Civil Rights

Together as One People

The original project to unite the people of the United States as one people began in May 1787. There’s a project taking place in New Orleans today that reminds us the project continues. The city started removing Confederate statues in the middle of the night. The original proposal to remove the symbols came in the wake of  the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and encountered countless legal challenges.

The time had come to take the statues down. The opposition gathered with Confederate flags and weapons on display. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke eloquently about why this project was necessary for getting our past right and for building a better future together.

You can’t do any better to remember what our veterans have fought for than to read the mayor’s full remarks.

A Student Steps Up: Creative Impatience and the Willingness to Act

Stepping Up

As a High School Civics teacher, I am often and absolutely embarrassed by my own lack of civic activism. While I am encouraging and requiring and rewarding my students for getting involved in something – ANYTHING! – that they care about to protect or improve their communities, I nearly never practice what I preach.

And it’s not simply that as a young, charter school teacher, my time and energy seem to disappear into an unending vortex of planning/grading/updating/bureaucracizing.
OR the fact that as a perpetual presenter of the fair and balanced, I am daily forced to equivocate, moderate and pause for a more thorough examination.

I think there’s something deeper. Some way in which I have redefined myself as a person who no longer acts. I have reclassified myself as a bystander – shudder – although admittedly a vociferous one. Still, no more than an armchair analyst – not even the passive activist I once swore never to become.

As such, I find myself curious about what it is that motivates the folks who find the activation energy to make change. The folks who answer the call of – “Someone should do something!” With “I’ll do it.” And, high school senior, Caesar Loving-Manley offers the perfect case study.

Loving-Manley has not yet attained the larger than life status of the untouchable figureheads we so often imagine leading movements – the predestined messiahs of our time. For now, he’s just a regular High School student who, when faced with the injustices of the world, used some pretty accessible tools to create something larger than himself: his impatience, his creativity, and the willingness to simply step forward and DO something.

Impatience
Caesar Loving-Manley is impatient.
Through his participation in the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project run by the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, Loving-Manley attended a workshop on public health disparities in his home town of Boston and was outraged.

The fact is that in Boston, Black and Latino kids under age 5 are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than White kids. Facilitators Abigail Ortiz and Cecilia Flores quickly dismissed the idea that those statistics are tragic byproducts of cyclic crime, irresponsible parenting or some broken window hogwash.

Low rates of asthma are linked to parks and green spaces – disproportionately absent in areas of Boston like Roxbury and Dorchester with large populations of Blacks and Latinos. High rates of asthma are linked to junkyards and bus depots – disproportionately present in Roxbury and Dorchester. And that’s just asthma! – to say nothing of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or infant mortality.

Loving-Manley paired his training through the SJPHC with a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview that he watched in 11th grade history and concluded that racism was literally killing Blacks in Boston – not race but racism.

Moving quickly from his initial reaction of: “Really? This is systemic lynching!” to: “Why? Do people know this?”, Loving-Manley felt compelled to act. Someone needed to “make people open up their eyes” and “pay closer attention” and, for Loving-Manley, there was no time to think about who it was going to be.

He explains that while others were spinning their wheels saying “what if what if what if”, he knew that our school (and, incidentally, his core support network at the school) needed “to scream it rather than just to whisper it”. He needed to shake things up.

Creativity
One of the things that has led to Caesar Loving-Manley’s success has been his natural attraction – and maybe the purely human drive – to innovate, to improve, and to be creative.

After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in November of 2014, there were a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Boston, including walk outs by students from Boston Public Schools. When Loving-Manley saw these school protests, he immediately recognized their importance but he was not impressed.

“It’s one thing to attend but it’s another thing to want to inform others. We miss educating people.”

As such, Loving-Manley decided that at our high school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim, he would not just organize a walk out, but a teach in.

“One of the major goals of the walk in was to educate people as to what’s going on to make clear the severity of the situation.”

Still, even with his well designed and attended teach-in in December of 2014, Loving-Manley worried that people weren’t being educated. They were just leaving class. Worse, some students saw the walk outs as counterproductive or pointless. Loving-Manley actually saw the walk outs turning some people off of the Movement.

