Category Archives: Civil Rights

On Same-Sex Marriage

In 1952 William Rehnquist, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote a memo he called “A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases”.  At that time, Rehnquist was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Robert Jackson, and the memo was apparently addressed by Rehnquist to his then boss.

In his memo, Rehnquist mapped out his vision for how the Court should deal with a series of cases brought by the NAACP challenging the practice of racial segregation that were working their way through the lower courts and almost certainly bound for the Supreme Court.

Rehnquist, for the most part, urged restraint.  Rehnquist thought that because public opinion had already spoken on the topic of racial segregation — largely receptive of the practice — it would be inappropriate for the Court to get involved simply because its members  “dislike[d] segregation” or considered it “morally wrong[]”.  Only in “extreme cases”, Rehnquist cautioned, would it be appropriate for the Court to step in to “thwart public opinion”.  In Rehnquist’s mind racial segregation did not meet that test.

In concluding his memo, Rehnquist offered the following observation:

I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by “liberal” colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson [the case that established the principle of “separate but equal”] was right and should be re-affirmed.  If the Fourteenth Amendment did not enact Spencer’s Social Statios [sic], it just as surely did not enact Myrddahl’s American Dilemna [sic].

Rehnquist’s view, we know now, did not prevail.  The Court ultimately took the so-called “segregation cases” and voted unanimously to strike down as unconstitutional the practice of racial segregation in its landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

Chief Justice Robert’s recent dissent in the same-sex marriage case makes a lot of the same points Rehnquist made in this memo, which is not surprising.  Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative.   And he had at one time clerked for Rehnquist.  At one point in his dissent Roberts uses the same reference to Spencer’s Social Statics and the Fourteenth Amendment that Rehnquist used at the end of his memo, language which Roberts correctly attributes to Judge Friendly and Justice Holmes, but he almost certainly had Rehnquist and perhaps his 1952 memo in mind in writing that and the rest of his dissent.

The approach advocated by Rehnquist and Roberts — that is, let the legislators and voters decide — has some appeal.  One might counter however that they only suggest this approach because they know it is one that is self-defeating; that there will always be a majority of lawmakers and their supporters somewhere who will refuse to recognize the fundamental right at issue.

Right approach or not, what matters ultimately are the facts on the ground.  And that, to a large extent, is determined by the hearts and minds of everyday folks and how they wish to shape the society in which they live.  Court rulings and statutes carry some influence in that respect.  More so, however, is the unwritten code of life that governs how we treat one another  — with dignity, respect and fairness.  That it took years of hard-fought litigation and a sharply divided Supreme Court to confer on homosexuals the right to marry is proof that this code is sorely lacking in this country, or is simply not being observed to the extent that it should.  Were the opposite true, the debate about gay marriage would have ended a long time ago and with the “self-evident” conclusion that “all men [and women] are created equal….”

Removing the Barriers to Happiness

Linda Greenhouse, the Times’ former Supreme Court correspondent, recently wrote about the shifting views of the public on gay marriage and the prospect of the Supreme Court deciding once and for all whether  the Constitution confers a right on gays to marry.  In her piece, Greenhouse made the observation that where once it was taboo for one to come out in support of gay marriage, now that sentiment is almost  de rigueur.  In Greenhouse’s words:

Twenty years ago, even many well intentioned straight people found same-sex marriage a challenging concept to grasp, if they thought about it at all.  Today, it would take an act of will to ignore the fact that as barriers fall, the sum total of human happiness increases and any theoretical downside remains — as the states have found — impossible to articulate convincingly.

Greenhouse seemed to include herself among the “well intentioned straight people” for whom gay marriage was until recently an afterthought, which is admirable, if only because she tried to level with her intended audience, which most other writers today would never do.

But Greenhouse breaks no new ground in her piece.  She is mostly preaching to the choir when she reveals that even  “well-intentioned straight people” may have at one time denied gays the right to marry.  Discriminatory attitudes are not exclusive to born and bred bigots.  They are held by everyone, and can be shed by them.  But to say that one’s neighbor down the street in left-leaning Park Slope, Brooklyn, might have at one time disliked gays is to say nothing at all.

The more interesting question is what has caused the widespread shift in attitudes toward a greater acceptance of gays and their right to marry and why a similar shift hasn’t taken hold with respect to other groups and their ability to exercise fundamental rights.  Certainly lowering the “barriers” for the poor or even the middle class to affordable housing would increase the “sum total of human happiness”.  But why hasn’t such a change taken place, and with the kind of momentum and fanfare that has accompanied the gay marriage movement?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the process of conferring a right upon a group once denied to it to the exclusion of equally deserving groups is itself an exercise in discrimination.  The unspoken truth is that society is making a judgment that one group is more deserving or of greater worth than another.  Nothing has changed in the past few decades for gays or for the poor in terms of each group’s defining characteristics; if anything the destitution that has come to characterize the condition of being poor is even more pronounced today than it was ten, twenty years ago.  What has changed, however, is that the gay community has, as a whole, become more influential and affluent, even before it  started winning in the courts to solidify its status as an equal with heterosexuals.  It didn’t hurt that government officials pursued their anti-gay agenda with a kind of ferocity once reserved for blacks in the Jim Crow south.  Other groups that have not been able to remove the “barriers” to “happiness” that the gay marriage movement has been so effective in removing have failed in their efforts mostly because they remain an afterthought for most people.  The public might sympathize with their condition and their causes but by and large it will ignore these groups just as it once did with gays.

