My Vote Don’t Count

Rap-video that every young person thinking about not voting must see

by Denise Oliver Velez

I jumped for joy when I saw the latest video from Tyheir Kindred, a Dayton, Ohio rapper who goes by the name of YelloPain. It’s called, “My Vote Don't Count.”  Check him out, @YelloPain

I’ve spent years trying to teach young folks about why they should vote, which has often been frustrating, because many of them are getting strong messages that tell them why they shouldn’t be bothered. I’ve even dragged out the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill” trying to explain how a bill becomes a law to young people who don’t seem to get civics in school.

I talked about this a while back in Whatever happened to civics? and Rochaun Meadows Fernandez addressed last year in Voter suppression starts with a lack of civics education.

Kindred switches from rapping in the introduction about why people are discouraged and why they think their votes don’t count, to why they have to vote. He breaks down the difference between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government, and makes it clear that elections are not just about the President. 

He has offered non-voters a better education about the power of voting in this short video than most young folks will ever get in school.

In all my years of teaching, I never had a college student who knew the names of their state assembly person or state senator. I rarely had students who could name their DC congressional rep or our two senators. I remember watching long lines of students on my campus, which lasted till the polls closed, voting for Obama in 2008. Two years later, I stood outside the campus polling place, and only about 11 students showed up during the three hours I watched. Midterms were just not important. Congressional elections were not important. YelloPain addresses this in his rap (see full lyrics here)

We gotta focus on the Legislative branch; yeah they the ones that make the Laws
Yeah they the ones that write how much food stamps money you get on the card
But when people that wanted to help us wanted the job
I know they probably lost
Cause we ain’t even know they name, we ain’t know they face, we ain’t know at all
So the Congress or the State House that’s the Legislative, they make Laws
So what we want from the President is what they do, okay y’all?
See they election every two years but we don’t ever even go to those
The Congress they could raise minimum wage                                                              
but we ain’t even really know it though
So you know how back in ’08, when we all voted for Obama
We was all supposed to go back in 2010 and voted for the Congress
Cause they the ones that make child support laws
They the ones choose if your kids at school get to eat steak or corn dogs
The state house makes the courthouse
So if the country fail you can’t say it’s them, it’s your fault
Cause ya ain't know to know to vote for Congress members that was for y’all
And they don’t gotta leave at the four years and we just let ‘em sit
See, they don’t want to tell you this they want you to focus on the President


Republished from DailyKos


Editorial postscript:

by Randall Hill

What I like most about Yellopain's video is the emphasis on the concept that "All politics is local", a common phrase in U.S. politics and how he explained the realities of the executive branch.

My father and I have debated about Trump since he became president. I've always assumed Trump would be re-elected; even during the Mueller era and through the impeachment process. The first time I believed that Trump might not be re-elected was when I saw the first Michael Bloomberg commercial and realized the billionaire class probably doesn't care which billionaire gets elected. Trump and Bloomberg will promote tax and other policy that benefits billionaires. Systems are designed to protect the wealth, power and self-interest of those who create them.

"None Dare Call It Conspiracy" was a book written in 1971 that asserted, modern political and economic systems in most developed nations are the result of a sweeping conspiracy by the power elite. Billionaires control media and contribute the most to candidates and their support determines who can realistically run for high office. The 1939 movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" illustrates that point perfectly.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, I don't have a preferred candidate in the Democratic primary, I don't care who wins the nomination, none of them excites me. Bernie Sanders who would have been my preferred candidate out of those still standing disappointed when he originally expressed that he did not support reparations. Ultimately, I believe Bloomberg will capture the nomination. As mentioned a few years ago in "Billionaire Overthrow of Government": billionaires are no longer content with simply influencing or directing the actions of others, they want the actual authority that comes from holding public office.

Each new Presidential administration, whether it be Republican or Democrat continues the same basic policies of the previous administration which it had so thoroughly denounced during the election campaign. The Democrats and Republicans seem to be engaged in good cop/bad cop, but are actually working towards the same agenda because nothing ever changes. 

As Killer Mike so eloquently expressed, we're arguing about which presidential candidate will make the better slave master.

100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, a look back at what was lost

by Rob Ruck, University of Pittsburgh

During the half century that baseball was divided by a color line, black America created a sporting world of its own.

Josh Gibson slides into home during the 1944 Negro Leagues All-Star Game. 

Black teams played on city sandlots and country fields, with the best barnstorming their way across the country and throughout the Caribbean.

A century ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, teams from eight cities formally created the Negro National League. Three decades of stellar play followed, as the league affirmed black competence and grace on the field, while forging a collective identity that brought together Northern-born blacks and their Southern brethren. And though Major League Baseball was segregated from the 1890s until 1947, these teams played countless interracial games in communities across the nation.

After World War II, Jackie Robinson hurdled baseball’s racial divide. But while integration – baseball’s great experiment – was a resounding success on the field, at the gates and in changing racial attitudes, Negro League teams soon lost all of their stars and struggled to retain fans. The teams hung on for a bit, before eventually folding.

Years ago, when I worked on a documentary about the Negro Leagues, I was struck by how many of the interviewees looked back longingly on the leagues’ heyday. While there was the understanding that integration needed to happen, there was also the recognition that something special was forever lost.

A league of their own

Given the injustices of the 1890s – sharecropping, lynchings, disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson – exclusion from Major League Baseball was hardly the most grievous injury African Americans suffered. But it mattered. Their absence denied them the chance to participate in a very visible arena that helped European immigrants integrate into American culture.

While the sons of white immigrants – John McGraw, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio – became major leaguers lionized by their nationalities, blacks didn’t have that opportunity. Most whites assumed that was because they weren’t good enough. Their absence reinforced prevailing beliefs that African Americans were inherently inferior – athletically and intellectually – with weak abdominal muscles, little endurance and prone to cracking under pressure.

The Negro Leagues gave black ballplayers their own platform to prove otherwise. On Feb. 13, 1920, Chicago American Giants owner Rube Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to organize the Negro National League. A Texas-born pitcher, Foster envisioned a black alternative to the major leagues.

Members of the Chicago American Giants pose for a team portrait in 1914. Rube Foster is seated in the center of the first row wearing a suit.

Northern black communities were exploding in size, and Foster saw the league’s potential. Teams like the American Giants and the Kansas City Monarch regularly competed against white teams, drew large crowds and turned profits. Players enjoyed higher salaries than most black workers, while black newspapers trumpeted their exploits, as did some white papers.

Other leagues cropped up; the Negro National League was soon joined by the Negro American League and the Negro Southern League. Some years, the Negro National and Negro American Leagues played a Negro League World Series. The leagues also sent their best players to the East-West All-Star Classic, an annual exhibition game in Chicago.

