“While their men were forced to return to the Pribilof Islands to harvest seals for the Government, the Aleut women remained at the Funter Bay Evacuation Camp. They petitioned for better conditions, which were so poor that disease and other causes resulted in a 10-percent death rate.”
Petition Protesting Conditions, Aleut Women, October 10, 1942 Pribilof Island Logbooks Records of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Record Group 22 (National Archives Identifier 2641505)
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…
Advertisement, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” New York Times, March 29, 1960 National Archives-Atlanta, Records of District Courts of the United States (National Archives Identifier 2641477)
Whatever happened to the Manifesto? I think that young organizers should bring it back or at the very least start creating more lists of demands…
I was invited to attend a meeting a few weeks ago by a group of young organizers who are interested in taking action to address the epidemic of mass incarceration. It is always tricky for older organizers to participate in such meetings. It is hard to know when to speak up and when to stay quiet. I mostly bit my tongue. I wanted to respect their process but when the meeting ended, I did pull a couple of the young organizers aside to offer some suggestions for how to improve their meetings. I asked if they had already developed a list of their wants and demands. They said no. They had spent several meetings already discussing their “shared values” and agreeing to “their process.” I asked if they were surprised that they had lost quite a few members since their launch. They told me that building community among themselves was crucially important. I agreed and said that there is also value though in people gathering to discuss what they want and to plan a strategy & program to achieve it. It’s a balance that many never achieve.
In the 1930s, local youth began to get more involved in protest movements. This was particularly true for Southern youth who gathered in regional assemblies to articulate demands and network. In Opportunity magazine (a publication of the Urban League), Edward Strong reported on one such gathering of black youth that took place in Tennessee in 1938. Below is the position paper of the May 1938 Southern Negro Youth Conference.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last month, 500 young colored men and women met in the second all-Southern Negro Youth Conference. They came to express their wants and desires — to plan a new design for living — and in the program that they adopted all their hopes and aspirations for a brighter future were reflected.
What is the aim of young Negroes of the South today? What do they want? How do they propose to move ahead? The delegates answered these questions simply and unanimously.
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.
Black History Month officially comes to a close today. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, black history is American history so I always talk about it on the blog. Today, I wanted to highlight an important but not well-known historical moment that relates to our current prison nation: “The Negro Silent Protest Parade.”
Silent March Parade, 7/1917
“On July 1, 1917, two white policemen were killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, in an altercation caused when marauders attacked black homes. The incident sparked a race riot on July 2, which ended with forty-eight killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of blacks fleeing the city when their homes were burned. The police and state militia did little to prevent the carnage. On July 28, the NAACP protested with a silent march of 10,000 black men, women, and children down New York’s Fifth Avenue. The participants marched behind a row of drummers carrying banners calling for justice and equal rights. The only sound was the beat of muffled drums (source).”
The march was organized by an ad-hoc group formed at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. James Weldon Johnson was a key organizer of the “Negro Silent Protest Parade.” As the protesters marched silently down 5th Avenue, Boy scouts distributed fliers describing the NAACP’s struggle against segregation, lynching, discrimination, and other forms of racist oppression. It’s hard to imagine Boy and Girl Scouts in the 21st century participating in a mass protest against racialized mass incarceration…
Men, women, and children carried placards that read: “MOTHER, DO LYNCHERS GO TO HEAVEN?; “GIVE ME A CHANCE TO LIVE”; “TREAT US SO THAT WE MAY LOVE OUR COUNTRY”; “MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?; AND “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
NAACP literature outlined the objectives and goals of the march:
We march because by the Grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of prejudice and inhuman injustices must fall.
We march because we want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis, by arousing the conscience of the country and bringing the murders of our brothers, sisters, and innocent children to justice.
We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.
We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim-Crow Cars, Segregation, Discrimination, Disfranchisement, Lynching, and the host of evils that are forced on us. It is time that the Spirit of Christ should be manifested in the making and execution of laws.
We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.
Could we get 10,000 black Chicagoans to march silently down Michigan Avenue to protest racialized mass incarceration today? If so, would anyone care?
