Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas


Author: Jeffrey Haas
Title: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther
Publication Info: Chicago, Ill. : Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, c2010.
Summary/Review:

I learned about Fred Hampton around 25 years ago when watching the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize.  The more I learn about Hampton, who by the age of 21 had made considerable ground in uniting people of various racial backgrounds around shared causes, the more I believe that the United States lost the potential of his leadership when he was murdered by the Chicago police on December 4, 1969.

This book is the only one I could find available about Fred Hampton.  It’s written by Jeffery Haas, an acquaintance of Hampton’s who served as a lawyer for the People Law’s Office, an organization that offered legal representation for the Chicago Black Panthers and other clients who had their civil rights violated by the government.  At first I was put off at how much Haas centers himself in the narrative, but soon learned that this is less of a biography of Hampton and more of an accounting of Haas and his colleagues efforts to find justice for the survivors of the police raid that did not reach fruition until a civil rights trial in 1982.

Haas details the gruesome conspiracy of the FBI, through their COINTELPRO program, to have the Chicago police raid Hampton’s apartment in the early morning hours and carry out a summary execution. Part of this plot involved a FBI informer who infiltrated the Chicago Black Panthers and drugged Hampton on the night of the raid. Despite ballistic evidence that the Panthers were only able to fire off one shot in exchange of dozens from the police, the police successfully characterized the raid as a “shoot-out” and the officers involved were exonerated.

Haas and his colleagues spent twelve years in litigation on civil rights suits to find some justice for the surviving Black Panthers and Hampton’s family.  Trials were presided over by a judge with an unhidden prejudice against the plaintiffs, and the FBI and Chicago police deliberately withholding evidence.  That any measure of justice was achieved through $1.85 million settlement in 1982 is a testament to the determination of the survivors and the People’s Law Office.  Nevertheless, the clear imbalance of the government and the law towards racism and inequality makes it hard to believe in true justice in the United States.

Favorite Passages:

“Unlike the example of a centralized and hierarchical political party like the Panthers, BLM is a decentralized coalition of community groups with a common platform. They say they are “leader full,” not “leader less.” This has the advantage that the assassination, jailing, or silencing of one leader will not cause the devastation of an organization like the Chicago Panthers faced after the murder of Fred Hampton.”

“The message of Black Power resonated with Fred Hampton.  He saw Black Power not as a tool to attack whites but as a concept to bring blacks together and build their confidence.  Fred said that “blackness was what was in your heart, not the color of your skin.” But any symbol of black unity, including the modest Afro that Fred wore, threatened many whites.”

“Fred talked with particular satisfaction about seeing the children eating and Panther members serving them.  He explained this was how people could understand socialism “through participation and serving the people.”

“What good did it do to have lawyers and courts and a constitution and legal precedent if the police under the direct control of the prosecutor could murder you in your bed? I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer fighting for justice inside an unjust system or on the outside exposing the legal system as a fraud, taking direct action against Fred’s killers.”

“It always pisses off victims of the police to learn that taxpayers foot the bill. ‘It isn’t right,’ I said. ‘But the police contract requires they be indemnified.  I wish we were getting money from them too. It might deter them next time.'”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Freedom is a Constant Struggleby Angela Davis


Author: Angela Davis
Title: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
Publication Info: Haymarket Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

This books collects several interviews with long-time activists Angela Davis as well as some articles and speeches.  The downside to this collection is that she touches on some of the same issues in each of the pieces (as you would expect of someone delivering speeches to new audiences) but the format of this collection doesn’t allow the reader to see Davis delve deep into any of the issues.

Davis reflects on the Civil Rights movement and feminist movies, her involvement in each, and their accomplishments.  She also compares it to the revival of activism in the Black Lives Matter movement that rose out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against the police killing of Michael Brown.  Davis urges the reader/listener to recognize the intersectionality of movements and that Americans need to broaden their scope to include global crises in their activism (with a particular emphasis on Palestine).