The challenge as he saw it, was to “take something that grabs people’s interest and tie it into something that educates them”.

This is where his idea for a Black History Month Fashion Show came from. He knew he could draw his audience in with fashion and music and that he could use these tools to make them feel a fierce pride in Black Culture. So he started planning for January of 2016.

Once other students realized what he was trying to do, the momentum became contagious. People understood the importance and the power of what he was doing and they were excited about it. Loving-Manley fed off that energy.

He selected three eras of Black Resistance he thought embodied the message he was trying to portray and named his acts: Selma; Black Panthers; and Black Lives Matter. For each act, he selected a song he felt laid the backbeat of the era; researched the fashion of the era and what those fashions represented; and selected a mood and pose for models to embody on the runway.

Act II: Black Panthers

Three Acts: Black History Month Fashion Show

At the end of the third act, the spotlights switched to flashing reds and blues and the music was interrupted by police sirens. Students ran to the stage where most died on the floor and four were left standing above them holding Black Lives Matter placards over their heads. The result was a collective loss of breath – a visceral communication of the message that “we can’t breathe” with the twist of four determined students still standing and still fighting.

His best friend, co-producer, and captain of the Stomp team, Janaya Burke-Smith, choreographed a step routine about Black Women in the movement to begin the show. To embody the indomitable pheonix of the Black spirit, the show ended with a dance celebrating pan African Black Culture, leaving students and staff not with just the raw sorrow of “dislodge[d] brains, block[ed] airways, rip[ped] muscle, extract[ed] organs, crack[ed] bones, and [broken] teeth” but with a fierce pride in the resiliency of Black Culture despite this terrifying and pressing reality.

The result was spell-binding, mind-blowing, and – absolutely – revolutionary.

Make it Happen
To be honest, Loving-Manley is incredibly charismatic . . . but I really don’t think that that is all there is to it.

When I asked him to describe himself, Loving-Manley laughed and admitted “I’m loud.”
But when I pushed him, asking: why him? Why was he the one to make this happen at our school, he replied:

“I wanted it to involve the input of all the students who wanted to participate but it needed to HAPPEN and I knew it wouldn’t happen unless I was the one to leave class first and spread the word to others. It’s easier to think: I’ll do it later, it’s not that serious, but I felt like I had the leadership qualities to get the ball rolling”

Fists RaisedI think it comes down to this. Loving-Manley is incredible. He is brilliant and passionate and unstoppable but the same impatience, creativity, and ability to get the ball rolling exist in all of us. And in truth, he’s right. When an issue of injustice arises, there is no reason not to take action and to use our imaginations to pull others into action with us. Someone has to do it. And that someone may as well be me. Or you. Or both of us in different ways.

As Loving-Manley explains:

“If I have the ability to start a conversation with someone about something . . . and then they get the lightbulb in their mind, it’s like woah – maybe I have the ability or the resources to fix this. If everyone was informed, there would be more action. It starts with a conversation; you don’t know where it’s going to go from there.”

Kennedy’s Purple Prose

 

What Julian Bond Had to Say about Non Voters and Wings on Frogs

Colleagues throughout the years have argued with me about non voters. I’ve heard it from teachers who answer the call to civic duty every day, grad students frustrated with apathetic communities and activists who spend their days knocking on doors asking for one simple act when the day comes. They all tell me that those who don’t vote have no right to complain.

First I contemplate this right to complain. I know my colleagues are as true to the freedom of expression as they are to the responsibility of voting. This idea that anyone in the United States has surrendered their right to complain will always hit me as absurd.

A system error. If allowed to stand as true it would bring the whole program crashing down. We wouldn’t be who we say we are.

I will argue for an individual’s right to complain as well as an individual’s right to skip the vote. If the rest of us are so damn smart, why haven’t we convinced the non voters that voting actually matters? That voting isn’t just a civic obligation that we talk about like Mass on Sunday but that it actually makes a difference to their interests.