This was going to be a post about the roots of racism and their implications for organizing to end mass incarceration. Then I “watched” the Oscars on Twitter and saw a tweet by the Onion about 9 year old black actress, Quvenzhané Wallis:
My head exploded. I took to Twitter to rant about how disgusting I felt the Onion was to say such a vile thing about a child. I tried to stop there but then went on a tirade about the historical context for this sexual objectification of a black girl. I suggested that originating in slavery, the idea that black women are loose, promiscuous, and generally easygoing about sexual matters still circulates throughout the dominant American culture and has an impact on intra-racial and inter-racial gender and sexual politics.
Look, I am not dumb and I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone else. I understand that this was an attempt by the Onion to make fun of the way that actresses are talked about in the media. But I was deeply offended that they chose to pick on a 9-year old black girl in this way. I tried to take a couple of hours away from social media but still found it difficult to calm down. I am an insomniac but I was even more agitated than usual so I decided to write in greater depth about the sources of my anger and disappointment. My thoughts are inchoate and regular readers are used to this so here goes…
I have written before about the role of music in the lives of imprisoned black people particularly in the South by highlighting Angela Davis’s analysis of the song Chain Gang Blues. However, it was only a cursory consideration of how music described the Southern black experience of incarceration in the early 20th century.
Many people are familiar with prison worksongs without perhaps knowing much about their origins or purpose. In reviewing the book “Wake Up the Dead” by Bruce Jackson, Craig Ruskey describes the nature and value of prison worksongs:
Prison inmates were put to work in the various institutions where they were housed. Working in the cotton or tobacco fields, road and chain gangs, or clearing forests, there were different types of songs for each type of labor. A team would choose a leader as their singer, usually a man with a clear voice who could easily be heard. ‘Proper’ singing wasn’t necessary but the volume of the voice was. Sometimes, teams or crews of as many as eight men were put to work cutting a tree down, with each member of that team supplied an axe. The reason the worksong was so important to the team was simple; with eight men swinging individual axes at the same target, without a rhythm to work by, havoc would be the natural outcome! Simply put, it was a matter of the downbeat for one team to swing, and the upbeat for the other team to swing. In an eight man team, four men would follow the lead voice on the downbeat, so as they would swing their axes into the base of a tree, the opposite team would be singing a refrain and pulling their axes away from the tree. Road gangs and chain gangs would usually work with hoes or picks and in a straight line. Again, the leader would be the man with the clearest voice and he would start a song by singing the first line, then the entire team would use that rhythm and sing the second line. Field workers had songs of a more personal nature as they worked individually, singing primarily for their own enjoyment and to pass the time.
“Go Down Old Hannah” is a song that seems to have originated from black prisoners. Here is a recording of the song made at a Texas Prison Camp by the Lomaxes.
Former prisoner and blues legend Leadbelly recorded his own version of this worksong.
He explained how he first came across the song:
They called the sun Old Hannah because it was hot and they just give it a name. That’s what the boys called it when I was in prison. I didn’t hear it before I went down there. The boys were talking about Old Hannah – I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah, but they looked up and said, “That’s the sun.”
I hope to write more in depth about prison worksongs as American cultural artifacts in the future. Today I want to focus, instead, on the ways that Southern blacks who had been imprisoned expressed their reenslavement after Emancipation through song. I contend that these songs of the early to mid 20th century represent testimonials about the injustice of the criminal legal system for blacks.
The convict lease system and the chain gang were so prevalent in the South that they inspired many songs besides Chain Gang Blues. One of these songs titled “Standin’ On the Corner” has been recorded by several artists and has been reinterpreted many times. The song dates back to the early 20th century and in it, the singer usually describes how he was “Standin’ on the corner, doin’ no harm,” when “Up come a policeman and grab me by the arm.” He is taken to a judge, who winks at the policeman and says “Nigger you get some work to do,” and sends him “shackle bound” for six months on the chain gang.
Below is one version of the song that I could find on Youtube. It isn’t my ideal version but it offers an opportunity for those who’ve never heard the song to hear it performed for the first time.
