“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
“I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”
Last year we talked about the power of boycott and the right that we all have to peaceful protest. This year I thought that we would talk about individual liberty. The most damned, banned, excluded, condemned, forbidden, ostracized, ignored, suppressed, repressed, robbed, brutalized and defamed of all ‘Damned Things’ is the individual human being. No one can, nor should, ever take away from a persons struggle. I simply find that for the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, to be worth the paper that they are printed on, that they must apply to everyone in their bounds. In 2018 I see similarities in the plights of every type of minority. Religious minorities, homeless of every color, racial minorities, lgbtq peoples, refugees, immigrants, ect. ect. As we are finally in a position to ensure that the founding beliefs of this country apply to all within our bounds, I am reminded that Dr. King was more upset not with those that commit aggressions but with those that stood by idly and did nothing.
Iowa has played a prominent role in the civil rights movement going all the way back to the beginning. Dred Scott, whose legal fight for freedom was ruled on in the 1857 Dred Scott Decision of the United States Supreme Court, lived with his family in Davenport as he followed his master to various military postings in the Midwest. Scott and his wife based their appeal for freedom on the fact that they had been held for extended periods of time in free states and territories, including Scott’s stay with his master in Davenport in 1834-36. An historic plaque was installed at the site of Scott’s residence in Davenport. African Americans fleeing both slavery and the Civil War came to Davenport because it was a major port in a free territory on the Mississippi River. Though I am still greatly inspired by reading Dr. King’s writing, this year I thought that we would look at some of his peers that helped make the world a better place for those of us that were yet to be born.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rossetta Tharpe influenced Martin Luther King Jr, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, to name a few personages of historical significance. Robert Plant even immortalized her in a song of his own. I would say that it is tough to hear a popular song that is not influenced by someone that she influenced. Encouraged by her mother, Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar as Little Rosetta Nubin at the age of four and was cited as a musical prodigy. She rocked the Gibson SG before Angus and Tony and she also sang while doing so. Tharpe defied religious, gender, and race roles as they were and are typically depicted during her lifetime. Her performances both shocked and awed the crowds, and were controversial as well as revolutionary in several respects. At the time performing gospel music for secular nightclub audiences and alongside blues and jazz musicians and dancers was all but unheard of. You don’t exactly have to be Marty McFly to watch surviving footage of her and experience how far out she actually was. She could and did outplay many men of the time exemplifying her skills at guitar battles at the Apollo. Tharpe toured around the world representing a nation that she proved could be tolerant, caring, and a global leader in civil and human rights. Tharpe continued recording during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas.
James Farmer served along MLK JR as a civil rights activist and leader. He also pushed for nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation. He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of interstate transportation in the United States. Farmer was a child prodigy; as a freshman in 1934 at the age of 14, he enrolled at Wiley College, in Marshall, Texas. He was selected as part of the debate team. At the age of 21, Farmer was invited to the White House to talk with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt signed the invitation. Before the talk with the president, Mrs. Roosevelt talked to the group. Farmer took a liking to her immediately, and the two of them monopolized the conversation. When the group went in to talk to President Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt followed and sat in the back. After the formalities were done, the young people were allowed to ask questions. Farmer said, “On your opening remarks you described Britain and France as champions of freedom. In light of their colonial policies in Africa, which give the lie to the principle, how can they be considered defenders?” The president tactfully avoided the question. She exclaimed, “Just a minute, you did not answer the question!” Although the president still did not answer the question as Farmer phrased it, Farmer was placated knowing that he had gotten the question out there. Farmer earned a Bachelor of Science at Wiley College in 1938, and a Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University School of Religion in 1941. At Wiley, Farmer became anguished over segregation, recalling particular occasions of racism he had witnessed or suffered in his younger days. During the Second World War, Farmer had official status as a conscientious objector. Inspired by Howard Thurman, a professor of theology at Howard University, Farmer became interested in peaceful protest. Martin Luther King Jr. also studied this later and adopted many of its principles. Farmer started to think about how to stop racist practices in America while working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which he joined after college.
Also depicted in the photo of King on the balcony the day before his death is Hosea Williams. Williams was arrested 125 times for his militant acts of defiance while working in service to the civil rights movement. Perhaps his passion for civil rights was a direct consequence of his having been beaten so severely he was hospitalized for five weeks because he had a drink at a “whites-only” bar. Not nearly as well known as King or Jackson, Williams nevertheless was a major figure in the civil rights movement with several triumphs to his credit. Because of his efforts, Savannah, Georgia, was the first city to ban “whites-only” lunch counters. He also led a march against the Klu Klux Klan in 1987 and won a $950,000 jury award after suing Forsyth County. He later became a senator.
Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte has achieved lasting fame for such songs as ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),’ as well as for his film and humanitarian work. Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson and writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. After meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, the two became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, in which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and met with the civil rights leader shortly before he was assassinated in 1968.
Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker was an American professional baseball catcher who is credited with being the first openly black men to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). Walker was born in 1856 in Mount Pleasant, a working-class town in Eastern Ohio that had served as a sanctuary for runaway slaves since 1815. Its population included a large Quaker community and a unique collective of former Virginian slaves. He was also a businessman, a newspaper publisher and a scholar. He received patents for artillery shells and motion-picture devices. He wrote a book on race relations. Many people know of Jackie Robinson and it is well documented that the two ball players endured their own trials with racism in baseball. While both breaking barriers, Robinson went on to become good friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not satisfied with his work on the diamonds, Robinson became even more involved in the civil rights movement after he retired in 1957. When King gave his righteous and impassioned address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, Dodgers great Jackie Robinson stood just feet away, looking on with his children.
Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the athletic fields of UCLA, as both excelled at football and baseball. Washington broke the NFL’s modern-era color barrier as a member of the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. What Kenny had to go through from his peers was in some ways harder than what Jackie Robinson had to endure. You could dodge a ball in baseball. But the Rams handed him the ball. One time in a game against the Washington, the players held him down, piled on top and put chalk in his eyes. Washington actively participated in politics.
In 1950 Chuck Cooper became the first black player to be drafted when he was chosen by Boston; Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first to sign an NBA contract when he signed with New York, and Earl Lloyd became the first to play in an NBA regular-season game because the schedule had his Washington team opening one day before the others. NBA legend Bill Russell was feet way from MLK JR. as he gave his “I Have A Dream Speech.” Russell was the in the middle of his legendary career — he had five championships and three MVPs at that point — and his presence helped some understand the need for equality that extended from buses to restaurant counters all the way to the basketball court. Russell lended his presence to the civil rights movement on multiple occasions.
Gil Scott-Heron was an American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author, known primarily for his work as a spoken-word performer in the 1970s and 1980s. His collaborative efforts with musician Brian Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. His own term for himself was “bluesologist”, which he defined as “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues”. His music, most notably on Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. In fact, Scott-Heron himself is considered by many to be the first rapper/MC ever, a recognition also shared by fellow American MC Coke La Rock. Scott-Heron remained active until his death, and in 2010 released his first new album in 16 years, entitled I’m New Here. A memoir he had been working on for years up to the time of his death, The Last Holiday, was published posthumously in January 2012. In an extract from this memoir written the year before he passed , Gil Scott-Heron talks about when he toured with Stevie Wonder to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in the US.