back here is as white as a sheet.” Then, in Huntington jail, there was the old man in the facing cell who began apologizing to Cameron — he was white too. He told Cameron he’d had a fight with his own son about going to Marion. The son wanted in on the lynching. “For all I know, he might have been one of the people in the mob. He might have been the one who put that rope around your neck, and caused that rope burn. He had me arrested and put in jail. Told everybody I was crazy. I am sorry, son, sorry to my heart.”

Next day, the white detectives drove him back to Marion. He lay down on the floor beneath a mat while they cruised the court­house, where part of the lynch mob re­mained on guard. The cops crowed gleeful­ly that “those niggers are still hanging on the tree” “and look how their necks have stretched.” One detective called out to a newsboy, bought the day’s paper, and pulled the mat back to show Cameron the front page. There he saw for the first time the infamous photograph of his dead com­panions surrounded by celebrating white people.

Copies of the photo sold briskly to sightse­ers that day for 50 cents apiece. And the bodies hung in the courthouse square till late afternoon when the state attorney gener­al, a notorious Klan opponent, arrived from Indianapolis and personally cut them down.

Cameron, meanwhile, had been delivered to the state reformatory, where white guards gathered around to laugh at his clothing, shredded during the beating, and to ridicule his ashen complexion. But then Cameron saw another group of white guards come in and stare from a distance, tears running down their cheeks. Sorrowful, immobilized, they were unable to be more than Greek chorus to the tragedy.

Sympathy was apparently in such short supply among white people in the Indiana of 1930 that Cameron has never forgotten those who gave it to him. Like those guards. And the old man in the Huntington jail. “They are etched in my memory, stamped upon my heart,” he would later write. But at the time, tears weren’t enough to ease his growing hatred of all whites. For months, Cameron felt sick with rage and wanted to kill a white man, any white man. His stepfather actually lived this out for him within a week of the lynching, going crazy to “kill some white folks,” and managing to shoot nine policemen (none fatally) during a nightlong battle. (He then spent a year in prison.) Naturally, the lynchers went free. A grand jury ultimately concluded that Marion authorities had acted “in a prudent manner” on the night of August 7. Cameron was never even asked to testify.

Granted a change of venue for his own trial, he moved from the state reformatory to a cell in Anderson, Indiana, a town about 30 miles from Marion. Word soon spread that Klansmen from Marion planned to storm the Anderson jail, lynch Cameron, and “break in” the sheriff who’d just taken office there. But Anderson’s new sheriff, Bernard Bradley, turned out to be the first white person in Cameron’s life to make a positive difference. First, he promised his young prisoner that if those Kluxers showed up, he and his deputies would shoot to kill. Bradley had patrols in the streets every night, for weeks. Rumor had it that he had even armed the town’s black residents. Cameron writes that that clinched it for the Klan leaders, who decided not to try anything.

Once the tension eased, Sheriff Bradley called Cameron to his office and announced that he was going to make him a turnkey trusty, which would allow him to leave jail during the day. The sheriff said he didn’t believe Cameron guilty of any rape or murder. “I want you to treat me like a father,” Bradley told him, “and I’ll treat you like a loving son.” Utterly shocked, Cameron studied the sheriff’s eyes and body language, “because no white man had ever spoken to me like that before.” But he decided that “my concentration, my scrutiny, could detect no deceit or falsity.” He came to love this sheriff, this anomaly who’d grown up in an all-white town near Anderson. Cameron could only conclude in retrospect that Sheriff Bradley must have been “a weird sort of person, because he was mysterious and apparently outside natural law. By his nature, he seemed to have belonged to another world.”

Then, one day while Cameron was out in the town of Anderson, he saw a man on a bicycle, riding with a little blond girl perched on the handlebars — both of them laughing. Suddenly Cameron realized that this was one of the raging men who had grabbed him in the Marion jail and pulled him out into the street. And he felt a flicker of intense anger, but mostly he felt confounded by the purely human mystery of it. How could it be that this “happy-go-lucky man with that equally happy child had been capable of doing the thing I knew he had done”?

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I COULDN’T HELP BUT notice that, after the lynching, many of the white people in Cameron’s story were either laughing or crying. As you’ll remember, I’m from the lineage of those who laughed. Though personally, I never got the joke. And when I think of my grandfather, who died when I was 16, I shared Cameron’s sense of bewilderment. I ask myself — how could it be?

Of course, how much can one know about a man who never even told his own family about the circumstances of his birth? All he ever said of his childhood was that he’d seen Buffalo Bill then. He had no family stories, while my grandma told so many. I remember once asking her about his parents, and she said, “We don’t talk about that, because it makes him very sad.”

One day when I was eight or nine, I found his mother’s obituary in a desk drawer. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. Just saw that certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade. Curious, I walked into the living room where everyone was seated, blurting out “Who’s Josie Carr?” No one spoke, but my grandpa got up and took the clipping from my hand. None of us ever saw it again. A search of every little news­paper in and around Marion never turned up another copy. Nor is there a record anywhere of her death. Or for that matter, her life. And certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade.

