A Mother’s Anguish – The Trayvon Tragedy

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

As the world watches the parents of Trayvon Martin seek justice in the murder of their 17-year old son by a vigilante volunteer, we are struck by their grace.  Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton have faced TV cameras and unrelenting questions about their son and his murderer; they have spoken at a Congressional hearing on racial profiling on Capitol Hill; they have appeared at rallies numbering in the thousands of supporters; and through it all, they have maintained their composure and not strayed from their message – “Justice for Trayvon.”

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, parents of the murdered youth, Trayvon Martin.

I’m not certain I would have the poise that Trayvon’s parents possess if my son had been the victim of racial profiling resulting in his death.  Mothers and fathers all over the world who have heard about the case in Sanford, Florida are deeply moved by the events that ended with the death of someone so young and for, apparently, no reason other than the color of his skin.  Trayvon has become all of our sons.  Protesters on Sunday in Miami and Sanford, Florida demanded the arrest of Zimmerman, while local and state legislators, church goers, entertainers, sports figures and others donned hoodies demanding justice for Trayvon.

When my son was around 12-years old, we had the talk with him.  This was the talk that most, if not all, African American parents have with their male children.  My husband and I told our son that as an African American male he would be viewed differently by the white race.  That because of the color of his skin he would be judged before he even opened his mouth.  We cautioned him about his behavior in public and how no matter how innocent his actions were; he would not be treated the same as his white counterpart.  We were anxious when he was away from us and always gave him reminders of our talk before he left the house.  This rite-of-passage is something that I believe Trayvon’s parents’ most likely shared with him as well.

But even when we, as parents, do our job in educating our young men as to the dangers of “Living in America while Black”; their fate is really not something that we can control.  Our children’s lives are at-risk whenever they walk out of the front door.

Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, had warned her 14-year old son and his cousin Wheeler in August 1955 on their first visit to relatives in Mississippi.  She did not let Emmett board the train from Chicago before “schooling him on the ways of the South.”  According to the PBS American Experience documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” Ms. Till described what she said to Emmett and his cousin before they left on their trip.

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie.

“I let them know that Mississippi was not Chicago.”  With the same instructions that many moms give their Black children when visiting a dangerous area, Mamie Till warned her son and nephew, “You’ve got to be very careful.  And when you go to Mississippi, you’re living by an entirely different set of rules…it is, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am’, ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’. And, Beau [Emmett’s nickname] if you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her.”

Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi just a little more than a week after he arrived from Chicago for allegedly paying unwelcome attention to a white woman.  Till’s tragic death galvanized both Black and white Americans when Mamie Till allowed Emmett’s casket to be open for the entire world to see what had been done to her son.  The tragic photos of Emmett’s mutilated face where published nationally and internationally and the world reacted.  The subsequent trial of the two accused murderers ended with an acquittal and the miscarriage of justice in the Emmett till Case, many believe, ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

As more and more information comes out about what occurred the night George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin, one has to ask the question, “What were the Sanford Police thinking?

Murdered youth Trayvon Martin (left) and Vigilante George Zimmerman (right)

“And how come they haven’t arrested Zimmerman yet?”  A 911 transcript of a call received by dispatchers on the night of the murder has screaming in the background, which Zimmerman family members are claiming as proof that Zimmerman was attacked by Trayvon.  Voice analysis experts hired by the Florida-based newspaper the Orlando Sentinel have ruled out that the screams were from Zimmerman based on their comparison of his voice on the 911 tape.  That leaves only Trayvon as the source of the screams.

Zimmerman’s claims that he reacted in self defense, that he was in a “death struggle” with Trayvon, that his nose was broken and he suffered injuries to his head and face were not apparent in a recently released police video of Zimmerman.  He had no visible signs of injuries, including bloodstains on his face or head or even his clothing as he walked unassisted, in handcuffs, into the Police Station after the incident.

And through it all, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, has been a tower of strength, protecting the legacy of her 17-year old son.  Ms. Fulton and Trayvon’s father, Mr. Martin, have countered negative attacks to their son’s reputation by meeting comments head on.  They have pursued every avenue open to them to tell the story of their beloved Trayvon, so we do not forget him and allow him to be lost in the commotion and frenzy.

We have not come very far from the events of August 1955, when a 14-year old young Black boy was killed by two white men to today when a 17-year old young Black man was killed by a white vigilante in February 2012.  Just as Emmett’s murder was a call to action for disenfranchised African Americans, so, too, is Trayvon’s death in reinvigorating a movement for civil rights.  The struggle continues.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Déjà Vu All Over Again – Selma to Montgomery March – 2012

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

“Ain’t nothin’ changed, but the date.”  Sadly, no truer words have been spoken, especially given the sweeping initiatives by Republicans today to turn back the clock to the Jim Crow Era, where individuals’ rights were legislated away creating “two separate and unequal” societies.  Currently, 31 states, and more poised to jump on the bandwagon, have passed laws requiring voters to show I.D.  at the polls in order to cast their ballots.

Marchers at the 2012 Selma to Montgomery March carry banners proclaiming their Right to Vote.

This 21st century voter suppression strategy by Republicans, to keep certain groups from voting, is all too familiar and reminiscent of Freedom Summer of 1964 when Civil Rights organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) brought in white and Black college students to register Black voters.  The coalition of civil rights groups also created Freedom Schools and taught African American students about black history, the Civil Rights Movement, and leadership skills, as well as math and reading.

