Archive for the 'Civil Rights' Category

Dothan Eagle profiles Mac Otts’s compelling new memoir on race

Monday, January 26th, 2015 by Lisa Harrison

Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist by Mac Otts

The Dothan Eagle recently profiled S. M. “Mac” Otts, author of Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist in connection with Mr. Otts’s presentation at the Houston-Love Memorial Library. The feature recounts the story of a young man ready to assault civil rights protesters who grew to become the adoptive father of an interracial child, dedicated to improving relations between blacks and whites. The descendant of plantation slave owners, Otts was reared in the mentality of racism. His personal attitudes began changing during his college years. His memoir recounts an incredible transformation.

Speaking about race today, Otts told the Eagle:

“What if I’m a white person waiting in line at the grocery store to purchase groceries, and the person in front of me is counting coupons and I’m bothered,” Otts said. “If they’re black, is that different from if they’re white? There are a lot of remnants even with people who have overcome the primary thing of racism, and one of biggest reasons, I think, is we don’t communicate openly.”

The Mac Otts of 1965 probably wasn’t interested in talking out his issues.

Today’s Mac Otts wants others to realize how transformative honest discussions can be.

With Better Than Them Mac Otts offers a compelling contribution to the contemporary conversation on race.

Better Than Them: The Unmasking of an Alabama Racist is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Heaven and Earth Collide author Alan Cross quoted in Washington Post; book reviewed on Bill Tammeus’s Faith Matters blog

Friday, December 5th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus by Alan CrossAlan Cross, author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, was quoted recently in a Religion News Service article on current events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York that ran in papers across the country, most prominently in the Washington Post.

Cross was one of several important religious figures interviewed. Echoing the theme of his book, he noted that “what often happens when white evangelicals try to speak into this is that we continue to think first in terms of our own position. We should consider what people in the black community are saying, what are they going through, what is their experience.”

When Heaven and Earth Collide also recently received an excellent review on Bill’s ‘Faith Matters’ Blog by Bill Tammeus. In a piece that compares Evangelical support of racial segregation to other “subversions of Christianity” throughout history, Tammeus says that When Heaven and Earth Collide “is a necessary book by a man steeped in the white evangelical tradition but willing to expose what went wrong there. It would be easy for Christians in a different tradition to call down shame on those white Southerners for their failures, but every tradition has its own failures that need this kind of intense scrutiny so they don’t continue into the future.”

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus is an important contribution to the discussion of relations between the races from a Gospel perspective. It’s available from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

Commemorating the End of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 by Randall Williams
Sheriff's booking photo of Rosa Parks (Associated Press)

Sheriff’s booking photo of Rosa Parks (Associated Press)

Today, November 13, in 1956 was Day 345 in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was also the day that the boycotters won victory in their struggle that began after the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955. The boycott began four days later, on December 5, 1955, on the morning of the day that she was to be tried in Montgomery city court on misdemeanor charges of violating the city law that said that blacks and whites had to sit in segregated sections on local buses.

She was tried and was convicted and fined $10 and $4 in court costs. Her lawyer, Fred D. Gray, announced that he would appeal her case, which he did. But Mrs. Parks’s misdemeanor conviction was mooted when the U.S. Supreme Court on November 13, 1956, affirmed a lower-court decision that the Montgomery bus seating law was unconstitutional. That lower-court ruling, based on the principle established in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was written by U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. for a three-judge panel consisting of himself and U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Rives and Seybourne Lynne. Rives, a Montgomerian, concurred in Johnson’s opinion; Lynne, of Birmingham, dissented.

City and state officials in Montgomery refused to accept Johnson’s ruling and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the case involved a constitutional conflict between state and federal law, it was a direct appeal to the Supreme Court without passing first through the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; that was also why the original case was heard by a three-judge panel rather than by Johnson alone.

Alabama Attorney General John Patterson and Montgomery City Attorney Walter Knabe represented the City of Montgomery. Fred Gray, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter of the national NAACP, and Charles Langford, the only other black lawyer in Montgomery besides Gray at the time, represented the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs, by the way, did not include Rosa Parks. Gray had decided her criminal case needed to be kept separate from the civil lawsuit against the segregation laws themselves. So the four black women who became Fred Gray’s clients and actually sued the city were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith — all had been previously arrested and convicted on the same charge as Mrs. Parks.