Recognizing that gays have a right to marry is a positive development.  But it shouldn’t be done in a kind of vacuum where the motivation for change is generated by the same kind of hysterics that prompted the government to ban gay marriage in the first place.  This is especially true for those who once rejected gay marriage as a fundamental right.  For  persons who fall into that category, and I imagine there are a lot of them,  it is just as important to figure out why they decided to switch positions.  The answer may not be a pleasant one but it is worth knowing nonetheless, if anything so that we can understand the true character of the society in which we live.

Dr. King and His Ideals in 2014

This year’s tribute to Dr. King has to do with this country’s economic well-being.  When a person talks about his own well-being it is often in the context of how he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally.  When disease, injury or trauma occurs, then the saying generally is “I’m not feeling well”.  The same kind of self-assessment can and should be made for the country as a whole.  Indeed, our current president seems to know this well and will often make observations of the country’s poor economic health as a way to advance his political agenda.  His carefully prepared diagnosis is generally: too much inequality and not enough shared sacrifice.  And he will give this assessment the same way a doctor today would give his patient a diagnosis: mechanically and patronizingly.  But for something that is akin to cancer in its potential to disrupt and destroy, that is no way to motivate a populace to change its way, to say nothing of whether he even believes change is needed at all.

For years now, the country has been gripped by an increasing sense of economic insecurity.  One that says to a person if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to do it at all.  The thing that must be done, of course, is “make money”.  This mentality I think we can all agree has led to a lower quality of life than that which existed thirty, forty years ago.  Because, for all the additional material goods and technology that we now have that we didn’t have before, they do nothing to compensate for the time that one has to spend to make that extra dollar that he cannot spend with his family, his friends his community, and even himself (in the sense of self-reflection and self-improvement).

It is the kind of insecurity that has led to the creation of thousands of meaningless yet high-paying jobs where the only skill that is required is the skill to bullshit your way through meeting after meeting, and client after client, while doing everything you possibly can to protect your own turf.  It is meant to employ the un-employable, and in the process, give them a sense of self-worth, while doing nothing to teach them a skill which might make a difference when the government is on the brink of collapse or the next nuclear bomb hits.  Make no mistake, this is not a swipe at the so-called financial industry whose dispensability and frivolousness are already well-known to the general public.  It is directed to some of the most revered institutions, like higher education and public service, that have at one time made this country — even with its many moral failings — a symbol of hope for many around the world.

This sense of insecurity is not entirely irrational.  The growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy has been thoroughly documented.  It isn’t news that the country is in ill-health and likely to get worse in the coming years.  And it is entirely predictable that people today have an almost messianic attitude about money and its healing properties: “get as much of it as you can now because soon there won’t be any left.  And if we can’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”.

The problem, of course, is that this just makes the problem worse.  The “me first” mentality further entrenches the rich at the expense of the poor.  That is because the ones who are most able to make it on their own are the ones who already have the means to do so.  What the current climate of insecurity has done is turn what were once blinders which the rich wore vis a vis the poor to full-blown hazmat suits.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or so the saying goes.  In cities, this can be seen in “gentrification” which allow the rich to enjoy all the benefits of the city without the costs that necessarily come with living in close proximity to others.  In the suburbs, this can be seen in the proliferation of gated communities and private police forces.  The common theme of all this change is the rejection of the idea that we all provide for each other as well as for ourselves, rather than simply ourselves, an idea that led many to embrace Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Few if any public figures mention these things.  To do so would make them a prime target for the “socialist” label and doom their careers.  But the ideals at issue are ones that need to be revived if the country is to heal itself from the economic and moral malaise with which it has been inflicted.  Dr. King recognized that, and history has proven his work valuable even if its effects have been limited (not through any fault of his own).  And we must as well, for the alternative is at once unfathomable but all too familiar.

