The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen" begins with a powerful depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Last year, when "Watchmen" aired, many people were shocked to learn for the first time this atrocity actually happened.
In honor of Juneteenth, HBO has made all nine episodes of "Watchmen" available to stream for free through Sunday on HBO.com and Free On Demand.
by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta
For only the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You would be forgiven for thinking Tulsa is a sleepy town “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” in the words of the musical Oklahoma!.
But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was jarred by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The city is on edge. Emotions are raw. There’s anxiety about a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking even deeper in the collective psyche is a fear that history could repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will gather close to a neighbourhood still reckoning with a white invasion that claimed hundreds of Black lives.
A Trump rally near a site of a race massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the matter of timing. The rally was to be held on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the day slaves in the western portion of the Confederacy finally gained their freedom.
Normally, Juneteenth in Tulsa is one big party, the rare event that brings white and Black Oklahomans together. But fears about spreading COVID-19 led organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests over the murder of George Floyd. During those demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck ran through a blockade of traffic, causing one demonstrator to fall from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
COVID-19 cases surging
To make a bad situation even worse, the city is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have acknowledged that the increase in new cases, mixed with close to 20,000 people packed into an arena, is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.
Faced with the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, however, Bynum equivocated. Bynum found himself under attack from former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that it would change the date of the rally to June 20 “out of respect” for Juneteenth. It was a small victory for protesters, but some were further enraged by Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s murder and a Trump campaign rally.
Reminiscent of another mayor
The mayor’s impotence has also brought back memories of 1921. The mayor then, T.D. Evans, found himself unable — or unwilling — to stand between an angry white mob ginned up over fears of a “Black uprising” and a Black community demanding racial equality.
Evans saw the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. As the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a Black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans, and many like him, did little. “Despite warnings from Blacks and whites that trouble was brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) remained mostly silent.”
One historical parallel with 1921 stands out above the rest: the power and influence of “fake news” to mobilize alienated voters.
While much has been made of a revolution of social media and YouTube to undercut the gatekeepers of traditional media, a false news article was the most proximate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921, with an unproven allegation that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had tried to rape a white woman in a downtown elevator. The dog-whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to set off calls for a lynching of Rowland.
A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. The Tribune had been stoking fears of a “Black uprising” for months, running stories of race mixing, jazz and interracial dancing at Black road houses.
A few Blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed Blacks made the white mob direct its fury at a bigger target — the Black section of town, Greenwood.
By the dawn of June 1, 1921, Greenwood lay in ruins, with hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation did not come as a surprise to those who had watched the rise of xenophobia during the First World War and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the screening of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 at the White House.
Tulsa, and the nation, had been primed for racial violence by a white supremacist media and presidential administration. Many well-intentioned people stood idly by, hoping the trouble would soon blow over. It did not.
Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. During the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump rallying tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a lot of money at stake. Before he became an NBA star, Zion Williamson was worth an estimated US$5 million per year for Duke University. That figure is based on media exposure, marketing deals and ticket sales.
HBCUs are historically underfunded. For that reason, HBCUs can’t recruit as competitively as some of their Division I peers. Without the funds to build programs and modern facilities capable to showcase star players in their quest to go pro, HBCUs are unlikely landing spots for the country’s most talented student athletes.
When HBCUs can’t attract the best young players, they miss out on the larger shares of NCAA revenue they could get from televised games, March Madness tournament participation and apparel and ticket sales. An HBCU has never won an NCAA national championship in football or men’s basketball. Instead, HBCUs compete in their own championship tournaments for the semi-segregated Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Atlantic Conference (SWAC). One player may not change the entire system, but one player can make a big difference for an individual school.
2. Is there anything special about the timing?
The convergence of increased discontent regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, news coverage of videos that show the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the persistence of racist rhetoric, has created a perfect storm to re-envision which college a young black student should choose. College men’s basketball teams are made up of 56% black players student-athletes, but only about half of those athletes graduate from college after six years, in some cases that number is well below 50%. Less than 2% will be drafted into professional leagues.
These are black kids who are grappling in real time with their own racial identities, their place in the social hierarchy, and the systemic disadvantages of race in the U.S.
As the NCAA tries to maintain institutional status quo where student-athletes are prevented from being paid for sports participation, while players advocate for their right to generate their own revenue, black student-athletes like Williams are recognizing their role in the financial health of the schools for which they choose to play. As Williams stated on Instagram, “WE ARE THE REASON THAT THESE SCHOOLS HAVE SUCH BIG NAMES AND SUCH GOOD HISTORY … But in the end what do we get out of it?”
