Black History Month should symbolize for all of us the universal and timeless struggle for social justice. God Almighty has sanctified this struggle, providing humanity with the criterion for its realization. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured so eloquently the heart of that principle: “Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it politic? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right?”
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Standing up for what is right is an ongoing campaign for dignity, equal opportunity, and the civil and human rights that no individual, group, or government can usurp from the people without bringing about an uprising to set things right. The response may be delayed, it might be temporarily crushed, pepper-sprayed, co-opted by opportunistic individuals or groups, imprisoned, or killed. But with time, justice has its say.
The Voices of Justice Speak
Harriet Tubman, known mainly for leading slaves to freedom by the Underground Railroad, a vast network of secret routes, spoke her mind for the cause of justice: “Leave no brother or sister behind the enemy line of poverty.” This woman of the 19th century, born into slavery, beaten by those who thought they owned the very breath of her life, escaped from enslavement with her brothers, Ben and Henry, in 1849. Then began her long endeavor to free the rest of her family. Slavery was the first enemy line that she knew, in her good conscience, none should be left behind. And she began guiding groups of slaves to the free states of the north. Each time she returned, she risked her own recapture, and she did so again and again for eleven years. She didn’t ask herself if the venture was safe or politically expedient or popular. She knew it was right and that was her sole criterion for action. Later in life she spoke of her profound experience when for the first time she crossed into Pennsylvania, a “free” state, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Harriet Tubman was resolute in making her way to a “free state.” With similar dedication, Frederick Douglass worked tirelessly to help bring about the destiny of America as a “land of the free.” Well-known as having escaped from slavery to become a leader of the abolitionist movement, he recognized that the fight for social justice requires a nation of citizens aiming for moral rightness and the thoughtfulness educed from intellectual depth. He said, “A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.” About his endeavors to facilitate that moral growth of America, he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” He became in later years a strong advocate for the rights of women and once remarked, “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
So many African-Americans have contributed to the moral growth and intellectual maturing of America. Some risked everything to help emancipate this nation from the ignominy of slavery.
Douglass was self-educated, yet his oratorical skill was fiercely honest and superlative. Those who endorsed slavery were up against a flesh-and-blood refutation of their pitiable, ignoble argument that slaves could not be granted citizenship because they did not have the necessary intellectual capacity. Douglass pointed out that slavery fetters both the slave and the slave-holder, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck. “ And yet, Douglass also understood that those who enslave and oppress do not willingly give up their power and privilege, declaring, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Rosa Parks also understood this well. She understood this when Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old wife and mother, was raped by a group of white men in 1944. Parks and others who were outraged when no arrest was made, demanded action by the Alabama governor, Chauncey Sparks. As this incident gained national coverage, the offices of the NAACP received letters from thousands of African-American women who had been raped by white men who were never prosecuted. This incident, and the larger issue of sexual violence against African-American women it uncovered, were the catalyzing events of Parks dedication to civil rights.
Her well-known refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white person was much more than the simplistic story told about a seamstress after a long day of work, too tired to get up from her seat. Rosa Parks was, by that time, already a dynamic champion of social justice. In her autobiography she reveals, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” She was tired of giving in to injustice and so she demanded concessions from power. She demanded change. Rosa Parks also had a vision of equality for all. She said “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.”
Untold Numbers, Unsung Heroes — A Liberating Vision
So many African-Americans have contributed to the moral growth and intellectual maturing of America. Some risked everything to help emancipate this nation from the ignominy of slavery. Some demonstrated the courage to engage in civil disobedience, and others expressed, so we all could appreciate, the luminosity of freedom once released from the yoke of chattel servitude. All paved the way for America’s first African-American president. We should celebrate their achievements with greatest respect and admiration, and take time to read their stories — Tubman, Douglass, and Parks, as well as Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichel, Shirley Chisholm, Eldrige Cleaver, Ellen and William Craft, Medgar Evers, Marcus Garvey, Frances Harper, Benhamin Hooks, Roy Innis, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kweisi Mfume, Gabriel Prosser, A. Philip Randolph, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Andrew Young, Malcolm X, and so many more provide us insight and inspiration.
The privileges and prosperity of whites in America did not come about because white people were more hard-working and morally upright than minorities.
Out of their efforts arose the man, Barak Obama, who symbolizes the visionary dream of equality, an ideological vision shared by all workers for social justice. President Obama, in early December of 2011, gave a talk in Kansas, quoting from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech. Roosevelt captured the spirit of egalitarian ideas that are keenly relevant today. He pointed to the challenge of curbing the excesses of those who would claim for themselves an unfair portion of wealth and resources, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population disempowered, in varying degrees of impoverishment and thus in servitude to debt-masters. Roosevelt spoke of the duty of each individual to improve his own condition in the world while never forgetting to advance the well-being of others. This is no inciting of class warfare against those with riches and property, as he says, “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”
Indeed, this was not a speech inciting class warfare from the bottom up, but a grave warning about those who wage a battle against the rights of the majority, from the top down. He talks about equality of opportunity as providing a base for the advancement of humanity, allowing each to push forward unobstructed toward his or her greatest potential. What stands in the way, says Roosevelt, is selfish interest on the part of those who would amass for themselves undue wealth along with the power to “twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.” These are “special interests” who organize, advocate, and lobby for their own self-interests, seeing these as only gained by trampling on the interests, rights, and needs of others.