Judge Martin and the Eleventh Circuit

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has issued some noteworthy decisions in the last few weeks concerning the rights of foreign nationals in both criminal and civil proceedings.  One case, Gupta v. McGahey, No. 11-1420, concerned the right of an immigrant to sue immigration officers for civil rights violations; the Eleventh Circuit ultimately decided he had no such right.  Another case,  United States v. Garza-Mendez, No. 12-13643, involved an effort by an immigrant to reduce his sentence for a federal conviction of unlawful entry by obtaining a “clarification” order from a state court judge for a prior domestic violence conviction which had been used by federal prosecutors to enhance his sentence; the Eleventh Circuit turned aside this effort, as did the lower court, finding that the order was just a belated effort by the immigrant party to influence the outcome of his federal case.  In the last case, Donawa v. U.S. Att’y General, No. 12-13526, a foreign national of Antigua tried to avoid deportation by arguing that two prior Florida convictions for drug-related offenses which immigration authorities had used to initiate deportations proceedings against him were not deportable offenses; the Eleventh Circuit agreed in part and sent the case back to the immigration judge for a second look.

In each of these three cases, Judge Martin ended up on the side of the immigrant.  She was alone in that regard in two of the cases where she issued strong dissents and took her colleagues to task for what she believed was their “astonishing” and “cursory” legal reasoning.  As someone who spent most of her legal career prosecuting individuals, one might find Judge Martin’s positions surprising.  But one’s past experience is not always a reliable predictor of future action.  In fact, the two sometimes have no discernible correlation; Obama is a good example of that.

It will be interesting to see how Judge Martin develops as a jurist and to what extent she is able to influence other members of the Eleventh Circuit, or instead  alienates them.  If the court’s recent decisions are any indication, Judge Wilson has signaled that he too may be prepared to speak out when his colleagues reach an unjust result.

Stop and Frisk Writ Large

The policies of officers stopping people for minor or nonexistent offenses has been well documented, most recently in the Floyd case out of New York, where a federal judge found the practice unconstitutional.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied a request for rehearing which would have raised a similar issue.  The case is United States v. Kareen Rasul Green (No. 11-1558).  Judge Barkett, joined by Judge Martin, dissented from the denial, and she did so in particularly strong terms.  Interestingly, she discussed the relevance, or irrelevance as the case may be, of  a “high-crime neighborhood” which is often a proxy for race, as a factor that is often used to justify a stop.  According to Judge Barkett:

[T]he fact that the stop occurred in a high-crime area cannot, on its own, justify this frisk.  The vast majority of people that live, work, or travel through high-crime neighborhoods do not participate in any criminal activities, much less activities that put officers and other community members at risk.  This is, in part, why several of our sister circuits have warned of “the dangers of relying too easily or too heavily on these contextual factors.”

Judge Barkett does not stop there, however:

Focusing on the fact that a crime occurs in a purportedly high-crime area carries with it other significant risks.  In addition to eroding the liberty of all individuals in these communities, the high-crime neighborhood designation “raised special concerns of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic profiling.”  The Terry [v. Ohio] decision  itself recognized these dangers, requiring individualized suspicion in part “because according the police unfettered discretion to stop and frisk could lead to harassment of minority groups and ‘severely exacerbat[e] … police-community relations.”  Moreover, because neighborhoods descried as “high-crime” are almost always poor communities of color, excessively-broad police discretion to frisk suspects in such neighborhoods facilitates the disproportionate targeting of poor people of color by law enforcement, contributing to unjustifiable levels of racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.

I have omitted citations and footnotes from these quotes; they are available in the actual order itself, which can be downloaded here.

Ralph Ellison Turns 100

Photo of Ralph Ellison courtesy of California Newsreel

Photo of Ralph Ellison courtesy of California Newsreel

On March 1, 1913, Ida Millsap gave birth to Ralph Ellison whom she and her husband named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ellison would go on to become a notable figure in his own right after writing and publishing The Invisible Man, in which he chronicled the journey of a young black man much like Ellison himself who left the Jim Crow South for New York’s Harlem only to find disillusionment wherever he went.  The title of this blog belongs, of course, to Ellison’s novel and the difficult theme it sought to explore on how the history of an “invisible” minority  is dealt with and reflected in modern American life.  In tribute to the Ellison centennial, The New York Review of Books has posted some pieces about Ellison which have appeared in the publication.  The tribute begins with the following quote from Ellison:

Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We’ve fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national existence.

Those interested can read more of NYRB’s tribute to Ellison here.

A Pictures Is Worth A Thousand Words (Or, If You’re Justice Sotomayor, More Than A Whole Slew of Statistics)

Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the much-publicized case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. Some have described the case as having the kind of ramifications for the Voting Rights Act that Citizens United had for campaign finance laws: law that was once settled and based on sound reasoning has now come under imminent threat of upheaval.

On Monday, Justice Sotomayor issued a “statement” in a case, Bongani Calhoun v. United States, No. 12-6142, involving the racist remarks of a federal prosecutor in Texas. The statement came as the Court declined to hear the case for mostly procedural considerations, but Justice Sotomayor felt it necessary to write separately so she could “dispel any doubt” that the Court’s decision “be understood to signal [the Court’s] tolerance of” the “racially charged remark.” “It should not,” Sotomayor bluntly stated. After taking the Government to task for its conduct, both with respect to the remarks and to the way it approached the case as it wound its way to the Court, Sotomayor ended her statement by warning or perhaps lamenting that she “hope[s] never to see a case like this again.” Only Justice Breyer joined Sotomayor in her statement.

