What a Difference 44 Years Make

With Barack Obama getting the Democratic nomination this week, it’s amazing to think that just 44 years ago, African Americans were excluded from the Democratic Party in some Southern states.

It was 1964. The Democratic National Convention was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The nominees were Lyndon Johnson for president and Hubert Humphrey for vice president. Blacks in Mississippi who had attempted to attend Democratic Party meetings had routinely been turned away at the door. They had not been able to participate in electing delegates to the Convention. And besides, the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party was demanding “separation of the races in all phases of society.”

Bob Moses and the staff of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) decided to fight back. They organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and attended the Democratic Convention. This group of 64 black citizens and four white citizens from Mississippi demanded to replace the all-white Democratic Party members from Mississippi. They argued that the existing delegates represented a segregated all-white party that had been illegally elected to represent their state, since segregation violated federal law.

One of the leaders was a sharecropper named Fannie Lou Hamer. One of twenty children and the granddaughter of slaves, she was evicted from the plantation she’d been raised on for registering to vote.

She remained an activist though, and after attending a literacy workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she was arrested on false charges and taken to jail, where she was brutally beaten.

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Hamer gave a passionate speech and portions of it were played on national television. In her speech she asked:

“Is this America, the land of the free and home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

While I was researching my book A Thousand Never Evers, I read a lot about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But it was just last week I discovered that my father, Harvey Burg, actually played a small part in this piece of history. I was interviewing him about his job as a civil rights lawyer in Alabama in the 1960s. (Click here to read the full interview.) That’s when we got to talking about the 1964 Democratic Convention.

“I was privileged to be one of the civil rights workers advocating the seating of black delegates from this newly-formed Party,” my dad told me. He described how, after lots of fighting, the Democratic Party offered a “compromise,” which was two at-large seats.

The “compromise” was that members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would be able to observe proceedings but they still couldn’t vote for a candidate at the Convention. “The national Democratic Party officials said this was an important first step, and the President and Vice Presidential candidates urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept,” my dad explained.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi delegation, and the leading civil rights figures of the time went to a church in Atlantic City to discuss whether to accept the offer. “The meeting stretched on for hours and hours,” my dad explained. “It was one of the greatest demonstrations of democracy in action that I have ever seen in my life. National leaders of the civil rights movement like Roy Wilkins, Dr. King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, James Farmer, and of course, Fannie Lou Hamer, all discussed their heartfelt positions.”

In the end, though, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rejected the compromise, because they did not want a symbolic or token victory. They wanted real change. “This principled stand set the change for a great many reforms to come,” my dad told me.

The next day, members of the MFDP resorted to direct action, picketing on the Jersey Boardwalk and protesting on the convention floor.

With that history in mind, it’s especially exciting to watch this political season unfold.

Classroom Resources: Check out this outstanding documentary on youtube.com titled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” It covers civil rights in Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the MFDP. Ten minutes long and narrated by young people, it’s a natural for showing to middle and high school students. Also, teachers, for an in-depth account of the MDFP, read the chapter devoted to it in Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippiby John Dittmer.

Posted on 08/27/2008 05:36 pm | Comments Off

Abuzz in Boston

It’s been quite an exciting homecoming here in Boston. Last week, I had the honor of taping a segment of TheThe Literati Scene Literati Scene, a Boston Neighborhood Network TV show hosted by Smoki Bacon and Dick Concannon. There were several authors invited, and after we taped, we ate lunch at the Park Plaza Hotel and discussed politics. It was most interesting to hear the analysis of Sophie Freud, a social worker, author, and granddaughter of the late great Sigmund Freud.

That night Random House hosted a magnificent dinner for me at the Lenox Hotel’s restaurant Azure. It was a real treat to meet so many of the superstars who dwell in that magical world where literature and education collide.

Guests included: Susan Bloom, Professor Emerita and former director of the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature; Betsey Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books & Toys; Kim French, former editorial staffer at Random House and outstanding teacher at Edward Devotion School; Lori Kauffman from Brookline Booksmith; Dr. Marilyn A. McCaffrey, Professor Emerita of English and Guardian of the Robert Cormier Manuscript Collection at Fitchburg State College; Alison Morris of Wellesley Booksmith and ShelfTalker fame; Charlene Peters of The Marblehead Reporter; and Terri Schmitz, owner of The Children’s Bookshop. I was thrilled that Smoki and Dick joined us for dinner too. Gobs of appreciation to Tracy Lerner, Library Marketing Manager of Random House Children’s Books, our terrific host for the evening.

The next day, I visited with relatives and old friends. Then it was time to begin preparation for another bookstore event at The Spirit of ’76 Bookstore in my hometown of Marblehead. This event felt like an episode of that old show “This is Your Life.” The store was full of people I’ve known since I was born, including my childhood neighbors, the Macks, and three of my favorite Marblehead teachers: Marcia Williams-Lord (Grades 4 and 5), Jan Darsa (9th Grade English), and Marilyn Day (Advisor to the High School Newspaper). Thank you, thank you to everyone who attended and most especially to bookstore manager Hilary Lay.