But the Negro National League’s ascent was stunted after Foster was exposed to a gas leak, nearly died and suffered permanent brain damage. Absent his leadership and hammered by the Great Depression, the league disbanded in 1931.

Life in the Negro Leagues

A proving ground

Gus Greenlee, who ran the popular lottery known as the numbers game, revived the league in Pittsburgh in 1933 after a sandlot club called the Crawfords, which included the young slugger Josh Gibson, approached him for support. He agreed to pay them salaries and reinforced their roster with the addition of flamethrower Satchel Paige.

Satchel Paige. 

Greenlee went on to build the finest black-owned ballpark in the country, Greenlee Field, while headquartering the Negro National League on the floor above the Crawford Grill, his renowned jazz club in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Pittsburgh soon became the mecca of black baseball. Sitting along America’s East-West rail lines, the city was a requisite stop for black entertainers, leaders and ball clubs, which traveled from cities as far away as Kansas City. Its two teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, won a dozen titles. Seven of the first 11 Negro Leaguers eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – stars like Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige – played for one or both squads.

The sport, meanwhile, became a major source of black pride.

“The very best,” Pittsburgh-born author John Wideman noted, “not only competed among themselves and put on a good show, but [also] would go out and compete against their white contemporaries and beat the stuffing out of them.”

Satchel Paige and the Crawfords famously defeated St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean in an exhibition game in Cleveland – just two weeks after the Cardinals had won the 1934 World Series. Overall, Negro League teams won far more games against white squads than they lost.

“There was so much [negativity] living over [us] which we had no control [over],” Mal Goode, the first black national network correspondent, recalled. “So anything you could hold on to from the standpoint of pride, it was there and it showed.”

Sacrificed on integration’s altar

For Major League Baseball, no moment was more transformative than the arrival of Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, paved the way for African Americans and darker-skinned Latinos to reshape the game.

But integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, plucking its young stars – Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks – who brought their fans with them. The big leagues never considered folding in some of the best black teams, and its owners rejected the Negro National League owners’ proposal to become a high minor league.

Like many black papers, colleges and businesses, the Negro National League paid a price for integration: extinction. The league ceased play after the 1948 season. Black owners, general managers and managers soon disappeared, and it would be decades before a black manager would get a chance to steer a major league ballclub.

Major League Baseball benefited from talent cultivated in the Negro Leagues and on the sandlots that sustained the sport, especially in inner cities. But when those leagues crumbled, prospective black pros were relegated to minor league teams, often in inhospitable, southern cities. Many Negro League regulars simply hung up their cleats or played in the Caribbean.

The playwright August Wilson set his play, “Fences,” which tells the story of an ex-Negro Leaguer who becomes a garbageman in Pittsburgh.

“Baseball gave you a sense of belonging,” Wilson said in a 1991 interview. At those Negro League games, he added, “The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.”

The story of African Americans in baseball has long been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport invested in its own rhetoric of democracy.

But for African Americans, integration was also painful. Although long overdue and an important catalyst for social change, it cost them control over their sporting lives.

It changed the meaning of the sport – what it symbolized and what it meant for their communities – and not necessarily for the better.

Soul of the Game is a 1996 made-for-television movie about Negro league baseball.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Black African Saint Valentine

by Aphra Behn

Who was Saint Valentine? Well, Saint Valentine was a priest. Or maybe, a bishop. Or possibly, a martyr… an African martyr. Ahhh, listen to the wingnut heads explode as we consider the possibility that good old St. Valentine might not have been a blue-eyed blonde-haired European, but a Berber, a Semite, an Ethiopian. Maybe, in fact, a recognizable black man.

Little is known personally about Saint Valentine the martyr of Africa. But he would have lived in the multi-ethnic, multi-colored world of later Imperial Rome, where Africans played key roles in the development of "Western" Civilization. Whether it’s founding monasticism, writing literature, developing theology, or sitting on the imperial throne of Rome itself, Africans were everywhere in this world. Join me for a joint Valentine's Day-Black History Month special, as we try to re-imagine the world of Saint Valentine…in all its colors.

The World of St. Valentine

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Of the three men known as "Saint Valentine," the African martyr is the least well known; no romantic associations are attached to his legend, and beyond his martyrdom in what is now North Africa around the year 270, little is recorded of his life. In that year, Roman rule encompassed many provinces across the northern band of the continent, stretching from Egypt to modern-day Morocco.

In the previous centuries, northern Africa had seen waves of colonization by Semitic-speaking Phoenicians (Carthage), Greek-speaking Macedonian and Hellenes (in Libya and Egypt). These newcomers mixed with the native Afro-Asiatic inhabitants of the area, dubbed "Berbers" by the Greeks. It wasn't a compliment; the term is related to the term "barbarian" as a derogatory name for non-Greek speakers: people whose language was nonsense–"berberberberber," the approximate equivalent of "blablahblah." Their own name for themselves is "Amazigh" or "Imazighen," "free men."

19th century engraving of Amazigh cavalry on the column of Trajan
19th century engraving of the Column of Trajan showing Amazigh cavalry

By the time of St. Valentine, the entire northern part of Africa had come under Roman jurisdiction, in the form of the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, “Africa” (which included Tunisia as well as parts of Algeria and Libya), Cyrenaica, and Egypt. Ethnic Latins and the other peoples of the Roman Empire mingled with all of the other peoples of the area. Throw in extensive trading links to Nubia (Kush) and Ethiopia, and we can imagine those provinces as an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse mix of peoples, languages, and goods. Kushite mercenaries mixed with Romanized Amazigh merchants, Egyptian priests of Isis, and Greek-speaking Latin administrators in the cities of Alexandria and other cities. From these provinces, Rome was well-supplied with grains, figs, grapes, beans, marble, pottery, olives, textiles, and papyrus. Many goods, many languages, and many colors of skin.

Philosophers and Emperors

Female mummy portrait from brooklyn Museum
Female mummy portrait from the Brooklyn Museum, Roman period of Egypt.

Ideas, religions, and philosophies flowed in and out along with the trade goods. Part of the wider Hellenistic (Greek) world, Alexandria in particular attracted many noted philosophers and produced its own. Alexandria would be come legendary for its library and its schools, for philosophers such as the great female mathematician Hypatia (of a much later period).

A few others included Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria around 40 CE, worked to reconcile Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy. The Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Askalon eventually settled in Alexandria, and taught a number of pupils, including Arius Didymus. Didymus, a Stoic thinker, was a friend of Emperor Octavian (Augustus); allegedly their friendship helped save Alexandria from destruction as he battled Mark Antony for control of Egypt and Rome.

