The First American Muslims

—Sylviane A. Diouf

This week, 1.2 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. Among them will be millions of believers throughout the Americas. While most people think Middle Eastern immigrants brought Islam to these shores, hundreds of thousands of West African Muslims preceded them and left significant marks of their faith and experience, including in the written word.

They have been mostly forgotten, but as my research shows, Muslims—mostly from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria—were among the very first Africans to be transported to all parts of the Americas (I study cases in twenty countries) as early as 1503. Some were teachers, students, judges, religious and military leaders, pilgrims to Mecca, and traders.

In the Spanish territories, whose colonists were only a few years removed from centuries of Muslim rule at home, their arrival was perceived as a threat to the spread of Christianity among Native Americans. But proselytism was not high on the Muslims’ agenda. Even though they made some converts, education and the preservation of the community were their major concerns—as was the difficult transmission of the faith and its rituals to their children, surrounded as they were by practitioners of other religions.

Many Muslims could read and write Arabic and their own languages in the Arabic script. They were not just a few individuals writing for a Western audience like Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley. They were countless people scattered across the New World writing for themselves and their own. From North Carolina to Georgia, from Brazil to Trinidad and Jamaica, although restricted by slavery, they produced letters, excerpts from the Qur’an, prayers, talismans, uprising blueprints, autobiographies, and other manuscripts that are still extant. These documents provide invaluable insight into their intellectual, social and religious lives; their educational attainments prior to deportation; and their personal and collective perspectives.

Most manuscripts have disappeared but some are still being recovered. On October 8, a 223-page copy of the Qur’an was put up for auction. It was written—from memory—in London in 1733 by Ayuba Suleyman Diallo (known in the West as Job ben Solomon), an erudite man from an elite family who had been enslaved in Maryland and was on his way back to Senegal. He owed his freedom to a letter in Arabic he had written to his father, asking to be redeemed. Intercepted and translated, his missive led to his being manumitted. Unbeknownst to all, Diallo’s precious manuscript had been in the private collection of a Californian since the 1960s.

We still have much to learn about the enslaved Africans who are part of the history of Africa, Islam, the Americas, and the global African Diaspora. And, uniquely in the world of American slavery, their own manuscripts are central to the discovery and recovery of their story.

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.

An introduction to Servants of Allah

Today, we have an excerpt from the 15th anniversary edition of Sylviane A. Diouf’s Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, in which Diouf looks back at the changes in the political, religious and social climate since the first edition was written (in 1998), and points to new avenues of research on African Muslims during slavery.

Read the introduction below, and be sure to enter our Goodreads giveaway this month for a chance to win a copy of the book!

Servants of Allah – Introduction to the 15th anniversary edition

Fall books available on NetGalley

We’ve got quite a few gems in our NetGalley catalog this fall, all available for advance review now. Book reviewers, journalists, bloggers, librarians, professors, and booksellerswe welcome you to submit a request!

Not familiar with NetGalley? Learn more about how it works.

 
Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut (September 27, 2013)

We think Booklist said it best: “In this fascinating blend of sociology, ecology, ethnographic research, and personal memoir, the authors range through all of the aspects of the human relationship with the honeybee.”

Ever thought of honeybees as sexy? You might after watching Mary Kosut discuss the sensual nature of beekeeping.

 

Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America by Theresa Morris (October 7, 2013)

In Cut It Out, Theresa Morris offers a riveting and comprehensive look at this little-known epidemic, as well as concrete solutions “that deserve the attention of policymakers” (Publishers Weekly starred review).

C-sections are just as safe as vaginal births, right? Not true, says Theresa Morris. Watch her discusses this and other misconceptions on our YouTube channel.

 

Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton (October 14, 2013)

Hanukkah will fall on Thanksgiving this year for the first time ever—and the last time for another 70,000 years. Brush up on your knowledge of the holiday in time to celebrate the once-in-an-eternity event. Publishers Weekly, in another starred review, promises a “scholarly but accessible guide to the evolution of the Festival of Lights in America.”

