Note: If America’s politicians, especially including Trump, want to learn something about the world, about the desire for peace among nations along with the prevention of war altogether they should listen to the rich culture from the South – namely “The Blind Boys of Alabama”. Below please find the recent NPR interview with “The Blind Boys of Alabama” about their latest recording “Almost Home”, as well as YouTube links I am adding of a sampling of their past recordings including: “Peace Among the Nations“– “Down by the Riverside: Ain’t Gonna Study War no More” – “Amazing Grace” – “If I Had A Hammer” – and “Wade in the Water“. To listen to their latest recording “Almost Home” please go the the NPR website by clicking here!
First Listen: The Blind Boys Of Alabama, ‘Almost Home’
August 10, 2017
If The Blind Boys of Alabama’s surviving founders, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, never get around to writing their memoirs, the autobiographical slant of the legendary gospel group’s new album, Almost Home, will be close enough. Fountain (87 years young) and Carter (85) started singing together as schoolboys in 1939 and went pro in 1944; The Blind Boys of Alabama began their recording career four years later. Nearly seven decades down the line, Almost Homelooks back on the long, hard, but ultimately gratifying road they’ve taken.
The album includes bespoke compositions by Americana songsmiths like Ruthie Foster, Cris Jacobs, and Valerie June, as well as a couple of straight-up cover tunes. But the whole thing really revolves around a batch of songs written by others with input from The Blind Boys, making the personal stories of Fountain and Carter a crucial part of the proceedings, and chronicling a journey marked by both jubilation and tribulation. Don’t forget we’re talking about an African-American group from the South that spent a sizable chunk of its career sans civil rights.
Three tracks penned by Marc Cohn with guitarist/producer John Leventhal open the album, front-loading it with autobiographical detail. “Stay on the Gospel Side,” with a co-writing credit for Fountain, looks back at the latter’s childhood at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, his mistreatment there, and his youthful discovery of the Golden Gate Quartet, which inspired Fountain and his friends to start singing together. It’s Ben Moore, not Fountain, who takes the lead vocal, and when he sings, “my work is done and I’m finally going home to see my maker,” the declaration is made with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, not weariness.
“Let My Mother Live” includes writing contributions from Carter and offers an account of his own youth. Over some of Leventhal’s Pops Staples-style tremolo-laden guitar licks, he sings of losing his father at a tender age and recalls pleading with the Lord to keep his mother around.
Cohn and Leventhal wrote “God Knows Everything” without any of the Blind Boys, so it comes from a nominally less personal perspective. But with its sense of abiding faith and the valedictory feel of its final verse (“When I take my last bow and sing my last chord / I know I’ll find peace at last in the arms of the Lord”), it feels as intimately observed as its companions.
“Pray For Peace,” a co-write between blues rockers North Mississippi Allstars and The Blind Boys, rides a fat, syncopated groove blending blues, funk, and gospel. It’s a clear-eyed assessment of both the progress that’s been made since the civil rights movement’s heyday and the distance still left to go. When the Boys sing about the changes they’ve seen in their lifetime and then lament that “our grandmothers would be brokenhearted to see their children’s children right back where we started,” it’s tough to tamp down your own sorrow and anger.
Despite The Blind Boys’ tenaciousness, they’ve incurred their share of losses, especially in the perennial battle no mortal can win. With advancing age, those losses speak louder. And while Phil Cook of indie-folk outfit Megafaun wrote “Singing Brings Us Closer” on his own, he effectively channels the group’s feelings about the death of founding member George Scott, whose 2006 passing impacted them as much as the social injustices they encountered along the way. Both are given equal heft here, but in the end it takes more than mortality and oppression to shake these men of faith, as Ben Moore sings, “we march right through that harm, joining voices, joining arms.”
On the title track, written by veteran Southern rocker Randall Bramblett with Fountain and Carter, The Blind Boys stare eternity down, seeing not an endless abyss, but a warm welcome on the other side. When they invoke the tune’s title, they’re seeing the divine culmination of a lifetime’s work at the end of the rainbow. When you get down to it, that’s the real prize all gospel singers’ eyes are fixed upon.
Even when the group ventures into cover tunes they’re keeping an eye on that eternal agenda. Their shimmering, soulful take on Bob Dylan’s anthem of deliverance “I Shall Be Released” and their transformation of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” from outlaw country to syncopated R&B are just more kindling for that same spiritual fire – a fire The Blind Boys tend with such authority and diligence, it seems certain to light their journey all the way home.
“Peace Among The Nations”
Blind Boys Of Alabama
“Down by the Riverside –
Note: The article below is about the important and historic “Black Manifesto” that was generated from the exceptional National Black Economic Development Conference in 1969 in Detroit with leading Black activists. In 1969 Black activists expressed, rightly so, anger at the discrimination experienced by Blacks in the rural South, and elsewhere, many of whom were, and still are, landowners. The Black Manifesto was then and still is an inspiration for many across the country and the world with its concrete suggestions/ solutions.
The 1960s, while instrumental in civil rights activism and congressional legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was also a period of intense organizing in the rural south to protect and assist Black landowners and farmers. For example, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was created in 1967 to address rural poverty and assist Black landowners through the development of cooperatives in communities across the South. As the late attorney J.L. Chestnut noted “There were many organizations spawned by the blood that was spilt on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the Federation was one of those.”
The renowned Bob Browne was one of those who attended the conference in 1969. In 1972 Browne founded the Emergency Land Fund to research and address Black land loss in the South. In 1985 the Federation of Southern Cooperatives merged with the Emergency Land Fund. Browne then joined the Federation’s Board of Directors. With the merger the organization became known as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Among its accomplishments is that it was instrumental, in the 1990s, in leading the way for the Black farmer lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of its discrimination against Black farmers. It remains the largest lawsuit ever filed against the U.S. government. This inspired other groups to also successfully file lawsuits against the USDA, including Native Americans, Latinos and Women farmers.
We the black people assembled in Detroit, Michigan for the National Black Economic Development Conference are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor. For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world.
We are therefore demanding of the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues which are part and parcel of the system of capitalism, that they begin to pay reparations to black people in this country. We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This total comes to 15 dollars per nigger. This is a low estimate for we maintain there are probably more than 30,000,000 black people in this country. $15 a nigger is not a large sum of money and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people. We are also not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian churches and synagogues. This demand for $500,000,000 is not an idle resolution or empty words. Fifteen dollars for every black brother and sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted. Underneath all of this exploitation, the racism of this country has produced a psychological effect upon us that we are beginning to shake off. We are no longer afraid to demand our full rights as a people in this decadent society.
We are demanding $500,000,000 to be spent in the following way:
We call for the establishment of the International Black Appeal (IBA). This International Black Appeal will be funded with no less than $20,000,000. The IBA is charged with producing more capital for the establishment of cooperative businesses in the United States and in Africa, our Motherland. The International Black Appeal is one of the most important demands that we are making for we know that it can generate and raise funds throughout the United States and help our African brothers. The IBA is charged with three functions and shall be headed by James Forman:
(a) Raising money for the program of the National Black Economic Development Conference.
(b) The development of cooperatives in African countries and support of African Liberation movements
(c) Establishment of a Black Anti-Defamation League which will protect our African image.
In order to win our demands we are aware that we will have to have massive support, therefore:
(1) We call upon all black people throughout the United States to consider themselves as members of the National Black Economic Development Conference and to act in unity to help force the racist white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues to implement these demands.
(2) We call upon all the concerned black people across the country to contact black workers, black women, black students and black unemployed, community groups, welfare organizations, teacher organizations, church leaders and organizations, explaining how these demands are vital to the black community of the U.S. Pressure by whatever means necessary should be applied to the white power structure of the racist white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. All black people should act boldly in confronting our white oppressors and demanding this modest reparation of 15 dollars per black man.(3) Delegates and members of the National Black Economic Development Conference are urged to call press conferences in the cities and to attempt to get as many black organizations as possible to support the demands of the conference. The quick use of the press in the local areas will heighten the tension and these demands must be attempted to be won in a short period of time, although we are prepared for protracted and long range struggle.
(4) We call for the total disruption of selected church sponsored agencies operating anywhere in the U.S. and the world. Black workers, black women, black students and the black unemployed are encouraged to seize the offices, telephones, and printing apparatus of all church sponsored agencies and to hold these in trusteeship until our demands are met.
(5) We call upon all delegates and members of the National Black Economic Development Conference to stage sit-in demonstrations at selected black and white churches. This is not to be interpreted as a continuation of the sit-in movement of the early sixties but we know that active confrontation inside white churches is possible and will strengthen the possibility of meeting our demands. Such confrontation can take the form of reading the Black Manifesto instead of a sermon or passing it out to church members. The principle of self-defense should be applied if attacked.
(6) On May 4, 1969 or a date thereafter, depending upon local conditions, we call upon black people to commence the disruption of the racist churches and synagogues throughout the United States.
(7) We call upon IFCO to serve as a central staff to coordinate the mandate of the conference and to reproduce and distribute en mass literature, leaflets, news items, press releases and other material.
(8) We call upon all delegates to find within the white community those forces which will work under the leadership of blacks to implement these demands by whatever means necessary. By taking such actions, white Americans will demonstrate concretely that they are willing to fight the white skin privilege and the white supremacy and racism which has forced us as black people to make these demands.
(9) We call upon all white Christians and Jews to practice patience, tolerance, understanding, and nonviolence as they have encouraged, advised and demanded that we as black people should do throughout our entire enforced slavery in the United States. The true test of their faith and belief in the Cross and the words of the prophets will certainly be put to a test as we seek legitimate and extremely modest reparations for our role in developing the industrial base of the Western world through our slave labor. But we are no longer slaves, we are men and women, proud of our African heritage, determined to have our dignity.
(10) We are so proud of our African heritage and realize concretely that our struggle is not only to make revolution in the United States, but to protect our brothers and sisters in Africa and to help them rid themselves of racism, capitalism, and imperialism by whatever means necessary, including armed struggle. We are and must be willing to fight the defamation of our African image wherever it rears its ugly head. We are therefore charging the Steering Committee to create a Black Anti-Defamation League to be funded by money raised from the International Black Appeal.
(11) We fully recognize that revolution in the United States and Africa, our Motherland, is more than a one dimensional operation. It will require the total integration of the political, economic, and military components and therefore, we call upon all our brothers and sisters who have acquired training and expertise in the fields of engineering, electronics, research, community organization, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, military science and warfare to assist the National Black Economic Development Conference in the implementation of its program.
(12) To implement these demands we must have a fearless leadership. We must have a leadership which is willing to battle the church establishment to implement these demands. To win our demands we will have to declare war on the white Christian churches and synagogues and this means we may have to fight the government structure of this country. Let no one her think that these demands will be met by our mere stating them. For the sake of the churches and synagogues, we hope that they have the wisdom to understand that these demands are modest and reasonable. But if the white Christians and Jews are not willing to meet our demands through peace and good will, then we declare war and we are prepared to fight by whatever means necessary….
Brothers and sisters, we no longer are shuffling our feet and scratching our heads. We are tall, black and proud.
And we say to the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, to the government of this country and to all the white racist imperialists who compose it, there is only one thing left that you can do to further degrade black people and that is to kill us. But we have been dying too long for this country. We have died in every war. We are dying in Vietnam today fighting the wrong enemy.
The new black man wants to live and to live means that we must not become static or merely believe in self-defense. We must boldly go out and attack the white Western world at its power centers. The white Christian churches are another form of government in this country and they are used by the government of this country to exploit the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa, but the day is soon coming to an end. Therefore, brothers and sisters, the demands we make upon the white Christian churches and the Jewish synagogues are small demands. They represent 15 dollars per black person in these United States. We can legitimately demand this from the church power structure. We must demand more from the United States Government.
But to win our demands from the church which is linked up with the United States Government, we must not forget that it will ultimately be by force and power that we will win.
We are not threatening the churches. We are saying that we know the churches came with the military might of the colonizers and have been sustained by the military might of the colonizers. Hence, if the churches in colonial territories were established by military might, we know deep within our hearts that we must be prepared to use force to get our demands. We are not saying that this is the road we want to take. It is not, but let us be very clear that we are not opposed to force and we are not opposed to violence. We were captured in Africa by violence. We were kept in bondage and political servitude and forced to work as slaves by the military machinery and the Christian church working hand in hand.
We recognize that in issuing this manifesto we must prepare for a long range educational campaign in all communities of this country, but we know that the Christian churches have contributed to our oppression in white America. We do not intend to abuse our black brothers and sisters in black churches who have uncritically accepted Christianity. We want them to understand how the racist white christian church with its hypocritical declarations and doctrines of brotherhood has abused our trust and faith. An attack on the religious beliefs of black people is not our major objective, even though we know that we were not Christians, when we were brought to this country, but that Christianity was used to help enslave us. Our objective in issuing this Manifesto is to force the racist white Christian Church to begin the payment of reparations which are due to all black people, not only by the Church but also by private business and the U.S. government. We see this focus on the Christian Church as an effort around which all black people can unite.
