Point of View Columns

King Had More Than a Dream

The recent national celebration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated the caution with which the lens of history should be used. Obviously history depends upon who is telling the story and what are the motives of the historian. In the case of Martin Luther King there are competing motives.

Many of the celebrants who extol Dr. King’s virtues as a peacemaker and an advocate of universal harmony conveniently forget (or neglect) the broader of the story of this man. Seen through the lens of the times in which he lived he was a radical. Dr. King fought against a system of American institutionalized racism that was so vicious that a man could be killed for seeking the vote for Black Americans (e.g. Medgar Evers shot to death in his driveway in Mississippi in 1963 or for going to church on Sunday to worship God (four Black girls murdered by Ku Klux Klan bombers at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, also in 1963)

Only a radical Black man would stand up against the system of American racism that had countenanced, indeed accepted, the lynching of thousands of Black men and women in the 100 years prior to the Montgomery bus boycott that brought Dr. King to national attention. And only a radical Black man would seek to inspire Black people to shed the cloak of subtle resistance and instead to take up the armor of confronting the hatred and racism that flowed unchecked through the American bloodstream.

Much has been made about Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence without taking into account that he understood the very radical strategy employed successfully by Mahatma Gandhi. Both Gandhi and Dr. King understood that their enemy – the British in India and white American racists (and their enablers) in America, would meet resistance and protest with unimaginably vicious violence and hatred.

They both understood that strategically, exposing the imperialists in India and the racists in America for who they were would ultimately induce such shame and disgust that change would have to come. Certainly the imperfect results in India and America should not diminish the understanding that true victories were won against odds that would have been insuperable in violent conflict.

Dr. King espoused nonviolence as a strategy. He did not advocate complacency or the peaceful and timid acceptance of the status quo. Dr. King sought to uproot the status quo and for proof we need to go no further than to remember that Dr. King identified income equality and poverty as evils that also had to be confronted. He also understood the error of American imperialism so tragically exposed in the Vietnam War. And for taking those positions he was criticized and shunned by many in a country that now seeks to honor a sanitized version of a man who sought to change the world.

Even the so-called “I Have a Dream” speech has been misinterpreted and miscast as an expression of hope for a better day in some vague day in the by and by. But a more truthful understanding of his radical call for change on that August day in 1963 is revealed in his words before his reference to the “dream”. Consider some of these excerpts, clearly spoken and just as clearly, conveniently ignored:

“One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”

“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

These were the words of a man who had a clear-eyed vision of the vile and hateful nature of institutionalized racism and these were the words of a man who fought against it literally to his dying day. Those who wish to praise Dr. King without acknowledging his radical stance in the face of what were (and are) overwhelming odds, do not do justice to his memory.

Those who wish sugarcoat the memory of Dr. King through mythical hagiography dishonor everything that he stood for and died for.

It is right to remember Dr. King. It is also right to remember that he had a lot more than a dream.

 

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Point of View Columns

A Hate Supreme

Part of the singularly American mindset is the belief that the stated ideals of this country constitute reality, when in fact that is not, and has not, been the case – ever. The Declaration of Independence speak to all men being created equal and there is no doubt that not one of the signatories actually believed it.

The Constitution speaks about “we the people” when the so-called white and largely slave holding Founding Fathers absolutely did not believe for a nanosecond that “the people” included women, white men without property, black people or the indigenous people who had the horrible misfortune of living on land that white Europeans coveted and stole.

It is this willful blindness that has created a public conversation regarding the “rise” of white supremacy and white nationalism and white terrorism as if the recent massacres committed by self-confessed white nationalists is representative of some kind of new phenomenon that is new to America. All the while, even a passing familiarity with American history would reveal that white supremacy/nationalism/terrorism is embedded in the American DNA.

Consider that only an absolute belief in white supremacy could justify Europeans coming to what became North America and claiming the entire continent despite the fact that millions of indigenous people had established civilizations over thousands of years. And, after the first “explorers” “discovered” that this continent was huge and bountiful, the concept of Manifest Destiny proclaimed that some divine right empowered white Americans to literally steal an entire continent.

