Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Thomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009.

Summary: A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, John Lewis, sit-ins, James Farmer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we thing of the history of the Civil Rights movement, we often are thinking of the movement in the South. But racism and the efforts of Blacks to assert their rights in the North was just as real, even if the racism was not so out in the open. Thomas J. Sugrue traces this history beginning in the 1920’s, at the time of the great northward migration of Blacks, in a dizzying array of detail that I can only begin to summarize.

We are introduced to leaders: Henry Lee Moon, A Philip Randolph, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Attorney Cecil B. Moore, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, Constance Baker Motley, Reverend Albert Cleage, and so many others. Sugrue covers their contributions. Perhaps one of the most striking profiles was Roxanne Jones, who rose from poverty to street activism to the state senate of Pennsylvania.

We learn about the movements: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Urban League, CORE, the NAACP, with their attorney and litigation strategies, Nation of Islam, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and Mothers for Adequate Welfare.

Then there are the issues. Workplace rights. Equal access to facilities, a reality in the north, but often implicit rather than explicit. Open housing is one running through this narrative from redlining to exclusion from the Leavittown suburbs and restrictive covenants to real estate “steering” practices that preserved segregation in housing. There is the struggle for equal resources in schools, the struggle to desegregate, whether through redrawing school boundaries or busing, and all the pushback that occurred. He covers government employment programs and the ongoing income inequities.

Finally, because this happened in the North, this is a narrative that takes place in cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, and Chicago. This last I found intriguing because the issues, the patterns, and struggles were ones I see as I study the history of my own home town of Youngstown. Sugrue’s history parallels the history both in time and struggle what I’ve observed. In the struggle for history, local history is national history.

Sugrue’s history demonstrates how so much of northern racism is woven into the fabric of our cities: government, residential patterns, workplace policies, school systems, economic policies. It explains the necessity of the movements because these systemic issues would not be changed out of the goodness of people’s hearts. They needed to be protested, resisted, litigated, boycotted, and legislated. Gradualism and patience was not adequate to bring about change. Yet often the targets were subtler and tougher to call out, and invidious actions could be justified by what seemed common sense or even noble reasons, always aiming to preserve the status quo.

We must face what is broken before we can repair and heal it. It seemed so much of this history was one of efforts to call out what was broken, and the stubborn refusal, or if that was not possible, the superficial steps to heal deep grievances and brokenness. We should not be surprised by the protests we saw in our streets in 2020. Within the frame of this book, they were simply one more expression of a hundred year history going back to the great Black northward migration in the first decades of the last century, one more cry to be heard, one more plea that we embark on the hard work of justice it takes to truly become the sweet land of liberty of which we sing.

Review: March: Book Three

March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016.

Summary: The culmination of this three part work, focused on the movement to obtain voting rights in Alabama and Mississippi, the March on Birmingham, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Book Three of March begins with the SNCC decision to focus their efforts on voting rights in Mississippi and Alabama during the election year of 1964. John Lewis has already been working along those in Selma trying to register to vote, rebuffed each day by Sheriff Clark. Bob Moses and Al Lowenstein went to Mississippi, recruiting volunteers to teach Freedom schools, resulting in the death of three volunteers driving from the north.

Resistance arises not only in the violence of the south but also the political maneuverings of the north. The SNCC’s hope was to seat a black delegation from Mississippi at the Democratic Convention. Despite powerful testimony, especially that of Fannie Lou Hamer, they are rebuffed and seats are removed so they cannot participate. Johnson lost the south anyway but won the election. Somehow, if voting rights would happen, they would have to force his hand.

After a trip to Africa where he encounters Malcolm X for the last time, he returns to the people in Selma. Marches to the courthouse end in beatings and arrests, even when the city’s black teachers show up, toothbrushes in hand, prepared to go to jail. After repeated failures, the SNCC debates whether to march to Birmingham to protest for voting rights, joining other civil rights leaders. The SNCC decides they are out. John Lewis will go alone, representing only himself. We see Lewis in his trenchcoat and jail backpack, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the armed police blocking their way, the marchers kneeling to pray, and then the attack. Lewis was beaten senseless, believing he was seeing his own death.

King had not been present. While Lewis is in the hospital recovering from head injuries, King comes to Selma, leads a march and stops when confronted–and calls on them to turn around. Lewis was in the vanguard of “Bloody Sunday, King in front of “Turnaround Tuesday.” One senses the tension here. Lewis and others take the beatings, King gets the Nobel Prize. There was both admiration of his leadership and the ways he had demonstrated courage, and resentments that he avoided the most violent confrontations.