Our demands are negotiable, but they cannot be minimized, they can only be increased and the Church is asked to come up with larger sums of money than we are asking. Our slogans are:
ALL ROADS MUST LEAD TO REVOLUTION
RESISTANCE TO DOMINATION BY THE WHITE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES AND THE JEWISH SYNAGOGUES
REVOLUTIONARY BLACK POWER
WE SHALL WIN WITHOUT A DOUBT
EXCERPTS FROM: “THE BLACK MANIFESTO, ITS BLACK AND WHITE”
The Rev. Mr. Robert C. Chapman, director for Racial Justice,
…One of the causes of concern among black churchmen within white denominations is the fact that although many of them, individually and thru corporate structures, have evinced strong support for the principles and demands of the Black Manifesto, their white peers within their own denominations tend to be either heedless or contemptuous of the positions of their black counter parts. The white brethren, openly, or by inference, make it quite clear that they never, no, never shall relate in a positive way to Mr. Forman or the BEDC. The whites have tried to freeze it out of existence by excoriating its rhetoric; the blacks have made it clear that the rhetoric could not concern them less because the principles and the demands speak to a just re-ordering of priorities and power. The whites tend to be adamantly opposed to the tactics spoken of in the Manifesto; but the blacks, who have had their churches bombed on Sundays, in America, and who have had Detroit police officers turn a black church into a sieve-while black women and children were inside-cannot get terribly excited about the threatened “disruption” of a worship service in a white church. This mentality, of course, white churchmen are hard-pressed to understand, but then, we blacks have never murdered their children by bombing their churches on a Sunday morning, neither have we fired volley-upon-volley of bullets into any of their churches whether or not their women and children were inside. What white brethren must yet understand is that every drop of black blood extracted by a slave-master’s whip outweighs the present corporate wealth of America. Those myriad drops, those cascading rivers of blood, have saturated our culture; and the “damned spots” won’t “out” until repentance brings reparation, and reparation works full restitution.
The National Committee of Black Churchmen has said:
We rise to salute the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, which sponsored the National Black Economic Development Conference, which, in turn, became the channel through which James Forman could appear as a modern-day prophet, to speak to the churches. We are mindful that the program proposed has troubled the waters of Siloam, yet we know that however much the churches may shake to the vibrations of its own cleansing, the healing of Christ is working upon them.
It is not yet clear how, or to what degree the “Manifesto Event” shall work to pull together the thinking and the acting of black churchmen, particularly those who witness in predominantly white denominations. It is certain, however, that they cannot be at ease in churches which may ultimately choose to extol past glories, or which would continue to dictate to blacks the leadership and models of behavior they must accept and emulate. In the cards, therefore, is the grave possibility of a fast-increasing gap between black and white churchmen of the same denominations. It is not infrequently, today, that blacks can hear other blacks project the possibility of having ultimately to withdraw from their denominational affiliations. This would be a tragedy for black and for white churchmen. Yet, the days are now limited in which the churches may continue to TALK of reordering priorities and power. Very soon, they must do it. If not, their black brethren shall finally be forced into such an untenable position-title and membership, but negligible authority-that they shall be unable to face with good conscience their suffering black brothers.
Let us not err. The burden of responsibility for change is now squarely and unequivocally upon the white churches and white churchmen everywhere. The Black Manifesto can either be positively interpreted and implemented, thus becoming a boon to the churches-or it can be rationalized to death and condemned on the basis of its language of impatience, thus becoming a stumbling-bloc of macroscopic proportions.
(Revised and approved by Steering Committee.)
Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. planned to press for economic equality. Guest columnist Michael Honey recalls King’s views on labor as states across the country consider cutting back the power of labor unions.
AT this time of year, we try to remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said peace and justice are indivisible; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes us all toothless and blind; the three enemies of humankind are war, racism and poverty.
One of the slogans from King that most of us don’t know is this one: “all labor has dignity.”
King described the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 as only phase one of his movement. The second phase would be a struggle for economic equality, by which he meant increased opportunity for the unemployed poor and union rights for the working poor.
From 1965 to 1968, he worked to end the slums in Chicago and the war in Vietnam; he mounted a Poor People’s Campaign and fought for the right of lowly sanitation workers to have a public-employee union in Memphis.
If you believe in putting King’s beliefs into action, it is time to stand up for the rights of workers.
Republican legislators and governors, even in states that have been union strongholds, have public-employee unions in their crosshairs.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, who are among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker threatens to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively if they don’t accept a tripling of their health-care costs.
The Times recently ran an op-ed by two former Washington legislators [“Government can become smaller while still making moral choices,” Jan. 12] that advocated addressing the state’s budget problems by slashing public employment and cutting the wages of those who remain.
There is even talk of extending “right to work” (for less) laws of Southern and some Western states into union strongholds of the Midwest like Indiana. These laws would lower wages and undermine working conditions.
We are now in the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on working people and unions since the Reagan counterrevolution. That movement vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.
The attack on public-employee unions is rationalized by the belief that unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, the average public workers make less than their private-sector counterparts with the same experience, age and education.
Unionized public employees only look privileged by comparison with the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has mostly lost the benefits of unionization.
It is obvious that we need shared sacrifice to get state governments out of the budgetary hole they are in. But it will be a big mistake if we begin to undermine the rights of public workers to belong to a union and to fight for the decent wages and benefits all workers deserve.
Efforts to shred public-employee unions would have deadly effects on the wages, jobs and living standards of the rest of us – especially African Americans, who constitute the most highly unionized group of workers in the country.
King fought for the right of all workers to belong to unions, and died supporting that right in Memphis. He called on us to rally to protect and extend union rights, and there is no more important time to do so than the present.
Michael Honey is Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
San Jose Mercury News, October 27, 1996
WOULD Martin Luther King have supported the California Civil Rights Initiative? Supporters of the ballot initiative have cited King’s words in support of their effort to end affirmative-action programs. King’s family members and former associates in the civil rights movement have expressed outrage over this use of the King legacy.
The state Republican Party on Thursday cut segments of a Proposition 209 TV commercial that featured an eight-second clip of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Although I am a historian and the editor of Kings papers, I am reluctant to speculate about what King might have done if he had not been assassinated in 1968. If he had survived, he would be the product of 67 years of hard-earned experience rather than the 39-year-old civil rights leader of 1968.
Openness to programs
Nevertheless, if others wish to speculate about King, as a historian, I am compelled to object when the abundant documentary evidence regarding his life is ignored or misused. And King’s own words and writings clearly indicate he was open to governmental programs that compensated for past wrongs. Certainly, the use of King’s oration at the 1963 March on Washington to attack affirmative action betrays a lack of historical understanding. King’s dream of a nation in which every American would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” was surely his ideal as well as the guiding principle of the civil rights movement. But the complete text of King’s speech makes clear that his dream was of a future that did not yet exist. He spoke of his dream only as an extemporaneous addition to his prepared text, which charged that America had “defaulted” on its promise to ensure “the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all citizens. He warned racial justice would be achieved only when the “whirlwinds of revolt’ shook “the foundations of our nation.”
In fact, realization of King’s “beloved community” would require a radical transformation of American society, and he argued for governmental policies that would compensate for the historical wrongs committed against African-Americans. Although the term “affirmative action” was not widely used during King’s lifetime, he advocated special programs that would enable African-Americans to enjoy equal opportunity.
Evidence of support
Even before the March on Washington, he had applauded the Indian government’s efforts to help the caste once called untouchables through “special treatment to enable the victims of discrimination” including the provision of Especial employment opportunities.” Moreover, in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King compared the social reforms he favored to the GI Bill of Rights, which gave World War II veterans special preferences including home loans, college scholarships and special advantages in competition for civil service jobs. King maintained that African-Americans could never be adequately compensated for the “exploitation and humiliation” they had suffered in the past, but he proposed a “Negro Bill of Rights” as a partial remedy for these wrongs. He insisted that African-Americans should be compensated through “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” He added that “such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.”
King’s support of compensatory programs for African-Americans was expressed in the context of his call for major social reforms that would address the economic problems of poor people of all races. His speeches during the final year of his life advocated major economic reforms that went far beyond the kind of affirmative-action programs that later became so controversial.
There is considerable irony that federal affirmative-action programs were first established in the aftermath of King’s assassination. Rather dm the product of King’s activism, they were implemented by the administration of Richard Nixon, who was determined to stifle black militancy. King may have advocated compensatory programs as compensation for past racial injustices, but affirmative-action programs also served as a safety valve for festering black resentment.
Statements speak volumes
It is impossible to know how King would have reacted to the consolidation of affirmative-action programs under Republican and Democratic administrations since his death, but his statements reveal that he sought reforms that were far more extensive dm the affirmative-action programs now in place. We also cannot know how King would feel about those who now misuse his words, but I am reminded of his response to a black leader who capitalized on King’s presence to attract press coverage for a black power pronouncement. “I have been used before,” King remarked, “One more time won’t hurt.”
by Heather Gray
August 5, 2017
Justice Initiative International
This article is about the views of the late John Egerton, who I interviewed in 2004. At the end of the interview, transcribed below, he challenges the Democrats to fight back, which is, of course, relevant to today as well. In his books, Egerton writes about resistance in the South on the part of both blacks and whites. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Egerton ultimately lived in Nashville and prior to the interview with him in 2004, I would often call him for discussions on southern culture and politics. He told me that if anyone is to understand the South there are three essential books that must be read and they are: Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” published in 1945; Lillian Smith’s “Killers of the Dream” published in 1949; and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” published in 1937. At his request and demand, I read them all. Egerton was pleased and we continued with our phone dialogue off and on for quite a few years.
Understanding the South
Given the present American political scene and given that so much of it is an expression of southern politics and sentiments now in the national realm (i.e. Jeff Sessions, etc.), it appears that understanding the South is essential. There are many southern writers who for years have acknowledged that the rest of the Untied States is becoming like the “south writ large”. Briefly, that means the following: virtually no labor rights; very conservative in the religious realm and espousing evangelical religions; very hierarchical politically and socially; intolerant; absolutely no deviance from a capitalist mindset; efforts to diminish individual constitutional rights; placing constraints on voting rights; exceptionally racist and white supremacist. The above is but a brief summary – there is more.
But importantly there is a whole other side to this story and it is about both blacks and whites southerners fighting back – often together – against these inhumane attitudes and policies in the South that has also led to huge successful outcomes both during and after the Civil War and during Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century. As mentioned, John Egerton writes about that resistance but in this interview we are focusing primarily on how and why the South become Republican.
About John Egerton
Egerton contributed to the book Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent (2004); was winner of the Lillian Smith Award in 1984 for Generations: An American Family. Other books by Egerton include The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America and Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
In addition to all of the above, “Egerton was one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, which established the John Egerton Prize in 2007 to recognize artists, writers, scholars and others, including artisans and farmers, whose work in the American South addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food” (University of Kentucky)
Egerton died in 2013 at the age of 78. Below are brief comments from the Washington Post about him and his work:
After several other books, including “Generations” (1983), an award-winning oral history of the long-lived Ledford clan of Kentucky, Mr. Egerton published “Speak Now Against the Day.” Taking his title from a line by William Faulkner, Mr. Egerton portrayed the lives of Southern advocates of racial understanding in the decades before the civil rights movement gained prominence. “His book is a stunning achievement,” historian Charles B. Dew wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “a sprawling, engrossing, deeply moving account of those Southerners, black and white, who raised their voices to challenge the South’s racial mores during the years from 1932 to 1954 when the brackish currents of Jim Crow were running at flood tide.” “From the smouldering ashes of the Dixiecrat defeat in 1948,” Mr. Egerton wrote, “a handful of reactionaries had fanned the sparks into a flaming new rebellion, one more lost cause to die for – the same cause of racial and regional chauvinism that had rallied their ancestors.”
Scholars have ranked “Speak Now Against the Day” alongside such classic studies of Southern history as W.J. Cash’s “The Mind of the South,” C. Vann Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” and Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” The book won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for its treatment of the struggles of the poor and underprivileged. Mr. Egerton showed how the slow progress toward racial reconciliation was beaten back by the “Dixiecrat” revolt of 1948, when South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond made an unsuccessful but noisily influential bid for president as an avowed segregationist.
Interview with John Egerton in 2004
In the interview transcribed below, reference was made to the fact that the South had shifted from being the conservative Democratic stronghold to a Republican base and invariably southern politicians bring the baggage of excessively conservative social and greedy irresponsible economic policies into the Republican fold. Interestingly, it was the Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential elections in 1860 and 1864 and the Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s election to the White House a century later in 1964 that rallied the Southern politicians to enforce their conservative and segregationist stronghold.