These efforts by the civil rights organizations during Freedom Summer, along with the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965, paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law in August by President Lyndon Johnson.  The law prohibits states from implementing discriminatory voting practices including imposing certain qualifications and prerequisites such as literacy tests and poll taxes on prospective voters.

A receipt for the payment of poll tax in 1896. Voters had to pay the tax in order to vote, for poor Blacks and Whites this was an impossible barrier to surmount in order to cast their ballots.

It also prohibits states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their race or the color of their skin.

In Selma, Alabama in 1965, civil rights organizers from the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) conducted registration drives, organized classes to help African Americas pass the literacy tests and held marches to the county court house to register African American voters.

To publicize their voter registration campaign, the first Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in Alabama was organized for Sunday, March 7, 1965, and is often referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”  The march of nearly 600 was led by now Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), the young leader of SNCC, and Reverend Hosea Williams of the SCLC.

The brutal beatings of demonstrators in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 triggered national outrage when the horrific images flashed across American television sets.

The group headed out of Selma and over the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by state and local police who attacked them with clubs and tear gas.  The horrific melee was captured by photographers and TV cameras that broadcast the bloody images of unarmed civilians brutalized by law enforcement across the country and around the world.  This event was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement in America because it unveiled the terroristic acts of law enforcement, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups endorsed by the state, against African Americans.

On March 9, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined with 2,500 activists in a “symbolic” march across the Pettus Bridge to show the world that they would not give up on voting rights for African Americans.  The third march, which began on Sunday, March 21, 1965 in Selma with an estimated 3,200 marchers, finally arrived in the state capitol of Montgomery on March 25 after a 54-mile trek that took four days, under the protection of the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents and Federal Marshals.

So now, we’re dealing with the same issues.  What happened?  What went wrong?  How did we end up back where we started in 2012?  I noticed a change during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republican contender John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for his running mate.  Sarah was venomous and spunky, espousing rhetoric that we hadn’t heard in, oh so many years.  The coded messages steeped in racism would insight a dormant beast that awoke rearing its ugly head hungry for the red meat of racist oratory.

Sarah Palin was the ringleader who attracted thousands of like-minded individuals at her rallies.  Her supporters carried signs slandering Candidate Obama and depicting him as a “foreigner”, a Muslim and a radical.  Palin’s boisterous rallies were an opportunity for the right wingers and white supremacists to air their extremist views targeting minorities, gays and anyone they deemed as outsiders.  This environment of hate and racism was aired with abandon on the national cable shows, network news programs, talk radio, blogs and in print media.  A lot of eyeballs and ink was used to accelerate Palin’s message that would evolve into Tea Party pabulum that is fed to the disheartened masses that are looking for a way out of this mortgage/foreclosure nightmare and joblessness abyss.

The good news is that Black folks and other disenfranchised citizens are not asleep at the wheel.  The platform has expanded – we are engaged in the struggle to fight voter suppression, immigrant rights and workers rights.

The Selma to Montgomery March 2012 was expanded to include immigrants whose rights are being challenged by various states instituting anti-immigration laws.

The Selma to Montgomery March of 2012 led by Reverend Al Sharpton and others, 47 years after the first march, is a prime example of oppressed peoples working together toward a common goal.  We must join together and right the wrongs that a frightened segment of the American population is attempting to foist on the rest of the country.  We must speak up, let our voices be heard, change the laws to protect the rights of all – just like we did during the Civil Rights Movement.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Black History Should Be Celebrated Everyday

 By Linda Tarrant-Reid

When February ended, I thought to myself that’s it, the end of Black History Month?  No more corporate commercials on TV acknowledging the contributions of our African American legends.  No more documentaries focused on the struggle and the successes we gained in our fight for equality.  No more articles in newspapers, print and digital, telling of little known stories about the black experience in America.  No more sales, workshops, book signings or cooking demos at stores who experience an increase in their bottom line by marketing a month long celebration of black folks.

I thought to myself, that can’t be, we must expand the brand of Black History Month and make it every day, every month and all year round!  After all, African Americans are a founding people in America; we’ve been here from the beginning.  Why not include our history in American history, on each and every page.

We were at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the first permanent British colony.  We were the “20. and Odd Negroes” hijacked by privateers from a Portuguese slave ship on its way to Veracruz, Mexico that detoured to Jamestown and sold its human cargo to the English colonists instead.  We built that colony and became free citizens of Virginia after a time.  We owned land, raised cattle, settled our disputes in court and raised our families.

One African family, the Anthony Johnson Family, eventually acquired 800 acres after they were freed, around1625, from their indentured servitude (working as servants for no pay, then after a period of time receiving freedom and a parcel of land).  The family prospered in Virginia’s Northampton County and later in Somerset County, Maryland, where they moved in 1665.

Even after we were enslaved in the cruel institution of “chattel slavery” by the 1660s, we were still survivors.  We learned to read and write, although it was forbidden by the white slave masters; we created our own worship services off in the woods undetected from the plantation overseers; and we invented tools and equipment,

Cotton Gin used to clean cotton.

like using a comb to clean cotton, a process attributed to an enslaved gentleman named Sam, and not Eli Whitney the publicly acknowledged white inventor of the cotton gin.

We fought in all of America’s wars whether enslaved or free beginning with the American Revolution up to today, including conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The first martyr of the American Revolution was black sailor Crispus Attucks who was killed in 1770 in the Boston Massacre.  Black militia fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill in Massachusetts.  Enslaved blacks fought in Westchester County in the Battle of Pines Bridge in Yorktown and in Virginia at the Battle of Great Bridge against British Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Troops, who were recruited by the British and offered their freedom for fighting on the British side.