Now it’s been more than 25 years since I last visited Marion. Months after my grandpa’s death, my father drove us out of the town into farm country to see the little house where my grandpa had been born. Somehow my father had managed to find it again, after visiting once as a child. Sort of. My grandpa hadn’t shared this either, leav­ing my little dad at the end of a dirt road, telling him, “I want to see that house one more time before I die.” And my father remembered that while he waited, he could see a church in the distance with its graves. Now our car was parked at the foot of a rutted road from which we could see that church, its graves. And we were walking through knee-deep grass. Then we came to the little house. Or shed. Some horses were living in it.

My grandfather had a sixth-grade educa­tion. He hated cars, airplanes, speed — mo­dernity. He never learned to drive. There was still a shiny black hitching post out in front of the house. For a hobby, he studied railroad timetables, and knew which trains rode on what tracks all over America. He was always walking to the tracks to watch a train. He named my father after Eugene Debs, the Socialist and trade union man. He did not allow any liquor in the house. He wore a long-sleeved shirt with cuff links every day of his life, and he’d wear the same necktie until it wore out, before he bought another. Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money — buying tongue, green-fried tomatoes, mush, hominy, the fatty cuts of meat. And when he took the family on vacation, it was always the same thing: one day in either Cleveland or Chica­go to window-shop and ride the elevated.

He was part of the intolerance in the town, a narrow man. Yet I can also see him joining the Kluxers for the most painfully human reasons. The Klan made him re­spectable. For awhile there, all the “right people” belonged.

The Klan took over the Indiana Republi­can Party in 1924 and elected a majority of the state legislature. One open Klansman became governor, another the mayor of Indianapolis. Cameron thinks a prominent lawyer ran the Marion group. I read Kath­leen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan, because most of her research focuses on Indiana in the ’20s, where, she concludes, the Klan was an integral part of white Protestant culture: “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often­ — and perhaps more frighteningly — normal.” Scholars disagree on the number of enrolled members, but it ranges between a quarter million and half a million at a time when Mississippi (for example) initiated 15,000. The indisputable fact is that in the ’20s Indiana had more Kluxers than any other state, though it was 97 per cent white and Protestant.

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The Klan had developed over the years from a raw expression of hate to a more convoluted expression of hate. After the Civil War, it had been a purely terrorist organization. But in the ’20s, the Invisible Empire sold itself as a morality crusade redolent of today’s “traditional values” campaigns. The Klan claimed that Jews, blacks, and Catholics were purveyors of vice and social decay.

Possibly the only white writer to examine what it meant to be white in a segregated society, and this in the ’40s, Lillian Smith analyzed the signs and signifiers of the KKK, pointing out that no one could have dramatized the Return of the Repressed more vividly. These were men dressed in sheets and pillowcases, stalking through the darkness, intent most often on “the symbolic killing of a black male who, according to this paranoid fantasy, has ‘raped’ a ‘sa­cred’ white woman. It is a complete acting out of the white man’s internal guilt and his hatred of colored man and white woman.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Invisible Empire in Indiana collapsed in a sex scandal at the end of the ’20s. Apparently, the state’s charismatic Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, had long been notorious among the Klan elite for sexual harassment, attempted rapes, desert­ed wives, and late-night orgies. But his ex­ploits didn’t become public until 1925, when he was arrested for the rape and mur­der of a young woman. Once Stephenson was convicted, many Klan members never attended another meeting, and political in­fighting began to discourage many of those who remained. Again, scholars disagree on an exact figure, but by 1928 membership had declined to somewhere between 4000 and 7000.

The most bizarre stories I found in my research relate to the Indiana Klan’s fixa­tion with Catholics, who were much more of a focus in the Hoosier State than either blacks or Jews. “Escaped nuns” and former “priests” often appeared at Klan rallies to regale their audiences with tales of Roman­ist sadomasochism, kidnapped white Prot­estant girls turned sexual slaves, and “abor­tions forced on nuns by the priests who fathered their babies.” It’s almost funny­ — these porn fantasies of the rubes, but they are a reminder of another fact: everyday life back then was determined in ways we can’t imagine by phantoms, rumors, and myths. Many Klan members anticipated the imminent invasion of the pope, who, it was believed, already had a papal palace under construction in Washington, D.C. Given their loyalty to the “dago on the Tiber,” Catholics were simply not good Americans. Blee recounts this incredible story from an anonymous informant: “Some Klan leader said that the Pope was coming to take over the country, and he said he might be on the next train that went through.… Just trying to make it specific. So, about a thousand people went out to the train station and stopped the train. It only had one passenger [car] and one passenger on it. They took him off, and he finally convinced them that he wasn’t the Pope. He was a carpet salesman.”

My grandfather had a particular hatred for Catholics. I still remember the worried dinner conversations over the possible elec­tion of John F. Kennedy — who would most likely be turning the country over to the pope. Maybe this antipathy helped push him to join his local klavern. I’ll never have an answer to that mystery. When I first learned that he’d been a member, I remem­bered that his was the only one of my relatives’ homes in which I ever saw black people — women from my grandma’s Sun­day school class. And I remembered that my grandma herself was one-quarter Indi­an. But these are the paradoxes of Ameri­can racism.