Race has always been at the core of Southern politics and the South has always closed ranks against any efforts for equality. This, in spite of the fact that it was a “white” Democratic southern politician, Lyndon Johnson, who passed the most important civil rights legislation in the country’s history.
Gray: John, the South has now shifted from a Democratic stronghold to that of being Republican. I want to ask you how that happened and do to that let’s go back to the time of the Civil War.
Egerton: In essence, the Civil War was fought by (the majority of the) people in the South who wanted to retain the right to conduct the “social contract” on their own terms. They wanted to have slavery, to keep it, and to be the sole judge of how it should be done…. They were in opposition to the federal government which, at that time of the Civil War, was in the hands of (Republican) president Abraham Lincoln. The (presidential) campaign of 1860 was fought over this issue – the right to extend slavery to the western territories. Compromises had been attempted in the 1850’s and had failed and so we fought this horrible war. So horrible now that it’s difficult to even look at figures of those who died and the civilian losses that were sustained…We had a Civil War here in which tens of hundreds of thousands of people died, from the tip of Florida to the tip of Maine. The Union won. That should have settled for all time the question of whether “inequality” could be legislated separately by the States. So having lost that war, the South went through a period of reconstruction in which the federal government tried to bring the fruits of citizenship to the newly freed slave population. (Note: The federal government sent federal troops into the South to implement the reconstruction program). (There was) a sudden end of that (reconstruction) period in 1877. In order to bring closure to the tightly fought and bitterly contested election of 1876, in which a Democrat and a Republican came to a virtual tie (does this sound familiar?) a resolution got done in a back room.
There where certain southerners in Congress who were going to have the deciding vote in who was going to win that election and made the compromise that they would support the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, if they could get their governments back. If they could end the federal reconstruction… That “Compromise of 1877” marked the beginning of a conflict that goes on to this day because the Southerners got the federal government to get off their backs so they could go on and create a new form of slavery called “segregation” – so called “separate but equal” that was always separate but never equal. Through the first half of the 20th century, southern Democrats were all segregationists and all white, all male with very few exceptions. There were a few Blacks who got elected to Congress from the South up until about 1904 following reconstruction – but by 1904 segregation was the law of the land in the South. And the north was willing to look the other way and let that happen.
There were no Republicans in the South the first half of the 20th century…save for the handful – more black than white – who had been Republicans in opposition to the South’s succession against the nation. And those so-called Lincoln Republicans – black and white – were the only Republicans in the entire South up until (later in the century).
Gray: Storm Thurmond played a critical role didn’t he? Tell us about his run for president in 1948. Egerton: Yes. Well, here’s this guy (Strom Thurmond) from South Carolina. Like so many other southern politicians at that time, he was a Democrat and a segregationist. (Note: Thurmond was the governor of South Carolina at the time and ultimately a U.S. Senator). Following WWII, there was the beginning of a drive for equality for black citizens. Blacks had fought in two world wars and could not be considered full fledged citizens…. Not just in the South, but in other parts (of the country) as well. Their rebellion against that was beginning to come to a head in the late 1940’s and in to the 1950’s. The 1948 election was a time that (Democratic President) Harry Truman decided to run for a full term, having succeeded (Democratic president) Franklin Roosevelt (who died in the 1945). (Note: Truman was Roosevelt’s vice president.) Along comes Strom Thurmond, and he and others bolted from the Democratic Party when Truman was nominated and tried to form the “Dixiecrat Party” to pull all the southern white segregationists together in a party that would be for all time against any equality for Blacks. (Note: Southern Democrats opposed, among others, Truman’s integration of the armed forces and his embrace of policies to protect minority rights in employment.) Truman won the election in 1948 and yet his victory was the fireball in the night for those southern diehards. The ones who had seniority in Congress and members of the Senate and House were in open revolt against Harry Truman and the Democratic Party. That was the beginning of the transformation in the South from a Democratic Party base to a Republican base. And most of them changed not by changing parties – they remained Democrats for a long, long time-but they changed simply by showing their true colors. They were segregationists and they would go to the mat to keep the South that way. The South was in such terrible shape at that period of time. It had come out of the Civil War just whipped down ..devastated…a lot of civilians died… people were homeless… poverty was everywhere. And then came this period of segregation where the south was trying to maintain this mirage, this subterfuge that we would have “separate but equal” facilities where, for example, we would have two schools. Whites would have one, but Blacks would have another, but they would be equal. That was the argument. But we didn’t have the resources to have one school system that was equal to the rest of the country, let alone two. So we went through this charade for decades in which not only the black schools but the white schools, as well, were way below par and not competitive with the rest of the country. The South just kept pulling further and further behind the rest of the country, all for the sake of maintaining segregation. Gray: Let’s move forward to Lyndon Johnson’s run for president in 1964 and the darling of the conservatives, Barry Goldwater, as the 64 Republican candidate that was also critical to changing the South. Johnson had a decisive win, however.
Egerton: Okay! The 1948 election, as we said a minute ago, was a crucial turning point when Truman came in and a few more years later we go through Brown v Board of Education and the beginning of school desegregation…. Race relations was all of a sudden in the forefront of domestic policy in the entire country, not just in the south. This was in the period when opposition to desegregation, opposition to Brown v Board, was really building in the South.
So you come to 1963 and John Kennedy’s been assassinated and Lyndon Johnson-a deep dyed southern Democrat from the hill country of Texas, a former member of the House of Representatives, then of the (U.S.) Senate and then Vice President under Kennedy-became president by virtue of assassination.
Now, Lyndon Johnson had many flaws. There’s plenty of documentation of that fact in the wonderful biographies that have been written about Johnson. But so far none of the those biographers have really doubted the total conviction that Johnson had, once be became President, to end for all time the…practice of segregation and white supremacy – not just in the South but all over the country. It was sanctioned by law in the South, but Johnson knew from his own experience that these conditions – the social conditions – were common in all parts of the country. The Black population of the United States was harnessed against progress, was kept from advancing by law and by the customs and culture that surrounded them all the way into the 1960’s and beyond there. So Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress two historic civil rights bills (Note: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965).
When he (successfully passed these Civil Rights Acts) he said to his aid, Bill Moyers, that I may have turned the South over to the Republican Party for the next generation. I don’t think he could possibly have known just how prophetic that statement was.
Indeed, it was in 1964 that Strom Thurmond finally switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party that began this avalanche of “coming out” parties where all these Democrats, who were really closet Republicans, came out of the closet to present themselves as what they truly were, which was super conservative and still segregationists….
Gray: Talking about contemporary politics now and George Bush, one of the things you’ve said in your article was that if the Confederate states had won the Civil War, Bush’s policies would be exactly what you would expect from a “Confederate” president.
Egerton: George W. Bush is the first Republican to be elected to the White House from the South in the history of the United States. In essence, when we finally elected a Republican President from the South, we might expect him to have an administration that operated pretty much the way you might suppose the Confederacy would have operated had it been running the country, had it won the Civil War and controlled the United States in 1865.
Gray: Why do you say that?
Egerton: Well, I’m not saying (Bush’s presidency operates) in a directly racist way that would have been true in 1865 – but I’m saying it because of the philosophy of elitism, inequality – that certain people had advantages over other people – and carving those into the pillars of the law. This is part and parcel of the Republican Party of today. It is that philosophy of “inequality of privilege” that the Republicans cotton to and claim.
Gray: The Democrats have, since the Civil War, been attempting to bend over backwards to accommodate the interests and concerns of the conservative southern Democrats that has resulted in them diluting their (social and economic) policy agenda. And another thing you’ve said is that with Southern politicians now showing their true colors by becoming Republicans, the Democrats should just say good riddance.
Egerton: Well, I think that people in the South (both white and black) who are Democrats need to say out loud that I believe in liberal government. Now the Democrats have not been pristine-they also have elitist interests. But it’s the liberal policies (of the Democrats) that made this country what it was, and not (the philosophy) of a handful getting an advantage over the whole of the population… It was Democrats who gave us social security (for example)….I think that Southern democrats should say this is an integrated party. We’re working for the betterment and advancement of the entire population of the South in the framework of the nation…The ones who don’t want to do that and (instead) want to placate those conservatives and make them think we’re not too liberal. I think that’s wrong headed. That’s not the right way to go. Democrats need to fight back.
Note: The transcribed interview was first published on Counterpunch in December 2004.
Note: In 2008, renowned British journalist Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch asked me to write an article about attorney J.L. Chestnut who had died on September 30, 2008. I had intended on doing that but was still stunned at the loss of Chestnut’s profound and resonating presence. But I ultimately did write about him. I reflected on the hours of discussions with Chestnut as he shared stories with me about growing up in the Jim Crow South in Selma, Alabama; of his reflections on white supremacy overall; of his experiences with civil rights leaders across the South; of his critique of Alabama’s infamous white supremacist Jeff Sessions; of the strategies and necessary actions that were needed to assist Black farmers in obtaining justice in the Pigford v Glickman class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (I was also involved in the lawsuit while working with Black farmers at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.)
In writing about Chestnut I also, of course, referred to his excellent biography Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut.
Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions is also from Selma, Alabama. And if there were ever two people who have been diametrically opposed it has to be J.L. Chestnut and Jeff Sessions. Here is some brief background on Sessions.
(Sessions) was born in Selma, Alabama, on December 24, 1946,the son of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Jr., and the former Abbie Powe.He was named after his father, who was named after his grandfather, who was named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, and P. G. T. Beauregard, the Confederate general who oversaw the bombardment of Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War. (Wikipedia)
The sad inference based on Sessions brief background and his on-going attacks on civil rights and civil liberties is that Sessions has unfortunately maintained his family’s Confederate sentiments of stark white supremacy in almost everything he has engaged in.
So Sessions and Chestnut are 16 years apart as Sessions was born in 1946 and Chestnut in 1930. But age had nothing to do with the politics of the day. The southern white supremacy ruled supreme and Chestnut went after it with a vengeance and Sessions has attempted to maintain it previously and now.
As an attorney and activist Chestnut, went up against Sessions in some profound challenges to civil and voting rights cases in Alabama, such as the Marion Three and the indictment against black attorney Thomas Figures.
And now Sessions has recently announced, as Trump’s Attorney General, that he is going to challenge the affirmative action programs in colleges – stating that they likely discriminate against whites.
Give me a break! I admit I would relish hearing J.L. Chestnut’s response to this insane accusation by Sessions. Nevertheless, below is something I wrote about whites and affirmative action a few years ago in an article entitled “Racist Policies Lead to Death and Destruction” and I am making the same sentiments about Sessions present accusations regarding affirmative action:
A few weeks ago, while having dinner with a Black friend, the discussion veered toward an update of racism in America. Citing the diminishing of affirmative action programs across the country and other telling signs, he said “I think white America is getting tired of everything being blamed on racism.” I said “So what! White America needs to be badgered every minute of every day about our racist attitudes and actions.” In fact, I still rankle over the “angry white male” contention in the early 90’s stating that because of policies to reverse the preeminent white access to virtually all privileges in this country, at the expense of everyone else, they felt they were being discriminated against. The gall of white males expressing anger over anything after hundreds of years of ancestral privilege astounds me…leaves me breathless. To be perfectly frank, I remain an “angry white female” expressing indignation at “angry white males” for this insult. (Counterpunch)
My guess is that Sessions is probably pleased J.L. Chestnut is no longer present to challenge his every move. But Chestnut taught and inspired thousands of us around the country. Chestnut would be pleased to know we will do what we can to confront Sessions every step of the way; and/or he would characteristically encourage us to raise hell!
Learning about J.L. Chestnut and white supremacy in the South? Below is the revised article I wrote about J.L. Chestnut in 2008, entitled: “The Legacy of J.L. Chestnut, Jr. Raising Hell in the South”. In this article I do not go into Chestnut’s confrontations with Sessions. That will come in a later posting. This article however provides information about what it was like growing up in Selma as a Black person and, by virtue of that, the white supremacist role played by the likes of whites like Sessions et al.
I also encourage those of you who are not familiar with Chestnut and have not looked in-depth at the South’s racist existence to listen to the C-Span interview with Chestnut in 1985 entitled “Alabama Politics” by clicking here.
Below is also a video of a speech Chestnut gave before the “Bioneers” in California at the 2001 Annual Bioneers Conference and is part of the Ecological Food and Farming, Vol. 1 and Democracy, Human Rights and the Rights of Nature, Vol. 1 Collections. His comments in 2001 resonate with today’s politics as well.
The Legacy of J.L. Chestnut, Jr. Raising Hell in the South
By Heather Gray
October 23, 2008
A few of us gathered at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with a brass jazz band from New Orleans that J.L. Chestnut’s law partner Faya Rose Toure wisely brought to the city that day. Marching and dancing behind the band through the streets of Selma toward the First Baptist Church, we chanted, “Send him home, thank you Lord!” In typical New Orleans fashion, our umbrellas bounced to the energetic rhythm. Then we marched through doors of First Baptist to the front of the crowded church singing “When the Saints Come Marching Home.” The somber crowd wasn’t sure what to think. J.L. Chestnut would have loved it. The day was October 9, 2008 when he was laid to rest.