Subsequent hearings exposed the brutal violence and Governor Wallace’s support. Johnson refuses to placate him and initiates the legislation to pass a voting rights act with one of the most inspiring speeches Lewis had ever heard. The injunction to prevent the marchers to go to Birmingham was lifted, and the march took place. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, striking down all the obstructive maneuvers of the Jim Crow south.

John Lewis kept marching until this year (2020). He exemplified a movement determined to fight without violence or weapons, but with the willingness to put his body on the line, suffering indignities to press for the dignity of his people. He exemplified the unflinching resolve to “march!” when others shrunk back, and the courageous quality of a leader who would not ask others to do what he would not do himself. These volumes capture not only the violence but the man–resolved and yet human–capable of being discouraged, but never giving in. John Lewis left a great gift in leaving this narrative that throbs with his passion, a rendering of history by one who helped make that history.

My reviews of the other volumes in this set:

https://bobonbooks.com/2020/11/17/review-march-book-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2020/11/25/review-march-book-two

Review: March: Book Two

March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2015.

Summary: The second part of this graphic non-fiction narrative of the Civil Rights movement from the experiences of further sit-ins and marches to the Freedom Rides, the children’s marches, and the March on Washington.

At the beginning of Book Two of March, John Lewis and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are seeking to extend the gains they made in desegregating downtown Nashville lunch counters. They go to other restaurants and movie theaters, being met again and again with refusals, violence, and prison.

Then the first Freedom Rides of 1961 were organized. The Supreme Court had overturned segregation on buses and bus facilities. But the question was whether southern authorities would uphold or resist the decision. The Council on Racial Equality (CORE) invited John to join the efforts to test this decision. Groups of riders leave on buses from Washington, DC to Louisiana. March graphically chronicles the violence and harassment they faced, including the bus John would have been on were it not for a call back to Philadelphia. He had planned to rejoin the bus. He never got a chance. It was firebombed. Later, he is sent to Parchman farm, a former plantation and subjected to all its indignities. During one of the attacks, government agent John Siegenthaler is badly hurt when he tries to intervene.

The account then turns to the confrontation between Birmingham’s children and Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. One senses in the drawings the horror and the terror of the children who face this onslaught, displayed on televisions across the country. This led to a breakthrough with the city taking steps to desegregate. But victories are punctuated with tragic setbacks like the murder of Medgar Evers.

At his time, John was called to an emergency meeting of SNCC in Atlanta, elected as its chairman, and representative among national civil rights (the Big Six) leaders in the March on Washington. The final part of the book narrates the controversy over Lewis’s hard-hitting speech draft, the discussions and edits to tone him down and his unwillingness to compromise. Finally he accedes to Philip Randolph but still gives the hardest hitting speech of the day, overshadowed by King’s “I have a dream.” The book depicts the reception afterwards at the White House and the cool response Lewis received from Kennedy: “I heard your speech.”

As in Book One, the narrative is interleaved with the inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama including the embrace of the two and the juxtaposition of two moments at opposite ends of the Washington Mall. These inspiring moments are in turn juxtaposed with the terrible violence and hatred Lewis and so many faced.

The strength of this graphic non-fiction is that it captures both the glimpses of the dream and the awful realities of racial hatred. The drawings bring out both the noble and the ignoble. At the same time, the rendering of persons is rough, often only vaguely recognizable as the person being rendered. Nevertheless, the power of graphic portrayals is akin to the original images displayed on our televisions. The violence is set amid the noble aspirations of young marchers, some still children. The moral claim of the marchers stands in stark contrast to the brutal actions of whites who can only resort to force and distortion of the law to resist what is just. This is an effective way to teach this history!

Review: March, Book One

March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (co-author), Nate Powell (artist). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction biography of John Lewis. Book One focuses on his youth, the contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed the course of his life, and his early efforts in the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville.

We lost one of the last great civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s with the death of Congressman John Lewis this past July. Jon Meacham recently published His Truth is Marching On on the life of John Lewis (review). In this graphic non-fiction set of three books, we hear from John Lewis himself.

