Tag Archives: Selma

Lessons From #Selma50: #4: Mississippi STILL Burning #TCUCRBT

Frederick Jermaine Carter, 26, was found hanging from a tree in an upscale , mostly white subdivision in Greenwood, Mississippi. Authorities originally ruled it a suicide. However, local residents know the truth. Jermaine Carter was the victim of a good ole fashioned lynching. According to U.S.A. Today, Carter was last seen with his step-father in Sunflower County Mississippi. He had a history of wandering off resulting from a mental illness. Tragically, he was the victim of a heinous hate crime because of his decision to wander into an white suburban neighborhood. He was a victim of what many in Mississippi have known and experience all too well, the phenomenon of “not knowing your place.” Sadly, this case of a modern day lynching that occurred in December of 2010 never received any national recognition and is virtually unknown to all besides the residents of Greenwood and nearby areas. Make no mistakes about this incident though, many residents still vividly remember this incident and are certain that this was not a suicide but yet another terror attack by white supremacy that is still deeply entrenched in much of the country today.

 

I first learned of this story from a female receptionist from the Hampton hotel that I stayed in while in Greenwood. I went to write a reflection on my experiences in Greenwood and my visit to various historical sites in the area such as the Fannie Lou Hamer burial site, the remains of the store in which Emmett Till’s infamous encounter with Carolyn Bryant occurred, and the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center. As we talked I learned more about Mississippi in a two hour conversation than I did from any of the historical sites I had visited. My conversation with this woman shaped my next lesson I learned from visiting Selma and other civil rights historical sites. The history of places like Greenwood, Mississippi is often left solely in a historical context. However, the truth is that many of the issues that plagued these areas are still alive and well over 50 years later. In essence, as the receptionist told me “not much has changed in the state of Mississippi,” at least as far as the everyday living conditions of the citizens are concerned.

 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Frederick Jermaine Carter was lynched a mere ten minutes away from where Emmett Till was murdered in the not too distant past. On August 28th, 1955 the fourteen year old Till was taken away from his great-uncle’s barn house. At which point he was beaten, his eyes were gouged out, shot in the head, and his body was disposed in the Tallahatchie River with a 70 pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. What was the crime that Till committed? Secondarily, it was speaking/ whistling at the married 21 year- old white woman Carolyn Bryant. Primarily, it was the violation of the unwritten law in Mississippi in which white power reigned supreme. Much like Frederick Jermaine Carter, Till had ” stepped out of place,” and was made into an example to anyone who dare challenge the rule of law. Lynchings, however, are not the  only parallel between what we know as a historical view of the reign of white supremacy and its current state.

 

Voter disenfranchisement is just as big an issue as it has ever been. It is no secret that although Mississippi had a larger African American population in various spots throughout the state, many did not have any control over their political circumstances during much of the 20th century. In fact it was only at the expense of much bloodshed that voting equality came to the state. This process did not happen overnight rather it was a  long and gradual process. Pivotal in the development of these rights were the establishment of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), The Freedom Summer, the MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party), and the  notorious death of three civil rights workers in 1964 (of which the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is based on). Today while there is an absence of blatant terror tactics, other more formal, legal methods have been put in place to disenfranchise African American voters. The private prison industry has played a major role in this endeavor. As I found out, Mississippi is home to several private prison imported from other states including California. Not only does the state import the prisons but it also imports the prisoners from those states as well. These private prisons are not usually located in the city but outside of suburban areas. This allows the total population of  the prisons to count towards the overall population of the suburban areas. With the inflated population growth suburban areas are afford more representation in local politics. So although the prisoners do not get to participate in the political process they are used as political tools to enhance the political power of the elites who already dominate political systems. The vote of African Americans becomes minimized in favor of those who live in suburban areas. Thus in many instances even if African Americans constitute a larger portion of the population this is not reflected in the political representation in various areas.

 

Beyond voting disenfranchisement, the historical narrative that dominated the perception of Mississippi still exists today in other aspects as well. Whether it be in education, public accommodations, employment opportunities, or public housing. Walking through cities such as Greenwood, it is immediately apparent which part of the town a person is in. When one is in an impoverished neighborhood with dilapidated houses and very few businesses one can be sure they are in a predominantly African American neighborhood. However, when one crosses the railroad tracks the stark contrast is unmistakable. The predominantly white neighborhoods are filled with plenty of houses rich in history and texture that can  be marveled at. This did not happen by accident. The receptionist that I conversed with in a Greenwood hotel gave me an anecdote of housing discrimination that she had personally experienced. She and her husband tired of their lot in Greenwood attempted to purchase a living space in a different part of the town. For a small living space in the white part of town the realtors would not budge on their offer of 950 dollars a month. However, the woman alongside her husband decided to encourage one of their white friends to also attempt to purchase the same space. Their friends were offered the exact same space for 400 dollars. According to the receptionist this practice was not uncommon for the area and many of the  African American residents had given up on trying to move to other parts of the  town.