In the post-Emancipation South, black people knew that they could be picked up randomly for anything. The Black Codes criminalized “vagrancy,” unemployment, and all kinds of other things. As such, the theme of wrongful imprisonment permeates many of the prison-inspired songs that were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the South. One famous song titled “Penal Farm Blues” describes the experience of being snatched up and imprisoned for no apparent reason:
Early one morning : on my way to the penal farm
Baby all I’ve done : ain’t done nothing wrong
Loaded in the *dog* wagon : and down the road we go
Oh baby : oh baby you don’t know
Into the office : then to the bathhouse below
And with a light shower : baby we change our clothes
All last night : baby it seemed so long
All I’ve done : I ain’t done nothing wrong
I’ll tell you people : the penal farm is a lonesome place
And no one there : to smile up in your face
You can listen to Scrapper Blackwell’s version of the song below:
These songs of prison and captivity shaped what we have come to know as the blues. As I mentioned in my earlier post about Chain Gang Blues, Angela Davis suggests that imprisonment was a central theme in blues music. This is borne out over and over. One of my favorite musicians, the great John Lee Hooker (who Bonnie Rait re-introduced to the mainstream in the 1990s) recorded his version of Prison Bound in 1949. In the song, he tackles the important ideas of the separation from loved ones and the sense of abandonment that can come from being incarcerated.
When they had my trial, baby
You know you couldn’t be found
When they had my trial
Baby, you could not be found
But it’s too late to cry, baby
Your daddy’s prison bound
I have lamented the fact that current hip hop artists seem to shy away from creating art that reflects substantively on either their personal experiences of incarceration or on prison reform more broadly. This makes me appreciate the prison-inspired music of the early 20th century all the more. The songs are historical artifacts that shed light on our collective past. I wonder what artifacts future generations will be examining to understand our current epidemic of mass incarceration. It’s hard to think of any songs from our era that might endure in the way that Chain Gang Blues has.
As regular readers of this blog know, I collect prison artifacts. I mostly focus on pre-1960s items (with a particular interest in the early 20th century). A couple of weeks ago, I decided to add to my collection of original vintage mug shots; I have dozens ranging from the early 20th century through the 1970s. I won’t go into why I started collecting these photographs — that will be a story for another day.
So I came across this Bertillon criminal card for sale online. These mug shot cards were known as Bertillon cards after the French law enforcement officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered criminal identification techniques such as anthropometry (measurement).
I knew instantly that I had to have this one. The card provides some basic details (though I won’t list them all).
Criminal Name: Laura Scott
Reg No: 23187
Height: 67.8 inches
Crime: Pt. Larceny & Prior
Sentence: 5 years
Measurements taken: August 8, 1905
Laura Scott’s face is mesmerizing. There is a look of defiance in her eyes. This is the look of a woman who has been through this before. And then that incredible hat…
Aren’t you curious to know Laura Scott’s story? Well I certainly was and since I am a complete nerd, I set out to learn everything that I could about this black woman who was incarcerated at the infamous San Quentin Prison in 1905.
How did Laura Scott end up on that Bertillon card? Well, an item that appeared in the August 5, 1905 edition of the Los Angeles Herald offers some initial clues:
“Laura Scott, negress, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to one year in San Quentin prison. The woman was accused of stealing (85?) and a gold watch and chain from Carson. ”
Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of Laura Scott with you. It’s a story that has led me to the California Archives and to Census Records from the 1800s. It’s a story cobbled together from disparate sources and is based on my original research. Laura Scott’s story has its roots in Reconstruction era Alabama, in the Black Belt and takes us all the way to California at the turn of the 20th century. Through Ms. Scott’s story, I hope to provide a portrait of what life was like for female prisoners in the late 1800s-early 1900s in the U.S. I hope that you’ll continue with me on this journey.
P.S. Reading about the history of San Quentin Prison makes me appreciate this song by Johnny Cash even more…
I came across the Black Panther Party’s 10 Point Plan again last week in the course of doing some research on a different topic. I stopped to re-read the points and I was struck by two things. The first is that the plan is as relevant today as when it was unveiled in 1966. The second is how many of the points address themselves to the criminal legal system.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self defense.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
We believe that all black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the black community from which the black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the black community.