One black American who contributed mightily to the freedom of America from the British was Caesar Tarrant.  An enslaved person from Hampton, Virginia, Tarrant was commissioned as a boat pilot by the Virginia State Navy.

1st Rhode Island Regiment was composed of African American soldiers and many of them lost their lives at the Battle of Pines Bridge in Yorktown, NY.

He successfully defeated British ships attempting to provide supplies to their troops.  Because of his heroism and effectiveness during battle, Tarrant received his freedom and his family was given 2,667 acres in the Virginia Military District in southeastern Ohio in recognition of their father’s service to the Virginia Navy.

There are countless stories about brave African Americans who laid down their lives for this country and we should celebrate them, along with the other brave soldiers, on July 4th and Memorial Day, by name.  Our children need to be reminded, often, of the sacrifices their ancestors made to create a life here in America for them.

Although slavery was abolished by the end of the Civil War, African Americans were still not free.  The next battle was fought in the courts.  African Americans had been defined as 3/5 of a person in the U.S. Constitution which was ratified in 1789.  We had a lot to undo.  Through legislation, we were enslaved yet again, beginning with the Supreme Court Decision in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 which created “separate, but equal facilities for whites and blacks.”  It would take 58 years to begin dismantling the laws that had re-enslaved African Americans.  Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that made it illegal to have separate public schools for black children and white children.

Norman Rockwell's painting of Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.

More legislation followed that made it illegal to discriminate against African Americans at the polls, on transportation systems, in public accommodations, in the rental or purchase of housing and in employment.

As you can see, there is so much history about the African American experience that is invisible to many people and that’s why we must not confine Black History to the shortest month of the year, February, which occasionally is extended to 29 days in a leap year.  New York State established the Amistad Commission in 2005 and its job was: “To survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.”

The Amistad Commission’s report, recommendations and implementation for curricula of the history of African Americans has yet to be published seven years later. This is a great opportunity for our children to be fully educated.  Call your NYS Legislators and ask them the status of the Amistad Commission, so our children can learn Black History every day, on every page of the history books.  Other states have similar mandates, New Jersey is one state that is doing this right and has successfully integrated African American history into the curriculum K-12.

In the meantime, it is up to us to provide our children with the information that is their legacy, information that will make them proud and connected.  “Red Tails,” the film about the Tuskegee Airmen is a step in the right direction and I applaud George Lucas for his generosity and his determination to bring our history to the big screen. So, let’s take the next step and make it Black History throughout the year by teaching our history every chance we get.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Whitney – Gone, Too Soon,1963 – 2012

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Whitney Houston’s latest album “I Look To You.”

R & B legend Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 11.  Houston was scheduled to attend her mentor and music producer Clive Davis’s annual pre-Grammys party that evening at the very same hotel where she was found unconscious in the bathtub in her suite.  She was pronounced dead at 3:55 pm by paramedics.  A spokesperson from the L.A. Coroner’s Office stated that there was no indication of physical trauma or foul play and unofficial reports indicated the songstress may have accidentally drowned in the tub.  The Coroner’s Office has completed an autopsy, but will not release its findings until the toxicology reports are in, which could take four to six weeks.

Houston, a mega-star of the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, whose first two albums Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987) delivered seven consecutive No. 1 chart topping hits on BillBoards Hot 100 including:  “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emotional,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”  Whitney, who comes from music industry royalty, was the daughter of award-winning soul and gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of R & B legend Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.  During her spectacular career, Houston won 6 Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards and sold over 170 million albums worldwide.

Whitney’s first album released in 1985, titled “Whitney Houston.”

Whitney Houston was also an actress who starred in hit movies including: “The Bodyguard” (1992) co-starring with Kevin Costner; “Waiting to Exhale” (1995) based on Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel about four strong African American women; and “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) with Denzel Washington, a remake of “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) with Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant.

Reaction to Whitney Houston’s premature death sparked a flood of tributes from around the world from friends, entertainers, industry execs, celebrities and fans on mainstream media and social media including blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other digital platforms.  Her death came at a time when she was trying to turn her life around after years of struggle.  Whitney had released her new album, I Look to You in 2009 which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, her first No. 1 album since The Bodyguard.  Houston was awarded a Gold Certificate by the Italian Music Industry for selling over 50,000 CDs of the I Look to You album, it went Platinum in the U.S. after garnering sales of over one million records and in 2010, she won an NAACP Image Award for the “Best Music Video for a Single” for “I Look to You.”   Although, her world tour billed as the “Nothing but Love Tour” was fraught with late performances, disappointed fans and cancelled concerts, Whitney continued to put herself out there.  Her recent project was as executive producer and co-star of the remake of the 1976 film Sparkle, inspired by the Supremes, starring American Idol season six winner Jordin Sparks due out in August.

American Idol Season Six Winner Jordin Sparks co-starred with Whitney Houston in the remake of “Sparkle.”

Whitney Houston’s untimely death comes at a time when we have experienced so many losses of our African American legends in the music business in the last couple of years.  Etta James, Don Cornelius, Heavy D, Nick Ashford, Michael Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, Abbey Lincoln, and Frank Foster are just some of the huge talent that has gone onto glory and will leave a tremendous void in our universe.