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LAST AUGUST I WENT to Milwaukee to meet James Cameron.

It was a way to begin to find what had been hidden from me. At the time, I didn’t analyze it beyond that. Certainly there was nothing I could do about my grandfather’s choices, or about a lynching that took place decades before I was born, but somehow I felt I was still living the wages of that sin. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. Or maybe you knew that someone you loved had even participated in it, or condoned it, or laughed at it. The moment embodied in that infamous Marion photograph was a tragedy for everyone there. And I didn’t see a way to set it right. But I could go to Milwaukee.

When I met Cameron, I would have to acknowledge my own connection to that defining moment in his life, and I consid­ered this with some apprehension. As I drove into the neighborhood near his muse­um, I realized I must also be near the paro­chial school where I attended kindergarten and first grade. I was born in Milwaukee, and back then, this area was undergoing “white flight.”

America’s Black Holocaust Museum sits on a quiet street between a public school and a soul food restaurant. Greeting me at the museum’s locked steel door, Cameron is more robust than I expect. He is a soft-­spoken man, a down-home Midwesterner who in many ways has lived an ordinary life. He puts in six days a week at the museum, by himself. As we sit in his small makeshift office, I ask him to talk about his life between the lynching and the present.

First came four years in prison, as an accessory before the fact to voluntary man­slaughter in the death of Claude Deeter. Ordered to serve his parole outside Indi­ana, he moved to Detroit, then returned to Anderson, and finally moved to Milwaukee in 1953, working a series of blue-collar jobs. He worked at a shoeshine parlor, the Delco factory, then a cardboard-box fac­tory. Went to night school to learn air con­ditioning and steam combustion. Worked at a big shopping mall. Retired. Then, went into business for himself as a rug and upholstery cleaner. He attends mass daily. In 1953, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he attributes to the example of Sheriff Ber­nard Bradley. He’s been married for 55 years and raised five children.

But mostly what he’s done for over 60 years is struggle obsessively to bear witness. He began writing A Time of Terror in pris­on, but authorities confiscated the manu­script when he was paroled. By early the next year, he’d written it out again. Once he’d moved to Anderson, he began going back to Marion to interview white people who’d witnessed the lynching. Cameron then rewrote the book about 100 more times as he accumulated nearly 300 rejec­tions before self-publishing. He pulls out pamphlets he’s produced on the Klan, the Confederate flag, the Thirteenth Amend­ment, slavery, Reconstruction, the first civil rights bill, the second civil rights bill… he’s written hundreds. The latest is “Definite and Positive Proof that Free Black Men Did Vote Right Along With Free White Men in the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of Ameri­ca.” Neither an academic nor an activist, he’s out of the loop in which these messages usually get advanced, self-publishing as much as he can afford at $20 per copyright.

He hasn’t even begun to renovate the ex-­boxing school. His exhibits have been packed away for over a year. But Cameron points into the gymnasium where I notice basketball hoops and piles of chairs: “That’ll be my Chamber of Horrors.” That will be the room with, for example, the photo taken in Marion’s courthouse square. Cameron intends to exhibit large pictures in the style of the Jewish Holocaust Muse­um. That’s what inspired him, when he visited during a trip to Israel with his wife, Virginia, in 1979. “It shook me up some­thing awful,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what has happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’ ” He shows me where he intends to put his book­store, his contemplation room, his lecture and screening room. The spaces are still filled with old weightlifting machines, lock­ers, a pool table.

This building is his third location. With $5000 of his own money, he opened the museum in 1988 on the second floor of Milwaukee’s Black Muslim headquarters, then moved to a storefront around the cor­ner, but he never had room to exhibit more than 10 photos or to store many of his 10,000 books on race relations. And, to his utter frustration, he would sometimes go for days without a single person coming in. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The approach of his 80th birthday has kindled a sense of urgency. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one got no busi­ness being out,” he chuckles, then sobers. “I wish that book would hurry up and come out so I can get some speaking engagements under my belt and then I can get my money to put that boiler in.”

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Cameron is part of that tradition of Afri­can Americans who would hold this coun­try to her ideals. He would like to replace the word “racism” with “un-American.” He pulls out a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings: “This should be in every home just like the Bible.” I ask him if he’s ever studied history — noting The Rhet­oric of Racial Revolt, The Negro Since Emancipation, Writings by W.E.B. Dubois and stacks of other books in his cluttered office. “Yes,” he replies, “I live in history.”

“My grandparents were from Marion,” I tell him.

“They probably remember it,” says Cameron.

This benign assessment of what I know to be shameful slows me down. “My father remembers it too, even though he was only seven when it happened.”

“Yeah, that made an impression on him. Sure.”

