Photograph of Septima Clark, ca. 1960, Avery Photo Collection, 10-9, Courtesy of the Avery Research Center.
Like many white folk, my knowledge of the icons of the civil rights movement is limited at best and thoroughly deficient at worst. When I read that Dr. King had once described Septima Clark as the “Mother of the Movement” and realized that I had no knowledge of her role, I knew it was time to do some digging. As usual, this is just an overview, intended to whet your curiosity and encourage you to do some digging of your own.
A teacher and a life-long educator, Clark is most remembered for her role in establishing Citizenship Schools, which had the goal of providing full citizenship through education. In 1961, she became the SCLC director of education and teaching and traveled throughout the South, directing workshops which taught participants their constitutional rights, how to organize, as well as teaching literacy. Even more mundane topics like how to write a check were covered. Clark felt that literacy was the keystone for advancement:
Does anyone want to predict what words would appear in a word cloud of tonight’s address?
Tonight’s the night, and I, for one, will either be locked in my sewing room finishing a project or sitting down to write a letter to my cousin (because some of us still do that!) The report on the state of the union may be constitutionally-mandated…
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient
…but this is one instance where I wish the pre- radio and television practice of submitting a written report to Congress was once again the norm. In the past, these reports were often a recitation of the status of various government departments, as well as a Treasury update, and as a result, are rarely remembered in the same way as inauguration speeches. What follows is a random sampling from previous SOTU reports: some notable, some not, and some that should be.
Last week was a writing drought; today I have too many topics to choose from. My final decision was made when I saw a tweet thread from Joy Reid*** that resonated with me, exposed my ignorance, and inspired me to dig further. This is going to be a bare-bones recitation of history that I never learned, but should have. I share it today as information, as well as an object lesson about persistence.
To quote Maya Angelou, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
In a moment of semi-panic because I had no clue what I was going to write, I turned on the television in the hopes distraction would mitigate the writing block and lead to clear thinking. It was a serendipitous choice. Independent Lens on PBS was airing “I Am Not Your Negro”, based on James Baldwin’s last and unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. It’s been years since I’ve read anything by Baldwin, but the documentary reminded me of his eloquence and passion. When we have a crude, inarticulate racist in the White House, and toadies not only willing, but eager, to justify hatred through contortions and misrepresentations of history, it seems a good day to listen to James Baldwin. His truths still resonate.
Note: I have tried to use YouTube videos with a closed captioning option; though imperfect, the overall sense is generally intact.
The day set aside to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is a good day to reflect on the power of resistance, the power of peaceful demonstration, the power of We The People insisting that our government reflects our values and addresses our needs.
Last year, the Holiday Proclamation was written and signed by President Barack Obama, the first black president, and was marked with a speech by then Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first black woman attorney general.
Today is about them – and tomorrow will be about them and every tomorrow will be about them until that day when our government once again reflects the values of her citizens.
On August 28, 1963 a quarter of a million people gathered to support civil rights, and share Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.[…]
With [our] faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Full transcript below along with a video of John Lewis, President Barack Obama’s presidential proclamation for the final Martin Luther King Day holiday of his presidency, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech in Birmingham.
Puerto Rico, 1900
Philadelphia North American, Rep. : The present condition of Puerto Rico would have been absolutely incredible and inconceivable to Americans of two years ago. We thought we knew our own hearts, and we should have said with entire confidence that wherever our flag went it would go as a messenger of benediction. Has a year and a half of empire stripped us of all the fine feelings of humanity with which we went into war for Cuban liberty, and turned us into a race of mercenary oppressors?
Ex-Attorney-General Smith, of Indiana
“It is conceded that Puerto Rico constitutes part of the territory of the United States and that our title to it was acquired under the treaty making power of the constitution ; and it follows, therefore, that the moment the title passed from Spain to the United States the constitution extended itself over every part of the island. Any attempt by congress to segregate the constitution and extend a part of its provisions to our island possessions is a violation of the letter and spirit of that instrument, amounting almost, if not quite, to an overt act of treason. We took these people from choice, not compulsion, and by that act we extended to them the protection of our constitution. If we have made a mistake in adding this territory to our country it is not too late to correct it. “
Made possible by Europe’s advantages in military and social technology, the slavery started by Europeans in the fifteenth century was different, because it became the enslavement of one race by another.
(Excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen)
White supremacy and racism were the causes, rather than the symptoms, of slavery in our country. The enslavement of Africans was justified, in part, because of the presumed superiority of whiteness. In short, without racism, we have no slavery or defense of its existence. In the past ten days, we’ve had memes and discussions of our racist history popping up everywhere, and all too often, they’re either incomplete, distorted by bias, or inaccurate. Today I’m going to let some of these historical figures speak for themselves. This post is subject to my own bias by virtue of which figures and quotes I choose to highlight, but I will try to include a representative sampling.
“The toes of Miss Liberty found a home on American soil.”
The comments of Stephen Miller and the restrictive immigration standards of the proposed RAISE Act have caused me to think a lot about immigration lately. I’m in the privileged position as a white woman to have been able to trace my family tree back many generations; in some cases, that translates to many centuries too. I am 100% a child of immigrants, and of the seven lines I’ve been able to trace back beyond my maternal and paternal great-grandparents, only two lines spoke English as their primary language. It troubles me deeply that people, especially those in my own family, see no problem with a condition that would require English-language ability before allowing immigration. The claim that learning English is now more accessible than it was in my great-grandparents’ day falls short for me, because it presumes access to a type of education that is still more available for the privileged, the white, and the western European. But then, I suppose that’s the point.
Today, I’m taking a break from our platform, healthcare legislation, and all things Twitter. This choice is not because our resistance is over or because we can take our eyes off the ball, but because things in DC are still very fluid, making “current events” hard to cover, especially since I write these posts a day in advance. Instead, I’m asking you to join me in exploring newspaper stories from 31 July 1917; my commentary will be minimal since the stories speak for themselves. This post was prompted by this tweet from last week, and my awareness of how much of our history is lost or forgotten.
“May the foundation of our new constitution, be justice, Truth and Righteousness. Like the wise Mans house may it be founded upon those Rocks and then neither storms or tempests will overthrow it.” — Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 13, 1776
“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?” — Benjamin Rush
“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” — Frederick Douglass
“Let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” — Thomas Jefferson