Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black force of elite pilots, emerged from combat in
World War II, they faced as much discrimination as they had before the war. It
was not until six decades later that their valor was recognized and they
received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can
Now, the roughly 330 pilots and members of the ground crew who are left from
about 16,000 who served are receiving another honor that has surpassed their
dreams: They are being invited to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the
country’s first black president.
“I didn’t believe I’d live long enough to see something like this,” said Lt.
Col. Charles A. Lane Jr., 83, of Omaha, a retired Tuskegee fighter pilot who
flew missions over Italy.
“I would love to be there, I would love to be able to see it with my own eyes,”
he said, chuckling on the phone as he heard about the invitation. But, he said,
he had a “physical limitation” and was not sure he would be able to attend.
Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several
decades helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen
have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war — on behalf of a
country that actively discriminated against them — helped persuade President
Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
“The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were
going through, wanting to be pilots,” said William M. Wheeler, 85, a retired
Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, N.Y. He tried to become a
commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.
Mr. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007,
when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: “My career in
public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen
The invitation to his swearing-in was extended Tuesday by Senator Dianne
Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Congressional
Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
Howard Gantman, staff director for the committee, said of the decision to invite
them: “They served honorably on behalf of our country, helped fight the battle
to overcome racial barriers and because of the historic nature of this election,
we thought they deserved to be there.”
Tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration are the most sought-after commodity, with
more than 1.5 million people expected in Washington. Of the 240,000 tickets, the
airmen would have seats among the 30,000 on the terrace below the podium, along
with former members of Congress and others.
For logistical reasons, the actual invitation ended up with Robert D. Rose, a
retired Air Force captain in Bellevue, Neb., who was not a Tuskegee airman but
is the first vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an association of the
original airmen and their supporters.
The onus is on the association to extend the invitation to the airmen, who must
respond by Dec. 19. Each can bring one guest. The tickets are not transferable,
so if an airman cannot make it, he cannot give his ticket away.
“We’ll have a lot of happy fellows and ladies,” said Mr. Rose, who predicted
that many would try to attend.
He said that before the invitation was made Tuesday, he had already been trying
to get word to higher ups that the airmen would like to be invited. “I thought
if the name ‘Tuskegee’ surfaced at a high enough level, someone would recognize
it and it would make sense to invite them,” he said.
There is no firm handle on how many are still alive. More than 300 came forward
in March 2007 to collect their bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal
at a ceremony at the Capitol. The actual Gold Medal itself was given to the
In all, 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel collectively known as the
Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in
Alabama from 1942 to 1946.
About 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive, according to Tuskegee
Airmen Inc. They are in their 80s and 90s, many are frail, and it is unclear how
many will be able to make the trip to Washington. And those who make it will
face various challenges: they will most likely have to walk some distance, the
weather could be harsh, the crowds will be huge and accommodations are scarce.
Still, these are some of the airmen who flew more than 150,000 sorties over
Europe and North Africa during World War II, escorting Allied bombers and
destroying hundreds of enemy aircraft. Some were taken prisoner. And most faced
fierce discrimination during and after the war.
“Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them
unfairly,” President Bush said in awarding the medals.
Mr. Rose, of the airmen’s association, said he saw a direct connection between
the Tuskegee experience and Mr. Obama’s election.
“The Tuskegee Airmen preceded Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and if they
hadn’t helped generate a climate of tolerance by integration of the military, we
might not have progressed through the civil rights era,” he said. ”We would have
seen a different civil rights movement, if we would have seen one at all.”
(AP) -- Barack Obama swept to victory as the nation's first black president
Tuesday night in an electoral college landslide that overcame racial barriers as
old as America itself. ''Change has come,'' he told a jubilant hometown Chicago
crowd estimated at nearly a quarter-million people.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, the
Democratic senator from Illinois sealed his historic triumph by defeating
Republican Sen. John McCain in a string of wins in hard-fought battleground
states -- Ohio, Florida, Iowa and more. He captured Virginia and Indiana, too,
the first candidate of his party in 44 years to win either.
Obama's election capped a meteoric rise -- from mere state senator to
president-elect in four years.
Spontaneous celebrations erupted from Atlanta to New York and Philadelphia as
word of Obama's victory spread. A big crowd filled Pennsylvania Avenue in front
of the White House.
