From Southern Changes, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2001 pp. 17-22
Black Workers Remember
Smith Awards juror Professor Mark Sanders, Chair of African-American Studies at Emory University, introduced Michael Honey's book.
Black Workers Remember is an enormously important oral history of black workers and the on-going struggle for civil rights, for human rights, for recognition, and for dignity. Responding to the lingering silence over race in too much labor history and adding yet another crucial dimension to our understanding of the civil rights struggle, Black Workers Remember demands that we listen to the voices and stories of black laborers too often ignored or overlooked by our official accounts of progressive struggle. It is their stories of hardships, of resistance, of triumphs, and frustrating setbacks. It is their memory and courage to recall that shapes our understanding that, indeed, constitutes history. Michael Honey not only provides us with crucial information and compelling voices, he presents us with a cogent model for oral history. The understated grace and humility of his prose serve only to give context to these voices and stories. He then steps back and trusts those voices to do the work of which they are so capable.
Lillian Smith left a legacy of courage to resist evil, to stand up boldly and risk ostracism and criticism for one's views. Anyone concerned about giving true content to words such as human rights, freedom, and justice in the South and in the world today would be honored to receive an award in her name, and those of us receiving it this year certainly are. The award is not so much in recognition of what we as writers have done, however. It is a tribute to the courage of others who came before us.
This award honors people like Clarence Coe. His ancestors were slaves but after emancipation they gained some land, and passed down the determination to never give in or give out. Mr. Coe saw the results of a lynching, and he watched white men kick black men in the pants just to keep them humiliated. He moved to the city to get away from Jim Crow in the countryside during the deep, dark depression of the 1930s. For the next forty years, he struggled day in and day out in Memphis factories for his rights as a human being. He took up collections for the NAACP, protested the Scottsboro rape frame-up of the 1930s, and supported student sit-ins of the 1960s. He met with other workers under the cover of darkness to organize unions, and had his stomach slashed wide open by union opponents. Once he got a union, he fought the discrimination which white workers and employers alike imposed upon blacks, keeping them confined to the hot, dirty, low-paying, least rewarding jobs. For advancing into skilled jobs formerly reserved for "whites only," he faced years of threatening phone calls and harassment. White workers nearly maimed him on the job several times, using every trick they could find to make him quit. But he didn't quit.
The black men and women who fill the pages of Black Workers Remember tell profound stories of stubborn resistance to the dehumanizing ways of Jim Crow. Like George Holloway, Irene Branch, Alzada Clark, Leroy Boyd, Matthew Davis, Ida Leachman, and Edward Lindsey, Clarence Coe fought both the civil rights and the labor struggles of his era. He marched to support sanitation workers in 1968, and prepared himself for war when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. The war did not come, and meantime he helped elect the first black mayor in Memphis, and saw the desegregation of the city's public life. In retirement, however, he faced new tragedies, as he tried to take care of fellow unionists who lost their jobs when factories shut down during the reign of "free market" global capitalism from the 1980s to the present. The last time I saw him, shortly before he died, Mr. Coe told me that "all I wanted to do was live in a free country." He remembered how "America the Beautiful" thrilled him as a child, until he discovered with bitter disappointment that the song "just wasn't about me then, it just wasn't about me." He said his lifetime of struggle for an equal place in America left "scars" on his memory. But he never gave up on the dream of equality and the hope for justice. By the time he left the factory, he had helped to desegregate its every nook and cranny.
The stories of these workers are every bit as much the story of the Civil Rights Movement as is the story of Dr. King. Labor rights and civil rights, Alzada Clark said, "go hand-in-hand." As a black woman organizing other black women in low-wage industries in Mississippi during the 1960s, she faced the Klan, the police, and racist employers. Just like freedom movement organizers, she fought against the forces of "law and order" for a more democratic and just society. Ms. Clark and Mr. Coe, like virtually every character who tells their story in Black Workers Remember, could recall someone in their family before them who taught them to resist the indignities of racism and to fight back. They understood that they came from a long line of people fighting for freedom, one that goes all the way back to slavery. It is the memory of these and other people such as Fred Shuttlesworth and Anne Levy, and our knowledge of what they did to make this a better world for us all, that are honored by the Lillian Smith Book Award.