The Incomparable J.L. Chestnut
On December 16, 1930 J.L. Chestnut was born in Selma, Alabama and died on September 30, 2008. He began his remarkable 77-year life in the heart of the Jim Crow south. Ultimately, as one of the country’s leading civil rights attorney’s and the first black attorney in Selma, the lessons he learned in Selma as a youth served him well for his subsequent challenges to white supremacy.
He became Selma’s first black attorney in 1959, just five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education decision school desegregation decision. Ultimately his law firm became Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders & Pettaway with Attorneys Hank Sanders, Faya Ora Rose Toure, and Collins Pettaway.
In 1955 he came home from college to witness the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Peter Hall, a young black attorney from Birmingham, defended the accused. Hall was the first black attorney to try a case in Selma and he made a statement in that trial that remained Chestnut’s motto throughout his legal career which was: “I don’t know whether my client is guilty or not but it’s damn sure the system is. I’m going to try the system while the circuit solicitor tries my client.“
Among the other many critical lessons that effected all Chestnut’s subsequent work was what he learned as a card shark and it had to do with the use of power. He starts his book Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut (by J.L. Chestnut and Julia Cass, 1990, Harper & Collins) with it and it behooves me to start with that as well. He said:
I discovered as a teenage gambler that it’s far easier to beat a person who expects to lose than one who comes to win because the former will give up somewhere along the line. I also learned that power is most effective when you don’t have to use it, when folk just assume you’ve got it. Every time you have to use it you lose a little of it, which the white south was to learn during the civil rights struggle. I learned this at a card table when I was fifteen years old. (Black in Selma, pg 8)
But Chestnut’s interests and breadth of knowledge were far more complex than a focus solely on civil rights. In no way can the man’s interests be hemmed in. His intellectual genius and curiosity about the world seemed endless. He read, he listened, and he learned, he taught, he observed, he wrote, he fought, he loved his wife, his family, and he loved life.
We are told by Faya Rose Toure that the last sound he heard before dying was a recording of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet. Chestnut would have loved this as well. Love of jazz and the New Orleans’ creative expressions combined were quintessential J.L. Chestnut!
Activists in the south knew about Chestnut. For years we would hear about him over there in Selma appropriately raising hell and giving the bigots a beating in court as he defended countless low-income black and white clients against some outrageous injustice.
The first time I heard him up close before a crowd was in the early 1990’s as he passionately spoke about the racist south, his trip to Africa, and his recent book Black in Selma. I always thought the subtitle should have been “The Incomparable Life of J.L. Chestnut” – but there you have my bias on the subject! He was speaking to the black farmer membership of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation/LAF) in Epes, Alabama, not far from Selma, in what is known as the Alabama Black Belt.
I had worked at the Federation/LAF for a few years at that point as Director of Communications. Since 1967, the organization had worked, and continues to work, to save black-owned land across the South and serve black farmers and the rural poor generally.
The auditorium at the Federation/LAF’s Rural Training & Research Center was filled to capacity and electrified as Chestnut spoke. This was Chestnut’s turf. And while addressing audiences all over the country, he was at home with black rural folks in west Alabama.
These were his people and he relished, as he always did, the opportunity to speak with them and hear from them and did he preach that day with a jibe here and an insult there!!!
Southerners are renowned storytellers and Chestnut was one of the best. He would make fun of racist whites and their insane antics that had folks rolling on the floor. No one could tell it like him. With his words alone it seemed he could pierce a hole through impenetrable metal and make you laugh at the same time. His law partner Hank Sanders said Chestnut could tell a Moms Mabley joke better than Moms herself.
Chestnut’s brilliant and passionate speech brought me to the brink of tears. With his deep voice and distinctive southern accent, he had a way of bringing the South’s injustice to the fore in a way I had not experienced. I was hooked. For the next 15 years I knew that if I was to understand anything about the South, Chestnut would explain it! Even though I’d been raised in the South, albeit Atlanta, and had been a “white” civil rights activist for most of my adult life, I knew I was ignorant about the degree of the staggering and tragic white arrogance and power manipulations as manifested in the rural South. Chestnut helped me realize how ignorant I was. The one thing I did know, however, was that if you are to understand the South and oppressive racial dynamics in America, the rural South is where you need to be.
Chestnut thoroughly enjoyed his trip to west Africa, which included Gambia. He relished seeing black folks in charge of everything including, of course, piloting the planes. But even in Gambia, the reach of the U.S. State Department was attempted as Chestnut told me years later. From his friend attorney Vernon Jordan, who was an advisor to the Clinton administration, he learned that the State Department was worried that while in Africa he would be too critical of the U.S. and its racial policies and wanted U.S. diplomats to communicate that to him. Chestnut laughed. He loved telling the story. “Damn State Department! Who the hell do they think they are?” I recall he learned of this after his trip, but that demonstrates how dense the State Department was! Nothing would stop the man from speaking his mind and if the State Department was concerned, it would offer even more incentive for him to speak forcefully about injustice in America! Truth telling discourse epitomized Chestnut and he relished every minute of it.
Chestnut’s Early Life in Selma
To understand Chestnut’s life in Selma, a brief description of the Alabama Black Belt is essential. The “black belt” actually describes the rich black soil from Maryland to Texas that had developed for millions of years. In Alabama, the Black Belt is composed of 18 counties in a strip across the lower half of the state. In the 1830’s, cotton was grown in the black belt with slavery, of course, as the source of labor. After the Civil War, freed slaves stayed in the region, which gave the Alabama “black belt” a demographic definition as well in that blacks are the majority (52%) of the population. It also contains some of the poorest counties in the country. From a political standpoint, the Alabama Black Belt is sometimes called the Blue Belt. Politically, it has the most predominantly Democratic counties in Alabama and voted overwhelmingly for Kerry in 2004.
Black in Selma is a biographical narrative of growing up in the Jim Crow South as well as living as a black adult in a transformed community and what that meant. Many of the stories below are from the book and most of it is about his early youthful experiences that set the tone for his entire life. It’s a particularly striking narrative because of Chestnut’s honesty. He pulls no punches. He basically lays everyone out – blacks, whites, himself – for the world to see, often with stark, biting and sometimes loving criticism. He wants the reader to understand his experiences and to know about his mentors and what he learned from them. Chestnut also wants the reader to experience with him the mostly accommodating but also exhilarating and culturally profound black community in Selma.
Chestnut was born in his grandparent’s home and named J.L. after a white banker in Selma who his grandmother admired. He said, “My grandmother knew the banker only at a distance, though, at the bank where people called him only by his initials, like J.P. Morgan. She didn’t realize that he undoubtedly had a full name. The name Chestnut came from my white great grandfather” (Black in Selma, pg 19).
He got the biggest kick of the J.L. story. He said some people insisted on calling him “Jimmy” or “James” but it was J.L. – plain J.L.! Some of his friends called him “Chess.”
Chestnut learned from his father that there were racial mixtures everywhere in the community where there were white and black families who were cousins. Chestnut’s grandfather worked as a servant for his white cousins. He said it was simply the way things were.
And in the 1930’s and 40’s his parents and others never talked about segregation and “certainly” never talked “about doing anything about it.” Folks just accommodated (Black in Selma, pg 22). But this was not easy for Chestnut, even as a young boy. Chestnut’s father told him to be wary of white smiles and friendliness. They not might be genuine. Stay away from them if you can and try not to work for them.
At Chestnut’s funeral, activist Amelia Boynton, who knew him as a child, said he was into everything and probably these days would be placed on ridilin because of his energy. (Forbid that should have happened!) He loved girls, she said, and thought that he probably wanted to be in the Sunday School Class she taught at First Baptist because of the girls in the class, though he tried to convince her otherwise.
So here he was, a young bright energetic black child trying to understand everything about power and who pulls the strings. I admit it sometimes surprises me that he didn’t get killed or thrown into jail indefinitely because he did often make himself vulnerable. And he became vulnerable largely because he tried to help other blacks against the prevailing godforsaken white supremacy.
He understandably held nothing but disdain for white police officers, who exploited virtually everyone in the black community and they were always vulnerable to white male desires. He told me at one point how he and some of his friends were furious about an officer who insisted on making as his mistress the wife of one of their black neighbors. They decided to take action as they ultimately realized the black husband couldn’t do much about this arrangement. Chestnut and his friends somehow managed to throw the cop’s “naked white ass” out of the house. He also realized that other adult black males thought they couldn’t do much either and were simply glad their wives were not selected to be the cop’s mistress. Chestnut was also relieved the policeman wasn’t after his own mother.
Chestnut said that if a black woman was a mistress of a white male and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it, it was thought at least maybe the woman could get some money out of deal to help raise her children. If black women had affairs with other black married men, however, they were considered “sluts.” The double standard by both blacks and whites was clear. But if black men went after white women they could and did get themselves lynched or executed.
Later on when Chestnut began his law firm he was warned by the white probate judge, Bernard Reynolds, that Chestnut be respectful of the white women in the probate court. They, of course, had never worked with a black attorney. The judge even lined up these women, about 10 of them, stood in front of them and gave the warning. Chestnut was furious at this inference. He said to the judge, “I have never been disrespectful of a lady in my life, and unlike you, I also respect black women” (Black in Selma, pg 89).
These racial dynamics and double standards were everywhere, but one thing was clear. The police control was paramount. Chestnut said:
I was too young to understand the more subtle economic, social and psychological ways white Selma maintained control over black Selma. But the police were blatant. They were in black Selma doing things to send massages of fear across the community. They weren’t a neutral force enforcing the law. They were the law. They acted like despots, slapped black men who didn’t say “sir” fast enough, extorted pay-offs and information from the bootleggers, lent money at outrageous rates of interest, and pretty much took what they wanted from whoever had it. I heard stories of black men taken to jail and never seen again (Black in Selma, pg 31).
He and his friends would “nose around” and try to find out what adults were up to. They watched the chain gangs – black prisoners of course – and Chestnut worried whether they had the chains on at night as well. They would watch them dig holes in the streets. (An interesting note about the Selma policy was that white prisoners worked only in white cemeteries and certainly not in the streets with black folks.) They would also sit and listen to the stories from black World War II veterans. Chestnut noticed a difference in them – they seemed restless. Said they weren’t going to put up with this damn mess in Selma.
Chestnut describes an incident involving a young largely uneducated black fellow named Shorty who had been in and out of jail. Shorty had a confrontation with a policeman who everyone called “Mr. Craw” like “stuck in your craw.” Chestnut said that Craw walked around like Benito Musssolini and he expected, like the parting of the Red Sea, black men to step aside when he walked by.
That day Chestnut realized Shorty’d had enough of shuffling around white men. When Craw walked by he mumbled something and Craw said, “What did you say, nigger?” Shorty said, “Go fuck yourself” and the fight started. Everyone scattered as Shorty knocked Craw out. While his friends ran, Chestnut watched it all and whispered to Shorty to follow him to his father’s jeep. Chestnut drove him to the Good Samaritan hospital, which was a black Catholic hospital a few blocks away. He put Shorty in a broom closet and said he’d be back in the morning.
He then went back to the “drag” and cops were everywhere. Chestnut was suddenly scared because he was sure some folks would have seen him help Shorty and for a little money they would easily inform the cops about it. Thankfully, this never happened.
The next morning Chestnut and “Red”, a taxi driver friend of Chestnut’s who was black but looked white, went to the hospital for Shorty and drove him out of Selma to safety.
The above are just a few of examples of Chestnut’s experience. On the whole he tried to understand why black adults chose not to stand up to the white abuse. Once, he confronted a group of them in his father’s grocery store. This was after a neighbor had been harshly beaten by the cops for defiance and then taken away. He said:
Inside the store, I tried, but failed to get a conversation going about the awful thing that had happened. Everyone was scared to even comment about it. Later, I talked to my father and he said, “What do you want us to do? Commit suicide?” I knew he was right, but goddamn! (Black in Selma, pg 35)
Chestnut also soon discovered that the place where black adults could politicize, complain and make demands, had to do with the black church. This is where control was leveraged and manipulated. And discussions got heated. Chestnut was raised in the First Baptist Church in Selman, which was created in 1866 when, after the civil war, blacks broke off from the white First Baptist in downtown Selma. It is located at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Street and Jeff Davis Avenue. Jeff Davis, of course, being the President of the Confederacy and King being central and destroying the last vestiges of slavery and the Confederacy, which is an interesting juxtaposition. Chestnut remained a member of the church all his life. He was also chair of the deacon board and many was the time over the years when I would call him about something related to black farmer legal issues, and Chestnut would be”holding court” in his office with other deacon members.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of hearing the old hauntingly beautiful slavery songs and chants sung by elders prior to a service in a black church, you have missed one of the most profound American experiences. In the 1970’s I went numerous times to Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta – Martin Luther King’s family church. I told Chestnut that for four weeks in a row I would start crying when I heard the elders singing these songs. “What was happening to me?” I asked. Without skipping a beat he said “Guilt!” He was truth telling yet again! He also told me that before the service at First Baptist in Selma every Sunday he would sing these old slave songs along with the elders.
