Falcon Heavy, Dad, and the Kid

18 02 2018


It was 3 AM on a clear, crisp October morning in 1957 when Dad gently shook me awake and said simply, “It’s time.”

I was instantly alert, and dressing quickly, moved quietly through the house so as not to disturb Mom or my brother and sister, and met Dad in the kitchen of our home in Queens. He poured hot chocolate into matching thermoses, picked up yesterday’s New York Daily News with its stunning story, and we walked into the predawn darkness.

There was a baseball field just a block from the house, and we didn’t say a word till we stood in the middle of the outfield under a star-studded sky.

“Where will we find it, Dad?”  I asked. “How will we know which one it is?”

It was Sputnik, the world’s first man-made moon which had been launched a few days earlier from a Russian cosmodrome. In those Cold War days with duck and cover drills in my elementary school, the notion of a Soviet satellite cruising overhead – and possibly bombing us – was at first terrifying. It dominated the news and triggered scary atomic bomb drills in public schools throughout the country.

It was frightening to everyone except Dad.

To him it was an opportunity one that was not tainted by the racism and discrimination which hung like a cloud over every other occupation in America. Dad said there will be a space race to the moon and the stars, and America will need every smart person it could find to conquer space before the Russians did. If you were good in math and the sciences, he said, the sky was literally the limit.

This was the year after he had “passed” the NY Bar exam on his 5th try. New York had a rule that only the top two blacks who passed the bar could be admitted to the bar. The third time he took the exam he “failed” with a score of 92 – though passage for whites was 65 – but he was 4th among the blacks who took the exam. But he persisted until he couldn’t be denied.

To Dad, space was an untainted field, an arena with no good ole boys blocking the gates. Space was the future for those who were prepared. So there we were in the pre-dawn hours, looking at a story in the Daily News about Sputnik which said it would be passing over NY sometime between 3:30 AM and 4 AM and look like a slow-moving star. And there was a picture of the sky over the Empire State Building with an arrow showing the projected path of this new thing in the sky.

We thought we saw it right about 3:30, though it was headed in the wrong direction. But then Dad said no, that’s a plane and before long we could hear the drone of the propellers as it came in for a landing at LaGuardia Airport. Dad killed the time by asking questions: what kinds of skills were needed to put a rocket with people into space? Who designs it? What kind of wind machine do you need to test the design? How big is it? What do you do for fuel? How do you carry something that burns, like oil, and oxygen without blowing yourself up? Who makes that, a chemist or a pharmacist?

Whenever Dad wanted to me to consider something he’d start with a train of questions, each intended to lead my eight-year-old brain through a logical train till I was able to draw and support a conclusion. In this case, he wanted me to see possibilities in something that didn’t exist outside the pages of Analog, the science fiction magazine.

And then, suddenly, Dad pointed and said: “isn’t that one moving?”

And I followed his arm to a spot low on the horizon and there, in a cluster of stars, one was out of place. It was moving. There was no drone from an engine, no blinking landing lights. Just a slow moving star crossing the Fonda Avenue neighborhood ballfield where a black man and his son stood transfixed at this glimpse of the future till it disappeared on its solitary journey around the globe.

Then we dove into Dad’s question game during the short walk back home. What would it cost and who could keep track of the money and all the parts? Would they need accountants like Mom? Wouldn’t they have to allow black accountants? Dad thought they would – that space was a new frontier and jim crow wasn’t invited.

I wanted to continue but Dad insisted I get a couple of hours sleep before school. I headed towards the stairs and then stopped, turned and said “Dad, I’m going to be a rocket scientist.”

Sleep was impossible, of course. The excitement of stepping into a whole new world, and getting in on the ground floor where you make the rules as you go along had my brain ablaze with possibilities and the determination to succeed.  It was still with me a decade later in the aeronautical engineering program at the University of Michigan. But there I was introduced to journalism, and found I liked writing about the impact of technological development on society more than making that technology.

So the notion of being a rocket scientist was shelved. But the feeling of excitement from that October morning was reawakened when I covered the first Space Shuttle flight from NASA headquarters in Houston. And during a lull in the activities, I called Dad to reminisce. And then the memory of that special morning on the baseball field went back on the shelf, and I went on to spend 50 years in journalism.

And on the shelf it remained. Until this week.

I watched, transfixed, as the booster engines from Falcon Heavy separated and made their precision turn and choreographed double landing at the Cape. 60 years dropped away and I was again that eight-year-old under a long-gone sky watching the future slowly open across the predawn darkness. I was again looking at the limitless possibilities opening up with space travel through the limitless heavens.

And I realized I was crying, and wishing Dad was alive to see this with me.


Morality, Race, and Chemical Assaults in Syria

7 04 2017
Tomahawk launch from USS Ross

Tomahawk Launch from USS Ross

By Roger Witherspoon

In 2013, President Assad launched a massive gas attack on civilians which killed more than 1,400 men, women, and children.  President Obama was both horrified and angry and sought legal authorization from the gop-controlled Congress to launch a military strike against Syria.

The Republicans, who had criticized many Obama initiatives as “overreaching,” unauthorized and illegal, declined to grant approval. They were encouraged in their position by Donald Trump, who had seen newspaper still photos — sanitized for American audiences — of the chemical attack. Trump repeatedly said the US has “no business” in Syria and the use of chemical weapons there was not our problem. More than once the prolific Trump tweeted “stay out!”

That attitude didn’t change with the regular use of barrel bombs (http://bit.ly/2oGZg7S ) which have killed thousands of Syrian men, women, and children.  There were videos and still pictures of destroyed neighborhoods and assorted bodies sticking out of what used to be apartment buildings. But they didn’t earn a 3 AM tweet. Syrian barrel bomb's little victims

And that was understandable: why should a Caucasian billionaire give a damn about a bunch of Muslim babies dying in a Syrian street? And why would a rich white man who associated freely with white supremacists ever side with a black President over a moral issue?

In the ensuing years, on the other side of the globe, thousands of Muslim Rohingya men, women, and children have been slaughtered by Buddhist mobs and military in Myanmar and Thailand.  Thousands of Rohingya tried to flee on overloaded boats, only to be pushed further out to sea to die by navy vessels from surrounding countries whose captains viewed Muslims as vermin to be exterminated.

To this, Trump has said nothing. But then, it was a bunch of Muslims being killed by a bunch of slopes — nothing for a white man to bother tweeting about.

A vulture's patience in South Sudan

In South Sudan there were horrific pictures of men, women, and children being massacred or starving in an ongoing civil war. There were some photos of desiccated bodies rotting in the sun, and others of reed-thin waifs (  http://bit.ly/2nJTQnz  ),    their empty bellies bloated, being held to the last by emaciated mothers with no milk to give.

The incoming president, during the course of his world briefs, would have had these photos if he cared to look at them and thick dossiers if he cared to read them. But then, a bunch of black women and children dying in the African sun was hardly worth a white man’s tweet.

Which brings us to April, 2017. As it happens President Trump, as usual roaming the mansion bored and alone, was looking at late night television and saw real time videos of men, women, and children dying in the streets of Syria from the same type of gas attack launched by the same murderous President Assad four years ago. The videos these 70 victims were riveting, a stark difference from the static photo or two in a local newspaper four years earlier. It didn’t matter that in terms of scale, this brutal assault killed just 5% as many as the 2013 attack he dismissed with a tweet.

This time, there was no black president to automatically oppose. This time, there was no opposition Congress to interfere.  This time, Trump actually looked at the videos — and found it difficult to turn away from the haunting scene: a woman’s writhing, uselessly flailing limbs that eventually stop in death; the straining, heaving chest of children starving for air until their little bodies give up and the heaving slows and then stops forever — children light-skinned enough to evoke images of his own grandchildren.

And that was enough for Trump to loose the weapons of war ( http://bit.ly/2p7XN6G ).

The launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase came less than a week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the official policy of the United States was that President Trump didn’t give a damn how many people were slaughtered in Syria’s one-sided, uncivil war. A generation ago, Assad’s father secured control of the country by the brutal slaughter of some 20,000 Syrians.  Assad has improved on that level of butchery, with more than half a million dead citizens to his credit as he seeks to kill anyone who isn’t part of his minority sect and a sycophant blindly supporting him. With Tillerson’s announcement, the President of the United States gave Assad permission to continue his murderous ways, secure in the knowledge that America would neither question his morality nor interfere in his slaughter.