Did I say friends of emperors? How about Africa as the source of emperors? In CE 193, Libyan native Lucius Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Although not born into the Senatorial class, he had been made a senator by Marcus Aurelius in 172, and had made a name for himself in the army. His rule was rent by wars and financial difficulty, but he also made significant military and legal reforms in the Empire:

Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers' pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. …. The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime…. The emperor's position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office.

Bust of Septimius Severrus from Munich
Bust of Septimius Severus, Munich

During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.—Michael L. Meckler Ohio State University

The First Black Emperor?

We've established that Severus was from Africa. Was he "black"? (This is a Black History Month diary, after all.) Frustratingly for modern North Americans, the ancient Romans did not share our view of race. Pre-Darwinian in their thinking, they certainly did not categorize inheritable characteristics as 19th century racist theorists did (and as their 21st century counterparts sadly still do.) They recorded physical characteristics sometimes, but not for the convenience of modern US racial categories. Their lines of "us and them" were drawn more firmly around notions of citizenship than race, "civility" (i.e., Hellenization) than ethnicity.

Linguistics suggest that Severus' family was Phoenician in background; the Severan Tondo, a rare surviving painting, suggests he may have been darker complected than his wife, who was of Latin descent.

The Severan Tondo,a protrait of Emperor Septimus and his family
The Severan Tondo, in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

He might not have been considered black today, but there’s a good chance he would not be considered white, either, in modern North America. And it is no exaggeration to say that many of the authors and figures we consider "Roman" were in fact not simply Latinate, but from a wide mix of peoples and "races": Germanic. Amazigh (Berber). Celtic. Egyptian. Macedonian. Germanic. And more…

An Amazigh Author

Take Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus, author of The Golden Ass and other "Roman" works. He was a follower of the Mystery religion of Isis, one of Egypt's great exports to the Hellenic World. The Golden Ass is a funny, often bawdy, yet deeply spiritual account of one initiate's travels through this religion of love, magic, and transformation. He was also the author of several philosophical treatises. Sometime between 150 and 160, he was accused of practicing malignant magic, entrapping a wealthy older widow into marrying him. His defense, so eloquent that it was preserved, explicitly claimed his own status as a "barbarian" (Berber), and contains this impassioned, unapologetic assertion of his African identity:

About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this…Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.

I don't know about you, but when I studied Apuleius' works in school, he was presented to me as "Roman" author, rather than an African one. While not denying that he was part of a wider Latin-speaking community and living in a Roman polity, is it not also significant that this practitioner of an African mystery religion was also proud of his African roots? Again, it’s impossible to say if he would be seen as “black” today. Amazigh people have many different complexions. But he did not self-identify as simply Roman, and it seems only right to acknowledge that.

Saint Valentine and the African Martyrs

And what about poor St. Valentine? I haven't forgotten him. Frankly, we don't know how he might self-identify at all, nor do we have this information for most of the North African Christians who were later revered as saints. Three early Popes (or Bishops of Rome) hailed from Africa. Pope Saint Victor I, the first of these, was born while the writer Apuleius was still alive, and served as Pope from 186 CE until 197. We know frustratingly little of his life (or complexion), but it's interesting to compare the picture of him made by European Christians in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (at right) with those from modern Catholics who acknowledge at least the possibilities of his Blackness. (Images not reproduced here for copyright reasons.)

Portrait of St Victor
St. Victor from the portrait at St Paul’s Outside the Wall, Rome.

Certainly, as Christianity spread through the empire, it attracted many adherents in Africa–of all of its varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Mosaic of St Perpetua in Croatia
St Perpetua, Croatian version.

One of the earliest texts written by a Christian woman is from African Carthage–the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, written in part by Perpetua herself, a 22 year-old-mother awaiting martyrdom along with her heavily pregnant servant, Felicitas.

Revered in Christian martyrologies for centuries hence, they were favourite subjects of medieval European martyrologies, often presented as, well, European, as in the image at left, from Croatia.

Dark skinned woman from north African mummy painting
Female mummy portrait.

But there’s a very good chance that Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage, looked more like this woman on the right, whose portrait is recorded on a mummy portrait from around the time of their martyrdom.

The contrast reminds us that many of the roots of medieval European religion and culture came from Roman Africa, even if medieval Europeans used artistic conventions that made all the early saints appear "white."

Saint Anthony and the Monastic Model

But there are other African saints about whom we know more, much more. Take the Egyptian Saint Anthony, one of the fathers of monasticism. Where would medieval Christendom have been without its ubiquitous monks? Indeed, where would all of Europe have been without the texts those men (and their female counterparts) laboriously preserved and copied? Without the piety and fame of Anthony, who sought out the Egyptian desert, it seems unlikely that such communities would ever have flourished. But the man whose legacy played such a role in European history spoke Coptic, and African language, not a European one.

Around 270 CE (the era of Valentine's martyrdom), Anthony fled into the desert to establish a solitary, ascetic existence that would bring him closer to God. This was nothing new, but the community of men who sought him out and tried to emulate him was. In 305, Anthony re-emerged from his solitary existence to give these men a Rule of order, an attempt to establish guidelines for monastic living. This helped to establish the idea that hermits might live in a sort of community, bound by a common Rule; they were not simply individual holy men but part of a wider community. Significantly modified later by St. Benedict, this communal model for monasticism played a major role in shaping European and world history. But the fact that monasticism is an Egyptian legacy somehow got left out of my grade school books of saints.

Ethiopian Christians

Ethioptian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;
Jesus at the last judgement. Ethiopian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;

Africa is home to many other saints and notable from late Antiquity–many of them Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church claims to be one of the oldest branches of Christianity, hearkening back to the Book of Acts 8:27:

Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure.

Around 305, the Lebanese-born Egyptian bishop St. Frumentius traveled to Ethiopia, where he successfully began (or re-founded) a Christian Church in that country. Ethiopian Christianity retained strong tied with the eastern Church until the 20th century, and remains a distinctive branch of the Christina family, with its own list of African saints and notables. Medieval Europeans were intrigued by Ethiopia, and conflated tales of its Christian kingdom with stories from travelers to China and India to invent the mythical kingdom of “Prester John," a powerful Christian monarch living somewhere in Africa or Asia.

Saint Moses, Patron of Non-Violence

One of the most famous Ethiopian saints lived in the Romanized world. "Moses the Ethiopian," lived in Egypt between 330 and 405 CE. Ex-slave, violent criminal and gang leader, his life was transform

Saint Moses
Saint Moses

ed by an encounter with an abbot whose monastery Moses originally intended tor ob. Treated with love and compassion by the man he intended to assault, Moses was overwhelmed with repentance and became a monk himself. He was eventually ordained a priest and founded his own monastic community of 75 men.

