Why We Fail: Forgetting Malcolm and Martin’s Internationalism

Weary Self-Portrait 2

“Weary Self-Portrait 2” (Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.)

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

As bad as things are in the USA—in particular, the killing of a young Black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—what we Black Americans are enduring is “a cakewalk” by comparison to some of the tragedies that are currently taking place in India, parts of Africa, Iraq, Israel, and so many other places around the world.  Yet, our current Black leadership has been conspicuously silent on so many of these international matters, including the excessive policies of Israel against an already displaced Palestinian people.  Yet, Arab, Jewish, African, and African American women found enough of a unified voice to write a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people.  I wonder why they could do it, but not our elected officials.  These women understand an important component of previous human rights struggles—including the Civil Rights and Freedom struggles that took place during the 1950s well into the 1970s in the United States—the international component.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X always placed Black American freedom struggles in an international context.  If you do not believe me, then read or listen to Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” and listen to him rattle off the names of those nations and peoples that too many of us frequently ignore.  Listen to King speak poetically and prophetically against the Vietnam War.  These are only a few examples, often scary examples.  Yet, there are many others.

What happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is going to resonate with other people in other parts of the world.  When we lost Trayvon Martin, you found people across the globe putting on “hoodies” in solidarity.  And, if it were not for the women of Nigeria taking full advantage of social media, most of us would never have known anything about the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, who have still not been returned to their families.  Yet, when was the last time you saw a massive movement of Black Americans speaking out against and lending assistance to anyone outside of the USA.  Arguably, there has been no massive international activity on OUR part, at least not since the zenith of an internationally led movement that demanded that colleges and businesses divest from South Africa in protest of the country’s brutal and virulent social system known as apartheid, and that was in the late 1970s into the 1980s.

The question is when are we going to get our international legs back, and stop looking at what and who we are as if we are isolated in one country called the United States.  Does it not matter that two teenage Indian girls were gang-raped, and then lynched just a few months ago in Bengal, India?  Does it not matter that several hundred Nigerian girls were kidnapped and—sorry to say this—will probably never return to their families?  Does it not matter that former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stayed on top of the problem in Nigeria and spoken out about this problem of female trafficking in Nigeria and elsewhere, and more often than many Black American politicians and self-appointed pundits?  You are damned right it matters.

I can count on one of my former English professors to regularly post articles and his own occasional eloquent outbursts on his page on Facebook about many of the atrocities that happen to women worldwide and, also what happens to Black Americans—He, however, was born in Pakistan.  The Executive Director of Greenpeace International was born and raised in South Africa, and spent his teenage years in the anti-Apartheid movement.  He regularly articulates how women’s oppression, the problems with the environment and human rights struggles are tied together.  I knew something had become completely out-of-whack when the only men I could count on—with any real regularity—to lend their voices and support against sexism were men of color who were also NON-American.  The difference is, they can and do connect the dots and see environmental problems, discrimination and the persecution of women, and battles to end racism and/or ethnic violence as connected problems in ways that so many Americans simply do not.  Yet, a few Black Americans do connect the dots, but they are not part of what is traditional Black leadership, which is a good thing.

Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis—the Black teenage boy that was killed in Florida when a man shot into his vehicle over a quarrel about loud music—took his complaint about the senseless murders and expendability of young Black men to Geneva, Switzerland at the 85th annual meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  The talks in Geneva run from August 11 through August 29, 2014. This was a bold move by Mr. Davis, but proof positive that he was paying attention in the sixties and seventies when international opinion about the United States government’s slow response to discrimination and racial virulence damaged the USA’s image abroad.  Both Mr. Davis and the women of all colors and nations who signed that Solidarity Pledge fully understand what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to teach.  We can hope that some citizens in Ferguson, Missouri are paying attention.

Now, thinking internationally or being concerned with tragedies or the well-being of people outside of the United States will not stop police officers from killing unarmed Black male teenagers.  My interest and sadness over the senseless gang rape and lynching of two teenage girls in India several months ago will not stop the rape and abuse of women anywhere, neither will my continued anguish over the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria.  Yet, to be a Black woman born and raised in the American South is to understand that racism and sexism come from all quarters of the country of my birth, and indeed all quarters of the world itself.

To fail to see the connections I have with peoples who may or may not speak my language or belong to the same racial and/or ethnic and/or gender group is to forget the real lessons of the Civil Rights Movement—that WE are not alone if WE will simply acknowledge that WE need allies, and international allies at that.  Yet, WE will be alone if WE operate from the position that people in other parts of the world do not have anything to teach us.  WE cannot afford to function from the position that because WE dwell in the United States that no one else’s problems or persecution matters as much as ours matter.  If WE do, WE will have missed Martin and Malcolm’s most important lesson, namely that if WE labor alone, WE, and everybody else, will lose.

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

CCThis Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

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Ralph McGill Would Never Defend “Stand Your Ground”

Photographer: Jon Sullivan.  Copyright: Public domain image, not copyrighted, no rights reserved, royalty free stock photo.