Roosevelt was prescient when he said, “..the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. That is one of our tasks to-day.” Obama, we hope and pray, will continue to fulfill the populist and egalitarian vision articulated by Roosevelt. When asked in college about his aims, he talked about ending the back room deals, the breach of trust by those in Congress who are “…compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top… Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.” One journalist who traveled with Roosevelt commented, “I don’t think any sane man could be with him two weeks without getting to like him; but the thing that struck me on that trip was the way he grew; the way an idea grew in his mind day by day as he lived with it until it took its final shape in speech. Then it was like a knock-down blow.” Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, was a Republican. We are waiting for some populist knock-down blows from our 44th American president.
Throwing his own knock-down blow is Newt Gingrich, a proper symbol of the current Republican vision of how things should be. This vision conveys retrogressive sentiments such as ““Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.” Mr. Gingrich made this comment last November at a campaign stop in Iowa, in response to being asked about earlier statements he had made at Harvard University, including, “It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child [labor] laws, which are truly stupid.”
We were a congregation of souls that night, believing in and surrendered to universality, feeling so profoundly connected and joyful that a son of our nation was standing before us with the torchlight of promise held high.
So what should be done, according to this stalwart conservative? The obvious — provide equal opportunity to the poor children — let the 10-year-old boy work as a janitor at his school. Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Washington Post, herself a Republican, commented on Gingrich’s idea, throwing light on the absurdity at its core, “Republicans have always been wedded to the idea that Americans, given opportunity, can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. In fact, most people subscribe to this very American narrative to varying degrees. But missing from the vision of the coldest eye is acknowledgment that sometimes people have no boots”… or a roof over their heads, food on the table, courage to make the decision to pay the utility bill and keep the house warm, or go to the doctor to treat the baby’s two-month-old cough.
How much pulling up by one’s bootstraps can a normal man muster when he faces, day in and day out low wages, sub-par schools for his kids because of an unfair funding system, mental health issues such as depression or anxiety (not difficult to understand given such living conditions), disease-carrying rats and toxic mold, no health insurance, bosses who demean despite his hard work and loyalty. Mr. Gingrich’s solution? Let the 10-year-old student in the dilapidated school work as a janitor to learn what it takes to make it in America. All the while his peers in more affluent schools will spend their extra-curricular time playing sports, participating in student government, the debating team, the art club. Is this double-crossing standard okay with Gingrich and his Republican colleagues?
Poverty and Racism: An Historic Double-Cross
Characterizing poor children as all coming from families with lazy or criminal habits is barely-veiled race-baiting. If Gingrich is pandering to his political base, then he knows that poverty and race are too often synonymous in the public mind. Certainly, if he is an honest historian, he also knows that poverty and racism are absolutely intertwined. The privileges and prosperity of whites in America did not come about because white people were more hard-working and morally upright than minorities. Their status was the result of deliberate, carefully-crafted policies and institutional structuring that promoted the social and economic advancement of whites and obstructed the advancement of people of color:
• Social and economic institutions such as slavery which dispossessed blacks of everything but the strength of their souls while at the same time, on their backs, created vast fortunes, embezzled wealth, not just for the slave-owners but for the entire white, slave-centered economy
• Court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 which cemented the disparities that attach to segregation and second-class citizenship, creating “separate but equal” schools, which were in fact anything but equal as schools for blacks were severely underfunded (and still are today), creating educational deficits that are hard to overcome in a competitive society
• Acts of congress such as the The Indian Removal Act of 1830 which forced native Americans off their land and offered the confiscated land to settlers (whites only; no blacks need apply); or the Wagner Act in 1935 which granted legal protection to labor unions resulting in higher wages for those with union membership, but allowing unions to exclude blacks from union membership. This protected whites from competition by black workers while maintaining the lower paid group of once-again disenfranchised African-Americans
• Discriminatory practices by government agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration, which in the 1940s and 1950s refused to grant loans to integrated neighborhoods
… the list goes on and on.
Then we have to refresh our souls with the hope of a man who helped lead a movement aiming to rectify this part of America’s history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” As we shall see later in this article, Malcolm sat at such a table toward the end of his life, and the liberating sentiments he expressed are poignant and classic. King spoke of the price that one might pay for promoting a genuine fellowship of humankind, “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.” Both King and Malcolm X paid with their lives.
