Review: Smart Suits, Tattered Boots

Smart Suits, Tattered Boots, Korie Little Edwards and Michelle Oyakawa. New York: New York University Press, 2022.

Summary: A study, using interviews of Black Ohio religious leaders and research studies of mobilization efforts to explore whether Black religious leaders are still able to mobilize civil rights efforts, and if so, how, when, and why they do.

The story of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s to 1970’s is a story of a religious movement–marchers mobilized, trained, and inspired in churches, from which many of the marches began, voting rights efforts encouraged by churches, and almost invariably led by Black men in suits, white dress shirts, and dark ties (with many women contributing mightily to the effort).

Fifty years later, it is a new time, where systemic injustices against Blacks remain in different forms–mass incarceration of Black men, police-involved shootings or killings of Blacks, new voting restrictions and redistricting that on analysis seem directed to prevent or dilute the Black vote. The authors of this study ask the question of whether and where Black religious leadership figures into addressing these injustices. The study centers in on Ohio, where the two researchers live, using a case study of the 2012 presidential election and Black voter mobilization efforts as well as interviews with 54 black clergy and eleven faith-based community organization (FBCO) and race-based civic organization heads. All names of interviewees are pseudonyms as are most of the organizations mentioned.

The study discovered that the 2012 election was an example where religious leaders served to effectively mobilize efforts to register and get out the vote. Principal leaders in the religious communities were key–people who were widely respected by other clergy in their networks. When these leaders said to others that they should give their efforts to mobilizing the vote, they did. Furthermore, the researchers learned that a key motivation was actually not re-electing a Black president but rather countering efforts being made to block Black access to the vote, rolling back a key achievement of the civil rights movement.

The researchers also found that Black clergy tended to mobilize in their religious networks around historic civil rights issues but tended to address other effects of systemic racism that disadvantaged Blacks by placing blame on Blacks for failures and urging stronger Black work ethics, rather than addressing the systemic issues. The term this “the Black Protestant ethic.”

They found that the historic influence of Black civic organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and others has waned in their organizing capacities, and that many Black religious leaders have turned to FBCOs instead. The difficulty is that these efforts are multi-racial, often directed by whites without sufficient grasp of the community issues, and are funded by foundations, who often are focused on quick, short-term results rather than longer term substantive change.

Consequently, many Black clergy may engage for a time and discover that the amount of work and the real impact do not warrant their continued engagement. This is exemplified in chapter six of the book, which profiles three highly influential leaders (under pseudonyms)–one a civil rights era principal leader, the general, one described as the warrior, who took on racial injustices in his city until he was both excluded and burned out and needed to take care of himself. The third, called the protege’ was a younger leader in the early years of engaging justice issues, and who was both passionate, but also somewhat abstracted in his language.

What I found most striking was the contrast between the general, “Wyoming Brashear,” and the others. The researchers also noted it:

“Brashear stands out from others in this study because he consistently and intentionally aimed to reconcile his worldview, one that was historically and globally situated, with his Christian faith, drawing on biblical references to provide theological bases for his positions. This suggests that Brashear pondered matters, that his positions were not taken for granted. It was uncommon for the pastors in this study to reference specific Bible scriptures when explaining their social or theological views” (p.114).

I thought this significant. “Brashear” was one of those who had been part of the Civil Rights movement, one of the criteria for being a principal leader. In addition to the shared experience, which gave credibility, I wondered if there was a shared ethos of biblically and theologically informed activism tracing back to King, son and father, and beyond them to the likes of Howard Thurman, W.E.B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass.

One of the questions discussed in the conclusion is whether this religious leader influence will continue when those of the Civil Rights era pass. The researchers propose that one direction is expanding the remit from civil rights to freedom. I think that could be an interesting and important direction. I also find myself wondering if a recovery and renewal of the biblically, theologically, and spiritually informed impetus that fired religious leaders in past mobilization efforts might also be important. I think the researchers raise important questions about the Black Protestant Ethic. This may need to be both deconstructed and re-imagined. I wonder though, if there is to be power to mobilize within the Black Church, whether it must be done within a biblical and theological framework rather than bifurcating spirituality and social activism.

Smart Suits, Tattered Boots raises important questions in the face of movements like #BlackLivesMatter that have arisen outside the church. Has the day of clergy-led, church-based mobilizing efforts passed? What role should faith-based community organizations play? Are movements like #BlackLivesMatter a new wineskin for mobilizing? What if any part should Black religious leaders play? This book has me wondering about all these things.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Shocking The Conscience

Shocking the Conscience, Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Summary: A memoir of Simeon Booker’s career as a reporter, much of it during the height of the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the busing battles of the 1970’s and beyond.

I became interested in Simeon Booker because both of us grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Booker moved there as a child from Baltimore, Maryland, his father the first director of the Black YMCA in Youngstown and later a pastor on Youngstown’s South side. Other than a poem in the Vindicator and his early writing experience for the Buckeye Review (the Black newspaper in Youngstown), there is little here about his time in Youngstown.

He went away to college when he encountered discrimination at Youngstown College. Following stints at Black newspapers in Baltimore and Cleveland, he qualified for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and was hired as the first Black reporter at the Washington Post. After a few years of lackluster assignments, he was recruited to open the Washington bureau for Johnson publications, publisher of Ebony and the weekly news digest Jet. Booker occupied this post from 1956 until his retirement in 2007.