Posted on 08/21/2008 12:06 pm | Comments Off

Resegregating Our Schools

Contrary to what people may think, the true story of desegregation in our nation’s public schools is not stuck in history books. It’s a current event. Or perhaps, more accurately, a future aspiration.

How many of us realize that since the 1980s our nation’s schools have not been desegregating but resegregating black and Latino students? Scholars from the UCLA Civil Rights Project Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee discuss this in their paper Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality (2005). They write:

U.S. schools are now 41 percent nonwhite and the great majority of the nonwhite students attend schools which now show substantial segregation. Levels of segregation for black and Latino students have been steadily increasing since the l980s…

Before we go any further, a legal briefing (although those of you who took high school Latin can skip ahead to the next paragraph): De jure means by law. And de facto means through practice.

So school segregation mandated by Jim Crow Laws was de jure, until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that declared that segregation in the public schools was against the law nationwide.

Today we have de facto racial segregation, meaning there’s a separation of races not due to law but other factors. As Orfield and Lee write:

The high level of poverty among children, together with many housing policies and practices which excludes poor people from most communities, mean that students in inner city schools face isolation not only from the white community but also from middle class schools.

Some school systems have successfully worked to overcome de facto segregation by implementing policies that deliberately create a racial mix of students in each school.

However, last year, in landmark cases, the Supreme Court found that the racial integration efforts in both Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington were unconstitutional. In July, Emily Bazelon published a fascinating article about these cases titled “The Next Kind of Integration” in the New York Times Magazine. She explores whether desegregation based on factors other than race—perhaps socioeconomic status or parental education level—is the wave of the future.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted on 08/10/2008 12:13 pm | 2 Comments

Kids Rock in Kentucky!

This week my sister, Rachel Belin, hosted a book release party for me at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky. A huge thank you to Rachel, to everyone who showed up, and especially to Brooke Raby and the Joseph-Beth staff. The “Read One, Give One” program was a big success, and we managed to collect a whole boxful of books to donate to a Fayette County school in need of literary assistance.

My favorite part of the night was meeting all the young readers and writers who came to say hi. Eleven-year-old Alexus Dunn told me she reads “really big books all the time.” And her nine-year-old brother Nehemiah asked me excellent questions about who turns a manuscript into an actual book and how much money it takes to do that.

Then thirteen-year-old Anne-Marie Campbell and her mom came to say hello. Anne-Marie is home schooled and had already read A Thousand Never Evers. She had a list of interesting questions for me, before she revealed that she too is a writer with a rigorous daily practice and a novel underway.

Abby MillerAlso, twelve-year-old Abby Miller and her fourteen-year-old sister were there. Abby and Emily, along with their mom Lisa, have their own book on the shelves of Joseph-Beth. It’s called Girls Rock! Just the Way We Are: Wise Teens Offer Tweens & Moms Advice on Healthy Body Image, Self-Esteem & Personal Empowerment. I think I’m going to read it right now.

Posted on 08/04/2008 05:27 pm | Comments Off

Who Admits to Race Bias?

The Washington Post and ABC News recently released a joint poll about the impact of race on the presidential election.

…nearly half of all Americans say race relations in the country are in bad shape, and three in 10 acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice.

The survey also reveals that:

More than six in 10 African Americans now rate race relations as “not so good” or “poor,” while 53 percent of whites hold more positive views.

So the majority of whites claim to hold more positive views of race relations? I hate to be cynical, but I have to wonder what the gap is between one’s professed views and his or her actual views, especially after the telephone conversation I had about two months ago with RJ (not his real name), who told me he’s absolutely not prejudiced and there’s no race problem in his state.

RJ is a white man in his seventies who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He does church-related work and has lived and worked in the Deep South all his life.

I decided to send RJ my new book for young readers, because I heard he had contacts with a large network of private schools in the South. My book A Thousand Never Evers is set in 1963 Mississippi and recounts a 12-year-old African American girl’s personal struggle to come to terms with her racist society. I was hoping that RJ might introduce the book to educators he knows.

“So how did you like it?” I asked.

“We come from two different opinions on this stuff,” RJ told me. Then he drew in a breath. A really big breath. And from there, he spoke his mind—seven single-spaced pages worth.

When I asked if I could use what he wrote on my website, he said I could so long as I didn’t use his name. He said, “To tell the truth the way it is could be real dangerous.”

Normally, I’m against using quotes without a real name, but in this case, I’ve decided to make an exception, because I think it’s critical to remember that there are people in our country who think the way RJ does. While RJ’s thoughts may not be unique, what is unusual is how he communicates them: plain and simple. He doesn’t even attempt to drape his ideas in euphemism or cloak them in good manners. And RJ, himself, doesn’t see his statements as racist at all.