Around 405, his monastery was attacked by nomadic criminals; totally committed to peace, St. Moses refused to use any violence, even to defend himself. While most of his brothers fled, Moses and seven others greeted their attackers with open arms and were martyred. For his commitment to pacificism, he is sometimes cited as the patron saint of nonviolent protest. He is more often revered in Eastern Christianity than in the West.

Augustine, Father of the Church

Perhaps you're familiar with St. Augustine of Hippo, also known as Auerelius Augustine, author of The Confessions of St. Augustine and The City of God. He is credited with formulating the doctrine of original sin and asserting one of the earliest clear views of predestination (a position which has made him very important to Protestant theologians as well as Catholic ones). He was also African. Born around 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), he studied in Numidia and Carthage before traveling to Rome to better learn rhetoric.

Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.
Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.

His mother, Monica, was a devoutly Christian woman, but his abusive father was not. She is a saint in her own right, and traditionally for American Christians, is usually portrayed as a (very) white woman, as in the 19th century image, commonly used on prayer cards, at left. (I owned one of these growing up.) Although the ethnicity of his father Patricius is impossible to tell, Monica or Monnica had a traditional Amazigh name, and Tagaste was heavily Amazigh. Although Augustine studied Latin and Greek, and they apparently spoke Latin at home, he retained an 'African" accent for some time which he was at pains to lose later in life. Monica was an important figure in St. Augustine’s life, and played a key role in his eventual version.

blackwomanmummy.jpg
Female mummy portrait from Roman north Africa.

But why don’t we think of her like this portrait at right?

Or perhaps like this beautiful modern icon of St. Monica as a recognizably black woman?

Whatever she looked like, Monica’s early pleas that her son convert were little heeded. Augustine had little interest in Christianity, dismissing it as philosophically simplistic and uninteresting. He spent much of his youth learning and teaching rhetoric while enjoying the good life. At one point, he fathered a son. He eventually agreed to his mother's wish that he settle down and marry a respectable woman, but while waiting for his fiancee to reach the age of consent, he took up with another mistress. Around 387, he went through a conversion experience. Thanks to his mother and to St Ambrose of Milan, he became a Christian–and not just any kind of Christian. He put aside thoughts of marriage and resolved to live the celibate life of a monk back in Africa. (His conversion had been in part inspired by reading the life of the Egyptian Saint Anthony.) But his rhetorical and administrative talents were not those that could be easily hidden from the world, and by 390 he had been conscripted into the priesthood. In 396 he was appointed bishop of Hippo (Annaba, in Algeria).

The Intellect of Augustine

From this vantage in Africa, Augustine became famous for his sermons and for his spiritual learning. A paragraph is hardly sufficient to describe his accomplishments and roles. It is important to note that in all of his works, Augustine emphasized inward spirituality over outward conformity ( a key issue in his struggle with the Donatist heresy). It is his definition of a sacrament–"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace"—that generations of catechism students have learned to dutifully recite. He struggled all his life with sexual temptation, and is responsible for a significant portion of the Church's teaching on sexual sin, as well as its thoughts on the free will of mankind. He made one of the first statements about "just war" in his City of God, saying that wars should be fought only to stop wrong-doing and for the end of peace, and :

Augustine of Hippo by Simone Martini, medieval Italian painter
Saint Augustine by medieval Italian painter Simon Martini

… it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing… (Chapter 7) … It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. (Chapter 12) .

The City of God offered important solace to the inhabitants of the Roman world; in 410,Vandals sacked Rome itself. As their world crumbled around them, Augustine counseled his flock to forgo what he called "City of Man" in favor of the "City of God"–the cultivation of spiritual rather than earthly values. This text proved highly influential in medieval Europe, offering a spiritual alternative to the fractured earthly politics which followed for centuries on the fall of Rome.

Augustine's writings do not all jibe comfortably with modern sensibilities. But he was certainly no fundamentalist in the modern sense, and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the Western world was his insistence that Christians could and should use the gifts of the intellect—that knowledge gained by pagans was just a useful as knowledge gained by Christians. Without his statements, it is doubtful that the works of classical Greece and Rome could have been so extensively studied and preserved in the West. He did not favour a literal interpretation of Genesis, when it clearly contradicted human observation and reason. (Indeed, he found it embarrassing that Christians would do so.) Rather, he suggested that Genesis was a work concerned with spiritual truths rather than the literal "nature of the skies":

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis[AD 408])

The Question of Color

Mummy Portrait from the Museum of Cleveland
Mummy portrait, Museum of Cleveland

Afrocentric scholars have sometimes been criticized for their rush to claim the "Black-ness" of the past. Yet there is much to be claimed. On the other had, there is no denying that the popular view of Roman history in North America remains deeply Eurocentric. Hollywood's Roman films tend to be quite pale and blue-eyed, and their views of Egypt in almost any period are the same. I love the film Agora, and Rachel Weisz was a terrific Hypatia, but a much darker skinned actress could have been a completely plausible choice. And even outside of popular culture, there’s a problem. "Roman" authors in school texts are routinely denied a discussion of their unique ethnic origins, even when (as in the case of Aupuleius) those origins were clearly of some import to the authors themselves.

Where the Romans were silent on the matter of physical appearance, medieval Europeans filled in with pictures of people who looked just like themselves. We can appreciate the beauty of that medieval art, while recognizing that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed portrait of St. Augustine is about as unrealistic as Sallman's 1941 portrait of redheaded Jesus that hangs in so many American homes.

Since I first wrote this essay in 2007, racism in the United States has only intensified. The election of President Obama has brought the ugliest expressions of white supremacy into mainstream political discourse. Membership in hate groups has risen. Hatred for Muslims, with its not-too-well disguised racist underpinnings, is being whipped up not only by racist groups but by major candidates for the office of President of the United States. It seems obligatory for Republican politicians to speak of non-white Latino peoples in the most dehumanizing and degrading terms, as animals to be fenced out of the country. So much hate in the name of preserving white supremacy. And so often voiced in terms of “our culture,” “Western civilization” or the like. But the whiteness of that culture is a dangerous, damnable fiction, one that erases how much of “Western” intellectual tradition, and how much of the modern American world, was shaped by people of color. Without St. Anthony’s monasticism, there might well be no “Western” culture. Without Augustine of Hippo, the intellectual contribution of non-Christian philosophers might have been shut out of the Christian intellectual tradition entirely. And so on, and so forth.

Mummy portrait from Fayum
How I think of St. Valentine. A Fayum mummy portrait.