“Scales of Justice” by Jon Sullivan, photographer. Copyright: Public domain image, not copyrighted, no rights reserved, royalty free stock photo. Available from Public-Domain-Image.com

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the late Ralph McGill (1898-1969), he was a White journalist and publisher of the old Atlanta Constitution (now the Atlanta Journal Constitution).  He was also a well-known liberal who wrote about racial discrimination in society at large and within the criminal justice system.  He did this long before the Civil Rights Movement reached its apogee in the 1960s.  Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned McGill in his eloquent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”  King wrote that McGill and some other White journalists, “have written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic and understanding terms.”  Indeed, McGill was a man who watched, learned, and evolved into one of the most progressive voices in the American South and the nation when it came to race relations, civil rights, and the penal system.  With that said, it is important for you to understand that I did not learn about Ralph McGill from a newspaper or a book, but rather from my schoolteacher mother.

Mama remembered that he emphasized that when a Black person killed another Black person they typically received very light jail or prison sentences—that is, if they received any jail time at all.  It was just the opposite if they had killed a White person.  He noted that because of this failure to properly punish Black people who killed other Black people, the judicial system literally encouraged those individuals to carry out their anger to its fullest possible extreme.  He accused the judicial system of encouraging Black folks to kill each other.  Mama said that there was an unsettling joke going around in Atlanta during the 1940s that said: if you were a Black man that killed another Black man you would be out of jail in time to go to your victim’s funeral.  Indeed, in his column in the Atlanta Constitution on September 17, 1941, McGill wrote:

“In the first place our courts, to our shame and, although no one seems to see it, to our very great financial cost, never take Negro crime seriously.  A Negro murderer, killing another Negro, rarely receives any severe punishment.  Juries and prosecutors have, for years, viewed them lightly as just another Negro killing, and therefore, of not much importance.”  (Ralph McGill – Crime, Standards, Methods 9-17-1941)

He remained one of a handful of White journalists that understood that any law or process or social practice that devalued Black life also made Black people the more likely targets of violence by killers of all races.  He also noted that many members of Atlanta’s then all-White police department had poor training and were “quick-on-the-trigger.”

I thought about Ralph McGill after the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in February of 2012.  When Jordan Davis of Atlanta, Georgia was killed in Jacksonville, Florida later in November, I again thought about McGill, arguably one of the most vocal writers who paid serious attention to Black-on-Black and White-on-Black violence and the institutionalized racism in the criminal justice systems of Georgia and the nation.  I will not recount how Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin died needless and preventable deaths.  I will leave it to you to read the details of Davis’ death on your own.  (Take a minute and read Madison Gray’s very brief Time Magazine report “With Echoes of Trayvon Martin, Florida Man Claims Self Defense in Shooting Death of Teen.”)  Yet, I wonder what McGill might have said about the horrible killings of these two unarmed Black teenagers by two men—One of Peruvian and Jewish extraction and the other a White man.  I am sure he would have had much to say about the racial dynamics surrounding these two killings and the law known as “Stand Your Ground.”

Nearly half the states in this country have “Stand Your Ground” laws.  At minimum, these laws allow an individual the right to use deadly force if that individual has a reasonable belief that their lives are threatened.  Importantly, the law typically states that it is not necessary for a threatened individual to retreat from the perceived danger.  The jury is still out on whether this kind of law has reduced crime rates anywhere.  It is important to note, however, that there is nothing in these laws that give citizens the right to provoke and/or create a potentially volatile scenario where they place themselves in danger and then use deadly force in response to the dangerous scenario they created.

The fact that George Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, was told by a 911 operator not to follow Martin, has forced Zimmerman’s attorneys to drop the use of “Stand Your Ground” as a part of his defense is cause for all of us to pause.  The fact that Michael Dunn, charged with the murder of Jordan Davis (and also charged with attempted murder of the other teens in the SUV), told these kids to turn their music down at a gas station is also problematic.  Most people do not stay at a gas station for very long.  Is it safe or even logical to tell total strangers what to do or what not to do while they are seated in their own vehicles at a public place like a gas station at 7:30 in the evening?  Think about it.  Will Florida lawmakers ever understand that the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws are not always working in the best interests of its citizens?  McGill would have recognized the counterproductive and dangerous potential for abuse in “Stand Your Ground” legislation.

When I finally got the opportunity to read some of the newspaper columns written by McGill, I noticed some important qualities:  He spoke his mind about what was going on in the city and the world at that moment.  Yet, he did so with an eye on the future.  Like many of Atlanta’s early boosters, he always prescribed the course of action that he believed was best for the city of Atlanta—the entire city of Atlanta.  He knew that crime, racial discrimination, racial virulence, and the like, were bad for the city.  He was as practical and he was ethical.

I do not know exactly what McGill might have said or asked about the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.  Yet, I have little doubt that he would understand and endorse the necessity of raising the following questions about how citizens interpret their rights as defined in “Stand Your Ground” law:  How does the “Stand Your Ground” law define “feeling threatened”?  If you look menacing or say something that makes me feel afraid, will the law allow me the right to use deadly force against you based solely on my assumption of what I think you might do?  Do citizens need more than the basic right of self-defense?  What might an angry person do if they are armed and know that they might be able to get away with killing someone because, by law, they do not have to retreat from danger?  Much like Atlanta in 1941, does not this law encourage people to choose to kill one another?  Don’t these kind of laws eventually breed a flagrant disregard for the law?  McGill wrote that, “Anything that breeds contempt for the law is costly.”  He was right.

When I asked my Mama why she liked Ralph McGill, she simply said,

“He made sense and he was always, always fair.  He always asked for justice and the fair treatment of all citizens.  Justice and fair treatment were the only things Black people wanted.”

Justice and fair treatment are still all we want.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

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