He begins to tell me his story, even though he has said that he doesn’t like to do this one-on-one. It’s still too emotional for him. Showing me a postcard of the Marion jail, he points out where Tommy was, where Abe was, where he was. Almost com­pulsively, he describes how they were beat­en, how he’d found out later that the Mar­ion sheriff, Jacob Campbell, was in the Klan, and how, when the mob was about to hang him, he prayed. “And then this voice spoke from heaven. It was from heaven. No human voice could have quelled the fury of that mob.” Then a great silence fell over the crowd, and he entered what seemed like a room made of film negatives, where he and everyone else was “petrified,” and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

I tell him my family’s story, leaving out the cruel part — the laughter. “Then, after he died, we found out that my grandfather was in the Klan.”

“That happens,” he replies.

“All my father said was he never saw a hooded sheet.”

“You know what?” Cameron tells me. “During the roaring ’20s, Indiana had over a half million Klansmen and Marion had the first chapter. They were called the mother den of all the Klans in Indiana. It was an upgoing thing. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were nobody, and that’s what gave them the liberty to lynch black people with impunity. Sure.”

“My grandfather may well have known about the lynching and may well have ap­proved of it.”

“Sure.” He gets up, saying that he has something special to show me, a new arti­fact for the museum. Someone in Marion had sent him one of the Klan’s infamous “souvenirs.” The ropes used to hang Tom­my Shipp and Abe Smith had been cut into pieces and distributed as mementos. Now, from a business envelope, Cameron pulls a piece of nondescript and fraying rope. A handwritten document says that it was ob­tained from the original owner by the man elected sheriff several years after the lynch­ing, and that it was unknown which of the two ropes it came from. “I’m going to put that in a glass case with all kinds of pad­locks on it,” he says, handing it over for me to inspect. “You’re the first one to have seen this.”

In my conversations with Cameron, I found myself constantly astonished at things he mentioned in passing. I would stumble to rephrase a question, not sure I’d heard him right. Most of these little shocks related to his interactions with white peo­ple — not the brutal ones, the “nice” ones. Like the 200-plus white people Cameron found who’d been among the spectators at his near-death. The actual lynch mob prob­ably numbered between 25 and 50. But thousands more had watched. Those Cam­eron interviewed were all happy to see that he’d survived the beating (rumor had it he’d died), but none of them had lifted a finger to ensure that he would survive. And they now demonstrated neither a reluctance to talk nor a wish to apologize.

Then there’s the story about the mayor of Marion, who came to visit Cameron in jail the day of the lynching, bringing with him a red-haired man who had the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief. I think we can assume that the redhead was a ringleader, that he’d come to see which three prisoners they’d be taking from the jail, but he remained silent while the mayor asked Cameron how old he was and what his mother did for a living and had he ever been in trouble before. Then the mayor left town “on business” before the lynching be­gan. In 1980, Cameron visited the old may­or and together they looked at the infamous picture taken that night while the mayor named for him nearly every person in it. They were photographed while doing this, for Ebony magazine.

In an old article from the Marion paper, I read a vehement denial from Sheriff Camp­bell’s daughter about his allegiance to the Klan. Not only was he never allied with them, she asserted, but it was his voice that called out that night to save James Camer­on.

When I related this to Cameron, he said, “Isn’t that pitiful?”

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THESE HISTORIC CRIMES are the ghosts still flitting through all of our lives. Perhaps if we white people could take responsibility, reconciliation could happen. But how do we do that? The further we get from these stories and their contexts, the easier it is to say: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do anything. We ignore how much the new stories grow out of old rot. And we can’t acknowledge that we’ve done something that needs forgiving.

But in 1991, Cameron decided that he would ask to be forgiven. He wrote a letter to Indiana governor Evan Bayh, requesting a pardon “for the foolish role I played in the commission of a crime that resulted in the loss of three precious lives.” Cameron said the idea to request a pardon just came to him. He wanted to clear his name before he died. He wanted to “wipe this whole thing clean.” Bayh signed the pardon in February of last year, and Cameron went back to Marion. The mayor gave him a key to the city in a ceremony at a Marion hotel, and Cameron wiped away tears as the in­scription on his pardon was read.

“Now that the state of Indiana has for­given me for my indiscretion,” he told the overflow crowd, “I, in turn, forgive Indiana for their transgressors of the law in Marion on the night of August 7, 1930. I forgive those who have harmed me and Abe and Tom realizing I can never forget the trau­matic events that took place that night.”

See, he did it for us. Wiped it clean.

In a racist society, a white person can not feel “whole.” That was the conclusion reached by Lillian Smith, and I keep going back to her because she is one of the very few to consider what whiteness means, and what its tragedy might be. “Only a few of our people are killers,” she wrote in her analysis of lynching, but she noted the heightened level of violence, how usually the black man was killed several times over, becoming a receptacle for “dammed-up hate” and “forbidden feelings.” There’s a pathology there that leaks out into everyday relationships. Only a few of our people are killers, but we are dissemblers, dehumaniz­ers, averters of eyes, enforcers of a rift in our psyches, and all because we’re wearing the hood — to hide our guilt, our past, and our helplessness in the face of that past. This is why Smith analyzed lynching, in the end, as “a Sign, not so much of troubled race relations, as of a troubled way of life that threatens to rise up and destroy all the people who live it.”