We might do well to keep in our minds the sacrifices symbolized so well by Black History Month as we move toward the coming election day. Each of us has to decide if we will embrace social justice for all people and its altruistic imperatives of kindness and compassion, or choose a retrogressive march back to days of injustice. Those who organize that march pretend to offer solutions to problems. But with thoughtfulness and analysis, we see they offer nothing more than euphemistic hoodwink. George Orwell said that politicians often speak in “…defense of the indefensible,” and thus their rhetoric “has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Or plain and simple misrepresentation.
Like the talk about teaching poor children a work ethic because they have “nobody around them who works.” In fact, the adults in many poor families work two or three jobs. Not surprising when one does the simple math. Imagine trying to live on $8 an hour pay, let alone support a family. An eye-opening book is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, written by Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist who holds a PhD in cell biology. She went “undercover,” traveling the country for two years and working as a waitress, hotel maid, Wal-Mart salesperson and other low-paid positions. She met countless numbers of the working-poor. Disproving the canards that poor people are just “too lazy to work” and that any job “will defeat poverty,” she discovered that even “the ‘lowliest’ occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.”
We need to demand a more balanced approach to the distribution of wealth and resource and opportunity in this country. That’s not socialism, it’s common sense and basic decency. It’s a strange thing that the religious right are often the most vocal about rescinding the social contract to provide for the needy. Maybe they would do well to revisit their religious texts — “And the crowds asked [John the Baptist], “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10-11).
Black History Month — Honoring the Champions of Freedom
They are not the top 1% “job-creators;” not the demagogues; not the rank-and-file conservatives who don’t know or pretend not to know that structural poverty and institutionalized racism exist. The champions of freedom are those, past and present, who actively engage in the fight for social justice, who feed the hungry and provide shelter for the dispossessed . An African proverb suggests, “If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” All right-minded citizens of this country should consider as prime part of their true American ancestry those who overcame the physical brutality and emotional carnage of enslavement to find their destiny in dedication to social reform; the ones, past and present, who brave the conditions of poverty and oppression, all the while striving to live a decent life, keep a marriage together, raise happy and successful children; all those who tried to keep going but have fallen in the dust, too tired to take another step or face another day; all those who work to realize the rights of minorities, women, workers, children, and any others who have been marginalized and denied their rights. African-Americans have been fighting for social justice in this country for more than 200 years. They have paved the way for all of us. With patience and perseverance, we must build on their efforts and accomplishments. The challenge, in the process, is not to hate the oppressors and their minions, but to provide a new vision to those steeped in ideas which offend by moral cowardice, political expediency, or vain and selfish motives.
Many of those sold into slavery and brought to this country were African Muslims whose culture of birth provided them with a character pledged to do right. Maya Angelou, who was chosen by President Clinton to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at his 1993 inauguration, confirms the hope that enough of us might reach inside ourselves to find a genuine and primordial culture of humaneness. Angelou has written, “It takes more than a horrifying transatlantic voyage chained in the filthy hold of a slave ship to erase someone’s culture.” The Islamic tradition and culture requires Muslims to “return what is better” when they have been wronged. Human beings may not be capable of that in an instant, but over time the nascent impulse to demand social justice, while never deviating from the moral highroad, might take root and thrive. This is, without doubt, a steep path to climb, to embrace the way of universality and be guided by divine wisdom: “O humankind — Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another…” (Qur’an 49:13).
Climbing the Steep Path
Malcolm X climbed that steep path. His father’s civil rights activism brought death threats from white supremacists. Malcolm recalled, “When my mother was pregnant with me — she told me later — a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home… Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.” In 1929 their Lansing, Michigan home was set on fire and burned to the ground, and two years later his father’s lifeless body was found, lying across the trolley tracks in the town. And one of his uncles was lynched. Then when Malcolm was 13, after all these assaults on their lives, with ongoing fears for the safety of her children, his mother had a nervous breakdown, and the children were sent to various foster homes and orphanages. It doesn’t take much reflection to understand Malcolm X’s militancy during his days with the Nation of Islam. Yet, after his split with the organization that, without doubt and despite its flaws, uplifted many, Malcolm, the man who once believed that the white man is the devil, made hajj and wrote in a letter to his colleagues back home,
“America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their colors. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
We wish Br. Malcolm could have witnessed the marvel of Barack Obama giving his 2008 victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago, before a crowd of supporters a quarter million strong. That night we had no interest in colors of skin except for feeling jubilant that this intelligent and self-composed man was recognized by the majority of citizens as the best one to lead. We were a congregation of souls that night, believing in and surrendered to universality, feeling so profoundly connected and joyful that a son of our nation was standing before us with the torchlight of promise held high. Progeny of the patient and perseverant multitudes who trailblazed the way before our time, he was ready to lead us another some distance upward on the path of human fellowship, toward peace.
“And what will explain to you the path that is steep? (It is) freeing the bondman; or the giving of food in a day of privation to the orphan with claims of relationship or to the destitute in the dust. Then will one be of those who believe, and enjoin patience and perseverance, and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion” (Quran 90:12-17).