Category Archives: Civil Rights

Martin Luther King Jr. had a much more radical message than a dream of racial brotherhood

by Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.

But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.

Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. AP Photo

 

King’s support for white moderates

For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.

Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

A handwritten copy of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.

During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.

His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” responded to a newspaper advertisement from eight local clergymen urging King to allow the city government to enact gradual changes.

In a stark change from his earlier views, King devastatingly targeted white moderates willing to settle for “order” over justice. In an oppressive environment, the avoidance of conflict might appear to be “order,” but in fact supported the denial of basic citizenship rights, he noted.

“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. He argued how oppressors never voluntarily gave up freedom to the oppressed – it always had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.”

He wrote how he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” They were, he said, a greater enemy to racial justice than were members of the white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist radicals.

Call for economic justice

By 1967, King’s philosophy emphasized economic justice as essential to equality. And he made clear connections between American violence abroad in Vietnam and American social inequality at home.

Exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, King stood at one of the best-known pulpits in the nation, at Riverside Church in New York. There, he explained how he had come to connect the struggle for civil rights with the fight for economic justice and the early protests against the Vietnam War.

He proclaimed:

“Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over.”

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, talks with civil rights leaders at the White House in Washington, Jan. 18, 1964. AP Photo

He angered crucial allies. King and President Lyndon Johnson, for example, had been allies in achieving significant legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. Johnson’s “Great Society” launched a series of initiatives to address issues of poverty at home. But beginning in 1965, after the Johnson administration increased the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, King’s vision grew radical.

King continued with a searching analysis of what linked poverty and violence both at home and abroad. While he had spoken out before about the effects of colonialism, he now made the connection unmistakably clear. He said:

“I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

King concluded with the famous words on “the fierce urgency of now,” by which he emphasized the immediacy of the connection between economic injustice and racial inequality.

The radical King

King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 serves as the touchstone for the annual King holiday. But King’s dream ultimately evolved into a call for a fundamental redistribution of economic power and resources. It’s why he was in Memphis, supporting a strike by garbage workers, when he was assassinated in April 1968.

He remained, to the end, the prophet of nonviolent resistance. But these three key moments in King’s life show his evolution over a decade.

This remembering matters more than ever today. Many states are either passing or considering measures that would make it harder for many Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. It would roll back the huge gains in rates of political participation by racial minorities made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, there is a persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Only sustained government attention can address these issues – the point King was stressing later in his life.

King’s philosophy stood not just for “opportunity,” but for positive measures toward economic equality and political power. Ignoring this understanding betrays the “dream” that is ritually invoked each year.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Progressive prosecutors scored big wins in 2020 elections, boosting a nationwide trend

by Caren Morrison, Georgia State University

Despite the broad political polarization in the United States, the 2020 election confirmed a clear movement across both red and blue America: the gains made by reform-minded prosecutors.

Running on progressive platforms that include ending mass incarceration and addressing police misconduct, candidates defeated traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors across the country.

Elected prosecutors – often called state’s attorneys or district attorneys – represent the people of a particular county in their criminal cases. Their offices work with law enforcement to investigate and try cases, determine which crimes should be prioritized and decide how punitive to be.

After decades of incumbent prosecutors winning reelection based on their high conviction rates or the long sentences they achieved, advocates for criminal justice reform began making inroads into their territory a few years ago. They did so mainly by drawing attention to local races and funding progressive challengers.

Despite criticism during her first term, progressive prosecutor Kim Foxx won reelection as Cook County state’s attorney by a 14-point margin. Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

Birth of a movement

During her 2016 run for state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, Kim Foxx vowed to bring more accountability to police shootings and reduce prosecutions for nonviolent crimes.

She won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as state’s attorney in Chicago. It was also the first high-profile sign that this progressive prosecutorial approach was working.

Her victory was followed by the 2017 election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never prosecuted a case when he ran for office – a move that the city’s police union chief called “hilarious.”

But Krasner’s campaign platform – addressing mass incarceration and police misconduct – responded to a city saddled with the highest incarceration rate among large U.S. cities, nearly seven out of every 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.

As a criminal procedure professor and a former federal prosecutor, I have watched the desire for reform only grow since then.