I remember my childhood disquiet with that Bible verse about “visiting the iniqui­ties of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It was so unfair, yet I worried that it might be true. I no longer know this as the curse of a wrathful God but as the curse we’ve brought on ourselves by refusing to look at our histor­ies. We white people don’t want to feel guilty, of course. And guilt isn’t useful. But, too often, we compensate by feeling noth­ing.

We can at least begin to tell the truth about the past. I decided to, hoping in some way to uplift my race. ■

A Time of Terror will be published next month by Black Classic Press, 410-358-0980. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, 414-264-2500.


Photo of James Cameron who survived a lynching An American Tale the Village Voice

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict

Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict
August 27, 1979

We consider the ouster of An­drew Young as a hostile act toward the black community.”
— Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana

“The issue right now is not Jews and blacks. The issue is the Middle East.”
— Andy Young

Andrew Young would be out of character if he did not attempt to play down the ethnic frictions that have been exposed by his sudden resignation as the American Am­bassador to the United Nations. Young was known as a conciliator during the Civil Rights era. It was this instinct that led him to the fateful meeting with the representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that precipitated his downfall. But Young’s considerable talent will be hard-­pressed to soothe the troubled wa­ters of relations between Jews and blacks. It should be said now that the conflict is real and that its origins go far beyond the bound­aries of international diplomacy.

Anyone who has followed the disintegration of the civil rights alliance in recent years knows that open conflict was inevitable. Blacks and Jews in this country have been on a collision course for more than a decade. The only surprise is Andy Young serving as unwilling catalyst for the escalation of hostilities. Any number of other events could have triggered the confrontations: the war against affirmative action waged by the major Jewish organizations; the role of Jewish-controlled institutions in perpetuating racial stereotypes; and the political rela­tionship of Israel to southern Africa.

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It is dishonest to suggest that Andy Young’s color had nothing to with the uproar he caused as U.N. Ambassador. As a black man, he articulated a view of the world shared by many blacks and some whites in this county and elsewhere. The objections to Young’s statements came from people who take a different view of world events, a view that has long been dominant in Western coun­tries, but whose credibility has come under intense pressure as the balance of power in the world has begun to shift.

The resignation of Andrew Young therefore, is metaphor: for a struggle between competing ethnic groups; for relations be­tween the “haves” and “have­-nots” here and elsewhere; and for differing visions of the future. The conflict between blacks and Jews reflects the fact that these two groups have made their alliances with opposing camps in an international strug­gle for power.

My interest in Jewish-black relations begins with my own origins. My grand­father, Emmanuel Dreyfuss, migrated from France to Haiti in the 1880s to escape anti-Semitism and married into an old Haitian family. As the child of interna­tional civil servants growing up in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe, I found no contradictions between being black and having roots that were Jewish, French African, and Latin American. But when my family settled in New York in 1960, I learned quickly that I could no longer straddle my multiple origins. I was black in America, but I retained a deep personal concern about American Jews and their relationship to American blacks.

I had grown up in a world where class was more important than color and power, more effective than morality, so I was fascinated by race relations in America. The civil rights movement seemed terribly naive, but its successes confirmed the promise of America. During my American­ization in New York public schools and at City College, I accepted without question the explanation that blacks and Jews were allies because of their common history of oppression. Most of my white friends were Jews and we seemed to share a vision of the benefits, contradictions, and injustices of the American system. But a series of events in the 1960s began to strain that alliance — and my own personal rela­tionships with Jewish friends.

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The emergence of the black power movement seemed logical to me. I had grown up accustomed to blacks exercising power in Haiti and in Africa. Once the laws declaring racial equality were put in place here, I thought it natural for blacks to want to control institutions that would meet their needs and reflect their own perceptions. Stokely Carmichael’s famous 1966 declaration that whites should com­bat racism and leave blacks to organize themselves hardly seemed to warrant the hostile reaction it provoked in the Jewish community. I couldn’t understand why Jews were so resentful of a sense of group identity among blacks that they them­selves had always enjoyed.

From conversations with my friends I concluded that the reaction was more emotional than rational. Jews had pro­vided much support to the civil rights movement and they felt blacks were being ungrateful. The fact that blacks played no prominent role in B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee was not an acceptable comparison to them. I would learn much later that some Jewish in­tellectuals were beginning to have serious doubts about the direction of the movement and could foresee a time when blacks would threaten their achievements. Af­firmative action, then known as “preferen­tial treatment,” was considered dangerous by the editors of Commentary, who also feared that blacks were becoming anti­-Semitic and would switch their allegiance to the Wasp establishment.

Most studies show, however, that black anti-Semitism is concentrated among poorer blacks whose contact with Jews is limited to exploitive shops and stores in ghetto areas. In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” James Baldwin explained the problem as being “in accordance with the American business tradition,” to which the Jewish Press responded by claiming that were it not for the Jews in Harlem there would be no businesses at all there to provide jobs for blacks. The fallacy of Baldwin’s and the Jewish Press’s reason­ing was exposed by Harold Cruse in the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, when he says that “There was a time, not too many years ago, when these Jewish-owned busi­nesses would not hire Negro help at all. They did not do so, in fact, until forced too… by the Black Nationalist Movement [and Adam Clayton Powell, Cruse should have added].”

