In historical perspective.
November 3, 2008 8:29 AM   Subscribe

The fierce urgency of now and then. On May 24, 1963, concerned about the potential for race-related riots nationwide after Birmingham, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with group of prominent black intellectuals and artists, such as Kenneth Clark, Clarence B. Jones, and Harry Belafonte, in a meeting organized by James Baldwin (YouTube 7:07... and also 6:27 and 6:28, if you're interested.) The tone of this emotionally wrenching meeting, however, would be greatly influenced by the presence of fifteen-year-old Jerome Smith, a nonviolent CORE volunteer who was being treated in New York for jaw and head injuries sustained after a brutal beating by segregationists in Mississippi.

Kennedy, who at first tried to address the meeting with facts and figures, soon found himself on the defensive, confronted by Smith's revulsion for the very necessity of the meeting, and his unwillingness to fight a theoretical war in Cuba while American civil rights workers weren't protected at home, and were perilously close to renouncing nonviolence.

"Kennedy said, as he had before, that his grandparents had encountered discrimination and now, two generations later, his brother was President; a negro would be President within forty years. Baldwin replied furiously, "Your family has been here for three generations. My family has been here far longer than that. Why is your brother at the top while we are still so far away? That's the heart of the problem.'"
posted by markkraft (12 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It occurs to me that I missed a link for Birmingham.

This one seems most appropriate.
posted by markkraft at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2008

James Baldwin is fucking awesome. It's a shame Baldwin won't be around to see how things play out tomorrow. His last book is SO angry. He doesn't seem to be the same person after they killed MLK.

The video you linked to is from this series of interviews: The Negro and the American Promise. This quote from that interview is great:
What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.
posted by chunking express at 9:07 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for putting this terrific post together.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 10:21 AM on November 3, 2008

Magnificent post, thank you.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:54 AM on November 3, 2008

Great stuff.
posted by caddis at 11:19 AM on November 3, 2008

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.

He was exactly right about this. Thanks, this is a great post and food for thought.
posted by Tehanu at 1:16 PM on November 3, 2008

This is great because it well illustrates how difficult it is to get it for even the whites who want to care to comprehend the black experience. Too many people are so quick to just quote facts and figures, to see the progress, yet fail to comprehend the enduring wall, large, massive, yet largely invisible to whites, through which blacks are so rarely given passage. We are likely to see Obama win tomorrow in a huge sledgehammer blow to that wall. There are many reasons why his experience is different than the typical black experience growing up, but nevertheless this will be historic. He's a pretty amazing guy too so he could actually be as great a president as Lincoln etc. At this point, given how awful GW was, I would happily settle for merely competent. America has suffered in image, and that takes work. If you have traveled outside the country in the last few years it is clear that the American Dream is the world's dream and GW and company have done more to dash that dream than any terrorist, Marxist, Socialist, evil doer, boogey man, you name it. The rest of the world is rooting for America to bring back the dream and they see Obama, not McCain, as the man to do it. The Statue of Liberty has wept for eight long years. Let's give her something to smile for. It's for us, it's for our dream, it's for our soul, and it's for the whole world's dream. Don't fuck it up, because if this black man is pounded down in the election, the riots of '68 will look quaint by comparison. It could very well destroy the entire union.
posted by caddis at 6:56 PM on November 3, 2008

Fantastic post.

I am just reading more on this era, and it is fascinating hearing the stories. Just today there was a piece on BBC radio about Morehouse College, and recently on Fresh Air they replayed Terri Gross interviewing J.L. Chestnut in 1990. It's amazing to me that much of this happened in my lifetime.

My own family, until recently, is as about as white as you can get. My parents immigrated to the United States from Holland in the mid 50's. My oldest brother and his wife in the past couple of years adopted 3 biracial children. In order to be a good uncle, I feel like I need to know more about what they might face in terms of discrimination as well as the history of it, and to be able to talk to them should they ever come to me to talk. I'm great at being the crazy uncle, but I feel like I need to be better prepared for them. Yeah, it took having these great kids in my family for me to not take all this for granted, which I have been, but it's a start.
posted by Eekacat at 7:24 PM on November 3, 2008

Honestly, I don't know how people are supposed to have a fair and open talk about race in America, without understanding the reasons for black anger and hopelessness.