Since I first wrote this essay, there have been amazing pushbacks against the distorted historical whiteness of our culture. One of my very favorite corners of the web Medieval POC, dedicated to rendering people of color in European art more visible to the public. (Its author, sadly, is subject to vicious harassment for her work.) We’ve seen film representations of amazing historical figures like Dido Elizabeth Belle and Solomon Northrup and Nat Turner to remind us that black history did not begin in the 20th century. Yet I’m looking at the Oscars, and it’s pretty darn clear we’ve got miles to go.

When I first wrote this essay, I asked, “Does the color of your (Saint) Valentine really matter?” It’s clear it still does. It matters that people of African descent can see themselves in this history, and it matters than people not of African descent can see that too. I hope that on this Valentine’s Day we can spare a bit of love and remembrance for all those whose contributions are too little remembered because of the color of their skin. And also? For those whose contributions are remembered while their identities have been erased. Happy Valentine’s Day, and I hope you have a great Black History Month.


Republished from DailyKos.

KKK Murder of Colonel Lemuel Penn

Lemuel Augustus Penn (September 19, 1915 – July 11, 1964) was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, the father of two daughters Linda, 13, Sharon, 11, one son Lemuel Jr., 5. and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, who was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Article about Lemuel Penn’s murder.

Lemuel Penn joined the Army Reserve from Howard University and served as an officer in World War II in New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star. Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, Major Charles E. Brown and Lieutenant Colonel John D. Howard, had just completed reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and were driving home to Washington, D.C. The veterans had been spotted in Athens by local Ku Klux Klan members who followed them to a nearby bridge and shot at the car, killing Penn at the age of 48.

Their Chevrolet Biscayne was spotted by three white members of the United Klans of America – James Lackey, Cecil Myers, and Howard Sims – who noted its D.C plates. Howard Sims – one of the killers – then said "That must be one of President Johnson's boys", evidently motivated by racial hatred. The Klansmen followed the car with their Chevy II with Sims saying "I'm going to kill me a nigger".

Penn was shot to death on a Broad River bridge on the Georgia State Route 172 in Madison County, Georgia, near Colbert, twenty-two miles north of the city of Athens. Just before the highway reaches the Broad River, the Klansmen's Chevy II pulled alongside the Biscayne. The Klansman, Cecil Myers, raised a shotgun and fired. From the back seat, Howard Sims, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, did the same.

After authorities arrived at the scene, rural lawmen poking flashlights into the car and shined them on Penn’s body, lying on the floorboard. “What’s been goin’ on here?” one officer drawled suspiciously at Brown and Howard. Then came the long hours of questioning, by local officials first, then state officials, and finally federal officials. There seemed to be a tone in the questioning that somehow Penn, Brown, and Howard had caused trouble, and that this was their retribution.

President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged the full resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) toward solving the murder. Over the course of the next several weeks, FBI agents combed for clues in and around Athens, gathering ample evidence of criminal activity conducted by local Klan members. After weeks of investigation, state prosecutors brought first-degree murder charges against two local white men, Cecil Myers and Joseph Howard Sims. Despite considerable evidence indicating their guilt, an all-white jury in Madison County acquitted both men on September 4, 1964.

Georgia Penn, Lemuel Penn's Wife

Slightly more than a year later, Penn’s wife Georgia died at the age of forty-nine. Friends said it was from the grief after her husband’s death.

An army caisson, drawn by six grays, approached the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” played by the army band. The caisson was the same one that had carried President John E Kennedy’s body to his grave seven months earlier. The music changed to “Abide With Me ” as the casket was lifted over the grave. 

The grave marker of Lemuel Penn at Arlington National Cemetary.

Penn's murder was the basis of the Supreme Court case United States v. Guest, 383 US 745 (1966), in which the Court affirmed the ability of the government to apply criminal charges to private conspirators, who with assistance from a state official, deprive a person of rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Federal prosecutors eventually charged both for violating Penn's civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On June 27, 1966, criminal proceedings began against Sims, Myers, Lackey, and three other local Klansmen, Herbert Guest, Denver Phillips, and George Hampton Turner. Two weeks later, Sims and Myers were found guilty of conspiracy charges by a federal district court jury; their four co-defendants, however, were acquitted. Sims and Myers were sentenced to ten years each and served about six in federal prison. Howard Sims was killed with a shotgun in 1981 at age 58. James Lackey died at age 66 in 2002. Cecil Myers died in 2018 at the age of 79.

Marker in Georgia at the site of Lemuel Penn's murder.

The historical marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, and Colbert Grove Baptist Church at Georgia Highway 172 and Broad River Bridge on the Madison/Elbert County Border states:

On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge where their pursuers fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn's murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

 The Ballad of Lemuel Penn by Edward David Anderson

America’s Largest Slave Revolt -The 1811 German Coast Uprising

The 1811 German Coast uprising was a revolt of black slaves in parts of the Territory of Orleans. The revolt began on January 8, 1811, at the Andry plantation. After striking and badly wounding Manuel Andry, the slaves killed his son Gilbert. The uprising occurred on the east bank of the Mississippi River in what is now St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Jefferson Parishes, Louisiana. 

The rebellion gained momentum quickly. The 15 or so slaves at Andry's plantation, about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, joined another eight slaves from the next-door plantation of the widows of Jacques and Georges Deslondes. This was the home plantation of Charles Deslondes, a slave driver (overseer who was himself enslaved) later described by one of the captured slaves as the "principal chief of the brigands."

Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations in and near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans, LA. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200 to 500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.

At the plantation of James Brown, Kook, one of the most active participants and key figures in the story of the uprising, joined the insurrection. At the next plantation down, Kook attacked and killed François Trépagnier with an axe. He was the second and last planter killed in the rebellion. After the band of slaves passed the LaBranche plantation, they stopped at the home of the local doctor. Finding the doctor gone, Kook set his house on fire.

Some planters testified at the trials in parish courts that they were warned by their slaves of the uprising. Others regularly stayed in New Orleans, where many had town houses, and trusted their plantations to overseers to run. Planters quickly crossed the Mississippi River to escape the insurrection and to raise a militia.

As the slave party moved downriver, they passed larger plantations, from which many slaves joined them. Numerous slaves joined the insurrection from the Meuillion plantation, the largest and wealthiest plantation on the German Coast. The rebels laid waste to Meuillion's house. They tried to set it on fire, but a slave named Bazile fought the fire and saved the house.

After nightfall the slaves reached Cannes-Brulées, about 15 miles northwest of New Orleans. The men had traveled between 14 and 22 miles, a march that probably took them seven to ten hours. By some accounts, they numbered "some 200 slaves," although other accounts estimated up to 500. As typical of revolts of most classes, free or slave, the insurgent slaves were mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 30. They represented primarily lower-skilled occupations on the sugar plantations, where slaves labored in difficult conditions with a low life expectancy.