Committing to play for an HBCU isn’t just a neutral, short-term decision in this case. The potential for change instigated as a result of a top player rejecting a predominantly white college in favor of an HBCU is particularly significant, specifically in 2020 as black colleges struggle to stay afloat, but also more possible than ever.
3. Can just one player shake things up?
In the short term, probably not. However, Williams has the potential to influence other players in the future – and that may be more important. Colleges and universities depend heavily on revenue from men’s basketball and football games to maintain stable operating budgets across the entire institution. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how precarious the financial relationship is between sports and Division I programs. Forfeiting 2020 revenue means these schools will have even thinner margins, and reduced budgets in the years immediately after the pandemic. This will create greater opportunity for a reorganization of the Division I sports hierarchy.
If Williams were to attend an HBCU, his presence would immediately improve the school’s bargaining position for television contracts and marketing deals. It could also lead to an increase in ticket sales and attract additional potential star players.
His decision could ultimately change how star high school athletes choose which college to attend. And if more choose HBCUs, these players have the power to shift a longstanding system which benefits predominantly white schools, to one where black colleges can become more competitive in sports.
Sunday was the sixth day of mass protest. Hundreds of protests, with violent outbursts in many major cities, have occurred. At least 40 cities have imposed curfews and National Guard members have been activated in 15 states and Washington, DC. At least five people have been kill and property damage will most likely total in the hundreds of millions.
As I watched protests, looting, burning of buildings, and the chaos erupting all across American in response to the murder of George Floyd by four police thugs, I couldn't help but think about a movie from 1973, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door". During the movie, which is based on a book by the same name, Dan Freeman, a black man pretends to be an Uncle Tom* in order to become the first CIA officer. Freeman then uses his specialized CIA training in gathering intelligence, political subversion, and guerrilla warfare to provide tactical training to street gang members to plot a Black American Revolution involving organized chaos sparked by police brutality. Obviously, the George Floyd protests weren't the result of an organized plot, but you'll be amazed how similar the results of this past week of protest has been to the movie plot.
The Spook Who Sat By the Door 1973
*Sambo was actually the sell-out character and Uncle Tom was the hero, but racism has distorted the nature of those two characters.
Earlier today I had a conversation with one of my closest friends about looting and fires that took place in Minneapolis. It's easy to talk about peaceful responses to violence that's not happening to you. If George Floyd was your son, father, brother, or husband, how peaceful would you feel?
Tamika Mallory delivers a powerful message about violence prior to former NBA player Steven Jackson speaking about his friend George Floyd being murdered by police.
Individuals have a right to resist and rebel against a tyrannical government and political injustices. Isn't that the example set by our nation's founding fathers? Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense when struggling to defend rights against tyranny, “it is the violence which is done and threatened to our persons … which conscientiously qualifies the use of arms”. Protesters in Minneapolis have been mostly peaceful, but some have decided, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Instead of destroying tea, they destroyed buildings including a police station.
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!"
–Warning! from Langston Hughes
On May 19th, in response to excessive force used by Des Peres, MO police against a black grandmother and her son who were falsely accused of stealing at Sam's Club on Hanley Road, I wrote the following response on Facebook.
"Until we do more than just protest, this will never end! Police and even random strangers feel comfortable violating our rights because they don't fear any consequences. As a collective group, we better figure out a way to make them fear us. It's just a matter of time before the next victim is you, your family member, or your friend, but unless there's a video you have almost zero chance at justice."
Less than a week later, the world witnessed the video of a random white woman, Amy Cooper, using her whiteness as an instrument of terror in New York's Central Park and a black man, George Floyd, tortured and murdered in Minneapolis by police.
Floyd is the latest high profile unarmed black lynching victim. Nearly five years ago, the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis sparked weeks of protests. Now here we go again. I cried as I watched yet another lynching of an unarmed helpless black man. The cop knew he was being recorded, but seemed to have the attitude that as a policeman, no matter what he does, on or off-camera, his badge would protect him.
It's a clear case of murder for anyone that watches the video of Floyd's death. There's no justification! As one of the hero bystanders who tried to save Floyd stated, Chauvin seemed to enjoy it. At what point do we stop peacefully letting them kill us!
