It’s Malcolm’s birthday. I love him. It’s that simple. I love him and he has inspired my life. I trace my politicization as a very young person to two books. One is the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Even after I learned that the narrative wasn’t 100% “true,” I was always grateful for its formative impact on me.
Today in honor of his birthday, I want to share an excerpt of a conversation between Ossie Davis and Manning Marable about Malcolm.
“I very rarely like to speak publicly about Malcolm, to talk about Malcolm and to explain about Malcolm. However, I feel I can do it in a situation like this, where I’m among friends, and we’re talking about somebody we love. If you talk too much about somebody, you will ultimately destroy their meaning. So I try not to talk about Malcolm too much. Having said that, Malcolm’s central position in the class struggle was in his capacity for connecting with people out in the street, drug addicts, criminals, and hustlers — these were folks outside the middle class, people that Dr. King certainly couldn’t relate to. His capacity to look in their eyes and into their souls, his ability to speak directly to them and to help turn their lives around — this is perhaps his most valuable contribution.
Malcolm had invited us to the Audubon that day, but we had a previous commitment downtown and had left the three children in Harlem with Mother. When we returned to pick them up, the kids told us that something had happened to Malcolm. We turned on the television as a bulletin interrupted the ballet. Malcolm X was dead – shot down in front of Betty and the children. We were stunned and deeply, deeply saddened. That night, we drove back into Harlem and walked the streets, mingling and talking with the crowds about Malcolm’s death and what it meant to black people.
Fear and sorrow were mixed with a desire to give Malcolm a decent funeral. Percy Sutton, Malcolm’s friend and lawyer, went from church to church trying to secure a place for Malcolm’s funeral, but most of them said no — it was too dangerous. There was a lot of politics involved and the big challenge was figuring out a way to bury Malcolm in the spirit that the community called for and the spirit he warranted. Finally Bishop Church offered his small church on Amsterdam Avenue. Sylvester Leaks, speaking for Percy Sutton and Malcolm’s family, asked me to give the eulogy and I asked him, “Why me?” The answer was that Ruby and I were widely known to have been among his earliest friends and supporters. Also, I was a man with whom nobody in this shooting argument could quarrel. Ruby and I were honored to accept.
Well, that Saturday, we went to the little Faith Memorial Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue. It wasn’t much of a day and I remember there was no sunshine at all. The funeral was at ten o’clock. Ruby and I sat in the pulpit and our job was to read the messages that were pouring in. At the proper time, I arose to give the eulogy, trying to be simple, plain, honest, and sincere, saying by way of farewell what, in my heart, I believed Harlem wanted me to say. Afterward, we followed him to the cemetery where the professional grave diggers were waiting. We said no and took their shovels from them. Malcolm was ours, and if he had to be buried, we would do it. He loved us and we loved him.
(Source: “A Conversation with Ossie Davis,” Souls 2, 3 (Summer 2000): pp.14-16)
“He loved us and we loved him.” – This says it all… Here’s an excerpt Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm. Happy Birthday Malcolm, we carry on in your name.
Advertisement by The Committee To Defend Martin Luther King and The Struggle For Freedom in The South
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday. So Happy Birthday Dr. King!
In March 1960, supporters of Martin Luther King placed an advertisement in the New York Times, which was signed by 100 prominent Americans from all walks of life. Below is the advertisement and you can read the transcript here. Read the names of the signatories of the letter and see how many you recognize…
By now, many people are aware of the FBI’s persistent and aggressive surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the current disclosures about NSA spying, it’s become fashionable to cite Dr. King as a target of the government. I’ve been wondering, though, how much those invoking his name in this historical moment actually understand the scope and nature of the government’s intrusion on his privacy.
It was actually after the March on Washington that the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King intensified and became more aggressive.
In an Aug 30 1963 memo (just two days after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom), William C. Sullivan, head of the FBI’s Division Five, wrote:
Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulder over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security…[I]t may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees that the Communist party, USA, does wield substantial influence over Negroes which one day could become decisive.
Over the next few years until he was assassinated in 1968, there were at least 25 illegal attempts by the FBI to discredit King. One of those attempts happened in 1964 and came to popular attention in 2012 when the blog “Letters of Note” published a letter sent to King by the FBI. The letter seemed to suggest that King should commit suicide. It reads:
In view of your low grade… I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII…
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God… Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like Wilkins, a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done. Your “honorary” degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat you are done.
No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself… I repeat — no person can argue successfully against facts… Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness… King you are done.
The American public, the church organizations that have been helping — Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.
King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
It’s fair to ask why the FBI would send such an incendiary letter to Dr. King. On November 18 1964, J. Edgar Hoover called Martin Luther King Jr “the most notorious liar in the country” during a press conference. Hoover was incensed at King’s criticism of the FBI’s handling of civil rights cases. When King heard what Hoover had called him, he issued a press release which intimated that the Director of the FBI was senile. Hoover hit the roof.
Two days later in a memo to FBI Deputy Associate Director Alan Belmont, Hoover wrote:
“I can’t understand why we are unable to get the true facts before the public. We can’t even get our accomplishments published. We are never taking the aggressive, but above lies remain unanswered.”
In response to Hoover’s anger, William C. Sullivan typed the infamous letter (trying to make it untraceable). He had one of his agents mail the letter along with an audiotape that included excerpts of King’s conversations with friends as well as his sexual liaisons. When the package arrived in Atlanta, it was Coretta Scott King who would open it. She read the letter and listened to part of the tape. She called her husband. Then King, Coretta, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Joseph Lowery listened to the entire tape together.