 

These stories help to illuminate the dangers that arise when we only consider the historical context of places like Greenwood, Mississippi. We forget about the ongoing struggle that continues in these places today. We forget about understanding the changes that are necessary to affect the day to day lives of the individuals that still live in these place. We become deceived into believing that white supremacy has all but vanquished in society. Voting disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, educational disparities, and lynching are not just historical artifacts of a distant past. They constantly shape the realities of many who deal with systemic inequality in the present context. If one needs furthers proof of this look no further than a recent news story from the LA Times. On March 19, 2015 (yesterday), the body of 54 year old Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi. It has been reported that Byrd, an African American male was found with his hands tied as he had seemingly tried to escape the noose. At this stage authorities have yet to rule whether this death was a homicide or suicide. However, much like the residents of Greenwood in the case of Frederick James Carter there are serious doubts that this was a suicide. Something that has thought to have been long since eradicated from our society in all probability has reared its ugly head again, modern day lynchings. The point here is clear. Unless we recognize that white supremacy is not a socio-historical artifact relegated to the past,  these incidents will continue to occur.

 Photo Description: “Emmett Till Historical Marker. Sumner, MS. Green sign, gold text, square shape, describing the events of Emmett Till’s lynching.. Found on Flickr. Jimmy Emerson 3/22/2008. 

Lessons From #Selma50: #3 From White Sign to White Mind

Many know the story of Nashville, Tennessee as the country music hall of fame. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and many others have walked down those streets. The recognition that the city has been given because of its role in the development of country music has even resulted in a popular television show with its namesake. However, there is also a different history in Nashville that exists alongside this narrative that we already know. It also played a crucial role in the development of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and prominent leaders during the movement such as: James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Congressman John Lewis. Furthermore, it is home the the most comprehensive Civil Right library in the country. Nashville is also home to the first health center that trained African Americans called the MeHarry medical college. So why has Nashville’s rich history during the Civil Right Movement and beyond been overlooked. Again I turn to lessons that I learned from conversation with various members of the community. Kwame Lillard, a civil rights veteran reasoned that this was because of the insufficiencies that resulted from the movement. Chief among those was the transition from eradicating the white signs [legislation] to eradicating the white mind [white supremacist ideology, practices].

 

So what exactly is the transition from white signs to white minds? It begins with the assumption that racism is actually an oligarchical beast. It is both individualistic as well as institutional. Both aspects can be mutually reinforcing. One cannot be eradicated without eliminating the other. White signs in a very literal sense are the policies enacted under Jim Crow that systematically disenfranchised African Americans and many other minorities from the political process and public accommodations. White signs describes segregated schools, buses, lunch counters, housing, employment opportunities, and every other form of explicit representation in which “Whites Only” is the written law. White signs was the major battleground in which the civil rights struggle took place. When the Nashville Five refused to move when the sought to integrate lunch counters in the South they had effectively waged war against the white signs. When these same individual continued to execute CORE’s plan of testing the federal law via Boynton v. Virginia 1960 which mandated integrated transportation facilities they were once again attacking white signs. During the  famed March on Washington in 1963 John Lewis and others gave speeches that were pivotal putting pressure on the U.S. government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the speeches and the ensuing legislations were aimed at ending white sign. What had yet to be addressed was white supremacist logic itself.

 

White minds, according to Lillard, are the dominant ideologies created by the fog of white supremacy that continues to disenfranchise African Americans in society today. He noted that one of the shortcomings of the activism from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is that it did not go far enough. Indeed activists were effective in the ability to force America to deliver on its promises of equality in the areas of voting rights and public accommodations it did nothing to attack the ideologies and cognitive notions that allowed a racial hierarchy to permeate every aspect of society including the government. He compares the struggle for civil rights to warfare tactics. When the Allied Forces invaded Normandy in what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history, they did not stop once all of the troops had landed there. They aimed for and achieved a total and decisive victory over the Germany. Movement leaders got to Normandy ( equal access to public accommodations, and voting rights) but did not go for the total annihilation of a system. They did not confront the mindsets that made so many uncomfortable. Underlying ideologies remained the same and could be repackaged in various forms. To state simply the Civil Rights Movement did not confront the heart of white supremacy.

 

So what would we be necessary to finish what was started by Kwame Lillard and so many more during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s? One solution is to recognize that white supremacy is not just a question of civil rights; it questions the very fabric of what it means to be human. As Lillard expresses it is a transition from advocating for civil rights to advocating human rights. Human rights should not be simplified as to not recognizing the various racial disparities that affect black and brown bodies for a more general concern for humanity. Rather it recognizes the racialized nature of laws, norms, and various institutional structures. However, it goes beyond recognition of those structure and deals with issues of how to help oppressed and marginalized groups reclaim their human dignity and respect.