However, at an event this week I heard Julian Bond compare those who don’t vote to wings on frogs. And I applauded with the rest of the packed auditorium. I had been laughing with them. Shaking my head with them. 10955797_10155093619450167_2864420614346220083_o

Watching Bond speak was an interactive experience. You had to get caught up in it. And who thinks they can argue with Julian Bond?

Throughout his remarks Bond expertly paired all the celebrated triumphs of the Civil Rights movement with the stories of activists who lost their lives right alongside those celebrated headlines. From his own perspective he said that the second Brown decision ruling against segregated schools didn’t mean anything to him. What occupied his mind was the story of Emmet Till who was only a few months older than him. That, Bond said, was what he needed to know and it terrified him.

I had to consider what a privilege it is for so many of us to think that a court case decided the right way could change the world. I don’t think a magical moment of full turnout can change the world either. What matters is how we think of each other. How we then treat one another.

Bond turned that story from his childhood around with his memories of the Little Rock Nine. That was the kind of story he wanted for himself. He shared one mother’s story of wringing spit out of her young daughter’s clothes. The all white high school she would attend was nearby but her path was lined with crowds who yelled and spit. So many young people covered unimaginable distances. Bond referred to these stories as the stories of “the people who made the movement mighty.”

He concluded his remarks with a call for an activist movement. Activists don’t stop at threats, at the obstacles in the path or even at apathetic neighbors. I’m still not going to hassle you too much if you don’t vote. But I sure as hell hope you’ll find something you’re passionate about and get involved with it. Deeply involved in it as though it could be your chance to save the world.

As though we can teach those frogs to fly.

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.

 

Reading List: The Warmth of Other Suns

If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.

First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.

I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*

Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.

But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.

Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.

A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.

And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.

Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.

The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.

Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”

This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.

The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.

Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.

This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.

So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.

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*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.

It’s America and We are One

Did you see the We are One celebration yesterday? It was a powerful combination of our best words, music, and ideas. From the MLK and JFK quotes you’d expect to Reagan quotes you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Mary J. Blige or Jon Bon Jovi but they provided a moving performance with a gritty civil rights classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Most know me as a U2 fan and it’s Bono’s words that provoked this post. Brian Williams from NBC’s Nightly News interviewed Bono after rehearsals Saturday night. Bono was overheard to say it felt like the band had somehow trespassed on the American dream. His emotional understanding of the moment guided Bono’s responses to Brian’s questions.

I’m going to save his answer just long enough to set the stage…

Aerial views of the thousands of people crowding the mall brought back personal memories for some and a sense of living history for others. We’ve seen crowds on the mall like this before. Is it one of our most public spaces? U2 performed two songs. Where they started is where many worried our march for civil rights had ended. They sang “Pride (In the Name of Love),” their tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King.

The song begins…

One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow…

The conclusion makes the song  personal…

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

In the name of love
What more in the name of love…

If time hadn’t already found itself in a crazy loop with MLK’s pride and passion present again on those famous steps, Obama then took center stage. His speech spoke to this moment while heeding the voices of moments past. This moment, with the past and future present at once, is where Bono’s remarks found their fuel.We now we return to Brian Williams and Bono.

Brian asks Bono what it means to the band to be a part of the inaugural celebration. Bono expresses his hope that it internationalizes it somehow adding, with a friendly jab to the ribs, “You might own the country but you don’t own the idea.”

Bono imagines people around the globe watching the ceremony on Tuesday and adds:

When this man swears in on Lincoln’s Bible, he proves that America exists. It’s an astonishing thing because in a way people had ruled out Amerca. They counted you out. They think… oh yeah, America is just for America. It strangely changes everything.

And with that assertion, that this moment on Tuesday provides proof that America exists, I thought of the question of who we are or, as Matthew added, who we is.  The words we use this week and the moments we create resonate with answers to these questions. Do some words carry the weight of our past while others herald the promise of our future? Are those the same words or are they different? Are some words and moments more substantive than others? What makes the difference?