Monthly Archive for July, 2011

Seattle Multimedia Civil Rights Exhibit

Traditional studies of the civil rights movement very often focus on the struggles of Southern African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s to gain social, political, and economic equality and combat racial discrimination and violence. But enhanced analysis shows that civil right struggles were not confined simply to that era, demographic, or region.

The University of Washington hosts a multimedia exhibit that explores the history of Seattle’s civil rights movement, as experienced not only by African Americans, but also by Filipino Americans, Jews, Latinos, Native Americans, and various other demographic groups—over a span of several decades. Visit the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project to view photographs, documents, oral histories, biographies, and much more. What emerges is a picture quite similar to that seen in the struggles of African Americans in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Alabama.

NAACP Broadens Focus and Renews Public Interest

The eve of the NAACP’s 102nd Annual Convention – expected to draw several thousand members to Los Angeles this weekend – brings to light the significant changes this century-old organization has seen over the past few years. A resurgence in membership and donations has come alongside a greater diversification of goals and a more demographically inclusive platform, with organization officials focusing on issues that disproportionately affect not just African Americans, but also other ethnic, racial, religious, and gender minorities. For a great summary of recent strategic changes, read this Associated Press article:

Although the NAACP has broadened the scope of its civil rights activities, prominent policy goals remain focused on African Americans. Restrictive voting laws passed by several states across the country have motivated the organization to work towards ensuring African American voter rights in the upcoming presidential election. We can expect to see increased media coverage over the next year.

Award-winning civil rights author Peniel E. Joseph, quoted in the AP article, was a featured speaker at a Southern Oral History Program conference (“The Long Civil Rights Movement: Histories, Politics, Memories”) in 2009. To view video footage of his presentation, visit

John Lewis Facing Tough Reelection Challenge?

According to the Augusta Chronicle, twenty-five year U.S. House of Representatives incumbent and civil rights movement icon Rep. John Lewis is facing a stiff reelection challenge. Michael Johnson, an African American judge, has resigned his seat on Fulton County Superior Court to mount a primary challenge to Lewis.

Johnson, a Democrat, is hardly a Tea Party favorite. But according to the Chronicle he will appeal to Republicans and “urbane” voters. Writes the Chronicle, in a gesture of baffling imagery: “According to Johnson, Lewis is a one-song jukebox in an iPod-shuffle world of complex issues.”

The Southern Oral History Program houses an interview with John Lewis conducted in 1973. Listen here.

Environmental and Municipal Discrimination Suits Common Across US

Discrimination comes in many forms, but recent years have seen substantial discussion over public service provisions for, and environmental discrimination against, historically low-income, minority communities. Residents of Orange County, NC, are familiar with continued debates over landfill, water, and sewer service in a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood. But what they may not know is that similar civil rights claims are currently being echoed across the state and country.

A recap on the Chapel Hill situation: During the past couple of years, UNC’s Center for Civil Rights has assisted the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association in opposing the extension of the county’s only landfill (located in a predominantly African American neighborhood), while contesting alleged racial discrimination in the denial of basic public services such as sewer and water.

The pattern continues elsewhere in NC: Last month, the Center for Civil Rights filed a complaint against Brunswick County, alleging intentional discrimination against the Royal Park neighborhood, an historically African-American community which contains the county’s only landfill, sewage treatment plant, waste transfer system, and various other “locally unwanted land uses.” The complaint further stated that members of the community lack basic water and sewer services available to other communities throughout the county, and that this, in tandem with a disproportionate exposure to hazardous material, constitutes intentional discrimination. Read a news recap here:

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Remembering the 1948 Democratic National Convention

With political activists from all parties already gearing up for the 2012 election season, it is interesting to recall divisive elections from years past. At this time 63 years ago, the Democratic party was on the verge of a major split. During the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia (July 12-14), liberal Democrats (campaigning with a platform that included advances in civil rights) won by a close vote. In a dramatic exhibition of many Southerners’ deep-held discriminatory beliefs, every member of the Mississippi delegation and half of the Alabama delegation walked out of the convention. This event would soon lead to the formation of the States’ Rights party, members of whom have often been referred to as “Dixiecrats.” Read more about it in this archived Smithsonian Magazine article:

Rising, Falling, Redemption, and Clemency

From the New York Times:

CHRIS McNAIR, symbol of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., reported to federal prison last month, bereft of the media respect that has been his companion for most of his 85 years. In 1963, Mr. McNair’s 11-year-old daughter, Denise, died along with three other black Sunday school girls in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Mr. McNair, then a school-teacher turned photographer, transcended his anguish to become an agent of community healing, a popular politician whom white people appreciated for his policy of not bringing up his child’s martyrdom.”

McNair was convicted of bribery and conspiracy, and without a pardon from another African American avatar of racial healing, Barack Obama, he may spend his waning years in federal prison. McNair’s fall from grace rudely interrupts a redemption narrative fond to many Americans, or so writes Diane McWhorter. McWhorter suggests that McNair, after years of repressing the belief that the city of Birmingham owed him something for the loss of his daughter; after years of exhausting himself on behalf of racial healing; after feeling used time and time again by Birmingham’s white power structure as a symbol of the city’s new beginning, finally put a price on his cooperation, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars in cash.