It didn’t take Chestnut long to see through the vacuous and false superiority of whites. Being a card shark at fifteen he began winning poker all the time. He had an ingenious way of marking the cards that no one could figure out, not even the house man who was the black professional gambler. But then after a while Chestnut won regardless of marked cards. Those who kept losing finally called the police. It never ceased to amaze Chestnut that blacks thought that if the house man couldn’t figure out what Chestnut was doing, that the police could. It amazed him that they thought the white police were smarter. The police, of course, didn’t have a clue. “Standing in some policeman’s little cubbyhole of an office, watching him study the cards, I thought, ‘these people are not all that smart. All that presumed superior white brain power is a sham’” (Black in Selma, pg 14).
Chestnut played the saxophone for hours on end as a youth and with friends started a band. He told me that jazz was good for your health. The tenor saxophone was considered the instrument of choice in the late 1930’s and 1940’s and that was, of course, what Chestnut chose as his own.
He could also play the piano to a degree and diligently studied the chords. He wanted to be a musician. But he soon learned he was not able to spontaneously play like some who had the talent to play whatever they wanted. But this didn’t stop him. He loved the music and the culture.
Chestnut was an only child and his mother’s preoccupation. She wanted the best for her son and was the best overseer she could be with this child, who was obviously hard to rein in.
Black Selma had “jook joints” with musicians, drinks and fun. Chestnut began to frequent these joints and relatively early started drinking and smoking. It was what you did, he said. His mother was not thrilled but he figured out a way to do it anyway. But Chestnut ultimately had a problem with alcohol and finally in the early 1970’s gave it up.
The first time I went into his Selma office in the early 2000’s I admit I had a stereotypic concept of what he would feature – what would be on his office walls. I thought that as a renowned civil rights attorney he would probably have photos of civil rights leaders or, like many in the movement, African art or something depicting the motherland. But I was wrong. Front and center in his office was the beautiful 1958 Art Kane black and white photo taken in Harlem of the jazz greats. Before me were the likes of the young Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Mingus and many others. And Chestnut knew a lot of them.
The interesting thing about this historic photo is that just days before I visited Chestnut in Selma, I had seen this above poster in a shop in Atlanta and was so impressed. I did not purchase it then but it resonated with me. Then a few days later when I visited Chestnut here was the huge Art Kane photo again just behind his desk. The next day once back once back in Atlanta I bought the poster. I knew it was meant for me. It remains front and center in my living room.
Later on when Chestnut worked for the NAACP Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall told him that he thought playing the saxophone and being an attorney didn’t mix, but that he wasn’t worried because Chestnut wasn’t a good saxophone player anyway. He characteristically laughed about this.
Chestnut first went to college at Talladega in north Alabama. It was known as the Harvard of the south and all kinds of children of wealthy blacks from the north were enrolled. He hated being around these black folks who attempted to be white and knew nothing about the real south. He felt alienated and stayed in his room much of the time playing the saxophone.
Then someone mentioned that Dillard University in New Orleans might be more to his liking and he jumped at the chance. Off he went to New Orleans where there were jazz clubs of all sorts and students at the university with whom he felt more comfortable. It was the beginning of his love affair with New Orleans that lasted the rest of his life. I’m sure he knew every relevant jazz club and musician in the city.
For years, every chance he got he would take his wife Vivian to New Orleans for weekends on the town. He would religiously attend the annual jazz festival in Louisiana and play his saxophone on the stage when possible.
He also ultimately knew the jazz scene in New York and would hang out in the renowned Blue Note in the Village.
While in high school in Selma and at Dillard University, Chestnut wrote papers that created controversy by challenging the accommodation policies of black leaders, black universities and their professors. He basically said their teaching was inappropriate and far from teaching real leadership. It was the classic W.E.B. Dubois vs Booker T. Washington debate of blacks demanding their rights as espoused by Dubois versus the Washington accommodation approach.
His high school and college papers remind me of the disdain Chestnut felt for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who he knew and who he also roundly criticized for trying to be white and accommodating to white desires. Chestnut told me of a reception in DC he and his wife attended a few years ago. Thomas was also there and came up to Chestnut and his wife. Chestnut told me he made some critical remark to Thomas – unfortunately I can’t recall what – but Chestnut said Thomas, of course, did not appreciate it.
I’ve wondered since how vastly improved the country would be had Chestnut been appointed to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, rather than Thomas. Just imagine the sparks flying in Congress around a Chestnut appointment. It would have been interesting to say the least. Chestnut’s stark and brilliant honesty would probably have been overwhelming for the Senate Judiciary Committee, much less the Supreme Court itself! They wouldn’t know what hit them.
After university and once he’d been convinced that law, rather than music, should be his career (he said he mother sighed relief at the choice), he went to Howard Law School at Howard University in Washington DC.
By the time he was in law school he and Vivian, his high school sweetheart, were married and he needed money to take care of his family. He got a job as a disc jockey at WOOK radio station that had just switched to black programming.
Because Chestnut was short, his WOOK audience called him the “Little One.” He told me how he would often start his music show with something like Lawrence Welk, then shout over the air “What the hell is this?” He’d yank the record off the turntable, break it over the mic and put on some real music, like Count Basie.
He’d sometimes stage special events where the radio station would promote that the “Little One” would be appearing somewhere at a club in DC. Characteristically, Chestnut would put on a class act. Once, with friends, he hired a hearse they took to a club. They took the coffin into the club and out jumped the “Little One” smoking a cigar. Chestnut was in fits of laughter as he told me this story.
He also told me that one of the Deans at Howard was not thrilled about him going to school and working as a disc jockey. He felt it was inappropriate. Chestnut talked him out of the crazy notion however, as he was making more money than the Dean.
At Howard in 1953, Chestnut joined other law students in discussions with Thurgood Marshall, and an abundance of other well-known attorneys, about the 1896 Plessey v Ferguson separate but equal decision that was to be challenged before the Supreme Court. Chestnut at first joined others in thinking that the court would not overturn all of Plessey in one case and that perhaps the process should be piecemeal. Chestnut, understandably, did not trust the white males on the court. Rather like his father had stated, they might be committing suicide by demanding too much. But in typical Chestnut fashion, this attitude did not last long. Chestnut said that Marshall was so “damned confident” the court would overturn Plessey that he sided with him.
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the Brown v Board of Education decision, that Plessey was unconstitutional. It was a startling and historic victory, but the work was just beginning.
Beginning his Law Practice in Selma and Brown v Board
Once he finished law school, Chestnut wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back to Selma, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was around then and opportunities were arising for change in the South. He wanted to be a part of it all. Back he went to Selma and opened his law firm in 1959. There were only nine Black attorneys throughout the state of Alabama at that time.
He traveled across the Alabama Black belt defending black clients and made quite a reputation for himself. Invariably in these southern small town squares there were and are memorials to the Confederate dead. Once in the Wilcox County courtroom the Sheriff, holding an ax, threatened to chop off his head. Being a black attorney certainly had its challenges.
When Chestnut first began trying cases in Alabama, white attorneys referred to him as J.L., whereas white attorneys called each other “Mr.” He also stood behind the bar that separated the courtroom from the judge and attorneys. Segregated attorney deliberations as well? But that didn’t last for long, as Chestnut took the initiative to move up with the other guys.
He soon began his long relationship with Alabama’s renowned racist George Wallace who, at that point, was a circuit court judge. When Chestnut appeared in Wallace’s court, he told me that Wallace was furious when the white attorneys did not address him as “Mr. Chestnut” and he told them that in his court they were to call Chestnut “Mr.” So Wallace was the first Judge to insist that Chestnut be addressed respectfully.
Chestnut and Wallace had this rather unique relationship. Chestnut was often in Wallace’s office, when Wallace became governor, for various legal issues and meetings. He shared with me that Wallace had a populist streak but that his desire for power got the best of him. When he lost the gubernatorial race in 1958 to arch-racist John Patterson who had the support of the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace was known to say he was “out-niggered” and that would never happen to him again.
Wallace became governor in 1962 and was sworn in on January 14, 1963 when he made his now famous “Schoolhouse Door” speech written by his new speechwriter Asa Carter who was a Klan member and an anti-semite. He said “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace later apologized for his racism and segregationist policies.
In “Schoolhouse Door”, Wallace was echoing the White Citizens Council demands that there be no integration in Alabama. The council, essentially an upper-class white version of the Ku Klux Klan, was created in Mississippi to prevent Brown v Board from being implemented. It’s chapters spread across the South including in Alabama, of course.
Chestnut was asked by the NAACP to implement Brown in Alabama. When he and other attorneys began to implement Brown they were faced with lawsuits in virtually every school district across the state. Chestnut said he wondered how on earth they could afford all these lawsuits, plus the fact that it would take so much time and effort they might never succeed. He told me that Wallace, however, made a speech that essentially clumped all of the school districts together. In a sense this helped the attorneys to sue the entire state on behalf of Brown rather than the individual school districts. Chestnut thought some research should be done to see if Wallace knew what he was doing in this instance. In fact, Chestnut wondered whether Wallace made the speech with the actual intent of helping Chestnut and others in their desegregation efforts.
Other cases he pursued include serving as the attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless other civil rights leaders, such as Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory, Joseph Lowery, James Foreman and Bernard Lafayette as they worked out of Selma in the 1960’s; in 1968 he filed a case that led to the right of blacks to serve on juries in Dallas County for the first time in 100 years; he filed suits that led to jobs for blacks in the city halls and courthouses of Alabama and he took under his wing an abundance of criminal law and capital cases.
He also defended Jamil Abdullah Al Amin (the former H. “Rap” Brown) during the movement years in the 1960s and more recently when Al Amin was apprehended in Alabama in 2000 for allegedly killing a white police officer in Atlanta. Chestnut, however, was not Al Amin’s attorney in the trial in Atlanta in which Al Amin was found guilty.
Chestnut, in fact, took on more capital cases than any attorney in Alabama and never lost a client to the electric chair.
Also, no discussion about J.L. Chestnut’s practice in Selma could in any way be complete without mentioning Barnette Hayes who was his paralegal, executive and loyal assistant for 37 years.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act
One the most important acts that basically ended the Jim Crow period in the South was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Selma was the heart of it all. Chestnut said he never dreamed that the voting and educational efforts of the small group they started in Selma would result in one of the most important legislative acts in U.S. history.
In 1962, there were approximately 150 black voters in Selma. Half of them had been vouched for by a white person. The law required, however, that to get registered meant you needed to pass a test on the U.S. Constitution and Alabama law, but being vouched by someone white was the most reliable way to get your name on the role. By 1962, and given the more visible activism around voting issues in the South, white Selma had made the test more difficult and those attempting to register were watched more closely. Many black folks stopped even trying.
In the early 1960’s SNCC organizers, particularly Bernard Lafayette, also laid the ground for much of what happened subsequently on organizing work in Selma on voting rights. Chestnut was enamored with the bravery of this young man who challenged the authorities in Selma. But Lafayette finally gave up on attempting to organize adults in Selma. They were not going to rock the boat. In the end he organized youth by stating that ‘if the youth are involved the adults would follow’ and that’s precisely what happened. Lafayette has told me, however, that he never expected much from the adults in the first place. “Why would adults get involved and lose their jobs, their house, and perhaps even their lives?” he said.
But then civil rights leaders also knew that Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark had a temper that, because of his abuse, would draw the nation’s attention to Selma and they were right. During this period Chestnut also began to understand how the white aristocracy in Selma were the ones controlling Clark. They made the decisions and Clark fulfilled them – a hierarchical relationship that repeats itself across the South.
As civil rights marchers began the trek from Selma-to-Montgomery on March 7, 1965 to demand their voting rights and began to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Governor George Wallace’s Alabama State Patrol and the Selma police accosted them. Chestnut was there that day. He recalled hearing the bones of marchers being crushed by the horses ridden by the state patrol. He was appalled at this outrage against those who demanded their democratic rights. The event became known in the annals as “Bloody Sunday.” In the midst of all this, he was on the phone reporting to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York about what was happening, then quickly hung up the phone to help take the injured to safety.
Brutal attacks such as “Bloody Sunday” were obviously meant to intimidate those who demanded change, but nothing would stop the movement for justice in the 1960’s. After Bloody Sunday, people flooded into Selma from across the country, both whites and blacks alike, to make the trek to Montgomery. Chestnut was amazed at the number of whites who came. It was reassessment time for him again and again. On March 21, 1965, they began the five-day pilgrimage to Montgomery on Highway 80 and arrived at the capitol on March 25. At that point 25,000 marchers had joined the throng.
