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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stephen Jones: Walking With the Wind

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

On August 15, 1906 a small group of women and men, all United States citizens, gathered in the town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for a conference on the grounds of nearby Storer College. In the misty dawn light the following morning this band of Americans met at the center of the old town, near a small brick structure, an old fire engine house known colloquially as “John Brown’s Fort.” The so-called fort was the site of the fiery abolitionist's last stand against the Virginia militia, which had marched down on him, under the command of Robert E. Lee, in Brown’s abortive raid on the U.S. arsenal in 1859.

In homage to the location's abolitionist past, the 1906 gathering at Harpers Ferry walked silently single-file toward the old building, still intact. To pay honor to the ground beneath them, they removed their shoes before crossing the green field to the “fort.”

1906 was the second gathering of the group, but only the first on American soil. A year earlier these same Americans had been denied a public meeting place in Buffalo, New York, and in desperation instead assembled across the Niagara River at Erie Beach in Canada. The original assembly was led by W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick L. McGhee, Mary Burnett Talbert and William Monroe Trotter, among others. They included lawyers and educators, clergymen and U.S. military veterans. All of them were descendents of former slaves. Because they had been forced to meet on Canadian soil in 1905 they called themselves the “Niagara Movement.”

What they sought for themselves and others was an equal place at the American table. In an era dominated by vicious racial segregation, enforced by acts of terror, lynching, physical assault and jailings against any who dared to speak out for equality and justice, they were launching a historic campaign for civil and human rights in the United States.

By 1909 the “Niagara Movement” took on its permanent organizational name when it became the NAACP, a multi-racial organization dedicated to the proposition that all persons are created equal. As the NAACP it led a national campaign for civil rights that, among other achievements, culminated in 1954, under the legal team led by Thurgood Marshall, with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down segregation in public schools and marked the beginning of the end of Jim Crow laws in the United States.

Shirley Sherrod Fiasco: Fight for Equality Continues
As we learned, all too clearly, from events earlier this week, no campaign for justice and dignity is ever really over in the United States. The same old demons, the same dark places in the American soul are never very far away. As we are all aware by now, on Monday a right-wing activist named Andrew Breitbart, acting in support of the racist Tea Party Express operation, distributed a doctored videotape of Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, and daughter of a victim of racist violence. She was speaking to a rural southwest Georgia meeting of the NAACP and recalling events in her own life 24 years ago.

Airing the faked tape over and over again, FOX and other right-wing media operations blanketed cable and the airwaves with screams of “black racism.” Chasing advertising dollars and ratings, and failing to engage in standard journalistic due diligence, CNN and other so-called “legitimate news” outlets immediately joined FOX in repeatedly airing the libelous videotape to their audiences.

A day later, when the phony story unraveled, FOX, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing media machine, in an incredible twist of Orwellian newspeak, claimed that somehow they, rather than Sherrod, had been wronged. There were no apologies. Not from FOX. Not even from CNN, though CNN did lead the way in airing the full 35-minute taped speech that not only exonerated Shirley Sherrod, but revealed her to be a gentle spokesperson for reconciliation and redemption. Rocked back on its heels for part of a day, FOX then tried to counter-attack by having its employees Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and FOX’s popular talking-head Ann Coulter pronounce on-screen that Breitbart, the perpetrator of this fraud, had somehow been “set-up.”

The FOX-Breitbart-Tea Party attack was, of course, only one in a long, long line of racist assaults emanating from the FOX and the rest of the right-wing media machine, and it was hardly the first originating with Breitbart. Sadly, the Agricultural Secretary, Tom Vilsack, and the Obama Administration unceremoniously ousted Sherrod without ever bothering to check the facts. Vilsack and the Administration were more concerned with damage control in a toxic cable-media cycle than standing up for the truth. Even more tragically, the venerable century-old NAACP joined in the wrongful repudiation of Sherrod, before finally righting themselves a day later.

Freedom Ain't Free
“Freedom ain’t free,” the famous civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer often said. The assault on Shirley Sherrod is not the first racist attack on a decent American citizen in our history, and it won’t be the last. Hopefully, the rest of us will be ready next time. None of us must ever again make the mistakes that were made by some of those from whom we should have expected leadership earlier this week.

Fresh attacks on African Americans are invariably right around the corner. Similar attacks on Hispanics have been ongoing. As we all know, there is presently a human rights crisis in nearby Arizona. The 2010 Republican Party platform of Texas demands a fresh assault on the rights of women, and the searching out and “jailing” of lesbians and gay men.

Freedom ain’t free, to repeat a phrase. The price of liberty, justice and freedom is eternal vigilance. We shall never be turned back. We had all best realize that we are all going to be in this for the long haul and get back to work. We must stand firm and walk with the wind. We, as Americans, have come far since that misty morning at Harpers Ferry in the summer of 1906 when the members of the Niagara Movement began blazing a trail across a green field, but we haven’t reached the end of that journey yet. “The battle for humanity is not lost or losing. All across the skies sit signs of promise,” W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed at the first meeting of the Niagara Movement. “The morning breaks over blood-stained hills. We must not falter, we may not shrink. Above are the everlasting stars.”