Despite his axe-wound, Col. Andry crossed the river to contact other planters and round up a militia, which pursued the rebel slaves. By noon on January 9, people in New Orleans had heard about the German Coast insurrection. By sunset, General Wade Hampton I, Commodore John Shaw, and Governor William C.C. Claiborne sent two companies of volunteer militia, 30 regular troops, and a detachment of 40 seamen to fight the slaves. By about 4 a.m. on January 10, the New Orleans forces had reached Jacques Fortier's plantation, where Hampton thought the escaped slaves had encamped overnight.

However, the escaped slaves had started back upriver about two hours before, traveled about 15 miles back up the coast and neared Bernard Bernoudy's plantation. There, planter Charles Perret, under the command of the badly injured Andry and in cooperation with Judge St. Martin, had assembled a militia of about 80 men from the river's opposite side. At about 9 o'clock, this local militia discovered slaves moving toward high ground on Bernoudy's plantation. Perret ordered his militia to attack the rebel slaves, which he later wrote numbered about 200 men, about half on horseback. (Most accounts said only the leaders were mounted, and historians believe it unlikely the slaves could have gathered so many mounts.) Within a half-hour, 40 to 45 slaves had been killed; the remainder slipped away into the woods and swamps. Perret and Andry's militia tried to pursue them despite the difficult terrain.

On January 11, militia, assisted by Native American trackers as well as hunting dogs, captured Charles Deslondes, whom Andry considered "the principal leader of the bandits." A slave driver and son of a white man and a slave, Deslondes received no trial or interrogation. Samuel Hambleton described his execution as having his hands chopped off, "then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken – then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted!" His cries under the torture could intimidate other escaped slaves in the marshes. The following day Pierre Griffee and Hans Wimprenn, who were thought the murderers of M. Thomassin and M. François Trépagnier, were captured, killed, and their heads hacked off for delivery to the Andry estate. Major Milton and the dragoons from Baton Rouge arrived and provided support for the militia, since Governor Hampton believed them supported by the Spanish in West Florida.

Having suppressed the insurrection, the planters and government officials continued to search for slaves who had escaped. Those captured later were interrogated and jailed before trials. Officials convened three tribunals: one at Destrehan Plantation owned by Jean Noël Destréhan in (St. Charles Parish), one in St. John the Baptist Parish, and the third in New Orleans (Orleans Parish).

The Destrehan trials, overseen by Judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin, resulted in the execution of 18 of 21 accused slaves by firing squad. Some slaves testified against others, but others refused to testify nor submit to the all-planter tribunal. The New Orleans trials resulted in the conviction and summary executions of 11 more slaves. Three were publicly hanged in the Place d'Armes, now Jackson Square. One of those spared was a thirteen-year-old boy, who was ordered to witness another slave's death and then received 30 lashes. Another slave was treated with leniency because his uncle turned him in and begged for mercy. The sentence of a third slave was commuted because of the valuable information he had given.

The heads of the executed were put on pikes, and the mutilated bodies of dead rebels displayed to intimidate other slaves. By the end of January, nearly 100 heads were displayed on the levee from the Place d'Armes in central New Orleans along the River Road to the plantation district and Andry's plantation.

While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed 95 black people.

Captain Charlton Tandy – Legendary St. Louis Civil Rights Pioneer

Charlton Tandy was born free in a house on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky on December 16, 1836. His parents John L. (b.1805) and Susan Tandy (b.1815), both Kentucky natives were free only because Charlton's grandparents had purchased the family’s freedom three years before his birth. Tandy and his family used their newfound freedom to help slaves escape across the Ohio River and into the North. Throughout his childhood, Tandy’s family worked to free slaves through the Underground Railroad, and as a young man, Tandy often led slaves on the route from Covington, Kentucky, to freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tandy never forgot those early experiences fighting for freedom for other African Americans and would continue to work for their rights throughout his life.

Charlton Tandy (1836 – 1919)

Tandy moved to St. Louis in 1857 and worked Tandy Moved to St. Louis in 1857 and worked as a porter, coachman, and waiter until the Civil War began when he became post messenger at Jefferson Barracks. He enlisted and served bravely in Company B of the 13th regiment of the Missouri State Militia. The war proved good for Tandy’s standing, as he rose from state militia volunteer to captain of “Tandy’s St. Louis Guard,” an African American state militia that he recruited. At the end of the war, Tandy was honorably discharged as a captain. 

His service earned Tandy the notice of several political leaders, and Tandy was able to turn his connections into patronage jobs. Tandy stated that he once took lunch in St. Louis with Gen. Grant and in 1870 dined with Gov. Crittenden at Warrensburg. His positions ranged from U.S. land agent and deputy U.S. Marshal in New Mexico and Oklahoma to Custodian of Records at the St. Louis courthouse. At heart, Tandy was a civil rights activist. Throughout his life, he worked on local issues of interest to Missouri African Americans, including fighting school and transportation segregation.

When the public streetcars in St. Louis routinely pushed black riders from inside seats to dangerous perches hanging on the outside, he organized protests and boycotts to pressure the companies to change policies. White riders could sit down inside the trolley, but black passengers had to ride while hanging on from the outside. This created a particularly dangerous situation because the horse-drawn streetcars were moving along bumpy, muddy roads paved with rough cobblestones. Black riders were often injured and sometimes even killed, simply because they were barred from taking a safer seat inside the trolley.

Williams v Bellefontaine Railway Company

Neptune and Caroline Williams filed a lawsuit against the Bellefontaine Railway line, seeking five thousand dollars in damages and an injunction. One of the conductors had pushed Caroline off when she attempted to board. Caroline who was pregnant was carrying a toddler when the incident took place. By May 1868, the St. Louis circuit court ruled that all public transportation companies had to allow Black people to ride inside the cars, however, the court only awarded one cent to Williams as damages. The streetcar drivers ignored the court order and often passed by black riders. Tandy gained fame by standing near streetcar stops where Black passengers were waiting and stepping into the path to grab the horse’s reins if the driver didn't slow down to stop. In 1870 he organized a boycott against the segregated St. Louis streetcar lines and after time in jail and litigation, integrated the streetcars.

Below is a re-enactment of a conversation that Caroline might have had with her husband Neptune on the night of the incident dramatizes the courage necessary to challenge the status quo in former slave states.