Stay tuned for our interview with the author!

 
Browse all of our e-galleys available for review on NetGalley.

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.


Same-sex weddings: Challenging (and carrying on) tradition

—Karen M. Dunak

Same-sex couples, finding marriage now a legally recognized option, may move deliberately toward the world of weddings. In the aftermath of the DOMA decision, many observers (myself included) have speculated about the potential payday such celebrations may yield for the wedding industry. But this assumption, to some degree, assumes that queer weddings will follow the format of straight weddings. In reality, however, the gay couples face endless possibilities when it comes to their styles of celebration. And the New York Times chronicles that with this article, “Free to Marry, and Not Bound by Rites.”

There are so many smart points made in this article – I encourage everyone to read it. And there are so many great, quotable lines. I’ll limit myself to this one:

Mr. Solomon wrote in an e-mail that he and Mr. Habich “wanted to have a wedding that echoed the weddings of our parents and of others,” but without parroting heterosexual customs. “Everything traditional was nontraditional simply because we were both men,” he said of their civil ceremony, which was followed by Christian and Jewish ceremonies. “The more of a ‘wedding’ it was, the more revolutionary it was.”

YES. This is a major point I make in my book As Long as We Both Shall LoveFor those who critique marriage as a conservative goal and the celebration of a wedding as a mark of conformity, when a couple (two men or two women) who looks nothing like the expected couple (one man and one woman) take on these alleged hallmarks of conformity, they are immediately challenged and thereby robbed of their conformity.

The gist of the article is that same-sex couples have the opportunity to celebrate in as traditional or as non-traditional a style as they wish. Of course, I argue that couples – not just same-sex couples – have been doing this for years. The tradition that gay couples will carry on in their celebrations is the larger postwar wedding tradition of couples using the wedding to communicate their views of love, marriage, and partnership.

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on the author's blog here.]

The secret history of gay marriage

Excerpted from As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America by Karen M. Dunak.

On October 10, 1987, nearly 7,000 people witnessed a wedding on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Men and women cheered and threw rice and confetti as family, friends, and community members took part in the largest mass wedding in American history. After the celebrants exchanged rings and were pronounced newlywed, guests released hundreds of balloons into the air. Brides and grooms, dressed in formal wedding attire, cried and embraced after an “emotional and festive” ceremony. Like so many brides and grooms, participants identified the wedding day as one of the happiest, most meaningful days of their lives.

But this was no ordinary wedding. And these were not typical brides and grooms. This wedding held special significance for its participants. Beyond the “mass” nature of the celebration, something else was unique. The newlyweds that fall Saturday paired off as brides and brides, grooms and grooms. “The Wedding,” as it came to be known, marked the symbolic beginning of nearly 2,000 same-sex marriages. Rejecting the idea that a wedding—and by implication, a marriage—should have one male and one female participant, the grooms and their grooms, the brides and their brides presented a striking picture.A wedding, a fairly conventional affair, became a site of radical protest. Layered in meaning, “The Wedding” celebrated the personal commitments of those being wed. At the same time, it was a direct political act that challenged the legal, religious, and social barriers against same-sex relationships. Like couples before them, gay men and lesbians found they could use their weddings to make a statement about the world and the place of their relationship in it.

Designed to reflect an alternative approach to love and marriage, “The Wedding,” part of the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, rejected the narrow definition of marriage that limited the relationship to members of the opposite sex. “The Wedding” likewise rejected a narrow view of the standard wedding celebration. Dina Bachelor, metaphysical minister, hypnotherapist, and “Wedding” officiant, designed a new-age style ceremony. Bachelor recognized the uniqueness of the celebration and chose her words and actions carefully. Standing under a swaying arch of silver, white, and black balloons, Bachelor omitted any mention of the customary “honor and obey, till death do us part.” Including observers in the celebration, she asked witnesses to join hands and encircle the celebrants. For participants, “The Wedding” was not about fitting into a pre-arranged style. Instead, it was about expanding the celebration to include various approaches to marriage and family. Like alternative wedding celebrants of the 1960s and 1970s, same-sex partners recognized the flexibility of the wedding and used the celebration to express their views about life and love. Bachelor likewise noted the celebration’s significance and concluded the event by stating, “It matters not who we love, only that we love.”

