“When We Were Black”

As I move swiftly through my 70’s and I mean swiftly and near 80 years of age, I often reflect back on the history I have not only observed but been a part of; a history that I affectionately label, “When We Were Black.” It was a time when all things seemed to be built around a display of pride, strength and the beauty of being Black. It was a time when Malcolm X stood tall and confronted the evils of racism in the North, and Dr. King stood just as tall and confronted the same racism in the South. Even though their approaches were different the outcome they sought was the same, and that was to jettison the shackles of oppression. Along the way, despite their different outlooks on life, there was one similarity and that was to be proud of being who they were as Black men and encouraged all of us, men and women, also to be proud.

           

I reflect on the times when our beautiful sisters were wearing afro’s and brothers also with afro’s and dashiki’s out of respect for the homelands. There were no songs (if you care to consider them songs) calling our woman the “b” word; instead beautiful love ballads like Curtis Mayfield’s “So in Love,” the Temptations, “Just My Imagination,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover.” There was Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “Make Yours a Happy Home;” and who can ever forget Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” These songs flow through our memories for those of us who were fortunate to live during this time, “When We Were Black.”

        

         

We knew something was special about being Black. We stuck out our chest when the great Muhammad Ali told America’s war machine, that he would not go thousands of miles away to fight a people who had never done a thing to him. We applauded Tommy Smith and John Carlos when they held their fists high in the air after they showed their superiority as athletes in the Olympics. Basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar took it one step further when he refused to try out for the 1968 Olympic Basketball team, because he did not want to represent a country that did not treat him as an equal.

     

We listened to our messengers through poetry; Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and especially Gil Scott-Heron when he told us the “Revolution would not be televised.” We read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and we learned from these talented and gifted writers. We took pride in the works of novelist John O. Killens co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild and intimately involved in the Black Arts Movement along with Amiri Baraka a poet, playwright, teacher and political activists. These artists inspired all of us and made us proud, “When We Were Black.”

     

With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we marveled at how quickly we took advantage of that law when Carl Stokes became the first elected Black mayor of a major city, Cleveland, Ohio in 1967, followed closely by Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana in 1968. They were soon followed by Black mayors in Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D. C. Black Americans were also winning congressional seats, and in 1969 thirteen men and women established the Congressional Black Caucus. These pioneers opened the doors for hundreds of Black elected officials in local, state and national politics leading to the election of the first Black President, Barack Obama in 2008, and it all began in those very proud years, “When We Were Black.”

I am not implying that we are not still proud of who we are today. We are, but we often have a tendency to forget those that went before us. My generation was indebted to men and women like Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and many others who really began the exploration as to who we really were as Black Americans. No longer subservient to another race, but our own men and women. And some day, this new generation of Blacks will look back and tell future generations of their greatness. And hopefully they will be just as proud as I am when I look back and proclaim with great pride, “When We Were Black.”

“Make Room for the Real America”

On the day in 2017 that Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States the “Make Room for the Real America,” crowd took control of the country from those of us who believed in the “Ideal America.” With the recent rise of white nationalism and the killings that are part of that movement, you often hear commentators make the statement, “we are not like that,” or “that is not us.”  But the truth about this country is not the idealistic picture painted most of the time, but in reality, the hateful, greedy, murderous America of Donald Trump and his ilk. Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Japanese and now Mexican Americans, Gays and Lesbians have been the target of white racism that has dominated this country’s history since its inception. A trip back in history will confirm my assertion about this country.

The late Dr. John Hope Franklin told us that if we want to solve a problem discover the source first, and the source for America’s problem would take us back to the Founding Fathers and the early settlers. The foundation for the creation of this country was the Declaration of Independence written by a man who was unable to abide by the dictates of that document. Once the revolution ended, George Washington, James Madison and thirty seven other men wrote a constitution that was inconsistent with the ideals found in the Declaration. For example, how could they deny an entire race of people their freedom but argue in the Declaration that “All men are created equal.”  Furthermore, how could they create a new country and lay claim to land already occupied by natives of the country. They did exactly what that crowd of “Make Room for the Real America” would do and that was to kill off the original inhabitants of the land or put them in what was nothing more than concentration camps called reservations. “Make Room for the Real America” superseded that “Ideal America.”

For a short period of time after the Civil War, approximately 10 years, the “Ideal America” finally surfaced with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment and it appeared that the dictates of the Declaration of Independence would become a reality. But the “Make Room for the Real America” crowd was not about to succumb to the notion that other minorities were just as equal as them. Once Rutherford B, Hayes and a congress, tired of the “Negro Issue,” pulled the troops out of the South and returned rule to the slavocracy class and” Make Room for the Real America” was back in charge. What followed was segregation, lynching, rape and the terroristic treatment of a race of people. According to the Alabama -based Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4,000 Black men and women were killed by lynching in a dozen Southern cities between 1877 and 1950.