Progressive candidates have pledged to transform a criminal justice system that has bloated prisons and disproportionately targeted people of color.

Black Lives Matter protests have also focused attention on how prosecutors make decisions – whom they prosecute and how severely, particularly in police violence cases.

Movement gains steam

Despite criticism of her first term – including her decision to drop the charges against actor Jussie Smollett for faking a hate crime – Foxx won reelection on Nov. 3 by a 14-point margin. It was a sign, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, that Cook County “doesn’t want to go backward on criminal justice reform.”

That sentiment is echoing across the country.

In Orlando, criminal justice reformer Monique Worrell beat a law-and-order “independent conservative” in the race for state attorney.

In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County prosecutor by promising “common-sense criminal justice reform that utilizes treatment courts and diversion programs, addresses racial disparity, and creates a fair system for all people.”

And in Colorado, Democratic prosecutors flipped two large Colorado districts that had been held for decades by Republicans.

“I think people are starting to realize, ‘Why don’t I know who my DA is?‘” said Gordon McLaughlin, the new district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, who campaigned on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. “It’s brought criminal justice into the main conversation.”

Police accountability

One prominent issue on voters’ minds is how prosecutors’ offices choose to handle police violence.

In Los Angeles, George Gascón, a former police officer, ousted Jackie Lacey. Lacey was the target of sustained criticism from BLM activists, who protested in front of her office every Wednesday for three years.

George Gascón, candidate for Los Angeles district attorney, speaks during a drive-in election night watch party at the LA Zoo parking lot on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They complained that, during her eight years in office, Lacey criminally prosecuted only one of the approximately 600 officer-involved shootings. They added that Lacey, a Black woman, sent 22 people of color to death row.

Gascón vowed to hold police accountable for officer-involved shootings. During the campaign, he pledged to reopen high-profile cases, including two where people were shot for not complying with an officer’s directions.

Mass incarceration and cash bail

Progressive prosecutors are likely to have the most impact by diverting people away from the criminal justice system in the first place.

Many have been motivated by what they see as “the criminalization of poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor compile criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal counsel.

Alonzo Payne, the new district attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were forced to stay in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bond.

“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the DA’s office,” he told the Denver Post.

Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all of the newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigrant rights attorney, in Austin, Texas.

Looking ahead

It seems that progressive policies are here to stay in some of the nation’s largest cities, but reformers didn’t enjoy success everywhere.

Candidates Zack Thomas in Johnson County, Kansas, and Julie Gunnigle in Maricopa County, Arizona, lost their races. And incumbents withstood reformist challengers in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by using the criminal justice system in more equitable ways.

Worrell, in Orlando, is a good example. She ran the Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney’s office, investigating innocence claims from convicted defendants.

Her reform message resonated a lot more with voters than the message of her opponent, Jose Torroella, who pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and more “strict.” Worrell won the race with nearly 66% of the votes.

“Criminal justice reform is not something people should be afraid of,” Worrell said. “It means we’re going to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.”The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

African-American GIs of WWII: Fighting for democracy abroad and at home

by Maria Höhn, Vassar College

Until the 21st century, the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II barely registered in America’s collective memory of that war.

The “tan soldiers,” as the black press affectionately called them, were also for the most part left out of the triumphant narrative of America’s “Greatest Generation.” In order to tell their story of helping defeat Nazi Germany in my 2010 book, “Breath of Freedom,” I had to conduct research in more than 40 different archives in the U.S. and Germany.

Two U.S. soldiers on Easter morning, 1945. NARA

 

When a German TV production company, together with Smithsonian TV, turned that book into a documentary, the filmmakers searched U.S. media and military archives for two years for footage of black GIs in the final push into Germany and during the occupation of post-war Germany.

They watched hundreds of hours of film and discovered less than 10 minutes of footage. This despite the fact that among the 16 million U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, there were about one million African-American soldiers.

They fought in the Pacific, and they were part of the victorious army that liberated Europe from Nazi rule. Black soldiers were also part of the U.S. Army of occupation in Germany after the war. Still serving in strictly segregated units, they were sent to democratize the Germans and expunge all forms of racism.