Gay community leaders emphasized the political component of the celebration. Drawing on the activist view that the personal was political, the public pronouncement and celebration of a long-ridiculed personal lifestyle served as the ultimate political statement.Those present rejected the shame associated with their relationships and proved that many same-sex couples shared long-term, committed relationships. Courageously displaying their individual love and their membership in a community of likeminded gay men and lesbians, “Wedding” participants did not demand a social inclusion marked by assimilation or guarded emotions. Rather, they demanded full acceptance of their lifestyle and relationship choices. Reverend Troy Perry, a minister evicted from the Pentecostal Church of God for his own homosexuality and founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, spoke to this desire for openness and acceptance as he rallied his congregants with a shout of “Out of the closets and into the chapels!”

Hosting “The Wedding” in front of the Internal Revenue Service’s building was a symbolic choice meant to protest the tax office’s refusal to accept taxes jointly filed by same-sex couples. As activist Sue Hyde recalled, couples participated in “The Wedding” “both to protest discrimination against them and to celebrate their love and commitment to each other.” Challenging conventional views of family and marriage, groom and “Wedding” organizer Carey Junkin of Los Angeles echoed “The Wedding’s” official slogan when he said, “Love makes a family, nothing else.” Adding his own sentiment, he stated, “We won’t go back.” Marriages celebrated that day held no legal standing, but that did not diminish the emotional impact of the event. The community of couples who wed accomplished their political objective by making their private relationships part of the political discourse. The very public, very political event demanded recognition of the legitimacy of the relationship between two brides or two grooms.

As for “The Wedding” participants (composed of more male than female couples, suggesting an ongoing discomfort with weddings and marriage among politically active feminists), they expressed warm praise for the celebration, as well as a sense of anger that any members of the gay or lesbian community would criticize their decision to wed. Dressed in suits, tuxedos, and wedding gowns, albeit with little regard for normative notions of gender, the celebrants saw the day as an important turning point in their lives and relationships. Despite their unorthodox appearances, many participants noted that they would have been comfortable with an even more “traditional” ceremony. The only registered disappointment pertained to the desire that the ceremony might have been more explicit in regard to monogamy or couples’ exclusivity. The mass “Wedding” was not intended to replicate heterosexual marital relationships or wedding celebrations, but the importance given the celebration and the desire for expression of personal preference—be it for a more or even less traditional form than the ceremony before the IRS—hinted at possible similarities between same-sex weddings and their opposite-sex counterparts.

While “The Wedding” looked unlike the individual white weddings celebrated by heterosexual couples, the event incorporated familiar elements of the wedding ceremony. Most participants wore some sort of special dress; an authority figured presided over the celebration; and guests bore witness to the event. The relationships may have seemed atypical or strange in the eyes of the mainstream observer, but there could be no question as to what had transpired that October day. The familiarity of the wedding served as a valuable political tool even as it fulfilled the personal desires of same-sex couples who wished to share their lives together. For a population who had the option— admittedly the very unpleasant option—of invisibility, the choice to make public the intimacies of private life was a political statement in and of itself.

Same-sex weddings transcended the “difference vs. accommodation” debates often raised in subcultural groups and hotly contested within the queer community.8 In the years following the celebration of “The Wedding,” gay men and lesbians expressed a blend of intentions and motivations with their celebrations. The flexibility of the wedding, continually tested by the heterosexual marrying population in the decades since World War II, likewise served the personal as well as the political objectives of queer couples. Moving from the mass to the individual, weddings legitimated and celebrated relationships that had long been deemed wrong or strange and had thus been cloaked in secrecy. Such celebrations allowed men and women to celebrate their private lives in a public style and with the sanction of chosen and accepting family and community members. By publicly celebrating their relationships, queers challenged a political system that refused to recognize their right to wed.

