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Ida B. Wells, Unknown Heroine – 2/18/2018

February 18, 2018 Leave a comment

February is Black History Month. While it is important to acknowledge Black history, I am struck by how little of that history is integrated into America’s mainstream narratives. There is awareness of historical moments like the Civil Rights Movement and icons like Martin Luther King Jr. but so much history is buried.

Such is the case with Ida B. Wells, a true heroine, who has received insufficient attention as a historical figure. In a very dark time, at the risk of her life, she challenged the nation on a critical and ignored moral issue. She must be considered one of the most courageous leaders in American history and yet, few of us know who she is or what she did.

Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. She lost both her parents at age 16 when they died in a yellow fever epidemic. As an orphan, she became the primary caretaker for six brothers and sisters.

While caring for her siblings, Wells was still able to complete her studies and earn a college degree. Wells’ biographer, Paula Giddings, says that Wells gravitated to creative expression as a way to cope with the loss of her parents.

Wells moved to Memphis Tennessee in the 1880’s and she became a school teacher. She loved literature and she participated in the Memphis Lyceum,  a forum for readings, debates, music and poetry.

The Lyceum was a place where Wells had an opportunity to develop her creative sensibilities, read and write her own work, and perform. She became known for her oratorical skills.

Wells’ first act of protest on behalf of black Southerners came in 1884. Like an early day Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on the train from Memphis to Woodstock, where she taught school. Wells had purchased a first-class ticket. She refused to leave her seat when a conductor told her she had to move to the train’s smoking car.

It took the conductor and two passengers to physically extricate her from her first class seat. She did not go willingly. She bit the hand of the conductor who strong-armed her.

Wells retained a lawyer and she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The trial court ruled in her favor, awarding her $500 in damages. The railroad company appealed and the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the judge and the court ordered Wells to pay court fees.

The Tennessee Supreme Court of that era was filled with Confederate veterans who continued to maintain a segregationist outlook.

Just to give a flavor of the times, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights laws that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations were unconstitutional. The highest court in the land disgracefully served up racism and support for Jim Crow laws.

Wells was the first African American to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a state court.

This experience kicked off Wells’s career as a journalist. She started writing editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws across the South. In addition to continuing her teaching duties, she became editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned paper. She wrote:

“It was through journalism that I found the real me.”

For African Americans of that period, lynching had become a central issue because lynchings were happening with increasing frequency. In 1892, the issue became personal for Wells. Three friends, who owned a popular store, the People’s Grocery, in Memphis were arrested and jailed after a scuffle with a group of white men.

A white mob broke into the jail, removed Wells’s three friends, and proceeded to lynch them in a nearby field.

The lynchings incensed Wells and she decided to conduct her own investigation of lynching. Initially, in 1892, she wrote a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors”. She challenged the mythology that black men were being murdered for raping white women. She showed that in the 728 lynchings which had happened over the preceding decade, only a fourth of the lynching victims were even accused of rape, let alone found guilty of it.

Wells argued that many lynching victims had either successfully competed against whites in business or they were outspoken and had somehow challenged white authority. She revealed that many lynching victims were black women and girls.

Wells’ writing did not make her popular in Memphis. In editorials, she urged the black community to leave Memphis since “it will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons”. Over 6000 black people fled Memphis in the next three months.

Wells received death threats and there was a price on her head. She herself was threatened with being lynched and she fled Memphis on May 27, 1892. A mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. The mob left a note saying anyone attempting to publish the paper again would be punished by death.

Raising the profile of the lynching issue to an international level, in 1893-1894 Wells went to England to speak, write and lobby. She was not getting help from our own government.

Wells called for the immediate implementation of federal policies that would protect black lives from lynching. She saw lynching as a tool used by white supremacy to prevent any Black social advancement. She early recognized lynching as a national crime that required a national remedy. For an article published in 1900 entitled “Lynch Law in America”. Wells wrote:

“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death…without trial by jury…and without right of appeal.”

No issue better illustrates the failure of states’ rights to protect black lives than lynching. Between 1877 and 1950, there were over 4,000 lynchings in the United States. Until her death in 1931, Wells fought doggedly for anti-lynching legislation at the federal level. For decades, Southern senators blocked this legislation.

Many people continued to oppose federal government jurisdiction over what was seen as a state crime even though the record of the states was beyond dismal. In the rare cases when white people were arrested and charged at the state level for lynching, they were repeatedly acquitted by all-white juries.

Lynchings eventually declined in the 20th century but not until 1952 did a full year pass without a recorded lynching in the United States. Wells probably did more than anyone to raise popular awareness about the crimes committed and to advocate for solutions. No person is more associated with the anti-lynching movement in America.

Wells was a forerunner of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The historian Isabel Wilkerson has described the epidemic of police shootings of black people as a continuation of lynching culture in the United States.

As part of Black History Month, part of our collective responsibility as Americans should be to rectify our historical records and history books. One way to do this is to recognize and celebrate figures from the past who deserve a place of honor, but who have been overlooked or shunted aside because the stories present unpleasant truths or conflict with our popular narratives. Ida Wells is such a person.

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Deporting way more than “bad hombres” – posted 2/7/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/14/2018

February 7, 2018 1 comment

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 2/14/2018 under the title “Jorge Garcia is no ‘bad hombre'”.

When President Trump ran for the office of president, he promised to get rid of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He also, in his typical contradictory fashion, said folks who have DACA status have nothing to worry about. It has been impossible to get a straight answer on DACA from Trump.

