- Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. [Frederick Douglass, public address (1886).]
- We are not to simply bandage the victims beneath the wheels (of injustice), we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1933).]
Opposing injustice is standing up in the public arena.
Boxer, civil rights advocate and humanitarian Muhamad Ali told white American some uncomfortable truths in the 1960s. Remarkably, he became a cultural hero. The following statement is not entirely in his words, though the last few sentences are.
I ain't draft dodging. I ain't burning no flag. I ain't running to Canada. I'm staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I've been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain't going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won't even stand up for my right here at home. [attributed to Muhamad Ali]
I had a colored friend, a man from my native place, in whom I had the most implicit confidence. I sent for him, and told him that Mr. and Mrs. Dodge had arrived in New York. I proposed that he should call upon them to make inquiries about his friends at the south, with whom Dr. Flint's family were well acquainted. He thought there was no impropriety in his doing so, and he consented. He went to the hotel, and knocked at the door of Mr. Dodge's room, which was opened by the gentleman himself, who gruffly inquired, "What brought you here? How came you to know I was in the city?"
"Your arrival was published in the evening papers, sir; and I called to ask Mrs. Dodge about my friends at home. I didn't suppose it would give any offence."
"Where's that negro girl, that belongs to my wife?"
"What girl, sir?"
"You know well enough. I mean Linda, that ran away from Dr. Flint's plantation, some years ago. I dare say you've seen her, and know where she is."
"Yes, sir, I've seen her, and know where she is. She is out of your reach, sir."
"Tell me where she is, or bring her to me, and I will give her a chance to buy her freedom."
"I don't think it would be of any use, sir. I have heard her say she would go to the ends of the earth, rather than pay any man or woman for her freedom, because she thinks she has a right to it. Besides, she couldn't do it, if she would, for she has spent her earnings to educate her children."
[Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XLI, Free at Last.]
Perhaps no episode in human history is more full of hope for a profoundly better and more just future than the story of race relations in the United States. This story begins with the forced migration of African peoples into North America, and their sale and purchase into slavery. A government would be founded on principles of universal rights and equality, only to turn a blind eye to the plight of slaves; and worse, to perpetuate laws and customs condoning the practice. The nation fought a civil war in the 1860s, some fourscore years after its founding, during which President Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation. The side favoring emancipation and an end to slavery won the war, and only three years later the reconstructed nation amended its Constitution to guarantee due process and equal treatment for all United States citizens, which by definition was now to include all persons born in the United States.
Tragically, this was not a happily-ever-after ending to the story. African Americans continued to be denied equal treatment in the United States for another century, and even now the remnants of this anti-humane past haunts the lives of millions. Jim Crow laws went into effect, especially in the American south, codifying and perpetuating disparate treatment of African Americans.
- William Henry Chafe, et. al., Eds., Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South(New Press, 2001).
- Van Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow(Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Jennifer Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: The Racial Socialization of Black and White Southern Children, 1890-1940(The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
- Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality(Oxford University Press, 2004).
- David M. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice(Free Press, 1996).
- Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010).
By no means was the American north immune from these conflicts.
- Davison Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Racial segregation remains a fact of American life to this day. For many years, the United States Supreme Court gave it the force of law on the pretext that obviously inferior facilities for African Americans were “separate but equal”.
- Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (Oxford University Press, 2004).
In the 1940s, the United States fought a war against Nazi Germany, a regime dedicated to the extermination of the Jewish people and world domination by a supposedly master Aryan race. African Americans served with distinction in that war, and perhaps from that experience emerged at long last an American sensibility that disparate treatment was wrong. The civil rights movement became visible in the 1950s, became more insistent in the 1960s and achieved an expansion of legal rights not only for African Americans, but for persons in traditionally disfavored racial and ethnic groups.