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The issue was not just political theory. There was a real conflict over roles. The coalition of blacks and Jews, the joining of two groups with vastly unequal power and resources, was more symbiosis than alliance. Blacks had benefited from the involvement in the civil rights movement and would suffer a damaging blow when that support was withdrawn. The Jews had also benefited from the civil rights era. They had been able to confront their own alienation from the American mainstream — and exclusion similar in concep­tion but vastly different in degree from the black experience in America — by partici­pating in the struggle for equality. The rebuff by blacks forced Jews to reevaluate their standing in America and led them to conclude that they could no longer classify themselves among the “have nots” of this country. If they had become a powerful force in America, what was the benefit of associating with a powerless and increas­ingly unpopular group?

For some blacks, the patronizing tone of some Jews and their unwillingness to cooperate on a more equal basis indicated that the racial attitude of Jews were not so different from that of other whites. Black self-assertion, often exaggerated in its nov­elty, was as much a threat to liberal friends as it was to conservative foes. To those blacks who had hoped that Jews would somehow be “different,” the revel­ation provoked a disappointment that was matched by Jewish dismay at black “sepa­ratism.”

The parting of the ways came at a time when civil rights leaders were realizing the inadequacy of protest for confronting eco­nomic issues. Martin Luther King’s Chi­cago campaign, his first movement north, had been a dismal failure. There had been fierce white resistance, Mayor Daly side­stepped the issue and King was literally stoned. This caused trepidation in the northern liberal community. King’s early opposition to the Vietnam War completed the break. This, after all, was the war against Communism, and besides, blacks, as a Times editorial counseled at the time, should not be concerned with foreign poli­cy matters. (Andy Young’s appearance on Face the Nation last Sunday showed how little this attitude has changed: Washington Post reporter Martin Schram won­dered aloud if blacks should be concerned about the Middle East issue.) King was also criticized by Roy Wilkins, then head of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the National Urban League for his position on the war. This rift reflected their depen­dence on Jewish support, since Jews strongly supported the U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was this dependence that undermined the credibility of these organiza­tions in the eyes of militant nationalist blacks at the time. After King’s death, the fear of black violence chased some white liberals back to the fold, but the alliance could not last because black and Jewish interests no longer coincided.

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Neither did their perceptions of the methods useful for black liberation. In an April 30, 1954, issue of the Jewish Press, the Black Muslims were compared to American Nazis like Lincoln Rockwell and likened to racists and extremists. Harold Cruse suggests, however, that this was a convenient forgetting of the fact that the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang in pre-1948 Israel were called the same things. “Yet,” says Harold Cruse, “it was these very people who truly forged Israel by forcing the British Army to vacate the territory.” In fact, the Black Muslims and the movement of Malcolm X, which tried to forge an international black conscious­ness movement was heavily attacked by Jews and other white liberals. As time goes on the need for black institutions seems more legitimate than ever. The relative lack of black political and economic power seems the result of the lack of such institutions.

American Jews had routed anti-Semitism and opened all but the most sacred doors of the American system. Blacks were still on the outside and they would become their natural competitors in the urban middle classes.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy in New York was a microcosm of the emerging conflict. The public school system in New York was largely in the hands of Jews and generally ineffective in educating blacks. The struggle for power centered on the issue of community control, but its implications were broader. The demand of black parents for black teachers and administrators was a direct threat to Jewish jobs. In the struggle between liberalism and employment, the children of New York were the losers. Opportunists on both sides of the issue resorted to race baiting and obscured what might have been an important discussion of the roles blacks and Jews would play in the future of American cities. Once the spectre of anti-Semitism was raised, any intelligent attempt to redistribute power and make the schools more effective became impossible. Lacking the influence to define the issue on their own terms and focus public attention on the problem, blacks were doomed to lose.

There is a variation on this conflict in the recent battles of blacks and the Koch administration. For the first time in the 300-year history of New York City, Jews have taken control of the city’s political apparatus. In the process of exercising their new powers they have neglected to appease the powerless in the tradition of their predecessors. We no longer hear about balanced tickets, an ancient tradi­tion in urban politics. In a city with the concentration of black talent that is New York, there is no excuse for Koch’s inabili­ty — or unwillingness — to find blacks to play substantive roles in his administration. Black politicians in New York must bear some of the blame for the de­cline of their influence. But they had always depended on white benevolence and its swift end left them unprepared.

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The peculiar madness of being black in America in the 1970s is due primarily to the chasm between our experiences and their interpretation by whites. Public opin­ion polls show most whites believe that racism is no longer an obstacle to black progress. Yet racism, in its more subtle forms, is an experience shared by blacks regardless of background, education, or class.

Journalism is an area where black-­white relations have never been good. American newspapers rank among the most segregated institutions in this coun­try, undoubtedly because of the power they wield in their communities. Recently, a young black woman on the staff of an influential newspaper was congratulated by a colleague for a front-page article she had written about one of the country’s most powerful families.

