Civil rights up close

My wife and I visited the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC yesterday. Why Greensboro? It is built on the location of the first African-American sit-ins at the “whites only” Woolworth’s restaurant counter. The counter and chairs remain as they looked back in 1960 when they were sat in by the Greensboro Four: David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil.

The museum is excellent, but very sobering that such treatment could occur in a land that was supposedly free. And, as our Congress debates the rationale for reparations for slavery, what should be included in the debate is people suppressed, tortured, and/or killed during the Jim Crow period. Seeing and hearing the story of Emmett Till or the Birmingham church bombing which killed four young girls is breathtakingly sad and maddening.

I have written before about the horrific lynchings which often accompanied degradation of the poor soul’s body before and after his death. Death by hanging is a slow death and horrible things were done to the victim to make them feel worse as they died. What kind of evil can make men do that? Black men were lynched for looking at a white woman too long or at all. The great Billie Holiday captured the sadness in her song “Strange Fruit,” referencing strange fruit swinging in the trees.

The Jim Crow period rivals the horror of slavery for a key reason – these were acts committed on supposedly free people. But, their freedom was “contained” in a box of voter and economic suppression. So, Jim Crow was an orchestrated modus operandi to keep Black folks down. Whites who tried to help were also ostracized. And, what is also disturbing, too many ministers found bible verses and preached differentiation and segregation.

We must loudly condemn actions and words today by hate groups who say another group’s rights are subservient to theirs. Nazism, Apartheid, slavery and Jim Crow are part of the same demonization and hateful fabric. It is not supposed to work that way in our country. Our elected leaders are supposed to be our better angels. When they fail to lead in a manner closer to our ideals, we need to tell them so. Or, find better leaders.

Green Book is a must go

My wife, daughter and I saw the movie “Green Book” yesterday. The movie is based on the true story of an African-American concert pianist named Dr. Don Shirley who is shepherded around the Midwest and South in 1962 by an Italian-American named Tony (Lip) Vallelonga.

The movie exceeded our expectations and we highly recommend it to others. The title is based on the green book written for African-American travelers to navigate the Jim Crow south. It stars Viggo Mortenson as Tony Lip and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley. Lindi Cardelina plays an important role as Tony’s wife Dolores.

The movie was written by Tony and Dolores’ son Nick, so it is a third person retelling of the story. There are several poignant scenes that will endear you and frustrate you as the two travelers form a bond. In a separate car, two other members of the Don Shirley trio meet Shirley at the various events. They are white musicians, but provide context to why Shirley feels obligated to put himself at risk.

Rather than spoil the plot, let me end with the lead actors do justice to these two very different men. You become a part of their journey and worry about Shirley’s safety and hope Vallelonga does not add gasoline to a fire. Jim Crow was an ugly time in America and as one Southern law enforcement officer explained, Shirley was guilty of being Black in the South more so than any crime he may have committed.

Please go see it and take younger folks with you. Tony will utter a few bad words, but you will at least see him corrected by Shirley, which makes up for them. It is important to reveal the injustice that people who look like Shirley faced.

That confederate thing was about slavery

Being raised in the South, I was taught the Civil War was more about states’ rights and northern aggression rather than slavery. I saw a recent poll that showed 48% people believed that states’ rights was the principal reason for the war and only 38% said it was about slavery. This recasting of history by groups promoting white supremacy or merely teaching a white-washed message is influencing too many people. To be frank, of course, it was about slavery.

Why do I say that? One needs only to look at the formal declarations of the states who seceded from the United States of America (see the third paragraph from Texas’ declaration below*). In those documents, the words to preserve the right to own slaves (or something similar) can be consistently found. The states’ rights argument was used in support of the need to perpetuate slave ownership. If people think otherwise, let me speak purely in terms of economics, setting aside the important human argument.

In economic terms, the South quite simply treated slaves as assets to be used. Once the asset was purchased and maintained, the fruits of the labor went to the owner. Since slave owners were the wealthiest people in the South, as a result, they had the most to lose if slave ownership was done away with. Slave ownership was an economic boon for the South. It is that simple.

But, to get the white non-slave owners to fight, a good story had to be crafted. Politicians have done this for ages and still do. So, they told a good story that “we don’t want those folks in Washington telling us how to do things. We want to govern ourselves.” If they told these poorer whites what they were really fighting for, they may have been less enthusiastic participants. The pitch would have been, “come fight so I can still own slaves. And, maybe you can someday.”

I mention all of this as this fight over monuments is secondary to the renewed fight on civil rights. Many of these symbols were erected at the height of the Jim Crow era or the KKK’s fifty to ninety years after the Civil War ended. In fact, Stone Mountain, outside of Atlanta, was finished in 1972, just 45 years ago. Very few of these monuments were erected just after the Civil War. The same goes for the Confederate flag, which became more prominent after the Civil War when carried by white men wearing white sheets and hoods. These monuments are more about honoring Jim Crow than they are the Civil War. As a result, they are an insult to our African-American citizens.