Tandy was a persistent fighter for black civil rights and active in Republican politics. He assisted James Milton Turner in fundraising to establish Lincoln Institute (Lincoln University in Jefferson City), the first school of higher education for blacks in Missouri. He successfully worked to get black educators into the St. Louis public school system. Tandy was the author of the first bill in Missouri providing for the education of negroes. In 1870, Tandy proposed through Nicholas Bell, former Excise Commissioner, a bill for schools for negroes, and it was passed. In the next session, Tandy proposed through Bell a bill for the establishment of a negro high school and it, also, was passed. Nicholas M. Bell stated, "I knew Tandy for 49 years," Bell said, "and no negro did more for his race than he."

Tandy is perhaps best remembered as a champion of the “Exodusters,” he was the first St. Louisan to aid the "Colored Exodus" from the South in 1879, he assisted 2,000 African American migrants who were leaving the post-Reconstruction South for homes in Kansas who became stranded in St. Louis. After the penniless refugees arrived in St. Louis from homes in Louisiana and Mississippi, Tandy organized the Colored Refugee Relief Board.  For the next two years, the group fed, clothed, housed, and bought passage to Kansas for approximately 10,000 migrants. In addition, Tandy publicized the Exodusters’ plight, by speaking in New York, Boston, and other cities, meeting with President Rutherford B. Hayes, and testifying before Congress. In 1880 Tandy testified before the Congressional Voorhees Committee about the exodus of African Americans from the South where he urged Congress to provide aid for these refugees and to investigate and stop the violation of Negro rights in the South. 

Tandy became a lawyer in 1886 when he passed the Missouri Bar Exam and was permitted to practice law in both the district court and the U.S. Supreme Court. President Grant appointed Tandy to the St. Louis Custom House, making him the first African American to be employed there. 

Tandy was also a U.S. Marshall under President Harrison's administration, serving as a special agent of the General Land Office and as a timber inspector. He served as vice president of the Missouri State Republican League and in 1894 was elected to a House seat by the Republicans of the Thirty-second Senatorial District, but he was not allowed to serve.

Tandy was known as a great orator and spoke on behalf of many white politicians. A loyal Republican he did not hesitate to criticize the party for neglecting the needs of Negroes. Tandy organized Negro political clubs to encourage Negroes to vote, run for office and become involved in political parties. He predicted the decline of Republicans in St. Louis politics if they continued to ignore Negroes. His predictions came true.

Captain Charlton H. Tandy died in St. Louis in 1919, and he and his wife Annie are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, where Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, is also buried.

Tandy is still celebrated for his unending fight for civil rights. In 1938 the Charlton Tandy Recreation Center and Park were founded in the Ville neighborhood near Sumner High School, and continue to serve the community to this day. A St. Louis Zoo train engine was named in Tandy's honor and is still in operation as shown in the video below. 

Captain Tandy serves as an example of the importance of civic engagement and reminds us that we must always fight for what we believe in and know is right.

Free Negro Bonds

Beginning in 1843 and until the end of the Civil War, St. Louis require all free negro to post bonds. “Know all Men by these Presents,” begins the legal boilerplate of the St. Louis free negro bond affidavits. The bond gave Tandy “license to reside in the state of Missouri, during good behavior” — in other words, conditional freedom, despite having never been a slave. If Tandy had gotten into trouble, he and Lester Babcock would have to pay $500 to the county clerk.

Charlton Tandy's free negro bond which. Lester Babcock guaranteed to pay $500 if Tandy violated the terms of the bond.

There were 1,500 such bonds signed in St. Louis alone. Thousands more existed in cities across the South — and, in some cases, the North. Free blacks often faced overwhelming discrimination and local segregation laws.

The richest free blacks could put up the money for these bonds themselves. But most required the signature of white allies, whether former masters, childhood playmates, abolitionist activists or bondmen, who gauged the risk and signed the form for a fee. In St. Louis, the list of white guarantors is a fascinating cross-section of the public: William Greenleaf Eliot, the antislavery Unitarian minister who founded Washington University, but also long-established slaveholding families, including the Chouteaus, the Carrs, the Lucases and the Campbells; the African-American minister and antislavery activist John Berry Meachum and the slave trader Bernard Lynch. These documents testify to the personal white-black relationships that structured the boundaries of slavery and freedom for African Americans in St. Louis.

John Brown – “We Came to Free the Slaves”

John Brown, (May 9, 1800 – Dec. 2, 1859), was an American abolitionist who advocated the use of violence to end slavery in the United States. Brown's family opposed slavery because of their religious beliefs and he was taught that slavery was evil and sinful. As a 12-year-old boy traveling through Michigan, Brown witnessed a young enslaved boy brutally beaten with a shovel by his owner. The gruesome images of the incident haunted Brown for the rest of his life and strongly affected his abolitionism.

John Brown in a c.1847 daguerreotype taken by Black portraitist Augustus Washington

Brown's first public commitment in the abolitionist movement followed the brutal Alton, IL murder of Presbyterian minister, newspaper editor, and anti-slavery activist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. Lovejoy a firm defender of the first amendment and outspoken critic of slavery was shot to death outside of his newspaper's office by an angry Pro-Slavery Mob. The mob also set fire to the office and destroyed the printing press. John Brown attended Lovejoy's memorial service and declared at the time, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

For many, it may seem odd to profile a white man during Black History Month. Black history is American history, you can't separate one from the other. John Brown proved more dedicated to ending slavery than just about any other person in history and his extreme actions ignited the Civil War. It's important to recognize his monumental sacrifice as part of Black history.

What have you done to fight the oppression, racism, injustice, or discrimination you and your family face as Black Americans? Would you lay down your life or risk the lives of your children to secure the full freedom that has been denied to Black people in this country? If you're honest with yourself, the answer most likely is no! The sad reality is that most of us wouldn't even jeopardize our jobs or livelihood fighting for freedom! 

Non-violent solutions are the best but sometimes violence is the only way.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Douglass stated that "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

John Brown took part in the Underground Railroad, gave land to free African Americans and in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, established the League of Gileadites, a group formed with the intention of protecting black citizens from slave hunters.

In the spring of 1855, John Brown driving a wagon loaded with rifles followed his five sons John, Jr., Jason, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon to the Kansas Territory. Brown became the leader of antislavery guerillas. Brown did not emerge as a national figure until 1856. Proslavery forces attacked the community of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, burning two printing offices. The night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856, a band of abolitionist settlers using swords took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" settlers which came to be known nationally as the Pottawatomie massacre. In another battle that occurred on August 30, 1856, Brown’s son Frederick was killed and John Brown earned the nickname “Osawatomie Brown.” 

Before the start of the Civil War, ninety percent of the four million Black people in the United States were enslaved. Had it not been for the actions of one man, John Brown, Lincoln may not have been elected President and the Civil War may not have started and slavery may not have ended when it did. 