Last September Trump terminated the DACA program. Trump gave Congress six months for a legislative fix. That time is almost up and there is no agreed-upon solution.

Trump is responsible for stripping deportation protections from 800,000 people who have been raised as Americans. Never in my lifetime has a president messed so carelessly with so many lives.

Lately, Trump, in playing to his base, has been badmouthing immigrants and he has repeatedly cited crimes committed by immigrants. Appealing to nativism, he has been advocating much more restrictive legal immigration.

Deportation of “bad hombres” has been a central Trump theme. Bad hombres were ostensibly those who had committed multiple criminal violations.

In practice, the Trump administration’s pledge to deport bad hombres has turned out to be lip service only. They have gone after any immigrant classified as “illegal” they could get their hands on. The tag “illegal”, regardless of circumstance, has been the acid test for deportation.

The single best example to support what I am saying is the deportation of a Michigan man, Jorge Garcia. That happened on January 15. The government deported Garcia back to Mexico.

Garcia was brought to the United States illegally when he was ten years old. He lived in the United States for 30 years. He married and he and his wife Cindy have two adolescent children. Garcia’s wife and children are U.S. citizens.

Garcia worked as a landscaper. He has no criminal record. For years he fought unsuccessfully to gain legal status paying lawyers over $100,000. A lawyer he hired took retainer money and then filed wrong paperwork, setting back his case. For 13 years, he checked in regularly with Immigrations, Customs Enforcement officials. He never left Detroit, where he lived, without permission from immigration authorities.

He had received multiple stays of removal during President Obama’s presidency although he was one year too old to qualify for DACA. He always paid his taxes.

In the end, 30 years of good behavior counted for nothing. You have to ask: what happened to the focus on bad hombres? The Jorge Garcia example has been replicated over and over. A more accurate characterization of Trump’s approach to immigration is family-wrecking. It is beyond callous.

I know there are those who will say Jorge Garcia was “illegal” but I would suggest illegality in immigration is not such a simple or clearcut matter. The circumstances of illegality vary dramatically. Much depends on the underlying facts you consider when drawing conclusions about illegality.

In her book Undocumented, Aviva Chomsky gets at the complexity:

“Most of the citizens who brag that their ancestors came here “the right way” are making assumptions based on ignorance. They assume their ancestors “went through the process” and obtained visas, as people are required to do today. In fact, most of them came before any legal process existed – before the concept of “illegality” existed.”

Chomsky points out that illegality as we now know it did not come into existence until after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Before that, immigration was not depicted in negative terms nor did the public demand legislation about it.

Until 1924, the border between the United States and Mexico was essentially unpoliced and migration flowed without limitation. U.S. business interests required the labor of Mexicans. Employers depended on that labor in a wide variety of industries including agriculture, mining, automobile factories and railroads.

Mexican migrants came to the Southern border without papers and were admitted into the country. Later the U.S. government created the Bracero program. From 1942 to 1964, millions of Mexicans migrated seasonally, especially for farm labor.

Where Congress had concerns about illegality in the 19th century it was not about Mexicans because they were needed for the economic development of the Southwest. There was a racist focus on the Chinese, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This kind of racist focus was repeated in the 1924 Immigration Act when quotas were instituted, in part, to stop European Jewish immigration to the United States.

I would point out that many of those excluded from immigrating to the United States by the 1924 Act ended up in the Nazi death camps. Anne Frank was one of these. In this instance, immigration “legality” fed innocent victims to a machinery of death. Historical experience with racism in immigration policy suggests a need to be circumspect so there is not a repetition of past experience in a different context.

I think of Ellis Island when I think of immigration to the U.S.. Ellis Island was established in 1892. People did not wait in line or follow some legal process before they came to Ellis Island. They gathered their family members, got the money together for the trip, and headed to America. They just showed up at Ellis Island.

My family emigrated from Russia and my father showed me a name change document from 1915 where our family name was changed from Bardichevsky to Baird. At that time the United States had minimal entry requirements for European and Russian immigrants. The U.S. Public Health Service tested for infectious diseases. They also looked at whether you might become a public charge but practically everyone who came got into the country.

Many undocumented who are trying to enter the United States now have fled countries because of a fear they will be persecuted, tortured or murdered if they are returned to their home country. Following World War II, the United Nations established a principle of international law known as refoulement or non-return. The principle forbid the return of asylum seekers who were likely to be tortured or murdered.

This principle which became enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1980 Refugee Act is frequently being ignored by Customs and Border Protection officers. Many refugees are not even getting to see an asylum officer. This reality was devastatingly portrayed by Sarah Stillman in an article “No Refuge” that appeared in the January 15 New Yorker.

The Trump Administration has been in such a hurry to deport people they see as “illegal” that they are massively violating human rights. Our government has not been keeping track of how many people who have been refused asylum have ended up dead once they were returned to their home countries.

To put the matter of immigration illegality in a truly correct context, we have to consider a matter that is almost universally overlooked. English colonizers aggressively displaced a large network of Native American nations when they invaded the North American continent. They seized land and resources; waged a savage war; forced the Indian nations into treaties and then systematically violated those treaties. We are the inheritors of that genocide.

While victors typically write the history, American historical experience weighs against any self-righteousness where immigration is concerned. Crime and immigration are a tricky subject.

The immigration crime narrative cooked up by Trump is a toxic stew of sensationalism and xenophobia designed to appeal to racist instincts. We must resist a deportation policy which is out of control.

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