Interestingly, the demands articulated in the plan with respect to the criminal legal system are pretty conservative. They do not challenge the existence of prisons. They are not calling for the abolition of prisons. At the time, mass/hyper-incarceration had not yet reached the epidemic proportions of our current historical moment. I have no doubt that were he alive today, Huey P. Newton would be a prison abolitionist.
I don’t have a particularly deep knowledge or understanding of the Party. I suspect that I am like many other people who have formed their impressions of the Black Panthers through watching Eyes on the Prize and other documentaries or perhaps by reading a biography of one of its leaders. I’ve decided that I really need to learn much more about the historical significance of the Black Panther Party. Alas, I now have yet another summer project.
In the meantime, I found some fascinating footage of Huey P. Newton speaking from Alameda County Jail about police brutality and the unjust criminal legal system. My friend Frank has just introduced me to video ripping and so I will now be unstoppable in terms of uploading video clips on Youtube. Beware :). You should all expect a ton of video clips to appear on this blog in the coming days (just kidding!).
I uploaded this footage which also features Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. In fact, Seale is shown reading the 10 point plan at a meeting. The clip is 15 minutes long and I encourage everyone to watch the whole thing. You won’t be sorry. Their words are a reminder that our current problems are rooted in a historical context of inequality and injustice. They also provide continued inspiration to keep fighting for justice. La lucha continua!
I have not written about the Kelley Williams-Bolar case previously because I did not have the words to describe how I felt about it. When I first read about the case, I immediately started to tear up and my emotions were in turmoil. I didn’t understand the strong feelings and then I realized that the case recalled ancestral memories of slavery for me. Kelley Williams-Bolar was being accused of “stealing an education” for her children.
Here is some brief background on this case… Prosecutors in Ohio brought criminal charges against Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron and her father. The state accused the pair of “allegedly falsifying residency records of two of the woman’s children formerly enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn City Schools.” The most serious of the charges brought against Ms. Williams was tampering with records which is a “third-degree felony carrying potential penalties of one to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.” Her 64-year old father was charged with “one count of grand theft for aiding and abetting his daughter in her alleged deception to obtain educational services from Copley-Fairlawn schools.”
Bolar-Williams said her two girls were enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn school system four years ago — in August 2006, according to court records — over ”safety issues.”
During the trial, several pieces of evidence were presented supporting Ms. Williams’ claims that she was in fact living with her father when she enrolled her children in the suburban school district. However what was also made clear was the lengths to which the school district went to “prove” that she was in fact not a resident in their catchment area:
School officials, according to trial testimony, hired a private investigator in an attempt to document the activities of Williams-Bolar on more than a dozen school mornings.
In several hours of the videotaped surveillance — much of which was shot under cover through a wrought-iron fence — the jury saw Williams-Bolar dropping off her children at a school bus stop within a short walk of her father’s home on Black Pond.
However, when Williams-Bolar took the stand in her own defense on Friday, O’Brien introduced evidence showing that she had 2008 and 2009 W-2 statements from her employer, Akron Public Schools, sent in her name to the address of her father in Copley Township.
Williams-Bolar works as a teaching assistant with special-needs children at Buchtel High School.
The defense also produced 2005 mailed correspondence to Williams-Bolar — more than a year before her children were enrolled in the schools — from the Copley-Fairlawn district. It, too, was sent to her father’s home.
More specific details about the trial can be found here. On January 15th, Ms. Williams was convicted by a jury after 7 hours of deliberation. She was sentenced by the judge to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and community service for falsifying residency records. As if this were not enough, here is more from the judge in this case:
Cosgrove noted Williams-Bolar faces another form of punishment.
Williams-Bolar, a single mother, works as a teaching assistant with children with special needs at Buchtel High School. At the trial, she testified that she wanted to become a teacher and is a senior at the University of Akron, only a few credit hours short of a teaching degree.
That won’t happen now, Cosgrove said.
”Because of the felony conviction, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,” the judge said. ”The court’s taking into consideration that is also a punishment that you will have to serve.”
Williams-Bolar addressed Cosgrove briefly before being sentenced, saying ”there was no intention at all” to deceive school officials.
She pleaded with Cosgrove not to put her behind bars.