No white person had a deeper moral hatred of slavery than John Brown. "Talk! Talk! Talk!" he cried. "That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action — action!" John Brown's anti-slavery actions took him away from his wife and younger children, he sacrificed his life and those of his three sons Frederick, Oliver, and Watson trying to free enslaved black people.

Brown returned to the east to plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. Brown discussed his plans with Douglass and later met Harriet Tubman, whom Brown referred to as "General" out of respect for her leading so many slaves to freedom. In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intending to start a slave revolt that would spread south. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but only a small number of local slaves joined his revolt.

Harpers Ferry insurrection: Interior of the engine-house. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 5, 1859.

Within 36 hours, those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and US Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. He was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men (including three blacks), and inciting a slave insurrection; he was found guilty on all counts and was hanged. He was the first person convicted of treason in the history of the country.

Dick Gregory explains why John Brown is the greatest American of all time

We have many great examples of black men rising up; there were many planned slave revolts the best-known ones led by Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Demark Vesey. What makes John Brown a hero is the fact that he fought and died for slavery which had NOTHING to do with him. He didn't suffer from slavery but understood it was immoral to participate or just watch it prosper.

It was common to dismiss Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. After all, to racists, any white man who’d place himself in harm’s way by taking up arms in order to free Black slaves by definition had to be a lunatic. In the 1940 movie "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and the pro-Southern film Santa Fe Trail, John Brown was portrayed as an insane wild-eyed madman.

Below is a segment about John Brown from the 1940 movie, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois".

Brown was thought mad because he was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called mad. Harvard historian John Stauffer stated, "He stood apart from every other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free from the power of racism," … "Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects, he felt more comfortable around blacks than he did around whites."

John Brown's Courtroom Speech

John Brown delivered his last speech in a courtroom in Charles Town, West Virginia on November 2, 1859. The speech, given one month before his execution, defended his role in the action at Harper’s Ferry. He said:

Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden. Done in oil on canvas, depicts John Brown being led to his execution.

The raid on Harpers Ferry is generally thought to have done much to set the nation on a course toward civil war. Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions. Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.

During the Civil War, the Union hymn “John Brown’s Body” was sung by marching soldiers and paid tribute to the bold abolitionist. The song inspired the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also known as "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory". 

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."

How a 15 Year Old Girl Desegregated Buses

Oppression often begins and ends with the law. We hear all about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but we never hear about the lawsuit that actually ended bus segregation.

Most people mistakenly believe Rosa Parks was the first person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing. Eclipsed by Parks, her act of defiance was largely ignored for many years. 

Below is the Comedy Central "Drunk History" re-enactment of the event that inspired Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a retired American nurse aide who was a pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred some nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car.

Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.

If the bus became so crowded that all the "white seats" in the front of the bus were filled until white people were standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from nearby seats to make room for whites, move further to the back, and stand in the aisle if there were no free seats in that section. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. The other three moved, but another pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.

The driver looked at them in his mirror. "He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," recalls Colvin. "So I told him I was not going to get up either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" The police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin still refused to move. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley. This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.

Colvin later said: "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her". Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks for a number of reasons: she did not have ‘good hair’, she was not fair skinned, she was a teenager, she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement tried to keep up appearances and make the ‘most appealing’ protesters the most seen. Recognition is due for the other people who participated in the movement.

Claudette had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman in her segregated school, those conversations had led to discussions around the current day Jim Crow laws they were all experiencing. When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom that prohibited blacks from using the dressing rooms in order to try on clothes in department stores. In a later interview, she said: "We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot […] and take it to the store”. Referring to the segregation on the bus and the white woman: "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her".

"The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her [Colvin] to get up for the white woman, which she didn’t,” said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin. “She had been yelling, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’. She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.” Colvin recalled, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other. I couldn’t get up.” Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Claudette Colvin said, “But I made a personal statement, too, one that [Parks] didn't make and probably couldn't have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one."

The police officers who took her to the station made inappropriate comments about her body and took turns guessing her bra size throughout the ride. Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer. "There was no assault," Price said. She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. She was convicted on all three charges in juvenile court. When Colvin's case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped, although her conviction for assaulting a police officer was upheld.

Colvin's moment of activism was not solitary or random. In high school, she had high ambitions of political activity. She dreamed of becoming the president of the United States. Her political inclination was fueled in part by an incident with her schoolmate: Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves was found having sex with a white woman who claimed she was raped though Reeves claims their relations were consensual. He was executed for his alleged crimes.

Browder v. Gayle

Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese, Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956). Claudette Colvin was the first of the first arrested; the other four women who refused to give up their seats were arrested months after Claudette Colvin. Jeanetta Reese, who worked as a domestic for a high ranking police official, later withdrew from the case. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama as unconstitutional.

During the court case, Colvin described her arrest: "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right… this is my constitutional right… you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person." 

Browder v. Gayle made its way through the courts. On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court decision on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to unify the people of Montgomery, regardless of educational background or class.

Colvin was a predecessor to the Montgomery bus boycott movement of 1955, which gained national attention. But she rarely told her story after moving to New York City. The discussions in the black community began to focus on black enterprise rather than integration, although national civil rights legislation did not pass until 1964 and 1965. NPR's Margot Adler has said that black organizations believed that Rosa Parks would be a better figure for a test case for integration because she was an adult, had a job, and had a middle-class appearance. They felt she had the maturity to handle being at the center of potential controversy.

Colvin was not the only woman of the Civil Rights Movement who was left out of the history books. In the south, male ministers made up the overwhelming majority of leaders. This was partially a product of the outward face the NAACP was trying to broadcast and partially a product of the women fearing losing their jobs which were often in the public school system.

In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus: "I feel very, very proud of what I did," she said. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on." "I'm not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation."

Another factor was that before long Colvin became pregnant. "They said they didn't want to use a pregnant teenager because it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott," Colvin says. Claudette Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond in March 1956. Colvin said that after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by many in her community. She had to drop out of college and left Montgomery for New York City in 1958, because she had difficulty finding and keeping work following her participation in the federal court case that overturned bus segregation.

In New York, Claudette Colvin and her son Raymond initially lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. Claudette got a job as a nurse's aide in a nursing home in Manhattan. She worked there for 35 years, from 1969 till retiring in 2004. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 in New York of a heart attack, aged 37. While living in New York, Claudette had a second son. He gained an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he also married and had his own family.

On May 20, 2018 Congressman Joe Crowley honored Colvin for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional Certificate and an American flag.

Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th.

Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition for her action. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were challenged by Colvin and her family, who asked that Colvin be given a more prominent mention in the history of the civil rights movement. The NMAAHC has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Colvin does not want taken away, but her family's goal is to get the historical record right, and for officials to include Colvin's part of history. Colvin was not invited officially for the formal dedication of the museum, which opened to the public in September 2016.