“Great article,” gushed her white col­league, “The editors did a great job of putting in that background material.”

“What background material? What editors?” asked the bewildered reporter.

“You know, all that research.”

“Wait a minute,” said the black wom­an. “My by-line was the only one on the story, why do you assume I didn’t do that research?”

Black reporters at the New York Times who have accused their employers of racial discrimination in a Title VII class-action suit tell the story of the editor who walked into the newsroom one evening and came upon a group of black reporters chatting after a hard day’s work.

“Can we help you?” asked one of the black reporters.

“No,” the editor replied. “I came to look for some writers, but I see everyone has left.”

The Invisible Man has made a come­back in the 1970s. The experiences that most blacks live never make the evening news, prime-time television, or the world of Woody Allen. Whites continue to deny their racism and reveal it for all to see in their fantasies. Blacks will obviously play no role in the future of Star Wars and Close Encounters. They don’t exist in the present of Manhattan and Superman. They are written out of the past in the Deerhunter and Loose Change. Blacks didn’t exist in the pages of best-selling books or in the indexes of journals and magazines.

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While blacks are absent from the ex­periences of whites, they find it nearly impossible to express their own vision. Black writers cannot get published. Black actors are asked to play blacks that exist only in the mind of white writers and directors. This situation reflects the dis­tribution of power in this country, but it has other ramifications.

Jewish power in America has always been a difficult subjects to address. Jewish leaders, fearing a backlash, have tried to downplay their influence on America. Their most effective tactic has been to attack any references to the power of Jews as “anti-Semitic,” immediately blocking further discussion of the issue. But it is impossible to discuss the conflict between blacks and Jews without addressing the issue of power. American Jews exert an economic, political, and intellectual influence on this country far out of propor­tion to their numbers. American blacks have far less impact than their numbers could lead them to expect.

American Jews dominate the image­-shaping industries of our era: film, tele­vision, journalism, and book publishing. In the past, Hollywood excused its racism on the grounds that it was only catering to the taste of the marketplace. Now, some blacks suspect, the seriously distorted rep­resentation of blacks in America may not be accidental but the product of hostilities that go back to the 1960s. The fact that these industries are associated with Jews does little for relations between the races.

Blacks, envious of the power that Jews wield in America, find it difficult to under­stand the profound insecurity of Jews about their own role in this country. This insecurity led to the reaction against black power and is reflected in the vehemence of the attacks against affirmative action. Any system which looks at numbers in the population is seen as a threat to Jewish achievement. But a sensitivity to race has been the most effective way of bringing blacks into the mainstream. To pretend that racial attitudes do not affect eval­uations, selection, and promotions is to deny hundreds of years of conditioning in America. That is the kernel of last June’s Weber Supreme Court decision, an ac­knowledgement of historical fact strangely absent from the Bakke decision of 1978.

In briefs filed in the Bakke case, notably those of B’nai B’rith and the neo­conservative Committee for Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity (Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Bruno Bettelheim), there were attempts to equate the Jewish experience in America with that of blacks. The CANI brief even went so far as to argue that Allan Bakke had fewer rights under affirmative action than a black after Reconstruction.

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Unsatisfied with the Bakke decision, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith declared this summer that it would visit major professional schools to ensure that the Supreme Court ban was not vio­lated in the procedures for admitting minority students. This is another example of Jews applying their considerable powers for their own interests without considering the possible repercussions.

The only indication of Jewish concern about relations with blacks in recent years was a decision by the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Com­mittee not to file briefs in the Weber Supreme Court case. They were persuaded by the argument that Jews did not have such vital interests in a case involving blue-collar jobs. However, the Anti-Defamation League pressed on with its cam­paign to prevent any consideration of race in the redistribution of opportunities. The League perceived Weber as possibly opening the doors to proportional distribution of opportunities, which, to the ADL, meant that Jews, more highly represented in professional schools and the blue-collar work force than their 2 percent of the population, would lose these places to blacks.

Jews were certainly denied op­portunities in this country. But that denial was never a part of official govern­ment policy. It can never compare to the systematic cruelty and frequent savagery of efforts to enforce white supremacy in America. Jews and other white ethnics were able to work, to vote, to join unions, and to form political organizations. The advantages these groups have over blacks today can be attributed to the 100 years that followed emancipation. To suggest, as Nathan Glazer has in his famous book Affirmative Discrimination, that white immigrants played no part in oppressing blacks is not only bad history but down­right dishonest. The union movement was all white. Political patronage systems did not include blacks. Traditionally, immi­grants adopted the racial attitudes of those who were already here.

The strategy for resisting minority pressures for a share of the wealth has been to deny any responsibility for their lower status in this country. The theories of the “underclass” come dangerously close to arguments for white supremacy. I learned that a couple of years ago in con­versation with an Afrikaner professor about the Bakke case. He was a member of the Verligkter, or enlightened group, which wants to find a solution to South Africa’s racial impasse. His description of arguments against integration made by his colleagues had an uncanny resemblance to those made here by oppo­nents of affirmative action. The concern about “lowered standards” and “the cul­ture of poverty” had a distinct American ring.