Whitney Houston was a singular and extraordinary talent who impacted the styles of Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Christine Aguilera to name a few.  Her legacy lives on in the mentoring of the young talent that she took under her wings; it lives on in the memories of the students who attend the Whitney E. Houston Academy for Creative and Performing Arts, an elementary school Whitney attended in East Orange, New Jersey and named for her in 1997; and will live on amongst the congregation at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey where as a 12-year old she held the audience spellbound by her powerful voice.  And her legacy lives on in her daughter Bobbi Kristina and the Houston Family.

Rest in Peace, Whitney, we will always love you.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pursuing the Dream

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

I remember when Stevie Wonder came to Washington, DC to lobby for the MLK holiday in the early part of 1979.  I was working at WETA-TV, a PBS affiliate in Washington, DC, as a national publicist on the production of From Jump Street: A Story of Black Music, a 13-part music series, hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr.  Wonder was among the crème de la crème of black musicians who were filmed for the series including: Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Carmen McRae, Quincy Jones, George Benson, Pearl Bailey, Jackie McLean, and Al Jarreau.

Stevei Wonder's "Hotter Than July" album featuring MLK Birthday Tribute.

The following year, Stevie Wonder’s musical tribute, “Happy Birthday,” to Dr. King was released on his 1980 Hotter than July album.  An ardent supporter of the Civil Rights activist, Wonder was at the forefront of the campaign to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. Wonder and King’s widow Coretta Scott King organized boycotts, lobbied local government officials, and presented a petition to Congress signed by six million supporters of the MLK Holiday in the early 1980s.

The struggle to gain recognition for the tireless work of Dr. King in the fight for equal rights had begun in April 1968, right after his assassination, when U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill to the House to make King’s birthday a federal holiday.  The bill did not pass, but Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) joined forces with Conyers to keep the issue front and center at every legislative session.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced MLK Holiday bill in Congress.

The election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency brought new support for the MLK holiday bill in 1977. Even with Carter’s support, the bill faced tremendous opposition.  In the Senate, southern Republican Jesse Helms tried to pull out every trick in the book to block the bill.  As the national campaign heated up with   support from national groups, the legislation authorizing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was finally signed into law by a reluctant President Ronald Reagan in 1983.  The holiday was not officially observed until January 1986 and by January 2000, all fifty states in the U.S. observed the holiday which falls on the third Monday in January, close to King’s birthday on January 15th.

Only twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia actually recognized MLK Day after it became a federal law in 1986.  One of the last holdouts was Arizona.  They were suppose to host the 1993 Super Bowl XXVII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills, but Arizona voters rejected the MLK holiday in 1990 and the National Football League pulled the plug on the bowl game and the game was moved to Pasadena, California.

Super Bowl XXVII - Dallas Cowboys v. Buffalo Bills

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation making the MLK holiday not only a celebration of his legacy, but also a day of service and volunteerism in the spirit of the Civil Rights Activist.  Communities all over America mobilize volunteers to help others by donating their time to a variety of causes.

Schools, government offices, banks and many businesses are closed to celebrate, honor and reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The same determination and focus that Dr. King brought to his fight for equal rights for all was evidenced in the campaign to establish a federal holiday to honor his work and achievements.  It took fifteen years of persistence, insistence and dedication for the recognition of his legacy by the U.S. government.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is now open in Washington, DC on the National Mall. Since August, more than two million people have visited the memorial.  For information about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, visit: www.mlkmemorial.org.

MLK Memorial on The Mall, Washington, DC.

Dr. King’s words resonate today:

We were here before the mighty words of the Declaration of Independence were etched across the pages of history. Our forebears labored without wages. They made cotton ‘king’. And yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to thrive and develop. If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. . . . Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Looking Forward to 2012

Lady Gaga and Mayor Michael Bloomberg prepare to drop the ball at the stroke of midnight in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Good-bye 2011 and hello 2012!  As I greet friends, family members and strangers with the familiar “Happy New Year,” I say it with more conviction and more intention, than I ever have before, because I truly wish for everyone a safer, happier, healthier and more prosperous 2012.

As Kwanzaa celebrations came to a close this holiday season, we were left to contemplate and incorporate the Seven Principles of the holiday, the inspiring Nguzo Saba, into our hectic lives – Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).  In Dr. Maulana Karenga’s Annual Founder’s Message published in the December 22, 2011 Los Angeles Sentinel, he summarized the Seven Principles and their relationship to where we are today – “walk gently, act justly and relate rightly in and for the world.”

The symbols of Kwanzaa Celebration which begins on December 26 and ends January 1st.

Dr. Karenga, noted the 45th anniversary of Kwanzaa, and focused his message on the work that must be done, not just in the African American community, but in the global community.  He wrote of the “oppression imposed on human beings” and the “injury and injustice inflicted on the earth.”

Last January we witnessed the beginning of a paradigm shift in the Arab world with the overthrow of Mubarak, the February revolt in Libya which climaxed with the death of Muammar Gaddafi in October, and more unrest and protests in Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Syria and in cities across the Middle East in 2011 dubbed the “Arab Spring.”  The assassination of Osama Bin Laden by United States’ Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May ended the nearly ten-year search for the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  The collective voice of the people in these countries are protesting a variety of social and political conditions including dictatorships, distribution of wealth, corruption, unemployment, and human rights violations.  They are seeking change and are achieving it in many instances.

Thousands of Eygptian protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on April 8, 2011 in Cairo.

With the fluid geopolitical landscape came extreme geophysical changes as well.  Quakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and extreme weather became common occurrences in the U.S. and abroad in 2011.  The East Coast experienced an uncharacteristic 5.8 magnitude earthquake and Hurricane Irene in the same week.  The Midwest floods and tornadoes devastated communities and the Southwest suffered through a drought.  Extreme heat in the dog days of July and August set records from Oklahoma to Newark, New Jersey.  According to climatologists these changes were due to La Nina, a Pacific Ocean weather anomaly that when paired with global warming, causes extreme weather events.

