Monthly Archive for July, 2009

Civil Rights Cold Cases

The Birmingham News is reporting that while the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act has not yet been financed, Attorney General Eric Holder says that work on cold cases has begun. There are as many as 100 unsolved cases that “intentionally” went unpunished in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I’ve been saying for years, urging people who are perpetrators to get defense attorneys … and usually that draws a laugh, but ever since Oct. 7, I haven’t been hearing as much laughing down South,” said Alvin Sykes, executive director of the Emmett Till Justice Committee from Kansas City, Mo.

Video of the Week: William P. Jones

William P. Jones of the University of Wisconsin at Madison gives his talk, “Gender, Jobs, and Freedom: Black Trade Unionists and the 1963 March on Washington.”

This talk was part of “The Long Civil Rights Movement: Histories, Politics, Memories,” a conference hosted by the Southern Oral History Program as part of the Long Civil Rights Movement Publishing Project.

See more video here.

Henry Louis Gates: The Great Noticing

Gatesgate, the latest incident to pull back the veil on the persistence of racism, institutional and otherwise, in the United States, continues to draw a great deal of attention (especially with the release of the boring 911 transcript), among the latest this patently ridiculous article on which beer the President might choose when Henry Louis Gates and his arresting officer, James Crowley, meet at the White House for a drink. Will it be Crowley’s preferred Blue Moon (owned by the conservative Coors family)? Boston’s Sam Adams? Chicago’s Goose Island? Who cares?

Of more interest is, well, the amount of interest. Gates’s semi-celebrity and friendship with the President meant that we actually heard about this story, which most of the media agrees is a teachable moment (a google search for “henry louis gates” and “teachable moment” yields millions of results).

Opposing the ignorant but well-meaning people who have welcomed this latest reminder that we are not living in a post-racial society (and who may even think that would be a good thing), are people like James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal, who, if he had read William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights might not have scolded Gates for being “uncivil.”

The nagging question is whether yet another teachable moment, if it remains a moment, is enough to teach white Americans that African Americans, especially men, experience suspicion by police and other authority figures all the time. As one author at The Root (an online magazine launched by Gates himself) put it:

It’s not a stretch for many white people, or black people for that matter, to visualize a young black man, especially one from an inner-city neighborhood or who is dressed a particular way (think baggy jeans, oversized T-shirt, baseball cap) getting stopped, questioned, arrested, etc., by white policemen. You’d have to live in a cave to not have witnessed this taking place at least once on the evening news, in movies, on streets and highways. What is harder for many white people to understand is that this happens all the time, to all sorts of black people, but particularly black men, no matter what they are wearing, no matter their station in life and no matter the kind of car they drive.

(It’s not just white police officers, either. Historian Eliot Rudnick wrote (in “The Negro Policeman in the South”) that when, after years of urging by black communities, black officers began to join police forces, they tended to treat black suspects more harshly than their white counterparts. Sometimes, white officers’ assumptions about black criminality actually made them more lenient; black officers’ frustration with black crime impelled them to react angrily.)

The treatment of African Americans by police officers remains hard for whites to understand because the wake-up calls come intermittently, after a nice snooze. Historians and other scholars of civil rights, who are beginning to take up this issue again, can play a part in keeping the rest of us awake.

Henry Louis Gates Jr

Henry Louis Gates Jr’s “regrettable and unfortunate” arrest this week by Boston police has drawn attention, once again, to America’s race problem. It was, according to the New York Times, a “disappointing reminder” of progress yet to be made in a country that elected its first black president.

The incident may be more than a reminder; it may be a wake-up call to those who need reminders at all, to those for whom the token integration of the executive branch was a great leap forward rather than an exception that proves the rule. But it is unlikely to be. The occasional prickle of discomfort whites feel when they learn something about the “common, if unacknowledged, reality” of the lives of many non-whites has thus far proved relatively easy to ignore.

It may be equally easy to shrug off the source of this prickle–encounters between police officers and minorities. But the relationship between police and minorities can’t help but mimic the relationship between the state and minorities, and when that point of contact is also a point of contention, the state has a real problem, reminders or not.

The SOHP Goes Global

Seth Kotch, the digital coordinator at the Southern Oral History Program, recently led a seminar for scholars and students of oral history and literature at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Seth discussed the challenges of digitization and some of the possibilities and pitfalls presented by new modes of publishing, including some of those being investigated by the Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement project. Read a bit more here …

Video of the Week: Rhonda Y. Williams

Rhonda Y. Williams of Case Western Reserve University gives a talk entitled “Obscured Lives, Hidden Histories (Take 2): Or, Narratives Which Otherwise Have Yet to Be Told.”

This talk was part of “The Long Civil Rights Movement: Histories, Politics, Memories,” a conference hosted by the Southern Oral History Program as part of the Long Civil Rights Movement Publishing Project.

See more video here.

Video of the Week: Robert O. Self

Robert O. Self on the privacy quandary in American life.

This talk was part of “The Long Civil Rights Movement: Histories, Politics, Memories,” a conference hosted by the Southern Oral History Program as part of the Long Civil Rights Movement Publishing Project.

See more video here.

The SOHP in Our State

The Southern Oral History Program was featured in the July issue of Our State magazine. Take a look …