That Sotomayor decided to issue such a statement at this particular time in the Court’s sitting is not, I submit, a coincidence. Instead, Sotomayor’s brief yet emphatic statement may have been her way of alerting her colleagues on the bench that now is not the time to be tinkering with or, worse yet, altogether scrapping the prophylactic measures that have been enacted to protect minorities from the kind of racism that, to Sotomayor, is as much a part of America as baseball, apple pie and barbecued ribs. And she did so in vivid almost picturesque fashion, none of which can really be captured in the raw data and statistics that will be thrust at the Court as it considers whether to overturn the Voting Rights Act, or at least a key part of it.

True, Sotomayor’s colleagues may decline to heed her warning or disagree with her view that things are still as they were back when Congress first passed, and then continued to renew, the Voting Rights Act. But even in pure temporal terms, we are only a mere 50 years removed from a time (1963; the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965) when many thought that the country could not survive as a democracy without measures like the Voting Rights Act — a time when George Wallace, Alabama’s then Governor refused to de-segregate the University of Alabama, in direct defiance of President Kennedy and and a time when an owner of a segregated restaurant in Maryland felt fit to physically humiliate individuals who knelt in front of his restaurant to call attention to their message of integration. (These pictures are from a series of 50 photos taken in 1963 that was recently posted on the website for The Atlantic.) To argue that such racism, or more appropriately, its remnants has been purged from the fabric of this country is at best inaccurate and at worst irresponsible. Knowing that this view will probably not hold sway with the majority of the Court, however, my thoughts turn to those, like the Maryland protestors, who through their dedication and sacrifice helped put on the books laws like the Voting Rights Act, and without whom our country would be even more segregated than it was in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013

As has become a tradition of sorts since I started this blog, I write to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also happens to coincide with the second albeit unofficial inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States.  What significance lies in  such a series of coincidences I leave for you to ponder.  For present purposes, I post here in its entirely a piece entitled “The Way It Is” by Ralph Ellison, which originally appeared in New Masses on October 20, 1942. It describes Ellison’s encounter and interview with Mrs. Jackson, a Harlem resident, in which she reveals to him her feelings about living in the United States as a black person. Ellison was 28 years old when he wrote this.


The Way It Is

by Ralph Ellison

The boy looked at me through the cracked door and stood staring with his large eyes until his mother came and invited me in.  It was an average Harlem apartment, cool now with the shift in the fall weather.  The room was clear and furnished with the old-fashioned furniture found so often up our way: two old upholstered chairs and a divan upon a faded blue and red rug.  It was painfully clean, and the furniture crowded the narrow room.

“Sit right there, sir,” the woman said.  “It’s where Wilbur use to sit before he went to camp; it’s pretty comfortable.”

I watched her ease herself tiredly upon the divan, the light from the large red lamp reflected upon her face from the top of a mirrored side table.

She must have been fifty, her hair slightly graying.  The portrait of a young solider smiled back from the top of a radio cabinet beside her.

She pointed.  “That’s my boy Wilbur right there,” she said proudly.  “He’s a sergeant.”

“Wilbur’s got a medal for shooting so good,” the boy said.

“You just be quiet and go eat your supper,” she said.  “All you can think about is guns and shooting.”  She spoke with the harsh tenderness so often used by Negro mothers.

The boy went, reluctantly opening the door.  The oder of peas and rice and pork chops drifted through.

“Who was it, Tommy?” shrilled a voice on the other side.

“You two be quiet in there and eat your supper now,” Mrs. Jackson called.  “them two just keeps my hands full.  They just get into something all the time.  I was coming up the street the other day and like to got the fright of my life.  There was Tommy hanging on the back of a streetcar!  But didn’t I tan his bottom!  I bet he won’t even look at a streetcar for a long, long time.  It ain’t really that he’s a bad child; it’s just that he tries to do what he sees the other boys do.  I wanted to send both him and his sister away to camp for the summer, but things was so tight this year that I couldn’t do it.  Raising kids in Harlem nowadays is more than a notion.”

As is true so often in Negro American life, Mrs. Jackson, the mother, is the head of her family.  Her husband had died several years ago; the smaller children were babies.  She had kept going by doing domestic work, and had kept the family together with the help of the older boy.

There is quiet courage about Mrs. Jackson, and yet now and then the clenching and unclenching of her work-hardened fingers betray an anxiety that does not register in her face.  I offer to wait until after she has eaten, but she says no, that she is too tired right now and would rather talk than eat.

“You finding the writing business any better since the way?” she asked.

“I’m afraid no,” I said.