The Supreme Court did not hear Montgomery’s appeal; it simply affirmed, on the basis of the lower-court record and the briefs in the case, the lower court’s ruling.

News of the Supreme Court decision reached Montgomery instantly, but the City of Montgomery, intransigent to the end, did not immediately end the segregated bus seating. That moment did not come for another month until the Supreme Court order was printed, mailed, and received at the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery on December 20, 1956, and formally served by U.S. marshals on the city officials. And then on the morning of December 21, 1956, 382 days after they had begun boycotting, Montgomery’s black citizens returned to the city buses with the right to sit wherever they pleased and to be treated with the same dignity and courtesy as white passengers. Which was all they had wanted in the first place.

There are many ironies in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Judge John B. Scott Sr. who convicted Rosa Parks was the grandson of one of Montgomery’s founders. He was also the secretary of the local bar association and had administered Fred Gray’s bar exam in 1954, admitting the young black lawyer to legal practice in Alabama. Attorney General John Patterson would parlay his segregationist stance in the bus boycott and other cases into election as Alabama governor in 1958 (beating a young George Wallace, who was the liberal in the race). Patterson’s election and Wallace’s conversion to segregationist tactics to win the governor’s office in 1962 set Alabama on the path toward full resistance to civil rights progress.

Ultimately Wallace and Patterson both recanted their segregationist views and policies and apologized, but by then Alabama had already lost in every court it ventured into, and Rosa Parks and Fred Gray were both national heroes, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, just to name two of the boycott participants; there were hundreds of others who played vital roles but never gained national fame.

And the 382 days . . . for years history books and even the Smithsonian Institution stated that the boycott lasted 381 days. But when they did the math, they forgot that 1956 was a leap year, and adding February 29 makes it 382 days.

[NewSouth Books titles exploring this history include: Bus Ride to Justice by Fred D. Gray; The Judge by Frank Sikora (biography of Frank M. Johnson Jr.); A White Preacher’s Message by Robert S. Graetz (original member of the Montgomery Improvement Association); This Day in Civil Rights History by Ben Beard and Randall Williams; Jim Crow and Me by Solomon S. Seay Jr.; Nobody But the People by Warren Trest (biography of John Patterson); Johnnie by Randall Williams (children’s book about Rosa Parks’s friend, Johnnie Carr), and Dixie Redux edited by Raymond Arsenault and Vernon Burton (an anthology containing a chapter on national reaction to the Montgomery boycott).]

William Heath featured at Hood College Realizing the Dream talk; interviewed by Frederick News-Post

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

The Children Bob Moses Lead by William Heath

William Heath, author of The Children Bob Moses Led, recently gave a talk on the novel at Hood College as part of the institution’s year-long “Realizing the Dream” celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Heath discussed Freedom Summer 1964, the subject of his book. The author was interviewed by the Frederick News-Post in connection with the event.

Heath told the News-Post that his talk to young people focuses on the active roles taken by youth during the civil rights era, including challenging rigged voter registration systems, teaching in freedom schools, staging sit-ins, and participating in freedom rides. Such activities are dramatized in The Children Bob Moses Led, the story of a fictional character participating in the movement under the leadership of real-life hero Bob Moses.

According to the News-Post, Heath pointed out that “my generation got to rebel against our parents and be morally correct in doing so,” and said that he mentions global warming as a modern issue that today’s youth could address.

William Heath continues to tour with his message of social engagement.

The Children Bob Moses Led is available from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

Inspirational author Shelley Stewart receives honors from Vulcan Park and Regions Bank

Thursday, September 4th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

Mattie C.'s Boy: The Shelley Stewart StoryShelley Stewart, author of the inspiring memoir Mattie C.’s Boy: The Shelley Stewart Story, as told to Don Keith, will be honored at the inaugural Vulcan Awards presented by the Vulcan Park and Musuem at a ceremony on Oct. 2 at The Club in Birmingham. According to, Dr. Stewart will receive the Hero Award, given in recognition of his many contributions to the civil rights movement, including helping to organize and promote via radio key events such as the Children’s March of 1963.

