Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heroes and Cowards

This week in Black History... Atty Holder, Vivian Marsh and Rep John Lewis

"One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul." US Attorney General Eric Holder

On February 18, 2009 in Black History...
On the evening of February 18 news headlines read: "Holder Calls US a Nation of Cowards" referring to the speech on race that Attorney General Eric Holder had given earlier that day. Read full speech here. I don't believe that was the intention of his speech; however his remarks definitely spark discussion around the subject.


Reflection: A coward’s actions or inactions demonstrate a disgraceful fear or timidity. Conversely, heroes display courage and self-sacrifice in the face of and in spite of adversity, danger and weakness. Is the US really a nation of cowards when it comes to handling race issues in everyday life? Are we also a nation of heroes that have overcome cowardice to move us forward over the past 200 years? Is Holder actually a hero for daring to broach the subject so candidly? Are there enough heroes to push us to the next level of racial equality in the US? Is there a hero in you?

On February 21, 1981 in Black History...
Vivian Marsh
Vivian Osborne Marsh, a local community activist and government official, was one of the most influential African-Americans in the San Francisco area. In honor of her life of service to the community, in 1981 the mayor of Berkeley, CA named February 21, Vivian Osborne Marsh Day. She was the first in several areas:
1st African-American to major in Anthropology at Berkley
1st African-American women along with Belinda Davis Mabsonto obtain Masters degrees from Berkeley.  Vivian founded the chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Berkeley.  Vivian Marsh day by the Mayor of Berkeley, California in 1981.  1st African-American to sit on the planning commission and the Board of Adjustment of Berkeley, California

Reflection: Local heroes like Vivian are in communities across the country. Highlighting local heroes demonstrate the potential in each of us, in each community to affect lasting change.

On February 8, 2009 in Black History...
CNN airs the story that Rep. John Lewis received a apology from an ex-KKK member who beat him up in 1961. John Lewis is American politician and was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. In 1961, John had been beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider in the spring of 1961. Lewis was present on the stage during the inauguration of Barack Obama, as the only living speaker from the rally at the March on Washington. Obama signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”In February 2009, Elwin Wilson, an ex-KKK member apologized to Lewis for attacking him in Montgomery in 1961. In spite of receiving angry phone calls from current KKK members accusing him of turning his back on his KKK oath and his race, he still maintains this is something he had to do. He recalled the incident on national TV while apologizing to Lewis:
"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly. "It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded. "[I remember] going directly to the Greyhound bus station," Lewis said. "We tried to enter a so-called 'white' waiting room and the moment we started through the door, a group of young men attacked us." Wilson was in the group, but said he "did more than help." He said he was the main attacker. The outburst, Wilson said, was just part of a life of hate he led for years. "I had a black baby doll in this house, and I had a little rope, and I tied it to a limb and let it hang there."

Reflection: Representative John Lewis has long been considered a national hero for his tireless dedication to the Civil Rights movement in America against cowards such as Elwin Wilson acted as a coward as he and others attacked Lewis in 1961 and led an overal life of hate. 50 years later he has emerged as a hero in his repentence and rejection of hate. Having the courage to apologize to someone he hated and having the courage to turn his back on former comrades is heroic indeed. This story is yet another sign that not only do heroes exist in the form on John Lewis, who graciously forgave him, but that it is never too late for a coward to turn into a hero.

Full Text of AG Holder's speech:

Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice African American History Month Program
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Every year, in February, we attempt to recognize and to appreciate black history. It is a worthwhile endeavor for the contributions of African Americans to this great nation are numerous and significant. Even as we fight a war against terrorism, deal with the reality of electing an African American as our President for the first time and deal with the other significant issues of the day, the need to confront our racial past, and our racial present, and to understand the history of African people in this country, endures. One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must - and will - lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.
We commemorated five years ago, the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And though the world in which we now live is fundamentally different than that which existed then, this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have. To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race. And so I would suggest that we use February of every year to not only commemorate black history but also to foster a period of dialogue among the races. This is admittedly an artificial device to generate discussion that should come more naturally, but our history is such that we must find ways to force ourselves to confront that which we have become expert at avoiding.
As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.
As a nation we should use Black History month as a means to deal with this continuing problem. By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character based, acceptance can actually be realized. To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another. And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little. Imagine if you will situations where people- regardless of their skin color- could confront racial issues freely and without fear. The potential of this country, that is becoming increasingly diverse, would be greatly enhanced. I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us". There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own, narrow self interest. Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made. If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted- and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about fifty years- the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely- and to do so now.
As I indicated before, the artificial device that is Black History month is a perfect vehicle for the beginnings of such a dialogue. And so I urge all of you to use the opportunity of this month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters. In this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America.
It is also clear that if we are to better understand one another the study of black history is essential because the history of black America and the history of this nation are inextricably tied to each other. It is for this reason that the study of black history is important to everyone- black or white. For example, the history of the United States in the nineteenth century revolves around a resolution of the question of how America was going to deal with its black inhabitants. The great debates of that era and the war that was ultimately fought are all centered around the issue of, initially, slavery and then the reconstruction of the vanquished region. A dominant domestic issue throughout the twentieth century was, again, America's treatment of its black citizens. The civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's changed America in truly fundamental ways. Americans of all colors were forced to examine basic beliefs and long held views. Even so, most people, who are not conversant with history, still do not really comprehend the way in which that movement transformed America. In racial terms the country that existed before the civil rights struggle is almost unrecognizable to us today. Separate public facilities, separate entrances, poll taxes, legal discrimination, forced labor, in essence an American apartheid, all were part of an America that the movement destroyed. To attend her state’s taxpayer supported college in 1963 my late sister in law had to be escorted to class by United States Marshals and past the state’s governor, George Wallace. That frightening reality seems almost unthinkable to us now. The civil rights movement made America, if not perfect, better.
In addition, the other major social movements of the latter half of the twentieth century- feminism, the nation's treatment of other minority groups, even the anti-war effort- were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality. Those other movements may have occurred in the absence of the civil rights struggle but the fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment. Further, many of the tactics that were used by these other groups were developed in the civil rights movement.
And today the link between the black experience and this country is still evident. While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken. Our inner cities are still too conversant with crime but the level of fear generated by that crime, now found in once quiet, and now electronically padlocked suburbs is alarming and further demonstrates that our past, present and future are linked. It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society.
Black history is extremely important because it is American history. Given this, it is in some ways sad that there is a need for a black history month. Though we are all enlarged by our study and knowledge of the roles played by blacks in American history, and though there is a crying need for all of us to know and acknowledge the contributions of black America, a black history month is a testament to the problem that has afflicted blacks throughout our stay in this country. Black history is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment by our society in general and by our educational institutions in particular. As a former American history major I am struck by the fact that such a major part of our national story has been divorced from the whole. In law, culture, science, athletics, industry and other fields, knowledge of the roles played by blacks is critical to an understanding of the American experiment. For too long we have been too willing to segregate the study of black history. There is clearly a need at present for a device that focuses the attention of the country on the study of the history of its black citizens. But we must endeavor to integrate black history into our culture and into our curriculums in ways in which it has never occurred before so that the study of black history, and a recognition of the contributions of black Americans, become commonplace. Until that time, Black History Month must remain an important, vital concept. But we have to recognize that until black history is included in the standard curriculum in our schools and becomes a regular part of all our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty, relatively unimportant and not as weighty as so called "real" American history.
I, like many in my generation, have been fortunate in my life and have had a great number of wonderful opportunities. Some may consider me to be a part of black history. But we do a great disservice to the concept of black history recognition if we fail to understand that any success that I have had, cannot be viewed in isolation. I stood, and stand, on the shoulders of many other black Americans. Admittedly, the identities of some of these people, through the passage of time, have become lost to us- the men, and women, who labored long in fields, who were later legally and systemically discriminated against, who were lynched by the hundreds in the century just past and those others who have been too long denied the fruits of our great American culture. The names of too many of these people, these heroes and heroines, are lost to us. But the names of others of these people should strike a resonant chord in the historical ear of all in our nation: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Charles Drew, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Vivian Malone, Rosa Parks, Marion Anderson, Emmit Till. These are just some of the people who should be generally recognized and are just some of the people to whom all of us, black and white, owe such a debt of gratitude. It is on their broad shoulders that I stand as I hope that others will some day stand on my more narrow ones.
Black history is a subject worthy of study by all our nation's people. Blacks have played a unique, productive role in the development of America. Perhaps the greatest strength of the United States is the diversity of its people and to truly understand this country one must have knowledge of its constituent parts. But an unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force. An appreciation of the unique black past, acquired through the study of black history, will help lead to understanding and true compassion in the present, where it is still so sorely needed, and to a future where all of our people are truly valued.
Thank you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Black Pioneers of the Pacific Northwest