In his first speech as victor, to an enormous throng at Grant Park in Chicago,
Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. ''The greatest of a lifetime,'' he said,
''two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.''
He added, ''There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make
as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will
always be honest with you about the challenges we face.''
McCain called his former rival to concede defeat -- and the end of his own
10-year quest for the White House. ''The American people have spoken, and spoken
clearly,'' McCain told disappointed supporters in Arizona.
President Bush added his congratulations from the White House, where his tenure
runs out on Jan. 20. ''May God bless whoever wins tonight,'' he had told dinner
Obama, in his speech, invoked the words of Lincoln, recalled Martin Luther King
Jr., and seemed to echo John F. Kennedy.
''So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility
where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder,'' he said.
He and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, will take their oaths of
office as president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2009. McCain remains in the
Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, returns to Alaska as governor after a
tumultuous debut on the national stage.
He will move into the Oval Office as leader of a country that is almost
certainly in recession, and fighting two long wars, one in Iraq, the other in
The popular vote was close -- 51.7 percent to 47 percent with 84 percent of all
U.S. precincts tallied -- but not the count in the Electoral College, where it
There, Obama's audacious decision to contest McCain in states that hadn't gone
Democratic in years paid rich dividends.
Shortly after 2 a.m. the East, The Associated Press count showed Obama with 349
electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory. McCain had 144 after
winning states that comprised the normal Republican base, including Texas and
most of the South.
Interviews with voters suggested that almost six in 10 women were backing Obama
nationwide, while men leaned his way by a narrow margin. Just over half of
whites supported McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that Bush
carried overwhelmingly in 2004.
The results of the AP survey were based on a preliminary partial sample of
nearly 10,000 voters in Election Day polls and in telephone interviews over the
past week for early voters. Obama has said his first order of presidential
business will be to tackle the economy. He has also pledged to withdraw most
U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.
In Washington, the Democratic leaders of Congress celebrated.
''It is not a mandate for a party or ideology but a mandate for change,'' said
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California: ''Tonight the American people have
called for a new direction. They have called for change in America.''
Democrats also acclaimed Senate successes by former Gov. Mark Warner in
Virginia, Rep. Tom Udall in New Mexico and Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado. All won
seats left open by Republican retirements.
In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Sen. John
Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 race, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole fell to Democrat
Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Biden won a new term in Delaware, a seat he will resign before he is sworn in as
The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, survived a scare in Kentucky,
and in Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss hoped to avoid a December runoff.
The Democrats piled up gains in the House, as well.
They defeated seven Republican incumbents, including 22-year veteran Chris Shays
in Connecticut, and picked up nine more seats where GOP lawmakers had retired.
At least three Democrats lost their seats, including Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney,
turned out of office after admitting to two extramarital affairs while serving
his first term in Florida. In Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux lost the
seat he had won in a special election six months ago.
The resurgent Democrats also elected a governor in one of the nation's
traditional bellwether states when Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon won his
An estimated 187 million voters were registered, and in an indication of
interest in the battle for the White House, 40 million or so had already voted
as Election Day dawned.
Obama sought election as one of the youngest presidents, and one of the least
experienced in national political affairs.
That wasn't what set the Illinois senator apart, though -- neither from his
rivals nor from the other men who had served as president since the nation's
founding more than two centuries ago. A black man, he confronted a previously
unbreakable barrier as he campaigned on twin themes of change and hope in
McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, a generation older than his rival at
72, was making his second try for the White House, following his defeat in the
battle for the GOP nomination in 2000.
A conservative, he stressed his maverick's streak. And although a Republican, he
did what he could to separate himself from an unpopular president.
For the most part, the two presidential candidates and their running mates,
Biden and Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, spent weeks campaigning in
states that went for Bush four years ago.
McCain and Obama each won contested nominations -- the Democrat outdistancing
former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and promptly set out to claim the
mantle of change.
Obama won California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia,
Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,
Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and
McCain had Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South
Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
He also won at least four of Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the other one
As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out
when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was
Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young
white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University
of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing.
Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy
white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there
can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.
Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even
four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero,
played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too
perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and
Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in
Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a
son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t
have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their
biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll
all have colorful administrations.”
What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own
white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From
My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her
liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about
this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently
contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one
who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter
fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and
“articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years
Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the
extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the
brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated
for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America —
have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and
clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often
saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder
in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so
There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same
two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The
implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial
parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were
overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a
former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an
intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a
punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai
Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist
like John Edwards.