A Fire You Can't Put Out
Smith Awards juror Pegram Harrison presented the award to Andrew Manis.
Some of you may have noticed that memory is not our most reliable quality. The events of the 60s and 70s begin to fade and merge. And while we shall never forget the horror and heroism of those times, the chronologies become confused and the facts fall out of the network of our memories. But, we are blessed that in our midst are a few, a very few, remarkable men and women who have the training, imagination, moral view, persistence, and talent required to preserve the history of these turbulent times. One of these true scholars is Andrew Manis, the author of A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Mr. Manis was born in 1954, the year of the Brown v. the Board of Education decision. He grew up in Birmingham and remembers, as he says, dimly, some of the events that occurred during the 50s and 60s. He remembers the epic struggles, the violence, the hatred, the turmoil, and the coverage that focused the eyes of the world on Birmingham and arguably brought about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
In A Fire You Can't Put Out, Dr. Manis chronicles the civil rights life of one of the Movement's greatest heroes--the most significant one in the stronghold of Southern segregation--the Reverend Shuttlesworth. Dr. Manis's biography is marvelous. It is profoundly researched; it is crisply written; it contains elegant prose; it is passionate writing. It is just a splendid book.
Thank you so much for this wonderful honor and this beautiful occasion to share with all of you and to rejoice in a great deal of hard work--work that was a great joy to do along the way. It took me twelve years to write this book and many times Rev. Shuttlesworth was unsure whether I would ever really be able to finish. But I am delighted at being honored with an award that bears the name of Lillian Smith.
Why would anyone spend twelve years, writing about a relatively unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, someone about whom only a small circle beyond the participants in the Movement and a few historians had ever heard? There are professional reasons why professors must write things in order to keep their profession. But there are also some personal ones. And, it is the personal ones that generally energize you and give you the stamina to complete the sort of massive task that this book turned out to be. The personal ones connect with what has been called the white Southern racial conversion narrative--a literary genre with which many Southern writers, including of course Lillian Smith, have been involved. When Lillian Smith later spoke of writing her book Killers of the Dream, she said that writing that book was an act of penance and a step toward redemption. Like other prophets to the South, Smith assumed that somewhere embedded in the white Southern psyche was a conscience that could somehow be shamed into seeing the light. Much of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the segment led by Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth, was predicated on the strategy of appealing to the conscience of, not just our region, but also our entire nation. At times, Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth I'm sure would have agreed with Thurgood Marshall who once commented, "You know, sometimes I just get awfully tired of trying to save the white man's soul."
In a real sense you can see signs of a racial conversion narrative in the preface of A Fire You Can't Put Out. I wrote about Birmingham's--my hometown's--central civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth because, as a white boy who grew up in Birmingham, I remember the times depicted in the book. I remember feeling that something out of the ordinary had happened one spring in 1963 when my mother called me in from a southside Birmingham playground with the grim warning that the "mavros" were causing trouble again. "Mavros" is Greek for blacks, but when it is pronounced with just the right inflection, it has the same effect as the "n" word. I also remember the morning I came out of Sunday School at the Greek Orthodox Church on 19th Street and learned that four little girls, just a couple of years my senior, had been killed at another church, not very far away in the city. I remember the ambivalence in my nine-year old heart, the fear that eventually I might have to go to school with the "mavros." That fear was balanced by the suspicion that the voices of Shuttlesworth and King were right, that those black girls and boys deserved to be in school where I was and that Shuttlesworth and King were right and the adults around me were wrong.
In his own racial conversion narrative, Reynolds Price, a former Lillian Smith Award Winner, acknowledges seeing newsreel footage that we all have seen of black and white together in the Civil Rights Movement and Reynolds Price confesses that, "I'm sorry that my face is missing. All these years later," he continues, "my silence offends me."
I was nine when that famous footage of the dogs and firehoses and Bull Connor's tanks were filmed in my hometown. Although there were some nine-year old Birminghamians with skin darker than mine who participated in the Movement, the Movement bypassed me. In a sense then, this book is partly a product of a racial conversion and a desire to put myself on the right side of history, to participate in a Movement that I missed.