It’s also important to note the importance of black-owned land as it was largely on land owned by black farmers along Highway 80 where marchers could rest for the night.
Five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
The Black Farmer Class Action Lawsuit
One of his more recent and historic legal challenges was that, in the late 1990s, Chestnut thankfully chose to litigate as one of the class counsels for black farmers who filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The case was originally known as the Pigford v Glickman Class Action Lawsuit (Tim Pigford being a black farmer from North Carolina and Dan Glickman the Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration) and then became known as Pigford v Schafer.
Chestnut and I would talk for hours about this case and other related issues as I was also assisting farmer members of the Federation/LAF who were class members in Pigford.
In hearings in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. in the 1990’s, Chestnut railed against the government for it’s outrageous discrimination against black farmers. He so impressed the court and the government attorneys that many were convinced that the government settled because the government’s attorneys were nervous about having to defend the case with Chestnut as the opposing attorney in a courtroom setting.
The civil rights class action lawsuit that black farmers filed against the U.S. government is the largest in U.S. history, which also demonstrates the tragedy and depth of the government’s discriminatory behavior. This victory would never have become a reality without the insightful and astute leadership of J.L. Chestnut.
At virtually every juncture, prior to and since the Pigford case settled in 1998, Chestnut addressed black farmer members of the Federation/LAF. In February 1998, for example, he spoke before farmers at the Federation/LAF’s Farmers Conference in Albany, Georgia. He expressed concern that mediation behind closed doors does not provide the opportunity for black farmers to tell their case to the American public. “Americans need to hear from you,” he said. “America needs to know what your own government has done to you over the years.”
Another concern of Chestnut’s was the concept by some in the government that discrimination is aimed at the individual and not at the group. “That’s the biggest lie that’s ever been told,” Chestnut said. “I’m almost 70 years old and I cannot think of a single instance where discrimination was aimed at me but not at everybody else who looks like me. What the Department of Agriculture has been doing over the years has not been done to some selective black farmers, it’s been done to every black farmer.“
In February 2005, speaking again in Albany to black farmers about the lawsuit, Chestnut said:
I will stand here and tell you that if I had understood in 1997 the magnitude, the real magnitude of mistrust that hurting black farmers felt against their government, I would have searched for some kind of formula specifically to address that problem. I don’t know what we would have come up with. I don’t know if we could have come up with anything, but more attention would have been given to the problem. When people have been ruined by their government it is hard from them to believe that this government now wants to help them. And I don’t care how much you advertise or where you advertise, you can’t get really to that problem in depth…
The real problem comes from hurt and deceit practiced by the government since the Civil War…
I am never surprised that arrogant government lawyers despise me, because the feeling couldn’t be more mutual. But for some arrogant overly educated government lawyer to wallow in racism against poor innocent black farmers is mind-boggling. And I saw it day in and day out and had to deal with it day in and day out. My wife will tell you that, in 1997, sometimes I would leave home on Monday and be gone for a week or longer in Washington fighting and struggling, and trying understand how could anybody be so shallow as some of these folk turned out to be.
We had one of the fairest judges on the bench in this case, but even he could not understand the reach, the stench of racism. He had no idea sometimes of what I was talking about because, unlike me, he was not born into a citadel of racism and … fighting it all of his life.
More recently, the U.S. Congress included in the 2008 Farm Bill a provision to assist 65,000 black farmers who petitioned late in the Pigford lawsuit but have not yet been able to file a claim. Characteristically, J.L. Chestnut once again chose to assist these farmers as lead counsel in this latest phase of the lawsuit.
Challenging the System
The above are but a small sampling of Chestnut’s extensive work. His performance in the courtroom is renowned and he so enjoyed talking about the courtroom drama. Virtually nothing would get past him. His turn of phrase, his spirited penetrating arguments, and his humor are the stuff of legend. What he learned as a teenage gambler he applied in the courtroom. He’d walk in the courtroom airing the confidence that he’d already won. You could never accuse him of silence. He said what had to be said bluntly, passionately and to the point. He was relentless. Yet while law was his area, he learned early in the movement that social change required more than that.
At first Chestnut did not agree with King that unjust laws should be challenged in the court of public opinion by boycotts and nonviolent tactics. Chestnut thought the courts were the place to challenge unjust laws. He changed his view in this, however, as he witnessed the profound effect the non-violent movement was having in creating positive changes.
Also, up until 1968 he carried a gun for protection. But this changed as well. Shortly before Bloody Sunday, Chestnut witnessed SNCC activist and now Congressman John Lewis stare down Selma’s infamous Sheriff Clark. Lewis had no gun. It was pure bravery on his part and this impressed Chestnut. He said further that:
Whenever I would go to Lowndes or Wilcox Counties, I continued to wear a gun. I knew the Klan was active out there because I got letters from them, some with a bullet enclosed. I wasn’t comfortable with the gun, but I wasn’t comfortable without it either. Not until the night Martin Luther King was killed did I get rid of it. I went down to the Alabama River, under the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and sat there for a half hour crying and remembering all the things King had said about the senselessness of violence and war. I reflected that my weapon hadn’t saved me from or helped me achieve anything. I threw it in the river. I felt relieved seeing it disappear in the dark swiftly moving water. (Black in Selma, pg 245)
There was probably no one who understood the “citadel of racism” like J.L. Chestnut, which he used as fodder for his arguments and rationale. He called a spade a spade, a racist a racist. He was never willing to compromise when it had to do with injustice, and everyone knew it. And he was loyal to those who he knew were genuine in the struggle for justice.
I often told Chestnut that Selma was the laboratory from which he extrapolated to the rest of the world. For years he wrote the article “The Hard Cold Truth” and he would often call me to get my take on it. In the articles he would sometimes cite instances in Selma that would serve as examples of what was happening elsewhere. He knew the racial and political dynamics so well in Selma. It was fascinating to hear him talk about it.
We also talked about how addressing injustice in America is central to ending injustice elsewhere. We, in fact, would often have lengthy discussions about U.S. domestic and international policies and how the injustice in the U.S. domestically was extended to international policies. Basically, if the powers that be in America could get away with white supremacy domestically they would apply it elsewhere. And racism, of course, always prevails in some way in U.S. wars of aggression as we saw in Iraq. So, we agreed, the more he did in Selma to end injustices the harder it was for the country to continue these practices.
Thinking of Chestnut I am reminded of Richard Wright who was born in Mississippi in 1908. In his 1945 book Black Boy he describes in grueling detail the horrors of white supremacy in the South. But he, like Chestnut, tried to understand what needed to be done to end this injustice. Wright, however, was born when Jim Crow was still altogether too entrenched in the South. The opportunities for maneuvering and organizing were not there or limited at best. He tried communism in Chicago and New York but within the communist groups, whites could also not be trusted. Finally, disgusted, he left the U.S. for Paris.
Chestnut was born 22 years later in 1930 on the cusp of history. By the time he was beginning to play a leading role in the 1950’s to turn around the Jim Crow laws, much had preceded him in preparing the black community and white America generally for important changes and finally some justice in education, voting and the other critical issues. He thankfully stayed in the South. While sometimes difficult, Chestnut took the challenge forward with hard work, fortitude, stubbornness and eloquence. It’s said that leaders come our way when we need them, when we’re ready for them, and that certainly describes J.L. Chestnut. He was the leader we needed then as well as now. Chestnut, of all people, recognized that the “struggle continues”.
When it’s all said and done, however, J.L. Chestnut was party to the most significant civil rights court decisions and legislation in the history of the United States: from “Brown v Board of Education” that ended separate but equal laws and that he helped implement; to the “1965 Voting Rights Act” in which he played a central role that finally allowed blacks to vote since emancipation and reconstruction after the Civil War 100 years earlier; to the “Pigford v Schafer” black farmer class action lawsuit filed against the U.S. government in which he served as class counsel and that is the largest civil rights class action against the U.S. government in history. What staggering achievements!
Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, J.L. Chestnut and Julia Cass, 1990, Harper & Collins
August 2, 2017
The recent efforts of the Republican Party and the hidden forces of conservatism, to destroy and repeal the Affordable Care Act is a record low exhibition of American low theater and deception. Performing under the spotlights of racism, classism and public hysteria, the cast of small minded performers disguised as national leaders staged a spectacle that the international world audience is reviewing in shock and disbelief. I remind you, we are still in the first act of the drama.
All of us are involved in the production of this spectacle on some level and no seat in the house is free. To that end, we all must be critically aware of the back story. This is not a story, as the billing suggests, about the question of who gets health care in America- and at what cost. This is a story about the declining health of America’s soul, the destruction of democratic institutions, and the affirmation of this nation’s long standing regard for capital over human interests and human life.
It is this story which, very quickly after the American Revolution led to Shay’s Rebellion. It is this story that leads Native Americans to suffer interminable damages and destruction because of broken treaties that the Government of the United States would not honor. It is the story of American Slavery and the dismantling of reconstruction efforts after the Hayes /Tilden election of 1876. The back story was still being played out when American Veterans after WWI, found it necessary to march on Washington in an effort to get the pensions that they were promised and were entitled to receive in exchange for their service to America. That story has not lost its popularity or fascination for some. It appears consistently in our national struggles for civil and human rights and in struggles to have all workers receive a living wage in exchange for their labor. At this very moment while America is watching President Trump publicly vilify Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and miraculously turn the Attorney General into “a heroic victim” of sorts, Attorney General Sessions is moving with all deliberate speed into America’s landfill of failed policy by resurrecting various initiatives intended to restrict individual freedoms, liberties and entitlements. In the meantime, the stench of this nation’s political sickness and moral depravity continues to increasingly permeate the air, and the air waves.
The writers and developers of this story line would have us believe that it is a minority contingent of “the Republican Party that is driving this irrational and dangerous national political agenda”. That may be true, but all Americans must be mindful of the fact that it is the majority of the American population who are sufficiently undisturbed that also empowers the implementation of this “new agenda”. It is that kind of passive non-engagement, on the part of too many, which poses the larger threat to the political health of this nation; and damages the reputation of America on the world stage.
This kind of faulty reasoning has become a large and damaging component of our public analysis of too many social challenges. For example, it is like the often recited argument that there are only a few bad cops that give all good cops a bad name. Instead, I suggest, it is the good cops who do not openly and actively condemn the behavior of the bad cops which give all cops “a bad name”. This erosion of logic continues until, as we see today, the bad becomes normalized until the bad becomes “the new good”. Now, as is the case in real time, the President can stand in front of a live audience of police officers and openly call for police to comport themselves without any regard for the law that they are sworn to uphold-and such a Presidential proclamation is not soundly condemned and it is barely news.
The “selected” Director of Communications, who is now fired, for the President of the United States, can take the mike and spew garbage, profanity and vitriol that cannot even be repeated in respectable circles – he was not even officially appointed-and it is just a conversation. This behavior would occasion the suspension or expulsion of any student from any good high school in America. What does this conduct say about classism in America? Is this the erosion of American values or the true revelation of America’s values?
We watch progress that was made in the areas of human rights, civil rights and international relations being destroyed by middle school expressions articulated by the President of the United Sates. We are bombarded by a weird pattern of “tweets” that are poorly and regularly articulated under the cover and influence of who knows what, and the “good people” call this “in-experienced and different”. All of this takes place while we watch the drama that is being directed around an anti-democratic and racist quest to destroy the Affordable Care Act and the legacy of America’s first African American President of the United State of America.
There is something wrong with the soul of America. The Emperor proudly reveals that he has no clothes and asserts, to the world, that he should not be expected to wear any should he choose not to do so. He also dangerously proclaims with equal force and irrationality that all who seek his favor must dress as he dresses and stand ready to heed his contradictory commands-at any moment of his choosing. What does this behavior portend for America’s future and for the future that our children and grandchildren will inherit? How does this conduct by the President of the United States “bend” or destroy conventional notions of American Democracy?
As a descendant of Africa who was born and raised in this country, I must ask myself and “African American leadership” just what this behavior means for and to the future of Black people here and abroad. Are we simply following the Hurst? Have we become so invested in the American political order until we dare relinquish the reigns of self-determination to others? Have we forgotten that the greatest political gains made by Black People in this country were secured, not too long ago, before we had the right to fully participate in the American Democratic process?
Does the leadership of Black America not see the strategies of this administration that have been adopted to discredit and marginalize the press, the courts, the Native American and the LGTB community – all by executive action and little or no Congressional objection? Do we believe that self- marginalization and silence are a responsible defense to this kind of aggression? Are too many Black leaders attempting to hide from the inevitable?
We must not forget our history or the history of our treatment in this great “land of the free”. We must not forget the insults that were and continue to be visited upon the first African American President of this country. Insults delivered by the same individuals who now speak proudly about serving “the interest of the American people” and “making America great again”. Is a racially based insult to one of us no longer an insult to all?
