I Am Not Your Negro — An Immensely Powerful Film that Everyone Needs to See

Please go see this powerful docoumentary!  I Am Not Your Negro was written by James Baldwin, who died in 1987 at the age of 63, and directed by Raoul Peck with narration by Samuel Jackson.  If you are too young to remember the civil rights movement of the 60’s, you will learn a lot.  Even if you are familiar with the era, the film will teach you new things and remind you that the struggle is far from over.  There is nothing preachy about this film — the passion of the movement and its heroes make the movie fly by.  The film is extremely well done — so well done that I was swept up by the drama of it all and didn’t take note of the undoubtedly brilliant editing.

James Baldwin was inspired to write this film by the 1960’s assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.  He knew all three men, all of whom died before the age of 40, and shows them as young men facing unimaginable challenges.  The film shows moving footage of all three, plus film of many other players of the time.  Baldwin’s recounting of Lorraine Hansberry’s meeting with Bobby Kennedy is only one of the remarkable stories in this amazing film, but I was also struck by excerpts from Malcolm X’s speeches, because I was less familiar with them.  We lost so much when we lost these three men.

Baldwin himself appears frequently, and his every appearance drives the film and our understanding of the struggle.  Baldwin’s interviews by Dick Cavett and his speech at Cambridge University’s debate forum are brilliant.  He combines anger, fear and shock with articulate analysis about what is happening and why.  He’s not yelling; he is explaining.  His blunt and bleak assessments are utterly compelling, yet he claims a small measure of hope, for why else would he be doing what he is doing.

Footage of more recent police shootings add urgency and remind us that this struggle is far from over, and that no one with a conscience can claim otherwise.  In these difficult times when so many would erase history, we need to know what happened and why, as well as to better understand the anger and fear our brutal history of prejudice has engendered.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education

Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book.  Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point.  We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.  

Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book.   He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes.  He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men.  This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people.  Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life.  Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received.  Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.  

This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education.  Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college.  It was assumed he would go and do well.  Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part.  Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things.  The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things.  He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education.  It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.

Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism.  That is the crucial underpinning of this book.  He doesn’t try to provide a fix.  His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America.  His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us.  I am so glad I read this book.  It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events.  Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead.  Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.

Dwight Eisenhower’s Surprising Civil Rights Record

I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Eisenhower, primarily because of his deft and resilient military leadership during World War II and his careful Cold War leadership during his presidency.   The major flaw in Eisenhower’s career has generally been seen as his lackluster support of civil rights.  In A Matter of Justice:  Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, David Nichols challenges this traditional view and presents Eisenhower as both a reluctant and determined champion of civil rights.  (Please note that Nichols’ book was published in 2007, and I don’t pretend to have followed all the scholarship since.)  The Eisenhower who emerges in this book about his civil rights record is the same leader who ordered that the horror of the German concentration camps and their victims be photographed when they were liberated because he knew that some day people would try to deny their existence.  

By temperament Eisenhower was not the cheerleader type, and he opted do do much of his civil rights work under the radar when he could.  He wasn’t particularly happy with the glare of publicly that characterized civil rights in the 1950’s.  Still, even before he became president he was on record as supporting an integrated military and took steps in that direction at a time when the rest of the military leadership was not so inclined.  Once he became president, Eisenhower steadily directed the integration of the military.  True, he didn’t do it overnight, but he steadily pressed until it was accomplished over a period of about two years.

Another Eisenhower success was to get rid of the Jim Crow practices in Washington, DC.  This wasn’t a particularly popular move with a lot of southern politicians, but here again Eisenhower didn’t let up until it was accomplished.  It is too bad he isn’t around today to put the kabosh on newly energized racist behavior in our nation’s capital and elsewhere.

Much has been written about Eisenhower’s at best ambivalent feelings about the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  At the end of the day Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce that ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He was always undeniably unhappy about the prospect of sending troops into American communities and he greatly feared that the southern reaction to integration would be to close schoools.  Sadly his fears were  justified.  Here as in other civil rights areas, Eisenhower preferred to work behind the scenes, but he did the right thing when it came to the show down in Little Rock.

Perhaps one of the least appreciated aspects of Eisenhower’s presidential legacy was his refusal to appoint segregationist federal judges.  Earl Warren and many distinguished lower court judges ensured that Brown and its progeny were upheld and enforced.  This judicial legacy was crucial, and it proved to be very unfortunate that John F. Kennedy failed to continue Eisenhower’s stringent policy.  One of the book’s more interesting themes is the complicated and not particularly friendly Warren/Eisenhower relationship after Warren’t appointment.   I was also fascinated to learn that Eisenhower, a non-lawyer, actively reviewed and commented on his Civil Rights briefs filed by his administration and that he was keenly aware of linguistic nuances.  He understood the strategic importance of legal briefs and opinions.

The author does not give Eisenhower an unvarnished civil rights report card.  Eisenhower reportedly said some things that indicated ambivalence about full integration and, most famously, advised the Black community to be “patient” at some point.  For the oppressed, “patience” is unacceptable.  These comments and Eisenhower’s failure to be a public cheerleader for civil rights  aren’t good.  Context is nonetheless relevant.  Eisenhower, who managed to get two watered-down Civil Rights Acts passed, battled the intensely political Lyndon Johnson and other, overtly racist, southern senators throughout his presidency.  Engaging in open battle over civil rights, while morally and ethically the right thing to do, wasn’t going to be an effective strategy in the 1950’s.

Finally, the context of Eisenhower’s civil rights performance has to be considered in the context of all the issues facing his presidency.  This was the era of the Bomb, when school children were being taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves.  Eisenhower necessarily spent a great deal of his presidency trying to control the arms race and deal with foreign aggression.  That would have been a full plate for many presidents, and presidential history is replete with presidents who good at foreign policy and failures at domestic policy and vice versa.  While one can always argue that Eisenhower could have done more, his civil rights achievements need to be understood, and this well-written book cautions that Eisenhower’s relative public reticence on the subject is belied by some very impressive accomplishments.

