Friday, February 17, 2012

Zinn, Chapter 17

This is one of a multi-part blog series in Howard Zinn's groundbreaking and controversial book, "A People's History of the United States."
Zinn starts the chapter (17) by sharing some of the powerful poetry and prose of the Harlem Renaissance. I had learned in one of my classes that Richard Wright was first a communist and then became a radical conservative later in his life. Reading Zinn helps me understand why - when Communism as such becomes a self-serving rather than a people-serving Entity, it's time to move on. As usual, it's not about a title or a name but about whether something helps or hurts the U.S. economy.

Harry Truman created a Committe on Civil Rights in 1946: "Truman's Committee was blunt about its motivation in making these recommendations. Yes, it said, there was "moral reason": a matter of conscience. But there was also an "economic reason"- discrimination was costly to the country, wasteful of its talent. And, perhaps most important, there was an international reason:
"Our position in the post-war world is so vital to the future that our smallest actions have tar- reaching effects. .. . We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world's press and radio are full of it. . ., Those with competing philosophies have stressed-and are shamelessly distorting-our shortcomings. . . . They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people. This may seem ludicrous to Americans, but it is sufficiently important to worry our friends. The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record."
 Kind of resonates with me today as well.

Finally Truman began slowly enforcing laws that had been on the books for a while, things like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Segregation ended by law but was followed with a lot of backlash and a lot of the important Civil Rights stories we all know about.

Here's one I hadn't heard:

In Lee County, Georgia, after the events of 1961-1962, a black teenager named James Crawford joined SNCC and began taking black people to the county courthouse to vote. One day, bringing a woman there, he was approached by the deputy registrar. Another SNCC worker took notes on the conversation:
REGISTRAR: What do you want?
CRAWFORD: I brought this lady down to register.
REGISTRAR: (after giving the woman a card to fill out and sending her outside in the hall) Why did you bring this lady down here?
CRAWFORD: Because she wants to be a first class citizen like y'all.
REGISTRAR: Who are you to bring people down to register?
CRAWFORD: It's my job.
REGISTRAR: Suppose you get two bullets in your head right now?
CRAWFORD: I got to die anyhow.
REGISTRAR: If I don't do it, I can get somebody else to do it. (No reply)
REGISTRAR: Are you scared?
REGISTRAR: Suppose somebody came in that door and shoot you in the back of the head right now. What would you do?
CRAWFORD:I couldn't do nothing. If they shoot me in the back of the head there are people coming from all over the world.
CRAWFORD: What people?
REGISTRAR: The people I work for.

More stringent and effective laws were passed to give blacks federal physical protection when they went to register to vote. Yet the violence against blacks escalated. When a contingent went to march on Washington, the Democrats in power tried to pacify and [my words] whitewash the situation. In many ways, the politicians of that and other times have used the momentum of morally correct movements but tried to dull it and twist it to their own benefit, to control it for their own contexts.

Zinn writes about the difference between the Civil Rights movement in the South, which started out as peacefully as possible (and in so doing helped keep national opinion on the side of the oppressed), while the movement in the North faced different problems and different practices.

Malcolm X and many like him advocated for Black Power. In 1964 he said: "You'll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything to get your freedom; then you'll get it. It's the only way you'll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they'll label you as a "crazy Negro," or they'll call you a "crazy nigger"—they don't say Negro. Or they'll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough and get enough people to be like you, you'll get your freedom." Strength and persistent were important because other means weren't working.

Martin Luther King Jr. approached the issue from a different angle and "became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws-problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty:
"... it's inevitable that we've got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development... when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer."
The FBI had him followed and threatened, and I believe it was his opposition to the imperialistic corporate fascism he saw in our foreign and domestic policy that got him killed (I've written about this, quoting King at length, at the link cited).

A few stories of the other atrocities at the time:
  1. In the 1967 riots in Detroit, three black teen-agers were killed in the Algiers Motel. Three Detroit policemen and a black private guard were tried for this triple murder. The defense conceded, a UPI dispatch said, that the four men had shot two of the blacks. A jury exonerated them.
  2. In Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 1970, on the campus of Jackson State College, a Negro college, police laid down a 28-second barrage of gunfire, using shotguns, rifles, and a submachine gun. Four hundred bullets or pieces of buckshot struck the girls' dormitory and two black students were killed. A local grand jury found the attack "justified" and U.S. District Court Judge Harold Cox (a Kennedy appointee) declared that students who engage in civil disorders "must expect to he injured or killed."
  3. In Boston in April 1970, a policeman shot and killed an unarmed black man, a patient in a ward in the Boston City Hospital, firing five shots after the black man snapped a towel at him. The chief judge of the municipal court of Boston exonerated the policeman. (This italicizsed list is quoted directly from Zinn.)
Stuff like this continued to happen and the government tried different means to enforce integration, sometimes successfully but more often resulting in class conflicts between rich and poor as well as race conflicts. As usual, it was the powerful rich against the systematically and repeatedly oppressed.

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