Wednesday, July 23, 2014

James Lawson Interview - Lunch Counter Sit-Ins in Nashville

I've been working with Dr. Michael Honey on a documentary film about James Lawson this summer, and the research has led me to a number of excellent videos of Lawson talking about nonviolence.



Check out this video of Lawson reflecting on the power of transformation evident in the students participating in the Nashville sit-ins.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Declining Black Political Power in the U.S. South?

The New York Times reported yesterday that black political power appears to be in decline in the U.S. South.

While African Americans are serving as congresspeople or senators in southern state legislatures in record numbers, 313 in total according to the Times, the power these elected officials enjoy appears to be waning.
"David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a 2011 paper, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?”...charts growing Republican strength in the South...before the 1994 election, only one out of 202 black elected officials in Southern legislatures was in the minority party. After the 1994 contest, the number of Southern blacks in the minority party grew to 46 out of 260. In the aftermath of the 2010-11 elections, the proportion of Southern blacks serving in the majority – that is, the party controlling the state legislature — dropped to just 15 out of 313. In less than 20 years, the percentage of black legislators in the South serving in the majority fell from 99.5 percent to 4.8 percent."

So, in short, new legislation aimed at increasing requirements for voting alongside recently re-drawn  congressional districts have led most African American state representatives, most of whom are democrats, to serve in the minority party.  In some cases, as with Tennessee, supermajorities in the house and senate enable lawmakers in the majority party to suspend rules - which means legislation can be passed through the house and the senate without debate.

Yet The Atlantic reported in late June that the electoral landscape in the South might be changing quickly to favor African Americans, Latinos, and, potentially, the Democratic party.  
"Tupelo got its first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years, a 37-year-old trial lawyer. Meridian got its first black mayor ever. Ocean Springs' Democratic incumbent won a third term to preside over an all-Republican board of aldermen. Mississippi Democrats proclaimed it 'Blue Tuesday.'

'It's been a long time coming,' Percy Bland, the 42-year-old mayor-elect of Meridian, told me. 'We haven't had a Democratic mayor in Meridian since '76. And we won it running away, when people thought it would be very close.'"
The Times seems to acknowledge both realities - that demographics are shifting in the south, and that the recent strategy among Republican lawmakers has been successful:
"What stands out, looking at the data, is how effective, in purely political terms, the Republican’s “white” strategy has turned out to be at the state level. Nationally, the party is enmeshed in an often bitter debate between those who argue that future success lies in building margins and turnout rates among whites, making little effort to woo minorities — or in fact actively scorning them; and those, on the other hand, who believe that this strategy can no longer work as the population of minority voters grows."
In the meantime, as legislatures across the south remain hegemonic, the recent Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina may prove to be a tool used more frequently across the U.S. South to influence the direction of public policy.  Sixty-four more protestors were arrested in Raleigh-Durham this past Monday.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Moral Mondays in North Carolina and the Shifting Political Landscape of the U.S. South

The political landscape in the Southern United States is changing - and like the geography seen from the window of an airplane, it may look slow, but its careening past us at 500 miles per hour.

The shift, while complicated, seems to have both a push and a pull.

And the pull is coming from the changing demographics in the United States.

For the first time in our nation's history, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that traditionally minority populations have risen to represent nearly half of all children under 5.  The Huffington Post reports:

"Fueled by immigration and high rates of birth, particularly among Hispanics, racial and ethnic minorities are growing more rapidly in numbers than whites. The decline in the U.S. white population has been occurring more quickly than expected, resulting in the first 'natural decrease' for whites – deaths exceeding births – in more than a century, census data show. For now, the non-Hispanic white population continues to increase slightly, but only because of immigration from Europe."

NPR has an excellent feature entitled "Texas 2020" which outlines the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the Lone Star State.  "Within a decade," NPR reports,
"Hispanics are projected to eclipse non-Hispanic whites as the largest race or ethnic group in Texas. It's a development that could someday shift the state's — or, given the size of Texas, even the nation's — politics. eclipse non-Hispanic whites as the largest race or ethnic group in Texas. It's a development that could someday shift the state's — or, given the size of Texas, even the nation's — politics."
This graph does a nice job illustrating the projected rate of change over time.
This pull is, in large part, the reason we have seen such relatively swift and decisive action on immigration reform in the Senate.  But, the bill may not even come up for a vote in the House.  

Senator John McCain spoke to Fox News last week about the importance of the bill: "I really don’t feel it's appropriate for me to tell [Boehner] exactly how he should handle this. But I think Republicans realize the implications for the future of the Republican Party in America if we don't get this issue behind us.”  


McCain is spot on: the implications for the bill are profound.  In the 2012 national election, President Barack Obama won 71% of the Latino vote.       

So that's the pull.  What about the push? 