The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is
long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s
campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible
organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the
ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed
to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could
never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday.
Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the
take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the
caucus states and that serves him to this day.
Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in
organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take
on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for
The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and
Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama
“lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in
February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well,
Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1.
Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions
that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.
But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the
political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his
position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger
than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly
the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower,
Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he
had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the
top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought
down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.
Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat
when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama
being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America
as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its
racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its
flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech
on race in Philadelphia in March.
Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to
Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made
the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book
about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the
year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving
decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the
film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility
that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage
would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s
secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a
Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at
NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)
Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades
since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the
United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black
and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where
America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter
who wins the election this year.
Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will
not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a
virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political
organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t
quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and
hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international
sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.
After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that
matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and
foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what
may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the
brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest
people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a
brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his
Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know
that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the
divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which
race is the most divisive of all.
Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in
the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most
Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he
win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as
history moves inexorably forward.
But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the
country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because
we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to
dig us out.
Life has changed beyond recognition for many Americans
since an assassin's
bullet killed Martin Luther King in 1968.
Yet despite the rise of a black middle
and Barack Obama's challenge for the White House,
the racial divide still
- and for an urban underclass,
things have only got worse.
reports from Memphis
Sunday March 30 2008
Paul Harris in Memphis
This article appeared in the Observer
on Sunday March 30 2008
on p30 of the
It was last updated at 00:27 on March 30 2008.
Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, looks frozen
in time. The sheets of the beds are rumpled, undrunk coffee stews in cheap cups,
a meal seems half-eaten. It is a re-creation of the room as it was at 6.01pm on
4 April, 1968. That was the moment when, on the balcony outside, the room's most
famous guest, Martin Luther King, was shot dead.
King died four decades ago at the end of an era of civil rights victories that
ended racial segregation and won black Americans the vote. It was a struggle
that finally cost him his life, felled at the Lorraine by a white assassin's
bullet from across the street.
But though Room 306 - preserved as part of a museum - is unchanged from that
bloody day 40 years ago, black America itself is almost unrecognisable from
King's time. It has been transformed, both for the better and for the worse.
Some positive developments would have been unimaginable for King. Senator Barack
Obama is running for President and could become the first black person to hold
the job. Black politicians hold top offices in cities and states across the
continent. They are buoyed by a large black middle class every bit as wealthy,
suburban and professional as its white counterpart.
Yet, since 1968, much of black America has also been beset by disaster. A vast
underclass inhabits America's ghettos, mired in joblessness, drugs and gang
violence. In the inner cities half of all black males do not finish high school.
Six in 10 of those will end up in jail by the time they reach their
mid-thirties. These people grow up in an environment often more segregated, more
hopeless and more dangerous than the Jim Crow era of the Deep South.
It is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes facing modern American black leaders
such as Charles Steele, now president of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, which King founded and used as his tool to bring civil rights to
America. 'If Dr King was alive now, he would be distressed and disappointed in
America,' Steele said. 'America is still racist to a large degree. More so
perhaps. It's subliminal and embedded in the system.'
That is pretty much the view of Thelma Townsend, 68, who should be retired but
still works as a nurse in the suburb of Orange Mound. The suburb is a landmark
in Memphis, built for black Americans more than 100 years ago on the 5,000-acre
site of a slave plantation. Once it rivalled New York's Harlem as a centre of
black culture and economic power. But now it has been hit hard by drugs and
gangs and unemployment. Many houses are dilapidated and abandoned. Townsend
snorts in disgust at the past 40 years in black America. 'It ain't changed for
the better that I can see,' she said. 'Drugs are rampant, so killings are
rampant. If anything, it's got worse around here.'
This is the bad side of black America since King died, and it exists in cities
across the country. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Kansas City,
St Louis and many other places, once proud black neighbourhoods have fallen prey
to the ravages of crime and drugs. Even King's hometown neighbourhood of Auburn
Street in Atlanta is a wreck and shadow of its former self. Orange Mound and
other black Memphis inner-city suburbs are typical. Gangs with such names as
Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples boss the local drugs trade. Killings and
shootings are common. Drug addicts seem more common than jobs.