Dr. Stewart was also the recipient of the 2014 History in Motion Award, given by Regions Bank, for the work done by his advertising firm 02ideas. Regions profiled Dr. Stewart in the video “Dr. Shelley Stewart: Something Within.” In the video Stewart recounts stories from his boyhood following the tragic murder of his mother by his father and the hardships he endured, as well as the encouragement he received from others who made a difference in his young life. He also discusses his entry into radio, his work in the civil rights movement, and the establishment of The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, named in his mother’s honor, the mission of which is to encourage children to stay in school. The video concludes with a salute to Stewart’s optimistic spirit.

Shelley Stewart, speaking at the National Book Club Conference, August 2014
Dr. Stewart was a featured guest at National Book Club Conference, held in Atlanta August 7-9, where he spoke about Mattie C.’s Boy to an appreciative audience (pictured).

Mattie C.’s Boy: The Shelley Stewart Story is available from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

PBS debuts new American Experience documentary, Freedom Summer

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 by Blair Johnson

Freedom Summer documentary from American Experience/PBS

“I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was.”

PBS’s new documentary, Freedom Summer, which debuted June 24, begins with this foreboding statement that proves itself true by the end of the film. And what is perhaps most shocking about that violence is that it happened in the not so distant past. Written, produced, and directed by Stanley Nelson, Freedom Summer chronicles the titular 10-weeks of 1964 during which college students from across the country traveled to Mississippi to battle the existing racism that was preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote. The documentary covers the summer from the first days of the college student volunteers to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that went to challenge the all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention, and to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that actually began during Freedom Summer.

Volunteers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff from that summer share life-changing experiences in the film, some for the very first time. Linda Wetmore Halpern recalls being assaulted by a group of white men in a car while she was walking down a road. She recalled, “They started calling me ‘Hey, nigger lover! We got you. We finally got you. We ain’t killed ourselves a white girl yet. You’re going to be the first.'” The men then put a noose around her neck as they drove off in the car holding the other end, making her walk faster and faster until they finally dropped the other end of the rope. “And I just stood there. Because we had to wear skirts. We weren’t allowed to wear pants in those days, so we all had our little shifts on and everything. I peed all over myself. Just stood and just peed,” Halpern said.

While women involved with Freedom Summer were not always treated fairly, Stanley Nelson highlights two important women in his film: Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Rita Schwerner, who was key in driving the search for three missing civil rights workers, including her husband. The press would hound Schwerner, hoping “that they would catch her at the moment of her widowhood [and see her cry], but she wouldn’t play.” The film highlights Hamer’s powerful testimony at the Democratic National Convention of 1964: “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook. Because our lives be threatened daily. Because we want to live as decent human beings in America.”

Civil rights leader Bob Moses, featured in the film, reflects on Hamer’s influence on Freedom Summer and at the Democratic National Convention: “She had Mississippi in her bones. Martin Luther King, or the SNCC field secretaries, they couldn’t do what Fannie Lou Hamer did. They couldn’t be a sharecropper and express what it meant, right, and that’s what Fannie Lou Hamer did.”

The Freedom Summer documentary can be viewed on PBS or at the PBS website. NewSouth Books has published the following titles on Freedom Summer for those interested in learning more:

The Freedom Rides and Alabama: A Guide to Key Events and Places, Context, and Impact — Author Noelle Matteson recounts the events of the 1961 group of interracial riders and their experiences in Alabama from their arrival in Montgomery to the firebombing of their bus in Anniston.

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement — The biography of Bob Zellner, the first white field secretary of SNCC, chronicling his experiences as a white Alabamian rejecting the Southern “way of life” he was raised on in pursuit of social change.

The Children Bob Moses Led — William Heath brings history to life in his fictionalized account of the Freedom Summer through the voices of real-life, legendary leader Bob Moses and a white volunteer college student.

Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs — Two classic collections of freedom songs (We Shall Overcome [1963] and Freedom is a Constant Struggle [1968]) are reprinted in a single edition to guide the reader through the history and experience of the Civil Rights Movement with sheet music for the songs, important documentary photos, and firsthand accounts by participants in the movement.

