Thursday, January 26, 2006

Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement by Danny Lyons

This is a useful, thought-provoking book with the focus on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), since the author was the SNCC staff photographer from 1962 to 1964. It has many photos that I have never seen before, readable copies of typewritten SNCC minutes, and the full uncensored speech of John Lewis before the 1963 March on Washington. The founding, work, and transformation of SNCC from an integrated student organization to one that no longer includes whites in any meaningful sense of the word is an extremely important thread. SNCC was the crucible of the entire shift in the African-American movement nationally. Lyons chronicles the SNCC story in a partially documented but also highly personal way, exposing his own vulnerabilities, thoughts, and doubts. Although the evolution of the organization is not truly illuminated in this book, important pieces of the puzzle are there. SNCC was an organization of courageous individuals--with Diane Nash one of the most courageous and leading others to muster their courage also. Lyons reports that when CORE shut down the freedom rides because of the level of violence perpetrated against them, Nash led SNCC to continue them, despite the danger. Perhaps because James Forman was his own protector within SNCC when agitation (from Marion Barry) began against his position as photographer, Lyons is unabashedly adulatory of Forman, for whom he also served as a "guy Friday." But to my mind, Forman (along with Moses) distinguishes himself in meetings, according to the minutes presented, by separating issues so they don't become a big ball of confusion, setting terms for debate, presenting an overview, or reminding everyone present of the core principles upon which the organization was based. He was also a tireless organizer. Forman was 10 years older than everyone else, and from the get-go evinced (from what Lyons says) a clear conception of how SNCC would garner support through projecting an image into the media and hence the rest of the world. Both he and Moses were school teachers and actual intellectuals--not so-called public intellectuals, but truth-seekers and from the North. Otherwise, Lyons notes, most of those who joined SNCC from the North were white, like him. Very close relationships developed among the core leaders of SNCC, the white leaders such as Bob Zellner, his wife Dottie Miller, Jane Jane Stembridge with the black leaders such as John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, and Sam Shirah. All of these leaders were marked with extreme courage. Lyons notes: "That a descendant of the Confederacy [Shirah], a black Alabama farm boy [John Lewis], and a New York Jew were all living together said a great deal about what SNCC was like then."
SNCC was under attack in every battle, offices firebombed, leaders and members and local allies arrested and beaten. As founder Ella Baker, put it: "The whole concept of SNCC was to deal with the hard-core areas," with the idea that if segration could be broken in those areas, it would break everywhere else.
Their relation with SCLC was uneasy, but leaders in SCLC should have been able to see (and I do not know the degree to which they did) that both organizations were necessary and had a role to play. However, by 1964, after very difficult campaigns in Cambridge, Maryland, where Carmichael [apparently from this book] first emerges as a leader, and in Mississippi Summer in 1964, when many students came south for the summer to register voters and create a third party in Mississippi, a fear emerged. It seems that this fear was in part engendered by the fact that money for SNCC, which always ran on a tattered shoestring, had dried up. [Harry Belafonte was--continued to be?--a major funder]. SNCC members started to carry guns or keep guns in their homes, because they were afraid that the office or the place they are staying would be attacked. It is clear that SNCC felt extremely vulnerable. Lyons gives partial minutes of a meeting [the typewritten page] focused on violence. They talk about the need to keep tabs on everyone, because a member could be caught in a threatening situation and no one would know. One week after this meeting, Cheny, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed. These murders had a chilling effect on SNCC and demoralized the leadership. The angry, anti-white Carmichael emerges more and more as a leader, and takes over from Forman, who is also on the verge of total physical collapse. The fear turns to inward-looking paranoia. SNCC did not participate as an organization in Selma, although John Lewis went personally. The SNCC people in the area said that the march was a march toward certain violence, and Lyons notes that it was the last march of the civil rights movement that grew out of the local situation itself. The irony is that SNCC felt this intense pressure from all sides at the point that the movement was actually succeeding in the south.
Nevertheless, after the first Selma battle, Malcolm X was assassinated [he had gone to Selma] and Watts explodes in June[?]. The Carmichael slogan of Black Power overpowered the Meredith march. Lewis left SNCC because he opposed black nationalism. The civil rights movement hit the brick wall of the North, a different ballgame, and liberal support for the movement receded.
Lyons relates parts of the Peg Leg Bates SNCC meeting in December 1966 , in which, after most of the members had gone to bed, a vote was taken that prohibited whites from having any leadership vote or voting rights in the organization. Lyons says it was very unclear what happened at Peg Leg Bates or what the vote was, but it was impossible to overturn--because it is clear this is the current of the situation. By May 1967, SNCC is run by Rapp Brown, and soon it effectively self-dissolves into the Black Panther Party. Other SNCC leaders go their own way, many of them joining the anti-war movement.