In 2012, the people of Arkansas elected a majority Republican delegation to represent them in the state capitol.  That election meant, for the first time since Reconstruction, every state from the former Confederacy now has a majority Republican legislature.

The election was especially significant in Arkansas as democrats had controlled the state house since 1874.  

But as the Atlantic recently reported, just as the Southwest of the United States recently underwent a profound electoral shift, so might the American South.   Political operatives from Project New America have launched the Southern Project to monitor the shifting demographics and attitudes towards public policies emerging from state houses.   


The ubiquitous control over Southern politics enjoyed by a single party, whether Republican or Democrat, has, historically, always pushed activists to engage.  The "Solid South" emerging from the New Deal coalition of the early 20th century began to fray in 1948 amidst the Dixiecrat revolution, and President Richard Nixon completed the transition from a solidly democratic South to a solidly republican south with the successful deployment of his southern strategy in the 1968 presidential election.  

The Southern United States, then, was solidly controlled by each of the major parties during the twentieth century, and during each of these eras of complete control activists sought to change their political landscape - sometimes with nonviolent direct action.   

In North Carolina, that's exactly what's happening.  



Initially organized by the NAACP in late April of 2013, "Moral Monday" protests have been taking place at the Capitol building in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina for close to three months.  The number of demonstrators has to more than 2,500 participants from all regions of the state.

Moral Mondays were borne from a concern that legislators in North Carolina were moving, like many states, to restrict voting rights.  In recent weeks, the demonstrators have broadened their focus - and also grown their coalition.

Demonstrators are now asking legislators to address issues ranging from clean water to education policy, and increasingly protestors from the Research Triangle area in Raleigh-Durhams are being joined by citizens from rural Western North Carolina.

The Carolina Public Press reports more than 90 people were arrested at the capitol building in Raleigh last week, and more than 650 have been arrested since the demonstrations began in late April.

The demonstrations continued today, and this editorial makes plain the reason North Carolinians have chosen to go to jail these past three months:

"...when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized the Moral Mondays protests, we were happy to answer the call. 
It wasn't an easy decision. Neither of us had ever been arrested. We obey the law and teach our children to obey it, too.
But we've also been activists on behalf of what we think is right for our state and our country, going back as far as the civil rights movement. And we remember when Dr. Martin Luther King said that 'there comes a time when silence is betrayal.' 
This spring, the irresponsible North Carolina legislature has created one of those times. We had been in legal protests before. 
But they didn't seem to make a dent. 
So last Monday, we stepped up and took our stand."


"The south is the crucible where freedom has been hammered out," said historian Tim Tyson.   "This is the struggle," he continued, "its always about what happens here.  So goes the south, so goes the nation, so goes the world.  See, this fusion movement that's going on - black and brown and white, gay and straight- this is a very important historical moment.  Not just in North Carolina, but I think what happens here is gonna be very important in the history of this country."

What happened in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 was certainly key to our nation's inexorable move towards becoming a more just place - and Tyson is likely correct: our aspiration to form a "more perfect union" has so often been tempered and tested in the red clay and humidity of the U.S. South.

In Durham and Memphis, Atlanta and Itta Benna, Shreveport and Columbia, the coming years may prove critical to the our nation's ability to understand the continually evolving notions of freedom and democracy.  




Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ronnie and Neil

Neil Young 
Ronnie Van Zant





















I've been in Seattle for the past five days spending time with friends from the South.  They're ex-pats of a sort, but even amidst the coniferous forest and white firs, these boys are southern.

Still, understanding what it means to be from the South is a tricky thing.

We have to contend with the ideas that people outside the South have about the South.  Then there are the experiences we as southerners have had with other southern people; and perhaps most paradoxically, there's us: race and rebellion and DIY culture all knotted up in our ontology, kindness and gentility flanked by a deep spirit of independence and self-determination that is tempered, seemingly, only by the grace of God.

Sasha has been spinning a lot of Neil Young and Skynrd this week.  We've also discussed endlessly the new Jason Isbell record, which is markedly more introverted than his previous releases.  And all these guys have some remarkable musical connections.  

Isbell has a knack for writing well about what it means to live in the South.  Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Isbell's former bandmates in The Drive By Truckers, are also particularly poignant in their musical accounting of life in northern Alabama.

Just before Isbell joined the Truckers in late 2001, the band issued a landmark 20-song release: The Southern Rock Opera.  The album's lead track, Ronnie and Neil, instantly challenges the listener to understand the tension between the lived experience of the South and the perceptions of the South by those who don't live there.

In Ronnie and Neil, Patterson Hood used the public rift between Ronnie Van Zant and Canadian Singer-Songwriter Neil Young to illustrate the point.





"Church blew up in Birmingham
four little black girls killed
For no goddamn good reason

All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name 

A whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass
Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame...