Mike Freeman, county attorney for Hennepin County, condemned the actions of white cop Derek Chauvin as "horrific and terrible", but he added there was "other evidence that does not support a criminal charge". When a black Minneapolis cop, Mohamed Noor, killed a white woman in a split-second decision, he was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to 12.5 years. Noor became the first Minneapolis policeman to be convicted of an on-duty killing. There was no video or talk about "other evidence".
There have been so many high profile killings of unarmed black people that go unpunished, it's difficult to keep track of them all, below is a partial list that includes four from St. Louis:
Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Eric Harris, Sam Dubose, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards, Mike Brown, Mansur Ball-Bey, Terry Tillman, Anthony Lamar Smith.
Chauvin was finally arrested and charged with murder, but not before a police station and more than fifty other buildings were burned. However, most police killings aren't recorded and don't become high profile. When cops lie and no video evidence exists, the cops are believed. It's always amazed me how many black men like Terry Tillman, supposedly point a gun at a cop and get killed before even getting off a shot.
King aptly stated that "riots are the language of the unheard"! King could utter the same words below today and they would be just as meaningful.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Dr. MLK Jr.
The Minneapolis police department has a long history of racism. The violence in Minneapolis is a symptom of racism. Until the disease racism is eradicated from police forces, these destructive reactions will become more common.
The current black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, filed a discrimination suit against the department earlier in his career. Only a tiny fraction of police brutality is captured on video, but that may soon change, as self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, and other technologies all equipped with multiple cameras, become more common, more incidences with be captured on camera.
Hopefully, cities all across American will learn a lesson from Minneapolis. Gone are the days when protest about brutality remains completely peaceful. Modern protesters include revolutionaries within the ranks, some with nothing to lose and no fear. The best protection against violent reactions is no unnecessary violence!
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
Now he’s on trial for his life, and prosecutors are planning to do what they’ve done to hundreds of other accused hip-hop artists: Use his own lyrics as evidence against him.
Because my research centers on African American literary and musical traditions – with a particular emphasis on hip-hop culture – I was asked by the defense to testify as an expert witness in Drakeo’s first trial.
This is work I’m called to do quite regularly. My best guess is that I’ve consulted on over 60 cases in which prosecutors have used rap lyrics or videos as evidence of guilt. In addition, my research with University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis has uncovered more than 500 instances in which prosecutors have used this strategy, a number we’re certain is just the tip of the iceberg.
As an expert witness, my job is to correct the prosecutors’ characterizations of rap music. They routinely ignore the fact that rap is a form of artistic expression – with stage names, an emphasis on figurative language and hyperbolic rhetoric – and instead present rap as autobiographical.
In effect, they ask jurors to suspend the distinction between author and narrator, reality and fiction, and to read rap lyrics as literal confessions of guilt.
No other art form is exploited like this in court. And yet it’s an effective strategy precisely because it taps into stereotypes about rap music and the young men of color who are its primary creators.
Lyrics on trial
To recap Drakeo’s legal drama: Last year, he was charged and tried in connection with a shooting at a party that resulted in the death of a 24-year-old man named Davion Gregory.
According to prosecutors, the shooting was botched. Drakeo, they claimed, had ordered the shooter to kill a different person – a musical rival who raps as RJ.
Their evidence was flimsy. RJ wasn’t even at the party, and there’s no evidence he and Drakeo ever had violent confrontations. In fact, RJ has repeatedly said that he doesn’t believe he was ever targeted by Drakeo. One of the district attorney’s own witnesses also said Drakeo didn’t know the shooting was going to happen.
So to bolster their case, prosecutors focused on Drakeo’s music. At one point, for example, they cited a line from his song “Flex Freestyle,” in which he raps, “I’m ridin’ round town with a Tommy gun and a Jag / And you can disregard the yelling, RJ tied up in the back.”
The line was fictional; nobody claims that RJ was ever tied up in the back of Drakeo’s car. Nevertheless, prosecutors wanted the jury to believe that the lyrics were actual reflections of Caldwell’s desire to harm an industry rival.
Despite the prosecution’s efforts to use Drakeo’s music against him, it didn’t work: In July 2019, the jury acquitted Drakeo of most counts, including the multiple counts of murder.
Nonetheless, prosecutors are taking the unusual step of retrying Drakeo on a charge on which the jury deadlocked the first time around: criminal gang conspiracy.