"To those....obliged to exchange a cultured region for a howling wilderness, we recommend the western wilds....where the ploughshares of prejudice have been unable to penetrate the soil."

Over the span of a century, the black population of Alaska, Oregon and Washington grew from 200,000 to 1.8 million due to a migration of blacks to the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon Black Pioneers 1780-1990

"A Negro may have a few more doors closed to him and he may find them a little harder to open, but he can open them, he must keep trying."

DeNorval Unthank (1899-1977)

Civil Rights Leader in Portland, Oregon
Why Oregon? Many Black people first moved to Oregon to escape racism and slavery in the east.
Challenges to Freedom: Slavery was illegal, however were "Black Laws" passed in Oregon by territorial authorities that severely restricted the rights of African-Americans. One such law was the Lash Law that required that blacks be beaten twice a year. The law was later changed to forced labor instead of beatings. Another law was passed that did not include the right to own land for black people. Other exclusion laws were passed and Oregon became the first state to be admitted into the Union with exlusion laws.
DeNorval Unthank, doctor and civil rights activist, spent most of his life confronting social and institutional racism. After moving his family to an all white neighborhood in Portand, Oregon in 1929 and opening a private medical practice in Portland, he and his family were frequently targets of racial hostility with broken windows, threatening phone calls, etc. Refusing to submit to racism, he worked to overcome the economic and social barriers in Oregon.
In 1958, the Oregon Medical Society named him Doctor of the Year. For his role in bringing down racial barriers, the city of Portland named DeNorval Unthank Park in North Portland in his honor in 1969. Unthank was the recipient of several citizenship awards, the first African American member of the Portland City Club, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), cofounder of the Portland Urban League and sat on Oregon’s Committee for Equal Rights and the Council of Social Agencies.

Washington Black Pioneers 1830 - 1990
Why Washington? Many African-Americans first moved to Washington to escape the "Black Laws" passed in Oregon.

Challenges to Freedom: Could not vote
George Bush, successful Missouri farmer, set out for Oregon and switched course to Washington when he learned that black exclusionary laws were passed. After settling in the first permanent settlement on the Puget Sound, Bush built the first grist mill and saw mill in 1846 and 1847. He also quickly established a fine farm on the prairie south of the Deschutes Falls. Their right to the homestead was challenged in 1850 when the Donation Land Claim Act provided free land exclusively to white settlers. A petition signed by fifty-five members of the first Territorial Legislature in 1854, and an Act of Congress the following year, allowed Bush and his wife the right to own their land. Bush, however, was never allowed to vote.

Alaska Black Pioneers 1860 - 1990

Why Alaska? Many African-Americans first moved to Alaska during gold rush and then as soldiers. The first African-Americans in Alaska were whalest and other seamen who settled following the Alaska Purchase in 1867. Many came after the 1897 discovery of gold in the Canadian Yukon. The US was in depression and the gold rush was hope. Many stayed after that.
In the 4 years during and after the gold rush, there were 158 members of the company of the 24th infaltry were stationed at Dyea and Skagway to help preserve laws and order. Many chose to stay in Alaska after.

Challenges to Freedom: Social Racism

Bessie Couture became the first black business owner in Alaska when she opened the Balck and White Restaurant in Skagwag, Alaska.