One of the most extreme disasters occurred in March 2011 on Japan’s northeast coast when an earthquake that measured 9 on the Richter Scale struck, making it the strongest quake in Japanese history.  The quake triggered a massive tsunami and the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, when its nuclear reactors cracked causing a meltdown and leaking radiation.  It is estimated that 23,000 died and/or were reported missing as a result of the triple disaster.

Victim of Japanese earthquake and tsunami sits among the devastation.

As we begin 2012, it is important to reflect on what has happened this past year, but it is also imperative to figure out how we are going to greet the future which will determine outcomes for us, our families and the world community.  Natural disasters may not be something we can control, but we certainly can educate ourselves and our children on sustainability, protecting and preserving our precious resources – clean water, clean air, trees, plants, ecosystems, and ourselves by being prepared.  The sluggish economy, at home and abroad, has made us more resourceful and also more aware of how we can effect change.  One response was Occupy Wall Street, a worldwide movement that has put the issue of economic inequity center stage.

As we celebrate the achievements of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this month, remembrances of the sacrifices individuals made 50 years ago including the Freedom Riders who desegregated restaurants and waiting rooms at bus terminals in the South in 1961 and the Taylor Case, the first school desegregation case filed in the North, also in 1961, are still fresh memories making us mindful of our collective and continuing struggle.

Freedom Riders hang signs from the bus.

In his December 10, 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, Norway, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about the future, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Let us not tuck in or bury our heads in the sand avoiding life’s challenges, let us stand up and walk toward the future with optimism and intention that this will be a good year.  Happy 2012!

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tuskegee Airmen Honored in Two New Films

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Americans celebrated Veterans Day on 11/11/11 with patriotic parades, solemn wreath-laying ceremonies, tributes, exhibitions and documentaries filled with archival footage of wars and the brave men and women who fought for American causes around the globe.  Originally called Armistice Day and changed to Veterans Day by a bill signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, it is an occasion for the country to remember, reflect, thank and honor the contributions of our family members and friends who have risked their lives in service to our country.

President Barack Obama laying wreath on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Today, the battlefront for American soldiers at war shifts from Afghanistan (considered the longest war in American history), to Iraq (U.S. is scheduled to withdraw troops at the end of 2011), to Yemen (where the U.S. is using a counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda), to Pakistan (where the counterinsurgency campaign yielded the assassination of Osama bin Laden in April) and to Somalia (where the U.S. is conducting special operations attacks against al-Qaeda operatives).

In President Barack Obama’s Veterans Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, he spoke of the contributions of the armed forces.

“In Iraq, they have battled a brutal insurgency, trained new securityforces and given the Iraqi people the opportunity to forge a better future.  In Afghanistan, they have pushed back the Taliban, decimated al Qaeda, and delivered the ultimate justice to Osama bin Laden.  In concert with our allies, they have helped end Qaddafi’s brutal dictatorship and returned Libya to its people.

…Because of their incredible efforts, we can stand here today and say with confidence -– the tide of war is receding.  In just a few weeks, the long war in Iraq will finally come to an end.  Our transition in Afghanistan is moving forward.  My fellow Americans, our troops are coming home.

For many military families, this holiday season will be a season of homecomings.  And over the next five years, more than 1 million Americans in uniform will transition back to civilian life, joining the nearly 3 million who have done so over the past decade and embraced a proud new role, the role of veteran.”

I recently attended a screening of a new documentary, Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen’s Story in Their Own Words, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In Double Victory, surviving Tuskegee Airmen tell their stories of becoming the first African American fighter pilots during World War II who had to fight on two fronts – the war to end fascism in Europe and the war against racism at home in the U.S.  The audience was filled with Tuskegee Airmen and their families, politicians including the former Mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, and community members.  The documentary, slated to be shown on television soon, is part of the pre-marketing strategy to publicize the much anticipated feature film, Red Tails, also about the Tuskegee Airmen which will be in theaters in January 2012.

Class of Tuskegee Cadets learning about airplane engine at Tuskegee Airfield.

The documentary and the feature film are two of the latest projects from Lucasfilms, the studio that brought us the ultra successful Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.  The Tuskegee project was in development and production for more than 20 years and rejected by the seven major Hollywood studios before George Lucas, the executive producer, decided to bankroll the action-driven WWII feature Red Tails, personally, to the tune of $93 million.

Red Tails stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Brandon T. Jackson and Nate Parker and chronicles the story of the Tuskegee Airmen focusing on a group of African America combat pilots during World War II.  The Tuskegee Airmen were a test case by the Army Air Corps, the precursor of the Air Force, “to train pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air,” according to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Web site.

Tuskegee Airmen at a pilot's briefing.

African Americans have fought in every war waged by America starting with the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War up to the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and our present combat missions.  The armed services were initially segregated but with pressure from civil rights activists, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which began the process of desegregating the armed forces in 1948.

Labor activist A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had set the stage for integration in the military and defense factories in 1941 when he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end racial discrimination in the defense factories so that Blacks could get jobs.  Randolph threatened a March on Washington of 100,000 in 1941 to protest discrimination in employment. Roosevelt did not want the march to occur and when Randolph refused to stop the march, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which desegregated the defense industries and opened employment to Black workers.  The order provided for “equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

Poster recruiting for 1941 March on Washington in DC to protest discriminatory practices in the armed forces and the defense industry.