Much of the book chronicles his on-the-ground coverage of decisive moments of the Civil Rights movement. We ride on the edge of the seat with him and his photographer, trying to pass as Black ministers with a Bible on their seat to cover early Civil Rights gatherings in the deep South. We ache with him as he writes the stories of the murder and open casket funeral of Emmett Till and then sweat through the trial at the small table given “Negro” press until the acquittal of Till’s murderers. He covers the story of the Little Rock Nine who attempt integrate Central High School. Later he describes the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the eventual march to Montgomery, Alabama

Perhaps the most harrowing account was his travel on one of two busses ridden by Freedom Riders testing the enforcement of laws integrating interstate travel in the South. He describes the worries he has for passengers on the other bus when it was firebombed and narrates the beating of passengers on his bus while the bus driver and police stay away. Somehow, he managed to get a call through to Bobby Kennedy, who he had become friends with and who invited him to call if he needed help. That call got the Riders out of trouble.

He gives an illuminating account of his travels in Vietnam, where he covered the treatment of Blacks in the military and the disproportionate numbers in the thick of the fighting. He went through fire fights, and a helicopter flight with William Westmoreland with rifle rounds pinging off the skin of the helicopter, describing it as feeling safer than driving into the deep South.

The other part of his narrative is his relationships with different presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. He describes the promising talk and disappointing actions of Eisenhower, the promise of Kennedy, with increased access and the initiation of Civil Rights legislation accomplished under Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat. a cooler relationship with Richard Nixon, the advances under Carter in appointing Black judges to the bench and to many other positions. He has less to say about the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush years. In fact the period from Nixon to Obama is covered in about 25 pages, with a portion dedicated to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Most of the book is focused on about a fifteen year period from the early 1950’s to the late 1960’s. On the one hand, there is so much to which Booker was a witness in these years and his first hand narrative of many of these events fills out other histories of them I have read. Yet it seems so much more could have been told of the ensuing years and both the advances for Blacks and the shifts in the Republican party’s strength among white Southern voters leading to our current political divisions. One has the feeling that this might have been part of a two volume work were it not for Booker’s passing in 2017, a few years after its publication.

Nevertheless, Booker was an amazing journalist. His publisher said he never had to correct or retract a story by Booker, even under the duress of someone like Lyndon Johnson. He established high standards for journalism, not just Black journalism, while focusing on the issues and stories that concerned Black people. His career underscores the value of a free press, and the courage journalists have always shown to “get the story.” This is not a narrative of bombastic rhetoric but comes across as the quiet, deliberate unfolding of the larger story of which all those stories were a part, and Booker’s own witness to a critical portion of our nation’s history, when the Civil Rights movement “shocked the conscience” of the nation.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Simeon Booker

Cover of Shocking the Conscience by Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker

Jet was a pocket-sized news magazine that could be found in barber shops, beauty salons, doctors’ and dentists’ offices in the Black community and in many black homes. In the early 1950’s, it chronicled the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, culminating in an article in 1955 showing the brutally beaten and mutilated body of 14 year old Emmett Till, and a series of articles covering his open-casket funeral, his mother’s determination to awaken the nation’s conscience, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of his murderers in the Jim Crow South.

The reporter responsible for these articles, perhaps some of the most notable journalism of this era, was Simeon Booker. And Simeon Booker grew up in Youngstown. He was actually born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1918 and moved to Youngstown at age 5. His father helped establish the YMCA for blacks on West Federal Street and later served as a Baptist minister in the city. As an elementary student at Covington Elementary, he composed a poem that appeared in The Vindicator:

“Spring is coming, this I know, for the robin told me so. Flowers and grass are going to grow. Winter goes with ice and snow.”

That was the beginning of his writing career. There is some dispute of sources, one claiming him for The Rayen School, and the other as a graduate of South High School. Covington is on the North side. Later on, he lived on Myrtle, on the South side. In his memoir, he only mentions graduating from high school, so I’ve not been able to confirm which one! He enrolled at Youngstown College but was denied an activity card given to white students. He transferred to Virginia Union University, from which he graduated in 1942. He started writing for the Afro-American in Baltimore, a job obtained through family friends, and then moved back to Ohio in 1945 to write for the Call and Post in Cleveland. In 1950, he received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1950. The following year he became the first Black reporter for the Washington Post.

He was only assigned general news stories at the Post and decided to leave in 1954 to start the Washington bureau of Jet and Ebony magazines, heading up Johnson Publishing Company’s civil rights coverage. It was in the following year that he covered the Emmett Till story. He covered the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In 1961, he rode with the Freedom Riders through the deep South. When their bus was fire-bombed, he worked with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to arrange their evacuation. In 1964, his book, Black Man’s America, made the case for the ongoing civil rights movement. In the mid-1960’s, he interviewed General William Westmoreland on the Vietnam war.

He also covered Washington, including every president from Eisenhower through George W. Bush, developments in Congress, and strategies of civil rights leaders. He led the Washington Bureau until his retirement in 2007. In 2013, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists. Collaborating with his wife Carol McCabe Booker, he published his memoir Shocking the Conscience. That December, he spoke at Youngstown State’s commencement and was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 2016, the Simeon Booker Award for Courage was established as part of Ohio’s Non-Violence Week each October.

Simeon Booker died at age 99 on December 10, 2017 in Solomons, Maryland. On January 29, 2018, he was honored in a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. He was considered the dean of black journalists. His dedicated and courageous life in journalism is something all of us can be proud of, and his unrelenting pursuit of civil rights stands as a challenge to all of us.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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.”