This book is well worth reading.  In addition to the author’s interesting take on Eisenhower’s civil rights record, it provides a fascinating look at the United States in the 1950’s.

  

Love Wins:  The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality

At the time it seemed like gay marriage almost burst on the scene as a demand and as a right.  In their beautiful book Love Wins:  The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell (the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Obergfell v. Hodges) provide the context and the stories behind the decisions that established the right to gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage.  Spoiler alert:  it didn’t happen all that quickly and their were significant bumps in the road along the way.  The legal cases started with a dying man who could not have his lover and then husband of 20 years listed on his death certificate and who couldn’t provide for his husband the same way a heterosexual husband or wife could because the State of Ohio refused to recognize a gay marriage lawfully performed in another state.  That’s a very real situation that focused the legal argument and the court’s attention.   The relationship of Obergefell and his husband john Arthur is movingly described, and the mere thought of denying their marriage legal recognition is to deny their humanity.  Similarly, gay couples with children were only permitted to list one parent on the birth certificate, despite their lawful marriages in other states.  That arbitrary position meant that the non-listed parent had no legal status vis-a-vis the child —  no right to information about or decision making authority regarding the child’s health, welfare and education.  In retrospect, it seems bizarre that any state would go to the trouble to fight gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage when the plaintiffs were fighting for the right to care for and belong to each other, but fight it Ohio did.

Love Wins is powerful because of the human stories it contains, but it also shows how effective lawyers and the legal process can be to protect rights that the majority might deny.  The legal history and strategy is absolutely fascinating, and Al Gerhardstein, the main lawyer in the book, is a true hero.  He gets kicked in the teeth with hostile court decisions, but he keeps going.  He’s not getting rich, but he can obtain justice for his clients.  Although Obergefell’s husband didn’t live to see his right vindicated, a satisfying sense of justice and love pervades this book.  Reflecting back, I was also touched by all the people who supported the gay plaintiffs and their families.  Hostile or simply stunned parents came to realize they loved their gay kids, that their love was unconditional and that their kids needed them.  Parents became supporters and advocates.  That was their real world, thank goodness.

To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.

Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi – An Urgent Reminder of this Country’s Violent, Racist Past and a Call to Consider Its Continuing Impact

 

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Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is a tremendously important book, particularly now when some people deny that police violence against African Americans is a pervasive problem and when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a favorite target of the angry right.   This book is searing reminder that the tradition of state-sanctioned violence against people of color was a real thing that hasn’t just faded away.  To the contrary, it rears its ugly head again and again,  sometimes in the context of unduly violent and selective policing and sometimes in the context of racial barriers to voting, aka gerrymandering and voter ID requirements.  Of course this is an incomplete list, but  whether these events are viewed as isolated or systemic, their effect is profound.

In the context of Coming of Age in Mississippi, incidents of racial violence against people of color aren’t individual, unrelated events.  They are more properly viewed as a continuum that cost people their lives.  In Anne Moody’s Mississippi any African American who spoke up risked his or her life.  

 Coming of Age in Mississippi brilliantly captures the fear, the rage and the inexplicable courage of a young African American woman in Mississippi in the very early 1960’s.  Anne Moody didn’t come from an activist family.  Her family was extremely poor, her parents were separated, her mother kept having children and there was no thought of getting ahead or fighting injustice.  Moody bitterly resented her circumstances from the very beginning and she refused to accept them.

As a young child, she experienced the dangers young children faced when both parents were forced to work and there was no safe child care.  As a young girl, Moody took on whatever work she could find.  Her most painful job was working for an incredibly racist and threatening white woman, who denigrated Moody in every way possible and yet hired her to tutor her dim-witted son and his friends.  

There were lynchings in Moody’s town, and people were driven away if they didn’t kowtow to the status quo.  It was an ugly, dangerous environment.  To really think about what Anne Moody experienced every day as a child frames the discussion of why the Civil Rights Movement came to be and why there seems little reason to forget and move on when racism remains so pervasive and when racism seems to be attracting new defenders on a regular basis.

Anne Moody is so interesting, because she didn’t just accept her lot.  She refused.  She got out of town and ultimately was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement where she found her calling.  Moody was an heroic activist, but she was no saint.  She was really angry and her book tells us why.  It also provides an intense reminder of why racism was and is such a big deal, and why expecting people to “get over it” makes no sense.   When people and their forebears have lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, why would anyone expect them to just be grateful that things are a bit better now?  Why should anyone be content with things being a bit better?  As someone recently noted, why should anyone be expected to forgive and forget slavery when the South keeps celebrating its Civil Ware generals and their victories and while the Confederate Flag still hangs too many places?

Finally, the strength of Anne Moody’s account is that it is unfiltered.   She wrote her book in her twenties and only a few years after her lunch counter protests, her jailings and her voting registration drives.  She isn’t particularly reflective.  She just writes about what she is feeling and what she experienced.  She doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why others were less bold.  She bitterly resents her family’s efforts to stop her, even as she acknowledges that reports of her activism got back to her home town and threatened her family’s security.  She is even angrier at the ministers who gave lots of noble speeches and sermons, even as they personally tried to avoid going to jail.  Moody, on the other hand, felt that going to jail was a necessary sacrifice and was quick to contrast brave school children who went to jail with the ministers who seemed happy to send them there, but didn’t want to go there themselves. 

Anne Moody might have been a tough person to know, but she was heroic.   This is a great book.  The subject is fascinating, and it really advances our understanding of what it meant to be an activist in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 

 

The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer

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Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.