”My girls need me,” she said. ”I’ve never, ever gone a day without seeing them off. Never. My oldest daughter is 16.
”I need to be there to support them.”
Williams-Bolar’s two girls, now 16 and 12, are attending schools elsewhere. They left the Copley-Fairlawn district before the 2009 school term.
Ms. Williams-Bolar was interviewed later and expressed stunned disbelief that she would be jailed for this offense. She believed that if she were convicted she would be sentenced to probation at most.
Kelley Williams-Bolar took an extended pause, pondering as she sat in jail Thursday.
Tears came to her eyes as seconds ticked away. She’s a single mother of two daughters in the middle of a 10-day jail term — a convicted felon — all because of the school the girls attended.
Years ago, she said she took her daughters from Akron’s public housing after their home was burglarized and placed them with their grandfather in Copley Township.
Take a step back to consider everything that is at play in the story of Ms. Bolar-Williams. Here you have a black single mother who was living in public housing with her two daughters. After a traumatic incident of their home being burglarized, she moved her daughters to their grandfather’s home so that they could be safe and attend a good school. A school district spent thousands of dollars to hire a PI to investigate this black woman and her children. Why exactly was this? Are public schools in Ohio so flush with extra cash that they can afford such luxuries? If Ms. Williams and her children had been white would the school have gone to this trouble to expose them as supposed ‘criminals?’ I think that any fair-minded observer would have to say ‘no’. Now we have a tragedy on our hands with lives being destroyed. A 40 year old woman who was putting herself through college to become a teacher is having that dream dashed. What lesson do you suppose her daughters are learning in all of this? Are they learning that America is a just society? Are they learning that they can ‘be anything that they want to be’ when they become adults?
I would say that they have learned a bitter lesson about American INjustice and oppression. This is a form of state violence that the Williams family has been subjected to. Ms. Williams has been accused of defrauding the district for over $30,000 in educational costs because her daughters did not meet the residency requirement. At least four lives have been destroyed over $30,000? Surely that cannot be just!
Apparently this case is causing a lot of controversy in Ohio as well it should. Reporter David Scott writes about some of the reaction. However, I want to point to the words of commentator Boyce Watkins who wrote this:
This case is a textbook example of everything that remains racially wrong with America’s educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Let’s start from the top: Had Ms. Williams-Bolar been white, she likely would never have been prosecuted for this crime in the first place (I’d love for them to show me a white woman in that area who’s gone to jail for the same crime). She also is statistically not as likely to be living in a housing project with the need to break an unjust law in order to create a better life for her daughters. Being black is also correlated with the fact that Williams-Bolar likely didn’t have the resources to hire the kinds of attorneys who could get her out of this mess (since the average black family’s wealth is roughly 1/10 that of white families). Finally, economic inequality is impactful here because that’s the reason that Williams-Bolar’s school district likely has fewer resources than the school she chose for her kids. In other words, black people have been historically robbed of our economic opportunities, leading to a two-tiered reality that we are then imprisoned for attempting to alleviate. That, my friends, is American Racism 101.
This case is a textbook example of how racial-inequality created during slavery and Jim Crow continues to cripple our nation to this day. There is no logical reason on earth why this mother of two should be dehumanized by going to jail and be left permanently marginalized from future economic and educational opportunities. Even if you believe in the laws that keep poor kids trapped in underperforming schools, the idea that this woman should be sent to jail for demanding educational access is simply ridiculous.
In her own words, Ms. Williams said from jail:
”If I had the opportunity, if I had to do it all over again, would I have done it? . . . ,” she said. After almost a half-minute of silence, she answered her own question.
”I would have done it again,” she said. ”But I would have been more detailed. . . . I think they wanted to make an example of me.”
Yes indeed, the state of Ohio wanted to make an example of a black single mother trying to find a way to ensure a successful future for her children by giving them a chance to have a good education… Welcome to America in the 21st century, still racist and unjust!
Update: Here is a petition to sign regarding this case.
Update #2: Here’s an interview with Ms. White:
Update #3: Looks like some elected officials are getting involved in this case and looking into making sure that she can in fact become a teacher. This would be good news.
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