In 2014, for instance, San Diego prosecutors charged Brandon Duncan, who raps as Tiny Doo, with criminal gang conspiracy in connection with a series of shootings that took place in San Diego in 2013 and 2014. Nobody argued that Duncan participated in or even knew about the shootings. Nor was he in a gang.
But citing the same law now being used against Drakeo, prosecutors said his violent rap lyrics promoted gang violence – and that Duncan benefited from that violence in the form of enhanced “street cred.” So for crimes that everyone agrees Duncan didn’t commit or know about, prosecutors sought to put him away for 25 years to life. He sat in jail for more than seven months before a judge finally threw out the charges against him. Duncan later filed a lawsuit for wrongful arrest in the case, and just last month he settled with the city of San Diego for over US$700,000.
Duncan was far more fortunate than most young men who have their lyrics weaponized against them in court. The vast majority of the cases we’ve found end in conviction, often with lengthy sentences.
To highlight just a few of the recent cases I’ve testified in: There was Victor Hernandez, sentenced to life in prison for murder in Arizona; Christopher Bassett, sentenced to life plus 35 years for murder in Tennessee; and Ronnie Fuston, sentenced to death for murder in Oklahoma.
The question is not whether these young men committed the crimes they were convicted of. The question is whether they received a fair trial from an unbiased jury. When rap lyrics are introduced as evidence, that becomes highly dubious.
There’s a rhyme and a reason
Introducing rap lyrics can be highly effective for prosecutors because it allows them to draw on stereotypes about young black and Latino men as violent, hypersexual and dangerous. In front of a jury, that can foment prejudice.
Not only have I seen this firsthand, but there is also empirical evidence that reveals just how prejudicial rap lyrics can be. For example, in the late 1990s, psychologist Stuart Fischoff conducted a study to measure the effect of explicit rap lyrics on juries.
Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.
In a study conducted by social psychologist Carrie Fried, participants were given a set of violent lyrics without any indication of the artist or musical genre. In reality they were from the 1960 song “Bad Man’s Blunder” by the folk group Kingston Trio. Researchers told one group of participants that the lyrics were from a country song, and told the other group that they came from a rap song. In the end, participants who believed the lyrics came from a rap song were significantly more likely to view them as dangerous, offensive and in need of regulation. It’s worth noting that Fried’s study was replicated in 2016, with similar findings.
These studies – and others – highlight the enduring racial stereotypes that inform people’s perceptions of rap music. They also help explain an obvious double standard at work, one that the Supreme Court of New Jersey laid bare in a 2014 opinion that denounced the use of rap lyrics as evidence:
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell–Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”
Unfortunately, however, they do receive different treatment, even as rap has emerged as one of the world’s most popular and influential genres.
It has also grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, one that offers a chance at upward mobility, particularly in communities where such opportunities are desperately hard to come by.
Criminalizing it is cruel, unjust and silences some of the people most in need of a voice.
As a historian of mathematics, I have studied women in that field and use the book “Hidden Figures” in my classroom. I can point to some contemporary ideas we can all benefit from when examining Johnson’s life.
1. Mentors make a difference
Early in her life, Johnson’s parents fostered her intellectual prowess.
While at West Virginia State, Johnson took classes with Angie Turner King. King taught at the laboratory high school while she worked to become one of the first African-American women to earn masters degrees in math and chemistry. She would go on to earn a Ph.D. in math education in 1955.
King taught Johnson geometry and encouraged her mathematical pursuits. Thirteen years older than Johnson, she modeled a life of possibility.
Once Johnson completed the standard mathematics curriculum at West Virginia State College, Claytor created advanced classes just for her, including a course on analytic geometry.
Mathematics concepts build on one another and the mathematics she learned in this class helped her in her work at NASA many years later. She used these analytical skills to verify the computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth and to help determine the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, among others.
3. Grit matters
Long before psychologist Angela Duckworth called attention to the power of passion and perseverance in the form of grit, Katherine Johnson modeled this stalwart characteristic.
Initially, Johnson would ask questions about the briefings and “listen and listen.” Eventually, she asked if she could attend. Apparently, the men grew tired of her questions and finally allowed her to attend the briefings.
Later, she joined the West Computing Group at Langley Research Center where women “found jobs and each other.” They checked each other’s work and made sure nothing left the office with an error. They worked together to advance each other individually and collectively as they performed calculations for space missions and aviation research.
6. The power of women advocating for women
Although Johnson started as a human computer in the West Computing Group, after two weeks she moved to the Maneuver Load Branch of the Flight Research Division under the direction of Henry Pearson.
