Reading tips for MLK Day weekend

Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.

Ella Baker

Ella Baker

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:

  • “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
  • “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
  • “The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
  • “On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
  • “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
  • “The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.

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Bending toward justice

This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.

That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).

The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.

Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas. Continue reading

‘State of education’ speech – what would Martin think?

The high-minded idealism in Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s “state of education” speech was almost enough to make a person shout amen. But you have to wonder what Martin Luther King Jr., whose words Bennett invoked, would have thought of the superintendent’s assertion that school funding doesn’t matter. Or his argument that schools will compete their way to excellence.

Bennett spoke Monday at Creston Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis. The speech will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on public TV stations, including WTIU in Bloomington. You can read the text on the Indiana Department of Education website.

Citing Democratic U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement that education is “the civil rights issue of our time,” the Republican superintendent went further: “It’s the civil rights issue for every generation.”

Bennett talked about visiting Indiana schools where most kids come from low-income and minority households. “While there are some exceptional educators in these schools, research tells us these students are least likely to have great teachers and leadership,” he said. Continue reading