Alaska Black Engineers - This African American-manned 95th Engineer Battalion (General Service) was formed in April 1941 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia as part of the U.S. Army buildup preceding World War II. This once forgotten group of African-American men were largely responsible for building the Alcan Highway.
"When America needed a highway through
The lads of black all ressed in brown
carved out a road from frozen ground
from dawson to delta junction
they hatched and chopped and froze their toes
to save America from its foes

Many a night they went to bed
with bodies black and blue and red
mosquitoes, black flies.....?
Hd bitten through their clothes and gotten through
in muck ad mire, brimstone and fire
Tthey buldozd thier way and didn't tire"
J. Roscoe Hurst, Poet

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Having the Nerve to Walk

"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen

Zora Neale Hurston, path-breaking novelist, pioneering anthropologist and one of the first black women to enter the American literary canon (Their Eyes Were Watching God), established the African American vernacular as one of the most vital, inventive voices in American literature. This definitive film biography, eighteen years in the making, portrays Zora in all her complexity: gifted, flamboyant, and controversial but always fiercely original.

Back to the Land of the Free

On February 6 in Black History...

In 1820, the first organized group of emigrating freed slaves departed on on February 6, The Elizabeth from New York to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. The enterprise was organized by the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by educator Robert Finley (1772-1817) with the mission of returning freed American slaves to Africa. Finley had taught in Charleston, S.C., a slave-importing port. In 1819, Congress had authorized the return of freed black slaves. The lawmakers appropriated $100,000, a large sum at the time, to be used in returning displaced Africans who had been brought to the United States illegally after the abolishment of the slave trade in 1808. With congressional approval, the American Colonization Society in 1821 founded the colony of Liberia, which means Land of the Free, located south of Sierra Leone, as a permanent homeland for freed U.S. slaves.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Birth of a Movement

On February 4, in Black History...

In 1974 on February 4, France abolishes slavery. The nation will have a lukewarm commitment to abolition and will, under Napoleon, reestablish slavery in 1802 along with the reinstitution of the "Code noir", prohibiting blacks, mulattoes and other people of color from entering French colonial territory or intermarrying with whites.

In 1913, on February 4 Rosa Parks, mother of the modern day civil rights movement was born. On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks, age 42, refused to obey bus driver James Blake's order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. Her action was not the first of its kind.  But unlike these previous individual actions of civil disobedience, Parks' action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 
Parks eventually received many honors ranging from the 1979 Spingarn Medal to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall. Her death in 2005 was a major story in the United States' leading newspapers. She was granted the posthumous honor of lying in honor at the Capitol Rotunda. 
In her autobiography, My Story, Mrs. Parks remarks on that day on the bus:
“People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in" in." 

15th Amendment then and now....

On Februray 3 in Black History...15th Amendment, baseball and Eric Holder

In 1870, Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:
  • Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
  • Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Even though this amendment was not fully realized until the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it was an important step in voting rights for African-Americans.
On March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson became the 1st African American to vote. He was a school custodian in New Jersey and became the city's first African-American to hold elected office and the first African-American to sit on a Jury. The school he worked in was later named for him.

In 1886, the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists became the first Negro league. It was not until 1920 that an organized African-American league (the Negro National League) survived a full season. The second league formed in 1923 (Eastern Colored League), and the following year the Kansas City Monarchs defeated the Philadelphia Hilldales in the first "colored" World Series. Many great teams played in the Negro Leagues, as did many great players. Some students of baseball consider James "Cool Papa" Bell the smoothest and fleetest outfielder ever to play and that Josh Gibson, who averaged.362 over his 16-year career, was the best offensive threats of the times. Of course, no list could be complete without the legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige, the greatest pitcher of the Negro Leagues.

In 2009, 139 years later, Eric Holder was sworn in as the first African-American Attorney General of the United States.
Holder was appointed by President Clinton to serve as the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C. in 1993 becoming the first African-American to serve in the position. During his four-year term, he created a domestic violence unit, a community prosecution project, and a program for restricting gun laws. In 1997, Holder made history yet again when President Clinton nominated him to be the deputy attorney general and became the first African-American elected to the position, as well as the highest-ranking black person in law enforcement in the history of the United States at that time.
He was also featured in the 2007 edition of The Best Lawyers in America, and in 2008 he was named by The National Law Journal as one of "The Most 50 Influential Minority Lawyers in America" as well as by Legal Times for being one of the "Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Past 30 Years."

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