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‘Civil Rights’ Category

  1. From the Archives: Rosa Parks

    December 1, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    From the U.S. National Archives today:

    Rosa Parks, fingerprinted

    Rosa Parks, fingerprinted

    “On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks went to her job as a seamstress. By the time she returned home, her role as an enduring symbol of the African American civil rights movement had begun.”


  2. Fighting Again for the Right to Vote

    February 15, 2012 by Holly Thomas


    The first African-American president is in the White House, yet in this election year people may not realize that this country is still combating disenfranchisement, which most would assume ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prohibits states from denying “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color,” and was passed by Congress to put an end to the literacy tests many states implemented as a means of disenfranchising blacks during Jim Crow and after Reconstruction. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

    Literacy tests are no longer the issue, but another one has arisen to take their place, and that is voter identification. According to an article published in The Economist magazine, “Supporters [of state legislation requiring voter i.d.] contend these laws are simply meant to ensure the integrity of the voting process. If Americans must show a photo ID to board a plane or buy a beer, they can easily show one to vote.

    “But,” the article continues, “the sort of deception that showing a government-issued photo ID would prevent—voter-impersonation fraud, in which one person on the voter rolls tries to vote as someone else—is very rare. Too rare, say some opponents, to justify erecting barriers that will disproportionately disenfranchise poor, young and minority voters, who tend to support Democrats.”

    And according to another article, “Since the 2010 mid-terms, states have introduced and passed laws requiring proof of citizenship, ending election day voter registration, restricting voter registration efforts, limiting early voting, and making it harder for the formerly incarcerated to regain their voting rights post-release. The most common of the new restrictions, however, are photo ID laws that require voters to show particular forms of government ID in order to cast a ballot. According to the Brennan Center report, nearly 11 percent of Americans, or 21 million people, lack a government issued photo ID.”

    The vastly wealthy and increasingly visible Koch brothers are allegedly behind the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the “silent” group which has been pushing the voter i.d. legislation by both writing the legislation, and introducing it into statehouses across the country. Seven states-Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin-have passed laws requiring voter i.d.. since 2010.

    This is really crucial, and it is crucial for two related but different reasons: one concerns enfranchisement, the other, the use of corporate money in our political system in all its insidiousness. Regarding enfranchisement and the need for voter i.d., it’s clear that adults without i.d. are already living on the margins of society, or without full citizenship, as it were, and that is an issue on its own, one of class, and, inevitably in the United States, of race. Further excluding them on the basis of voter impersonation fraud amounts to going backwards forty-five years. (Unlike during Reconstruction or Jim Crow, however, I’d wager the people behind these laws are no longer afraid of “black domination” when whites were a minority in states like Louisiana, but instead corporate interests blocking voters likely to vote Democrat.)

    Just as important as enfranchisement, therefore, is the issue of corporate power and money in the American political system. This affects all of us, including those with passports who vacation in Cancun and believe our vote counts. Will this election be democratic?

    Read The War on Voting

    The Voting Rights Act






  3. Johnson-Anderson-Williams: Ordinary Names, Extraordinary People

    February 3, 2012 by Holly Thomas

    Jack Johnson: "I am a man."

    Today I read that famous opera soprano Camilla Williams died. She was 92. It was May 1946 when she debuted with the New York City Opera in New York City, playing Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” World War II had only just ended, the Civil Rights movement not yet begun (the director of “Madame Butterfly” received death threats for casting her), but Camilla Williams, the daughter of a domestic and chauffeur from Virginia, managed to secure a contract with a major American opera company roughly ten years before the better-known Marian Anderson, when in 1955 Anderson  became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Anderson was already a well-established performer in 1939 when she sang at Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution and District of Columbia Board of Education forbid her to sing at either Constitution Hall or even in the auditorium of a white public high school.)

    Despite the significance of that 1946 evening, Williams said she was “primarily confined to playing exotic heroines like Aïda and Cio-Cio-San.”

    “They were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup,” she said, noting that she would have loved to sing Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

    Coincidentally, I just re-watched “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” last night, a film by Ken Burns (based on a book by Geoffrey C. Ward  from 2004, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson). I confess I do not like everything Mr. Burns does (his documentaries on the Civil War and Baseball sound too much the same, for example), and know that his history is not always accurate. (More on those controversies in the future.) Yet this compassionate portrayal of Jack Johnson, who becomes heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, is stunning, perhaps because the subject himself was so astonishing. Jackson would have been an audacious spirit and a brilliant athlete in any age, but forced to endure Jim Crow, an era of vicious – and visceral – hatred, and to succeed? His strength was superhuman, and it wasn’t primarily in his fists. “I am a man,” Jackson said, a mantra Civil Rights activists would repeat once again in the 1960s. (See the teacher’s guide for Unforgivable Blackness, here.)

    Camilla Williams could not of course use her fists to pry open a society that would deny her. But she did use her voice. She had the composure to say, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice.” One wonders at what personal expense.

    Hear a tribute to Camilla Williams.

    Listen to Marian Anderson’s moving voice, here.

    And read the scholarly work by Adam Fairclough, Better Day Coming. Notice the placards the men are carrying on the cover of the book.