In 1941, Tuskegee Institute, the historically Black college in Alabama, was selected as the training site for African American cadets which would become the home of the Tuskegee Airmen.  The military built a segregated base, the Tuskegee Army Airfield, where Black cadets were trained as pilots.  Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first Black graduate of West Point Military Academy and the son of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first Black general in the U.S. Army, became the commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron and later the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen.

During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, as noted on the NPS Web site, “completed 15,000 sorties in approximately 1,500 missions, destroyed over 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and demolished numerous enemy installations. Several aviators died in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded numerous high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 332nd Fighter Group for “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism” in 1945.”

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded by President George Bush and the U.S. Congress the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

President George W. Bush awards Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Congressional Medal of Honor.

Our veterans and members of the military deserve to be celebrated not just on the one day set aside in November, but everyday for their contributions.  The veterans returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of conflict and their families face many obstacles and need our help in their readjustment back to life in the U.S.  There are many organizations that support returning vets and their families, a way to pay it forward would be to volunteer.  The White House has recently announced a national initiative, Joining Forces, to help service members and their families.  For information about this White House program and to find out what you can do to give back to our service members and their families visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces .

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Occupy Wall Street Takes Us Back to Our Roots

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

The east coast was hit by a historic nor’easter this past weekend blanketing areas from Maryland to Massachusetts with heavy, wet snow ranging from almost 3 inches in New York City’s Central Park to 19 inches in West Milford, New Jersey.

Occupy Wall Street Protesters at Zuccotti Park in NYC during nor'easter.

More than 3 million customers lost power because of the thousands of toppled trees and branches that brought down power lines and transformers causing outages.  Amtrak and commuter train service was suspended and airports either closed or delayed flights during the height of the storm.

In Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street Protest, the occupants battened down the hatches with plastic tarps and tents and bundled up in sleeping bags to endure the freezing temperatures.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent the NYC Fire Department inspectors to the park on Friday to confiscate propane gas tanks and generators, ostensibly because they posed a hazard to the crowded park, so the protesters improvised keeping warm with donated coats, hats, gloves and blankets.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has spawned Occupy Protests in cities across America including San Diego; Oakland; Portland; Seattle; Minneapolis; Nashville; Washington, DC; and Providence.  The movement has also branched out globally – to Occupy London, Occupy Seoul, Occupy Berlin, Occupy Madrid, Occupy Antwerp, Occupy Amsterdam and to other international cities.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is protesting the current economic conditions wrought by the greedy financial institutions and the political system that feeds and protects the corporate fat cats.  It’s important to take a look back and understand the origins of Wall Street.

Wall Street got its name from the wall that was erected by Director General Peter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company in 1653. Using the labor of African workers, the wall, situated on the northern border of the colony and constructed of wooden logs, stretched across Lower Manhattan from the East River to the Hudson River.

The wall (on the far right) that the African workers built in New Amsterdam for which Wall Street was named.

This crude wall was built to protect the settlement of New Amsterdam from intruders.

The Wall Street vicinity has always been the financial hub of New York City and was where traders in Colonial New York bought and sold commodities on the street and at the Merchants’ Coffee House on Water and Wall Streets and, later, across the street at the Tontine Coffee House at 82 Wall Street.  At Tontine’s the informal financial center was organized under the Buttonwood Agreement of 1792 forming the foundation of the New York Stock & Exchange Board.

Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water Streets in Colonial New York where commodities, such as slaves, were traded.

The Tontine Coffee House was where captains of ships involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade registered their cargo of coffee, tea, sugar, cotton and enslaved Africans. The enslaved African men and women were then traded, according to Columbia University’s Mapping the African American Past Web site, by “the companies that insured, outfitted and owned the boats…on the stock market.”  The Exchange moved to larger quarters at 40 Wall Street and then to its current home at 11 Wall Street.

The African American contribution to the early financial history of the United States is left out when recounting the emergence of the capitalist society.  In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma was a boom town.  Tulsans had struck oil around 1910 and black gold was the currency.  The Midwestern city had a significant African American population.  Enslaved and free Blacks had settled in Oklahoma in the late 1830s after traveling with the members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw Nations on the “Trail of Tears.”

Native Americans forcibly removed from their land in the south traveled to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

The Native Americans had been physically forced off their land in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama by the U.S. government and relocated to Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma.  African Americans also migrated to Tulsa during the Great Migration of the early 1900s, joining relatives and friends that had taken up residence in Oklahoma.

Black Tulsans lived in an area that some whites referred to as “Little Africa,” but most African Americans called their community Greenwood and because it was the hub of Black prosperity, it was also known as the Negro Wall Street and later Black Wall Street.  More than 10,000 Blacks lived in the community adjacent to Tulsa’s white downtown.  Greenwood Avenue was the main drag and the center of the commercial district whose prosperity was fueled by oil money. The city was home to several Black millionaires, successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and educators.

Black-owned and operated businesses dotted the south end of Greenwood Avenue and the surrounding area including clothing and dry goods stores, meat markets and grocery stores, barber shops and beauty parlors, cleaners, an upholstery shop, jewelers and many more businesses that catered to a Black clientele.

Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma

There were also restaurants, two theaters, a professional building with offices for doctors, lawyers, realtors and other businesses and a hotel.  Two Black newspapers – the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun – provided the latest news.  A library, a YMCA, social and civic organizations and more than a dozen Black churches provided services to the large community.