Book One begins, after the scene of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the brutal beating of Lewis, on January 20, 2009, the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Lewis makes his way to his congressional office, preparing for his procession and seating to witness the swearing in of the first Black president. A family from Atlanta stops into his office to see the office of this famous civil rights pioneer. They receive far more, as they meet John Lewis, who narrates the course of his life.

He begins with life on his parent’s farm in Pike County Alabama, his early religious awakening and his “ministry” with his chickens. He describes the trip north with his Uncle Otis, and his discovery that racial segregation wasn’t the same in the north. He describes his passion for education, first encounters with the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr on the radio, his opportunity to go to seminary, and discovery of the social gospel. This led to his decision to transfer to Troy State and his first meeting with Dr. King.

The next stage in his development was his training with James Lawson in the practice of non-violent resistance. He describes the workshops and the verbal and physical assaults to see if any would break under the stress. The graphic depiction of this training, and the supplement practice of that discipline helps one grasp in a new way the costliness and courage of the non-violent way. Be sure to read the instructions given every volunteer on page 97.

The beginning of their activism was to press for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters. The refusals, the abuse, the beatings, and the refusal of the police to intervene are all shown. Then the arrests are followed by jail, court hearings, refusals to pay fine, and more jail. The book ends with the confrontation at city hall and the mayor’s agreement to allow the lunch counters to integrate.

Lewis represented the daring edge of the civil rights movement, refusing to heed older leading lights like Thurgood Marshall, being willing to risk life and limb to continue to non-violently protest segregation. This leads to formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) with Lewis in leadership.

One comes away from reading this appreciating the deep spirituality, discipline, resolve and courage of Lewis and so many of those who marched, sat at counters, and shared beatings and jail cells with him. One also grasps the power of their courage and nonviolent resistance to unmask the dehumanizing character of racism-a story Lewis wants to pass to the next generation listening in his office.

Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Answering the Call

Answering the Call

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016.

Summary: The memoir of Judge Nathaniel Jones, from his early civil rights efforts to his work as general counsel of the NAACP, and then service as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In 1909, sixty black and white citizens who were fighting for the civil rights of blacks issued “The Call” for others to join the long struggle for civil rights. This led to the formation of the NAACP. One of those who responded to The Call was a black attorney and publisher in Youngstown, Ohio by the name of J. Maynard Dickerson, who eventually served as a Youngstown city prosecutor in 1943 and served as an early organizer of the NAACP’s efforts in Youngstown. Eventually, he employed Lillian Jones, the wife (eventually divorced) of a black mill worker. Her son Nathaniel began writing sports columns for Dickerson’s paper, The Buckeye Review, and Dickerson took an interest in then boy, from insisting on precision of writing and speech, to how he dressed and comported himself. He took him along with him as various national NAACP leaders spoke in Youngstown.

This book is a memoir of that boy, Nathaniel R. Jones who went from early efforts to protest a local segregated roller skating arena, and a local restaurant, to work his way through law school. He came to the attention of Robert F. Kennedy in 1961 and was named an Assistant U.S. Attorney. In 1963, he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders. His understanding of the root causes of racial unrest ultimately led to his being named general counsel for the NAACP, coordinating legal cases challenging school segregation in the north, segregation in the military, and notably, securing the pardon of one of the wrongly accused Scottsboro Boys, the last living survivor. Fulfilling a promise to name black judges to the Federal bench, President Jimmy Carter nominated Jones for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seated in Cincinnati. Retiring from the bench in 2002, he played an important role in the establishment of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and an outspoken advocate for preserving the legal freedoms he and his predecessors in the NAACP fought so hard to secure.

This last is a major theme of the book. Influenced by his mentor, Jones recognized the critical importance of securing legal decisions to enforce the provisions of the Constitution and civil rights laws. He contends that laws are not enough. Nor are protests enough. He takes us through the careful, meticulous legal research and strategies employed by the NAACP resulting in landmark major decisions desegregating schools, upholding voting rights, and employment law. On the bench, he sought to educate his fellow justices of the experience of blacks in society, and the challenges black attorneys faced in the legal community. He also makes stinging remarks regarding the jurisprudence of Justice Clarence Thomas, which opposed many previous rulings and supported a reversion to “states rights” that upheld a separate but equal doctrine. The book concludes on a hopeful note during the presidency of Barack Obama, albeit one calling for unrelenting legal vigilance to prevent the erosion of civil rights so hard won.