Whatever McNair’s motivation, it seems unlikely that Obama will pardon him. If he misses this opportunity to walk in McNair’s footsteps and forgive a man his sins–as so far he has missed the opportunity to pardon extraordinary boxer Jack Johnson, persecuted by the law for his dalliances with white women–the “post-racial” president, so eager to demonstrate that he earned his success despite being a “skinny kid a funny name” (note how this line from his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address brushes by his racial identity as it slips past it), risks striding forth into a color-blind country and stumbling over a tangle of race and memory that will not go away for being ignored.

The Death Penalty and Civil Rights Core Principles

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post opines today on the execution of Humberto Leal, the Mexican national sentenced to die for rape in Texas, and who was executed despite protests from the Mexican government and President Obama. It’s not that Leal was innocent–he appears to have confessed before his death. And we should note, as all those who oppose the death penalty appear bound to do before writing in opposition to its use, that Leal’s crime was horrific. But his execution, which Governor Rick Perry (who has flirted with secessionist rhetoric) used as a way to send a message about the Lone Star State’s independence streak, speaks not just to the concerns many Americans feel about the death penalty (“Are we doing it right?”), but also to their mounting concerns about the innocence of those who die in our nation’s death chambers. That concern gets to a more pressing question for many: “What if it was me?”

The me in in that question is innocent. It is easy to overlook procedural errors if they’re being made in the trials of killers and rapists, who scarcely deserve to be draped in procedural niceties on their way to the death chamber. But what if the person represented by an incompetent lawyer, or coerced into giving a false confession, or below the intelligence threshold to be deemed responsible for his or her crimes, or convicted by the untrue testimony of someone seeking gain is in fact innocent? The apparent rash of exonerations of late has brought the question to the forefront of many Americans’ minds, and has changed minds, too. So argues the University of North Carolina’s Frank Baumgartner, whose The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence positions concerns about executing the innocent as the issue that may ultimately drive the death penalty out of use in the United States. It is a shame to think of the procedural errors that take place during the trials of monsters; but it’s genuinely scary to think of them taking place in your trial.

So what does this have to do with civil rights? A lot, if we’re talking about the many rights of Americans (and even of foreign nationals) who enter the justice system in this country. But more so, the issue is suggestive of American’s pivot on civil rights for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. The shocking change in public opinion that has taken place since it was normal to prevent blacks and whites from marrying one another had much to do with the important legal battles fought and won by advocacy organizations, with the sense of shame felt by so-called moderates when they saw their communities torn apart by hatred and bloodshed, with intense political pressure nationally and internationally. But might it not also have had something to do with the sense among many Americans, North and South, that those little black girls in Birmingham, or Little Rock, or Boston were not much different from their own children? And that when discrimination is something that happens as a matter of course, or far away, to someone you don’t know or who doesn’t deserve it, it is easy to ignore? But less so when you or someone you know is its target.

NC Officials Commemorate Site of 1963 Civil Rights Protest

North Carolina state officials yesterday commemorated the site of a peaceful civil rights protest that occurred nearly forty years ago. For 32 days in the summer of 1963, Green Memorial Church in Williamston, NC, was the site of a nonviolent civil rights protest attended by more than 400 people, mostly children and teenagers. In a county where tensions had been high since the 1957 acquittal of a white man accused of murdering a black man, civil rights protesters eventually helped bring about the desegregation of some town facilities.

State officials dedicated a highway marker at the Church on Sunday. See the Associated Press story here:

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer

A Southern summer once again brings to mind the murders of activists James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.  Here are some contemporary resources to bring the now-infamous events of 1964 alive:

The New York Times recently made available a digitized copy of the front page story on the day of the three volunteers’ disappearance (scroll down to read the text version):

PBS provides one young volunteer’s account of her experience that summer:

A brief reprise of the story:  At this time 47 years ago, a group of young men and women, in conjunction with national organizations, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a voter education and registration project. Trained in Ohio, the Freedom Summer recruits traveled to Mississippi on June 20th, 1964. Three organizers (one black, two white) disappeared the very next day; their bodies were recovered six weeks later. In those days in Mississippi, intimidation of blacks was commonplace, and new voting laws had made registration increasingly difficult for African Americans. Amidst a hostile (and often violent) atmosphere, Freedom Summer recruits registered thousands of African Americans to vote for the first time.  The wikipedia article on it is here:

If you have access through your library, a good biography of James Earl Chaney is in African American National Biography, available online through the Oxford African American Studies Center.

New Online Civil Rights Exhibit Launched

This week, the North Carolina Museum of History launched an online exhibit chronicling North Carolinians’ struggles for civil rights. Entitled “A Change is Gonna Come: Black, Indian, and White Voices for Racial Equality,” the exhibit advances a message quite similar to ours at LCRM: the idea of the civil rights struggle as a long, multi-generational movement, inclusive of a wide array of demographics.

Separated into three distinct time frames, the exhibit allows visitors to see how the long civil rights movement changed throughout the years—and understand the events that helped to shape it.

Check it out: