Someone You Should Know: Claudette Colvin

Someone You Should Know: Claudette Colvin

claudette_colvinRosa Parks is affectionately known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a White passenger. But what some may not know is that there was another African American female who performed this same courageous act several months before Parks.

Her name is Claudette Colvin, and with thick glasses framing her small face, and roller set curls hanging on her forehead, a curious and awakened Claudette Colvin defied the law and—to many—logic. At only 15 years old, her disobedience was anything but sophomoric. In her time and geographical location, Blacks were harassed, beaten, and lynched without regard to age or sex. Despite grueling conditions of the Jim Crow South, on March 2, 1955, the young Claudette stood her ground on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give up her seat for a White passenger.

There were several reasons why Claudette’s valiant efforts were suppressed and not widely known. One of those reasons was that because of her age, Claudette was considered “unreliable” by leading civil rights groups. In addition to ageism, classism and colorism may have played a role as well: Claudette was from a working-class family, and according to her, that fact—as well as her dark complexion—made her an unpalatable choice to garner the sympathies of the masses, both Black and White. Claudette also had one other undesirable issue separating her from history books: a few months after her arrest, Claudette became pregnant. Thus, the upright Rosa Parks, who was considered “morally clean” by then NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, overshadowed the dark, poor, unwed pregnant teenager.

In 1956, Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.

 

Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.

 

Interested in learning more about other figures in black history? Read the courageous story of Cathay Williams here.

Gospel Throwback: Hezekiah Walker, “Christ Did It All”

Gospel Throwback: Hezekiah Walker, “Christ Did It All”

Hezekiah Walker & The Love Fellowship Crusade Choir

“Christ Did It All”

Live From Atlanta At Morehouse CollegeVerity (1994)

So here’s a fun little experiment. Go to any black-owned barbershop, predominantly black church, or inner-city parachurch organization. Head into the office, conference room, or other common gathering place. Then play this song. And count how many people stop whatever they’re doing, and say, “THIS IS MY JAM!!”

(I’m guessing the over/under here is five.)

Now, for as long as there have been black people filling churches and singing in choirs, there have always been uptempo songs that make people move, jump, and clap. But this one always comes to mind for me when I think about about classic choir jams, and I think some of the following attributes combine to make this song and recording excellent.

First, there are two complementary, essential pieces – the choir enunciates its consonants well, and the mics are properly placed to pick them up. It might seem like a little thing, but without proper enunciation and mic placement, “Christ did it all” sounds a lot more like “rice did it all” (which I suppose could be a great parody version for the US Rice Growers Association, although, if I were them, I would go with the brilliant standard in misheard lyrics, “We Bring the Sacks of Rice On Trays”)

Also, the excellent blowing of Kim Waters on alto saxophone. This might’ve been the first contemporary choir recording where the saxophone was so front-and-center, featured prominently in the B-section of the chorus. (It’s a shame that this was excluded from the video, but it’s there in the commercially recorded audio.)

But mostly what makes this song such a jam is the infectious energy of the choir. In a lot of today’s contemporary gospel, the choir is simply there in support of a lead singer (or in some cases, a worship leader shouting exhortation).

But here, the choir itself is the star – which is great, because such a group of people singing in such spirited praise with so repetitive a chorus creates a sense of critical mass, not unlike the gravitational pull of a singularity, which then creates a reverse-supernova effect, where everyone in immediate range gets sucked in and starts singing along. Even Christopher Hitchens, if he were in the building, would’ve gotten swept up and singing along, even if only ironically.  This galvanizing effect is one of the reasons why so many unchurched liberal white people love seeing African-American choirs sing gospel music (after all, such a singularity is also known as a black hole… okay, this analogy has officially gone too far).

Christ Did It All” is proof that songs need not be wordy or full of lofty language in order to be theologically significant. Just like “Snakes On A Plane,” the whole point and concept of the song is embedded in the title. This is probably why so many black churches were able to have church services for so long without having printed hymnals or projected lyrics. You just stand up, watch, listen, and sing along. (Try doing that with “Lord When We Praise You with Glorious Music”… never gonna happen my friend.)

So while singing this song every service for a year might get old, and you might not want all of your songs at church to have this quality, it’s still true that songs like “Christ Did It All” can be an essential part of a churchgoer’s musical diet, because the lyrics are immediate, simple, and personal:

Christ did it all, all, all / Christ did it all, now I am free / Christ did it all, I’ve got the victory / And most of all, I have eternal life / Christ did it, He did it all

The vamp is driving, the band is kicking, it doesn’t change keys 47 times, and it’s only four minutes and twenty seconds. This makes “Christ Did It All,” a classic gospel throwback in my book. Just make sure, if you pull this one out at church, that you explain what “it” is.

Lil’ Wayne, Lecrae, and Redemption

Lil’ Wayne, Lecrae, and Redemption

Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).

Two men.  Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists.  Two completely different messages.  Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.

Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards.  The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.

Lil’ Wayne’s Lyrics

In contrast, Lil’ Wayne, one of music’s most popular secular rappers, made news for lyrics that proved too controversial even for him.  Lil’ Wayne makes a featured appearance on the song “Karate Chop” by fellow hip-hop artist, Future.  The offending lyrics show up in the “remix” edition which was leaked a short time ago.  In the song Lil’ Wayne lyric refers to “rough sex and used an obscenity. He indicated he wanted to do as much damage as had been done to Till.

The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till.  In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman.  The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines.  The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.

Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month.  Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till.  The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.

Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop.  His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.

In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”).  Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art.  An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.

Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless.  Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do.  But there is a difference between these two artists.  Redemption.

The Redemption of Culture and All Creation

I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation.  I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art.  Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered.  Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within.  By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity.  Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.

Scripture teaches that God will make all things new. Heaven will be a complete restoration and not obliteration.  All evil will be dispatched and all that remains will be remade into the new Heaven and the new earth. And it will be recognizable.  Music will be part of the renewed creation. And hip-hop – like sculpture, technology, and language – is part of the human creativity God will redeem.

As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15).  So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us.  If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.

Black KKK in Philadelphia has a message for the Church

Black KKK in Philadelphia has a message for the Church

Sixx King protesting black on black violence in Center City, Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Victor Florillo/The Philly Post)

A black man dresses in a Ku Klux Klan robe and stands on a corner in Center City, Philadelphia holding a sign? He must have been out of his mind. Actually, the man, Sixx King, was absolutely on point and this black man applauds him. King used a provocative symbolism to draw attention to the tragedy of young black males killing each other.

“We’re bringing awareness to the black hypocrisy, complacency and apathy in the African-American community,” King, 35, told the news media. His sign read that the KKK killed 3,446 blacks in 86 years, but black on black murders eclipses that number every six months. More than 7,000 blacks were killed in 2011, according the FBI.

Reaction to King has been predictable. Many agree, while others have expressed outrage. Someone reportedly suggested that he be jailed. This is the challenge when you provoke people to think differently about the root of the problem – institutional racism and how we respond.

I can hear you crying, “Throwing the race card, again? Take responsibility for your actions!” But here’s an anology to ponder:  If you put a loaf of bread inside of a warm, dark moist place, what will happen to it? You’ll get mold. It doesn’t matter if it’s white bread or brown bread. Because they are both wheat, mold will grow.

Black men murdering each other is one of the “molds” of institutional racism.  It’s not just a black problem, it’s an American problem. Carter G. Woodson wrote about this in The Mis-Education of the Negro: “If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.”

Institutional racism has been well documented and analyzed. What’s needed is a 21st century solution.  The church has the answer, but it has been hypocritical, complacent and apathic. It’s way past time that the church reawaken and lead the community.

The Bible instructs us “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Public education, the family, and the church are the institutions in America that deal most with developing the mind. Racism permeates public education, which is why it is failing black and brown children at alarming rates. Without positive family and community support or the individual inner drive to overcome institutional racism, students and their teachers succomb. The direct correlation between low academic achievement and high prison rates is not a mistake.

The church can directly influence individuals, families, and provide a counterbalance that transforms public education. The church is where slaves often learned to read. Churches set up schools for freed blacks after the Civil War. In the basement of churches is where civil rights activists trained. But with a few exceptions, the modern church, for the most part, has chosen to become irrelevant to many of our young brothers in the ‘hood. The “street mentality” (mold created by institutional racism) has filled the void.

Institutional racism, says, in part, that one group of people (particularly white males) is superior to everyone else because of skin color. It says that black people are the opposite of white, so black people are inferior, even subhuman. Native Americans, Hispanics, any non-white group is devalued. Sure, this is no longer legal and blatant, but the mindset remains pervasive throughout every institution in America, including the church. Individually, we either buy into the mindset or spend a lifetime battling to overcome it.

Across the globe, regardless of skin color, self-destructive behavior is a natural reaction to oppression. It’s as natural as mold growing on bread. Institutional racism molds how we all think. How we think triggers the decisions we make and how we act. Behavior is learned. Young black men are NOT born with a “kill each other” gene, and young white men are NOT genetically predestined for healthier and longer lives. But when you are constantly fed that your brother has no value and you digest this mindset as fact, it’s much easier to pull the trigger or turn a blind eye to his death.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who faced the real KKK, eloquently and skillfully analyzed our American problem. He spelled out solutions. Please read the letter carefully and apply it. Like brother King’s message in Philadelphias MLK’s letter challenged the church to BE the church of God. We are the institution with the power to transform minds. The time is now.

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For more information on this topic, visit Another View, a weekly radio program and news roundtable in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Betty and Coretta: An Untold Story of Friendship and Activism

Betty and Coretta: An Untold Story of Friendship and Activism

Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett star as “Betty & Coretta” in Lifetime’s original movie (Photo credit: Richard McLaren/Lifetime.com)

The old saying goes, “Behind every great man, there is a woman.” I have observed, however, that “beside every great man, there is a woman.” Such is the case with Civil Rights advocates, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While many are familiar with their stories, few know the stories of their devoted wives Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz. More surprisingly the friendship that formed between these two women after the assassinations of their husbands is an untold story.

That is until Lifetime boldly presented this bond of sister and womanhood in the television world premiere of “Betty and Coretta” last weekend. A corporate executive at A&E Network did confirm that the Shabazz and King families were not consulted for the film, noting the temptation for family members to protect their legacies. Given the documented inward fighting between siblings in both families, viewers can understand (at least partially) the network’s decision. Some of the heirs are not happy with the flick.

Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz and author of Growing Up X, called the film “inaccurate.” There are a few grievances raised: Contrary to Ilyasah’s statement, there are several pictures available online portraying Dr. Shabazz’s head covered with a scarf. Whether or not Dr. Shabazz spoke on her death bed is somewhat irrelevant. The point is Mrs. King did come to be at her friend, Betty’s side in the days leading up to her death. According to the children, moreover, there was a house visit portrayed in the movie which never really took place. Whenever a person’s life is brought to a film there is a certain level of embellishment that goes with the territory because producers are attempting to share a big story in a finite amount of time; smooth transitions are needed to move the story line forward and still capture the big picture. With the aforementioned reasons in mind, one can hardly call Lifetime’s portrayal a work of fiction.

Lifetime took great care adding credibility to the film by featuring actress, Ruby Dee, as narrator of the movie and dear friend of the Shabazz family. The movie picks up right before the assassinations of Malcolm (February 21, 1965) and Martin (April 4, 1968), and opened with Ruby Dee (who recently turned 90 years old) setting the stage for the times of racism, war, and poverty in America. Throughout the film she continues sharing facts about the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black National Political Convention (of 10,000 attendees where Coretta and Betty first met), the lobbying and six million signatures Mrs. King gathered to make Martin Luther King, Jr. a National Holiday, and she narrates all the way to the deaths of both phenomenal women.

The movie is not about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Malik Yoba), Malcolm X (Lindsay Owen Pierre), or their legacies per se. The movie is also not about the King and Shabazz children. The movie focuses on two women who were powerful, strong, faithful, and devoted leaders in their own rights. The film spans three decades and weaves the lives of these two civil rights activists and shares how they stood for justice.

The Women

A pregnant, Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige) and her four daughters watched her husband being gunned down as he took the stage to deliver what became his last message. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Betty delivered twin girls, which made her a single mother with six small children. With the help of friends and those in her community, Betty cared for her family and earned a doctorate degree in high-education administration from the University of Massachusetts. She became an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College. She spent the rest of her life working as an university administrator and fundraiser, before she died on June 23, 1997 as a result of injuries sustained by a fire her 10-year-old grandson, Malcolm set in her home.

As a widow, Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) raised four children while remaining a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She went from being her husband’s motivator and partner in the movement to being a justice advocate to the world. In addition to lobbying for the national King Holiday (first celebrated in January 1986), she became president, chair, and Chief Executive Officer of The King Center in Atlanta, GA. At the end of the movie, Ruby Dee notes that Mrs. King died in 2006, nine years after Dr. Shabazz, from ovarian cancer.

The movie goes beyond their advocacy works and humanizes these valiant women. It is difficult to know for sure the intimate conversations that took place between the two. There is one living legend, however, who is knowledgeable of at least some of those conversations, and that woman is Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife and widow of the first NAACP field officer, Medgar Evers. As widows of the Civil Rights Movement, Myrlie Evers-Williams shared a special bond with King and Shabazz. In the book, Betty Shabazz: A Sisterfriends Tribute in Words and Pictures, she wrote about a healing spa retreat the three of them took together. During the retreat, they committed not to talk about the assassinations of their husbands or the movement; they simply bonded as sisters and friends. She also wrote that “the three stayed in contact and tried to get together whenever they could.”

Lifetime briefly mentioned the retreat at the end of the movie (hence the purpose of the Betty Shabazz hospital bed scene). However, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ character only makes a brief appearance in the film when Dr. Shabazz took the position to teach at Medgar Evers College. Maybe one day, Myrlie Evers-Williams will tell her side of this story.

What Their Stories Mean for Us

All things considered, I believe we have a reason to rejoice with the production of this film. Mrs. King and Dr. Shabazz came together to shepherd the legacies of their husbands, but that is only part of their stories. The bigger story is these women stood together and turned their tragedies into triumphs. Even more important, both women used their faith, family, and friendships to advocate justice on behalf of women, children, the poor, and oppressed. They stood together and changed the world.

A twitter reflection by @lativida sums it up well: Take note all you dumb reality shows! This is how REAL BLACK WIVES act! These women knew real pain and persevered! #BettyandCoretta.

Betty and Coretta were strong in their own rights. They were single mothers who became grandmothers and they took care of their families. They took the mantles that were passed to them and used them as a foundation to build their communities and our nation. They remind us, each of us (the single mother, wife, or young person of any gender), of what we can do with faith, friendship, and forgiveness, for this, yes this is how real black wives behave! Thank God for their tenacity, legacies, and friendship.