The roots of this decay partly lie in the fatal shot that felled King. His
murder sparked race riots in 125 cities that left 46 people dead, 2,600 injured
and 21,000 arrested. Entire black and inner- city neighbourhoods were burnt down
overnight. Many never recovered. The violence quickened the process of 'white
flight', destroying the tax base of many city cores.
At the same time new civil rights laws allowed the black middle class to flee
too. What was left behind became the underclass, deeply vulnerable to the wave
of drugs such as crack and heroin that invaded in the Seventies and Eighties and
hit by the decline in manual jobs as America's manufacturing industry
Statistics indicate that things are getting worse. More black people are being
jailed than a decade ago. Only 31 per cent of black children born to
middle-class parents earn more than their parents, compared with 68 per cent of
white children. More than half of black workers are stuck in low-paid jobs.
Many experts think there is little prospect of the underclass's plight changing
at all. 'The outlook is very bleak,' said Professor Jerald Podair, an expert on
civil rights history at Lawrence University. near Appleton, Wisconsin.
Yet that is also far from the whole picture. Obama's run for the presidency has
energised even those with little hope. 'Obama does make me proud,' said
Townsend. But it also shows the successes of the black middle class, fulfilling
King's dream of black Americans taking their rightful place in the nation.
For Obama is far from alone in seeking high office. New York state and
Massachusetts boast black governors despite both states being in New England,
far away from traditionally southern centres of black population. Big cities
such as Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia and Newark have black mayors who have
based their appeal on the same sort of 'post-racial' consensus that is powering
At the same time, the successes of such mayors and governors have undercut the
traditional power of 'old style' black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse
Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose roots lay in black churches. Now
modern black politicians are perhaps more at home in the boardroom than the
pulpit. They self-consciously - and successfully - woo white voters as much as
they appeal to their black base.
Now Obama is trying to make that case on a national scale. Though recent weeks
have seen Hillary Clinton's supporters and Republicans try to raise race as an
issue, Obama has fought back with a bold speech challenging America to have a
frank and open debate about race. 'Race is the question in America that has
still never really been asked,' said Podair.
Not everyone is ignoring it, though. Wendi Thomas, 36, is asking the race
question in Memphis. She is a local black columnist on the city's Commercial
Appeal newspaper who deals with racial issues. Now she is setting up a project
called Common Ground to encourage Memphis citizens of all races to come together
at weekly meetings and talk frankly about the race issues that bother them. At
the end of it the 'graduates' will be encouraged to go out into the rest of the
city and break down racial boundaries. Her first pilot scheme with 200 places
has rapidly filled up and will begin meeting on 24 April. 'I just wanted to
actually do something, rather than just write about it,' Thomas said.
Memphis is a city much in need of such a project. The city is split almost 50-50
between black and white. Yet it feels like a segregated place whose two halves
rarely meet, maintaining their own neighbourhoods, schools and parks. It is a
city where the issue of race lies constantly under the surface, boiling below a
patina of tourist-friendly Southern charm. 'Race underlies everything in this
community. We need to have these discussions, even though they are painful and
messy,' Thomas said.
That is true. The fact remains that even middle-class black people and whites
have fundamentally different perceptions of America. While many whites are
flocking to Obama's campaign on the base of its post-racial appeal, that is not
how many blacks see it. As he sweeps up more than 90 per cent of the black vote
in the Democratic race, there is a clear feeling of racial pride in his
candidacy. Indeed fervour and hope for Obama have become a keystone of black
America in 2008. 'It is unreal. It is surreal. I hate to hope too much. But I
genuinely think that King would be bursting with pride,' said Thomas.
But there are many other points on which black and white Americans differ. Many
whites were outraged when Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright,
said the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were 'chickens coming home to
roost'. They saw his words as conspiracy-minded, unpatriotic and anti-white.
But many blacks reacted with a collective shrug, pointing out that much of what
Wright said - even some outrageous claims about government conspiracies - were
fairly common in some urban black churches and always had been.
The news would have come as less of a shock if black and white Americans (both
of which groups are deeply religious) worshipped together. But they do not.
Thomas, a Memphis native, has spent years looking for a racially mixed church to
go to each Sunday. 'I still have not found one,' she said. That sort of de facto
segregation has kept black and white America very much apart. After all, both
have had such a different experience of the country. With the black middle class
there is still a certain ambivalence about America; about whether they have
truly been accepted. And there is a lot of evidence to say they have not been,'
Ironically, one of the main reasons blacks and whites may start addressing race
is in the growth of the Hispanic community in America. Hispanics are now
America's largest ethnic minority, overtaking blacks, and numbering about 44
million people. They have pioneered communities all over the US, fundamentally
changing the dynamics of race in a country that has long seen itself in terms of
literal black and white.