Dr. King would later remark of the FBI’s persistent pursuit: “They are out to break me… They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”
It is important when we talk about the history of government surveillance that we always remain specific about its nature and impact. What the government did to Dr. King in terms of surveillance is not in any way analogous to what happened to Edward Snowden. We would do well to address each of these incidents separately and without conflating them. Both deserve our attention and our activism but they aren’t the same.
Today is the day on 8/4/64 that the bodies of civil rights martyrs of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found buried in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website provides a detailed account.
After the murders of the three young civil rights organizers, the KKK (which was responsible for their murder) issued a newsletter offering their response. It was written in a Q & A format.
Q: What is your explanation of why there have been so many National Police Agents involved in the case of the “missing civil rights workers?”
A: First I must correct you on your terms. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not civil rights workers. They were Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization. The blatant and outlandish National Police activity surrounding their case merely points up the political overtones of the entire affair…
Q: By “political overtones” do you mean that the case has a bearing on the forthcoming elections?
A. It is doubtful that the case itself will be made an issue in the election. However, the incumbent in the White House [Lyndon B. Johnson] is a communist sympathizer, as proven by his numerous acts of treason, and his sole chance of victory in the November election will depend upon his being able to hold his communist-liberal block together by continuing to support and protect all Domestic Communists…
Q: Isn’t it unlikely that the Communists would do that [kill the three civil rights workers themselves] in this case? Schwerner was a valuable man?
A. Not at all. The Communists never hesitate to murder one of their own if it will benefit the party. Communism is pure, refined, scientific Cannibalism in action. A case in point is the murdered Kennedy. Certainly, no President could have been a more willing tool to the Communists than was the late and unlamented “Red Jack.” He cooperated with them at every turn. Yet… he was callously given up for execution by those whom he had served so well…
Q: Do the White Knights of the KU KLUX KLAN advocate or engage in unlawful violence?
A. We are absolutely opposed to street riots and public demonstrations of all kinds. Our work is largely educational in nature… All of our work is carried on in a dignified and reverent manner…We are all Americans in the White Knights of the KU KLUX KLAN of Mississippi.
Source: The Klan-Leader, Special Neshoba County Fair Edition.
Last year, I thought that I would start a new series on the blog titled “I Wish I Knew More About…” as a way to catalog information that interests me but don’t have the time to explore. I wrote about Emma J. Atkinson then. At the time, I mentioned that I didn’t know if I would keep up with the idea. I didn’t.
Today, however, I wish that I knew more about a pioneering black journalist and activist named Evelyn Cunningham (incidentally her “Wikipedia page is paltry). I am stunned to learn that no one has yet written a book about this extraordinary woman’s life and her accomplishments. She passed away in 2010 at the age of 94. She was a friend of Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, and many others. A feminist before it was cool, she covered the rise of Dr. King in the black freedom movement as well as Malcolm X and others. She was a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier for 20 years. She was nicknamed the “lynching editor” because she was relentless in covering “hard news.”
Listen to her talk about this in her own words:
While reporting in Birmingham and other places during the black freedom movement, Ms. Cunningham was jailed and harassed. An article in the Amsterdam News from 1990 captures a bit of her indomitable spirit.
I really hope to read a biography about her soon…
I picked up this photograph while antiquing last year. I didn’t recognize the young man’s name or know of his legal case. I was just struck by the photograph. Later, I did some research to educate myself about what happened to him. Predictably, it was another miscarriage of justice. You can read more about his story here and here
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks sorting through my ideas and beliefs about “gun control.” In the process, I have come across several interesting historical artifacts. These have helped to contextualize the ambivalent & complicated relationship that many blacks in the U.S. have had with firearms.
I’ve briefly written on this blog about the fact that black freedom fighter Robert Williams started an NRA gun club in Monroe, North Carolina in the late 1950s. He did this in response to unrelenting attacks by local whites without any recourse from law enforcement and the government.
I recently discovered that Lewis Robinson, a Cleveland-based CORE organizer, decided to form a rifle club after the murder of a local civil rights activist. He immediately came to the attention to the FBI (of course). The agency began to monitor his activities and the spread of these gun clubs which Robinson named Medgar Evers Rifle Clubs (MERC). The National Archives offer several documents related to the FBI’s surveillance and investigations of these clubs.
The National Archives are terrific. I love visiting their site to find interesting artifacts from the past. They pulled together a few primary source documents about Rosa Parks’ 1954 arrest on a Montgomery bus. Below are copies of her original police report and a diagram of where Mrs. Parks was sitting on the bus when she was arrested.
I was perusing a used book store in Evanston last month and came across a first edition copy of Bayard Rustin’s collected writings. I am re-reading them now. I often wish that his contributions were better known. Those who do know something about him probably know that he was an ally to Dr. King and perhaps also that he was an openly gay man (at a time when that was perhaps as dangerous). Since we have spent the better part of this week discussing civil rights and the LGBT community, I thought that it would be fitting to revisit Rustin’s contributions since he isn’t a household name among the icons of the black freedom movement in the U.S. For me however, Bayard Rustin is/was a giant. In reading about the black freedom movement, I gravitated to him, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer and later Ella Baker as organizers of understated but unparalleled skill.
Rustin was a Quaker and a pacifist. In 1944, he was drafted & as a conscientious objector (CO) he refused to serve. For this, he was sentenced to prison:
“On February 17, 1944, a court found Rustin guilty of resisting the draft and sentenced him to three years (most COs received one year and a day) in the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, a segregated prison in a segregated state. On one visit to white COs, Rustin was beaten by a white prisoner who only stopped when he realized that neither Rustin nor the other COs were fighting back. Rustin’s protests against racial segregation, and his open homosexuality, were a source of growing tension. So in August 1945, he was transferred to the higher-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he served out the remainder of his time.