Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”

Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.

Remembering the Black Wall Street Massacre

Remembering the Black Wall Street Massacre

Black Wall Street

Our rural and urban Black communities deserve better. Take the stories and biblical connections in
Building a City on a Hill and use them to make a difference.

On May 30th, 1921, in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a blood-thirsty mob burned down a wealthy and prosperous Black community because of a false accusation.

Tulsa’s north side was a prosperous community, exclusively Black because Jim Crow law had prohibited Negroes from living in white neighborhoods, where it was said more than 3,000 Klu Klux Klan members resided in the area. At that time, there were countless all-Black communities like Greenwood scattered throughout the US. 60 in Oklahoma territory alone. Greenwood, however, was the jewel of Negro America. Though white Tulsan’s called it Little Africa, Booker T. Washington gave it the name we know today, Black Wall Street. And it was the wealthiest Black community in America where Black men and women came to pursue the American dream. It boasted Black-owned banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches, newspaper publishing, law offices, a bus company, its own school district where the average student wore a uniform with a suit and tie, a business college, a hospital with an entire Black staff and an internationally acclaimed surgeon, Black millionaires, which Greenwood was known to have had more millionaires residing there than the entire United States combined.

One of the only two airports in the state of Oklahoma was for the half dozen private airplanes owned by its Black oil tycoons. To top it off, the minimum wage and living standard of a resident of Black Wall Street far exceeded Tulsa’s average white citizen, but on May 30th, 1921, all that changed. Dick Rowland, a shoeshine boy, entered the Drexel building elevator to use only a few colored bathrooms in downtown Tulsa. On the top floor, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, began operating the elevator when it lurched, causing Rowland to stumble. He bumped into Sarah, and she screamed. Rowland knew what Frederick Douglass had penned as the truth regarding the treatment of Black men in America. To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished.

In this case, when it came to a white woman’s accusations, punishment meant death, and knowing her scream was a likely death sentence, young Rowland ran away. He was later seized and apprehended with the intent of being lynched. Word of a Black man raping a defenseless white girl spread throughout the Tulsa area. Dozens and then hundreds of white men grew to a mob of over 2000 white men gathered at the County courthouse demanding justice. But justice for what? Sarah Page wasn’t assaulted, her clothes weren’t ruffled, and though her story wavered during questioning, she ultimately affirmed she was not harmed.

Moreover, she refused to sign a statement saying that she had been raped. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a false accusation of a Black man who needed to be put in his place — at the end of a rope. The Tulsa Tribune headlines screamed, “A Negro Assaults a White Girl.”

And later, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

With no basis and fact for the allegations of rape, the mob persisted in their demand for justice of a white girl who emphatically stated that no injustice had been done. Walter White of the New York Evening Post wrote, “Chief of police, John A Gustafsson, sheriff McCullough, mayor T.D. Evans and many reputable citizens, among them a prominent oil operator, all declared the girl had not been molested, that no attempt at criminal assault had been made. Victor F. Barnett, the managing editor of The Tribune, stated that his paper had since learned that the original story that the girl’s face was scratched, and her clothes torn was untrue.”

And there you have it, fake news. But the damage had already been done, and the wheels were set in motion. Armed Black World War 1 veterans were among the less than 100 members of the Greenwood community who came to prevent another lynching of a Black man, as thousands had been lynched since the generation of reconstruction. A verbal confrontation led to a shot being fired, triggering what would soon become the bloodiest racial conflict in American history. Some 500 members of the white mob were armed and deputized by city officials, and those who didn’t own weapons looted stores to obtain guns and ammunition along the way. Thousands of angry white men descended upon “Little Africa” as a few white families provided sanctuary to those fleeing from violence.

For 24 hours, the mob looted, murdered, and raised the wealthiest Black city in America to the ground. Eyewitness testimony stated a dozen or more planes circled the Black area, dropping burning turpentine balls over Greenwood’s city and firing bullets at Black residents, young and old, gunning them down in the streets. It was the first and only time Americans used planes to attack and kill their own citizens, as it destroyed an entire city. Authorities engaged in a concerted effort to prevent help from arriving until considerable damage was done by cutting off communication, requesting help, blocking transportation ways of firefighters and ambulances, and even preventing the Red Cross from coming in earlier to help the injured and terrorized community.

“As they passed the city’s most traveled street, they held both hands high above their heads, their hats in one hand, as a token of their submission to the white man’s authority. They will not return to the homes they had on Tuesday afternoon, only the heaps of ashes, the angry white man’s reprisal for the wrong inflicted on them by the inferior race,” reported the Tulsa Tribune.

