The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Post 2014

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC

Recently I’ve taken to reading the tablet version of the New York Daily News every day as part of my morning ritual. Given that today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US, a fair amount of the articles dealt with the legacy of Dr. King.

Yet, it was one ad in the paper that stuck out for me: It was for a 2014 Australian silver dollar targeted to US coin collectors.

Most non-coin collectors like myself would pass by that ad without thinking twice, but given that I live in Australia,  I lingered. Alas, I have been struck with the infamous “Ooh! It’s about my country” bug.

For all intents and purposes, I am Australian. I am also–and will always be–American as well. (I’ve lived here for 5 years now, so I think I’ve officially turned the corner from dalliance to full on relationship.)

The fact that I can live here of my own free will and volition is partly due to the work of Dr. King.

Many Australians are surprised that Australia has somewhat of a reputation of being somewhat inhospitable towards people of colour, due to the history of the “White Australia policy” that limited immigration to those of European background. Interestingly enough, the cracks in this policy started when a Black British man applied to come here.

What many in the US do not know is that Dr. King’s legacy of non-violent protest inspired Australia’s own Freedom Riders.

From The ABC’s “Discovering Democracy” website:

“In 1965 a group of students from the University of Sydney organised a freedom ride to towns in NSW to publicise the discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people. Discrimination took different forms, such as not being allowed to live in town at all, not being allowed into certain shops or clubs, having to sit in the front few rows at the cinema or not being allowed in the public swimming pool. Charles Perkins and Jim Spigelman led the students, with the support of Reverend Ted Noffs and Bill Ford.

“The students hired a bus and travelled over 3,000 kilometres through country towns of northern NSW which had large Aboriginal populations. Two journalists travelled with the students and recorded what they saw. The students interviewed Aboriginal people about discrimination in their towns. They picketed the swimming pool in Moree, where Aboriginal children were allowed in only if they were with a school group. Many townspeople were hostile to the students. They threw things at them, spat on them, threatened them and tried to run their bus off the road.

The freedom ride attracted great publicity in city newspapers and made the front page of the Bulletin magazine. The reports and photographs shocked white Australians and made them aware of the conditions under which many Aboriginal communities lived. The publicity generated by the freedom ride persuaded many Australians to vote for constitutional change in the 1967 referendum.”

Interesting parallels with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We hear quite often about how the world is ever more connected, and often times that just refers to trends, and not so much to ideas.

Dr. King’s legacy is not the sole domain of the US, nor should it be. The legacy of the late Nelson Mandela is not the sole domain of South Africa, as his recent memorial service proved to the global audience.

We are all more connected in our shared humanity than set apart by differing skin colour and cultural background.

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USA Q&A: Reconstruction and the Great Migration

Blanche Bruce. Library of Congress description...

Blanche Bruce. Library of Congress description: “Hon. Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the most part, everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and Martin Luther King Jr. leading the fight against segregation. This is roughly a 100 year period during which there were several significant wars, women’s suffrage, and the growth of the US as an international superpower (whether it wanted to or not). An often forgotten (especially internationally) period is Reconstruction: the immediate 10-15 years after the Civil War. A Civil War that in many ways, America is still fighting.

Q: What was Reconstruction?

A: It was the name for the rebuilding of the Southern states recaptured during the Civil War by the US government. It’s important to remember that the US government was an occupying power in these states which had declared their independence, and that the Union troops were not seen as a welcoming power.

Q: What was Reconstruction like for former slaves?

A: On one hand it was good…at least on paper. Slavery was now outlawed, and via several other amendments (the 14 & 15th), the former slaves were given full citizenship and former slave males were given the right to vote. Demographically, the former slaves also formed the majority in many Southern states, and it was an era that saw the first Black politicians elected to congress (including a relative of mine, Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first Black Senator to serve a full term). That’s the upside, but here’s the downside: While former slaves were a new demographic force, they were still economically disadvantaged. Reconstruction saw the growth of the KKK and other vigilante groups formed by former plantation owners–many of whom were also now just as economically disadvantaged as the slaves. Instead of working together, the two sides grew ever more polarised and incidents of lynching and attacks on Blacks grew.