Davis always offers harsh truths but is never disparaging of efforts towards revolutionary change that are incomplete.  Instead she encourages the reader to keep trying and keep struggling.  I’m particular impressed by her reflections that Black Americans truly defined democracy since they are the ones who advocated for true freedom, which is more than civil rights.  I have had this book for some time and to my shame only got around to reading it now, but I’m glad I’ve read since it speaks to issues that are front and center in the current moment.

Favorite Passages:

Trying and trying again. Never stopping. That is a victory in itself. Everyone and everything tells you that “outside” you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.


It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.


It’s very interesting that during the commentary on Ferguson, someone pointed out that the purpose of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve. At least, that’s their slogan. Soldiers are trained to shoot to kill. We saw the way in which that manifested itself in Ferguson.


The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist. Racism can be discovered at every level in every major institution—including the military, the health care system, and the police. It’s not easy to eradicate racism that is so deeply entrenched in the structures of our society, and this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators.


I fear that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist… The “bad apples” type of… …who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.


But if one looks at the history of struggles against racism in the US, no change has ever happened simply because the president chose to move in a more progressive direction. Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome.


Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.


At this point, at this moment in the history of the US I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a main issue, but not the kind of security that is based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.


Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.


Deep understandings of racist violence arm us against deceptive solutions. When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.


As many times as I’ve spoken during Black History Month, I never tire of urging people to remember that it wasn’t a single individual or two who created that movement, that, as a matter of fact, it was largely women within collective contexts, Black women, poor Black women who were maids, washerwomen, and cooks. These were the people who collectively refused to ride the bus.


But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the sixties there were some of us who insisted that it was not simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in a society, but rather it was also about the forty acres and the mule that was dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century. It was about economic freedom. It was about substantive freedoms. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century, and here we are in the twenty-first century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It has been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the very process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money. So it was about free education and free health care and affordable housing. It was about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. These were some of the demands raised by the Black Panther Party.


I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era.


For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment do not work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment could not solve other problems.


We will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 31


Hub History :: The Dread Pirate Rachel

The story of the last woman executed in Massachusetts is shrouded in a myth of her being a seductive pirate, but her real story is even more interesting.

Throughline :: Strange Fruit

The true history of Billie Holiday, a Civil Rights anthem, and the origins of the War on Drugs.

 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 8


On the Media :: Whose Streets?

An expose on news media coverage that biases the priority of the automobile and questions the “heartwarming” stories of people walking long ways to work and transit inequality.

BackStory :: Forgotten Flu

100 years ago, a deadly influenza tore through the United States killing people in their peak of health.

Code Switch :: The Story of Mine Mill

The history of a radical leftist union that organized miners and millworkers in Birminham, Alabama, bringing together Black and white workers at the height of Jim Crow in the 1930s-1960s.

The Memory Palace :: Revolutions

A tribute to the humble – and noisy – washing machine.

99% Invisible :: Oñate’s Foot

The controversy over how Albuquerque would commemorate the conquistador who some see as New Mexico’s founding father and others see as a mass murderer

Nobody’s Home :: “Brown in a Different Way:” The Gentrification Dilemma

Nobody’s Home is a miniseries focusing on the problem of vacant housing in the United States.  It’s strange to listen to in Boston where the shortage of housing is the big problem.  But this episode on gentrification and the long history of inequality in housing ties both issues together well.

Movie Review: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are BabiesBallerinaBarbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry, and Boredom.

Title: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Release Date:  January 23, 2015
Director: Stanley Nelson, Jr.
Production Company: Firelight Films
Summary/Review:

This straightforward but powerful film tells the story of The Black Panther Party from its establishment in 1966 until it began to disintegrate in the mid-1970s.  The film’s strength lies in the wealth of archival film and photographs, as well as created by the Black Panthers, and interviews with over 30 former Black Panthers and those associated with them (including some still hostile former police offers who fought against the Panthers).  The movie explores the popular image of the Black Panther as a gun-toting, beret-wearing man, but doesn’t neglect that much of the work of the Black Panthers was done by women and involved social programs such as free breakfasts and clinics.  It also examines the ways in which the Black Panther Party helped redefine African American identity in a positive way for many Black Americans who were never directly involved with the Panthers.  Unfortunately, the peak years of the Black Panther Party are all too brief as the FBI and police successfully infiltrate and attack the Panthers, killing or imprisoning some of the Panthers’ most promising leaders, and contributing to in-fighting among the surviving leaders.  There’s a ton more that can be learned about the Black Panther Party, but this is a good introduction.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary: As noted in the summary, this is a good introduction to a larger untold story of the Black Panthers.  Since much of history and media has told the story of the Black Panthers from a privileged white perspective, this documentary does a good job of showing that the Panthers were more than militant black men with guns, but also the hard work that mostly black women did to provide community services, and the general boost to the feeling of black pride engendered by the Black Panthers.
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:  The film Wattstax depicts a concert in Los Angeles at the same time that the Black Panther movement was at it’s peak, and depicts the expression of black pride in the musical performances and the audience’s participation.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating:  ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 17


A bumper crop of erudition for your ears this week.

The Memory Palace :: Hercules

With Washington’s Birthday coming up, a reminder that our first President held people in bondage because he enjoyed what their labor provided without having to pay for them.  The story of Hercules, a talented chef, who successfully escaped slavery.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Killer Viruses and One Man’s Mission to Stop Them

The story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the efforts of Dr. Maurice Hilleman to create vaccines to prevent later outbreaks.

The Nation Start Making Sense :: Elizabeth Warren on Monopoly Power

Elizabeth Warren wants to make fighting monopolies part of the Democrats agenda again. Also, the truth behind Warren Buffett, and white working class Trump voter.

The Truth :: Nuclear Winter

 A spooky story set in an outdated nuclear missile silo.  Don’t worry, it’s fictional!

Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues

A fascinating look into musicologist Gerhard Kubik’s research into the traits of blues music that connect with the music of different regions of Africa.  Read more here: http://afropop.org/articles/africa-and-the-blues-an-interview-with-gerhard-kubik

StoryCorps :: In the Neighborhood

The story of the multi-talented François Clemmons, most famous for playing Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, his friendship with Fred Rogers, and their quietly bold statement for civil rights and equality.

 

 

Album Review: If All I Was Was Black by Mavis Staples


AlbumIf All I Was Was Black
ArtistMavis Staples
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Little Bit,” “If All I Was Was Black,” “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” and “Try Harder”
Thoughts:

One of my favorite musical trends of 2017 is the appearance of the legendary Mavis Staples as guest artist on various recordings.  First, Arcade Fire released “I Give You Power” on the eve of Inauguration Day in January:

Then staples added her gospel chops to Benjamin Booker’s statement on police killings of black people “Witness.”

Next Staples joined Pusha T on the virtual hip-hop/electronic band Gorillaz’ Trump-inspired track “Let Me Out.”

Now, at last, we have a full album of new songs from Mavis Staples herself reflecting on our fraught, divided times and what we need to do to fight against it.  Frequent Staples’ collaborator, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, produced the album, appears on one track, and wrote all the songs (quite remarkable when you think that means he wrote the title track).  Staples’ versatility that makes her such a strong asset as a guest artist with distinctly different bands is seen here as well as the music mixes gospel, soul, blues, folk, and Americana.  Lyrically, the civil rights icon is still fighting the good fight but recognizes that she has limitations and that she’s still called to love her enemy.  Mavis Staples’ legacy is already well-established, and this album is probably not going to be what she’s remembered for, but nevertheless it is great to have her voice confront the issues of our times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Podcast of the Week: “Music of the Civil Rights Movement” by Sound Opinions


Show 534 of WBEZ Chicago’s music show Sound Opinions combines some of my favorite things: music, history, and social justice!  Hosts Jim and Greg discuss the importance of music to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s and play uninterrupted tracks of brilliant songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”

This is a brilliant episode of a consistently good radio program.

Listen here: http://www.soundopinions.org/show/534