But then, there was late night television and the images that Trump couldn’t get out of his head. It would be encouraging to think that the immorality of Assad’s chemical war offended Trump. But that’s unlikely in a man who boasts of sexually assaulting women and openly disdains morality. It would be encouraging to think that as President, Trump realizes America has a longstanding role in the world to oppose evil and could not ignore this brazen violation of civilized norms. But that would be counter to his longstanding position of “America First” and the rest of the world can go to hell. It would be encouraging to think that Trump sat down with all the long-term experts at the State Department to understand America’s role in the face of this reviled throwback to World War 1. But then, Trump fired all the State Department experts.

Which brings us back to skin color.

The man who schemed to avoid serving his country saw Death in Syria stalk scores of women and children who looked like his, and felt compelled to order other Americans’ children into the breach to avenge them. As a parent , I understand the revulsion at the chemical attack. But then, as a father and grandfather I understood it in 2013.

But as a black father whose child is serving her country overseas, I wish I had confidence that decisions that could again place her in harm’s way were based squarely on the morality of the situation and the role of America in a dangerous world and not on the ability of the President to identify with the color of a foreign victim’s skin.

Black History Lost and Found

3 02 2016

by Roger Witherspoon

On Monday, Feb. 1, the New York Times started a Black History Month series of photographs of black life in America in general and the civil rights movement in particular, called “Unpublished Black History.” These were photos taken by NYT photographers that never appeared in the Times, though in many cases, unadorned stories were published.

( http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/us/unpublished-black-history.html )

The text accompanying the two-page spread said, in part “Photographers for The Times captured these moments, but then the pictures and negatives were filed away in our archives, where they sat for decades…”

There is no definitive explanation for the Times’ decision not to run the photos of Black men, women and children, professionals and blue collar workers, the glamorous and the mundane, Americans all, going about their daily lives.

The Times said, accurately, that they used to put more emphasis on words instead of pictures. They did earn the nickname The Grey Lady.  But that wouldn’t explain why a story about the fire-bombing of Malcolm X’s apartment would not have the accompanying photo to show how close his family came to dying. Or why another didn’t show the thousands of Black men and women who participated in the first March on Washington in 1957. And why they chose to forego countless other pictures that would enhance the written word.

The present editors do say that “holes in our visual coverage probably reflect the biases of some earlier editors. They determined who was newsworthy, and not, at a time when black people were marginalized in society and in the media…”

Unfortunately, that half acknowledgement of the possibility of institutional racism throughout the NY Times for decades is not covered by weasel words about what might have occurred. The stain of racism was as much an indelible part of the news media in general – including the Times – as was the ink, overflowing ash trays and paste-pots that littered the newsrooms. Photographers routinely covered events knowing that their work would never see the light of day.

That was especially true in the South, where some papers carried an occasional “Negro page” featuring acceptable events like Negro Day at the State Fair,  while the rest of the paper either ignored Blacks or openly decried “nigger agitators.”

I first encountered this photo blackout in the early ‘80s when I was working on my first book, “Martin Luther King, Jr…to the Mountaintop,” a history of the civil rights movement and its most charismatic leader. Diana Clyne, my photography researcher, tracked down retired newspaper photographers from Birmingham, Alabama to St. Augustine, Fla., who were only too happy to go into their attics and pull down boxes of photos they took during the tumult of the ‘60s, knowing their papers would never publish them.

While southern papers were open in their journalistic racism, that sentiment was the same on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. All of the New York City newspapers had separate and unequal pay scales for white and black journalists – if they had black journalists at all. The Times didn’t drop that practice until around 1979, and the rest followed in the mid-80s after the NY Daily News lost a costly discrimination lawsuit.

And many northern papers followed the unwritten rule that only white reporters could cover racial disputes. That is the reason why the world knows that three members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney – were kidnapped near Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21, 1964 and killed. The public was not informed that there were three other SNCC workers kidnapped and killed – the youngest a 14-year-old boy who was beaten to death – because they were black and didn’t count. It is questionable that northern newspapers would have mentioned Chaney at all if he hadn’t been with the two white victims.  The track record was that black lives did not matter to the nation’s media.

And while even the hint of terrorism is major news today – if it is by Muslims, not if it is by armed white men in Oregon or Oklahoma – it was not widely reported or photographed that the final toll for Mississippi Summer was 6 murdered, 35 shot, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, 30 homes bombed, and 35 churches torched. White Mississippi was in open, murderous, rebellion, but terrorism by white Christians was not reportable or camera-ready news .

A half century later, the NY Times is to be commended for publishing the photos it refused to publish when they were timely and newsworthy. Perhaps other papers will follow their lead, and comb their archives and, belatedly, show their readers the diverse multi-cultural world that many still know little about. Perhaps some of their readers would realize that the aspirations black and white parents have for their kids are not that different after all.

But it is unfortunate the Times did not take one more cleansing step and see fit to more accurately disclose the institutional racism it – and the rest of the news media – has finally overcome.

Hooks, Baker, the GOP And the Road Not Taken

16 04 2010


By Roger Witherspoon

            It’s hard to make pancakes with your right arm broken and useless in a sling.

            It was 90 degrees and humid in Miami Beach, even though it was just 7:30 in the morning. Frances Hooks was struggling to fix breakfast in the kitchen of their hotel suite during the NAACP annual convention. Breakfast was the only quiet time Ben Hooks would have that day for a protracted interview; but he didn’t cook and a one-armed Frances was having a hard time.

            So we changed roles: I cooked breakfast, Frances manned the tape recorder and Ben Hooks set the table and talked about the changing role of Blacks in national politics. Blacks needed to be represented in both political parties, he said, though that would work only if both parties really wanted black support.

            “We’re at a crossroads,” he mused. “There is a slight chance that the Republican Party can really offer something to black folks. If Howard Baker wins the nomination, that’s something I could work for. If Reagan wins, it’s an opportunity lost.”

            Hooks was prepared to take a leave of absence from the helm of the NAACP and actively campaign for the Senator, a long time political ally who had become a family friend. In those years, the NAACP chapters provided the manpower for most civil rights campaigns, and Hooks said he would try to mobilize those ground troops for a Republican presidential campaign.

            It would really shake things up, he said, if Blacks had a real say in the workings and platforms of both major political parties. The implications for the future could not be calculated. Under Richard Nixon, the Republican Party had launched its southern strategy, opposing affirmative action, civil rights and labor-oriented legislation, and progressive programs in general. It was, in Hooks’ view, a genteel version of the racist politics of the past.

            If Baker won, he said, there was a chance for progress with both parties making the political and economic enfranchisement of Blacks a priority.

            But Baker was a long shot. He was a star of the progressive “Rockefeller Wing” who was battling the telegenic Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination in an increasingly conservative, anti-black, southern-oriented GOP.  Hooks knew Baker from his early days as one of the few black attorneys in western Tennessee, back in the days when black lawyers walked into the court house via the back door along with the rest of the “coloreds.”

            “We weren’t entirely on different sides of the fence,” recalled Baker. “Ben was initially a Republican during the Eisenhower era.” Hooks switched parties during the administration of Frank G. Clement, one of the few southern governors to back desegregation.  It was a time when many blacks were Republican, a legacy of the Party of Lincoln which had begun to crumble with the administrations of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.

            Baker was challenging Clements for a U.S. Senate seat, and “I was reaching out to get the support of Blacks in the Memphis region, which was unusual for a Republican in those days. I went to see if we could find common ground. He clearly was important to both parties.”

            Hooks had become the state’s first Black criminal court judge, and Baker said “he was a man of stature, courage and determination.”

            “I cannot over estimate the importance of Frances. She was a powerful ally for him and had insights she shared with him about the importance of two-party competition. Frances openly supported me in both of the early election races.”

            It was a two way relationship between the civil rights leader and the young Tennessee Senator. “He had a great impact on my views,” recalled Baker. “He encouraged me to support the open housing bill and I did. Later, they were looking for a commissioner for the FCC. I did not know they would consider a Black, but I recommended him and I can’t tell why Nixon chose him. But he did.”

             Baker lost the 1980 GOP nomination to Reagan, who went on to open his official presidential run with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi – a clear statement that racists were welcome. Baker later became Reagan’s chief of staff, and while the personal friendship remained, the break between blacks and the Republican Party intensified. The hostility was open when Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bork was a federalist who opposed the Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.  Reagan, who was scheduled to speak before the NAACP, asked Baker to go in his stead.

            “I called Ben and said I need your help,” he recalled Friday. “I have to give the president’s speech, and I need some guidance. He called me back and said ‘would you settle for silence?’ I said I’d settle for silence in a New York minute. So Ben introduced me and the whole place went totally silent. No applause, no nothing.”

            But that was better than open hostility and rudeness. There was respect, if not agreement.

