Tag Archives: Civil Rights movement

Ms. Edith Savage-Jennings

I found her! The woman I wrote about as “Elder Sister” is introduced below by the Women’s March in New Jersey website:

“Legendary NJ Civil Rights icon Edith Savage-Jennings needs no introduction but she gets one anyway for her boundless contributions to a better, fairer America. Edith has been the guest to the White House under every President of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt. At age ten, she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she was selected to hand the First Lady flowers on behalf of the NJ State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Although told not to speak, Savage thanked Mrs. Roosevelt which led to the two becoming pen pals for the remainder of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. At twelve years old Edith joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) At only 13 years old Edith helped to integrate the Capital Theater in Trenton, New Jersey when she refused to sit in the balcony which was the designated seating area for blacks. Her first job was in the sheriff’s office where she continued to speak out against discrimination. Edith Savage-Jennings has received over 100 awards and honors for her work in Civil Rights. In 2016 she was inducted into the New Jersey Women’s Hall of Fame. The city of Trenton proclaimed February 19, 2016 Edith Savage-Jennings Day.”

There are prophets among us! Picture from Wikipedia, taken one week ago in Trenton.

https://sites.google.com/view/womensmarchonnewjersey/home

Women's March on New Jersey 1 21 17 - 31640308853.jpg

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history” by Hampton Sides

I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)

Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.

First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.

Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?

Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.

Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)

Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.

The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.

Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.