A lesser theme, but one running through the book was the power of a mentor. Toward the end of the book, he recounts his relationship with a high school student:

I invited Raymon to accompany me to the University of Dayton Law School’s hooding ceremony, where I was to deliver the commencement speech. When I picked him up for the event, he emerged handsomely dressed in a new suit, with a tie in hand. He said, Judge, would you help me with my tie? I don’t know how.” I readily agreed and there on the street corner moved behind him in order to begin the process. As I began to perfect the knot, my mind went back over fifty years to the moment when Dickerson, this distinguished lawyer, performed the same act for me, a teenager.”

Judge Jones died this year at the age of 93. A Federal courthouse in Youngstown bears his name. He lived a life of unrelenting pursuit of The Call, fulfilling the promise his mentor saw in him. The memoir reflects the careful writing of a lawyer and a deeply abiding passion for justice. Through this work, his life can continue to be a model of the persisting, relentless pursuit of justice accomplished not through louder voices but better arguments. It is a story that can speak to anyone black or white who cares about a more just society, as did the collection of sixty black and white leaders who first issued The Call.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — J. Maynard Dickerson

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J. Maynard Dickerson

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Judge Nathaniel R. Jones,  who rose from early years in Smoky Hollow to serve as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. In writing that story, I began to learn about his mentor, J. Maynard Dickerson. As I learned more about him, I discovered an equally distinguished career as a civil rights leader, publisher, attorney and city prosecutor in Youngstown, and civil servant in Ohio’s State government.

J. Maynard Dickerson was born in Hamilton, Ohio July 9, 1899. He came to Youngstown as a youth, graduating from The Rayen School before going on to The Ohio State University. He then pursued legal studies at the Youngstown College of Law and was admitted to the bar in 1930. He married Virginia Hall in 1933 and they were together until his passing.

After two stints as an assistant prosecutor (1928-1936 and 1939-1942), he was named the first black city prosecutor of Youngstown in 1943. During his legal studies, he ran a printing business, and out of this launched The Buckeye Review, a local weekly newspaper covering the black community in Youngstown at a time when The Vindicator gave very limited coverage.  Nathaniel R. Jones mother came to work for him as a subscription manager, and this led to Nathaniel’s association with Dickerson.

Dickerson first gave him the opportunity to write sports columns. He was a tough editor, marking up his columns with red ink so that they looked “like something chickens had a fight over.” But he explained why every correction he made mattered as well as grooming him in speaking and public behavior. Dickerson was a local officer and president (later state president) of the NAACP. A number of national speakers came to Youngstown to speak, and Dickerson always made sure Jones was at his side to learn from, and establish a relationship with these leaders. Jones served as president of the NAACP Youth Council and was alongside Dickerson in his civil rights advocacy. Later, Dickerson helped advocate for his appointment by Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961.

In 1949, Dickerson was appointed as Vice Chairman and first black member of the Ohio Industrial Commission and eventually was appointed Chairman in 1959, holding that position until 1963. In 1958 he attended a conference convened by President Eisenhower. When Dickerson died, Bob Riley, assistant superintendent of the Safety and Hygiene Division said of his service:

“For many years Maynard served the people of Ohio as Industrial Commission Chairman. He combined a dedicated sense of responsibility while retaining and conveying ‘the common touch’ with employers and employees alike.”

He then went on to serve on the Ohio Liquor Commission until 1970. He fought for civil rights for blacks all his life, advocating for the first Fair Employment Practices Law in Ohio and serving as counsel in school desegregation cases in Dayton and Columbus.

Among his affiliations were membership at Oak Hill A.M.E. Church in Youngstown, the Elks, a Masonic Lodge, and the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He received a Phi Beta Kappa award for outstanding work in the field of education and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Central State University in 1960.

He died at his home in Columbus, Ohio in the early morning hours August 5, 1976 of a cerebral hemorrhage, having complained to a guest of a headache the previous evening. He was a civil rights pioneer, publisher, mentor, and a leader in city and state government. Perhaps Nathaniel R. Jones, in his memoir, summarized it best when he said, “…I shall be forever grateful to J. Maynard Dickerson. He stood out as the most powerful African-American in the valley and one of the most significant in the state. He did not shirk from using The Buckeye Review to challenge the racial status quo.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones

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Nathaniel R. Jones, by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library / Public domain

He grew up in Smoky Hollow. His father worked in the mills and later did janitorial work. His mother took in laundry. As a high school youth, he wrote for a local newspaper and organized a boycott of a segregated roller skating rink. He rose from working class beginnings to become a judge in the second highest court in the land as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The new Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Youngstown bears his name. Nathaniel R. Jones.

Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born in Youngstown on May 13, 1926 to Nathaniel Bacon Jones and Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones. After his father was laid off from his work in the mills during the depression, he washed windows and did janitorial work in local theaters, often taking Nathaniel along. His mother eventually became the subscription manager of The Buckeye Review, the local black newspaper. Publisher and lawyer J. Maynard Dickerson took young Nathaniel under his wing, allowing him to write a sports column in the paper.

As a high school student, he was active in the NAACP youth council, organizing a successful boycott of a roller skating link that allowed blacks to skate only on Monday nights. After serving in the Army Air Force, he went to a restaurant by the name of DuRell’s in the Youngstown area that refused to serve him. He filed suit against them, winning a judgment that did little more than pay his attorney’s fees. But he made a point. So began a career of pursuing civil rights for blacks.

He went to Youngstown College, and then received a law degree from Youngstown University, graduating in 1956 with his law degree. He set up a private practice, until named by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961. He was the first black to serve in the district in this position. In 1967 he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders.

After briefly returning to private practice, in 1969 he agreed to serve as general counsel for the national NAACP. At a recognition banquet hosted by the Youngstown NAACP the following year, he described the situation of blacks in the U.S. in these terms: “We still live in the basement of the great society. We must keep plodding until we get what we are striving for.” In his role as general counsel he strove to change that situation, directing all litigation for the NAACP. He argued cases challenging school segregation in the North and against racial bias in the military. He persuaded Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the one surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in 1951.

His fight against racial injustice was fought not only in the courts of the United States. In the 1980’s, he was arrested in South Africa for protesting the nation’s apartheid policies. Later, he helped in the drafting of a new South African constitution, ending apartheid. He also consulted with other African countries on setting up their judicial systems.

On August 28, 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Nathaniel R. Jones to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He assumed senior status in 1995 and retired on March 30, 2002. During his term on the bench, he taught at the University of Cincinnati law school and at Harvard Law School. On May 6, 2003, the second federal courthouse established in Youngstown was named in his honor.

After retirement from the court, he became Senior Counsel for Blank Rome LLP and co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He wrote a memoir, published in 2016: ”Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America.” That same year, he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, their highest award, recognizing outstanding achievement by an African-American.

Nathaniel R. Jones died of congestive heart failure at age 93 on January 26, 2020. He was one of the most distinquished figures to rise from working class beginnings in Youngstown. His comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer may give us a clue to his distinction. He said, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”

He prevailed.

[Special thanks to Nick Manolukas for suggesting this article]

Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

the cross and the lynching tree

The Cross and the Lynching TreeJames H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013.

Summary: A reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community.

James H. Cone makes an observation in this book that “hit me between the eyes.” He puzzles why White Christians in America have failed to see the connection between Jesus, who was “hung on a tree” and the thousands of blacks, usually innocent of any crime who were lynched, all across the United States, often accompanied by the cutting of body parts as souvenirs, riddling with bullets, violent abuse, or burning–all done as a spectacle often attended by a town (Colson Whitehead offers a vivid description of all of this in a scene in The Underground Railroad).

I discovered that I was not alone to being blind to this obvious parallel. Cone discusses the life and work of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential figure on presidents as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, with his theory of moral realism. He is one of my heroes, going back to college days when I wrote papers on him in a philosophy of history course where I was first introduced to his thought. Cone observes Niebuhr’s silence about this connection when lynching was a reality, and that unlike Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian, he never actively advocated against the injustices epitomized by the lynching tree.

Cone explores the use of lynching as a form of social control in the post-Reconstruction South, and other places determined never to let blacks think they were equal to whites. He explores the theology of the cross, and the identification with Christ in the civil rights struggle, of bearing a cross, reflected in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to a point of accepting that he would likely die, but that death could be redemptive for his people. The cross had a power that was liberating–from fear, from the loss of dignity. It offered hope–a resurrection, a crown.

Cone moves from Black spirituals to the literary works of James Weldon Johnson (who wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the “Black national anthem”) to W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. He speaks of the Black Christs, both men and women, who shared the fate of Christ, who was also lynched. And he writes movingly of the work of Black women who walked the way of Christ, as did Fanny Lou Hamer in voter registration or Rosa Parks.