All of these titles are available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: NewSouth authors one thread in the tapestry of his life

Thursday, May 1st, 2014 by Savannah Szabo
Guy and Candie Carawan, authors of Sing for Freedom. (Courtesy Patheos)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is tireless in his efforts to promote peace and community in his native North Carolina and elsewhere throughout the South. His biography is a colorful tapestry of both Civil Rights and faith-based threads. It tells of a celebrated speaker at churches and conferences covering all denominations and backgrounds; a spiritual writer in the New Monasticism movement; the founder of the Rutba House, where the formerly homeless can regain a sense of community; and the director of the non-profit School of Conversion, where he is “making surprising friendships possible.” The list goes on and on. So it was with great delight that we read his back-to-back blog postings about authors published by NewSouth Books who’ve been an inspiration to him.

In one posting, “A Conspiracy of Silence? Listen to Our Grassroots Leaders,” Hartgrove both praises Bob Zellner, author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, and criticizes our national civil rights leaders in their failure to support grassroots organizing. In an apt and amusing analysis, Hartgrove likens Zellner’s life to Forrest Gump’s in its “unplanned quest of self-discovery.” “For over 50 years, Bob Zellner has walked alongside some of America’s most important voices for justice,” Hartgrove observes. “Which is why his question is so important: why have civil rights organizations themselves fallen silent about the most effective grassroots organizing in the country?” Hartgrove’s posting discusses the NAACP Convention’s embarrassing attempt to silence civil rights activists, and other disappointments for the modern Civil Rights movement in North Carolina and the South, and also the shining beacon of hope that is Rev. William J. Barber.

His conversation with Candie Carawan, co-author of Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, can be found in a separate post that commemorates the passing of Pete Seeger, influential folk singer of the Freedom Movement. Candie Carawan and her husband Guy (pictured, above) were fellow singers and close companions of Seeger’s, and lifted their resonant voices with him during the national struggle for justice.

Of their collective contributions Hartgrove says, “Those who sang with Pete felt hope, and it inspired them to press on together. No song from his repertoire is better know than ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which became the anthem of the Freedom Movement around the world. (I’ll never forget listening to little kids on the streets of Baghdad singing it while American bombs fell in 2003.) Though Pete learned the song from tobacco workers at Highlander Folk School, it was his friend at Highlander, Guy Carawan, who taught the song to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), just after they had started the sit-in movement in 1960. Candie, one of those students from Fisk University, ended up marrying Guy and singing with him for the next half a century.” Carawan and Hargrove agree on the central role folk music played in building a sense of community and achieving social change, and Carawan acknowledges Guy’s debt to Seeger: “Pete was a model for Guy of how you could use your artistry and your love of folk music to support peoples’ struggles for justice.”

Read “A Conspiracy of Silence? Listen to Our Grassroots Leaders,” and “Remembering Pete Seeger & the Power of Song with Candie Carawan”, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, at the Patheos website.

Sing for Freedom and The Wrong Side of Murder Creek are available from NewSouth Books or from your favorite bookstore.

Eugene Bullard featured in Washington Post “Flashbacks” comic strip

Thursday, April 10th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

Eugene Bullard: World's First Black Fighter Pilot by Larry GreenlyThe Washington Post “Flashbacks” comic strip, created by Patrick Reynolds, recently featured in a series on World War I aviation hero Eugene Bullard. Strip artist Reynolds cites a new biography published by NewSouth Books — Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot by Larry Greenly — as inspiration for his series. The strip tells the story of the boy who ran away from his home in the segregated South and made his way to Europe. Bullard’s varied career, from prize fighter in England through entertainer in France to Legionnaire and then pioneering fighter pilot, is compellingly recounted.

Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot is the first biography of the war hero written for young adult readers. Booklist praises the title in a starred review, saying “Greenly crafts a moving, novelistic biography that portrays Bullard’s undying fortitude throughout his life.” Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a worthwhile introduction to a decorated hero of two world wars who overcame obstacles in difficult times.”

Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot is available from NewSouth Books, Amazon or your favorite bookstore.

The original artwork and signed prints from the comic strip are available for sale at Red Rose Studio.