Q: What happened politically in the Reconstruction states?

A: The freed slaves overwhelmingly voted Republican, because it was the Republicans (under Lincoln) who freed them. Prior to the Civil War, the South was strongly Democrat. Emancipation changed that. This did not mean that there was a new era of working together, far from it. Remember, the South was still under military occupation.

That’s the upside, but here’s the downside:

While former slaves were a new demographic force, they were still economically disadvantaged. Reconstruction saw the growth of the KKK and other vigilante groups formed by former plantation owners–many of whom were also now just as economically disadvantaged as the slaves. Instead of working together, the two sides grew ever more polarised and incidents of lynching and attacks on Blacks grew.

Q: What happened politically in the Reconstruction states?

A: The freed slaves overwhelmingly voted Republican, because it was the Republicans (under Lincoln) who freed them. Prior to the Civil War, the South was strongly Democrat. Emancipation changed that. This did not mean that there was a new era of working together, far from it. Remember, the South was still under military occupation. The Houses of several Southern States had to be protected by National Guardsmen in order to conduct business because of the constant attacks by disgruntled Democrats.

Q: What did the rest of the US think of Reconstruction?

A: The Reconstruction of the South was seen at first as a necessary need and then progressively as a drain on the military and on the nation’s finances. It was not helped by the fact the presidents in power at the time were not strong administrators like Lincoln, and were effectively figureheads. Some really only got in based on charisma and party politics. The other states wanted Reconstruction over as soon as possible and if it meant putting back discriminatory laws against Blacks, then so be it.

Q: Discriminatory laws? Are these the Jim Crow laws?

A: Yes, though they weren’t called as such at the time. These laws and they varied a bit from state to state effectively prohibited blacks from using the same public facilities as whites and effectively prohibited them from voting in a very insidious way. For example: while a black voter had the effective right to vote, there were poll taxes (money which had to be paid prior to being allowed to vote), character assessments, and in some states and counties you had to show proof that your grandfather had been a voter. These were not overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The Jim Crow laws which came into effect in 1876 are considered the end of the Reconstruction Era.

1876-1965.

Q: What about the Great Migration?

A: These days, if any group was presented with such a slate of discriminatory laws, one would think there would be an outpouring of refugees into places where they’d be treated better. This didn’t occur in the US until 1910 and continued all the way until 1970.  In 1900, 90% of the Black population of the US still lived in the South, despite Jim Crow. Based upon my own conversations with relatives and family anecdotes, I can only presume that even in adversity, people can still find a way of comfort. The overall belief was separate but equal, plus the South was still an economic powerhouse, albeit an agrarian one. (See Wikipedia entries about sharecropping and 40 acres and a mule.) What really got the Black population moving was the industrialisation of the North and the West, where they could make more money.

The Great Migration occurred in two waves, the first from 1910 to 1930 saw the movement of 1 million Blacks to the North.

The second from 1941 to 1970 saw 5 million Blacks leave the South.

It is nigh on impossible to find a Black family who has not been affected by the Great Migration, but while Black families moved geographically North, the Culture remained effectively Southern.

For example, my father’s family moved from Mississippi to Detroit, but they remained in an enclave of Detroit that was surrounded by people from Mississippi, indeed my father never lost his very strong Mississippian accent throughout his whole life. (He left Mississippi at age 7, remained in the “North” for his whole entire life, but culturally–you would think that he’d never left the County he grew up in.)

My mother, conversely, was born in Ohio, to two Virginians. She grew up in Virginia, but despite losing her Virginian accent (much different from the Mississippian one), she retained many Southern cultural practices throughout her life .

I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and have a fair amount of Wisconsin cultural attributes, but I have even more Southern* cultural attributes courtesy of my parents.

*A hodge-podge, because the cultures of Mississippi and Virginia are very different.
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