The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

MLK-Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC,
Source: National Park Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

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On Watch at the African American Civil War Memorial

On-Guard-at-Monument3

Marquett Milton, a Civil War reenactor, stands watch at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. He is portraying a member of the United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the Union army during the Civil War. He is wearing a skyblue greatcoat, which was used during the winter months. Milton is also a volunteer at the African American Civil War Museum, which is across the street from the Memorial.

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”


Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”

Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.

Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution. Continue reading

African American Soldiers on Guard for the Emanicpation Proclamation

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the (final version) of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the document was on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013.

A group of Civil War re-enactors stood guard over the document for this photograph at the National Archives Facebook page. The re-enactors are from B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops.

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue


“’Emancipation Day in South Carolina’—The Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Volunteers Addressingg the Reiment, After Having Been Presented with the Stars and Stripes at Smith’s Plantation, Port Royal Island, January 1.—From a Sketch by our Special Artist.—See Page 275.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 24, 1863, 276

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.

Colored (African American) Soldier and Family in Civil War Era Photo Identified


Previously unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In May 2011, I posted a blog entry featuring the above photograph, which is from the Library of Congress. The photo shows a soldier in uniform, a wife in dress and hat, and two daughters wearing matching coats and hats. More details can be found at the Library of Congress record for the photo, which is here.

The Library of Congress description for the photo lists the soldier and family as “Unidentified.” But thanks to research whose results were published in the November 2012 issue of Kentucky Explorer Magazine, it is believd that the photo depicts Sergeant Samuel Smith of the 119th US Colored Infantry, his wife Molle and their daughters Mary and Maggie. Sergeant Smith enlisted at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. More details about the Smiths are provided by Angela Y. Walton-Raji at her blog The USCT Chronicle.

Thanks to Kentucky Explorer Magazine and Angela Y. Walton-Raji/The USCT Chronicle for providing this information!

PS, I met Angela Y. Walton-Raji several weeks ago during a visit to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. It was a brief meeting, but it was fun to talk to a fellow blogger. I wish her well on her labor of love.

Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms. Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

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A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
- Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
- Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
- Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
- Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

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The current debate about gun control, spurred by the Newtown Tragedy, causes me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

Now wait! I’m not taking any position (in this post, anyway) regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. A useful book on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are availble via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
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1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor efeectively with tha cane knives and axes they weilded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distictive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

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