Following the massacre, insurance companies refused to compensate the residents though the city and its officials were found negligent in preventing it. Decades of silence about the terror, violence, and theft passed. There were no convictions for any of the charges related to the murders or violence. Not one white person was ever held responsible for these crimes, though dozens of Black men were indicted for inciting a riot. Government and city officials not only failed to invest and rebuild the once thriving Greenwood community but blocked efforts to do so and even actively sought to appropriate their land. The crime wasn’t acknowledged by the city or the state of Oklahoma for over 70 years, rarely mentioning it in the history books, classrooms, or even in private. Most residents grew into middle age, completely unaware of what had taken place. Even a report detailing Tulsa’s fire department’s history from 1897 to 2017 made no mention of the massacre.

And on that Memorial Day weekend, June 1st, 1921, Greenwood, Oklahoma, was brought to an abrupt end. Black wall street was wiped off the map. 300 African Americans murdered, possibly more. Thousands injured. More than 10,000 left homeless. Forty city blocks burned to the ground. And the few homes left were completely looted. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses amounting to the equivalent of more than $32 million in today’s money. Unbeknownst to most, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street wasn’t the only Black town to be ethnically cleansed in America. It wasn’t the only city forgotten, nor was it the only Black town no one was ever arrested, prosecuted, or where victims were never compensated. Time has passed, memories have faded, and survivors have died, taking the knowledge of not only how the cities were destroyed but arguably even more tragic, the knowledge of how these countless all-Black towns were built. Can a biblical blueprint be extrapolated from what we found? That is indeed our challenge, to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate to turn our desolate neighborhoods into thriving communities and build them up by utilizing the keys to economic and societal development. Let us rediscover, let us reunite, and let us rebuild a new Black Wall Street.


Black Wall Street

The soundtrack of the Sixties demanded respect, justice and equality

The soundtrack of the Sixties demanded respect, justice and equality

The Supremes, with their polished performances and family-friendly lyrics, helped to bridge a cultural divide and temper racial tensions.


When Sly and the Family Stone released “Everyday People” at the end of 1968, it was a rallying cry after a tumultuous year of assassinations, civil unrest and a seemingly interminable war.

“We got to live together,” he sang, “I am no better and neither are you.”

Throughout history, artists and songwriters have expressed a longing for equality and justice through their music.

Before the Civil War, African-American slaves gave voice to their oppression through protest songs camouflaged as Biblical spirituals. In the 1930s, jazz singer Billie Holiday railed against the practice of lynching in “Strange Fruit.” Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads from the 1930s and 1940s often commented on the plight of the working class.

But perhaps in no other time in American history did popular music more clearly reflect the political and cultural moment than the soundtrack of the 1960s – one that exemplified a new and overt social consciousness.

That decade, a palpable energy slowly burned and intensified through a succession of events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

By the mid-1960s, frustration about the slow pace of change began to percolate with riots in multiple cities. Then, in 1968, two awful events occurred within months of each other: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Through it all, there was the music.

Coming of age during this time in Northern California, I had the opportunity to hear some of the era’s soundtrack live – James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.

At the same time, virtually everyone in the African-American community was directly connected in some way or another to the civil rights movement.

Every year, I revisit this era in an undergraduate class I teach on music, civil rights and the Supreme Court. With this perspective as a backdrop, here are five songs, followed by a playlist that I share with my students.

While they offer a window into the awakening and reckoning of the times, the tracks have assumed a renewed relevance and resonance today.

Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan, 1963

First made a hit by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, the song signaled a new consciousness and became the most covered of all Dylan songs.

The song asks a series of questions that appeal to the listener’s moral compass, while the timeless imagery of the lyrics – cannonballs, doves, death, the sky – evoke a longing for peace and freedom that spoke to the era.

As one critic noted in 2010:

“There are songs that are more written by their times than by any individual in that time, a song that the times seem to call for, a song that is just gonna be a perfect strike rolled right down the middle of the lane, and the lane has already been grooved for the strike.”

This song – along with others such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Chimes of Freedom” – are among the reasons Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, 1964

During a 1963 tour in the South, Cooke and his band were refused lodging at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

African Americans routinely faced segregation and prejudice in the Jim Crow South, but this particular experience shook Cooke.

So he put pen to paper and tackled a subject that represented a departure for Cooke, a crossover artist who made his name with a series of Top 40 hits.

The lyrics reflect the anguish of being an extraordinary pop headliner who nonetheless needs to go through a side door.

Singer Sam Cooke stands next to a huge reproduction of his head on the roof of a Manhattan building.
AP Photo

Showcasing Cooke’s gospel roots, it’s a song that painfully and beautifully captures the edge between hope and despair.

“It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he croons. “But I know a change is gonna come.”

Sam Cooke, in composing “A Change is Gonna Come,” was also inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: According to Cooke’s biographer, upon hearing Dylan’s song, Cooke “was almost ashamed to have not written something like that himself.”

Come See About Me,” The Supremes, 1964

This was one of my favorites of their songs at the time – upbeat, fun and necessarily “unpolitical.”

The Supremes’ record label, Motown, played an important role bridging a cultural divide during the civil rights era by catapulting black musicians to global stardom.

The Supremes were the Motown act with arguably the broadest appeal, and they paved the way for other black artists to enjoy creative success as mainstream acts.

Through their 20 top-10 hits and 17 appearances from 1964 to 1969 on CBS’ popular weekly live program “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the group had a regular presence in the living rooms of black and white families across the country.

Say it Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” James Brown, 1968

James Brown – the self-proclaimed “hardest working man in show business” – built his reputation as an entertainer par excellence with brilliant dance moves, meticulous staging and a cape routine.

But with “Say it Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” Brown seemed to be consciously delivering a starkly political statement about being black in America.

The track’s straightforward, unadorned lyrics allowed it to quickly become a black pride anthem that promised “we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.”

Respect,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

If I could choose only one song to represent the era it would be “Respect.”

It’s a cover of a track previously written and recorded by Otis Redding. But Franklin makes it wholly her own. From the opening lines, the Queen of Soul doesn’t ask for respect; she demands it.

The song became an anthem for the black power and women’s movements.

As Franklin explained in her 1999 autobiography:

“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

Of course, these five songs can’t possibly do the decade’s music justice.

Some other tracks that I share with my students and count among my favorites include Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and Lou Rawls’ “Dead End Street.”The Conversation

Michael V. Drake, President, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Duke Ellington’s melodies carried his message of social justice

Duke Ellington’s melodies carried his message of social justice

 

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Duke Ellington leads his orchestra in a rehearsal in Coventry, England, on Dec. 2, 1966. Associated Press

 

At a moment when there is a longstanding heated debate over how artists and pop culture figures should engage in social activism, the life and career of musical legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington offers a model of how to do it right.

Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His tight-knit black middle-class family nurtured his racial pride and shielded him from many of the difficulties of segregation in the nation’s capital. Washington was home to a sizable black middle class, despite prevalent racism. That included the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer, three months of bloody violence directed at black communities in cities from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington D.C.

Ellington’s development from a D.C. piano prodigy to the world’s elegant and sophisticated “Duke” is well documented. Yet a fusion of art and social activism also marked his more than 56-year career.

Ellington’s battle for social justice was personal. Films like the award-winning “Green Book” only hint at the costs of segregation for black performing artists during the 1950s and 60s.

Duke’s experiences reveal the reality.

Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra playing ‘The Mooche,’ 1928.

Cotton Club to Scottsboro Boys

Ellington first rose to fame at Harlem’s “whites only” Cotton Club in the 1920s. There, the only mingling of black and white happened on the piano keyboard itself, as black performers entered through back doors and could not interact with white customers.

Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities in the 1930s. Whether it was demanding that black youth have equal entrance rights to segregated dance halls or holding benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents falsely imprisoned for rape in 1931, Ellington used his growing fame as a prominent band leader for a greater good.

In our literary and historical research on African American entertainment, Ellington’s ability to travel and perform across national boundaries stands out.

After success in Harlem’s night spots, Ellington composed, recorded and appeared in film shorts like 1935’s “Symphony in Black” as himself. He traveled the world with his orchestra, at first performing in the U.K. in the 1930s. Later, Ellington continued to perform on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a “jazz ambassador” in the 1960s and 70s. Audiences in such places as India, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and Zambia were given the opportunity to hear and dance to Ellington’s compositions.

However, not even international popularity ensured that hotels would host Ellington’s all-black ensemble during a tour in the U.K. in June 1933. Members scrambled to find boarding homes in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood when mainstream hotels turned them away on account of their race.

Despite success, racism

Ellington’s 1932 “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” was the soundtrack for the nation’s swing era of the 1930s and 40s. The tune stayed on the Billboard charts for six weeks in 1932 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.

But when Ellington traveled in the South, he still had to hire a private rail car to avoid crowded, poorly maintained “colored only” train seating, or hotels and restaurants that refused service to black Southerners.

Ellington and band members playing baseball in front of the ‘colored’ only Astor Motel while touring in Florida in 1955. Library of Congress/Charlotte Brooks photographer

Northern or western engagements in the 1930s and 1940s often proved no better. While there were no “white only” signs on the doors of these hotels or restaurants, establishments enforced segregation by telling black customers to enter through back doors or purchase their meals to go.