- Paul Kix, The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando (Harper/HarperCollins, 2017): Robert de La Rochefoucauld and the French Resistance
Tragically, the political successes of this too-long-delayed movement for equal treatment under the law met with a backlash. Richard Nixon was the first Republican president to run on a “Southern strategy”, which was a thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on Southern white sentiment against racial equality for the purpose of achieving a political majority. Since then, the Republican party has quite consistently and quite indefensibly continued to pursue this quasi-racist strategy to win and consolidate political power. Ronald Reagan kicked off his successful 1980 campaign for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murder three young civil rights activists. George H. W. Bush fanned racial sentiment in 1988 with the infamous "Willie Horton" advertisement, which portrayed the unsavory image of an African American criminal convict who had been pardoned by Bush's opponent Michael Dukakis. Not surprisingly and yet shockingly, white southerners bolted the Democratic party to turn that entire region of the country from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican. Race was a central factor in this conversion, a sufficient factor to hand control of the government from one political party to the other throughout at least forty years of American history.
This may seem to some like a politically charged statement, but barely less shameful is the history of the Democratic party before 1964. In that era, it was the Democratic party that pandered to American racism. In the broader lens of history, if our nation achieves racial justice, this long period in national history, and each major political party's contribution to it, will be seen as shameful.
- Kevin P. Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969).
- Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Belknap Press, 2002).
- V. O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (University of Tennessee Press, New Edition, 1984).
- Alexander P. Lamis, Southern Politics in the 1990s (Louisiana State University Press, 1999).
- Charles S. Bullock, III and Mark J. Rozell, The New Politics of the Old South: An Introduction to Southern Politics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Fourth Edition, 2009).
Nevertheless, there is good and inspiring news to tell. The story of the American civil rights movement is one of the great reads in historical literature. For one of the few times in history, a people steeped in its own tawdry history of racism transformed itself. Today, the emerging generation of Americans appears ready to depart from the racism that blackens American history. Consider and partake of the following.
- Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1989).
- Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
- Taylor Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
- Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life (Basic Books, 2002).
- Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics (Verso, 1996).
- Derrick A. Bell, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (Basic Books, 1987).
Other narratives, on opposing injustice in various forms:
- Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India (Knopf, 2011): Gandhi as social reformer.
- Ilia Calderón, My Time To Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race (Atria, 2020): “She was the first Afro-Latina to anchor leading national newscasts in Colombia and on a major Spanish-language broadcast network in the United States.”
- William G. Thomas III, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2020): “Remembering the Enslaved Who Sued for Freedom Before the Civil War”.
- Dorothy Wickenden, The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights (Scribner, 2021): “Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Wickenden does proves illuminating. Tubman’s actions reveal the existential stakes of Wright’s and Seward’s agitations.”
- Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021) “tracks literary manifestations of feminist anger from the second half of the 20th century to now.”
Evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Here are narratives about people who remained silent and inactive in the face of evil.
- Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017). “After a few minutes prisoners appeared with stools and hair-cutting equipment: Their job was to shave the women. It was ‘at this moment that they were struck by the terrible truth. It was then that neither the women nor the men – already on their way to the gas – could have any illusions about their fate.’”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Mugabe and the White African: white farmers in Zimbabwe face down racism to keep their farm, which sustains them.
- Bay of All Saints: three women try to keep their community from being bulldozed.
- Gulabi Gang: the group takes up the struggle against several forms of injustice.
- Salvador Dali, Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940)
Film and Stage
- The Life of Emile Zola, an autobioraphical filmabout the French novelist who was railroaded for trying to expose an injustice, and for being Jewish
- The Stars Look Down, about injustices in a mining community
- The Citadel, a television mini-series chronicling a young doctor’s integrity in a profession peopled by unscrupulous men
- The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da Guan Si), this story of a young woman’s frustrated search for justicein a Chinese village presents the idea of opposing injustice at the family level
- Selma, a dramatic recreation of a pivotal episode in civil rights in the United States
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
African-American jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk could pull musical tricks that most of the finest musicians could only imagine. Extraordinarily versatile and intuitively gifted for music, he never attained the popularity his talents and his performances merited. While The Everly Brothers were becoming rich, he lived the hard-knocks life of the jazz musician, his work too sophisticated for most audiences. Perhaps in response – and keeping in mind that he was an African-American musician in the United States in the 1960s – he took “the man’s” music and played it in ways “the man” wouldn’t like, adding obvious musical jabs and absurdities to top-40 tunes. Lawrence Welk’s audiences may not have appreciated him but his slams at contemporary culture were no mere gratuitous fits of an immature temper; they were brilliant. Though he died young, Kirk left us with a wealth of eminently enjoyable music laced with social commentary that takes us back to that maddening time.