            Flash forward to today, a time when the Republican Party has become the repository of racist opposition to any proposal from an administration led by a Black man. The coalition of southern attorneys generals jointly suing the federal government to block enforcement of the national health law is a replay of the 1954 conclave called by then Alabama Attorney General John Patterson. Its purpose was to find ways to legally delay or “nullify” implementation of desegregation. The Alabama legislature then led a parade of states passing laws to nullify federal civil rights laws. Patterson would ride the celebrity from those anti civil rights efforts into the state house, beating George Wallace to become governor.

            The open discussion of a second secession of southern states by Texas governor Rick Perry and others shows how far down the racist road the Republican Party has traveled.

            According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said “there is no question there has been a resurgence of the radical right. A major driver is the role of ostensibly mainstream commentators and politicians who push completely false ideas.  Sarah Palin alleging Obama is trying to murder our grandparents. Michelle Bachman says FEMA is secretly building political reeducation camps for American children to reeducate them into good little communists. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa claiming criminally illegal aliens drunkenly run over and kill 25 native  Americans a day. It’s all completely false – it’s not even remotely close to the truth.

            “Tom Tancredo gave this speech in February attacking Obama as a fascist and saying the wrong Americans are allowed to vote and we should bring back literacy tests. To say that in the context of the first black president is patently racist.”

            The steady rise in the number of hate groups, without a negative word from GOP officials, is a far cry from the party a young Howard Baker tried to lead.

            “It’s amazing to me,” said Potok, “that Republicans can sit there and allow people to talk about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants as the result of a straight-ahead, majority democratic vote. There were no coups, no Bolshevik elections. Nobody was forced to vote at gunpoint. So what are they talking about? Take our country back from what – from democracy?”

            It didn’t have to be this rancid.

            There was a point where these frinds — Ben Hooks, the civil rights leader, and Howard Baker, the southern politician — saw a chance to bring the nation together; to end centuries of rancor and racism. The country would have been a better place had they succeeded.

Bread, Roses, Racism and Song

5 02 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

            In the nation’s coffee houses where live folk music reigns and homage is paid to old fashioned liberalism and the heydays of the union and civil rights movements, the last thing one would expect to encounter is a tribute to racism.

            But there is a century-old union song called Bread and Roses, which is making comeback rounds and raising eyebrows as some white liberals insist on ignoring history and giving new meaning to old lyrics rather than change some of the words – a common practice in folk music.  The song, by James Oppenheim, grew out of the strike by women textile workers in 1912, who carried signs declaring “We Want Bread and Roses Too!”

            Oppenheim extolled the rise of women as an integral part of “the rising of the race.” And at that point in time, America was hard at work ensuring white supremacy in virtually every aspect of daily life.


      Reggie Harris (  http://www.kimandreggie.com/   ), one of the few prominent Blacks on the folk circuit, paused backstage during a break in a coffee house concert in White Plains, New York, and said there was no justification for signing the original lyrics any more.

            “Hell no,” he said. “You can’t divorce the lyrics from its history.”

            Proponents follow the lead of white music Daniel Patrick Welch, who declared in a 2006 review that in using the phrase ‘the rising of the race’ “Oppenheim obviously means species; yet in perhaps a moment of weakness, others have changed it to ‘the rising of us all’ which of course, necessitates changing the rhyme. Why? As is all too apparent in current struggles, the uplifting of women is the key to uplifting the entire human race.”

            He is, of course, entitled to his revisionist view. But it never ceases to amaze me how quickly supposedly progressive whites will adopt and defend indefensible attitudes in an attempt to wish away this nation’s racist, vicious, and violent past. Whites who would not dream of assigning a “modern meaning” to Mein Kampf have no trouble reassigning meaning to mass murder when the victims are black.

            Let me walk you through the world of 1912.

            To do that, you have to go back to 1896 when the US Supreme Court adopted a 7-2 decision in a case titled Plessy v Ferguson.  That decision augured in the beginning of the Jim Crow era, a time when all major societal institutions – including the labor and women’s movements – reflected and supported the suppression of Blacks.

    In the Ferris State University presentation of “What Was Jim Crow?” from their Museum of Racist Memorabilia, http://www.ferris.edu/JIMCROW/what.htm ;  “The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: Whites were superior to Blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would produce a mongrel race that would destroy America; treating Blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy….” 

    It was illegal for Blacks and Whites to shake hands or eat together

  • Blacks were not allowed to show public affection towards one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended Whites.
  • Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks.
  • White motorists had the right of way at all intersections at all times.
  • Oklahoma prohibited Blacks and Whites from boating together. Separate parks were common, Whites only beaches were the norm.