Even in Memphis the issue has begun to appear. It is thought the number of
Hispanics in the city could top 50,000 people. One in 10 babies in the city born
last year was Hispanic. There is a Spanish-language local newspaper, Spanish
radio stations and churches offer Spanish-language services. If black and white
Americans really want to have a discussion about race, some think they need to
hurry up and start talking before the conversation changes entirely.
For Steele, the man who now wears King's old mantle as head of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, such concerns are for the future. On Friday,
he, the leadership conference and dozens of other groups will be holding
ceremonies to remember King. Though many whites despised or feared King when he
was alive, he is now a national American hero.
Those memorials will now take place against the backdrop of Obama's bid for the
White House and it might be tempting to see a straight line linking the two. But
for Steele many Americans were missing one of the most overlooked points of
King's career. The fact is, by 1968, King himself had moved on from purely
racial issues. Yet again he was ahead of his time. His final campaigns were
focused on fighting poverty and labour disputes. He came to Memphis in support
of striking workers.
'He was killed in Memphis because he had started to focus on poor folks,
regardless of their colour,' Steele said. That was 40 years ago. As Obama's
campaign changes the American political landscape, it might be wise to remember
that race is not the only controversial issue that mainstream politics still
tends to shun. There is the thorny issue of class, too.
'If you thought having a talk about race was difficult in America, then having
one about class is even harder,' said Podair. Yet 40 years ago King tried to
start that debate as well. A bullet cut short his ambitions. Room 306 at the
Lorraine was not the only thing his death left frozen in time.
The New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN
Feb. 2 — For every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and
’60s, there were many more that were barely noted, much less investigated.
Virtually all such cases gained momentum only when the victims of the past found
voices in the present, like those that helped arrest a 71-year-old man last
month in connection with the Klan killings of two black teenagers in Mississippi
in 1964. Rather than police officials, it has often been journalists and
filmmakers who have combed through documents and tracked down witnesses, fueling
some 15 years of successful prosecutions.
Only now, with time running out because potential witnesses and suspects are
dying off, have law enforcement officials begun to take a systematic approach to
unsolved civil rights crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently
canvassed its field offices for the first time, compiling a list of 51 victims
in 39 cases, most of which were never investigated by the bureau.
The list was prompted not by the string of convictions, but by a letter about
the lynching of two black couples at the Moore’s Ford Bridge, east of Atlanta,
in 1946, said Chip Burrus, the assistant director of the F.B.I.’s criminal
“When I read the letter, I said, ‘I’ve never heard of Moore’s Ford. What is this
about?’ ” Mr. Burrus said. “There’ve got to be more of these things.”
That a single letter prodded the F.B.I. to action illustrates how slender are
the time-brittled fibers that knit together the outcome in these fading crimes.
In the case that produced the recent arrest, timing was crucial. If the bodies
of the victims, Henry H. Dee and Charles E. Moore, had been found just three
weeks earlier in the summer of 1964, their deaths might have been largely
The two friends, a sawmill worker and a college student, were 19 when they
disappeared in May 1964, last seen hitchhiking on the highway near Meadville,
Miss. They were beaten and drowned by Klansmen who mistakenly believed the two
were involved in plotting an armed uprising. Two months later, on July 12, a
fisherman spotted the torso of Mr. Moore in a Mississippi River backwater called
the Old River. Mr. Dee was found the next day.
At the time, an extensive search was under way for three civil rights workers,
two of whom were white New Yorkers, who had disappeared on the opposite end of
the state in what became known as the “Mississippi Burning” case. The initial
classification of Mr. Moore’s body as that of a Caucasian male, and thus
potentially one of the missing rights workers, caused a spurt of media coverage.
That fleeting interest had two results, said David Ridgen, a Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation producer who has made a documentary about the case. It
prompted the F.B.I. to investigate, and it ensured that there was enough in the
historical record to arouse the curiosity, decades later, of scholars and
Countless other race killings, however, were minimally recorded. In the late
1980s, when the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., was creating
its memorial to 40 civil rights martyrs, most of whose cases remain
unprosecuted, researchers found more than 80 victims who could not be included
because not enough was known about the circumstances of their deaths.