 

An example of this is with voter disenfranchisement laws throughout the country. Several states including my home state of Kentucky have laws that do not restore voting rights to citizen upon return from incarceration. In the state of Kentucky alone there are over a quarter million citizens who are denied their right to vote because they have a criminal conviction on their record. This measure of institutionalized racism has had a particular severe effect on the African American community in the state. Over ⅕ of the state’s African American population cannot vote because of these restrictions. Activist such as Jordan Mazurek and Greg Capillo have worked with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network to end this particular injustice. In a recent legislative session they petitioned for the Kentucky state senate to hear House Bill 70, which would offer reform to the current system in the state. In doing so they have found a way to transition to the struggle against the white mind. There are various other examples of how to move from  as Lillard suggests attacking white signs to white mind, however, it is imperative that we realize the struggle for human rights and equality is never over.

Photo description: ([Black] man drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” ca. July 1939), found on Flickr. original photographer unknown.

Lessons from #Selma50: #2 Bloody Sunday

Selma, Alabama has garnered much attention recently for various reasons. The film combined with the 50th anniversary that commemorated ” Bloody Sunday,” has facilitated the visitation of many visitors including President Barack Obama on Saturday. Sunday March 8th a remarkable moment of solidarity occurred when people from across the country united to renew protest for social justice for many different causes including voter rights restrictions, police brutality, immigration policy, and continued economic injustices throughout the country. It is hard to say what the lasting impact will be of this event. However, given the magnitude of the event it is certainly worth pausing on for reflection. In particular what has shaped my perspective on this monumental event were two conversations that I had with citizens who lived in Alabama during the movement.

Despite my understanding of the significance of this event I did not take very many pictures while in Selma. However, one picture that I did take was of two older ladies with whom I had conversed. Both were active leaders during the Movement years in Selma. They actually insisted that I take a picture not only of them but of their signs as well. Both women held signs that said: ” Justice is blind in Selma- Unfair treatment of citizens in Selma, Alabama by certain persons in high places. We need help in Selma, Alabama.” Before I left after taking the picture she told me to share the pictures with others because after the everyone who came from the rally left they would still be left in Alabama. This made me reflect on two aspects of my visit to Selma. First, I reflected on what it must have been like to have been in Selma fifty years prior. The environments would have obviously been vastly different, tension would have been high and officer may not have been so friendly. However, the spirit of unity between various groups united to stand for a cause remained reminiscent. Although the threat of putting one’s life endanger was gone I still had the sense that important work could be accomplished by the March. However, the two women’s remarks combined with their signs were a very subtle reminder that no work would completely solely through a march.Although it was a great gesture, it would not cause social change by itself. There remains much work to be done. As I left the city I was reminded that I was only a guest there, and that there are actual residents who still face injustice in Selma. Part of this reality is the systemic inequality that many residents still face today. I was reminded that after leaving Selma I need to do whatever it is that I can to help those ladies and what they represent. Even if I do not specifically act on their behalf I was reminded that it is my responsibility as an activist to fight for social changes that is beneficial to all of the “Selmas”, from Ferguson, Missouri to Green Bay, Wisconsin, of the world. Through continually fighting to end injustices I take up the call to “Help Selma.”

The next reflection on my time in Selma is admittedly partially influenced by my time conversing with Civil Rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi as well. While in Selma the first man that I spoke with explained that he was a teenager when the March happened. Nevertheless, he was very much involved in the movement. Infact, he explained that because many teacher who chose to be involved in the movement were fired, schools frequently just dismissed student. The students were subsequently rounded up by officers and held in captivity for a period of time. He somehow managed to avoid this. One of the most interesting stories he told me was about the history of many of the building that were in Selma. According to him many of the businesses in the area that we were in were owned by the Jewish community. The communities frequently employed African Americans at a time when many could not find work in Selma. He describe the cooperative relationship between African Americans and Jews as essential economic vitality of the Selma community. He even explains how during his teenage years he worked for a Jewish families furniture store. This story stressed to me the importance of interracial alliances in the struggle for equality. In Jackson this point was reiterated by freedom ride, Hezekiah Watkins. Watkins described the everyday circumstances during his involvement with the COFO organization (a coalition between SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP). He stated that what is often overlooked is the way that would mean white Americans were involved in the Movement. Particularly, he noted how some were directly involved.

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Those who were directly involved could potentially face many of the hardships that African Americans faced for their involvement. As a result some decided not to put their life on the line directly. However, this did not mean they were not involved. As an example he pointed to the many instances where white Americans would drive by the headquarters of COFO and leave envelopes of money outside their doors without ever wanting to be identified. This money was crucial towards funding the various initiatives that organizations like COFO hoped to accomplish. There point here though is not to explain the ways in which white Americans were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, it is to use a specific historical example to elucidate the point that the struggle for equality is an interracial struggle. It does not fall on any one specific race or ethnic group. Perhaps another activist has stated this best: “I believe that my freedom is very much entangled with the freedom of every other man and that if another man is not free I am not free.” I believe the same can be said about the struggle for equality today. The need for interracial alliances highlights this point.

Needless to say there were many more lessons that I learned from a visit to Selma, Alabama (For example, TCU’s beating of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl was witnessed by many). Ha ha! Couldn’t help it! However, the two that I will not soon forget are that the struggle for freedom and equality does not end with a march, and the necessary cooperation by many across racial ethnic and even class boundaries to participate.