To read more posts by Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

July 24, 2010 at 01:51 PM in By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, Civil Liberties, History, Media, Minority Issues, Racial Minorities, Right Wing | Permalink


Not that long ago, probably around 1997 maybe, I was in a MLK day parade which started out from the State Capitol in Austin, Tx and was headed a few miles away to the grounds of Huston-Tillotson College. About a block into it, I was on the center line, and a car came up the other way every now and then. I remember a black Town Car or something similar with dark windows and a window rolling down with a middle finger salute.

In the same city, a few years earlier, in 1981, I looked around inside a pickup truck that I had gotten into, owned by a volunteer with the Urdy for City Council campaign. I had heard that there had been a firebombing of a truck, but had not heard anything more about it until I was sitting in it. The seat didn't fit and couldn't be bolted down, so you had to hang on to the sooty dashboard.

These things still happen in supposedly urban, even progressive places. It is necessary to remember and to not allow the bigots to paint a different picture than is actually real.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Jul 24, 2010 3:02:25 PM

The latest twist is that if you mention or acknowledge racial disparity either historically or in present times at all, that makes you a racist.
You know the way Stephan Colbert does not see color? That. I run into that all the time with White people. They think that if they don't see or acknowledge that issue of race, than it just goes away and doesn't exist. God help you if you bring it up in daily conversation because people will walk away, even amongst the most educated.

Posted by: qofdisks | Jul 25, 2010 8:07:54 AM

I wouldn't be surprised. Americans are so good at ignoring history and living in a consumer dream world.

Posted by: Pogue | Jul 25, 2010 12:47:42 PM

This story points out the sad truth about the way people jump to conclusions about others without the whole story. It is especially damaging when it crosses the race barrier. Let us not forget those who are not pointed out in this piece. They are also the people of color who have been taught the ignorance of hate and rasism. Those that point out the faults of the white man without pointing out the faults of everyone. We shall all continue to work on these issues and may God bless all of us as we continue to struggle through them.

Posted by: Sid | Jul 25, 2010 7:20:16 PM

Sounds like Sid likes to blame the victim. He probably thinks women who are raped "asked for it." Blaming the obviously oppressed by claiming they are the oppressors is a favorite ploy of oppressors or people who don't believe oppression is real. In the case of African-Americans, it's hard to say that white Americans have ever faced anything even remotely similar.

Posted by: Old Dem | Jul 25, 2010 9:11:35 PM

I couldn't agree more, Old Dem, and while our friend Sid wishes to point out that minority of African Americans who have given up hope of national redemption and unity as somehow exemplar of a whole segment of our Americans family, the 104 year history of the NAACP, as outlined briefly in this piece proves otherwise. Were it not for the belief of the vast majority of African Americans, and the leadership they have shown over the decades to the rest this great and diverse nation, we might have devolved into the tribal hatreds we have seen in Europe or the Middle East or along the India/Pakistan divide. Thankfully we, as Americans have not. We are walking a different path. Let us continue to do so!

If last week was a "teachable moment," as some have professed, the lesson Shirley Sherrod has taught us is that we can, as a people come together over a troubled past. She is right.

As a Congressman from Georgia, John Lewis, a leader of the African American communities, and also of all Americans; a man who was a key leader of the Civil Rights movement long before he took a seat in Congress has repeatedly told us, we are, all of us, in our diversity, a beloved community. Diversity is what makes Americans a great and exceptional nation.

In 2001 John Lewis said, "As we begin a new century, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. I hope and pray that we continue our daring drive to work toward the Beloved Community. It is still within our reach. Keep your eyes on the Prize."

Posted by: Stephen Jones | Jul 26, 2010 1:45:26 AM

I am amazed at the ignorance in the last two comments. Did you not learn anything about what happened. You say a rape victim should have blame. How sick are you? Sherrod in her own statements pointed out her own prejudices and her turn in time and how we can learn from them. This is not about a white oppressor it is about ignorance. Stephen Jones and Old Dem prove the point how those of us who are of color have also been taught hate of race by our own people.

How quick we are to make it a one sided topic to promote racial hate. I am disgusted by the last two comments and have not the words to explain how you are trying to perpetuate the seperation of race to promote a blog.

There is so much to learn from each other and we still cannot have a discussion without trying to give excuses for hate. There is none. There is no reason for racial hate to be acceptable or excusable. Where do you get your hate? It is sad to know that you can freely express it.

Posted by: Sid | Jul 26, 2010 9:42:06 PM

Whenever Sid is cornered he changes the subject. He talks about the ignorance of others but shows only ignorance himself by refusing to understand the realities of both recent events and history. It is not racism to understand that racism is alive and well in America and how we got here. Read some history Sid. The "faults" of brown and black people are nowhere near equatable with what has been perpetrated in this nation for hundreds of years.

Posted by: Old Dem | Jul 27, 2010 9:27:44 AM

That still does not make racism acceptable, EVER! Period. End of Story. Ms. Sharrod told a great story of how to overcome that and Old Dem just cannot understand that.

Posted by: Sid | Jul 27, 2010 10:45:06 PM