“Is that so?  Well, I don’t know nothing about the writing business.  I just know that don’t many colored go in for it.  But I guess like everything else, some folks is doing good while others ain’t.  The other day I was over on 126th Street and saw them dispossessing a lawyer!  Yes, sir, it was like back in the thirties.  Things piled all over the sidewalk, the Negroes a-hanging out of the windows, and the poor man rushing around trying to get his stuff off the streets before it got dark and everything.”

I remembered the incident myself, having passed through the street that afternoon.  Files, chest of drawers, bedsteads, tables and barrels had been piled along the sidewalk with pink, blue and white mattresses and bundles of table linen and bedclothing piled on top.  And the crowd had been as she described: some indignant, some curious, and all talking in subdued tones so as not to offend the evicted family.  Law books had been piled upon the sidewalk near where a black and white kitten — and these are no writer’s details — played games with itself in the coils of an upright bedspring.  I told her I had seen the incident.

“Lord,” she said.  “And did you see all those law books he had?  Looks like to me that anybody with all those books of law oughtn’t to never get dispossessed.

“I was dispossessed myself, back in thirty-seven, when we were all out of work.  And they threatened me once since Wilbur’s been in the Army.  But I stood up for my rights, and when the government sent the check we pulled through.  Anybody’s liable to get dispossessed though.”  She said it defensively.

“Just how do you find it otherwise?” I asked.

“Things is mighty tight, son . . . You’ll have to excuse me for calling you ‘son,’ because I suspect you must be just about Wilbur’s age.”  She sat back abruptly.  “How come you not in the Army?” she asked.

“I’ve a wife and dependents,” I said.

“I see.”  She pondered.  “Wilbur would have got married too, but he was helping me with the kids.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I said.

“Things is tight,” she said again.  “With food so high and everything.  I sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen.  Then, too, with Wilbur in the Army we naturally misses the money he use to bring in.”  She regarded me shrewdly.  “So you want to know about how we’re doing?  Don’t you live in Harlem?”

“Oh, yes, but I want to know what you think about it.”

“So’s you can write it up?”

“Some of it, sure, but I won’t use your name.”

“Oh, I don’t care ’bout that.  I want them to know how I feel.”

She became silent.  Then, “You didn’t tell me where you live, you know, ” she said cagily.  I had to laugh and she laughed too.

“I live up near Amsterdam Avenue,” I said.

“You telling me the truth?”


“And is your place a nice one?”

“Just average.  You know how they go,” I said.

“I bet you live up there on Sugar Hill.”

“Not me,” I said.

“And you’re sure you’re not one of these investigators?”

“Of course not.”

“I bet you are too.” She smiled.

I shook my head and she laughed.

“They always starting something new,” she said. “You can’t keep up with them.”

But now she seemed reassured and settled down to talk, her hands clasped loosely in her lap against the checkered design of her dress.

“Well, we’re carrying on somehow. I’m still working and I manage to keep the young uns in school, and I pays the rent too.  I guess maybe it would be a little better if the government would send the checks on time . . .”

She paused and pointed across the room to the picture of a young woman.  “And it would be even better if Mary, that’s my oldest after Wilbur — if she could get some of that defense training so she could get a job what pays decent money.  But it don’t look like she’s going to get anything.  She was out to the Western Electric plant in Kearney, New Jersey, the other day and they give her some kind of test, but that was the end of that.”

“Did she pass the test?” I asked.

“Sure she passed.  But they just put her name down on a card and told her they would keep her in mind.  They always do that.  They ask her a lot of questions; then they want to know if she ever had any experience in running machines, and when she says she ain’t, they just take down her name.  Now where is a colored girl going to get any experience in running all these kinds of machines they never even seen before?”

When I could not answer she threw up her hands.

“Well, there you have it, they got you any which way you turn.  A few gets jobs, but most don’t.”

“Things are much better outside of New York,” I said.

“So I hear,” she said. “Guess if I was younger I’d take the kids and move to Jersey or up to Connecticut, where I hear there’s some jobs for colored.  Or even down South.  Only I keep hearing about the trouble they’re having down there, and I don’t want the kids to grow up down there nohow.  Had enough of that when I was a kid . . .”

“Have any of your friends gotten work through the F.E.P.C.?” [editor’s note: F.E.P.C. stands for Fair Employment Practices Commission; created by FDR, it sought to prevent companies with government contracts from discriminating on the basis of race of religion]

She thought for a moment.

“No, son.  It seems to me that that committee is doing something everywhere but here in New York.  Maybe that’s why it’s so bad for us — and you know it’s bad ’cause you’re colored yourself.”

As I heard the clatter of dishes coming from the kitchen, her face suddenly assumed an outraged expression.

“Now you take my sister’s boy, William. God bless his poor soul. William sent to the trade schools and learned all about machines. He got so he could take any kind of machine apart and fix it and put it together again. He was machine-crazy! But he was a smart boy and a good boy. He got good marks in school too. But when he went to get a job in one of those factories where they make war machines of some kind, they wouldn’t take him ’cause he was colored — and they told him so!”