    These prohibitions were codified in hundreds of state laws ranging from the petty – Georgia banned Whites and Blacks from playing checkers together – to  the criminal, in which a Black man who looked  a White woman in the eye was guilty of “eyeball rape” and subject to immediate lynching.

    These laws and practices disenfranchising American citizens were useless unless enforced by violence.  Lynchings were not antiseptic affairs involving a rope, a tree, and nightriders.

    They were public events, often billed in the local newspapers as “picnics – short  for pick a nigger – since  in a perversion of Christ and Barabbas, the police would grab three black men at random and keep them in jail. The public had till the week end to place bets on who would last the longest under torture. That would be the victim and the others would be let go.

    These were family affairs where women participated in torture and maiming, often using equipment designed to geld bulls to rip off the privates of the Black man. If he had a pregnant wife who protested, there were cases where they tied her up also, cut open her stomach with knives and tossed the fetus to white children to kick around like a soccer ball till they kicked it into the fire. In that way, white kids learned at an early age they had nothing to fear from Blacks since they ruled their lives from birth to death.

    In 1910, the Union movement was taking off, fighting the robber barons and seeking a stronger voice for American factory workers. Blacks were not included. The Unions did not see civil rights for Blacks as a common cause, but as a low cost competition. Besides, they enjoyed White privilege. So unions adamantly fought against hiring blacks or allowing companies to use Black suppliers.

In 1910 Dallas had a city wide party inaugurating a new courthouse complex — which still, stands, though it is now a court annex.; The decision was made, however, that the celebration would not  be complete without a nigger hanging from a scaffold in front of the building. So the county sheriff and deputies went to a prominent black-owned business, had a shoot out, arrested the owner, and hung him at the conclusion of the ceremonies. Hundreds of white men and women posed for postcard photos under the swinging legs. Not to be outdone, downstate Houston had its “twin nigger” bridge, since it usually hung blacks in pairs – preferably married couples or a Black man and his son.

            The north was no different, though the racism was de facto, rather than de jure. Some of you may be lawyers or had parents who were. My Dad took the bar exam five times before becoming a lawyer; and not because he couldn’t grasp legal concepts. But until 1965, when the practice was changed in the face of threatened legal action from lawyers affiliated with Howard University, only the top two Blacks who passed the New York State Bar exam would be “admitted” to the bar. The third time Dad took the test he “failed” with a score of 92. What did you lawyer friends or relatives score on the exam?

            I went to the University of Michigan in 1966, and spent the first year under death threat from the student chapter of the KKK. Yes there were recognized student chapters of that group and the Nazis, and you had to pass a confederate battle flag and swastika to get into the Markley Hall dorm. I was 17 when I went to college, and have been crippled ever since as a result of their physical attempt on my life.

     And it took decades for the union movement to grudgingly change. As late as 1978, the New York Newspaper Guild threatened to strike the NY Daily News because management agreed to meet with a committee headed by Bob Herbert about the separate and unequal pay scale for black and white reporters. The NY Times had a three part system approved by the guild: separate rates for whites and blacks, and white males with beats received NYT stock while their white female counterparts with beats did not. The union movement was instrumental in enshrining Jim Crow in the workplace and in everyday American life.

    This national hatred and violence had its genesis in the period at the end of reconstruction in 1896 through 1930 – by which time the laws were in place, the practices were enshrined, the KKK was at its zenith and lynching, murder, rape, torture, degradation and inequality were the law of the land.

    The period in which Bread and Roses was written was in the midst of this national movement for white supremacy. The term “rising of the race” was its clarion call. 

    Anyone who looks back 100 years  and tries to put a polite, 2010 veneer on an era of hatred and claim that it represented an all-embracing spirit of humanity is delusional at best.

    The lyrics are racist. Singing them today coldly, deliberately, endorses that racism and hatred.

Power, Energy, and Black America

2 01 2010


By Roger Witherspoon

            In a sense, it could fairly be said to have begun with patent number 252,386, issued January 17, 1882 to a young Black inventor named Lewis Howard Latimer.

            Latimer, the only inventor to work with both of America’s icons of modern technological development – Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell – patented the carbon filament which made the electric light bulb possible. By bringing high intensity light to the factory floor, Latimer revolutionized the world’s candle-lit manufacturing sector, turning production into round the clock operations. Latimer would go on to develop the process for manufacturing vacuum-packed light bulbs and the procedure for stepping up voltage, thus making it possible to  light Broadway and then the cities of London and Toronto.