But more importantly, I wrote about Fred Shuttlesworth because he became for many others and, especially for me in the writing of this book, an icon whose memory and story could transport me back to what historians of religion call "a sacred time of origins." "Sacred" because it was a time that shaped who I am as a white Birminghamian--and even more "sacred" because it reshaped all of America. To be associated with the name of Lillian Smith and with the others who have accepted this award before me is probably the greatest honor of my life.
To Fred Shuttlesworth, who was the President of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and certainly the most unsung hero of the entire Civil Rights Movement, who is currently the pastor of the Greater New Life Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. To Rev. Shuttlesworth, for allowing me to be a part of his life and to have the honor of telling that story.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth:
I heard of the Southern Regional Council years back, when there were no voices of clarity being heard about whether or not blacks did have some rights that whites should respect. There was always a word that I could read from the Southern Regional Council and I always thank God for them, because they said segregation was wrong. Most white people that I knew that said anything about segregation tried to make it right. So, I want to congratulate you for just down-to-earth saying the truth.
I came up under the dark days of segregation, the Klan, and the collective efforts of state and local officials to stop and block integration at any cost. But I must say that this is God's world and he moves, sometimes, in his own way. Every once in a while there is someone who by faith can feel as if God is with them and that God really owns them and they want to see God overcome some of the evil in this world. He moves in the hearts of people. And I've often said that when God has a contract for work to be done it has to be the men and women who have faith. We need more people who can hear the voice of God, and who can understand that God, if he is for anything at all, he is for justice first.
So allow me to congratulate Dr. Manis on his sacred award. I think he did a good job of trying to interpret a life that is dedicated and I believe God wants more people to be dedicated. Dr. King said that if a person hasn't found something that he is willing to die for, he really hasn't begun to live.
At first when I read the book, I wanted to take offense at it. I don't take offense at things often. I take offense at segregation and he was writing about my fighting it, so I certainly didn't want to take offense at him. But he did mention the word confrontation a lot. As I looked at it and listened to what he was saying, I said, "My goodness. That is right. You ought to get mad about injustice." Mine is a life of confrontation. And yours should be too. Light confronts darkness. Good is supposed to confront evil. Right is supposed to confront wrong.
I wasn't worried about dying. It shocks some people when I say that, because they don't believe that a purpose can be something that a person could give his life for. And yet that is the greatest thing; that is what salvation is based on. I was as determined to kill segregation as I have ever been anything in my life.
My friend and compatriot, Hosea Williams--he was courageous to the point of a spiritual and obsessive insanity for justice. I said to him one time, "Hosea you've been in two armies. You've been in the army of killing, of destruction--whether for freedom or not and you were trained to kill. Now you are in another army dealing on another type of battlefield." I asked, "Which one would you agree to being the best?" He thought that the battlefield of men's hearts, minds, and souls was the main one. And that was where he lived.
So, I close with this incident. See, the worst problem I ever had was not in Birmingham. It was in St. Augustine, Florida, when those Klansmen had even the policemen almost running. So we decided that if we were going to win, we couldn't let those segregationists go to bed every night and sleep well, that the business of getting freedom ought to be both night and day, so we decided to have night marches. As we could, the leaders would go down and get the people marching.
Hosea and I led the first night's demonstration and we had policemen with guns and mace and one of them even had a riot gun on his shoulder. In Florida, in the section where we were marching, there was a grove that came up on each side of the street and then we would be right out into the wide-open street, about eight lanes. The policemen were so nervous--they even admitted it to Hosea and me. Any Klansmen could be out there with a gun. So I said to the policemen, "You shouldn't be worried, you've got guns to match their guns, haven't you?" I said, "We've got something stronger than guns." He didn't understand that. Hosea and I were at the front. When we got just about up to the grove--the police believed that the Klansmen were really out there, I guess--so they kind of slunk back. Hosea and I joined hands and we walked out. When we got right back to the edge of the street, Hosea threw his head back and yelled, "God will take care of you," and everybody started singing. And, do you know, that made the policemen happy? You can be happy too, you know. If you do God's will and work, God will take care of you.
I could go on but let me just thank God for this organization, for what you have done, for what you will do, and what you mean to those behind us.
Tougaloo College English professor and Smith Awards juror Jerry Ward introduced award winner Lawrence Powell.
Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke's Louisiana bids us to weigh the meaning of dramatic clashes involving our deepest human passions in the 20th Century--passions that assume new guises in the 21st Century in which we have a foot. The intriguing stories in this book cut to the chase regarding race and human rights, both in Poland and Europe during the Nazi years and in Louisiana and the United States during the aftermath of civil rights struggle. As do all books that merit the Lillian Smith Award, Troubled Memory gives us an antidote for the historical amnesia that is widespread in contemporary America. It grounds us again in the necessity for at least trying to obtain universal human understanding. As Powell explores the Jewish problem in the Nazi period and the mutual suspicion and recrimination that haunts the memories of survivors of that period, he makes a most clever connection between European anti-Semitism and the especially complicated manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism in the political thinking of David Duke and others in Louisiana. Dwelling on the troubled memory of Anne Levy and the power of memory to provoke courage, Powell inspires us to think deeply as do the works of Lillian Smith. His book compels us to think very seriously of the historical and moral issues that endlessly function in the body of American politics.
Powell's closing words in Troubled Memory remind us that indeed there is no hiding place for any of us from the problems of the racial lines in human society and that moral action is less a matter of desire than of necessity in our time. He reminds us that Anne Levy's burden of preserving memory against those who would obscenely erase the past was not one that she carried alone. As Powell wrote, it is a collective responsibility, a civic duty. Erecting monuments and museums is one way to prevent forgetfulness, but in the final analysis, only a morally concerned citizenry has the full power to transmit the lessons of the past to a present increasingly anxious to get on with the future. For one brief shining moment, in a state not generally known for political ethics, a moral movement of people from across the spectrum said the past could not be brushed aside so easily.
So, on behalf of the jurors for the Lillian Smith Awards and the Southern Regional Council, we salute Lawrence Powell for giving those of us who embrace a sense of moral action, a decidedly elegant articulation in Troubled Memory of why we must never forget, of why we must--to borrow from Toni Morrison--"re-memory" stories and transmit them as grounds for moral action in unknowable futures. Such is truly the function of history and memory.
I must confess, this is not the book I started out to write. The book I started out to write was about the "stop David Duke movement." Because I was very anxious in that struggle, a literary agent asked me to write about my experiences and to share my insights with the reader. Anne Levy, who is a child survivor of the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos and who had confronted David Duke right after he was elected to the state legislature, was supposed to be just one chapter in the book.
Her confrontation with him--one of those confrontations between light and darkness and good and evil--came from the deepest wellsprings of historical memory and was very seering and traumatic. It happened very dramatically at a Simon Wiesenthal exhibit of the Holocaust in the Rotunda in the great Memorial Hall of the skyscraper state capitol that Huey Long built. She had gone up there with a busload of New Americans, as the tightly knit community of Holocaust survivors in New Orleans call themselves. She was just there to bear witness, to be there for the unveiling by the governor, until she looked out of the corner of her eye and saw leering at parade rest, David Duke. This is David Duke after he had undergone extensive plastic surgery with an Aryan makeover look at about six-foot-three with a body by Nautilus. Seeing him, something came over her. She got angry and, as happens when political commitments are forged, she found courage and approached him to ask why he was there since he had denied that the Holocaust ever happened and, in effect, had defamed her experience. She was off and running. I try to tell about that and I also try to explain why she did what she did. I thought it was a simple question.
I am not by training a European historian, nor a holocaust historian; I'm not Jewish. But life sometimes throws you strange curves and before I knew it, one chapter became two, became three and Anne Levy ended up taking over the entire book and turning it into a Jewish family saga set against the backdrop of a world historical tragedy.
But I have to also say, I was profoundly moved and pulled into this story. If this is where the muse of history wanted to lead me, I said, well that's where I am going to go. The result is this book. The other result is this honor of which I am deeply, deeply proud.
I'll always want to acknowledge what Larry Powell has done for my family and myself. Having survived the Holocaust, we really--my children and my brother's and sister's children--never had a family, an extended family. By writing this book, Larry has given my family and my children their history. He has given me the opportunity to leave a legacy for my family and I thank him. This is such a great honor for Larry and he deserves it so much. Devoting eight years of his life to write this book. I am so grateful. He has become part of the family.