My family were immigrants from Germany and England, not slave owners... and yet, I still feel a strong sense of pain, regret, and a deep personal resentment regarding the situation of race in America.

Sometimes, I see someone who is black and obviously has had a long day, doing pretty ungrateful, unrewarding, soul stealing work. And sometimes, I can see their unhappiness and their soul being crushed. And I'd like to start up a conversation or to sympathize, but Americans are so used to being afraid of each other that it's practically become an act of rudeness to say hello to a random person. And so, maybe I look them in the eye, nod, and walk on by.

I go to my home, and they go to theirs, and for awhile on my way there, I feel a sense of loss and a kind of grieving for this separation and this loss of what is missing. I feel at loss for the right words for such a situation, as if any words would be adequate.

And frankly, I don't think it's just me that feels like this at times. I hope not.

It's been good, though, to see moments over the last few months where people of all races do connect at times, and where they do talk to each other about the weighty issues at hand, smile, and connect.

It is perhaps a shame that this election will be decided by votes, and not in a caucus, when cities and towns would unite, proudly declare their support for the best candidate, regardless of race, and perhaps heal.

The question is, what will we, as Americans, do several months down the road when it's perhaps not so easy to openly unite around a shared ideal? Will it be business-as-usual again?

Hope seems likely to narrowly prevail over fear, this time... but what will we do to see to it that we don't fall back into that trap?
posted by markkraft at 10:15 PM on November 3, 2008

Today I am reminded of this quote:
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky." -- James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues
posted by chunking express at 6:23 AM on November 4, 2008

My favorite fun fact about 1963 in Birmingham came later in 1976 when Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley received a threatening letter from the KKK calling him, "an honorary ni**ar" for pursing charges againt Robert Chambliss for blowing up the 16th Street Baptist Church. Baxleys reply on state letterhead:

My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is - kiss my ass.


Bill Baxley,
Attorney General
posted by Pollomacho at 6:32 AM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fresh Air they replayed Terri Gross interviewing J.L. Chestnut in 1990.

Fuck JL Chestnut.

I was a student of Selma High School in 1989. Selma High had a student population of about 2000 students, 60% were black, 40% were white. The city of Selma had a population that was closer to 50-50. The 10 member school board, as elected by the population as a whole, consisted of 5 white members and 5 black members. The superintendant of schools, Norwood Rousell, who happened to be the first african-american superintendant in Selma, had had some early successes in raising test scores using a system of "leveling" whereas AP track students were placed in a top level and vocational students were placed on a vocational track. Those in the middle were placed on a standard, but decent, high school diploma track.

The schools were one of the few things that were good about Selma. The historic downtown business around the Edmund Pettus Bridge was long gone to the bypass where the Wal-mart and K-mart were. Agriculture died with king cotton in the area. The schools though were churning out college graduates and this was drawing the attention of more and more corporations. Paper companies all had regional headquarters in the area. The US governmet opened a uniform factory for soldiers. Selma looked like it was on its way back from the deep depression left by the death of cotton and it was all because the city had a commitment to quality schools.

So the school board, eager to keep up the success decided that the superintendant was no longer working out. They proposed to install the very popular principal of the largest Jr. High in town, Westside (where I went to Jr. High). Dr. Carter was a large, lumbering dark skinned man who cut an imposing figure. You might think he was scary if you met him, but really he was a big, soft teddy-bear. Once when a student I knew was sent to the office for fighting it was determined that he would have to receive corpoal punishment, a paddlin'. He was ushered into Dr. Carter's office and was terribly frightened as Dr. Carter turned around holding the large oak paddle that the shop class made for him at the end of every year, air holes for better aerodynamics and all. Dr. Carter had my friend stand and grap the arms of a chair, then Dr. Carter gently patted the paddle onto the back of his legs. Then he wispered, "OK son, now let out a yell so they can hear you outside" and he whacked the crap out of the leather couch. Dr. Carte then sent my friend packing, but told him to behave and to tell everyone that he'd gotten a really doozie of a paddlin'.