A soldier paints over a swastika. NARA

It was that experience that convinced many of these veterans to continue their struggle for equality when they returned home to the U.S. They were to become the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement – a movement that changed the face of our nation and inspired millions of repressed people across the globe.

As a scholar of German history and of the more than 70-year U.S. military presence in Germany, I have marveled at the men and women of that generation. They were willing to fight for democracy abroad, while being denied democratic rights at home in the U.S. Because of their belief in America’s “democratic promise” and their sacrifices on behalf of those ideals, I was born into a free and democratic West Germany, just 10 years after that horrific war.

Fighting racism at home and abroad

By deploying troops abroad as warriors for and emissaries of American democracy, the military literally exported the African-American freedom struggle.

Beginning in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, African-American activists and the black press used white America’s condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow at home. America’s entry into the war and the struggle against Nazi Germany allowed civil rights activists to significantly step up their rhetoric.

Langston Hughes’ 1943 poem, “From Beaumont to Detroit,” addressed to America, eloquently expressed that sentiment:

“You jim crowed me / Before hitler rose to power- / And you are still jim crowing me- / Right now this very hour.”

Believing that fighting for American democracy abroad would finally grant African-Americans full citizenship at home, civil rights activists put pressure on the U.S. government to allow African-American soldiers to “fight like men,” side by side with white troops.

The military brass, disproportionately dominated by white Southern officers, refused. They argued that such a step would undermine military efficiency and negatively impact the morale of white soldiers. In an integrated military, black officers or NCOs might also end up commanding white troops. Such a challenge to the Jim Crow racial order based on white supremacy was seen as unacceptable.

The manpower of black soldiers was needed in order to win the war, but the military brass got its way; America’s Jim Crow order was to be upheld. African-Americans were allowed to train as pilots in the segregated Tuskeegee Airmen. The 92nd Buffalo Soldiers and 93rd Blue Helmets all-black divisions were activated and sent abroad under the command of white officers.

Despite these concessions, 90 percent of black troops were forced to serve in labor and supply units, rather than the more prestigious combat units. Except for a few short weeks during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when commanders were desperate for manpower, all U.S. soldiers served in strictly segregated units. Even the blood banks were segregated.

‘A Breath of Freedom’

After the defeat of the Nazi regime, an Army manual instructed U.S. occupation soldiers that America was the “living denial of Hitler’s absurd theories of a superior race,” and that it was up to them to teach the Germans “that the whole concept of superiority and intolerance of others is evil.” There was an obvious, deep gulf between this soaring rhetoric of democracy and racial harmony, and the stark reality of the Jim Crow army of occupation. It was also not lost on the black soldiers.

Women’s Army Corps in Nuremberg, Germany, 1949. Library of Congress

Post-Nazi Germany was hardly a country free of racism. But for the black soldiers, it was their first experience of a society without a formal Jim Crow color line. Their uniform identified them as victorious warriors and as Americans, rather than “Negroes.”

Serving in labor and supply units, they had access to all the goods and provisions starving Germans living in the ruins of their country yearned for. African-American cultural expressions such as jazz, defamed and banned by the Nazis, were another reason so many Germans were drawn to their black liberators. White America was stunned to see how much black GIs enjoyed their time abroad, and how much they dreaded their return home to the U.S.

By 1947, when the Cold War was heating up, the reality of the segregated Jim Crow Army in Germany was becoming a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. The Soviet Union and East German communist propaganda relentlessly attacked the U.S. and challenged its claim to be the leader of the “free world.” Again and again, they would point to the segregated military in West Germany, and to Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. to make their case.

Coming ‘home’

Newly returned veterans, civil rights advocates and the black press took advantage of that Cold War constellation. They evoked America’s mission of democracy in Germany to push for change at home. Responding to that pressure, the first institution of the U.S. to integrate was the U.S. military, made possible by Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. That monumental step, in turn, paved the way for the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Hosea Williams, World War II Army veteran and civil rights activist, rallies demonstrators in Selma, Ala. 1965. AP Photo

The veterans who had been abroad electrified and energized the larger struggle to make America live up to its promise of democracy and justice. They joined the NAACP in record numbers and founded new chapters of that organization in the South, despite a wave of violence against returning veterans. The veterans of World War II and the Korean War became the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Hosea Williams and Aaron Henry are some of the better-known names, but countless others helped advance the struggle.