I respectfully implore all of us who are watching this drama play out to be mindful of the fact that America has never been able to even fake a long term commitment to Black equality or well- being. It is “our dream “and African American loyalty to America that has given America a bye on its weak and aborted attempts to create a “socially just” and equitable order.
If African American institutions are to survive and prosper, if our communities are to be restored, if our presence in the jails and prisons of this country are to become rational and proportional, if African Americans are to become secure against the ravages of individual and state sponsored abuse and violence, it will be because African American leaders take the initiative to develop and enforce the implementation of remedies specifically designed to produce those objectives. Black people must once again develop the resolve to put self-empowerment over and above the desire for inclusion and external validation. We cannot wait on the future or the generosity of others to deliver our mortal salvation. The evidence demands that the process of collective self-repair begins immediately. If this is not a “Sankofa Moment”, there is no such thing. My prayer for the health of our future is that we can respond accordingly.
Dr. William Small, Jr. Is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University
Woody Guthrie Wrote of His Contempt for His Landlord, Donald Trump’s Father
By Thomas Kaplan
Jan. 25, 2016
New York Times
More than a half-century ago, the folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a lease in an apartment complex in Brooklyn. He soon had bitter words for his landlord: Donald J. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump.
Mr. Guthrie, in writings uncovered by a scholar working on a book, invoked “Old Man Trump” while suggesting that blacks were unwelcome as tenants in the Trump apartment complex, near Coney Island.
“He thought that Fred Trump was one who stirs up racial hate, and implicitly profits from it,” the scholar, Will Kaufman, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, said in an interview.
Mr. Kaufman said he came across Mr. Guthrie’s writings about Fred Trump while he was doing research at the Woody Guthrie Center’s archives in Oklahoma. He wrote about his findings last week for The Conversation, a news website.
In December 1950, Mr. Guthrie signed a lease at the Beach Haven apartment complex, Mr. Kaufman wrote in his piece. Soon, Mr. Guthrie was “lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood,” he wrote, with words like these:
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project.
Mr. Guthrie even reworked his song “I Ain’t Got No Home” (see below) into a critique of Fred Trump, according to Mr. Kaufman: Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
(more of the song from the Woody Guthrie website)
Mr. Guthrie died in 1967, and in the 1970s, the Justice Department sued the Trumps, accusing them of discriminating against blacks. (A settlement was eventually reached; at the time, Trump Management noted the agreement did not constitute an admission of guilt.)
A spokeswoman for Donald Trump declined to comment on Mr. Guthrie’s writings.
Mr. Kaufman, the author of “Woody Guthrie, American Radical,” said Mr. Guthrie would be repulsed by the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. He pointed to Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexicans and Muslims, and contrasted the candidate’s sentiments to those of Mr. Guthrie in his song “Deportee,” written about a plane crash that killed Mexican farm workers. “Woody was always championing those who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t have any money, who didn’t have any power,” Mr. Kaufman said. “There’s no doubt that he would have had maximum contempt for Donald Trump, even without the issue of race.”
I Ain’t Got No Home
I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Was a-farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore
Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
by Heather Gray
July 26, 2017
Justice Initiative International
How to understand the Trump policies and those around him? A look at some philosophical and economic history is called for. In fact, when George W. Bush won his second term in 2004, I decided it was way past time for me to get a handle on the history of the right-wing in America. My personal philosophy had mistakenly been that it was hard enough to keep up on the left, much less an understanding of the right-wing. But I realized that I needed to change my priorities. Deciding that I wanted to get a view of the American right from sources outside of the country, I read the book The Right Nation: Why America is Different (2004) by British writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It was incredibly instructive. But what was most important for me was that toward the end they make reference to the fact that the godfather of many leaders on the right was Leo Strauss. Then I delved into Leo Strauss. Strauss’ views and philosophy resonate with those under Trump, as well as the views and philosophy of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman.
For those who might be interested, the best source on Straussian thought is Canadian scholar Shadia Drury. Here are a couple of Drury’s books on Strauss:
A somewhat simplified description is that Leo Strauss, both German and Jewish, left Germany for the United States in the 1930s during the rise of Hitler. A philosopher, he ultimately became a professor at the University of Chicago. Drury notes that Strauss did not trust democratic systems as, he said, it was democracy that brought Hitler to power. He thought also that the “people” can’t handle the truth and need to be controlled – read that also as “manipulated”. He said the best way to control the people is through religion. Thanks to Leo Strauss and his followers, Frances Boyle (a professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law) describes the University of Chicago as a ‘moral cesspool”.
While making reference to Drury, here is also a brief description of Strauss by John Walsh that includes a list some of Strauss’ followers during the Bush administration. Bush, in fact, appointed 20 Straussians to his administration. No wonder it was such a mess!
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a Jewish-German émigré from the Nazi regime who eventually landed at the University of Chicago where he developed a following that has achieved enormous prominence in American politics. Among his students were Paul Wolfowitz who has openly acknowledged that he is a follower of Straus as has the godfather of neconservatism, Irving Kristol. Irving Kristol begat William Kristol, the director of operation for the DC neocons, editor of the Weekly Standard and “chairman” of the Project for the New American Century, which laid out the plans for the Iraq War. (PNAC also opined in 2000 that a Pearl Harbor-like event would be necessary to take the country to war, and one year later, presto, we had the strange and still mysterious attack of September 11.)
For his part Paul Wolfowitz begat Libby, in the intellectual sense, when he taught Libby at Yale. Others stars in the necon firmament are Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and lesser figures like Abram Shulsky, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, created by Donald Rumsfeld. Shulsky, also a student of Strauss, was responsible for fabricating the lies masquerading as intelligence that were designed to get the U.S. into the war on Iraq. While the neocons have a passion for the Likud party and Zionism, they also count among their number not a few pre-Vatican II Catholics and an assortment of cranks like Newt Gingrich and John Bolton and crypto fascists like Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The list goes on and Justin Raimondo has documented it in great detail over the years on Antiwar.com. But it is enough to note that Cheney’s alter ego was Libby, and Rumsfeld’s second in command until recently was Wolfowitz. So both Cheney, the de facto president with an apparently ill perfused cerebrum, and the geezer commanding the Pentagon have been managed by younger and very prominent Straussians for the past five years.
A superb account of the ideas of Strauss, his followers and his influence is to be found in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (hereafter PI) and Leo Strauss and The American Right (hereafter AR), both by Shadia Drury, professor of politics at the University of Calgary. Her account of Strauss’s ideas and the prominence they play in American politics today will give you chills or nausea, perhaps both. As she says in PI (p.xii), “Strauss is the key to understanding the political vision that has inspired the most powerful men in America under George W. Bush. In my view men who are in the grip of Straussian political ideas cannot be trusted with political power in any society, let alone a liberal democracy. This book explains why this is the case.” For those who wish to understand the neocon agenda, Drury’s books are essential reading. She is clear and thorough. (The Philosophy of Mendacity)
To add further to the University of Chicago being a “moral cesspool” was the presence of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman. I made reference to Friedman in my 2015 article entitled “Draconian Neoliberalism” that now also echoes of what we are witnessing under the Trump administration:
Neoliberalism is what Milton Friedman, of the University of Chicago’s School of Economics and the American godfather of neoliberalism, wanted which is that his market-driven policies be imposed on the American people. With the new majority Republican Congress in place, the rightwing on the whole is likely pleased that the United States might finally be all the more the victim of these failed and tragic market driven economic policies espoused by Friedman and others. It’s a homecoming and not a pleasant one. Congress does after all serve the interests of corporate America. They are bought, sold and controlled as it were.
Friedman is probably smiling from his grave. As Filipino economist Walden Bello said of Friedman, “Indeed, there is probably no more appropriate inscription for Friedman’s gravestone than what William Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar”: ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.’”
In 2005, when I began studying the right-wing in America more seriously and looking at Strauss and Friedman and others, I began to observe certain patterns in America that I had witnessed over the years. Patterns that, I ultimately realized, were being orchestrated by America’s right-wing to shift American thinking toward their basically “undemocratic” Leo Strauss and Friedman mindset. This resulted in my 2005 article “Privatizing the Social Contract”.
From an edited version of that article, below are some of my observations that echo also of what we are witnessing under Trump.
For decades, the corporate and conservative political operatives has been dishing out propaganda to make us bow down to America’s wealthiest corporate CEO’s and attempt to stop the rest of us from protecting our own and our community and collective economic and social interests. They’ve been attempting to disseminate myths to benefit themselves and other international capitalists-it’s called neoliberalism. Above all, they want us to stop thinking collectively within society and of social responsibility. Recalling the past few decades of the insidious corporate myths that have been thrust upon us, there are three major themes I want to mention from my own experience and they are in the economic, religious and social spheres.
In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan, the darling of American capitalism, started deregulating everything from the environment, to banking, the media and nuclear policies to name but a few. Now Trump is continuing and expanding this trend even in the few short months he has been in power.
Reagan’s, and now Trump’s, policies were and are a war against the poor and an invitation to corporate exploiters in every conceivable arena – climate, health, education, etc.
Under Reagan, pro-corporate propaganda spin intensified and we are seeing that under Trump as well, albeit with considerable resistance across the country. In fact, since Roosevelt’s New Deal, America’s corporate elite had been waiting for the likes of Reagan, then both Bush’s, Clinton as well (he began privatizing virtually every “public” service he could) and/or now Trump to sit in the White House to begin to dismantle the social programs developed in response to the 1930’s depression and that served as a cushion for working and older Americans.
In fact, with this trend toward privatization, corporate leaders finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and under Reagan they began to organize their think tanks and corporate/government exploiters to distribute their sinister messages.
Myth Number One: Trickle Down
I remember marching into New York’s Central Park in the huge 1982 national rally against Reagan’s military and nuclear policies and being greeted by activists who said “We invite you to a Republican fundraiser in Manhattan. It’ll only cost you $1,000. Don’t worry, with ‘trickle down’ you must have at least $1,000 in your shoes by now!”
Snide remark or not, this is myth number one: In the economic sphere “trickle down” was becoming ingrained in the American psyche-give more wealth to the rich and everyone will benefit. Corporate leaders have wanted us to accept this as an economic given for the development of a healthy and thriving economy. They want us to hand over our hard earned tax dollars to the wealthiest of Americans and what fools we’ve been to let Congress do exactly that!
The reality is that when we give these wealthy capitalists our money they invariably keep it at the expense of everyone, coupled with excessive greed and mismanagement. Witness, for example, the corporate abuse and/or huge government give-aways in Iraq and New Orleans under the Bush administration in the 2000s, including, of course, the involvement infamous Halliburton in both instances and the billions of dollars that went missing.
Where was the plan for “real” efficiency by contracting with locals who are more likely to have a vested interest in the community and keeping the wealth in the community? The great populist Jim Hightower’s response to all this has been “we need an economy that percolates up rather than trickles down.” Indeed!
Whenever “developing” countries attempt to establish programs to benefit the community as a whole through sustainable agriculture, land reform, nationalized programs, and the like, U.S. multinationals will invariably aggressively attempt to destabilize them or kill their leaders with U.S. government assistance. The list is far too long to recount here but witness the U.S. destabilization of Chile in the1970’s with the assassination of President Salvadore Allende who was attempting to nationalize industry and implement land reform; Nicaragua in the 1980’s and Reagan’s Contra War against the Nicaraguan Sandanista revolution to benefit the poor. It was a war that basically sent Nicaragua back to the stone age thanks to Reagan; Guatemala in the 1950’s and the United Fruit Company’s furious reaction against the land reform efforts by President Jacobo Arbenz who was toppled thanks to US interference; and the disdain for Cuba with one the highest literacy rates in the world and ranked as having one of the world’s best health care systems.
Why we insist on wasting our money and resources on these wealthy Americans is beyond comprehension. We’re foolish to think these multinationals would treat us any differently than they would Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, or Venezuela. When we in the United States attempt to establish programs to benefit the masses, they’ll attempt to malign us, divide us and destabilize our efforts and promote myths such as “trickle down”.
Myth Number Two: Faith-based Everything
In 1985, one of my friends accused me of being a “secular humanist”. “What on earth is that?” I asked. She said, “You’re more concerned about the physical welfare and well-being of the people then you are about their souls.” I said, ” Yeah, that’s me, all right.” She then proceeded to criticize me, of course.
This is myth number two: in the religious sphere, “faith-based everything” and secular humanist criticism. (Amazingly, there was an effort to take out anything considered secular humanist in school books in some districts across the country during this period.) Basically, this was a means of discouraging the lack of support for programs and activities involved in hands-on support for the poor. Just pray, is the answer. People are on their own, it was inferred. It’s their fault if they don’t have good health coverage, good schools, good food, or a job. Obviously they haven’t prayed enough. God is looking at them with disdain as a result. If their environment is polluted, tell them to pray. Keep out of the public sphere. Leave it to the corporations or the free market to handle this. After all the market place is miraculous-it will take care of everything. And besides, people need to adapt and figure out these problems by themselves. Basically, the message from the right-wing was “don’t organize against anything. Go to church.” What nonsense!