The relation between the SCLC and SNCC is very important: the difference in philosophy, approach, and the way in which the victories and/or defeats of one affected the other. The Lewis speech needs to be studied and compared. The commitment of the original SNCC group to nonviolent confrontation--with both terms equally important--was crucial to the civil rights movement. Understanding the change of SNCC in detail is extremely important to understanding the problems of today.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Of Course....

One purpose of this blog is to encourage those who might come across it to read any of the books below, all of which are worthwhile and interesting, and any of the books or articles that are discussed on out.

Assumptions to be Tested

The assumptions are the following:
1. There is a racial problem in the United States that affects African-Americas uniquely, because of the unique experience of slavery. This problem was lessened but not solved by the civil rights movement and its achievements. This problem will not be solved by a continuation or increase of methods used since the era of Lyndon Johnson. This problem continues to impose suffering upon African-Americans, but it is not simply a problem of poverty that can be solved by throwing money at it.

2. White people in the United States are generally oblivious to this problem, unless directly confronted with images of it. They believe that slavery is over, civil rights have been won, and that is it. Unless an African-American acts like a middle-class American, they have no understanding of African-Americans and as likely as not, will find themselves surprised by statements from middle-class African-Americans as well.

3. African-Americans have a pscyhological burden still upon them from the days of slavery and its terrible degradation of African-Americans; little that has happened since 1863 has lifted that burden. In my view, whereas Martin Luther King tried to lift it, the combination of the defeat of the civil rights movement in Chicago and the rise of the Black Power movement, acted to put many African-Americans back in the box. However, while African-Americans suffer from this burden, African-Americans did not cause it and cannot lift it alone.

4. It is important to note and to explore the implications of the fact that the civil rights movement was defeated in the north, not in the south, and when King came to the north, the liberal establishment discontinued its support to the civil rights movement.

5. The extreme segregation in the north, which has largely been left untouched, has created a wall of fear between whites and blacks in this region. This wall is thickened by the fact that compared with the south, where at least whites and black knew each other even if they hated each other most of the time, in the north, there is little if any social interaction between the races.

6. The racial problem in the United States is a probem for all Americans, not just African-Americans, beyond Martin Luther King's declaration that denial of rights to black citizens was a threat to all Americans. The reason that I am trying to get to is discusssed by Ralph Ellison briefly in his 1945 essay, "Beating That Boy," as follows:
"For since 1876 [formal imposition of Jim Crow], the race issue has been like a stave driven in to the American system of values, a stave so deeply imbedded in the American ethos as to render America a nation of ethical schizophrenics. Believing truly in democracy on one side of their minds, they act on the other in violation of its most sacred principles; holding that all men are created equal, they treat 13 million Americans as though they were not.... In terms of the ethical and pscyhological, what was opportunistically labeled 'the Negro problem' is actually a guilt problem charged with pain....
"This unwillingness to resolve the conflict in keeping with the democratic ideas has compelled the white American figuratively to force the Negro down into the deeper level of his consciousness, into the inner world, where reason and madness mingle with hope and memory and endlessly give birth to nightmare and dream....
"Indeed, the racial situation has exerted an influence upon the writer similar to that of an X-ray concealed in a radio. Moving about, perhaps ignoring, perhaps enjoying Jack Benny and Rochester, or a hot jazz band, he is unaware of his exposure to a force that shrivels his vital sperm. Not that it has rendered him completely sterile, but that it has caused him to produce deformed progeny--literary offspring without hearts, without brains, viscera or vision, and some even without genitalia.
"Thus it has not been the failure to depict racial matters that has determined the quality of American writing, but that the writer has formed the habit of living and thinking in a culture that is opposed to the deep thought and feeling necessary to profound art; hence its avoidance of emotion, its fear of ideas, its obsession with mere physical violence and pain, its overemphasis of understatement, its precise and complex verbal contructions for coverting goatsong ito carefully undulated squeaks."

Although I cannot articulate it, I feel that what Ellison is saying is true. The wound is open within the African-American community, and buried but alive within the white community (signs of which will be discussed later). How to heal it?

The Books So Far

Since I wrote the first blog in early September about Katrina, I have read the following books:
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Articles, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Sanctified Church, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, by Carla Kaplan, ed.
Dust Tracks in the Road, by Zora Neale Hurston
The House Behind the Cedars, by Charles Chesnutt
The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, by Glenn C. Lowry
Sula, by Toni Morrison
In My Father's House, by Ernest J. Gaines
A Million Black Voices, by Richard Wright
"Fire and Cloud" and "The Long Black Song," by Richard Wright
Bloodline, by Ernest J. Gaines
In Search of Our Mother's Garden, by Alice Walker
Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays.
A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, by Ernest J. Gaines
Nobody Knows My Name, by James Baldwin
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
Blues Dancing, by Dianna McKinney Whetstone
The Wedding, by Dorothy West
The Livin' Is Easy, by Dorothy West
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, by Walter Mosley
The Richer, the Poorer, by Dorothy West
Gone Fishing, by Walter Mosley
The Street, by Ann Petry
The Man in My Basement, by Walter Mosley
Black Betty (partial), by Walter Mosley
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

As I look at this list, I see it covers a wide variety. The book I loved the most was Their Eyes Were Watching God. I also loved all the stories in Bloodline by Ernest J. Gaines. I admired very much the other books that I read of his. I found The Anatomy of Racial Inequality to be very insightful and thought-provoking. I also much admired Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, by Walter Mosley.