1992 was going to be an election year in Selma for the US House seat. Everyone knew JL Chestnut's law partner Hank Sanders and his wife Rose were plotting to get Hank into that seat, but Hank hadn't made the usual scene that had typically pushed him into the state house of representatives. Politically Selma was a very dirty town. Though everyone was a democrat, there were three brands of coalitions working for control of the Party ticket. Hank, Rose and JL controlled the extremist Black vote. The mayor Joe Smitherman, and other old-boy whites ran the other extreme. In the center was a loose confederation of "progressive" whites and blacks. To all observers the center looked like the best choice for everyone, but the two extreme ends alway played off each other to divde the electorate. Neither side wanted to let the center steal their votes, so while they railed against each other constantly, they also worked together to hold onto and share power. Hank needed something big to push him over the top if he was going to get above the local level. The firing of the superintendant of schools was his chance.

Hank and Rose Sanders and their partner JL Chestnut held a press conference. The firing of the superintendant was clearly racially motivated. The school board was racist. Having 5 white members dienfranchised the students who were a 6 to 4 majority black (as opposed to voters who were 5-5) the board should be tossed out and replaced with 6 blacks and 4 whites. Anyone who argued otherwise was racist. I am a racist for writing this. The madness began. Marches were held, candlelight vigils. Student rallies were held on campus in the mornings in which students were encouraged to "fight the power" which translated into beat up white kids. In reaction the white extreme cranked up their rehtorical machine inciting retaliatory acts by white supremacists. The city was becoming a powder keg. The centrist coalition could do nothing to stop the wheels from turning at this point. On January 10, 1990 an estimated croud of 30,000 surrounded the school including 1000 african-american students. The croud literally screamed things like "kill whitey" and began showering the school with rocks and bottles. Teachers frantically tried to chain and bearricade the doors to protect the 1000 students still inside. I was one of them. We piled desks up in front of doors and listened as the windows came in and the croud tried to smash their way inside. I asked some of my lifelong black friends if they would help me if the croud made it inside. They told me that there was not much they could do and we agreed that they should just save themselves by blending into the mob.

Then the national guard arrived, not a moment too soon. A tank, yes a tank was driven up the drive of the school, parting the crowd. Soldiers with rifles held people back and parents were permitted to enter the office area and students were called one-by-one to meet their parents where they would be escorted off the grounds by armed soldiers. After several agonizing hours, my name, my glorious name came over the intercom. I ran to the office, sprinted, through the broken glass, past the classrooms, past the library, past my locker, past the good school I had loved to the office where my dad, a priest and community organizer for the center, was waiting to save me. He and two soldiers in olive uniforms escorted me to the car through a gauntlet of smitting, screaming, rock and bottle trowing. I was one of the last students out and he told me to get in and lie down on the floor and wait. I waited for an hour until he came back with a friend of mine who's mom was stuck at work and gave us (unlicenced 15 year olds) the keys. He then turned and wadded back into crowd. I could see his balding white head at the flag pole as the National Guard pulled back allowing them to flood the school. He disappeared.

I drove home for the first time. I never went back to Selma High. I never even drove by it again, too hurt, too afraid, too scarred. I went off to boarding school. Most of my white friends went to white flight christian schools and Selma public schools went from 60-40 to 99:1 overnight. My mom went back to clean out my locker and someone spit on her.

Hank Sanders lost the primary in 1992 to a more moderate black attorney from Birmingham, Earl Hilliard. Selma has since lost the paper mills. Even Wal-Mart closed up shop. The once up-and-coming town is dead, though, there is an interesting ray of light. Some of the white-flight schools realized that they could do better if they banded together and further, the "progressive" influences have convinced them that integration is the best way forward and many are opening up their doors to black students. Someof these schools are seeing college entrance and graduation ranks reaching the level that Selma High was at in 1990 before the madness and there could be a resurgence of this terribly depressed area. That is, until the madness sets in again.

So, I say again, fuck JL Chestnut.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:49 AM on November 4, 2008

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