In the later years of the 19th Century, the Chinese working on the transcontinental railroads and in the mines was exposed to the same racial hatred as the other minority groups. Labeled as the “yellow peril,” the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese to this country. The Japanese suffered from the wrath of the “Make Room for the Real America,” when their land was taken and they were locked up in concentration camps during World War II, an act that had the approval of  President Franklin Roosevelt as well as the United States Supreme Court. “To hell” with the Declaration of Independence, the “Make Room for the Real America,” was calling the shots.

For another short period of time during the 1960’s the “Ideal America” was able to grab control of the country. The Civil Rights Movement had a deep impact on the country and even the President, born in the South, joined the cause and the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act two years later. But that “Ideal America” soon dissipated with the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama,  the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and  Robert Kennedy. With the election of Richard M. Nixon, the “Make Room for the Real America” was back in charge.

There were periodic times when the “Ideal America” surfaced and it looked as though the country would finally live up to the dictates of the Declaration of Independence and especially with the election of the country’s first Black president in 2009. However, it was during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s tenure that the “Make Room for the Real America” re-grouped and their leader surfaced. Donald Trump gave them hope when he began his attacks on President Obama and kept them going for eight years.

Now, after two and a half years of Trump’s racist leadership in the White House, the “Make Room for the Real America,” has grown and is openly attacking what appears to be the new target of their sick cause to “Make America Great Again.” The brains behind this insurgent dangerous movement is the far-right wing Stephen Miller. He has led the attack against immigrants seeking asylum in this country. Undoubtedly, he is briefing Trump and giving him the ammunition to carry out this vicious attack on men, women, and children coming to our borders in hopes of a better life. This attack on Mexican American citizens, and our neighbors from the south is consistent with this country’s history. The “Make Room for the Real America,” consists of killers and it has been that way since the beginnings of this country. So, liberals and those who believe in the “Ideal America” need to stop reacting to these slaughters as if this is not what this country is all about. They need to stop this “we are not like that,” because this country “is like that,” and has been that way for a very long time.

Because I had the opportunity to live through two of the periods that the “Ideal America” was in control, that is the 1960’s and of course the period that President Obama was in office, I believe there is still hope that we can survive the ugliness we now confront. Those of us who believe in a better country than what we have must take the necessary action to bring about change. The coalition of groups that came together to put President Obama in office must do it again. However, the next time, that group must become a permanent America and maybe then we can say that “we are not like that,” and it will be a reality of who we really are.

A Historical Novel That Finally Sets the Record Straight

In June 2016, Sterling Zinsmeyer a Gay Activist from New York and now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, approached me about writing a novel on the life of one of the great thinkers of the Civil Rights Era, Bayard Rustin. Sterling has an excellent history of involvement in the Gay community. He established the first full-service HIV/AIDS treatment programs throughout the Bronx and Harlem. He also has a long history of LGBTQ political activism, serving two terms as President of the New York City Stonewall Democrats. Early in his career, he was involved in theatrical and television productions. He was the Executive Producer of the award-winning film, Latter Day and the acclaimed chamber opera, Fellow Travelers, which is presently touring the United States.

Joining our team to write this novel was a former Texas State Legislator, Lane Denton. He served in the State Legislature from 1971 to 1977 and was one of the members labeled “Dirty Thirty,” which was a label of honor. They were able to expose the corruption in the state legislature that led to a great deal of change in the operation of that body. He wrote the landmark Texas Open Records Law. He also served on the Ted Kennedy for President Staff in 1980. In 1975, he was selected as one of the Top 100 Leaders in the State of Texas. He was the Director of the Southwest Region in the President Jimmy Carter Administration. Lane is presently writing his memoirs to be released in 2020.

These two men joined me in writing this novel and it is a tribute to how two cultures, the Gay and African American culture can work together to effectuate change. It took three years of extensive research writing to complete this work. Following is the reason why all readers should want to reader this novel.