- The title track of his “Volunteered Slavery” album sums up Kirk’s in-your-face humor-with-an-edge.
- Bright Moments
- Kirk playing flute with his nose in Montreux
- The Inflated Tear
- Misty and I Want To Talk – Montreux 1972
- “Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle” album
- “The Man Who Cried Fire” album
- “The Case of a Three-Sided Dream” album
- Live in 1963 and 1967
- Live in France, 1972
- “Soul”, 1972
- Praze, 1967
- “We Free Kings” album
- “Domino” album (1962)
- “Kirk in Copenhagen” album (1963)
- “Rip, Rig and Panic” album (1965)
- “I Talk with the Spirits” album
- “The Man Who Cried Fire” album (1990)
- “The Return of the 5000 lb. Man” album
Dvořák, Symmphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (performances conducted by Szell, Kertesz, Kubelik and Maazel): Dvořák‘s intent may have been to celebrate and support a popular outcry against injustice in Czechoslovakia in the 1880s.
Music of and inspired by the French Resistance against Nazi Germany:
- Honegger, La Danse des Morts (The Dance of Death), H. 131 (1938)
- Honegger, Symphony No. 2 in D Major, H 153 (1941)
- Jolivet, Les trois Complaintes du Soldat (The Three Complaints of the Soldier) (1940)
- Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960), was dedicated “To the Victims of Fascism and War.”
- Zemlinsky’s Symphonische Gesänge for baritone or alto and orchestra, Op. 20 (1929), is a cycle of songs, in a symphonic setting, by a Jewish composer about the atrocities perpetrated against African-Americans, both ante-bellum and post-bellum.
- John Adams, Scheherezade.2, draws upon Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade but in contrast to the traditional stories, in which women are abused, Adams’ work offers a musical story of liberation.
- Xenakis, Nuits (1967): an a capella choral work drawn from the plight of political prisoners in Greece
Novels and stories:
- Ursula Hegi, Children and Fire: A Novel (Scribner, 2011): “And We Did Not Speak Out”
- Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017): “Set in India in the present decade (with back stories extending into the 1950s), it is a novel about social and political outcasts who come together in response to state-sponsored violence.”
- Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony (Wave, 2020): calling out political torture and other costs of colonialism
The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.
Under a dead blue sky on a distant beach,
I was dragged by my braids just beyond your reach.
Your hands were tied, your mouth was bound,
You couldn't even call out my name.
You were helpless and so was I,
But unfortunately throughout history
You've worn a badge of shame.
I say, the night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark
And the walls have been steep.
But today, voices of old spirit sound
Speak to us in words profound,
Across the years, across the centuries,
Across the oceans, and across the seas.
They say, draw near to one another,
Save your race.
You have been paid for in a distant place,
The old ones remind us that slavery's chains
Have paid for our freedom again and again.
The night has been long,
The pit has been deep,
The night has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.
The hells we have lived through and live through still,
Have sharpened our senses and toughened our will.
The night has been long.
This morning I look through your anguish
Right down to your soul.
I know that with each other we can make ourselves whole.
I look through the posture and past your disguise,
And see your love for family in your big brown eyes.
I say, clap hands and let's come together in this meeting ground,
I say, clap hands and let's deal with each other with love,
I say, clap hands and let us get from the low road of indifference,
Clap hands, let us come together and reveal our hearts,
Let us come together and revise our spirits,
Let us come together and cleanse our souls,
Clap hands, let's leave the preening
And stop impostering our own history.
Clap hands, call the spirits back from the ledge,
Clap hands, let us invite joy into our conversation,
Courtesy into our bedrooms,
Gentleness into our kitchen,
Care into our nursery.
The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain
We are a going-on people who will rise again.
And still we rise.
[Maya Angelou, “Million Man March Poem”]
Books of poetry:
- Will Alexander, Refractive Africa: Ballet of the Forgotten (New Directions, 2021): “A rich matrix of language, obscure or arcane vocabulary, ever-shifting waves of imagery and a kick back against historical colonial injustices feed into this alchemical volume of verse.”