Like the weddings of those before them, the white weddings hosted by same-sex couples in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century seemingly adhered to a standardized form of celebration. The similarity between opposite-sex and same-sex events, of course, was noticeable in the continued reliance on a wedding industry and adherence to wedding norms: formal dress, recitation of vows, and elaborate receptions. On the surface, this suggested a kind of queer accommodation to the standard form. Even though a gay couple might purchase a cake topper that featured two grooms, the couple still purchased a cake topper. The prerequisites of a wedding had tremendous staying power. But same-sex couples shaped their weddings in ways specific to their relationships and cultural identifications. Ceremonial alteration and amendment, whether slight or pronounced, reflected the beliefs and desires of same-sex couples.

Queer couples, like other brides and grooms, negotiated tensions created by family, cost, and the overall wedding planning procedure. Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex brides and grooms challenged existing authority in the very act of celebrating a wedding. Couples celebrated the communities from which they came, to which they currently belonged, and those they created, if only for their weddings. They exerted individual authority over their ceremonies not only in their selection of music, dress, and wedding style, but also in their very direct rejection of a legal system that denied them access to the rights and privileges of marriage. They publicly celebrated relationships long denied public recognition. Weddings could be and could say whatever the celebrating couples wished. As various states began to recognize same-sex marriages, acceptance of same-sex unions extended even beyond the queer community. Weddings both affirmed the political victory achieved by those who had long advocated on behalf of equal rights and marked the triumph of personalization in American wedding culture.

Read the rest of this entry at Salon.com.

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).

Pinning dreams, perpetuating stereotypes

—Karen M. Dunak

[This piece originally appeared on the author's blog here.]

I recently read an article about the seemingly widespread practice of creating wedding-related Pinterest boards before a wedding is planned, an engagement proposed, or a partner even identified. I’ve seen some of this impulse toward “When I…” boards on the social media site. Sometimes the speculation is “When I have a baby,” or “When I buy a home,” and so naturally “When I get married” fits as the kind of category for which one might plan. But for some reason, the wedding seems a more problematic hypothetical, and I do think the process for planning without any sort of end date in mind (or end mate, for that matter) contributes to that. When people critique American wedding culture, this is what they’re looking at. Too many women – and the suggestion is that this is primarily a female phenomenon – focus more on what they want their wedding to look like than on what they want their partner or their marriage to be like. What’s more, they don’t care what that partner might desire for his/her wedding day. The bride’s day will be the bride’s day.

As a whole, these “When I…” boards give me pause, but I worried that I might be too knee-jerk in my critique. Trying to think about the process of “pinning” a dream wedding in a historical context, I wondered if this is in some way the 21st century equivalent of the hope chest. During the 19th century and well through post-World War II period, many young women collected goods for marriage in such chests. From girlhood, a woman stockpiled linens, towels, flatware, and various other domestic goods for her future home. Year-by-year, she added things to her collection. The expectation was that she would one day marry and thus would need to be prepared. For most women, that expectation was right on. Unless well-educated or raised in material privilege, the best means of support for a woman was to be found through a union with a man. And of course, social and cultural expectations pointed directly to marriage, home, and family life as the culmination of success for American women.

1947 Hope Chest Advertisement

Ultimately, though, I have to conclude that preparing for a home – and particularly in the historical context – was a different thing than preparing for a wedding. The circumstances under which young women filled their hope chests veered far more toward the practical than the aesthetic (and, in fact, the emerging domestic aesthetic that tended toward the trendy or the store-bought – a particularly popular look in the newly developing postwar suburbs – helped make the keeping of a hope chest an increasingly outdated process from the 1950s on). In a time when brides and grooms couldn’t depend on a string of showers or the presentation of elaborate wedding gifts – or cash, as many prefer now – to mark the start of their union, they had to take responsibility for material and financial support during the early years of marriage before they entered into that relationship. For men, that often meant securing steady employment and the start of a nest egg. For women, that meant preparation of the necessities required of a home (and often steady employment and nest egg contribution until at least the birth of the first child, if not beyond).