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In the eyes of many blacks, American Jews have cast their lot with those who would maintain the status quo. Because many Jewish intellectuals are prominent in this movement, there is a danger that blacks will view all Jews as the enemy.

Many black people believe that as the power of Jews has increased, so has their insensitivity to different views and different cultures. While blacks have to struggle to get the United States to pay any attention to the problems of Africa, the Middle East consumes the energies of successive American administrations. Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union en­joy a flood of publicity, but black dissidents in South Africa are ignored until they are killed. Black complaints about racism in television fall on deaf ears, but the selection of Vanessa Redgrave to play a concentration camp victim creates an uproar. And now, the suspicion is that Andy Young was ousted to appease Jewish and Israeli anger.

But there have been changes in the recent years. The roles of the “have” and “have nots” have shifted. The American defeat in Vietnam was an important sym­bol for the emerging nationalism of the Third World. If a tiny country could sur­vive the rage of the world’s most powerful nation then the struggle for self-determination was not hopeless. The rout of the Portuguese (and their NATO weap­ons) in Angola and Mozambique reinforced this belief.

The Cold Warriors, righteous in their power, could only see red. Racism con­tributed to the perception of liberation movements as dupes of Soviet Com­munism. After all, it was difficult to believe that blacks in this country could know what was best for them.

In 1967, Israel’s bold military victory in the Six Day War captured the world’s imagination. But Israel as an occupying force soon lost its image as an underdog. By the time of the 1973 war, Israel was being viewed in the Third World as a surrogate for Western interests in the Middle East. Israel and its allies had difficulty understanding this shift. In their arrogance of power, the Western nations had ignored the changes taking place around them. After several generations of military supremacy, they had come to confuse power and merit. They had forgot­ten that a philosophy backed by power becomes politics. The powerful often end believing that their views are the most logical, their systems the most perfect, their actions the most just.

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The value of Andrew Young was his ability to empathize with the aspirations of Third World countries. His presence gave credibility to American foreign policy toward the developing countries. He did not approach Africa with the arrogance of Henry Kissinger, who convened his Vien­na summit on southern Africa in 1976 without a single black at the conference table. Kissinger represented an archaic style of foreign diplomacy, a throwback to the days when white men could sit around a table and partition Africa amicably.

Andy Young understood why the blacks of Zimbabwe and South Africa saw white supremacy as a greater threat than Communism. Africans, like their brethren in America, had experienced the cruelties of racism. They could not be intimidated by invocation of the red bogey-man. They also knew that the regimes in southern Africa survived because the Western powers supported them. That part of the world became the test of America’s will­ingness to abandon white supremacy as an ally.

But the Arab states, frustrated militari­ly, had discovered the power of oil. They had found a tool that would accelerate the redistribution of power and force the Western nations to reevaluate their international politics. The fall of the Shah of Iran removed the last buffer between the oil nations and their customers. As long as the Shah was in power, Iran would not act in concert with oil producers in any boycott. After the revolution, Iran not only cut off oil to Israel but to South Africa. Therefore, it is not by accident that the Palestinian cause has suddenly become a legitimate issue. And the fact that there is so much resistance to ever considering the cause of the Palestinians could even lead blacks in this country to sympathize with them as the underdog.

As long as Andrew Young confined himself to African issues, his critics would tolerate him as Jimmy Carter’s burden. But once he stepped into the sacred arena of Middle East politics, he became expen­dable. American Jews have always demanded unequivocal support for Israel from successive administrations and they have always regarded the Middle East as something that should not concern blacks. But in our changing world, two major strands of American foreign policy began to intertwine.

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Israel was developing a close rela­tionship with South Africa. There was economic and military cooperation, and even hints that the two countries had shared their nuclear weapons technology. The “Muldergate” influence-buying scan­dal was the result of Israel’s advice to South Africa to concentrate on public rela­tions. Israeli helicopters, purchased from the United States turned up in Rhodesia. Just as American Jews were being re­garded as foes at home, blacks were begin­ning to view Israel as an enemy abroad.

The Israelis and their allies could ig­nore black and Third World indignation as long as they could depend on American power. But the new reality of power eluded them. The frothings of Senator Moynihan and the Commentary crowd was little more than nostalgic — but still dangerous. Suggestions that the United States get tough or seize Arab oil fields revealed the desperateness of people bewildered by change. Andy Young’s so-called diplomatic gaffes were intended to open a dialogue in areas that had to be confronted before genuine peace could be achieved. The black struggle for equality in this country provided an important per­spective for liberation struggles in other countries. There are reports that President Carter will appoint another black to re­place Andy Young. But unless that am­bassador can continue Young’s mission, the president’s appointment will be ex­posed as an empty gesture. If we are to live in peace, we must understand and respect one another. History is on the side of the “have nots” here and abroad. Those that have power today had better make friends among the powerless for tomorrow. There is an old African saying: “What goes ’round comes ’round.”