Child welfare advocate Denny Abbott tours with new book

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 by Lisa Harrison

They Had No Voice by Denny AbbottNationally recognized child welfare advocate Denny Abbott brought his story of creating positive change in the juvenile detention system to the campuses of Troy University recently in a series of lectures sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. Abbott spoke in Troy, Montgomery, and Dothan about his work on behalf of exploited children, and signed copies of his book They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama’s Forgotten Children.

They Had No Voice chronicles Abbott’s journey from chief probation officer of the Montgomery, Alabama County Family Court to leading advocate for children. As a court official, Abbott witnessed brutal conditions. When he could not change things from within, he sued the state and with the help of the U.S. Justice Department won a resounding victory that brought change. His talks at Troy focused on how others can continue to advocate for improvements.

According to the Dothan Eagle, Abbott focused part of his presentation on the continuing need to monitor workers who are in contact with children, saying:

“The more serious issues are those that have been festering for a long time and nobody’s really taken it on or done anything about it, either for political reasons or for personal reasons or business reasons,” he said.

He recognized the ongoing issues in Alabama, and although “hundreds of people knew about it, nobody did anything about it.”

He said employees at facilities need to be held accountable if they don’t do their job of protecting and taking care of children. “We see many, many cases where they are the offenders,” he said.

WSFA News in Montgomery spoke with a a former Juvenile Detention Center resident, who told them:

“I could barely lay down. I couldn’t eat because they wouldn’t feed ya once they beat ya. They punish you, you don’t eat either. It was horrible. It was horrible. Mr. Denny thank you, thank you.”

Through his presentations, Denny Abbott continues to educate citizens about how they can create positive change in their communities to help mistreated children.

Denny Abbott’s They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama’s Forgotten Children is available in print and ebook from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

On MLK’s Holiday, a Few Words About the Poor

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by Randall Williams

Today is the MLK holiday, although in Alabama the adoption of the holiday passed the legislature only by designating it as also being in honor of the birth of Robert E. Lee, who coincidentally shares the same birth week as King, so that white state workers taking the day off didn’t have to do so in tribute to civil rights.

Setting aside that head-in-the-sand Alabama political posturing, it is MLK Day, which means it’s a good day to remember that though MLK is rightly celebrated as a leader of the movement which broke the back of legalized segregation, toward the end of his life he was mostly campaigning to end economic injustice and war (at the time, in Vietnam). And while the civil rights movement was relatively straightforward — Jim Crow laws were an obvious evil — and gained the support of government, business, and, for the most part, the public, the same support was not forthcoming for anti-poverty and anti-war efforts.

For one thing, poverty and war have complex causes that are not easy to identify, much less target. For another, while changes in the U.S. economy and infrastructure had largely eliminated the economic benefits to white Southerners of first slavery and then segregation, there remained/remain powerful interests who profited from poverty and war.

The poverty part of that profit equation is hard for some to swallow, though I believe the case can be made. Consider the hugely profitable low-end loan, check cashing, rent-to-own furniture, etc., businesses that prey on the poor. Consider the prison-industrial complex that has expanded alongside the increased incarceration rates of the poor. Consider the increased numbers of well-paid and well-pensioned judges, prosecutors, police, and support personnel, and all the suppliers and manufacturers of their furnishings and consumables needed to keep a lid clamped on the “criminal” poor.

The military part of the profit equation is more obvious; even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last five-star commander in chief, famously warned of this danger, but we just keep spending and spending.

But back to the poor, and the impetus for my taking up your time today …

The NYT has recently been running a good series, “The Great Divide,” about the country’s return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality. Reading the NYT this morning, I was struck by today’s entry about the results of a study by an epidemiologist examining linkage between poverty and mental health. Her conclusions seem to indicate that — surprise — giving poor people money improves their lives and saves the taxpayers money. I suppose this is the academic equivalent of the folk wisdom that money can’t buy happiness, but the absence of money does buy misery. And the societal costs of misery are high.

As Congress dithers on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, and is likely to pass a Farm Bill that will further cut food stamps even while subsidies continue to agribusiness, it seems a good time to think about policies that might actually help the poor and the country.