            Like most of the contributions of Blacks to the development of the modern, technological society, the innovative work in the complex energy infrastructure has been, and remains, largely unknown. That is one reason why many Black Americans feel they have no stake in the current debate over the nation’s future energy policy or the environmental and economic implications of different energy technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

            In the view of Frank Stewart, energy and the environment are the most important issues facing the African American community of today and tomorrow. These fields hold the keys to economic development, education, and job opportunity and, in the end, survival.

            “The underlying reason for the civil rights movement of the 60s was to give everybody the best chance for the best future they could possibly have,” said Stewart, President and Chief Operating Officer of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (www.AABE.org ). “It all becomes moot if the economics don’t work. What we are looking at now is as much a human and civil rights issue as anything we went through in the 60s.

            “And highlighting the role minorities play in these areas is important. It tells young people that they can have a viable, exciting, rewarding career and you are not a nerd just because you are interested in math and science.”

            Stewart has a longer perspective than most. A physicist and psychologist by training, he moved into the public policy arena in 1971, as Assistant Secretary for Education and civil Rights in the US Department of Education. In 1975 Hazel O’Leary, then with the Federal Energy Administration, asked him to move to the Department of energy to head their new Office of State Energy and Policy Programs – a special directorate charged with helping the states and territories develop balanced energy portfolios and programs to provide energy services to their citizens. This was just after the first of the “energy shocks” resulting from the Arab oil embargo, which focused American attention on our energy mix. He was to stay in government for 30 years, moving in 1994 to run DOE’s renewable energy research programs out of Colorado.

            “If ever there was a time where we are looking at the potential for major change and enormous business opportunities – more so than at the time of the development of transistors in the 40s; more so than the advent of television in the 50s; more so than the time of cell phones – than it is the current period of energy,” said Stewart.

            “We are looking at a time where there is a world-wide panoply of industries all going through changes, and the entrepreneur with his eyes forward and head on straight can really take off.

            “The needs in terms of energy and the environment could arguable be considered more important and more difficult than Kennedy’s 1960 charge to put a man on the moon. The current drive involves the whole world, not just the US. It involves not just the technological tinker toys which are fun and exciting, but literally involves the survival of the planet.  It is not just looking at the mechanics of flight and the survival of man in those conditions, but looking at issues of much, much greater breadth and much, much greater complexity.

            “There are enormous impacts that these issues have for the Black community.”

            It is more important than ever for Black Americans to get involved in the energy debate, he said. Up to 70 percent of African American households earn less than $50,000 annually, and spend 25% or more of their income on energy – a higher percentage than they pay for health care or education.

            And, as always, Blacks have been involved in setting energy policy, providing pivotal R&D and, on the ground, running the companies powering the nation’s homes and industries.

            The widely touted “nuclear renaissance” can’t take placed without going through the desk of Victor McCree of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who is evaluating the plans for the next generation of commercial nuclear reactors; and the nation’s position as the world’s primary super power would be hollow without Dr. Kevin Greenaugh, who designs and maintains the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

            The debate on climate change could not take place without the work of Dr. Warren Washington, Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research who, for the past 30 years, has pioneered development of global climate models which underlie all computerized atmospheric research.

            Washington, (http://www.ncar.ucar.edu/  )  an adviser to President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus on climate issues, said “we have to watch for the impact of climate mitigation measures on minority communities.

            “If you look at coal plants in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, for example, they are most likely to have been sited in Black communities. If you are looking to capture their pollutants, or do a better job scrubbing their exhausts, we have to watch what happens to those compounds to make sure they are not further contaminating the water and areas around them.

            “If the projects are not handled properly they could have a disproportionately negative impact on the surrounding Black communities.”

            And on the ground, if there is a flood or nuclear accident, it is up to Roxanne Lamb of the US Geological Survey, ( rhlamb@usgs.gov) to provide the data showing all terrestrial systems which are likely to be affected, and the disparate government agencies which need to be mobilized to deal with some aspect of the calamity.

            Then, there are people like George Williams, Senior Vice President for Nuclear Operations at ComEd, (  http://www.exeloncorp.com/ ), Thomas Graham, President of PEPCO  ( http://www.pepco.com/home/ ) ; and Darryl Stokes, Vice President of Baltimore Gas & Electric,  (  http://www.bge.com/portal/site/bge/ )running companies bringing electricity to nearly 2 million homes; or Ralph Cleveland, Vice President of Atlanta Gas Light ( RCleve@AGLresources.com  ),  and Sherri Winslow, Vice President of Entergy New Orleans, (  swinslo@entergy.com ), providing natural gas through good times and through hurricane flood waters.