Bayard and Martin: A Historical Novel About Friendship and the Civil Rights Movement, finally sets the record straight about the important role a Gay Activist, Bayard Rustin, played in the success of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and 1960’s. This historical novel about one of the most critical periods in this nation’s history, provides the country with an outstanding rendition of the relationship between Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The novel takes the reader on a journey that begins in January 1956, when Rustin goes to Montgomery, Alabama, to instruct Dr. King on how best to utilize the concept of non-violence, as an effective way to fight the evils of segregation. The relationship between the two men grows, as Dr. King depends of Rustin to conceptualize an organization to continue his work to desegregate other areas of the South. Rustin draws up the blueprint for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). However, Rustin was disappointed when Dr. King suggests he become the first Executive Director of SCLC and the other ministers opposed him because he was a homosexual. Rustin was also disappointed when Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. threatened to accuse King of having an affair with Rustin, if King did not call off the boycott of the 1960 Democratic Convention.

For two years, King severed all contact with Rustin because of that threat, but by the end of 1962, they were back working together in organizing the proposed march on Washington, D.C., set for August 1963. It is apparent that King recognized his error ending their working relationship based on a bogus threat from Powell.  Rustin then organized and coordinated the most famous march in the country’s history, the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Without Rustin’s organizational skills, there never would have been Dr. King’s, “I have a dream” speech delivered that day at the Lincoln Memorial.

In this very important work, we three authors, collaborating on different segments of the story, point out that human rights are values that all people are guaranteed in this country, if we can only get beyond the petty prejudices that still exist. This is extremely important given what is happening today in the Nation Capitol. In this novel we also answer the question would Dr. King have considered the Gay Movement a civil rights issue? That answer in the pages of this novel is a resounding “YES.”

For the history buffs and all others who want to spend time reading a novel that educates, entertains and empowers, Bayard and Martin: A Historical Novel About Friendship and the Civil Rights Movement, is a must read.

 

 

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The Late Senator Birch Bayh: Best Friend of Black America

On March 14, 2019, one of the greatest liberal Senators in the history of that very august body passed away at the age of 91. Senator Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, was the quiet giant of Black Americans in the United States Senate from 1964 to 1980. I had the pleasure of working for him as a Legislative Aide and Political Adviser from the years 1976 to 1980. I can sincerely and honestly write that he sponsored every bill and amendment asked of him from Black Leadership at that time. I chuckle when I hear Black leaders today say that, “We Black Americans have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Senator Bayh was a permanent friend who never let us down. And he did so as a Senator from what today is considered a “Red State.”

Senator Birch Bayh

Senator Bayh unfortunately had to operate in the shadow of his close friend Senator Ted Kennedy.  He did not possess the name and the flair of a Kennedy, but he had the heart of a giant when taking on causes important to my people. I met on a regular basis with Eddie Williams of the Joint Center for Political Studies, Ronald Brown of the Urban League, Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP and Jesse Jackson, and they would often suggest amendments to legislation they would want Senator Bayh to sponsor. Not once did he say no.

Senator Bayh was one of the leaders who fought to get representation for the residents of the District of Columbia in the Senate. He also supported a Constitutional Amendment, that if passed would have made the District a state. He was one of the very few Senators who supported a proposal to force the Senate to comply with equal opportunity employment, comparable to what existed in the executive branch.

I vividly recall in February 1979 attending a meeting with him in Senator Kennedy’s office. When we arrived, Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Congressman John Conyers were there. Mrs. King asked the two Senators if they would introduce a bill, in the Judiciary Committee, to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Both Kennedy and Bayh agreed to introduce the legislation, and I worked closely with Peter Parham of Kennedy’s staff to organize the hearing. It might have been the first time that two Black staffers had responsibility to head up a hearing, for their respective Senators. The late Reginald Gilliam of Senator John Glenn’s staff worked closely with us. The proposed legislation was eventually tabled, but it did open up the discussion as to the value to the country to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, and ultimately led to passage in 1983.

One of the Senator’s greatest disappointments occurred when Black leadership turned their backs on his more important proposal, and that was to amend the Constitution from the electoral college to direct elections of the President. I will never forget the call I received late at night from the Senator, when he found out that Vernon Jordan and the other leaders would support Senator Strom Thurmond’s attempt to defeat the proposed direct election legislation. When I confronted Eddie Williams on their betrayal of their best friend in the Senate, he simply recited their favorite mantra, “no permanent friends nor permanent enemies only permanent interests.” That was one of the worst distortions of the facts. Strom Thurmond had never been our friend, and electoral college was not in the best interest of Black America as we all now realize, and no doubt, Senator Birch Bayh was a permanent friend.

                    

The only Senator in the history of that body to match Birch Bayh’s dedication to Black equality was Charles Sumner over one-hundred years before him. It will probably be another hundred years before we experience someone, not Black, who will show the same commitment to Black Americans in this country as did my friend and boss for three year, and a true leader of all liberal causes the late and great Senator Birch Bayh from Indiana.