About one-third of the leaders in the civil rights movement were veterans of World War II.

They fought for a better America in the streets of the South, at their workplaces in the North, as leaders in the NAACP, as plaintiffs before the Supreme Court and also within the U.S. military to make it a more inclusive institution. They were also the men of the hour at the 1963 March on Washington, when their military training and expertise was crucial to ensure that the day would not be marred by agitators opposed to civil rights.

“We structured the March on Washington like an army formation,” recalled veteran Joe Hairston.

For these veterans, the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations of President Barack Obama were triumphant moments in their long struggle for a better America and a more just world. Many never thought they would live to see the day that an African-American would lead their country.

To learn more about the contributions of African-American GIs, visit “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany” digital archive.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

How to track your mail-in ballot

Court.rchp.com Editorial Note: Missouri is one of only four states that do not provide any state wide mail in ballot tracking, however, in the St. Louis area, tracking is available.

  • St. Louis City:  Go to STLCityBallotTracking.com, Enter the “Ballot Track ID” from your ballot stub. You may also scan the square QR code on the stub and the code will take you right to the results. Once the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners has received your ballot, they’ll let you know by updating your ballot tracking page with a third green checkmark.
  • St. Louis County:  Go to MyBallotTracking.com and enter your “Ballot Track ID”.
  • St. Charles County:  There are a few steps to tracking your ballot in St. Charles County. First, visit sccmo.org/410/Election-Authority and then scroll down just a little to the “Nov. 3, 2020 General Election Information” list. Then click the second option which is “Track your Absentee by Mail ballot.” Then enter your information in their tracking system and you should be able to track your ballot from there.
  • Jefferson County:  There is no tracking website, but if you call the County Clerk’s office and give them your name and address, they’ll look you up and confirm that your ballot has been received. Their phone number is 636-797-5486 and once you get the voice recording press “2” on your phone for the Voter Registration and Elections Department.

by Steven Mulroy, University of Memphis

Many voters who want to participate in the election by mail are concerned about when they’ll receive their ballot – and whether it will get back in time to be counted.

The pandemic has caused interest in mail-in voting to surge to record numbers this presidential election.

At the same time, recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have caused slowdowns in mail delivery. The Postal Service itself has warned states that ballots mailed by election officials close to Election Day may not reach voters in time. A federal court has issued a nationwide order giving election-related mail priority in Postal Service processing.

Nevertheless, anecdotal reports abound of voters who applied for absentee ballots and are still waiting for them weeks later.

And on Oct. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court accommodated potential mail delays by ruling that Pennsylvania may count ballots that arrive through the end of Friday, Nov. 6 – three days after Election Day.

Different states have different rules about who can cast their ballots by mail; I was involved in a nonpartisan lawsuit that expanded access to voting by mail in Tennessee.

Fortunately, almost everyone who is allowed to vote by mail can stay on top of where those ballots are. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, a unified system allows all voters to see when their request for a ballot by mail was received, when the ballot was mailed to them and when the completed ballot was received back at the local election office.

Two other states provide online tracking for members of the military and civilian citizens who live overseas – groups that have special mail ballot protections under federal law. In the remaining four states without a statewide ballot-tracking system, some counties and municipalities may have their own online versions – or may be able to update voters who contact the office by phone or in person.

The Postal Service, election officials and other experts recommend that people conservatively allow a week for the ballot to arrive at their home from the election office, and a week for it to get back so it can be counted. It may take less time, and in some places you can speed things up by using an official drop box to return your ballot without relying on the mail.

In either case, you can keep an eye on your ballot to make sure it has arrived and been accepted for counting. And if it hasn’t arrived yet, or has been rejected for some reason, you’ll know to contact local election officials to see what to do so your vote can count.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them.

Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.

by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Birthed by HBCU students, this organization offers important lessons for today’s student activists

by Jelani Favors, Clayton State University

April 15, 2020 marks 60 years since the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, perhaps better known as SNCC, and usually pronounced as “snick.” SNCC became one of the most important organizations to engage in grassroots organizing during the modern civil rights movement and radically transformed youth culture during the decade. Jelani Favors, an associate professor of history and author of a book on how historically black colleges and universities ushered in a new era of activism and leadership, discusses SNCC’s legacy and what lessons it can offer today’s activists.

What role did SNCC play in the civil rights movement?

The founding of SNCC in April 1960 represented an important paradigm shift within the modern civil rights movement. SNCC encouraged black youth to defiantly enter spaces that they had been told to avoid all of their lives. The founding in 1960 resulted in a wave of SNCC activists being sent into the most hostile environments to register voters and mobilize African Americans for change. In doing so, SNCC ushered in the direct action phase of the movement.

Previous generations of activists had embraced lawsuits, such as the 1944 Smith v. Allwright against racial discrimination in voting, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case against racial segregation in public schools. Previous generations also embraced non-direct protest tactics, such as boycotts, to bring slow change. But the sit-ins – popularized by black college students who would later form SNCC – placed black bodies on the line in ways that other tactics had not. They clogged “five and dime” stores across the South, effectively shutting them down, dramatizing the movement for black liberation as the entire world looked on through television and media coverage.

Black youth courageously courted the danger that often accompanied breaking the color line in the racially segregated South. Their actions resulted in violent clashes that fully displayed the immorality of white segregationists and simultaneously captured the nobility and courage of black youth. Perhaps most importantly, SNCC radically transformed youth culture in America. The organization took a generation of youth that Time magazine had previously labeled in 1951 as the “silent generation,” and ushered in a decade – the 1960s – that would be widely characterized and defined by the militancy and dissent of young Americans.

How did historically black colleges and universities help form SNCC and its agenda?

Black colleges served as the incubators for this militancy. For generations, historically black colleges and universities – also known as HBCUs – exposed students to a “second curriculum” that was defined by race consciousness, idealism and cultural nationalism. These concepts not only blunted the toxic effects of white supremacy, but they also empowered youth and deliberately fitted them with a mission to serve as change agents within their respective communities and professional fields. It was not happenstance that the origins of SNCC were rooted within the crucial intellectual and social spaces that were carved out within HBCUs.

The overwhelming majority of students who convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 15, 1960 were from southern black colleges where the sit-ins had unfolded. And it was also no mistake that they met at Shaw University, an HBCU located in Raleigh. After all, the woman who had the vision to bring those students together – Ella Baker – was a 1927 graduate of Shaw.

For generations, black college alumni like Baker worked within religious institutions, civil rights organizations, labor unions and special interests groups. Their work within these spaces was largely informed by the “second curriculum” they had been exposed to as HBCU students. SNCC was therefore part of a long tradition of radicalism that was cultivated and produced within black colleges. This exposure equipped them with the necessary intellectual and political tools they would use to take on white supremacy and Jim Crow – the system of legalized segregation in the South.

What is SNCC’s legacy?

SNCC had a relatively short lifespan compared to other civil rights organizations. By the end of the decade their operations were defunct. Much of this was due to both external and internal pressures. Nevertheless, SNCC distinguished itself as “the most powerful energy machine” for the freedom struggle. I argue that SNCC was the most important and effective civil rights organization of the 1960s.

Unlike most other organizations, SNCC eschewed “top-down” operations that fostered elitism and “helicopter” tactics in which organizers would swoop in to inspire local folks and then leave them to manage local struggles on their own. SNCC’s objectives were completely opposite. They entered into the most dangerous, racially hostile and violent regions of the country, such as Albany, Georgia, the Delta region of Mississippi, and Lowndes County, Alabama. Once there, they set up operations that listened to and empowered local people, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Unita Blackwell and countless others.

The relationship between SNCC and local people was reciprocal. SNCC activists learned and lived among the black proletariat – sharecroppers, farmers and day laborers. These people’s wisdom, shrewdness and practical knowledge of how to survive and navigate the worst of the Jim Crow South proved invaluable as SNCC took the fight for black liberation into the rural communities and remote areas of the South. Their blueprint became the template for local organizing for the Black Power Movement and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, their actions played a crucial role in expanding the ballot to millions of Americans who had been marginalized by racist policies and violence.