            These are but a few of the Black Americans who, in this era of change, have their hands on the power affecting us all.

Dead Blacks, White Cops, and Political Cover

21 10 2009


           They buried Vionique Valnord last week.

            She was 33, had a five year old daughter, and had stepped into the street to hail a cab after a wedding at the church where her father was the minister when she was run down by a speeding, meandering Jeep driven by a drunken white cop named Andrew Kelly.  She was alive when her body bounced to the ground and Kelly the cop – whom associates describe as a caring guy – probably would have stopped to help if she had been a stray dog.

            But she wasn’t. She was a Black woman bleeding in the gutter. So Kelly and his white, policeman drinking buddy, Michael Downs, ran away and left her to die. Internal Affairs caught up with the pair, of course. But those white officers gave Kelly water and breath gum – and didn’t bother taking a breathalyzer because, well, he was a white kop and the woman was just another Black lying dead in the street.

            New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly showed up at the wake to express their regrets. As expected.

            But as her sister, Lisa Narcisse, demanded: “Don’t just come and pay your respects – what are you going to do about it?”

            And the answer to that is as simple and stark as a chalk outline on a dark street.


            It’s not as if this was the first time that the NYPD had shown a callous disregard for a black life. In May, Omar Edwards, a black policeman who was, at the time, off duty, was gunned down by a white officer who assumed that any black man chasing a white man had to be a criminal.

            The reality was that Officer Edwards was chasing a suspected thief who was white. But Officer Andrew Dunton didn’t know that. All he saw was the color, and gunned Edwards down.

            The Mayor and Chief Kelly came to the wake and said it was a tragedy.  Patrick Lynch, the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said it was a tragedy and added gratuitously that it was too bad that Officer Edwards turned towards Officer Dunton while holding a gun in his hand.

            The Medical Examiner said the Black Officer was shot in the back – which put the lie to Dunton’s excuse for the killing  – but that didn’t change anything as far as the mayor, the police commissioner, or the cops’ union was concerned. It was a white cop shooting a black man and, well, that’s the way it should be.

            One could say there were problems with training, and there might be. One could say the streets are dangerous and cops have to make difficult, split-second, life and death decisions. That’s true and they are justifiably commended for the risks they take and the responsibilities they assume. But how is it that black officers, who took the same training, worked the same precincts, faced the same life and death situations on the same dark, dangerous streets never accidently killed a white cop?

            Something else must be at work here.

            To understand their attitude, go back a bit to the shooting of officers Russel Timoshenko and Herman Yan in July, 2007 by three black men. Timoshenko would die of his wounds, while Yan recovered. There is no excusing criminals – whatever their color.  Anyone who would gun down a cop would just as soon gun down the average unarmed citizen. That’s why we have police, to protect the majority of us from the small minority of predators among us, regardless of who they are.

            But they should be protecting all of us. Equally.

            But Lynch and the PBA do not see it that way. Lynch was all over the news before, during, and after the March, 2009 trial loudly and regularly proclaiming that these three “animals” needed to be brought to justice. Animals. It was his favorite description. And it fit his view of black men.

            His flagrant dehumanization of the three gunmen was never challenged by Mayor Bloomberg or Commissioner Kelly; never challenged by editorial writers in the city’s “mainstream” newspapers or television stations. The gunmen were Black and, therefore, in the world of white city cops and the institutions supporting them, the term “animals” was appropriate.

            Which brings us back to the quick death of black Officer Edwards, and the slower death of Ms. Valnord, who bled to death in the gutter, next to her five year old daughter and in front of her father’s church. It brings us to PBA Chief Lynch and company throwing their arms around their errant, hard-drinking officers, insisting on patience and due process and the right not to be tested for drugs or alcohol. It brings us to a department where the prevailing ethic is one of white men with badges and guns who view their mission as keeping Black people in check and killing the “animals” who get out of line.

            Which means there is a term for Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly; a term for the other politicians who mutter pieties while turning a blind eye to the open, lethal racism permeating the New York City Police Department; a term for Lynch and the police union brass who dehumanize blacks and justify every white cop’s depravity.

            The term is Liars.

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