Bassist Milt Hinton recalled that Ellington and fellow band leader Count Basie often stayed at black-owned boarding houses rather than risk being thrown out or ignored.

White band managers attempted to protect the black bands they managed from these racist practices, but this still did not prevent Ellington from being denied service in a Salt Lake City hotel’s cafe in the 1940s.

Subtle style

Once the civil rights movement of the 1950s began to fight for racial equality through direct-action techniques like mass protests, boycotts and sit-ins, activists in the early 1950s criticized the older Ellington. His subtle activism style had focused on benefit concerts, and not “in the streets” protests.

But as the movement continued, Ellington included a non-segregation clause in his contracts and refused to play before segregated audiences by 1961. He maintained in an interview in the Baltimore Afro American newspaper that he had always been devoted to “the fight for first class citizenship.”

This was a devotion best seen in his music.

Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.

His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.

Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and film combined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.

‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ melded sacred and secular black culture.

Modern black variety shows such as “Wild ‘N Out” and “In Living Color” share a lineage with Ellington’s major stage production of 1941, “Jump for Joy.”

“Jump for Joy” combined comedy skits and music into a revue that featured African American stars of the mid-20th century, including actress, singer and dancer Dorothy Dandridge and poet Langston Hughes.

Ellington claimed that his production “would take Uncle Tom out of the theater and say things that would make the audience think.”

He used his music to showcase black excellence as a resistance tactic against the negative stereotypes of African Americans made popular in American blackface minstrelsy.

Ellington also used “Jump for Joy” to call out those who borrowed from black music without any credit or financial compensation to its creators.

Duke Ellington, Paramount Theater, New York, 1946. Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb photographer

Melody’s other purpose

One of Ellington’s most powerful works is the orchestral piece “Black, Brown and Beige.”

This work shows his ability to infuse the blues into classical music and his commitment to tell the history of black America through song.

From the spirituals developed through the trials of slavery to the fight for civil rights and the modern rhythms of big band swing music, Ellington sought to tell a story about black life that was both beautiful and complex.

For Ellington, melody became message.

Michelle R. Scott, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Earl Brooks, Assistant Professor of English, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’

How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’

‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Imaging/Imagining.’
Photo by Raymond Thompson, Jr.

Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.

Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”

Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.

But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.

Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”

Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia

In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.

Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”

Five Black children stand in the foreground while a white boy stands in the background.
A 1935 Farm Security Administration photograph of kids in Omar, West Virginia.
Library of Congress

Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.

In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.

By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”

Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.

It caught on.

In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.

A unique style emerges

Roughly 9% of Appalachian residents are Black, and this renders many of the region’s Black people “hypervisible,” meaning they stick out in primarily white spaces.

Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.

Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.

Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:

        He told me
  of my great uncle who, Depression era,
  loaned white townspeople venison
  and preserves. Later stood off
  the same ones with a gun
  when they wanted his property.

An Affrilachian future

We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.

Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.

In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”

Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]The Conversation

Amy M. Alvarez, Assistant Teaching Professor, English, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, Instructor of Gender & Race Studies, University of Alabama

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

Civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker addresses a crowd at St. Phillips AME Church in Atlanta.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”

Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.

After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.

Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.

As a scholar of religion and American public life, I recognize the important lessons Walker offers for current times when America is deeply divided.

Faith in action

Black public faith has a storied place in American life.

The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.

The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”

The civil rights movement carried this faith in action forward. Theologian Dwight Hopkins has written how the sermons and songs of black faith empowered and sustained African Americans, even in bleak times.

These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”

Civil rights and Union leaders sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.

The risk of faith

In the wake of King’s assassination, the words of his last published book, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,” reverberated throughout the nation.

Urban rebellions erupted in the wake of King’s death. With parts of over 100 cities smoldering or in ruins, chaos seemed a more likely future in 1968 America than community.

In a sermon called “Faith as Taking the Risk,” delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary, Walker sought to address a question posed by a young theologian James H. Cone after King’s death: “Without King, where was the hope?”

Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.

Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.

Horizon of hope

Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.

“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”

“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”

Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”

For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.

“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.

Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.

Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”

Hope in democracy

Wyatt Tee Walker in Montgomery, Alabama on April 3, 1962.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.

“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”

Many Americans are angry with the state of the political system. And acts of racial bigotry and religious intolerance have become far too ordinary.

In such times, Wyatt Tee Walker’s words can remind people to muster hope and keep faith with the possibilities of American democracy while continuing the struggle for a just society.

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Corey D. B. Walker, Visiting Professor, University of Richmond

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