She paused for breath, a red flush dyeing her skin. The tinted portrait of a brown mother holding a brown, shiny-haired baby posed madonna-like from a calendar above her head.

“Well, when they wouldn’t take him some of the folks over to the church told him to take his case to the F.E.P.C. , and he did. But they had so many cases and it took so long that William got discouraged and joined up in the Merchant Marine. That poor boy was just so disgusted that he said that he would have enlisted in the Army, only that his mamma’s got two little ones like I have. So he went out on that boat ’cause it paid good money and a good bonus. It was real good money and he helped his mamma a head. But it didn’t last long before one of those submarines sunk the boat.”

Her eyes strayed to the window, where a line of potted plants crowded the sill, a profusion of green things slowly becoming silhouettes in the fading light. Snake plants, English ivy, and others, a potato plan in a glass jar, its vines twining around a cross of wood and its thousand thread-fine roots pushing hungrily against the wall of glass. A single red bloom pushed above the rest, and in one corner a corn plant threatened to touch the ceiling from the floor with its blade-like leaves.

The light was fading and her voice had slipped into the intense detachment of recent grief. “It was just about four months yesterday,” she said. “He was such a fine boy. Everybody liked William.”

She shook her head silently, her fingers gripped her folded arms as she swallowed tensely.

“It hurts to think about it,” she said, getting up and snapping on another light, revealing a child’s airplane model beneath the table. “Well, the folks from his union is being very nice to my sister, the whites as well as the colored. And you know,” she added, leaning toward me, “it really makes you feel a little better when they come round — the white ones, I mean — and really tries to help. Like some of these ole relief investigators who come in wanting to run your life for you, but really like they interested in you. Something like colored folks, in a way. We used to get after William for being with white folks so much, but these sure have shown themselves to be real friends.”

She stared at me as though it was a fact which she deeply feared to accept.

“Some of them is going to try and see that my sister gets some sort of defense work. But what I’m trying to tell you is that it’s a sin and a shame that a fine boy like William had to go fooling round on them ships when ever since he was a little ‘ole boy he’d been crazy about machines.”

“But don’t you think that the Merchant Marine is helping to win the war?” I said. “It takes brave men to go out there, and they’ve done a lot.”

“Sure they have,” she said. “Sure they have. But I’m not talking about that. Anybody could do what they had him doing on that boat. Anybody can wait table who’s got sense enough to keep his fingernails clean! Waiting tables, when he could make things on a machine!

“You see that radio there? Well, William made that radio. It ain’t no store set, no, sir, even though it looks like one. William made it for the kids. Made everything but the cabinet and you can hear way down to Cuba and Mexico with it. And to think of that boy! Oh, it makes me so mad I don’t know what to do! He ought to be here right now helping his mamma and lil brother and sister. But what can you do? You educated, son, you one of our educated Negroes that’s been to college and everything. Now you tell me, what can we do?” She paused. “I’m a colored woman, and colored women can take it. I can hit the chillies to the subway every morning and stand in the white folks’ kitchen all day long, but so much is happening in the world that I don’t know which way to turn. First it’s my sister’s boy, and then they sends my own boy down to Fort Bragg. I tells you I’m even afraid to open Wilbur’s letters that the government sends sometimes about his insurance or something like that ’cause I’m afraid it might be a message that Wilbur’s been beaten up or killed by some of those white folks down there. Then I gets so mad I don’t know what to do. I use to pray, but praying don’t do no good. And too, like the union folks was telling us when we was so broken up about William, we got to fight the big Hitler over yonder even with all the little Hitlers over here. I wish they’d burry up and send Wilbur on out of the country ’cause then maybe my mind would know some ease. Lord!” she sighed. “If it wasn’t so serious I’d break down and laugh at my ownself.”

She smiled now and the tension eased from her face and she leaned back against the divan and laughed. Then she became serious again.

“But son, you really can’t laugh about it. Not honestly laugh like you can about some things. It reminds me of that crazy man that’s always running up and down the streets up here. You know, the one who’s always hollering at the cars and making out like he’s throwing bombs?”

“Of course, I’ve seen him often,” I said.

“Sure you have. Well, I use to laugh at that poor man when he’d start acting the fool — you know how it is, you feel sorry for him but you can’t help but laugh. They say he got that way in the last war. Well, I can understand him better now. ‘Course I ain’t had no bombs bursting in my ears like he had. But yet and still, with things pulling me thisaway and that away, I sometimes feel that I’m going to go screaming up and down the streets like that poor fellow does.”

“He’s shell-shocked,” I said. “Sometimes I’ve seen him talking and acting just as normal as anyone.”