What lessons can today’s student activists learn from SNCC?

Both SNCC’s victories and defeats are very informative on the history of black social movements. Internal debates are both necessary and healthy for activist organizations. However, by 1964 SNCC’s ability to function as a cohesive unit was under serious threat. Disagreements concerning the infusion of young white activists in the organization and field operations, arguments concerning the use of non-violence as a tactic, and debate over other competing ideological tenets, such as Marxism and Black Nationalism, greatly impaired the organization’s ability to keep a unified front.

Perhaps most challenging were the external threats to SNCC’s existence. The potency of SNCC drew the attention of federal and state agencies that wanted to curb its influence and power. SNCC activists were constantly under surveillance. They lived their lives under the looming shadow of intimidation from law enforcement and the threat of being infiltrated. Today’s student activists can and should be wary of arguments that are unproductive and those who seek to derail their organizations with their own toxic agendas.

In spite of these challenges, SNCC presented a model that empowered local communities and radically transformed American democracy. By listening to and learning from aggrieved populations and empowering local folks to carry out their own agendas, today’s student activists can extend the radical tradition established by SNCC.

We'll Never Turn Back (1963) | SNCC Film feat. Fannie Lou Hamer


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered

by Latisha Nixon-Jones, University of Oregon

The unknown is frightening. And with the spread of a deadly and communicable disease – the coronavirus is both – individual liberties may be temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Indeed, history has shown us that whenever the United States has encountered a biological threat, the government invariably weighs individual freedoms against the compelling need to protect the rest of us from a widespread epidemic. More often than not, a clampdown on civil liberties occurs. 

As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Federal, state and local governments have the power to enforce quarantines. 

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Librarians could be jailed and fined under a proposed Missouri censorship law

Nicole Cooke, University of South Carolina

A bill pending in Missouri’s legislature takes aim at libraries and librarians who are making “age-inappropriate sexual material” available to children.

The measure, championed by Ben Baker, a Republican lawmaker, calls for establishing review boards who would determine whether materials in libraries contain or promote “nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” In addition, the boards, which would be comprised of parents, would root out materials lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Librarians who defy the review boards by buying and lending such materials would be subject to misdemeanor charges, fines upward of US$500, and a potential jail sentence up to one year.

As a librarian, and now as an educator who teaches aspiring librarians, I see this bill as the latest chapter in a long history of books being banned from public and school libraries.

A sign of the times. 

Censorship and book banning

Often, efforts to censor and muzzle libraries originate with members of the public rather than public officials or school leaders.

Censoring and banning library materials and programs is nothing new. Many classic books have been challenged and banned, including classroom favorites like “1984” by George Orwell, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

The children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, was challenged and banned from libraries around the country for many years after its publication in 2005. The picture book is based on a true story of two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopt and care for an egg and then keep caring for their daughter, Tango, after she hatched.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also regularly challenged and banned.

Separately, opponents of the storytime program known as “Drag Queen Story Hour” at libraries and other community venues, have held protests to ban and condemn such events aimed at children. The objections voiced by protesters stem from their belief that drag performers are evil and amoral and that exposure to drag queens will, in their view, cause children to become gay.

The Missouri bill is not the first of its kind. State lawmakers in Colorado and Maine both tried to pass similar legislation in 2019. Both efforts failed.

The drag queens who read to kids in libraries are attracting protesters. 

A profession

American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Missouri Library Association, and PEN America – a nonprofit that defends free expression – are among the literary and library groups that have voiced their objections.

Many of the drag queens who read to kids are planning a protest against the measure on March 7. Baker has said his concerns about these readings were a factor in inspiring him to draft the bill.

Librarians are professionals. Librarians working in K-12 school libraries also earn certification as school library media specialists. Librarians have expertise in children’s literature, collection development, child development, psychology, readers’ advisory, reference services and other specialized skills needed to serve children and young adults in a variety of settings.

In short, librarians are more than capable of selecting and purchasing quality books and other materials for people of all ages.

To imply otherwise, as I believe the proposed Missouri measure would, is to insult these skilled educators. If it should be enacted, I would consider it a potential threat to information access, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

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

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.