In my research, I’ve read about many women who dreamed about their weddings since childhood. And clearly this is a popular trope in contemporary wedding culture. In one personal essay I read, a woman admitted to keeping a wedding binder during her 1980s girlhood, in which she included advertisements and articles from bridal magazines, all in anticipation of the wedding she would one day celebrate. So the practices found on Pinterest aren’t brand new. They’re just more public. I suppose so it goes in this increasingly public age – but this, I think, is where my discomfort lies. One woman’s willingness to make public her private wedding dreams allows too easily for the perpetuation of the stereotype that this is what all women are doing (or want to be doing).

Aside from the tried and true critiques we might make about overeager wedding pinners (they validate the power of what many critics call the “wedding-industrial complex”; they reveal the material undercurrent that marks so many elements of American life and culture; they contribute to the normalization and acceptance of narcissism; etc.), my biggest problem with the pinning going on here is how it further standardizes and entrenches the gendered division of unpaid labor in American life and romantic relationships for all women – even those without the time or inclination to imagine a fictive celebration.

Planning a wedding (a real wedding, not a Pinterest dream wedding) takes time – which can manifest as time away from work, family, friends, fitness, hobbies, you name it. And it is work. It falls into that category of unpaid labor that is often celebrated for continuing rituals, maintaining tradition, fostering family ties, and by which women are often judged, but is work that is virtually never rewarded or respected in the way any kind of paid labor very clearly is (see “paid” descriptor). What’s more, when it’s a labor assumed to be universally enjoyed by women, women can find themselves alone in completing it or condemned for not being enthralled with it. If Pinners are willing to see their visions through and take on labor of this kind (and, I suppose, are “lucky” enough to find partners who stay out of their way), that’s fine. But the possibility that all women might be expected to do the same – and might be viewed as a single monolithic bloc – is more troubling.

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (NYU Press, 2013).

African Americans and the duty to bear witness to racial violence

—Kidada E. Williams

[This piece originally appeared on the History News Network. Read it here.]

I am a historian who studies African Americans’ testimonies about experiencing racial violence. I have read hundreds of black people’s personal accounts of assault, rape, murder, whipping, lynching, riots, and massacre. I have also examined their supporters’ efforts to use the powers of the press and creative art to make all Americans bear witness to the physical, psychological, economic, and sociological pain this violence caused black people.

Last year, I wrote a post on Trayvon Martin’s killing in which I discussed the long history of extralegal racial violence. I ended that piece acknowledging that although the final history of the killing had not yet been written, one crucial chapter would be the story of the Fulton and Martin family and their supporters’ work to guarantee that the state filed legal charges against George Zimmerman. In light of the trial and a Florida jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman, we have seen an outpouring of commentary, rallies, and even calls for a new social movement.

As I watch African Americans and their allies respond to the Martin-Zimmerman case, I see it through the historical lens of black people’s long tradition of testifying about and against racial violence and their efforts to turn their emotional energy into political action. Whether it was to end slavery, lynching, or Jim Crow, African Americans throughout history have successfully used the power of testimony and bearing witness to get justice and effect change in the nation’s racial and legal landscape.

African Americans who spoke and wrote about slavery launched the first crusade against racial violence. People like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrup, Henry Bibb, Harriet Tubman and others related their stories of slavery’s horrors for others to hear. They testified with the belief that if other people heard their stories of what slavery really entailed they would experience the horrors for themselves and be inspired to support campaigns to abolish the institution. Working with progressive white activists, they launched and helped to sustain the abolitionist movement, a key feature of which was making white Americans bear witness to enslaved people’s pain as a way to get them to join the cause.