“Is that so?” she said. “I always though it was funny he never got hit by a car. I’ve seen them almost hit him, but he goes right back. One day I heard a man say, ‘Lord, if that crazy fellow really had some bombs he’d get rid of every car in Harlem!’ “

We laughed and I prepared to go.

“Sorry you found me so gloomy today, son. But you know, things have a way of just piling up these days and I just had to talk about them. Anyway, you asked for me to tell you what I thought.”

She walked with me to the door. Streetlamps glowed on the avenue, lighting the early dark. The after-school cries of children drifted dimly in from the sidewalk.

She shivered close beside me. “It’s getting chilly already,” she said. “I’m wondering what’s going to happen this winter about the oil and coal situation. The ole holes we have to live in can get mighty cold. Now can’t they though?”

I agreed.

“A friend of mine that moved up on Amsterdam Avenue about a month ago wanted to know why I don’t move out of Harlem. So I told her it wouldn’t do no good to move ’cause anywhere they let us go gets to be Harlem right on. I done moved round too much not to know that. Oh yes!”

She shook her head knowingly.

“Harlem’s like that old song says:

It’s so high you can’t get over it

So low, you can’t get under it,

And so wide, you can’t get round it . . .

“That’s the way it really is,” she said. “Well, good-bye, son.”

And as I went down the dimmed-out street the verse completed itself in my mind, You must come through by the living gate . . .

So there you have Mrs. Jackson. And that’s the way “it really is” for her and many like her who are searching for that gate of freedom. In the very texture of their lives there is confusion, war-made confusion, and the problem is to get around, over, under and through this confusion. They do not ask for a lighter share of necessary war sacrifices than other Americans have to hear. But they do ask for equal reasons to believe that their sacrifices are worthwhile, and they do want to be rid of the heavy resentment and bitterness which has been theirs for long before the war.

Forced in normal times to live at standards much lower than those the war has brought to the United States generally, they find it emotionally difficult to give their attention to the war. The struggle for existence constitutes a war in itself. The Mrs. Jackson of Harlem offers one of the best arguments for the stabilization of prices and the freezing of rents. Twenty-five percent of those still on relief come from our give percent of New York’s population. Mrs. Jackson finds it increasingly difficult to feed her children. She must pay six cents more on the dollar for food than do the mothers of similar-income sections elsewhere in the city. With the prospect of a heatless winter, Harlem, with its poor housing and high tuberculosis death rate, will know an increase of hardship.

It is an old story. Touch any phase of urban living in our democracy , and its worst aspects are to be found in Harlem. Our housing is the poorest, and our rents the highest. Our people are the sickest and Harlem Hospital the most overcrowded and understaffed. Our unemployment is the greatest, and our cost of food the most exorbitant. Our crime the most understandable and easily corrected, but the policemen sent among us the most brutal. Our desire to rid the world of fascism the most burning, and the obstacles placed in our way the most frustrating. Our need to see the war as a struggle between democracy and fascism the most intense, and our temptation to interpret it as a “color” war the most compelling. Our need to believe in the age of the “common man” the most hope-inspiring, and our reasons to doubt that it will include us the most disheartening. (This is no Whitmanesque catalogue of democratic exultations, while more than anything else we wish that it could be.”) And that’s the way it is.

Many of Mrs. Jackson’s neighbors are joining in the fight to freeze rents and for the broadening of the F.E.C.P. for Negroes and all other Americans. Their very lives demand that they back the President’s stabilization program. That they must be victorious is one of the necessities upon which our democratic freedom rests. The Mrs. Jacksons cannot make the sacrifices necessary to participate in a total war if the conditions under which they live, the very ground on which they must fight, continues its offensive against them. Nor is this something to be solved by propaganda. Morale grows out of realities, not out of words alone. Only concrete action will be effective, lest irritation and confusion turn into exasperation, and exasperation change to disgust and finally into anti-war sentiment (and there is such a danger). Mrs. Jackson’s reality must be democratized so that she may clarify her thinking and her emotions. And that’s the way it really is.

The Un-Pardonables

Among the many year in review stories we saw in 2012, one that might have escaped notice is Obama’s atrocious and yes, unpardonable, clemency record .  Thanks to Professor Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog, he has compared  Obama’s record of pardons and communications with that of other presidents, and the results are truly one for the record books, and not in a good way. The more interesting question, of course, is why Obama hasn’t been more generous with exercising his pardon power.  In the unlikely event that one is able to get Obama to discuss this in candor and on record, we may never know.  But we can certainly guess.  Here are some of my hypotheses:

(1) Criminals are increasingly becoming a permanent underclass: this has as much to do with the racial composition of the group of individuals who are most in need of executive clemency (either for employment or public benefits) — they are without question mostly black — as with the economic and personal backgrounds of these same individuals — they are overwhelmingly poor and have few or no individuals to whom they can turn for economic or emotional support.

