Thursday, February 28, 2013

Resegregating Memphis City Schools

Today in my Urban Policy class we watched a documentary entitled The Inconvenient Truth behind Waiting For Superman. Within the movie there was a clip of a New York man discussing the ways that Charter schools are effectively creating modern day re-segregation of schools. His argument was that Charter schools only accept certain students (those who perform well and will drive up their test scores) and so in a world that is so centralized around the use of charter schools to save America, the minority kids are always losing. In the education world, minorities and those in poverty are often tracked from an early age, put on lower tracks just because of their race, and so they end up at a disadvantage over their rich, white peers. Because charter schools only accept students who will perform well (in the long term-they may accept “problem” students at first but will kick them out of their school if they don't perform well enough), the public schools hold the poor and the minorities and the charter schools contain the white, privileged students and the few minority students who were lucky enough to break out of the system.
               His words reminded me of a similar struggle for equality that is currently taking place in Memphis and Shelby County schools. State Senator Mark Norris has proposed a bill that would make it no longer illegal to create new special school systems. The passing of this bill would allow all of the suburbs of Shelby County, the ones that are so against the merging of Memphis City schools with the Shelby County Schools, to create their own school districts for their students that live in their designated suburb area. If this bill passes it will, effectively, segregate Shelby County schools. The bill will not require new special school systems to pay taxes to Memphis City Schools, thus furthering the issues that exist in these MC schools-the very reason they want to create these special school districts in the first place.
               Statistically the residents of the suburbs surrounding Memphis have a higher tendency to be white and affluent, and the residents of the city (especially those attending Memphis public schools) are more likely to minorities and are more likely to be living below the poverty line. By creating this divide between the inner city schools and the suburbs the state of Tennessee is effectively, legalizing racial segregation in its school systems.

You can read more about the upcoming bill, which would be passed July 1st, here:

Mayoral Candidate Found Dead After Going Missing For Two Days

This morning I read an article on USA Today (which can be accessed here) about Marco McMillian, a Clarksdale, Mississippi mayoral candidate, whose body was found on Wednesday morning at around 8:30. He had been missing since Tuesday. The candidate’s body was found near the Mississippi-Yazoo levy about 30 miles away from where his car crashed after being driven by someone else. McMillian, a native of Clarksdale, was living in Memphis until several months ago when he returned to his hometown to run for mayor. I was shocked and confused while reading this article, and, frankly, stunned that this article was printed with such little concrete information and so few solid facts.
As one of the first openly gay and political candidates and an LGBT advocate in Mississippi, McMillian was CEO of WMW & Associates, a consulting firm for non-profit organizations. He secured the first federal contract to raise awareness about the impact of HIV and AIDS in communities of color. As such a prominent public figure, McMillian’s death came as a shock to many, even in such a conservative, predominantly Republican state. Initially, I believed this to be a hate crime, against either racism or sexuality. However, this didn’t make me understand the circumstances anymore; while it is still early in the investigation and many questions still need to be answered, I wonder why this is happening at all. I believe that violent acts against racism or sexuality should have ended years ago. There is no excuse for such actions to still be an issue.
One problem I have with this article is the fact that there is simply not enough information present to determine what type of crime this was. Was it a hate crime against race or sexuality? What was the relationship between McMillian and Lawrence Reed, “a person of interest taken into custody”? Was this a domestic crime? There are simply too many questions to assume this was a hate crime. However, none of this excuses the facts of McMillian’s race and sexuality in such a conservative state. According to Coahoma Country Coroner Scotty Meredith, “politics likely wasn’t a factor in McMillian’s death.” Furthermore, McMillian’s spokesman for his campaign Jarod Keith stated the candidate was openly gay, but it never came up during the campaign. That being said, this was still an act of extreme violence, one that floored me.
What do you think? Was this an act against racism and/or sexuality, or simply “regular” homicide as the police suggest?

Duty of the Hour

            I recently went to a showing of The Duty of the Hour documentary about the life of Benjamin Hooks.  Hooks was a native Memphian who had a huge impact on the Federal Communications Commission by making fundamental changes on the media for African Americans. He also eventually went on the become the president of the NAACP and made grade strides for the organization even though the organization was falling apart when he came into position.

During the documentary, one scene that caught my eye was the sanitation workers strike in Memphis during the late 1960’s. The strike was a grassroots movement that resembled many of the grassroots protests and strikes we have talked about throughout many class discussions. Just like other grassroots movements, the sanitation strike was fueled by local leadership and helped to build national momentum to test segregation. Although the strike began with local workers, people throughout the nation became aware of the strike. Even Martin Luther King Jr. knew about the strike and actually made a speech to the workers in Memphis. I was glad the documentary mentioned the local strike because of how often grassroots movements are ignored in history today. 

While the movie itself was very compelling, the thing that stuck out to me the most during the event was the speech that Mayor Wharton made before the showing of the film. He talked about how not everyone can be as influential and monumental as Benjamin Hooks or Martin Luther King or Ida B Wells, but there is still a lot left undone in regards to racial equality. Specifically, Wharton explained the saying “duty of the hour,” which I found was important. He clarified “duty of the hour” as a person’s individual obligation to civil rights that should always be getting modified. He also explained that there is always going to be a need for individuals to participate in their own duties of the hour to work to lessen social injustice and discrimination in the future.

The talk by Wharton also parallels to the reoccurring class topic that the Civil Rights Movement does not actually have set beginning and ending dates in history, unlike popular assumption. Because racial inequality cannot be cured or ended with one event or law, it is important to remember what Wharton emphasized in his speech. Although times have changed and segregation is not as public as it used to be, there are still many strides forward to be made in America. There is no actual “master narrative” for the movement because discrimination is still present in every day life. For example, The KKK rally that is coming to Memphis due to the renaming of public parks is obviously fueled behind racial divides. The rally may very well result in the desire to violently retaliate the KKK, so someone’s duty of the hour could be to spread the importance of non-violent responses.

 While I have constantly been thinking about my possible duties of the hour since this documentary, I challenge you to think about potential individual duties of the hour you can take to continue to work to prevent discrimination in America. 

Photograph of 1980's KKK Protest

This photograph portrays an African-American Georgia State Trooper dressed in riot gear at a KKK protest in Gainesville in the early 1980's. Standing in front of him is a very young Caucasian boy dressed in a traditional Klan hood and robe.

Personally, I find this picture to be exceptionally thought provoking. The boy standing before the State Trooper is merely an innocent child with no awareness of or appreciation for the symbolism of hatred his clothing represents. He was likely dressed by his parents; however, at such an early age, he does not yet display signs of sharing their bigotry towards African-Americans. Instead, he simply seems curious, as any boy might be, about the Trooper’s shield that he reaches out to touch and examine. It is doubtful that he has any understanding of what it is used for or why; maybe he simply saw his own reflection in the armor and was intrigued by it. That’s just the way children are: inquisitive, impulsive, and indifferent to distinctions of skin color. At this particular time in his life, he has no idea of the significant implications or consequences of what he is doing. 

However, the State Trooper does, and that makes me wonder what is going through his mind at the time of this photograph. It is clear that the child is obviously being raised in an environment in in which he is taught to hate others, including the Trooper, based solely on the color of their skin. Though it is not the boy’s fault, the fact that his family members support the Ku Klux Klan makes it almost inevitable that racist tendencies will eventually be instilled in him. Thus, this picture perfectly represents the continuous cycle of racial prejudice passed down from generation to generation. Racial hate is not an intrinsic thing, something that people are born with, but something that is instilled in children by their parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents, and so on and so forth until it eventually becomes habitual.

This juxtaposition of innocence versus hate within this photo is astounding, as is the irony of a black man protecting the right of white people to assemble and protest against him, his temperance in the face of discrimination, and the hope that the young boy clad in his KKK costume represents: the hope that racism might one day be completely expunged. This photograph serves as a vital reminder that it only takes one person to inspire his generation and make a world of difference. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

KKK Leader Announces Rally Over Renaming of Parks in Memphis

Today I read an article (which can be accessed here) about a local purported Ku Klux Klan member planning a mass protest of the renaming of Confederate-themed parks here in Memphis. The man, who refers to himself as the "Exalted Cyclops", intends to rally all of his fellow klansmen in a park formerly named for Nathan Bedford Forest, a renowned Confederate leader and creator of the Ku Klux Klan. The article was extremely thought provoking, particularly because it relates to many of our assigned readings and touches upon several key ideas that we have recently discussed in class.

What struck me first and foremost within this article was the fact that it continued to defy the frustrating “master narrative”, the narrative that too often suggests that not only was there a clear and defined beginning to racial prejudice, but an ending as well. Realistically, as clearly demonstrated in this text, racial discrimination is far from over. Though the overall public is generally oblivious to or at least ill informed about the current whereabouts of racist institutions like the KKK, it is imperative to understand that they still exist, and that racism is still rampant. Too often people talk about racist acts in the past tense, myself included. For instance, in class, when we discuss lynching, segregation, and racial violence, I have caught myself thinking something along the lines of, “That’s horrible! I can’t believe people did things like that back then!” while, in reality, acts of racism are still widely prevalent. (If anyone would like to view further proof of that, please check out this website.)

On a different note, one specific quote from the article stuck with me. One woman claimed that, by changing the names of these parks to ones that are not steeped in racial dispute and thus undeniably less controversial, the Memphis City Council is “trying to get rid of [and rewrite] history.” I found this postulation interesting. Is it possible that she has a point? And, if so, do you think that changing these names is a positive or a negative action? I completely understand the Memphis City Council’s decision to cease celebrating Confederate “heroes” by changing the names of the parks, and I get that this point in American history was extremely flawed (to put it very, very mildly). However, at the same time, I feel that it is important to illuminate the injustice rather than to sweep it under the rug. History cannot be erased or gotten rid of, but only improved upon over time, and, while things have definitely improved for African Americans and other minorities since the Civil War, it is scary to think that there are still active and passionate members of the KKK in existence. After all, as Winston Churchill best put it: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Death Narrative in Hip-Hop

           The lecture from Jeffrey Ogbar on Febuary 15, 2013 was titled “Ready to Die: Critiquing Hip-Hop’s Narratives of life and Death.” I found the lecture to be really engaging, interesting, and humorous. Ogbar talked about how central role of death within the music of hip-hop. We often simply expect to find death to be a central theme of the music. It is kind of sad, but we aren’t surprised by the death narrative within hip-hop. Ogbar pointed out that the theme was absent from the music until the 1980’s. Hip-hop first came on the popular scene when “Rapper’s Delight” came out. However that national song really wasn't a true depiction of hip-hop as it was happening on a more local level.
The presence of the death narrative was introduced parallel to the rise of the illicit drug trade. As crack cocaine began to take rise, so did the violence and death narrative within hip-hop. The drug problem was essentially ignored in popular music until it was simply too large to ignore. As the conflict within the community of hip-hop rises, so does the presence of the death narrative within the music.
There comes a divide in hip-hop out of the politics that surround the community. On one hand you have the ganster rappers who embrace the hardness of being from the hip-hop community. These artists include groups like NWA and later Cypress Hill. On the other hand you have groups such as Run DMC and Public Enemy who take on the black freedom or black nationalists view. Instead of talking about killing anyone in their music, black nationalist rappers such as Public Enemy talked more about killing their oppression or oppressors. They would single out politicians and cops to point the lyrical gun out, whereas ganster rappers would talk about killing anyone that got in their way. Then there are artists such as Ice Cube who breaks away from NWA and goes out to NY and merges the black nationalist rap with ganster rap with “Death Certificate.”
In the lecture, we discussed a little about the suppression of certain lyrics by the record labels and the effect that might have had. Certain record labels had to start denouncing artists because of the violent death narratives in their lyrics. Talking about killing other black people in their music was okay, but if they started rapping about killing cops they would have to change it. One question I had was how did these death narratives, and violent notions of killing people, affect (and possible hurt) the civil rights movement. These narratives paint a violent picture, and I wonder how representative the nation and the public saw this. Did these songs come to define the African American race for some people at the time, and how did the record labels deal with that. Or rather, did the record labels even deal with that? 