Slavery is evil. God had Moses lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. Yet, too many ministers seemed to overlook that part to reinforce why it was OK to own slaves. Then, it was continued to why the races should be segregated during Jim Crow and the 1960s Civil Rights movement. One only needs to listen to the haunting words of Billie Holiday as she sings “Strange Fruit,” to get first hand what the Jim Crow era did. Humans should not own other humans – it is wrong and sinful. And, per our Constitution, which has been improved several times since it was first written, every American has equal rights, not more, not less.

Scrolling forward to today, we seem to have groups that want to refight the Civil War and Jim Crow disparaging non-whites and non-Christians. White supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis are hate groups stirring up racial tension. Do they have a right to speak in America? Yes, that is how it works. Do we have the right to say in rebuttal your words and actions are evil? You are damn right we do. Civil protest is the answer. Uncivil protest cannot be tolerated. If you bring a weapon to a protest, then you should be sent away or get a ticket voucher for the weapon as it is detained. But, it is more than OK to civilly protest evil words and actions.

America is about freedom and rights. There is a huge difference in those who say we are not being treated fairly from those who say to treat us better than they you treat others. Those missions are not the same. We all have equal rights, not more, not less.

*******************************************

* Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slaveholding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

Strange Fruit is the Monument we need to guard against

The question on whether to remove monuments built to honor Confederate leaders is a distraction from the real issue that unfortunately lingers on. The real issue is those who feel that other citizens who look, act or worship differently do not have the same rights in our country. These white supremacists are perpetuating bigotry and hatred that ran amok during the Jim Crow era. Sadly, this Jim Crow-like   oppression has resurfaced in the eyes of too many.

The real monuments we need to remember and guard against are captured in the song “Strange Fruit*” powerfully and mournfully sung by Billie Holiday. The monuments that should scare us are young black bodies swaying in the wind hanging from trees. As Holiday sings, this “strange fruit” is a painful reminder of what bigotry and hatred can do.

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

White supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK must be condemned for their bigotry and hatred. It is that simple. We should not have tolerated it then and we must not tolerate it now. And, since the President won’t condemn such behavior and his past and current words have emboldened these white supremacists, we Americans must take up that mantle and say this is not right.

* Written by Lewis Allan, Maurice Pearl, Dwayne P Wiggins

Strange Fruit – why that flag means what it does to many

I applaud the state of South Carolina for making a long overdue, but nonetheless courageous decision to take down the Confederate battle flag. What many fail to realize its heritage has two meanings, neither good. It was the initial symbol of rebellion that wanted to keep the right to slavery and not be dictated by people in Washington. Do not let people try to rewrite history using the terms we southerners liked to call it “the War of Northern Aggression.” That was propaganda then and remains propaganda today.

Yet, it also carries the meaning of Jim Crow, a period which allowed the reinforced condemnation and control of Blacks in the south, in spite of their rights on paper. This condemnation included the purposeful killing, often by hanging, of Blacks who were deemed guilty of contrived crimes or because they tried to exercise their paper rights in practice. I would ask you to watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Mississippi Burning” to get a sense of what Jim Crow was all about.

Or, we could heed the words of Billie Holiday, who sang the impactful song “Strange Fruit.”

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Songwriters
WIGGINS, DWAYNE P./PEARL, MAURICE/ALLAN, LEWIS

If you want to listen to the words, please go to the attached link. http://www.metrolyrics.com/strange-fruit-lyrics-billie-holiday.html

Taking down the battle flag is a great, symbolic step, but it has to be more than that. We need to treat everyone like we want to be treated. Jesus made no caveats with his words as to who should not be so treated. Neither should we, especially with our history that includes “a strange and bitter crop” of people who did not come close to such treatment. This is also why we should not whitewash history, as we should never allow such treatment again on our soil.

 

Billy Crystal – 700 Sundays is worth the watch

On HBO, they are currently airing a wonderful show put on by comedian Billy Crystal called “700 Sundays.”  Crystal is at his poignant, funny and reflective best as he chronicles his life through years of Sundays growing up in his house. He takes you through his impersonations and stories about his many relatives who had their charmingly, imperfect mannerisms. His mimicry is how he got started on his journey to becoming a comedian. But, he also walks you through an important piece of Americana, as his dad and uncle were pioneers in helping integrate jazz music and musicians into more people’s lives.

In fact, when his dad passed away when Billy was age 15, people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong and others were in attendance at the funeral. Billy also spoke fondly of his time with Billie Holliday, the tremendous singer. He said she called him “Mr. Billy” while he called her “Miss Billie.” He reminisces about her taking him to see his first movie – “Shane.” When he speaks of his dad’s record label Commodore recording Billie’s most powerful song “Strange Fruit” which is a protest song, he takes great pride in his family’s involvement in what some voted the most impactful song of the 20th century. Here are some of the lyrics:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

With some of the news items in the US the past few days of two racists getting headlines, I felt the timing of hearing his story about these powerful words are even more compelling and should be read and heard.

The show is a must see. It will leave you spent as he makes you laugh, cry and remember. He is so vivid in explaining scenes and settings. He makes you see, hear and smell the sights, sounds and fragrances of the place he is describing. The jazz segment is memorable, but there are other terrific segments in his storytelling – the death of his father and mother, helping his mother study for a new line of work after his dad died, falling in love with his long time wife and balancing the good with the bad things that happened in his life. Nice job, Mr. Billy. Thank you for the walk down memory lane.