As Black Tulsa thrived, resentment was brewing in the white community.  Some Tulsans were threatened by the success and wealth of the Greenwood residents and the city became the perfect launching pad for the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.  Stoked by the hate group and the rumored assault of a white woman by a Black man, Greenwood became the target of the wrath of the white community on May 31, 1921.  Hundreds of African Americans were chased out of their homes and businesses of which more the 1,200 were burned to the ground.  As many as 300 black men, women and children were killed by the white mobs and 8,000 displaced Black residents pitched tents amongst their ruined neighborhoods or were detained in camps.  It is estimated that $1.5 million in property was damaged or destroyed by the rioters.

The Tulsa Race Riot was the deadliest race riot in American history and 90 years later, it is still not taught in history classes across the U.S.  Tulsa students will finally be taught about the Tulsa Riot next year when it will be part of the history curriculum.  In January 2011, Tulsa finally acknowledged their horrific past and dedicated the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.  The park is the first step in honoring and remembering what happened in 1921.

Reconciliation Tower, a bronze sculpture by Ed Dwight, erected in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, Tulsa, OK.

Historian John Hope Franklin and his family were survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot, but it is important to note that the survivors, some of whom are in their 90s, have not received any compensation for the loss of their property.

Before the riot, Black Wall Street was a shining example of economic sustainability as Black businesses thrived in providing goods and services to its customers, circulating each dollar up to a year before it left the Greenwood community.  The inflamed rage of the white “have nots” was able to destroy this successful example of American capitalism serving the needs of ordinary people.

Now, a disgruntled middle class of mostly white Americans is embracing a strategy of nonviolent protest that gave African Americans equal rights, but not economic parity.  The Occupy Wall Streeters have struck a chord that reverberates not only with the middle class, but also with the “have nots” around the globe.  The protesters recognize that we are all victims of corporate greed and the consolidation of the financial, communications, telecom and oil industries that have done away with millions of jobs, created an environment where there are massive foreclosures in the housing market and endangered our way of life while amassing huge profits for a very few, dare I say, the 1%.

In the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” drafted in September 2011, organizers stated:  “…that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their brethren; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Evolution of Rev. Al Sharpton

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Originally published in The Westchester County Press, October 20, 2011

I watched Al Sharpton on “The Wendy Williams Show” last week.  Reverend Al has really reinvented himself.  Gone are the long permed tresses inspired by his early mentor and employer “Godfather of Soul” James Brown.

Godfather of Soul James Brown and Al Sharpton

They’ve been replaced by a shorter, more conservative ‘do’, that he informed Wendy he had done once a week at a Harlem hair salon.  He’s slimmer, too, down 125 lbs. from his peak weight of 305.  Rev. Al also has a new nightly cable show on MSNBC, “PoliticsNation,” an opinion program where he talks issues and current topics with guests, a radio show “Keepin’ It Real” broadcast on New York City’s WWRL-AM and “The Al Sharpton Show” that airs on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

Al Sharpton's new show is PoliticsNation

Reverend Sharpton did not morph into this kind of acceptable, mainstream, media darling overnight, it’s been a long time coming.  Sharpton first appeared on my radar with the Tawana Brawley accusations in 1987, in which a 15-year old Black girl from Wappinger Falls, New York alleged that a group of white men had raped her.  Sharpton was one of the young woman’s advisors at the time, along with attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason.  The bizarre case ended with a Grand Jury finding Brawley’s charges false and Sharpton and his cohorts were looked upon with a very jaundiced eye.

Before the Brawley incident, New York City was already unhinged and Al Sharpton was the go-to guy when there was trouble impacting the Black community.  There was Howard Beach in 1986, where three black men were assaulted by a white mob and one of them, Michael Griffith, was hit by a car and killed trying to escape the brutality.  Rev. Al organized a nonviolent protest in which more than 1,200 African Americans marched through the all-white Queens, NY neighborhood protesting the assault and death.

Rev. Al Sharpton and supporters march on Howard Beach in Queens, NY.

Then Bensonhurst happened in 1989.  Again, Black youth were assaulted by a white mob and this time, Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year old, was killed in the predominantly white Brooklyn community.  Rev. Sharpton led a march with Hawkins’ family through the streets of Bensonhurst as an angry white crowd taunted and spat on the marchers.  And in 1991, Crown Heights, also in Brooklyn, erupted after 7-year old Gavin Cato died from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car driven by a Jewish man.  Rumors spread throughout the predominately Black and Jewish enclave that the two young Black children pinned by the car received medical care after the driver and passengers in the car.  After several days of rioting and clashes between Black youth and Hasidic Jews, Sharpton organized a march through the Hasidic community to protest the death of Cato.

Sharpton’s ability to be at the center of major events that involve racial and social injustices and his skills of mobilizing people around specific issues has catapulted him to the national and international stage.  In 2001, Rev. Sharpton was arrested for protesting the practice bombings by the U.S. Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, along with nine protesters including political leaders from the Bronx.  Other prominent demonstrators who were arrested included: environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., actor Edward James Olmos, and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera. The Reverend received the longest sentence, 90 days, for trespassing on the Navy firing range on Vieques.  While in prison, Sharpton was visited by the who’s who of politics including Senators from New York Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, as well as civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and the Mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson.

Rev. Al Sharpton has been consistent with his message and commitment to social injustices and does not shy away from the consequences.  His support of President Barack Obama has been unflagging and in the interview with talk show host Wendy Williams recently he explained his position.