Most chilling in this book are Cone’s references to “Strange Fruit,” a poem by Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen) brought to public attention by the jazz singer Billie Holliday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the trees and blood at the root,
Black body swing in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

The juxtaposition of fruit, trees, Southern breezes and poplars with blood, black bodies, and hanging vividly underscore the horror of lynching, and how it had become a commonplace at one time in our country.

Cone raises a question I’ve heard many whites raise, “but wasn’t that a past that is best forgotten?” He responds by asking what has happened to the hate, the indifference, and denial that made lynching possible? These have not disappeared (truth that the years since this book was written has borne out). He contends that only the remembering and retelling of the story of these injustices and honoring those who stood against them can bring healing.

He concludes:

   The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window of that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice. Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it. Yet God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is a hope “beyond tragedy.”

This is a powerful book because of its profound reflections on the cross and how we’ve made our black citizens bear it, and the profound spirituality that has emerged from it. The question is will we see what we’ve been blind to, or in suppressing the truth, become blinder yet, leaving the door open to new terrors. I long that our nation will see and hear and confront our national sin. I wonder if we will, but this book challenges me to always live in hope–even if what is standing in front of me is a cross–or a lynching tree.

Review: Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomDavid W. Blight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Perhaps the definitive biography of this escaped slave who became one of the most distinguished orators and writers in nineteenth century America as he for abolition and Reconstruction and civil rights for Blacks.

There is no simple way to summarize this magnificent biography of Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived an amazingly full life captured admirably in these 764 pages from his birth, likely conceived by a white plantation owner, to the attempts to break him on Covey’s plantation, his quest to learn to read, and discovery of the power of words, his escape, and rise as an orator and writer, advocating first for abolition using the narrative of his own slavery, and later for full rights of blacks, even after the failed promise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. He traveled relentlessly on speaking tours throughout his life, and was walking out the door of his home to speak when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He wrote prodigiously, editing two newspapers and authoring his autobiography in three successive versions.

We could explore his oratorical greatness. Blight liberally quotes excerpts of his most famous speeches giving us a sense of the power of his rhetoric. We could trace the growing fault line between William Lloyd Garrison and Douglass, who differed on whether abolition would come through moral suasion or violence. We could explore his efforts to launch his own newspaper, struggling along for many years until closure. Blight uncovered editions of previously lost copies that enabled him to render a fuller account of the paper than previous biographers.

His later career reflected the tensions of trying to support Republican efforts at Reconstruction, only to condemn the eventual compromises and erosion of protections under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that exposed Blacks to lynching, suppression of voting rights. It exposed him to criticism from younger activists. At one point late in his life, he serves as an honorary representative of Haiti, a country in which Africans had thrown off the yoke of their white French oppressors.

Blight also traces the familial struggles Douglass faced. Wanting a family when he had been stripped of one in childhood, he married Anna, a free woman, who did not share his love of words and the public limelight. She made a household in Rochester that sheltered fugitive slaves, radicals like John Brown, and eventually, her children’s families, as well as Frederick’s sophisticated white women friends Julia Griffiths Crofts, and later Ottilie Assing, who may have been something more to than that to Douglass. Assing even stayed for months at a time. Awkward? Perhaps, but we hear nothing of it from Anna, Awkward and distressing as well were the failures of their children, including his daughter’s husband. Part of the reason for Frederick Douglass’s unremitting lecture tours was the necessity to support this growing brood unable to be self supporting. This was an irony for one who prided himself on his self-sufficiency.

Frederick Douglass was a fighter, from the plantation to the Baltimore docks to the lecture and convention circuit. No one fought more passionately for Black civil rights. He fought until the day he died. The fact that the fight has had to be picked up by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, and still endures makes the case that it is not for lack of fighting and arduous effort that we still seek King’s dream. Rather we need to pay attention to a larger American story of a country that has continued to struggle and fail to live up to its ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” To read this biography of Douglass is both to marvel at the vision and drive and relentless fight for freedom of this man, and to grieve for the generations of compromises and lost opportunities that are the story of this country. It suggests that progress can only occur when Black prophets of freedom like Douglass are joined, generation after generation, by Whites who advocate for the nation’s ideals with the relentlessness of Douglass. Douglass never gave up on the possibility of liberty and justice for all, including his own people. And neither should we.