I found James Baldwin to be the most painfully honest of all. I am not surprised that he or other African-American male writers feel compelled to leave the country and probably leave it in order to continue writing. The essays of Ralph Ellison were among the first books I read, and I learned a lot from them. However, compared with Baldwin, he seems to be one step removed from what he is writing about--as if he is a very astute observer. Either he has filtered life, or he is writing to a different audience or has a different relation to his audience than has Baldwin.

In general, and I will detail this later, I found the women writers to be disappointing. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, I believe to be her first book, is an audacious book and a profound study of psychological disintegration. I was astonished by it. However, I positively disliked Sula, and am not sure what she is trying to say (have to read commentaries on it), and I had read Beloved previously and found it somewhat disturbing. She seems to be obsessed with death rather than with life and with women who murder their children. In direct contrast to her, it seems to me, are the books of Ernest J. Gaines. I am happy that his A Lesson Before Dying is required reading in many high schools, but I did not find this to be his best work. I found the message in his books to be blunt and to the point, but because the stories are written in such a simple and unegotistical way, one does not bristle in reaction to any didacticism in his books. I went to hear him read and answer questions at a bookstore, and the man is exactly as he seems: good, humble, and noble. He says he writes books about characters that he hopes will improve the characters of the readers--such an old-fashioned idea (it would seem in today's cultural environment), but everyone is starving for it.

There are many more books that I must read. I find that white people do not often write nonfiction about race unless they are aggressive racists. James Reston has written a book on the tragedy of the failure of integration. There are other books in the library by white writers on race or perceptions of race. Few white writers tackle problems.

We are thankful for William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. It must be so enraging to African-Americans that Faulkner could so poignantly and beautifully portray the manhood and humanity of African-Americans (especially in Go Down, Moses), but then hold views that were opposed to civil rights. However, it is impossible to ignore his portrayals. Carson McCullers' portrayal in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is astounding.

Very rarely, except in Intruder in the Dust, for example, or To Kill a Mockingbird, do we see portrayals of white people trying to deal with the problems of the racial injustice and enforced degradation.

Many books display very open and harsh anger towards all whites in general, with perhaps exceptions noted. More on this later.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Following from Katrina 2

This blog will be a posting of thoughts upon readings since Katrina on racial relations in the United States between primarily the white majority and African-Americans. It will not follow the view that African-Americans should be lumped in with Latinos and any other "minority" into a rainbow coalition a la the Democratic Party, but is premised on the fact that the African-American experience is unique in the United States and must be addressed as such.

Beginning with Katrina...

am sickened to my very core over what has happened to New Orleans and the implications of this for our country:1. That again, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country who are the hardest hit and are forced to undergo unimaginable suffering. Who can erase these images of suffering in New Orleans from their heart's eye?2. That all levels of government failed, before, during, and after the storm and the flooding that resulted.3. That instead of concentrating on how to unite and pull together to solve the huge problems in our country that Hurricane Katrina has so glaringly exposed, we have indulged in "finger-pointing," self-righteous indignation, threats of violence to an American President from a senator, and on the part of the media, constant obfuscation of the truth. In short, that the jacobin cry of "heads must roll" has replaced common sense.Common sense says that this storm overpowered everyone.It holds up a horrifying mirror to ourselves—all of us.Hurricane Katrina exposed that we have not even begun to solve the killing marginalization of the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.It exposed that we have shortchanged our investment in the nation’s infrastructure to the point of murder, and, on the other hand, in our profit-driven zeal to rearrange nature in any way that suits us, we have wreaked havoc with the environment to such a point that nature’s revenge was all but inevitable.It exposed that our culture is driven by unfounded expectations of instant gratification, instant weight-loss, instant money, instant solutions—instant relief and evacuation, instant law and order in a city plunged into desperation.Can we realistically expect the federal government or any state or local government or combination thereof to make up for the accumulated effect of decades of neglect and failure to consider consequences—in the space of one week in the face of the country’s worse natural disaster this country.We must hope that enough of our citizens are not swept away by either apathy or by partisan pummeling, such that we do not, as a nation, look deeply into ourselves and at the society we have created and ask how we can take responsibility for our country's future.