Dr. William "Bill" Key, was born a slave in Murfreesboro, TN in 1833. While enslaved, Key became a successful veterinarian who decades after the Civil War trained the famous "Beautiful Jim Key", known as the smartest horse in the world.
Bill was owned by Captain John Key. When Bill was five years old, the Captain's died and willed Bill to his cousin, John W. Key of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Bill demonstrated a special way with animals as early as six years of age. He also was a great help to the John W. Key family when it was observed that the disabled father of John W. Key was much calmer when Bill was around.
However, the place where Bill really shined was around horses, he demonstrated a remarkable talent for working with horses and mules. He was so effective with horses that he was soon being sent to the pasture alone to train the horses. Additionally, he was given special attention because of his work keeping his master's father company. John Key taught Bill reading, writing, mathematics, and science. As a child he Bill read veterinary texts and experimented with animal remedies until he became a successful veterinarian and horse dentist. Known as Dr. Key, he also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves.
Martha, John's wife, really appreciated the effect Bill had on John's father as it saved her from having to deal with the recalcitrant old man. She taught Bill such gentlemanly skills like presentation, elocution, and etiquette. These skills would all come to be most valuable to him later when he became an adult and found himself in need of them to succeed as a free man after the Civil War.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Key accompanied his master's two sons to Fort Donelson. There he constructed his own shelter, a log-covered dugout known as Fort Bill, in which he took refuge and offered protection to his masters during Union bombardment. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key helped his masters escape to Confederate forces commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the battle of Stones River, the Sixth Indiana regiment captured Key as he tried to smuggle another black man through Union lines. He was sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed when it was learned that he was a good cook and poker player. Playing poker with Union officers, Key purchased his release in exchange for their gambling debts. Captured and sentenced to hang on another occasion, Key purchased a delay of execution with one thousand dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe. Confederate raiders liberated him the next day.
The relationship between the John W. Key family and Bill continued to grow stronger and after the Civil War when the Key family lost everything, Bill, who by then had accumulated quite a sum of money, stepped in and helped send John W. Key’s two sons to Harvard.
After the war, Dr. Key and his former masters found the family estate in ruins. The elder Key had died, leaving the family lands heavily mortgaged. Key developed and marketed Keystone Liniment for various animal and human ailments. With proceeds from gambling winnings and Keystone Liniment sales, he quickly paid off the mortgage for his former masters and subsequently underwrote their education. When asked about his unusual generosity toward his master's family over the years, he is said to have responded, "I was one of those fortunate men who had a kind master."
William Key's Wives
Though he was eventually married to four notably beautiful, educated women, Dr. Key had no children of his own.
Dr. Key was first married to Lucy Davidson, the daughter of Arabella Davidson. Lucy was born in February of 1832 and died on August 17, 1885. She is buried in Willow Mount Cemetery in Shelbyville.
Dr. Key took for his second wife, the sister of Lucy Davidson. She was Hattie Davidson, but Hattie did not live very long, she died about 1886.
Dr. Key took for his third wife, Lucinda Davis, the daughter of George and Harriett E. Davis. Lucinda was born on February 24, 1859, and died August 21, 1896, with her burial in Willow Mount Cemetery. Lucinda Davis Key, MD, received her medical degree at Howard University, one of the first black women doctors licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee.
Dr. Key established a leading veterinary practice and horse hospital in downtown Shelbyville on a lot he purchased on North Main Street. While he had no formal training, his reputation of being able to do wonders for horses caused him to be considered a veterinarian by the townspeople. He also opened a racetrack, a restaurant, a hotel, a wagon shop and operated a successful pharmaceutical business. The liniment business became so profitable, he promoted it across the South. He organized a traveling minstrel and medicine show, at which his animals performed skits to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of his medications.
Within five years, “Dr.” Key was one of the most prosperous men in Shelbyville. This gave him the resources to turn his attention to the sport of kings, horse racing, and his goal was to breed the world’s fastest racehorse.
Beautiful Jim Key
While in Tupelo, Mississippi, Key bought a badly abused Arabian bay, Lauretta, from a defunct circus. He nursed the mare back to health and bred her to Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion. She produced a colt so sickly that Dr. Key considered having it destroyed. Instead, he named it Jim, after the town drunk, who had a similarly wobbly gait. After treating Jim with his own medicines, Dr. Key nursed Jim to good health, he watched as the misfit colt eventually transformed into a gorgeous mahogany bay.