(2) Compassion for the “criminal” is politically unpopular and potentially toxic: this should come as no surprise.  It matters not whether you are the nicest most well meaning person in the world, qualities some have ascribed to our current president.  If you are an elected figure, you will avoid politically unpopular acts.  Forgiving someone for their past criminal conduct is one such act.  And it becomes even more unpopular when tragedies like the Newtown/Sandy Hook shooting occur and the shooter is portrayed as both a criminal and a freak; he is almost certainly neither.

And we should ask ourselves this question: when was the last time our lawmakers floated a legislative proposal whose primary purpose was to improve the lives of ex-offenders and the communities in which they reside? I am not talking about changes to unjust sentencing laws or reducing prison populations, all of which are important in their own way but do nothing to keep people out of prison; I refer instead to proposals that are meant to create communities that are strong and cohesive and provide their members with zero incentive to think about let alone engage in criminal acts.  But such bold initiatives might very well be a thing of the past.  This is especially true when those most in need of help are the least visible, based on the size of their bank accounts and the color of their skin.  Hell, we cannot even get our president to exercise his pardon power, and he needs neither   Congress’s  approval nor its input to do it.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012

This year I offer a few thoughts of my own in commemeration of Dr. King and his legacy.  Today, we often mention “progress” when the topic of racial equality is raised — this being the initial focus of Dr. King’s efforts as an advocate for the downtrodden and marginalized, and later, with the same forceful advocacy that he brought to the cause of racial equality, the great injustice that was America’s war against the Vietnamese war and the economic poverty that was, and still is, very much a staple of life in America despite willfully false portrayals by our news and popular media to the contrary.  Certainly, true progress has been achieved since the days of institutionalized slavery, Jim Crow and Emmet Till.  Colored-only buses and restrooms are a thing of the past.  As are lynchings, at least in their most public and severe form.  If one were keeping score, one might even think of the glass as being half full without the sense of guilt and pity that more often than not lead to shortsightedness and undesirable outcomes.  Still one need not look too hard to see that much of what Dr. King fought against — the inequality, the senseless violence, the hate and cynicism — remains an intractable force in our society.  A few blocks from where Dr. King grew up here in Atlanta sits homes and storefronts long abandoned by those who succumbed to such a force.  Had Dr. King been able to see his old neighborhood and its surrounding communities in their present state, it is safe to say that “progress” is not the word that would have come to mind.

None of this, however, should be news.  The “pursuit of happiness” that is a founding principle of this country necessarily implies a culture of self-absorption and inequality, where one’s key to his or her own “happiness” often comes at the expense of another’s.  And blacks, in particular, have long been, and continue to be, the expendable ones in this equation.  And the election of our first “black” president has done nothing to change that.

There is time yet to reverse this trend.  And it takes not the writing or oratory of  a great thinker or scholar to do so.  Rather, the solution has been in front of our noses since time immemorial and has been posited in various forms to the general public.  Joe Black, a pitcher for the legendary 1950’s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, did just in a university talk that was documented by Roger Kahn in his book, The Boys of Summer:

During a recent Honors Day Program at Virginia Union, a black university in Richmond, Black spoke about the responsibilities as well as the rewards of black power: “Our efforts have to be more positive than shouting, ‘Sock it to him, Soul Brother,’ or, ‘We are victims of a racist society,’ or, ‘Honkey!’ I’m in favor of black history because it makes whites realize that American blacks have done more than make cotton king. Rut I’m opposed to all-black dorms, and to violence. If the black student wants to use a loaded gun to make a point, what can we expect of uneducated blacks? By now some of you may be saying I’m a Tom, a window-dressing Negro. But I learned two things early.  A minority cannot defeat a majority in physical combat and you’ve got to let some things roll off your back.  Because my name is Joe Black, whites called me ‘Old Black Joe.’  After a few years of scuffling, I still hadn’t silenced all of them and throwing all those punches had made me a weary young man.  Call me ‘Old Black Joe’ today and you agitate nobody except yourself.”

He makes one point to everyone. It is bigotry to exalt the so-called special language of the blacks. “What is our language?” he asked. ” ‘Foteen’ or ‘fourteen.’ ‘Pohleeze’ for ‘police.’ ‘Raht back’ for ‘right hack.’ ‘We is going.’ To me any man, white or black, who says whites must learn our language is insulting.  What he’s saying is that every other ethnic group can migrate to America and master English, but we, who were born here and whose families have all lived here for more than a century, don’t have the ability to speak proper English.  Wear a dashiki or an African hairdo, but in the name of common sense, learn the English language. It is your own.”

At lunch, [Joe] handed me a sheet of paper.  “This is part of my philosophy,” he said.  “And by the way, notice the use of English vocabulary.”

I read:


black hook,

black eye,

black friday,

black hand,

black heart,


black magic.


black market,

black maria,

black mark,

little black sambo,

white lies.

Black is Beutiful.

“If that’s what you make it, Joe,” I said.

“Well,” he said.  “You got the point.”