During our talk, which focused on the civil rights movement, RJ said some things that I’d expect to find as dialogue in works by William Faulkner or Harper Lee:

I believe the biggest problem with a lot of people is a deep-seated culture. That’s why the conflicts happen. I live here and there are still black people living on plantations. For some reason they’ve never elevated to the point they can make it on their own.

When I asked RJ whether he felt poverty played a role in the problems he perceives, he said:

I don’t think so. I grew up poor. Even though I didn’t have two pair of overalls to wear, they were clean. Even though we didn’t have a bathtub, I got in a washtub. I had to take my lunch to school. I couldn’t afford to buy it. I know all about poverty. I think anyone in the free enterprise system who has a desire to be better can be.

The next part of what RJ told me caused my jaw to drop and almost hit my desk. But somehow I managed to keep typing. He said:

Have you ever seen the people in Africa? Don’t you think the people who were brought here as slaves had an advantage over the people who weren’t brought here? Over there they died like flies. Many of them who were brought here were taken care of by the slave owners who paid their doctor bills, gave them food to eat, clothes to wear. It was a blessing for them. Had I been born in Africa I sure would have been glad to get out of there.

RJ then said that when he was a young man, one of his closest friends was African American. I asked if he socializes with any African American people now. He said no:

But if I go to a restaurant where they are, I don’t mind talking and visiting with them. They’re more segregated than I would be. They like their own kind. Would you feel uncomfortable to be invited to a house where someone eats with chopsticks?

Not sure where this was going, I told him that I like exploring other cultures. He challenged me:

Would you like to eat pig lips, pig feet, cow intestines? They have that in the grocery store. You can buy pickled pig lips and pickled pig feet and chitlins (pig intestines). I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a pigpen but it’s very smelly. There’s a lot of things in their culture they brought from Africa and they haven’t given them up.

I could almost imagine RJ having the exact same discussion with one of his buddies, while sitting out on a porch somewhere on a steamy Mississippi Delta evening in 1963. Almost. Except in 2008, RJ is wrestling with the progress of our nation, and it seems he sees some good in it. After all I’ve heard, I’m astonished when he then says:

The civil rights movement measures up with our Constitution that all men are created equal. I’ve always believed that. I don’t know why there’s that resentment. One of the greatest ideas (came from) Martin Luther King. He might have gone overboard on some things, but he was right on other things.

When I tell him that a lot of what he says sounds racist, he says:

I’m not prejudiced. Absolutely not….The reason I’m speaking out the way I am is that the other side of the coin is never addressed. It’s absolutely culture not race. I don’t think there’s a problem whatsoever about race.

So I can’t help but wonder whether RJ would be categorized in a survey as a white American with positive views of race relations in our country.

And I can’t help but think we’d all benefit from more honest discussions such as the one I had with RJ, or the one we had as a nation in the wake of the recently-publicized statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

They may be uncomfortable talks, sure, but what better way is there to deal with these scars? We’ve got to reopen these wounds and look at them anew. It’s the fundamental lesson of democracy: We’re not all going to agree but it’s by listening to each other we might gain a better understanding of the conflict.

One thing’s certain: Over the next four months until the general election—through surveys, discussion and debate, and the vote itself—the picture of race relations in America will become more clear to us all.

Posted on 06/08/2008 12:27 am | Comments Off

How Far Have We Come?

Well, I’m finally taking the plunge into the blogosphere! I’m so excited about this technology. I’ve got lots of ideas for posts and I look forward to hearing your opinions. Please join me to explore civil rights issues, examine historical tidbits, and sit beside me as my first book hits the shelves. Here is my first post:

I’m always wondering how far we’ve come as a country in addressing racial inequality since the civil rights movement. In my book, twelve-year-old Addie Ann Pickett attends a civil rights meeting at her church. The speaker, Tyrone Tubbs, is trying to motivate the black folk in the church to participate in the movement. To this end, he reads out a part of the speech that President Kennedy gave on national television on June 11, 1963, the night Medgar Evers was shot.

In this famous civil rights speech , President Kennedy said:

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning ten thousand dollars a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

That said, I was most interested to open the Economist magazine this week, 45 years after that speech, and get the update. An article titled , “Nearer to Overcoming” begins:

Barack Obama’s success shows that the ceiling has risen for many African-Americans. But many are still too close to the floor.

The article points out the good news: Back then, blacks in the South couldn’t vote. Today they can run for president. Back then Southern blacks couldn’t attend the same schools as white children. Today black and white students sit side by side. Then it lists the dim statistics:

Blacks’ median household income is still only 63% of whites’. Academically, black children at 17 perform no better than a white 13-year-old. Blacks die, on average, five years earlier than whites. And though the black middle class has grown immensely, many blacks are still stuck in crime-scorched, nearly jobless ghettos.

So what do you think? How far has this nation come? What can we be proud of? And how can we chart a path for progress in the future?

Posted on 05/15/2008 12:34 am | Comments Off
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