In narrating Jim's unique education, Dr. Key notes that he was already fifty-six years old when the sickly Jim was foaled. When Jim's mother died, the orphaned colt refused to be separated from his owner and trainer, causing such a ruckus in the barn that Dr. Key was forced to take the colt into his home. For the first year of his life, Jim lived as a human, absorbing language and abstract concepts to a staggering degree. When he outgrew the house and moved back to the stables, Dr. Key noticed that the animal let itself out of gates, opened drawers to retrieve apples, and responded with affirmative and negative nods to questions. Dr. Key set up a cot out for himself in the stable to sleep with Jim. The two were inseparable companions and partners from then on.
Key put Jim on a rigorous training routine that lasted for seven years. When finally exhibited, Beautiful Jim Key could read, write on a blackboard, spell, do math, distinguish among coins and make change, identify playing cards, play a hand-organ, tell time, sort mail, cite biblical passages and respond to political inquiries, among other amazing feats.
Although Beautiful Jim Key was clearly gifted his opportunities were limited by Dr. Key’s race. No matter how eloquent he was, or how talented, because Dr. Key was a black man in the 1800s he was only allowed to participate in selected competitions.
In 1897, Dr. Key was asked to serve on the “Negro Committee” at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. "Beautiful Jim Key" made his stage debut in front of none other than President William McKinley. President McKinley offered high praise for both the horse and the training methods. Dr. Key often emphasized that he used only patience and kindness in teaching the horse, and never a whip.
Albert R. Rogers, a wealthy officer of the American Humane Association, witnessed the performance and was especially gratified that Key's training methods consisted entirely of positive rewards for performance. Rogers negotiated the right to exhibit the horse nationally, advanced Key a large sum of money, and promised that Jim would not be separated from Key as long as either lived. Key, Beautiful Jim, and grooms Sam and Stanley Davis of Shelbyville, traveled to the Rogers estate in New Jersey where, for several months, Key prepared Beautiful Jim for his New York City debut. In August 1897 Beautiful Jim amazed viewers and the New York City press and quickly became a celebrity.
This horse became one of the most famous celebrities, animal or human, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim Key became the toast of two World's Fairs and even had their own pavilion at the St. Louis fair in 1904.
The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was one of the first shows to open at the beginning of the St. Louis World's Fair and was a popular top moneymaker. William Key performed in front of then-President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice. Jim Key spelled Alice's name- “Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” adding the surname of her escort.
The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit building was called the Golden Horseshoe Building and cost $12,000; Carson-Hudson & Co were the architects. The price of Admission to see the Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was 15 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The exhibit made a profit of $51,654.28 dollars; the equivalent of nearly $1.5 million in 2020 dollars.
Jim became the number one box office star in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement, making the phrase "be kind to animals" a household ideal.
Known as the "Marvel of the Twentieth Century" and "The Greatest Crowd Drawer in America," the two were seen by an estimated ten million Americans and written about in every major newspaper. Fans collected his promotional pamphlets, souvenir buttons, postcards, and photos, bought Beautiful Jim Key pennies, danced the "Beautiful Jim Key" two-step, wore Jim Key gold pinbacks in their collars, and competed in Beautiful Jim Key essay contests, while millions signed up to join and support humane groups around the country. Two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed his pledge, "I promise always to be kind to animals."
When Dr. Key traveled along with Beautiful Jim, the horse traveled in private train cars, drank purified water and ate hay that was fit for a star of his caliber. He also had quite an entourage. He traveled with Dr. Key, two grooms, a veterinarian and Monk, a former stray dog that served as the horse’s companion and bodyguard. Monk, the dog liked to stand on the horse’s back.
For nine years, Key, Rogers, and Beautiful Jim toured major cities east of the Rocky Mountains and performed at large venues from Atlantic City to Chicago.
Universally praised for Service to Humanity, Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key retired after their record-breaking 1906 season when Jim's rheumatism caused the two to return to Shelbyville with the plan to resume after a year's rest. Three years later, Bill passed away at age 76, causing a stir even in death by the large numbers of mourners – black and white – who attended his memorial.
In 1912, Beautiful Jim Key died on a cool autumn day, "passing out with all ease," as Dr. Key's brother-in-law, Dr. Stanley Davis, wrote to Albert Rogers.
For a century, this astonishing, true story of an American hero who rose to international fame a century ago, spurring a significant shift in human consciousness, has been buried in history.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.