Tag Archives: integration

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!

“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.

“Playing the enemy – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation” by John Carlin, another book about political transformation

Nelson Mandela was only a name to me… After reading this book (which was the basis for the movie Invictus) I’m staggered by the magnitude of what he accomplished. South Africa’s Blacks (80% of the population) suffered some the worst oppression the world has ever known. Apartheid lasted until the early 1990s, then ended without the bloodbath that seemed almost inevitable. Mandela use the force of his personal charm over and over, and it worked. He stuck to his efforts despite grim setbacks, and he had ideas that were creative and surprising.

Where does a leader come from? Why did South Africa fare better than other parts of the continent? Why do other countries suffer so severely and so long?

The “game” in question was a world rugby championship. Rugby was the “white” sport in South Africa, passionately followed by the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who speak a form of Dutch as their first language. Blacks were indifferent to it. The mostly white national team (the one Black player was not a South African citizen), the Springboks (I think that translates as gazelles) were competing for the world championship while South Africa was trying to function as a newly united country. Nelson Mandela had been elected President.

Mandela decided to try to bring Black South Africa into the excitement, to get them to support “their” national regby team. It seemed improbably crazy. But he did it. And the Springboks won! South Africa experienced a moment of delirious unity. The problems of integrated South Africa didn’t disappear overnight, but attitudes shifted seismically.

On the way to telling about the big game, Carlin covers a great deal of important history. Tucked in there is an anecdote (credibly documented) that touches me even more than the big game. (I don’t have the book in front of me, only my notes from 2009. See p 151.) An Afrikaner named Eddie was arming and training a militia for the expected race war. He was angry and very, very dangerous. Mandela agreed to participate (I think remotely) in a radio talk show alongside this declared enemy of black South Africans. Eddie spoke first, and he poured forth hatred and fear and anger. Mandela waited. Finally, he spoke. He spoke about Eddie’s concern for the future of South Africa, about his own love for their country, about the things they had in common. He expressed nothing but a positive attitude. He ended by saying “Let’s talk, Eddie”. The outcome isn’t given in detail, but evidently Eddie took at least a few steps back from his furious position. What was this – diplomacy? charm? tact? a miracle? Is there a way we can learn from this?

So read this book! Nelson Mandela is 95 years old now. He’s left a good documentary record, and we can all be inspired by it.