And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the Bad shit that went down...

...Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit."



This musical sparring between Skynard and Neil Young began in 1970 when Young released Southern Man The song immediately struck resonant emotional chords - chords which both told a truth about life in the south and obscured much of what it meant to be southern. 


"I saw cotton

And I saw black

Tall white mansions

And little shacks.

Southern man

When will you Pay them back?

I heard screamin' And bullwhips cracking

How long? How long?"




Van Zant challenged Neil Young's didactic simplification of the South in Skynrd's 1974 top ten hit, Sweet Home Alabama:



"Well I heard mister Young sing about her (Alabama)
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down 
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember 
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow."


For Van Zant and Skynrd, the south was about family and music, natural beauty and kinship; but was it possible to love the south without subscribing its more sordid parts?  

The Truckers certainly think so.  In The Southern Thing," Patterson Hood proclaimed:  


"(The South) Ain't about no hatred - better raise a glass
It's a little about some rebels but it ain't about the past
Ain't about no foolish pride, Ain't about no flag
Hate's the only thing that my truck would want to drag

...Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
(The) Duality of the southern thing."


Perhaps, then, at the center of today's Southern Man and Woman there lives a paradox. A love of one's own culture and family mixed with an openness and welcome; a spirit of rebellion washed over with a sense of collective responsibility; In the South, a firm grasp on a difficult history helps us focus on the future.



In typical fashion, Isbell seemed to sum up well this tension in a recent Facebook post about Paula Deen.



Ronnie and Neil nurtured a positive relationship through to Ronnie's early death in October of 1977, although Thrasher's Wheat contends that Young didn't actually serve as a Pall Bearer in Young's funeral.  Still, Hood sang about the duality of Ronnie and Neil, an emblem of the duality of the South: 


"Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends their feud was just in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
So he wrote ‘Powder Finger’ for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing “Sweet home Alabama” to the Lord
Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground

And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around."
  

      

Friday, June 21, 2013

Marshall Taylor: The Black Cyclone and the Color Line

Marshall Taylor was the fastest man in the world in 1900.  

Taylor broke dozens of world records before he was 30, and competed regularly - also winning regularly - across the United States and Europe.  As a black man in America in the early 20th century, Taylor's accomplishments were especially remarkable.  Taylor won a world cycling championship more than a decade before before the legendary Jack Johnson, "The Black Bomber," won his world boxing title.  


Taylor dominated the track, whether in short races or in the infamous "six-day races"  popular in the early 20th century.   The Smithsonian reported:

"...in 1896, he finished eighth in his first six-day race at New York’s Madison Square Garden, even though the hallucinations got to him; at one point he said, 'I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.'”

Despite Taylor's success - he had seven world records to his name before he was 20, winning 29 or the 49 races he entered - he was banned from riding in the American South.   In 1902, Taylor traveled to Europe where he would continue to dominate the track.

Taylor would retire at 32 in Chicago, IL, where he would write and publish his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.   “I felt I had my day,” he wrote, “and a wonderful day it was too.” 

The financial collapse of 1929 and bad investments would leave Taylor penniless by the time of his death at 53 in 1932. His body would lay unclaimed in a morgue, and he was buried in a modest grave at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Chicago.

Frank Schwinn, head of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, would later pay to have Taylor's body exhumed and relocated to Mount Glenwood's  Memorial Garden of the Good Shepard.  Schwinn also commissioned a plaque for Taylor's grave, which despite it's pejorative commentary on "his race," is touching nonetheless:

"Worlds champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way—Without hatred in his heart—An honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete.  A credit to his race who always gave out his best—Gone but not forgotten.”



Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Photos from the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968

As part of their Digital Photo Repository, The University of Memphis has a fantastic collection of photos from the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.  Jim Lawson, chair of the strike's leadership committee, was a key leader in the Memphis campaign.

Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. marching with strike supporters during one of the twice daily marches held in downtown Memphis throughout the campaign.


Rev. Lawson addresses the crowd at the Memphis Cares event held just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Crump Stadium in Midtown Memphis

Rev. Lawson addresses the City Council in February of 1968 after the council rejected the workers' call for union recognition
 The University of Memphis' digital archive has a host of excellent photos from Memphis' past, and the photos in the Sanitation Strike are just a sampling of the overall collection available in the archive. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelby Foote on William Faulkner and the American South in the 1920s and 1930s

The Paul Barret Library at Rhodes College recently acquired Shelby Foote's paper collection, including the personal journal's he kept as he wrote his epic tome, The Civil War.

I stumbled onto this C-SPAN interview this morning while doing some research, and it provides an interesting window into Foote's perspective on racial paternalism in the south.  Scroll to 10 minutes from a particularly interesting discussion of the white southern mentality.