Over the course of late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the violence continued and gave way to lynching and race riots, African Americans continued to resist by testifying, reporting violence, and creating art in an effort to help people who had never experienced this violence to bear witness to the suffering it caused. The parents, children, spouses, and neighbors of victims wrote letters to news organizations, presidents, the Justice Department, and eventually civil rights organizations like the NAACP. Their testimonies about violence fueled the establishment of the anti-lynching campaigns led by people like T. Thomas Fortune, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Mary Talbert, and Walter F. White, whose work helped to vanquish lynch mobs by the 1940s.

Although there were fewer lynch mobs in the post-World War II period, some whites continued to use violence to maintain Jim Crow. In African Americans’ fight to eliminate racial segregation, disfranchisement, and violence, we can see that they recognized the power of black testimony for rallying people to support their cause. Survivors of violence testified at mass meetings and protest campaigns about being attacked for trying to register to vote or joining a boycott or march or having a loved one killed. Indeed, critical moments in the civil rights movement involved people like Mamie Till Bradley, Fannie Lou Hamer, Myrlie Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith, Joan Little, and Stokely Carmichael bravely stepping forward to relate personal pain they endured or witnessed.

The historical record shows that listening to these stories empowered African Americans and their allies to continue fighting Jim Crow by protesting, mobilizing and organizing their communities, and voting to elect officials who would pass laws to protect them. The success of their work in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and transforming the nation’s racial landscape inspired historian C. Vann Woodward to call the movement the “Second Reconstruction.”

Indeed, the significance of African Americans’ willingness to testify about racial violence is that it has the power to inspire people to take political action. Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, Rachel Jeantel, and Jordan Davis’s father Ron Davis, President Barack Obama, and many others have stepped forward to share their experiences of racial violence and discrimination. They seem to be influenced by what the West Indian slave Mary Prince referred to as her “duty to relate.” In The History of Mary Prince she wrote of her belief in her need to share her story of slavery with the people of England. “I have been a slave,” she explained, “I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows.” Knowing what only other people who have lost loved ones to racial violence know, Trayvon Martin’s family and supporters seem to be driven by the same force.

As the people who have testified about this recent violence in court, on television, or on social media make clear, African Americans take racial violence personally, and with good reason. We have a historical and intimate familiarity with this violence. We understand that Trayvon Martin was one of many people whose lives have been or might be cut short because of racial hatred. We know that, as the killings of men and boys like Martin and Jordan Davis and the prosecutions of women like Marissa Alexander and Cece McDonald reveal, such violence against black people is not only part of this nation’s history; it persists as part of our present. We speak out because we understand that if we don’t raise our voices, protest, make the nation and world bear witness, mobilize and organize our communities, run for office, and elect officials to protect our interests, this violence will also be a part of our future.

Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness, said on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show that the U.S. has reached a new nadir of race relations. He was referring to what the historian Rayford Logan described in The Betrayal of the Negro as the period following Reconstruction known for the tsunami-like rise of racial disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching that reduced African Americans to second-class citizens. The Supreme Court’s decisions on voting rights, voter suppression campaigns, the apparent sanctioned killing of unarmed black boys and men, defunding of schools, massive surveillance, and erosion of women’s rights combined with mass incarceration, racial hatred spewed across the public spheres, and continuing, and in some cases intensifying, sociological hardship for black people all inform the sense that we have indeed reached a new low point.

Muhammad suggested that, in order to push back against the denial of black people’s humanity and the circumscription of their rights, we are in need of another concerted and sustained political mobilization of our communities to achieve what he called a Third Reconstruction. The recent rallies and commentaries in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, civil disobedience campaigns in North Carolina and Texas, and recent discussions about the need for and point of protest suggest that we might be witnessing the emergence of a new movement. Whether or not that happens remains unclear, but if it does, then history shows us that the power of activists’ duty to relate what only they know about their experiences will surely be a precipitating factor.

Kidada E. Williams is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (NYU Press, 2012). She is associate professor of African American and American history at Wayne State University.