Sunday, February 10, 2013


1960 and 1961 were years of deep changes. Before these years, there were not a lot of changes regarding discrimination even after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1960, the black community was not unanimous anymore. A lot of black people started distancing themselves from the NAACP's nonviolent and prudent strategy. A new wave of protests was becoming visible, giving a different aspect to the Civil Rights Movement.
Tired of having no result and noticing that things did not change, the students launched a new form of protest: the sit-ins. They were independent from any organization. The first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960 was followed by a lot of similar actions. Franklin McCain, one of the students who initiated the sit-in movement, explained that the idea was to stay at the Woolworth's lunch counter until they get served. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created. This shows that students had a real supervision power and would prove that they had influence on the evolution of racial issues in America. Ella Baker, a prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movements, was even an advisor to the students. The Committee followed her lead focusing on local leadership. It highlights the potential of this new form of action. These protests, growing bigger and bigger, bore fruits quickly. In October 1960, during the presidential election campaign, John F. Kennedy committed himself to try to set Martin Luther King, Jr. free. He was arrested after having participated in a sit-in in Atlanta. Kennedy was elected, the black vote was an important factor in his victory. He dedicated a part of his legislative agenda to the voting rights violation and later, to the expansion of federal civil rights laws. The Freedom Rides, introduced by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were another type of action consisting in challenging segregation on buses and in terminals. Even if the Freedom Riders experienced violent attacks, the movement went on. It even forced the federal state of Mississippi to protect the Freedom Riders. It seems that American society was transforming. The movement had a new face, brought by this new generation and the rise of young white activists.

The new waves of protests were not all nonviolent. The efficiency of violence was actually a real debate during that time. Robert F. Williams, the president of Monroe NAACP chapter, was convinced that violence was necessary to get more rights. As the laws failed to protect “the weak”, violence was the only way to protect themselves. Passive resistance was not powerful enough to reach desegregation. Williams insists on the capacity of violence to get more justice: this is thanks to a group of black men that the Klan was deprived of its constitutional rights in Monroe. Violence must be the reply of violence. All the trials that resulted with no justice for black people were intolerable. They would be “delivered from bondage” only by fighting back. Martin Luther King did not advocate violence but recognized the legitimacy of self-defense. For him, violence as a means of advancement cannot bring people together and position them as a weak minority. The power lies in congregation: mass boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, mass meetings, mass marches...The Gandhi model is a proof that massive nonviolent protestations are successful to disband the enemy. Furthering that idea, Franklin McCain explained that solidarity and patience were the key words of the sit-ins which happened to be efficient.

There were clearly two schools of thought which emerged in the 1960s. The first one followed the traditional path of nonviolence advocated by the NAACP and Martin Luther King among others but chose a new way of demonstrating. The second one advocated violence and weapons to fight segregation. The Civil Rights Movement was then seen in a new light and reached a new degree in the struggle for rights and justice.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Fat Butt Michelle Obama?"

In light of our discussions and readings about how the struggle for civil rights was mapped on women's bodies, I thought this article was really interesting.

Michelle Obama's body has become the subject of public debate and criticism. Is it because, as the article suggests, "her presence as first lady challenges the historic view of a black woman’s place and notions of beauty," or is it something more political, less racial? In some ways it seems overly simplistic, and almost offensive in itself, to immediately link such comments to her race. However, there are clear historical antecedents to such devaluing of black women on the basis of their physicality.

In your opinion, do white first ladies and public figures have to endure the same type of insults? Is this more an issue of sexism or racism?