Rev. Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama

“He [Obama] inherited the worse economy…since the depression.  I think the fact that the President was able to come forward and bring this country from the threshold of a real depression..fought, got healthcare through, the first President to do that, I think he’s done a good job.  I’m with him.  I think he’s gotten a bad rap…And I’m not one of these fair-weather friends.”

On Saturday, Rev. Sharpton led thousands on a March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.  The crowd on the National Mall included members of labor unions, government officials, demonstrators from Occupy DC, and employed and unemployed Americans. Organized by Sharpton’s National Action Network and partners from labor, education, civil rights and religious organizations, the rally was a platform to bring attention to a wide range of issues impacting Americans including President Obama’s jobs bill which failed passage in the U.S. Senate, the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia and voter identification cards now required by some states at polls.

The march for jobs and justice preceded the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on Sunday which brought together 10,000 people on the National Mall.  President Barack Obama was among the speakers, as was Rev. Al Sharpton.  The legacy of Dr. King continues and the methods that he and the leaders of the civil rights struggle employed to change American society reverberates across the globe today – in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Campaign Season is Upon Us

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

We all know the drill, lawn signs pop up out of nowhere a month before the actual election, mailboxes are stuffed with campaign literature, and robocalls asking for your vote interrupt your evening meal.  I’m talking about campaign season 2011.  The General is a whole other ballgame.  This election season is unusual because it is an off year for federal elections, meaning the only Congressional seats in play were those up for special elections.  Also, as a result of the 2010 U.S. Census, district lines had to be redrawn creating new legislative districts and, in some cases, extending or shrinking existing districts potentially affecting federal, state and local election outcomes.

In special elections for Congressional seats this year, California and Nevada, each had one seat to fill, and New York had two.  California’s 36th district elected to the House of Representatives, Janice Hahn (D); Mark Amodei (R) won the Senate race in Nevada’s 2nd district; Kathy Hochul (D) was elected to the House of Representatives in New York’s 26th district to a seat vacated by Republican Chris Lee; and Democrat Anthony Weiner’s seat in the House representing the 9th Congressional District in New York City was won by Republican Bob Turner in a September election.

There are also four gubernatorial races that will be held in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi on November 8th and a special election in West Virginia on October 4th.  A slew of municipal elections will also take place this November including, but not limited to, mayoral races in the cities of Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle.

I just recently attended a fundraiser for a local candidate that I am supporting and was inspired by the attendance of 400+ supporters. This campaign season, I am intentionally volunteering, contributing and promoting my candidates to friends, family and sometimes colleagues.  It’s not that I haven’t been politically active in the past because I have, but because of the economy, the divisiveness of the political battles, on all levels of government, and my need to have input into how my future will be shaped, I feel that now it is imperative that I participate in the political process and voice my choice, loud and clear.

My family has a long tradition of participating in the political process.  My parents, both born in Florida, made a big deal over my sister and me registering to vote and receiving our Voter Registration Cards.  No matter whether elections were held for presidents, governors, mayors, council members, school budgets, and trustees, my parents always insisted that we all go to the polls together.  And to this day, carrying on the tradition, my family and I trek to the polls together.  A lesson in civics for everyone!  My sister Gale and I also went door-to-door as teenagers registering people to vote in our community in the 1960s.  She also traveled South with a group of students from New York to help with the voter registration drive in North Carolina.

Voting Righs Act of 1965 was passed to ensure African Americans the right to vote.

Our right to vote came after a hard won fight.  When the United States of America was created in 1776, the Constitution, which was adopted in 1787, only gave white male property owners the right to vote in 1790.  The 15th Amendment of 1870 guaranteed former enslaved males the right to vote and protected the voting rights of all males.  And women received the right to cast their ballots in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment and in 1924 Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote.

For African Americans, even though the U.S. Constitution guaranteed our right to vote, it did not stop states, primarily in the South, from passing laws and statutes that made it impossible for Black folks to cast their ballots.

Young Voters

Poll taxes (a payment to vote in an election which poor African Americans could not afford to pay) and literacy tests (an exam for Blacks, only, as a requirement to vote), along with fear and intimidation were used to keep African Americans away from the voting booths.  The 24th Amendment ratified January 23, 1964, prohibited poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests.

The summer of 1964, referred to as the Freedom Summer in the archives of the Civil Rights Movement, was the climax of a full on campaign to get Blacks registered in southern states with the worst voting rights records.  Mississippi was targeted and thousands of white and Black college students from across the United States descended on the state to register voters, work at Freedom Schools that taught young African American students history and civics, and to be the face of the political movement for voters’ rights.

Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Freedom Summer was pivotal in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), comprised of disenfranchised Black voters and white supporters.  The MFDP was determined to be heard and elected delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey where they challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation and demanded seats at the convention.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a delegate of the MFDP, speaking to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

The impassioned speech given by MFDP Delegate Fannie Lou Hamer to the Credentials Committee about trying to register to vote in racist Mississippi was history-changing and was carried, unedited, on many TV stations providing the country with an electrifying first-person account of discrimination at the polls.

After much turmoil, Lyndon Johnson won the Democratic nomination and was elected President.  During his first term, Johnson passed a series of Civil Rights Legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and, in 1967 Johnson signed an act that extended the Civil Rights Commission for five more years.

History shows us that change is affected through the ballot box and electing the right people could change our lives for the better.  These are difficult times, but no challenge is insurmountable.  Today, we should make a commitment to learn more about the candidates and how they stand on the issues and use our votes to make a difference.

Posted in African American History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment