No April Fool: Q&A with author Kembrew McLeod

To celebrate April 1 and the release of our new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, today we have a Q&A with the author—and self-proclaimed prankster—Kembrew McLeod. McLeod discusses pranks, hoaxes and cons (and what makes them different), the origins of secret societies, and how pranks and humor have been used throughout history to spark debate and inspire change.

Interviewer: What are the differences between pranks, hoaxes and cons?

Kembrew McLeod: When media outlets report that a person has been “pranked,” they are often discussing what I consider a hoax. A hoax is a kissing cousin of a prank, but its primary purpose is to fool people and attract attention. A prank, for me, is a staged provocation that uses media to enlighten or stir up a debate. I use cons as an all­purpose term for scams that are meant to defraud or gain an advantage—like an email phishing scam. Although it seems like the Internet Age has created a hurricane of pranking, hoaxing and conning, this tricky tradition has thrived for centuries.

You mention that one of America’s “founding fathers” was a merry prankster.

Ben Franklin was an O.P.—Original Prankster. In fact, Franklin’s very first print publication was a pseudonymously penned hoax (he wrote more than 100 satires, pranks and hoaxes under fake names over the course of his lifetime). Just before he died, Franklin penned an op­ed under the name “Historicus,” which trolled the anti­abolitionists by arguing that Muslims should enslave Christians. You won’t find that story in any Fox News­produced documentary on Ben Franklin!

What does media have to do with pranks?

If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art and science of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire x Media = Pranks. Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere, and amplified by media. They allow ordinary people to reach large audiences despite constraints (like a lack of wealth or connections) that would normally mute their voices.

What are the prank origins of the urban legend that smoking banana peels can get you high?

Members of the hippie band Country Joe & the Fish started this rumor, which first spread through word of mouth and was quickly picked up by the national news media. Soon, lots of people joined in on the fun. For instance, Rep. Frank Thompson drafted the Banana Labeling Act of 1967 after a “high official in the FDA,” the Congressman claimed, urged him to introduce the bill. “From bananas,” Thompson stated in the halls of Congress, “it is a short but shocking step to other fruits.”

The past year has seen many pranks and hoaxes. Does the wired age lend itself to these events, or are we just more aware of them?

The Internet has changed the ways that pranks, hoaxes and cons can circulate, but trickery has been a pronounced part of the modern age since Jonathan Swift’s time. Pranks went viral much more slowly back then, but the dynamic is still the same.

Your book pays homage to women involved in important pranks. Many readers are probably familiar with Yoko Ono, but fewer know WITCH. What was WITCH?

The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) was an unruly group of ‘60s feminists who pulled many a political prank. For instance, they crashed a large bridal fair and performed an Un­Wedding Ceremony: “We promise to smash the alienated family unit,” they said in unison. “We promise not to obey.”

Some people have heard of the Illuminati from hip­-hop, or they may have encountered the Rosicrucians in a book or movie. What are the prank origins of these so-­called “secret societies”?

The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was invented in the early seventeenth century by Protestant pranksters in 1614. Their anonymously published “Rosicrucian Manifestos” were intended to stir up a public debate about scientific and theological ideas that the Catholic Church opposed. The Rosicrucian myth created the template for virtually every occult conspiracy theory that followed: an elite body of initiates—a satanic secret society within a secret society, sometimes known as the Illuminati—that wants to overthrow the established religious­political authority and create a New World Order.

Why do people put so much credence in ideas that a simple Google search can debunk?

Belief systems are powerful. People fall for pranks, hoaxes, cons and conspiracy theories when they confirm their deep­seated worldviews. Conspiracy theories are inherently non­falsifiable, and any attempt to disprove them is considered suspect.

What sparked your interest in pranks?

When I was a twenty­ year-old college student, I created a fictitious movement to change my school mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers. It snowballed from the campus newspaper to regional news media, eventually landing on CNN. Reflecting back on the mascot changing prank, it helped me understand how trickery can shape mass media and, to a certain extent, how we perceive the world. It was my first dive into the prankster pond, and I was never the same.

Finally: Is Andy Kaufman still alive?

You’ll have to ask him yourself.

Who you know: How social networks hurt Black and Latino job prospects

—Daria Roithmayr

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights what many of us already know—that the burden of recent unemployment falls harder on black and Latino workers than on whites, even though black women and Latino men are working more consistently than their white counterparts.

This is largely due to occupational segregation—the fact that certain racial groups cluster into certain jobs. While some jobs have become increasingly integrated over time, others are dominated by particular groups. As Thompson notes, Latinos make up almost half of farmworkers, blacks make up a third of home health aides, and Asians make up 60% of personal appearance workers. So when the economy sours, certain low-skill, low-income jobs are hit harder than others, and as a result, certain racial groups are hit harder than others

Thompson argues that a disparity in education explains these racial differences. But education is only part of the story. The real story lies elsewhere, in something called “network effects,” which Thompson only mentions in passing.

The old saying—“it’s not what you know but who you know”—matters quite a lot in explaining occupational segregation. Employers fill well over half of all jobs via personal word-of-mouth referrals, and certain jobs, including those listed above, are filled almost exclusively via insider referrals.

A person’s contacts pass along information about the job opening and then often vouch for the candidate to the prospective employer. But job referral networks tend to be racially and occupationally segregated for reasons owing mostly to the idea that birds of a feather flock together socially because they create natural and comfortable connections.

Unhappily, black and Latino job referral networks are more likely to include people who are employed in low-skill, low-income jobs like bus driving and farm work, owing to past discrimination. What’s more, these networks are self-reinforcing. That is, going forward, people who make use of those social networks are far more likely to be referred via word-of-mouth to the same kinds of jobs. So Latinos will continue to take up jobs as domestic workers, for example, because the people in their networks are already employed in those kinds of jobs.

Thompson thinks that the explanation for occupational segregation is less network effects and more education. But education itself is a function of self-reinforcing network effects, this time in our neighborhoods. Public schools get their funding from local property taxes, and, like social networks, those local neighborhoods are racially segregated, which means that poor black and Latino schools are underfunded and contain predominantly poor students with greater material needs. In turn, these schools produce students with fewer skills. And of course, over time, those students are more likely to work in low-wage, low-skill jobs, and to live in poor segregated neighborhoods with underfunded schools.

Thus, even if intentional discrimination were to end tomorrow, occupational segregation will continue indefinitely. Indeed, until we address the problem of network effects, the everyday processes that we take for granted—referring our friends for a job or choosing a neighborhood on the basis of public schools—will continue to reproduce racial inequality.

Daria Roithmayr is the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Professor of Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She is the author of Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

The New Southern Strategy: GOP plays the race card (again)

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

At a recent Tea Party meeting in Hood County, Texas, Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made bold statements reeking of white supremacy and Christian nativism, suggesting that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a “divine revelation from God […] yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation […] The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.” And just months prior to that event, in speaking to the North Tea Party on behalf of his son Ted (who was then running for Senate), Rafael urged the crowd to send Obama “back to Kenya.”

In the wake of the political dysfunction, gridlock, and rightwing obstruction, these statements certainly gesture toward important questions. Namely, is Rafael Cruz merely a “bad apple” that threatens to spoil the GOP or are his comments indicative of a larger strategic rhetoric that resonates with the lesser angels of our nature?

We suggest the latter.

Since the “Southern Strategy” whereby the GOP turned its back on Civil Rights and began courting white Southerners who believed they were victims of a new reverse racism social order, the Republican Party has employed subtle (and not so subtle, as witnessed above) rhetoric that turns on implicit anti-Black and anti-immigrant messages. It is said no better than former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater’s 1981 remarks in which he laid bare the GOP racialized strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”  By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  I’m not saying that.  But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.  You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Hence, Ronald Reagan’s evocation that “welfare queens” were gaming the system sent a clear yet implicit message: Your taxes are high because Lyndon Johnson’s programs are funneling your money to undeserving and lazy black women.  When a group that supported George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran a television advertisement that blamed Michael Dukakis for murders committed by Willie Horton (a black parolee who broke into a white couple’s home), the message baited white fears about young black male violence.  When Jesse Helms, a white senator from North Carolina, faced black challenger Harvey Gantt in 1990, Helms’s camp ran a television advertisement showing the hands of a white person crumbling a rejection letter with the voiceover: “You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast just a few days shy of the election and boosted Helms to victory in what was previously a dead heat.

And in relation to Obama, we have a new Southern Strategy: Cruz’s comments fall lock and step with GOP and Tea Party elements that have attempted to frame Obama as either culturally out of place if not legally unable to hold the presidency. Due in part to the conservative conspiracy theorists, a small cadre of politicians (e.g., Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, or Nathan Deal, the Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. of Georgia), and already established cultural tropes that conflate whiteness and Christianity with Americaness, by the 2008 election season, studies showed that U.S. residents were more likely to associate American symbols with white politicians (e.g., Hillary Clinton) or even white European politicians (e.g., Tony Blair) than with Obama. Even when American citizens viewed an American flag they then showed implicit and explicit prejudice toward African Americans in general and reluctance to vote for Obama when compared to those not exposed to the flag.

Simply put, Barack Obama did not fit most American’s implicit idea of an authentic American, and the GOP has seized upon that opportunity to engage in the latest state of the New Southern Strategy. The playing of the race card, even in implicit fashion, remains an efficacious political strategy for those on the Right.

Matthew W. Hughey is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is assistant professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law.  They are co-authors of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (forthcoming in 2014 from New York University Press).

Reducing children at risk

—Robert Cherry

Today, more than half of the new mothers under 30 years old are unwed, and even enhancing the government support they receive may not substantially alter the risk their children face. A recent study finds that especially young men are less likely to flourish when raised by single mothers. Paid leave, childcare support, and universal pre-K are all policies that help these women balance work and family. However, unless there is a change in family formation, these expansions may have only modest impacts on these risks.

The rise of single motherhood reflects to a substantial degree the economic marginalization of working class men. Employment rates of young men without a four-year college degree have substantially declined and young women correctly judge that many of them are  just not going to be reliable partners. Moving Working Families Forward recommends a number of policies to better their employment prospects, including vocational high school programs that improve not only technical skills but also the soft skills – teamwork, punctuality, and interpersonal discourse – that are important to employability.

Low marriage rates are also exacerbated by the large financial penalties many working single mothers must pay for getting married. The government now provides them with substantial income support. However, virtually all those benefits are lost if a single mother marries a working partner. With the way the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is structured, she could lose $3,200 or more if she qualifies for state EITC.

There have been a number of proposals for eliminating the federal component of the marriage penalty. One of them is my New Mothers Tax Relief proposal, which would virtually eliminate the federal marriage penalty by extending full EITC benefits to families with incomes of $40,000 and then slowly reduce them. About $2,000 in new benefits would then be extended to lower middle class married couples with pre-school aged children. These families often face financial pressures when they have very young children—pressures that can cause marital tensions and disruptions.

These employment and family formation proposals may be perceived as too incremental by the ideological Left and, despite their very modest costs, may be dismissed as too expensive by the Right. For those in the broad middle, however, they should be seen as vital steps in improving family stability.

Robert Cherry is Brueklundian Professor in the Department of Economics at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of many books, including Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies That Can Work (NYU Press, 2012).

Obamacare and women’s access to reproductive care

—Theresa Morris

In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, Joann Weiner shares her thoughts on the ways in which Obamacare will affect women. Though the title of her article is “Women win some, lose some under Obamacare,” Weiner makes clear in her analysis that women gain more than they lose under the Affordable Health Care Act. Probably the most significant gain for women is in the area of reproductive health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women with private insurance have gained expanded preventative services with no co-pays for well-woman visits, mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, prenatal care, gestational diabetes screening, breastfeeding supplies, and contraceptive services.

Beginning in 2014, insurance companies will no longer be able to charge higher premiums to women. Companies charge these higher premiums with the justification that women use health care more than men do. Surprisingly, some insurance companies charge higher rates to women even when the plan excludes maternity care. Gender disparity in insurance premiums especially affects women with prior c-section deliveries, who are often charged higher premiums unless they are sterilized or past their childbearing years. The Affordable Care Act forbids using gender in computing insurance premiums. Further, 18.6 million uninsured women will gain access to health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace and preventative reproductive healthcare will be guaranteed to these women (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

It is hard not to see the House Republicans’ 42 attempts to defund Obamacare as part of the Republican Party’s War on Women. This can be seen, especially, in the September 29th House vote to fund a stopgap spending measure to prevent an October 1st government shutdown by tacking on a “conscience clause,” which would delay an Obamacare requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers contraceptive care.

The holes in the Affordable Healthcare Act that will most affect women are holes that have plagued women with private health insurance for years. First, health insurance providers in the health exchange systems will not cover all hospitals and providers. I advise women to always seek intervention rates (e.g. rates of labor induction, epidural use, labor augmentation) and c-section rates of hospitals and providers in deciding on a care provider and place for birth. Because rates vary drastically by provider and hospital, women should be given choice in this matter to lower their likelihood of an unnecessary c-section. Second, for the most part, Obamacare does little to help abortion access and probably hurts access if the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which forbids government funding of abortion except in the cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger, is not overturned. This amendment has a more far-reaching effect than does the current Hyde Amendment, 1976 legislation that does not allow federal Medicaid dollars to be spent on abortion except in the cases listed above, because The Stupak-Pitts Amendment affects health insurance policies offered by the health insurance exchange systems and is, thus, more broad in its reach.

On the whole, Obamacare addresses many women’s reproductive health issues, but continues to leave women a lack of choice in health providers and hospitals and a lack of coverage of abortion care.

Theresa Morris is Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She is the author of Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America (NYU Press, October 2013).

Constitution Day: 5 books to read now

September 17th is Constitution Day – a federally recognized day to celebrate and teach about the United States Constitution. But what are the proper “texts” for this day of teaching?

To start, we’ve selected a short list of recent NYU Press books we think every citizen should read this year. But, there are certainly others. What’s on your list? Let us know in the comments section!

5 books for Constitution Day

Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson

Jury duty is constitutional duty—and a core responsibility of citizenship! The first book written for jurors, Why Jury Duty Matters provides readers with an understanding of the constitutional value of jury duty. (Also, be sure to read the author’s excellent piece in The Atlantic on ways to the make the Constitution relevant to our daily lives.)

 

The Embattled Constitution
Edited by Norman Dorsen, with Catharine DeJulio

The book presents a collection of the James Madison lectures delivered at the NYU School of Law. The result is a fascinating look into the minds of the judges who interpret, apply, and give meaning to our “embattled Constitution.”

 

America’s Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment by Gerard N. Magliocca

This book sheds light on John Bingham, the father of the Fourteenth Amendment, who helped put a guarantee of fundamental rights and equality to all Americans into the U.S. Constitution.

 

Government by DissentProtest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic by Robert W.T. Martin

Democracy is the rule of the people. But what exactly does it mean for a people to rule? The American political radicals of the 1790s understood, articulated, and defended the crucial necessity of dissent to democracy. This is their story.

 

Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation by Hoang Gia Phan

In this study of literature and law from the Constitutional founding through the Civil War, Hoang Gia Phan demonstrates how citizenship and civic culture were transformed by antebellum debates over slavery, free labor, and national Union.


Voices of women in the March on Washington

—Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin

The 1963 March on Washington will go down in history as one of the greatest events in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality in history. A riveting event, which captured the attention of the world and inspired oppressed people throughout the world, its focus was civil rights and jobs for black Americans Black women were heavily involved in the movement as participants, organizational leaders, and workers. Yet, they were excluded from the official list of speakers.

As recounted by Dorothy I. Height in Sisters in the Struggle, they asked Dr. Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph and other male leaders, whether or not there would be a woman speaker. Finally they were referred to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the event. Height said,

I went along with Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a woman with a long history of working for freedom and equality, to meet with Bayard Rustin. We discussed the women’s participating in the March. We were amazed to hear the response, “Women are included.” Rustin asserted that, “Every group has women in it, labor, church,” and so on… There was an all-consuming focus on race. We women were expected to put all our energies into it. Clearly, there was a low tolerance level for anyone raising the questions about the women’s participation, per se.

And, so women were shunted aside. According to Height, “To address the issue the organizers gave a number of us prominent seats on the platform.” The organizers also created a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” in the program where many women such as Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers were listed.  During the tribute women were allowed to make comments.  But – there were no official women speakers.

On November 14, 1963, at the National Council of Negro Women’s Leadership Conference to assess the status of the movement and to chart the next steps, Pauli Murray, a noted scholar, educator, and activist captured the feeling of black women about their exclusion from direct participation in the March on Washington, as well as their treatment in the overall movement. Her speech was widely publicized in the black press and elicited a great deal of discussion. Murray traced the history of black women and their struggle for equality from slavery to freedom, noting the similarities and difference s in their status from that of white women. She noted that in their quest for equality, black women had been willing to overlook gender discrimination in order to gain racial equality.

This is a history that should be read by all Americans.  As we celebrate this 50th anniversary, we must never forget the central role women played in the battle for racial equality.

Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin are editors of Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (NYU Press, 2001). Bettye Collier-Thomas is a Professor of History at Temple University. V. P. Franklin is Distinguished Professor of History and Education at the University of California, Riverside, and editor of the Journal of African American History.

“What We Demand:” March on Washington, 50 years later

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

The March on Washington had a very specific purpose – to present President Kennedy and Congress with a list of demands designed to secure basic civil and human rights for African Americans. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, therefore, should not only be a time for sharing snippets of Dr. King’s most famous speech, but also an occasion to look back at the marchers’ demands. Assessing which demands have been met and which have yet to be met will provide a much more accurate picture of how far the nation has come in terms of providing equal opportunity for African Americans than all of the well–meaning recollections and recitations of “I Have A Dream” put together.

Leading the marchers’ list of demands was a call for meaningful civil rights laws. At the time, federal civil rights measures lacked teeth. Prosecutorial power was limited and punishments for racial discrimination were light, if they existed at all. In 1964, major civil rights legislation was passed in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But many complained that it too lacked teeth, and were especially bothered by the absence of provisions to prosecute those who attacked civil rights workers. Today, it remains extremely difficult to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes where racial bias and discrimination were clearly at play. The failure to convict the murderer of young Trayvon Martin underscores the point.

The marchers’ demanded a massive federal work program. The economy was sputtering and hit African Americans especially hard. It was hoped that a New Deal-like jobs program would see the nation—and African Americans—through the downturn. But the federal government never invested in another work program. In fact, during subsequent economic downturns, including the Great Recession of recent years, it established a pattern of propping up large corporations and firing and laying off government employees, rather than expanding employment opportunities to the unemployed and underemployed.

Along with the demand for a massive federal work program, the marchers called for full and fair employment. African Americans were always the last hired and first fired. The only way to break this cycle was to insist on full employment for everyone. Fifty years after the march, America hasn’t come close to full or fair employment. Worse, a large percentage of the nation’s workforce, and disproportionately high numbers of black workers, don’t even earn a livable wage. Meanwhile, debate rages in Congress about nickel and dime increases to the minimum wage.

A major issue for the marchers was decent housing. African Americans across the country were routinely discriminated against when it came to housing, forcing many to live in overpriced, overcrowded dwellings in segregated neighborhoods. Little has changed over the years. In fact, patterns of residential segregation have increased as suburbs have spread and gentrification has reclaimed select urban spaces as exclusive white spaces. And the recent collapse of the housing market has exposed the ongoing vulnerability of black middle class homeowners to discriminatory lending practices.

The right to vote was also a central concern for the marchers. No constitutional right is more fundamental than the vote, yet black southerners continued to be excluded from the ballot box. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing new protections for black voters. But in the new millennium, a wave of state voter ID laws, combined with the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have put the vote of tens of thousands of African Americans at severe risk.

The marchers’ final demand was adequate integrated education. Nearly a decade after Brown, segregated schools remained the norm in the South and white southerners remained as determined as ever to keep it that way. And half a century later, a race-based dual education system persists. In much of the South, black children attend public schools and white children attend private white Christian academies. In most metropolitan areas with large black populations, the divide is between urban and suburban school districts.

A lot has changed since the March on Washington, and it is wonderful that so many people are taking the time to recognize this historic event. But the sobering reality is that half a century after the march, the marchers’ demands remain largely unmet.

Fifty years from now, at the centennial of the march, I hope these demands will have been fulfilled. But given the slow pace of progress, and the determination of reactionaries to roll back the clock, I’m much less hopeful than I was just a few years ago.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

The men behind the March: Randolph and Rustin together again

Bayard Rustin (right) with A. Phillip Randolph on the cover of Life magazine, September 6, 1963—Cynthia Taylor

With the 50th anniversary of the1963 March on Washington demonstration in the media’s spotlight, and especially of its heavy emphasis on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this light has also shined on the real strategic planners and originators of the actual 1963 March: A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Together, Randolph and Rustin made an indefatigable team of seasoned civil rights activists that enabled Dr. King’s now famous speech to be remembered so vividly fifty years later.

Through the media attention on this anniversary, it has been gratifying to once again see the cover of Life magazine (September 6, 1963) with Randolph and Rustin standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. At the time of the March, most Americans had viewed these two men as the real stars of the occasion. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was actually the realization of their long-time “dream” to have a dramatic and peaceful demonstration that emphasized the need of all black Americans for economic opportunities and jobs, as well as the more elusive ideal of freedom.

At the time of Randolph’s death in 1979, Rustin described his relationship with Randolph in a variety of ways: father, uncle, adviser, and defender. Yet, Randolph’s and Rustin’s civil rights collaboration got off to a shaky start. As a leader in the youth division of the original March on Washington Movement, Rustin publicly criticized Randolph for calling off the first march scheduled for July 1, 1941. After the war, in 1948, Randolph and Rustin worked together again on a civil disobedience league called the “Committee to End ‘Jim Crow” in the Armed Services.”

When Randolph disbanded the league after President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to the desegregation of the services, Rustin recalled how “a number of ‘Young Turks’ and I decided to outflank Mr. Randolph,” denouncing him in the black press as “an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a reactionary, and an old fogey out of touch with the times.” Afraid that Randolph would not forgive his “treachery,” Rustin avoided Randolph for two years. When Rustin finally mustered the courage to visit Randolph in his New York office, he described the renewal of their friendship in this way:

As I was ushered in, there he was, distinguished and dapper as ever, with arms outstretched, waiting to greet me, the way he had done a decade ago.  Motioning me to sit down with that same sweep of his arm, he looked at me, and in a calm, even voice, said: ‘Bayard, where have you been? You know that I have needed you.’

From then on, Randolph and Rustin worked together as the key architects of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, after an incident in Pasadena California when Rustin, an openly gay man, was busted on a morals charge of sexual misconduct, Randolph stood by him and without his friendship, support and considerable influence, Rustin might have been completely ostracized from the civil rights community. Randolph declared “if the fact is, he is homosexual, maybe we need more of them; he’s so talented.”

In 1956, Randolph and Rustin, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison, formed an organization called “In Friendship,” a fundraising group committed to providing “economic aid to victims of race terror in the South,” especially for supporters of the Montgomery bus boycott.  The group agreed that Rustin, with his extensive experience in nonviolent techniques, could best evaluate the situation in the early days of the boycott. In his brief time there, Rustin worked effectively with the young and inexperienced boycott leader, Martin Luther King. Behind the scenes, Rustin advised Dr. King with his speeches and sat in on many of the boycott’s strategy meetings. Both Randolph and Rustin threw their considerable influence behind King’s emergent leadership of the newest phase of civil rights activity, as Rustin believed “from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for the next two years following to May 1957, [the three year anniversary of the Brown decision] the center of gravity and the center of activity for the whole civil rights movement was the church people and ministers of the south.”

Between 1957 and 1963, this newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joined forces with the NAACP, and various labor and working-class groups linked to A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders to make civil rights history, culminating in the spectacular success of the peaceful August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

By 1963, A. Philip Randolph was nearing the end of his long years of labor and civil rights activism. In his final tribute to Randolph, Rustin remembered their historic collaboration of that day in the following way:

As the assembly slowly dispersed from the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin saw the tired ‘old gentleman’ standing alone on the podium, looking out on the departing crowds.  As Rustin walked up to Randolph, he was surprised to find ‘tears streaming down his cheeks’ the first time he had even seen Randolph show his emotions.  Indeed, Randolph was so overcome with the power of that one-day event, in which the black community and the white liberal community came together in their demand for equal treatment under the law, that he ‘could not hold back his feelings.’

How great that the 50th anniversary of the March has brought two forgotten heroes behind the movement, back into public memory.

Cynthia Taylor teaches American history and religion in the school of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California. She is the author of A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (NYU Press, 2005).

March on Washington at 50 years: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

Fifty years ago, the United States was at a crossroads. The daughters and sons of enslaved Africans found themselves as “second-class citizens” in the land of their birth. African descendants were denied the right to vote and access to public institutions in many states, particularly in the South, where over half of the Black population was located. The ideology of white supremacy was institutionalized, as an apartheid order reinforced by racial violence and terror existed in most of the South. It was common for Black women to be raped and sexually harassed by white men with no hope of justice within the criminal justice system. Federal, state, or local officials did not significantly investigate or prosecute the assassinations of key opponents of racial injustice, such as Medgar Evers and George Lee in Mississippi.

In response to the U.S. apartheid system and white supremacist violence, tens of thousands of African descendants and their allies mobilized to challenge the system of oppression. A mighty insurgent movement emerged against segregation and for civil and human rights in local communities throughout the South. Friends and allies worked in solidarity with this movement inside the U.S. and internationally. This was the context of the 1963 March on Washington.

It must be noted that the Kennedy Administration and elements of the liberal coalition (trade union aristocracy, Protestant and Catholic hierarchies, and foundations linked to the Democratic Party) co-opted the March and subverted grassroots, radical, and insurgent voices of the Black Freedom Movement. The speech of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its chairman John Lewis (now Congressman from Georgia) was censored and changed by March organizers to suppress SNCC’s critique of the federal government’s lack of protection and intervention on behalf of voting rights workers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Conservative and moderate Black leadership cooperated with this silencing of grassroots Black voices. The suppression of grassroots voices at the March is why Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X labeled the 1963 event, “The Farce on Washington.”

Today, fifty years after the 1963 March, the struggle for democracy and human rights for African descendants born in the U.S. is not complete. While tremendous sacrifices have been made and reforms secured, Black life in the U.S. is still challenged and not valued in the society. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the recent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, is only the tip of the iceberg. A study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released this year documents 313 Blacks were killed by police or security guards in the U.S. in 2012. 313 killings? That’s one every 28 hours!

Black oppression can also be demonstrated in the educational achievement gap and in the disproportionate rate of housing foreclosures in working class and privileged African-American neighborhoods. The recent U.S. Supreme Court compromising of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent initiatives to neutralize Black and Latino voting potential also exemplify continued efforts by elites and the beneficiaries of the U.S. origins as a white settler colony based on racial slavery to stop empowerment and self-determination of communities of color.

A new movement is emerging to oppose contemporary challenges to human rights, Black empowerment, and disrespect of Black life. The outrage from Black communities nationally in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates potential resistance to the disregard for Black humanity. Nationally, grassroots activists have opposed foreclosures against banks that engaged in unethical policies to profit off the misery of working people, and particularly Black folks in the U.S. The recent court decision declaring New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy unconstitutional comes in response to the grassroots campaigns to challenge it.

One important recent victory is the 2013 election of human rights attorney and activist Chokwe Lumumba to Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s largest city and capital. Jackson’s 80% Black population is the second highest percentage in the U.S. In the city’s runoff, Lumumba defeated an opponent who with conservative white and corporate support out-financed him three to one. As a candidate for City Council in 2009, a People’s Assembly in his ward created Lumumba’s campaign platform. The People’s Assembly was composed of citizens from his ward with no restrictions. The People’s Assembly continued to operate after Lumumba’s election to City Council advising him on policy and initiating efforts on economic development, education, and community safety in their district. Lumumba promises the expansion of the People’s Assembly concept citywide with his election to Mayor. The People’s Assembly offers a new model of progressive and Black politics and a vehicle to include grassroots participation.

To complete the effort for human rights, democracy, and Black self-determination, the abovementioned effort must be built on. We must recognize these and other grassroots efforts in our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. History will judge our inclusion or ignoring of grassroots voices for social justice.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

Muhammad Yunus, in 22 Ideas to Fix the World

Today, we’re sharing the first chapter of 22 Ideas to Fix the World—featuring an interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. In it, the founder of microfinance discusses his views on poverty, unemployment, and the role of social business.

Read the interview below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

22 Ideas to Fix the World – Chapter 1 by NYU Press

Cory Booker’s primary win: The view from Newark

—Andra Gillespie

Cory Booker’s resounding victory in last week’s Democratic primary to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg was no surprise to most observers. Booker had been the overwhelming favorite in all of the polls leading up to the primary; he had the highest name recognition of all the candidates in the field; and he was able to raise more than twice as much money as his nearest competitor, despite having started the contest behind in fundraising. Indeed, Booker seems to represent the type of “new black politician,” whose race does not seem to hamper his ability to raise money and earn votes outside of the African American community.

In a book also titled The New Black Politician, I examined Cory Booker’s ascent to Newark’s mayoralty and its implications for African American politics. While Booker’s strong performance in a statewide contest was no surprise, his path to Newark’s mayoralty was a little bumpier. He lost his first mayoral bid to an incumbent who did not hesitate to play the race card against Booker in the African American community. While Booker was able to rebound and essentially push Sharpe James out of the 2006 race, questions of Booker’s racial authenticity and perceived instrumentality remained. At various points during Booker’s seven years as mayor of Newark, a vocal minority of mostly black residents has at various points questioned his political appointments, his policies, and even his very residence in Newark. For his part, Booker was publicly chastised early in his first term for telling stories about Newark residents that many Newarkers deemed insensitive to blacks and poor people. Perhaps most discouraging, Booker’s alliances with black members of Newark’s city council have frayed to the point that the black members of the council, all but one of whom were aligned with Booker in some way at one point in their professional lives, now routinely oppose his agenda.

While I never had any doubt that Booker would win this primary (or even that he would win in Newark), I was very curious about the dynamics that would undergird this vote. So, I traveled to Newark this summer to do some investigating. I wondered if Newarkers would support Booker as he sought higher office and if so, what motivated that support? I hypothesized that black Newarkers would support Booker in a senate campaign, but not for the most obvious reasons. I thought that race pride might undergird some of Booker’s support among Newark blacks, but I also expected to find a more complicated story. In particular, I prepared myself to learn that the aspects of Booker’s personality that were perceived as mayoral liabilities would be viewed as senatorial assets.

I first tested my hypotheses by asking questions and listening in on the scuttlebutt in June.  Sure enough, I found evidence to suggest that Booker would have no problem winning the votes of some of his most ardent opponents. I happened to run into a local community activist who actually helped lead a failed recall effort against Booker in 2007 one day in June. I asked her to handicap the race for me, and she made it very clear that she was supporting Booker.  As she explained it, the other opponents were okay, but not good enough, and she was confident that Booker would do a good job as senator.

I had a similar encounter in Newark on Election Night. I attended Booker’s victory party in Championship Plaza, where I ran into another ardent Booker opponent. He was beaming with pride at Booker’s success, bragging about how he’s known him since he was a young tenant organizer. As he continued to bask in the glow of Booker’s victory, he explained his change of heart. They may have fought tooth and nail over local issues, but this organizer had no doubt that he and Booker saw eye to eye on issues of national concern. And it was clear that he perceived some cachet in knowing the man who was poised to be senator.

The anecdotal evidence seemed to be pointing in the direction of Newarkers letting bygones be bygones. Yes, the vocal opposition had their issues with what they perceived to be Booker’s neoliberal, corparatist city policies that often limited their influence.  However, those issues seemed to have been of minimal concern in the senate contest.  The opposition seemed content to root for the “hometown boy,” even if some of them had their doubts about him as mayor.

To supplement my anecdotes, I fielded a short survey among likely voters the day before the election in Newark. I’m still analyzing the data, and the sample size is small (so my margins of error are larger than I’d like them to be). Despite these limitations, the unweighted data pretty clearly shows that Newarkers have a complicated relationship with Booker. In my poll, about 20% of respondents claimed to undecided (and not leaning towards any particular candidate) the day before the election. Booker ended up winning 64% of the vote in Newark, so I assume that most of those undecided voters ended up voting for him. Still, it was surprising to see so many people be so coy the day before an election. Then again, I personally knew people who admitted to agonizing over their primary vote choice.

In addition to tracking the primary vote, I also asked respondents a trait battery, where they had to say whether certain adjectives or phrases described Booker well or not. I tested a wide array of positive and negative descriptions of Booker to gain a comprehensive understanding of how Newarkers perceive him. The unweighted results were illuminating. Newarkers simultaneously hold positive and negative (though mostly positive) views of Booker. While significant majorities reported that they thought “cares only about his political career” describes Booker extremely or pretty well, significant majorities also thought that Booker “is genuinely concerned for the less fortunate,” “provides strong leadership,” and stands up for African Americans, New Jersey and Newark separately.  A significant majority also conceded that Booker would likely win the Democratic primary.

I am still at the beginning of my data analysis. Soon, I will delve into the econometric analysis of the weighted data. At a first glance, though, there seems to be credence to the idea that Newark voters, particularly black ones, are engaging in what my colleague Lorrie Frasure Yokley calls “Jekyll and Hyde politics.” That is, they have different expectations for how black politicians should behave at the local and statewide level. While the utility of being deracialized or neoliberal was hotly contested when Booker was a citywide candidate, Newarkers recognize that those strategies serve him well as a senator, and they are happy to support him.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).