Consider that even before there was a United States, race-based slavery was an absolute fact of life. And this “peculiar institution” was founded on the notion of white supremacy and the innate inferiority of people of African descent. This concept was embedded so deeply that a Civil War was fought in order to divest slaves from the slave owners who believed so deeply in white supremacy that were willing to kill and die for their belief.

Consider that after the Civil War and throughout the 20th century, state sanctioned white terrorism – based on concepts of white supremacy and white nationalism – victimized black Americans, not only in the South, but in virtually every part of these United States. For those exposed to only the sanitized version of American history, it is important to know that this is the 100th anniversary of the “Red Summer” when over 1000 black men, women and children were murdered by mobs of white terrorists in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The bodies of the victims were dumped into a common grave. And it was during this same summer of 1919 that the black town of Rosewood, Florida and its residents were wiped from the face of the earth by mobs of white terrorists.

It is important to understand that the concept of white supremacy countenanced the white terrorist lynching of thousands of black citizens throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And it was that same concept white supremacy that allowed white Americans who did not participate directly in this carnage to turn a blind eye and do absolutely nothing.

It was a white supremacist terrorists who blew up the church in Birmingham, Alabama killing four black girls. And it was white supremacist terrorists who killed Emmit Till and Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman and Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Harry T. Moore and Viola Liuzzo and so many more.

White supremacy, white nationalism are not new to America. These vile notions are unworthy of the stated ideals of this country but they are as much a part of history as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

And certainly, the first step to addressing this sad and pathetic aspect of the American Way is to acknowledge the truth – white supremacist terrorism is part of the American Way and it cannot be removed until it is acknowledged.

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Point of View Columns

The Difference Between White Robes and Black Robes

Sometimes irony just isn’t very funny. The Supreme Court is currently considering a case where it is contended that the Voting Rights Act of 1964 should be overturned as it is no longer necessary. Wouldn’t you know that the case is being brought by the State of Alabama. And wouldn’t you know that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks that is just fine.

A quick tutorial – the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964 to provide a legal framework that would protect black people in the South who were regularly lynched, bombed and massacred for trying to exercise their right to vote. The fact that much of the violence directed against black men and women (and their white supporters) was sanctioned by the southern state and local governments made it absolutely necessary for the federal government to step in.

The law has stated that before any state can make any fundamental changes in the voting process those changes have to be approved by the United States Department of Justice. Not surprisingly, there are nine states on the federal government’s “watch list”, and all nine states are southern states, each with a bloody and grisly history of violence against black people, especially when it comes to voting.

We now fast forward to 2013 and the attorney general of the state of Alabama comes before the Supreme Court of the United States and argues with a straight face that the Voting Rights Act of 1964 is no longer needed because Alabama, like the rest of this country is in a post-racial era and there need be no further worry about government-sponsored discrimination against black people or other minorities.

Incredibly, if you are reading this during the daytime, the state flag of Alabama, a St. Andrew’s Cross modeled after the Confederate flag is flying over the state capital in Montgomery. For some perspective, imagine a German provincial government disavowing anti-Semitism while flying a flag “modeled after the Nazi swastika” and you can understand why the United States Department of Justice along with black people of Alabama look at that state’s post-racial contention with something less than confidence.

Now comes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, he of the ScaliaRobertsAlitoThomas right wing cabal. Although he had a singularly undistinguished career as a lawyer he somehow has stumbled onto the pages of American history as one of the architects of the highjacking and theft of an American presidential election in 2000.

Not satisfied with that unfortunate distinction, Justice Scalia is now taking the lead in rolling back the legal and legislative accomplishments of the civil rights movement. During oral arguments he had the temerity and reptilian insensitivity to refer to the Voting Rights Act of 1964 as another example of “racial entitlement”.

Where does one begin with racism soaked in stupidity and ignorance? In 1964 Justice Scalia was 28 years old and a lawyer who had already graduated from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. It is impossible that he was not aware of that Birmingham, Alabama was known as “Bombingham” because of the relentless bombing attacks carried out by white citizens against black people who sought to exercise their right to vote.

Antonin Scalia may feign ignorance, but he had to know about the four black girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bomb because that church was the base for civil rights efforts. He had to know about Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman and Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo and the Ku Klux Klan and George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama blocking the entry of a black woman who wanted to attend school.

To term the Voting Rights Act or any civil rights legislation “racial entitlement” is either ignorant or racist. That is because one would have to be ignorant of the institutional racism that consistently denied civil rights and humanity to black people since the ratification of the Constitution that sanctioned slavery in 1789.

One would have to be a racist to think that dismantling an legal and legislative infrastructure that imperfectly protects the rights of blacks and minorities could possibly be a good thing. Antonin Scalia is the son of an Italian immigrant family that never faced obstacles to the exercise of his civil rights as his father could literally get off a boat from Sicily and immediately walk a paved road to citizenship.

How dare Antonin Scalia and the AlitoRobertsScaliaThomas cabal try to deny that right to black Americans or anyone else? There may be a day when specific civil rights legislation to protect the rights of blacks other minorities and women is not necessary.

This is not that day and Antonin Scalia should know that.

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Be My Guest

Be My Guest Column by Dr. William Pollard

Reflections on 9/11

A quiet, bright, sunny, September morning.

People were going about their routine business. The warm sun’s glow seemed to comfort all.

Suddenly in a horrifying instant the peace was shattered — a loud explosion, screams, flames spewing out of windows, smoke clouding the streets obscuring vision amidst the panic and chaos.

Sirens screeched as police and firefighters rushed to the scene while people frantically searched for loved ones in the mass of confusion.

In that terrible moment more than brick and mortar, more than glass — even more than lives were shattered. Peace and hope and freedom from fear were also torn apart that September morning.

The Date: September 15, 1963
The Place: 16th Street Baptist Church; Birmingham, Alabama
The Dead: 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins; 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley;
14-year-old Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair
The Injured: Some 20 others, 10-year-old Sarah Collins who lost her right eye

This act of terrorism was by no means the first on American soil and far from the first in Birmingham, where there had been three other bombings in 11 days following a federal court order that had mandated the integration of Alabama’s school system. In the previous 18 years there had been at least 50 bombings there. It should come as no surprise that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Subsequent violence in the city led to the killing of two Black boys, one by police bullets, prompting the National Guard to be summoned in to restore order.

This came just thee months after the assassination of Medgar Evers, for whom the college is named. Evers was a civil rights activist and an NAACP Field Secretary.

As we mourn the losses of those who died on September 11, 2001, and honor those who were involved in heroic acts on that day, we should not lose sight of the fact that acts of terrorism in America did not begin on either of those September days.

The moral outrage over the vicious murder of four little girls who were sitting in Sunday school, led to outrage around the country. It helped provide a momentum of support behind the struggle for equal rights and end to segregation. Within two years there came passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965.

What then has been the legacy of September 11, 2001? What can we point to that has spawned some lasting good?

Many may express despair with reports of acts of harassment and violence against Middle Eastern and Muslim people here in the United States. Or the feelings and attitudes of apprehension and suspicion that many harbor since the September 11 attacks. Those unfortunate facts cannot be denied.

Then came the 10th anniversary commemoration. I was stuck by the images of the powerful and tasteful memorial at the World Trade Center site, as well as the progress made on the new towers being built. It occurred to me that we are all in a rebuilding process.

It is a rebuilding of the spirit of America and of freedom that cannot be destroyed by bullets or bombs. It is a freedom that the people in Birmingham and places throughout the south sacrificed so much for. They managed to build more than the buildings – they rebuilt their faith and dedication to freedom.

And that is what I see happening here in New York City.

When you look closely — when I walk the halls of Medgar Evers College and the streets of its Crown Heights community, I see something happening. I see a glass that is more than half full with students and faculty, and staff and folks on the block, learning, working, playing and living together. People who are trying to manage, people trying to succeed and excel.

The rebuilding is usually not a dramatic process, but it is evident in those most simple, routine, things.

After all isn’t that what freedom is — being able to go about your routine in peace? Shopping, working, playing, socializing, traveling – even going to Sunday school on a bright September morning?

And although there is still much rebuilding to do, when I look at Medgar Evers College’s diverse community I know that we are all sharing in the rebuilding Medgar’s dream and that of many others out of the some dark days of our past.

Dr. William Pollard is president of Medgar Evers College – http://www.mec.cuny.edu

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