John Brown: Lessons for Today on the Anniversary of the Attack on Harper’s Ferry

 

The anniversary of the attack on Harper’s Ferry: October 16

What can today’s fighters learn from John Brown? 

BY CHRIS MAHIN

“I think that for once the Sharpe’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.”

Those defiant words were spoken by the writer Henry David Thoreau in 1859, just days after John Brown and a small band of abolitionists attacked the town of Harper’s Ferry.

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John Brown

Because October marks the anniversary of that milestone in the struggle against slavery, it is important that we remember what took place there and examine what lessons it contains for today.

On the night of October 16, 1859, 22 armed men attempted to take control of the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (It was in a region that would become the U.S. state of West Virginia in 1863.) Seventeen were white; five were free African Americans. All were deeply committed opponents of slavery. Their plan was to seize the federal arsenal in the town — which contained more than 100,000 firearms — and use the weapons to spark a slave rebellion. Due to a number of tactical mistakes made by the raiders, their plan failed. The group was quickly surrounded by Virginia militia forces and a contingent of U.S. Marines. Four townspeople and a marine died in the fighting. Ten of the raiders (including two of Brown’s sons) were also killed. After 36 hours, John Brown and several of his comrades were captured.

The raid on Harper’s Ferry was the culmination of decades of struggle against slavery. For almost 30 years, decent people in the North had denounced slavery and appealed to the South to end the practice. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. Opponents of slavery were physically assaulted and even murdered. As the defenders of slavery became more and more arrogant and violent, the movement against slavery began to polarize. Out of the bitter, armed conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas in the 1850s emerged John Brown, a leader who advocated physical resistance to slavery. Brown ultimately came to believe that abolitionists should “take the war to Africa” — that is, arm the slaves.

Brown’s view was a minority position. When news of the violence committed by his band at Harper’s Ferry first reached the North, the raid was condemned even by opponents of slavery. But when the state of Virginia put Brown on trial just one week after the raid — before his wounds had healed or his volunteer attorneys had arrived from Boston — public opinion in the North began to change. As his trial proceeded, even Brown’s enemies had to acknowledge the great dignity, courage, and sincere religious conviction that the anti-slavery fighter displayed in court.

On October 30, 1859, a Virginia jury found Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection. On November 2, Brown defended his conduct, saying that his actions had been in defense of God’s “despised poor,” and were “not wrong, but right.” Then he defiantly told the court: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country … I submit; so let it be done!” Then Judge Richard Parker sentenced him to be hanged.

Public meetings were called all over the North to denounce the sentence. In Boston, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson told a cheering crowd that Brown was “this new saint” whose hanging “would make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”

On December 2, 1859, Brown rode to his execution ground in a wagon, seated on his own

John Brown - Charles White (1949)

John Brown, drawing by Charles White

coffin, commenting on the beauty of the countryside. Fifteen hundred soldiers were present to guard the field where Virginia executed this old man, a farmer who faced death with courage and serenity. Church bells rang out throughout the North.

While the attack on Harper’s Ferry was a defeat in the military sense, it achieved its political goal of helping to end slavery. The North’s sympathy for John Brown outraged the defenders of slavery and helped push the South to secede, making the Civil War inevitable.

Today, there is much we can learn from the boldness of those who raided Harper’s Ferry. Those 22 men lived at a time when society was in crisis; so do we. They had a vision: Mobilize the “despised poor.” Obtain weapons and place them in the hands of the victims of a terribly unjust economic system. Have faith in the militancy of the poorest section of society, for when it moves, the very best elements of all of progressive humanity will then be free to move too. Thoreau captured the spirit of the Harper’s Ferry raid with his comment that finally the weapons were to be in the hands of those who could use them.

Today, we live in a world where weapons need to be placed in the hands of the “despised poor” once again. But here we should remember another of Thoreau’s comments about John Brown. Thoreau observed that the Virginia authorities did not gain much when they took Brown’s rifle away from him when they captured him at Harper’s Ferry. After all, Thoreau pointed out, Brown still retained “his faculty of speech, a Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range.” Today, there is an arsenal which needs to be seized by revolutionaries — the arsenal of political science. There is a weapon inside that arsenal that revolutionaries need to grab and distribute to anyone willing to receive it — the weapon of political clarity.

Today, we honor John Brown and his comrades-in-arms best when we use our “Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range” — our “faculty of speech” — to speak and write and agitate against a system where a tiny handful of millionaires rules society and, every day, creates more of the poor that John Brown strove to defend. If we do that, history will truly be able to say that while John Brown’s body is buried in his family plot in North Elba, New York, his soul really does go marching on.

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This article originated in the People’s Tribune,Vol. 26 No. 10 /October, 1999; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, http://www.peoplestribune.org.

 

 

 

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Remember Antietam! A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

Remember Antietam!

A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

It was the bloodiest single day of fighting ever to take place in North America. On that day, more than 2,000 men gave their lives to halt a slaveholders’ army. Within days of their sacrifice, the first step was taken to abolish slavery in the United States. The Civil

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Confederate soldiers lie dead on the battlefield.  “The whole landscape turned slightly red.”  Over 2,000 Union solders were killed

War’s Battle of Antietam deserves to be commemorated by all those fighting to transform society today.

In a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on September 17, 1862 on a battlefield near Antietam Creek in western Maryland. Twelve hours of hard fighting by brave soldiers that day gave the Union Army a victory of sorts. That gave Abraham Lincoln the political protection he needed to begin steps that would transform the Civil War from a defensive war to save the Union into a revolutionary war to abolish slavery.

Five days after Antietam, Lincoln convened his Cabinet and announced that, if the Confederate states were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, he would free all their slaves. Lincoln was true to his word and, on New Year’s Day in 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order freed only the slaves in those states or parts of states that were in rebellion. It did not abolish slavery throughout the United States. However, it transformed the nature of the war, and unleashed a process that led inexorably to the

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Abraham Lincoln recognized that Antietam gave him the rationale for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. This portrait of Lincoln was drawn by Charles White.

Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did abolish slavery throughout the United States.

By the time of the Civil War, slavery in the United States was dominated by wealthy capitalists, most of whom owned thousands of slaves. This tiny elite represented about one percent of the population of the United States. They sold their cotton and other commodities on the world market and were an important part of the world capitalist system. Since the average price of a slave was $1,000 and there were 4 million slaves in the United States, emancipation removed $4 billion in value from the hands of capitalists.

At its time, the abolition of slavery in the United States was the greatest blow to a form of capitalist private property which had ever taken place in history. (That remained true until the Soviet Revolution of 1917.)

So, in a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on the Antietam battlefield. The stage for the battle was set in early September 1862. Emboldened by several recent victories, General Robert E. Lee moved the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, a slave state that had remained in the Union. A major Confederate victory inside Union territory would strengthen pro-Confederate sentiment in the North right before the fall 1862 Congressional elections. It might also convince some European powers to intervene in the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Lee believed that the commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac – General George B. McClellan – was cautious to the point of cowardice. Lee also thought that McClellan’s army would be demoralized from recent defeats. As historian Stephen W. Sears has pointed out, these assessments were “only half right.”

McClellan was a supporter of slavery who constantly made excuses for why he would not

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General George McClellan: his conduct fully justified Lee’s contempt for him.

fight the Confederate Army. At the Battle of Antietam, McClellan’s conduct fully justified Lee’s contempt for him. McClellan had learned Lee’s plans and had more troops at his disposal than Lee did. Still, he refused to move decisively against Lee, and allowed Lee’s army to escape after the battle.

But if McClellan violated all the principles of warfare at Antietam, the same cannot be said for his soldiers. Forced to attack in “driblets” (as one Union general put it), the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac fought bravely.

The courage of the Union troops was vividly demonstrated in the struggle to take “The Sunken Road” – a small depression at the edge of a farm. After several attacks against this strategic position failed, the task of capturing it fell to one of the Union Army’s most celebrated units – the Irish Brigade. This unit was known for marching into combat behind emerald green battle flags bearing gold shamrocks and harps. Shouting its battle cry (“Clear the way!”) in Irish, the Irish Brigade advanced across an open field. Intense enemy cannon and rifle fire “cut lanes” into its ranks. Within minutes, hundreds of its soldiers were killed or wounded. Ever since, the Sunken Road has been known as the “Bloody Lane.”

In all, 2,108 Union soldiers were killed at Antietam; 9,549 were wounded; and 753 ended up missing. The carnage that day was so terrible that – as one Union soldier put it – “the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” This sacrifice saved the day for the Union; Lee was forced to retreat back into Virginia.

There are moments in history when the future of humanity rests on what a relatively

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The battlefield at Antietam

few people are willing to endure. September 17, 1862 was such a moment. The bravery of the Union soldiers that day did not end the Civil War. Lee’s army would invade Union territory again, and the war would drag on for two more long years.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, the fruit of Antietam, did not guarantee equality for African Americans or a just society. Eventually, the post-Civil War Reconstruction governments would be overthrown and the South plunged into a reign of terror which rivaled slavery. But acknowledging those grim facts should not blind us to the reality that, in a sense, the fight for a new America began at Antietam. The Union victory there transformed the Civil War into a revolutionary war to abolish one specific form of capitalist private property: chattel slavery.

The finest tribute we can pay to those who died at Antietam is to finish their work. At Antietam, every soldier knew he risked his life if he drew enemy fire upon himself by picking up a flag dropped by a slain flag bearer. But battle flags in motion were absolutely necessary to signal the motion of troops, and so, time after time, a Union soldier picked up the fallen standard and raised it high again. In the Irish Brigade’s attempt to take the “Bloody Lane,” 16 of its flag bearers were shot dead, one after another. Today, “picking up the flag” means fighting to end the rule of all capitalists, just as those who served in the Union Army helped end the rule of one kind of capitalist, the slave-owning capitalist. When we fight that good fight, we pay our best homage to those who bled for freedom’s cause years ago beside a winding creek, on a day when the very landscape itself seemed to turn red.

                              

This article originally appeared in the September 1999 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: www.peoplestribune.org

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Who Shall Inherit The Earth? – Lew Rosenbaum

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?  

by Lew Rosenbaum

[First of all: apologies for the reproductions here, which come from my “phone” at the exhibit and consequently have all the defects associated with that.  Second, this exhibit has now left Chicago and will be opening at MoMA in New York in October, 2018; then at LACMA in Los Angeles in February, 2019. Do not miss this exhibit.  Last, with gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet Frances Barrett White, and her two children Jessica and Ian, and be welcomed into her home in the mid 1980s. — LR]

“Think! Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me.” These lyrics from the song written by Aretha Franklin’s (1968, Aretha Now) are chasing through my head as I mull over my response to seeing the Charles White Retrospective exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the second time.  And I don’t go to exhibits more than once.  But I did make time for this exhibit, and these Aretha-lyrics come to me because of something Danny Alexander wrote.  It’s about the artist and the thought processes that galvanize the artist’s work, whether music to the ear or the visual music on paper and other media. It’s what the artist is telling the listener or viewer.  I am not skilled in the language of visual art, so I will leave it to others to comment on the techniques, of which Charles White was a master.  The force of the paintings, etchings, linocuts, drawings — everything — moved me to tears throughout the galleries.  Often tears of joy at experiencing something that struck so close to home that it felt like a personal communication, an embrace by what art should be conveying.

Thinking.  How do you capture brain waves on paper? The text accompanying “Awaken from the Unknown recalls White’s transformation after reading Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, and finding there “a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and text-books as unquestionable truth.”  Maybe you start there, recalling what it was like, when your mother dropped you

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Awaken from the Unknowing – Charles White (1961)

off at the public library (it was at the Chicago Cultural Center then) at 7 or 8 years old, and you reconstructed the real world from what you read there, and then walked the few blocks to the Art Institute, wandering the halls, where you said your found the work of Winslow Homer particularly influential. At least that’s what Charles White did and said, and in this piece I see myself and imagine the subject of this piece on a road to discovery, perhaps after work, exhausted, and falling asleep over the piles of newspapers, just like I have done many times.  Falling asleep in the process of awakening, kind of a visual pun, I suppose.  She’s been asleep and here is the key to awakening. Discovering the new ideas that transform. Here’s a new idea that transforms: “Think! And let yourself be free!”

Much earlier in his life, Charles White contemplated what brought him to his own understanding.  He painted these two pieces in 1942, “Hear This” and “This, My Brother.”

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This My Brother – Charles White (1942)

Both these pieces speak to a kind of awakening, or different stages of awakening.  Referring to the title of the novel by John Rood, call “This My Brother”  social consciousness, the discovery not only that classes exist, but that the workers as a class, in this case the miners, have a class enemy. This form of learning comes directly from the struggle, the battles for a better life.  It evolves out of what is often called the “spontaneous movement,” though it should be clear that there is very little spontaneity even in this process.  But then you have “Hear This,” in which the two figures are engaged in, even fighting over, the written word.  One figure, grasping a book, tries to convince the other about its point of view;  the other, seems unconvinced

Hear This Charles White 1942

Hear This – Charles White (1942)

(the text next to the paintings implies that it referred to White’s own experience learning about the social struggle from communists).  They (the man with the book, the communists) introduced something new, something that came from outside the struggle itself, something that reflected that particular role that workers play in transforming society. Changing the social order is fundamentally different from the practical role workers have in fighting for better wages and working conditions. Looking at these two pieces gives a kind of visual representation  of the difference between the school of the strike struggle and the school of revolutionary propaganda. And, of course, the relation between the two: without the learning that comes from the practical struggle, the propaganda remains so much sectarian jargon.  But in these two paintings, along with that dramatic “Awaken” piece, comes a visual lightning bolt that 100 pages of explanation can never transmit so dramatically (or, dare I say, graphically).

* * * * *

Let’s take a step backward, talk about Charles White and this “communism” thing.  The text accompanying the exhibit alludes to it in a number of places aside from what is noted above.  For example, at the entrance to the exhibit, the text calls him a “political leftist who championed the rights of the working class.”  The text accompanying his mural work reads: “White aligned himself with a group of leftist artists [in Chicago] who drew attention to inequities in American society in order to effect social change.” It was much more than that.  Frances Barrett White wrote a memoir of her life with Charles White (Reaches of the Heart, Barricade Books, 1994, o.p.).  “Charlie’s art teachers,” she writes, “encouraged his talent and twice entered his work in statewide competitions. Both times he won, and both times when he appeared to receive the awards, they were denied to him.”  It was a mistake, he was told.  Someone else had actually won.  “By the time he was fifteen, Charlie had read . . . The New Negro many times.  The knowledge of his culture he found there was overwhelming. . .”  He began to dislike school intensely, stopped attending, and found as an alternative the “Arts Crafts Guild, a group of black artists who met every Sunday. It changed the direction of his art.” In his early meanderings in the Art Institute, he had been influenced by Winslow Homer and the Hudson River School, and this translated into paying attention to landscapes.  Now, with the Arts Crafts Guild, he took his easel “into the neighborhoods and painted people. Black people. . . on the streets, on the stoops of broken-down buildings, and hanging up their laundry.”  Winning another statewide competition this time brought him a one-year scholarship to the Art Institute.

He completed his course work in 1938, a time when the depression still ravaged the streets of the U.S. The government found work for artists through the Works Progress Administration; numerous arts organizations brought writers and people in the theater and visual artists together to talk about their individual crafts and also how to address the issues raised by the depression.  Along with the fight to survive came the attempt to grapple with the issues intellectually.  Within this ferment communists brought their understanding of the drive toward World War that was seizing Europe.  In the John  Reed Clubs and later the American Writers Congress, authors debated how to stop the threatening war. Artists joined the Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigades to stop the fascist offensive in Spain. Artists looked to Mexico and the mural movement there and the involvement of artists in workers’ struggles.  The current exhibit mentions only four murals he worked on;  but Fran White relates that he “joined the WPA where he painted murals in post offices, libraries, and public buildings throughout the country, never staying in one place any longer than the work required.” In 1941 he married Elizabeth Catlett, a prominent Black sculptor, and in 1942 won a $2,000 fellowship to study the role of the Negro in the development of America.  The two of them spent the next two years in the American South studying and sketching subjects from Black life.

Drafted into the army in 1944, he suggested to his Sergeant that he could use his skills as a combat artist. He was therefore assigned to the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, where “he painted the mess hall, the tables, the benches, and the chairs again and again, always using the same color of green paint.” During a flood he and his fellow soldiers in the segregated battalion  filled and moved sandbags, as if in a prison gang.  And shortly thereafter he came down with tuberculosis, which affected him for the rest of his life.

These are some of the events that formed the context of his early life for the intellectual development that brought him, for example, to be an art director at Wo-Chi-Ca, or Workers’ Children’s Camp in upstate New York (where he first met Frances Barrett).  Led him to form binding friendships with some of the most prominent artists of the time — Margaret Burroughs,  Gordon Parks, and Rockwell Kent — and, when he settled in New York, to form an organization, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, in the early 1950s, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Hammerstein.  He appealed to friends in the Thomas Jefferson School of Marxist Studies (the Communist Party workers’ school) for help finding a place for an interracial couple to rent an apartment in New York.  These cohorts, his colleagues, his confreres stoked that intellectual fire and helped him conclude, as the text to the exhibit proclaims, “Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people.”

*****

Art isn’t only to illuminate horrors of the past.  It’s to envision, to hope for the future.  So yes there is “Birmingham Totem” printed after the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church.  And there is the series of “Wanted Posters” that summon up all the demons of

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Oh Freedom – Charles White (1956)

past enslavement and degradation post slavery.  About that group of works, done in 1969 to 1971, White said: “Some of my recent work has anger. I feel that at this point  I have to make an emphatic statement about how I view the expression, the condition of this world and of my people . . . I guess it’s sort of finding the way, my own kind of way, of making an indictment.” But there is also the ecstatic “Oh Freedom,” expansive joy in the face of the subject, with the vigorous open-handed casting of seeds (in my mind, the intellectual seeds falling on fertile soil of the oppressed).

Look also at the determination in the eyes of the woman depicted in “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth.”  I dare you to think that this woman will allow her child to inherit an earth like the one into which we have been born.  She has her eyes on the prize and will protect not only him, but all children.  Of course the title is a reference to “Sermon on the Mount,”  but keep in mind that in 1953, when he drew this piece, he could not marry his wife in the state of Michigan; and that he could not easily

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Ye Shall Inherit the Earth – Charles White (1953)

find an apartment to rent in the city of New York.  To live in this land was not his birthright, and to imagine it, well, that almost smacked of treason.

In “Hope for the Future” and in “The Children” White again turns to a rendering of the child as a symbol of what is possible.  Where can we go from here, he seems to be asking, how can we extricate ourselves from this dilemma in which we find ourselves?  It is certainly the same question revolutionaries ask themselves today, knowing that hope for our future lies with those recently born. And, perhaps much like Charles White, here we stand trying to figure out how can we prepare for that future with the best possible art? The way Charles White does it, as revealed in this exhibit and these pieces in particular, is by showing that the best art is also the best propaganda, the best propaganda is the best art. How do you convey, with the necessary ambiguity to express the shifting ground on which you are standing? Look at the massy workers’ hands — I don’t know another way of describing the strength, the weight, the solidity of those hands — gently holding the child in “Hope for the Future.” Is she looking off to the side, and if so what is she seeing?

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Hope For the Future – Charles White (1945)

Is she presenting us with a gift, this child, this future? Are “The Children” looking through the window  with confidence, anticipation, hope . . .or is it with fear? Now that we see it, it is ours to do with what we will.  It is our future now.

*****

I saw the show for the second time on the Thursday five days before the exhibit closed (Thursday nights are free at the AIC).  It was much more crowded than the first time I went, and from the moment I entered I knew I was among a group of people who were there not simply to be seen at the latest big exhibit.  These were folks who really engaged with the art, some who were, like me, old enough to be contemporary with some of his working years; others born long after he had passed on (he died at the young age of 61 in 1979).  It was a conversation starting crowd, because of the excitement with the art and what it represented.  Like when I first

The Children - Charles White (1950)

The Children – Charles White – (1950)

came into the exhibit hall and looked over the shoulders of three older people no longer looking at “The Cardplayers,” but talking about what was life like in the 1940s during the war, and what did it mean to throw all the effort into the war, what did that mean for artists, and the older man, trying to remember, the word was right on the tip of his tongue, he couldn’t quite find it, it had something to do with limited quantities of goods available in stores, and just then a younger man, standing next to me, interrupted to say the word, and they all said Yes! Rationing, that’s it!  And how do you know about rationing? And so the conversation continued with young and old appreciating each other and then talking about what they appreciated in the art work. And then they moved on, new friends made and exchanging views until, much later in the exhibit they shook hands, even embraced and bid each other good bye.

It was a conversation starting crowd.  The secret smiles between two people as they saw the same things in the drawings.  Yes this is my favorite in the whole show.  I really like the “Wanted Posters”!  I don’t know how he created this sense of motion with his pen and ink.  And near the end, I found myself standing next to an older man, perhaps my age, who wondered why it had taken so long for a show like this to be mounted. He told the woman standing next to him, I don’t give the Art Institute credit really.  They should have done it a long time ago.  Of course I’m glad they did it now. You notice one thing about his work, he tells me, and that is the large hands and feet, the parts that engage in work.  The emphasis on these, and his voice trails off. And then he begins to tell me, you know why there are so few oil paintings?  It’s because oils are expensive, and he never had enough money to spend on oils.  Well, maybe this is true.  But I cannot get out of my mind Charles White’s own words, that art is not simply for the artist or the connoisseur but, most emphatically, for the people.  And his work was displayed and copied  and shared everywhere. Prints are a form adapted to this kind of art. Often people’s first exposure to a Charles White print was a poster on a telephone pole.  “Ye Shall Inherit The Earth” was used as a poster to advertise a 1960 NAACP rally in Los Angeles.

It is disappointing that the mural — “Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present)” — Charles White designed for the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was never installed.  He began the mural in 1940, near the end of his WPA days

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Study for Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present – Charles White (1940)

and before he and Elizabeth Catlett went into the South to gather material for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.  Striking out from the left panel of the mural is the insurrectionary John Brown, while more modern forms of protest form the core of the right panel.  A color study for the mural showing both panels is in the show, and it gives some idea of his bold ideas. The exhibit also presents a study for the mural, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” the result of the Rosenwald Fund

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America - Charles White (1943)

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in  America – Charles White (1943)

fellowship, and still installed at Hampton University in Virginia.  The text for the exhibit identifies fourteen figures in the mural, including his contemporaries Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. I listened in to the conversations around these murals, to the excited identification of the people in the murals, to the careful examination of the features of the black and white studies for the mural (Robeson and Denmark Vesey, for example).

Charles White grappled with the idea of how to introduce new ideas into widespread discourse all his life.  Roque Dalton wrote that “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”  Bertolt Brecht or maybe Vladimir Mayakovsky perhaps wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”;  Both certainly could have said this: it is congruent with their writing and their philosophy.  There is no doubt that Charles White, along with these other titans, saw his pen and brush as his weapon:  Art is, after all, not for the artist or the connoisseur but should be for the people.

*****

Huntington Museum acquires “Soldier”   

 

The Enemy of My Enemy

The Enemy of My Enemy  

by Lew Rosenbaum

You may not want to read beyond this first sentence: I actually concede that there may be individuals who have joined law enforcement because they believe that they will be called on to serve and protect the people. Honestly. (Here I think of the Czech revolutionary Julius Fucik, imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately executed. His manuscript was smuggled out of prison by guards wearing German uniforms, yet putting themselves in

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The memoir of Communist revolutionary Julius Fucik was smuggled out of prison by a Nazi guard who sympathized with the author.

 

great danger for Fucik. See here for his story).

At the same time, there is a reason (or many reasons) why I fear for my life when I see a cop car in my rear view mirror (even though I’m not Black).

So when I saw BlacKkKlansman, the new Spike Lee film, I was prepared for the worst. In fact, the film exceeded my expectations. I am not a film critic, so I will spend very little space talking about how slow moving the pace was, how cardboard the characters were, and how sloppy the side by side Klan and anti-Klan scenes were juxtaposed. On that last point: what’s the message when you see a Klan rally shouting “White Power!” side by side with a Black Student Union rally shouting “Black Power!”?

There is a politics to this film, and it is scary. In some ways, this film mimics every TV police procedural (and I’ve spent time watching them all). Each and every one has a liberal veneer. They all take pains to have one Black officer protagonist; they all have episodes in which the police themselves reveal that inside the generally good barrel there are bad apples that need to be rooted out (there is one episode of BlueBloods in which the bad apples are a whole cohort that have even organized to kill the Commissioner’s son and attempted to kill another of his sons, both cops). In the final analysis, they all support the conclusion that the good apples prevail; or, more accurately, the system prevails to protect the people, despite any flaws.

BlacKkKlansman does precisely this. Who can deny that the Klan and the Nazis (lumped together as “white nationalists,” though I can’t for the life of me understand where the “white nation” is that they claim to be defending) are fascists? If you need any convincing, there’s plenty of evidence, or at least narrative, in the movie. In case you can stomach the ordinary venality of David Duke, there are two over-the-top Klansmen who are kind-of the Abbot (and his wife) and Costello, a triumvirate of Klan caricatures in hatred.

The policemen of Colorado Springs are a mixed bag, all but one of whom turn out to be good guys at the end. All but one, that one who is and always was a confirmed racist who gets caught and arrested and presumably gets his comeuppance. And the hero of the film, Ron Stallworth, is celebrated by the whole department at the end. Maybe you want to consider that this statement should have been preceded by the phrase, “Spoiler Alert!!!” Not if you have ever seen a police procedural. You know how it comes out. And you even know that the ending, like many Law and Order endings, can be ambiguous or perhaps not exactly the happy ending you long for. And since you, who are reading this, if you’ve gotten this far, you are astute enough to know that the Klan has not disappeared and just in the last few weeks there were heralded “Unite The Right” rallies that commemorated the Charlottesville rally of a year ago. So you will not be surprised that Spike Lee makes a point of drawing a direct line from the operation in BlacKkKlansman to Charlottesville, and the killing of Cindy Heyer by Klansmen and Nazis. There’s even a clip of DJT talking about the violence on both sides. On both sides. He said it twice.

Despite every portrayal of the racism deep within the police department of Colorado Springs, the film presents the department as ultimately the professionals that will protect the public good. Ultimately. Here is how the film is being promoted:

From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group. . .

Stallworth is portrayed as a hero (the Jackie Robinson of policemen, breaking Colorado

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The film is very loosely based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth.

Springs’ color line, and taking down the Klan). The more dangerous mission is carried out by Flip Zimmerman, who plays Stallworth when he has to meet Klansmen face-to-face. In the film, Zimmerman is supposed to be Jewish policeman. (In real life he is not Jewish). It’s never clear, however, why they are infiltrating the KKK. In fact, the film is billed as a comedy, as if we should be laughing at the Klan antics and the very fact of a Black man doing the infiltrating. Did they actually “take down” the Klan? Charlottesville should provide the answer to that question, and so does the prominence of David Duke on the present political scene.

Spike Lee’s film isn’t entirely factual. As noted above, in the film, Stallworth’s white partner is Jewish, while in real life, he was not. In the film, Stallworth’s operation thwarts a Klan bombing. There was no such bombing and no Klan member was ever even arrested. Stallworth’s love interest in the film appears to be a made up character.

But this is not about whether or not Stallworth or Zimmerman were heroes. This is about what the role is of law enforcement agencies, and whether they deserve to be glorified. In fact, law enforcement is intended to protect the private property of the elite and has been ever since they were established as special bodies of armed people employed by the government. The private property they were established to protect was, from the beginning, both the enslaved property of the plantation owners and the industrial property of the robber barons – and the vast amount of commodities produced by each. Chicago has an especially rich history experiencing the use of police forces against workers and in defense of private property – from the days of the Haymarket Massacre (Haymarket took place only 10 years following the end of Reconstruction) through the Pullman strike to the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel. One key method of protecting private property is in fomenting or deepening the divisions among workers, and again Chicago shows us some extreme examples: e.g. the long career of Jon Burge, the acknowledged chief torturer among the police; and the not-so-illustrious career of the Chicago “Red Squad.” Let’s not forget how the squad targeted the Black Panthers and murdered Fred Hampton, and how that history continues to the murder of Harith Augustus this summer.

There is more than enough evidence to show that the natural direction of law enforcement is to infiltrate those committed to disrupting private property. At times a conflict between different sections of the owners of private property results in some rather strange circumstances. After the Civil War, for a short time during the decade known as Reconstruction, the military had to discipline Southern law enforcement in order to break the back of the plantation aristocracy. But, once Wall Street had subjugated the plantation owners, the Klan was unleashed (inside and outside the police) to maintain the law and order of recently reinstated political leadership of the slaveocracy.

At various times within the ruling circles of this country, one section has debated with another about how to carry out the program that each have agreed on. These debates have from time to time spilled over to violence. In recent memory, the Civil Rights Movement provided such a backdrop. Again there is much evidence that the rulers were divided about how to expand the profitability of capitalism. This was the consolidation of American expansionism around the world, that coincided with the end of the direct colonial era, Europe’s domination. The extent to which the Federal Government and the Democratic Party came to be seen as the protector of civil rights comes from this era. Police, the national guard, the military and the FBI were enlisted in this effort. But this is also the period in which the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and called the Black Panthers the most serious threat to American Democracy (while they planted provocateur infiltrators in the midst of the Panthers).

The political arena today provides us with numerous conflicts that illustrate the general problem of conflating heroes and villains, friends and enemies. Take, for example, the Mueller investigation of Trump’s administration. I can’t imagine any one of my friends, people I regularly talk with, who would argue that Trump has not committed numerous offenses and corruptions. Even more, as President he has attacked the lives of working class Americans and as such deserves to be deposed. Yet we are called to lionize the problematic office of the special prosecutor and the individual in that office. For years we have been criticizing the mainstream media for not reporting the truth; yet when Trump and his supporters call the New York Times a repository of fake news, we are called to their defense, as if they are now journalistic heroes. And now we are supposed to rally around that archetype of fascism, Jeff Sessions, because Trump is denouncing him.

Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s stories are not unique, and they did, intentionally or not, interrupt a fictionalized rogue Klan action. But it is even more important to understand that it did not interrupt the moral arc of the law enforcement universe bending toward injustice. It did not interrupt the continuing role that Klansmen and Nazis play in our lives. This “visionary” film appears in a context in which we are directed to believe the enemies of our enemy are our friends. We may even find ourselves, as I have,  in a situation, in which it is necessary to depend on police in the face of a momentary common enemy.

With “friends” like these, once the common enemy is vanquished, watch your back.

 

Chris Mahin Writes: April 4, 1968 Dr. King Is Killed

[I’m glad to be able to reprint Chris Mahin’s essay, written for a labor union periodical some years ago, on this the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, it celebrates the struggles for which he gave his life as a struggle of a class for its emancipation.  For another, how can we see the demand of the Black sanitation workers (“I Am A Man”) and not think of the contemporary “Black Lives Matter.” — LR]

50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King

April 4, 1968: Dr. King is killed defending labor’s rights

 BY CHRIS MAHIN

April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.

On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.

The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.

This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.

The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city Soldiers at Civil Rights Protestcouncil to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.

It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.

Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.

On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s 1522808459_maxresdefaultheadquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.

In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called ows_15228096861200them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.

In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:

“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”

At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

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The assassination at the Lorraine Motel balcony, April 4 1968

Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.

 

On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached.  The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.

It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.

Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

 

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Chris Mahin writes: On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

by Chris Mahin

July 12, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Henry David Thoreau. Much of the commentary about this occasion has focused on Thoreau’s love of nature. This is understandable, given the current attacks on the environment.496e6f6286424697b36fa4e159c73599-640x433

But while “Walden” is justly celebrated, nothing Thoreau ever wrote did more good than the heartfelt essay he crafted on short notice to defend the opponents of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the autumn of 1859.

Just two weeks after John Brown and his compatriots staged their daring raid, Thoreau stood up in a church in Concord, Massachusetts to defend them. On Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, he read aloud his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

Describing Brown’s character, Thoreau said:

John_Brown_portrait,_1859“He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong. …

“No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.”

In the days and weeks after the Harpers Ferry raid, Americans were stunned. Many were willing to let Brown and his men hang. Thoreau’s early, brave stance helped pave the way for other Northern intellectuals to speak out in defense of Brown and his compatriots.

I have been to Walden Pond. I have been to the church in Concord where Thoreau uttered his plea.

Both are shrines.

 

  • Chris Mahin

For more information about the Harpers Ferry raid and Thoreau’s role afterward, see the article “Harpers Ferry: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do it again” in Rally, Comrades!, Vol. 19, Number 5, September-October 2009.

To read the complete text of Thoreau’s “Prayer for Captain John Brown,” click  this link.

A commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Henry David Thoreau has just been issued, which you can read about here.

Nelson Peery: Why Is African American History The Heart of American History?

Portrait of David

Illustration from The Future Is Up To Us, Portrait of David, painting  by Diana Berek

This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:

WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.

Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated

African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.

Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five

“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?

The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.

Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.

Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.

In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.

So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.