The undermining of “secular humanism” in the United States is comparable to the Catholic Church’s ousting of the liberation priests who sided with the oppressed poor throughout the Third World. All of this was occurring at about the same time period. With liberation theology, finally the Catholic Church was doing something relevant for the poor, but the last Pope opposed this.
Liberation priests were a thorn in the side of the ruling elite throughout the Third World and of western multi-national corporations. Much to the chagrin of the corporations, the priests, for one, were helping to organize against corporate exploiters. The corporate elite was not about to let this continue whether it was by Catholics or Protestants. While in the Philippines in the late 1980’s I met a number of the liberation priests whose lives were threatened by the military and paramilitary when the church turned against them.
The reality is that the most outspoken religious leaders in America don’t appear to have a vested interest in the poor or programs that will benefit the poor through sustainable economic development. Witness the vengeance by the Reverend Pat “Assassination” Robertson against President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez’s remarkable programs to assist the poor and his attempts to build sustainable wealth in poor communities through cooperatives and other collective measures, was obviously threatening to the Reverend. He seemingly can’t handle the thought of empowered poor communities and certainly has no interest in a distribution of wealth.
Karl Marx was certainly correct when he stated that religion is the “opiate” of the masses-at least the corporate leaders have been doing their best to force the evangelical version of it down our throats so the last thing we’ll think about is their excessively decadent profits and stop us from organizing against their oppression. By the same token, it was bizarre to realize that the Bush administration had been opposed to the rather secular government in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Instead, Bush and others want governments they can control and it is dictatorial governments they consider easier to control. Like Strauss, they don’t like democracy. All you have to do with a dictatorship is bribe the religious, or other dictatorial type leader, and “he” will take care of the rest of your demands. Clearly, the bond between conservative religious leaders in the world and multinational corporations is a deadly alliance.
Myth Number Three: Individual Responsibility
In the 1990’s Hillary Clinton wisely stated, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I appreciated her articulating what I’ve always known-yet thought what she said was innocuous-a given-everyone knows this as true-I didn’t give it a second thought. Suddenly Clinton received a maelstrom of criticism from the Republican leadership and religious conservatives. I was astounded at this. Why this simultaneous outcry from the right-wing?
Clinton was stating basically that we’re all in this together. We are engaged in a “social contract” which incorporates a responsibility for the whole. No one is isolated. We bear responsibility for all children in terms of the funding and support of schools, of the environment, good food, of the support systems such as fire, police, and virtually everything in our local, national governments and international extended communities. And, it takes this village of all of us to nurture and raise all of our children.
This is myth number three: in the social sphere, “individual responsibility” is claimed to be sacrosanct by these corporate strategists and Clinton had violated their mantra by suggesting otherwise. They obviously want us to forget that we are part of a community. They want us to think that it’s us and our family against the world. Grab what you can for yourself and don’t even consider the consequences. It’s making money and material accumulation that bring you success and means that God shines “his” blessings on you. They want an end to government programs for the poor and to hand over the welfare of the masses to the “free” market.
The hypocrisy here is rather astounding. The corporate elite in the U.S. seemingly doesn’t sneeze without informing others in the corporate world. The last thing they want is competition. In fact, they are excessively collective in action and spirit-“village minded” you might say. They sit on each other’s boards and consistently support and assist each other. They want us underlings, however, to fight among ourselves and certainly not to cooperate as they do. This is the classic case of “divide and rule” and they’ve unfortunately been successful at this game.
Further, the so-called rugged individualism was never a reality in the United States. Going west always required a community of individuals working together in order for families and communities to survive effectively. “Individualism”, therefore, is myth in American lore from the American west, rather like the Southern elite’s efforts (known as the Lost Cause) after the Civil War to romanticize an aristocratic gentile South with smiling contented Black slaves in the cotton fields. It’s all a myth!
In some ways, what the corporate community has done in the United States serves as a substitute of the International Monetary Fund’s imposed structural adjustment programs. As the U.S., for example, is not taking out IMF loans, the corporate controlled IMF can’t require that the United States end its social programs as a structural adjustment prerequisite for loan acquisition as it has done throughout the so-called “developing” world. So, instead, the corporate world seeks and accomplishes the same goals in the west through use of propagandizing these myths and through political control of Congress and the White House and Trump is doing his best to attack these popular programs.
Trump is threatening to take away programs we have developed over the years to protect the most vulnerable whether they be the poor assisted through medicaid; the elderly though medicare; making the migrant population vulnerable; the transgender population vulnerable; women threatened with a loss of their sexual freedom and protection; attempting to give corporate entities free rein to pollute our environment; privatizing our school systems; maintaining private prisons, etc. The list of his atrocities and threats is long.
The above myths and lies in economics, religion and social concepts are the foundation of neoliberalism and Straussian ideology that the U.S. and the world’s capitalists are attempting to impose everywhere in the world. However, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales’ recent announcement that Bolivia is claiming independence from the IMF and World Bank is a good sign. All of us in America and the world should be encouraged by Bolivia’s wise move. It’s also way past time for a vigorous, coordinated and collective anti-corporate propaganda attack of our own in America, but based on reality and not myths. Our ideology should be to tell the truth and not to pay attention to or adhere to the right-wing myths. With crony capitalism running amuck in the United States, it’s clear we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By David Gespass
July 20, 2017
Justice Initiative International
Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein held a “conversation” at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. One of the things they agreed upon was that, while we could not predict what political and economic system we would have in 2050, we could be sure it would not be capitalism. Years later, I recall that and think it is an important caveat for Marxist theory.
I believe that Marx’s and Engels’s understanding of the nature of the capitalism that existed when they were writing was accurate and perspicacious. They observed and analyzed the then-existing economic relations and explained them. Lenin’s elaboration of Marxist theory as imperialism, once the world had been divided among the capitalist powers, demonstrated his ability to observe and analyze. And one could say the same for Kwame Nkrumah when he described neo-colonialism. Indeed, Nkrumah advanced the theory by injecting an African perspective into what had previously been Eurocentric. But however brilliantly these and others analyzed existing systems, no such analysis could possibly predict the future. The confident predictions that capitalism would be replaced inevitably by socialism and communism, while appealing, could not possibly be as certain. In short, it is easier to describe how things are than to say how they will be.
How could anyone in the 19th or early 20th century have predicted the decentralization of production, where anyone with a computer could know what is going on in factories anywhere in the world? How could they see the decline of the industrial proletariat as more and more could be produced with fewer and fewer workers? Even people like Robert Heinlein, who published “Stranger in a Strange Land” in 1961, predicted something like fax machines would be publicly available, not in every office, but on street corners like telephone booths. Speaking of which, who would have thought as little as fifty years ago that telephone booths would be extinct everywhere but in Dr. Who? And Heinlein did not foresee email, which has made fax machines relics.
All of this is to say we should spend less time defining the system that will replace capitalism, or what capitalism will evolve into, and more time considering the principles that should govern any such system. Consider the absurdities of capitalism today. Those people who can least afford it are charged the highest interest. People with low balances in their checking accounts are charged to maintain them, and charged absurd amounts for overdrafts, while people who maintain high minimum balances may even be paid a little bit of interest on them. “Subprime” mortgages enrich lenders and further impoverish the already poor.
This makes perfect sense for the financial system. Of course, if there is a higher risk that someone will not repay a debt, the lender wants the incentive of a greater return to justify the risk. It does not, however, make any sense for human relations. It insures increasing economic disparity and that means more hunger, homelessness and hopelessness for the impoverished. Beyond that, when they default on their loans, or miss a rent payment, they are bullied by the well-heeled and their lawyers, while people like Donald Trump can refuse to pay their bills with impunity because their creditors cannot afford to litigate to collect.
But perhaps the most scathing indictment of capitalism today is that every advance in productive capacity results in suffering. Automobiles manufactured today are far better, safer and last longer than those that were made in the 1950’s and 60’s and they are made with a fraction of the work force that populated auto plants back then. Consequently, workers are paid proportionately less and, because of automation, the great majority of jobs in auto plants no longer exist. The same is true for coal mines — Donald Trump’s empty promises notwithstanding. Even if coal were to regain its former economic position and mines were opened across Appalachia, not all that many miners would find jobs. Indeed, across the board, we are producing more and better products with fewer and fewer workers.
A system where all these technological improvements does not improve the lot of so many, but forces them into unemployment of low-paying and temporary jobs, is simply irrational. Rather than lay off half the work force, why not cut the work day in half and pay workers twice as much per hour? That would be rational. It would give workers more leisure because they are more productive. Instead, in the present system, they are forced to seek gig work, or minimum wage jobs while losing their cars, homes and self-respect.
There does exist a framework that can guide us to a better, more rational society, a framework that is clear, universally recognized and dynamic. In 1948, the United Nations member countries signed onto the International Declaration of Human Rights. Subsequently, almost every country in the world has ratified various human rights conventions, giving the force of law to what was previously a declaration (the United States has failed to ratify several of these conventions). Certainly, the ratification of these conventions did not create some human rights utopia and no country has fully achieved the commitments embodied in them. They remain aspirational, but they are a guide to where we should go as a world-wide human family.
Human rights are seriously misunderstood or limited, particularly in this country. The US media constantly talks of human rights violations in other countries, without ever explaining what they mean or which particular rights are being violated. The reporting tends to devolve into something about suppression of speech or arrest and prosecution without due process. Those are certainly two human rights but affording them in no way meets the needs of society today. Nor does it mean that a country is human-rights compliant, much less a “leader.” In the US, for example, we presumably have due process rights and even the right to have a lawyer appointed to defend us if we cannot afford to hire one. Yet innocent defendants who cannot make bail often have the choice of pleading guilty or remaining in jail for months, if not years, waiting for a trial in hopes of being exonerated. This does not even address who is arrested and charged and why. As Anatole France famously said, the law in its majestic equality makes it just as much a crime for the rich as the poor to beg in the streets, sleep under bridges and steal bread.
The fact is that the right to speak, the right to vote, the right to run for office is pretty hollow if you are homeless. There are economic rights – to repeat, universally acknowledged – that are essential to the genuine exercise of those political and civil rights. These include the rights to a decent job, housing, food, education, social security if one cannot work, and health care. As implied above, we have reached a stage of economic development where we should be able to meet everyone’s basic needs. It is only – and here Marxist theory still resonates – because there is private appropriation of what we produce collectively that we do not meet those needs.Thus, the bankers and the CEO’s and the big shareholders take far more than they need or deserve while so many are one pay check or one injury or one illness away from destitution. So what does the future hold? Dystopian novels, old and new, are all the rage now and that is one not inconceivable future in store for succeeding generations. But a world-wide commitment to the basic premise that everyone who is born a human being – that is, in fact, what human rights means – is entitled to the full panoply of rights that have been recognized and society, writ large, must do all it can to achieve that goal. It will not be easy. Rights are not Platonic abstractions existing in some nebulous ideal and idyllic world. They exist, yet must be fought for on earth. They will often come into conflict. They are economic, social, cultural, civil, political and environmental. As society evolves, additional human rights will be recognized. Struggles will also be waged over how these rights are defined and by whom. Which brings me to my last point. The fight to build a society based upon human rights cannot be waged in academia. The proliferation of human rights institutes on campuses around the country is all to the good, but cannot be the center of the battle. Nor can the center be the diplomats in the United Nations, though they have a role to play as well. Rather, the center of the battle must be those whose human rights are being denied. They must be made conscious and recognize the need to demand what is theirs. They must understand they can transform the consensus about what human rights should be into a society that actually affords them to all. What form that society takes, we cannot say. Undoubtedly, it will vary from one place to another. After all, there is a human right to one’s own culture. But it must be revolutionary. It must turn things upside down, where those with the least are given the advantages (low interest rates, for example) that are now enjoyed by those with the most. In short, we must replace the irrationality of our current economic system with one that, while ensuring continuing progress, is based on meeting the needs of those whose needs are not being met now. Making the poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised conscious will not be easy in a world where thoughts do not delve beyond Facebook memes and 140 characters. The issues we face and the transformations we need require grappling with complex issues through serious discussion and serious thought. It will be difficult and will certainly not be one steady climb to that shining city on the hill. But the game is more than worth the candle. Here, again, Marx’s words resonate. There is, indeed, a world to win.
David Gespass practices law in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a past president of the National Lawyers Guild and a member of the editorial board of the NLG Review, the Guild’s theoretical journal. Most recently, he co-authored two articles for its Winter 2016 edition, “Successes and Failures: Assessing the ICTY After Prosecutor v. Karadzic” and “Putting Scalia in Perspective.” He has been a member of the planning committee for the past several Southern Human Rights Organizers Conferences, held biennially, most recently in Jackson, MS last December, and is the current board chair of the Alabama chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.