“It was so frustrating and sad,” said Sarah Bullard, the project’s chief
researcher. “If the information wasn’t there I couldn’t include them, no matter
what I suspected or felt.”
Mr. Burrus of the F.B.I. said he was not familiar with the monument or the
center’s research, but that the bureau had also consulted civil rights groups in
compiling its list.
Because local newspapers often ignored such killings, Ms. Bullard pored over
microfilm of national newspapers and records compiled by the Tuskegee Institute,
internal memorandums of the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups, and
cartons of news clippings collected by a research group called the Southern
Regional Council and stored in the basement of a Korean grocery in Atlanta.
Ms. Bullard recalled references to an unidentified teenager who was found in the
Big Black River in Mississippi wearing a Congress of Racial Equality T-shirt.
After scouring all her sources, she learned only his name, Herbert Oarsby.
“There were activists who were trying to pay attention,” Ms. Bullard said, “but
at the same time there were African-American communities who knew that racist
crimes amongst them were not going to be investigated or reported and made the
choice not to seek justice because it would bring on further violence against
That may have been the case with Mr. Moore’s mother, Mazie, who made her elder
son Thomas promise not to avenge or seek justice for his brother’s death. In
1964, when reporters found her at the country shack where she had lived all her
life, she repeatedly praised the white residents of Franklin County, a Klan
stronghold, and said there was nothing to be done.
Alvin Sykes, a civil rights advocate who has urged the federal government to
pass the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Bill, which would provide $11.5 million per
year to investigate these cases, said part of that money would be used to
encourage people scared into silence at the time to come forward. “We have
absolutely no idea how many of them are out there,” Mr. Sykes said.
Mazie Moore died in 1977, and in 1998 Thomas Moore finally decided to seek
justice, contacting the local district attorney, Ronnie Harper, who was unaware
of the case. Mr. Harper requested information from the F.B.I., and was told that
no file on the case existed.
But in 2000 two journalists, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and
Harry Phillips of ABC News, obtained copies of the F.B.I. investigation file
that was said to be missing, which had led to the arrest of Charles M. Edwards
and James F. Seale in November 1964, though the charges were dropped when the
district attorney said there was not enough evidence to make a case.
Mr. Phillips used the file to track down the F.B.I.’s principal informant,
Ernest Gilbert, then 74, persuading him to do an on-camera interview about the
case, and Mr. Mitchell reported that because the crime began in the Homochitto
National Forest, where the two victims were tied to trees and beaten with
switches, federal prosecutors might have jurisdiction in the case.
But even those breakthroughs did not force prosecutors to act. Mr. Harper says
he was told by the F.B.I. that Mr. Gilbert would not testify. The F.B.I. closed
the case in 2003 because the jurisdiction issue could not be resolved, said
Deborah Madden, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. office in Jackson. Mr. Gilbert died
Thomas Moore, living in Colorado Springs, grew tired of telling reporters his
brother’s story with no result. But in 2005, Mr. Ridgen, the documentary
producer, convinced him that the two should go back to Mississippi together.
On that trip, they discovered that Mr. Seale was not dead, as several newspapers
had reported, but was still living in Franklin County. Then came a coincidence:
Thomas Moore had served in the same Army unit as Dunn Lampton, who became the
United States attorney in Jackson in 2001. Mr. Moore and Mr. Ridgen persuaded
Mr. Lampton to reopen the case, resulting in the recent arrest of Mr. Seale, who
has pleaded not guilty.
“Thomas Moore had a lot of information about what happened, and I made use of
that,” Mr. Lampton said. “You don’t come into an office and go back and start
digging through all the old files to find something to do. It’s only when
someone brings that to your attention.”
James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder
of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King
after pleading guilty to his
JAMES EARL RAY pleaded guilty in Memphis,
Tennessee, today, to the murder of Dr Martin Luther King and was sentenced to 99
years’ imprisonment. But in a statement to the court, which did not affect his
plea, he indicated that there had been a conspiracy to kill the civil rights
leader and that he did not agree with his own counsel on this question.
Mr Ray will not be eligible for parole for at least 33 years, by which time he
will be 74 — today was his forty-first birthday. By pleading guilty he has
waived all rights of appeal. Mr Percy Foreman, his counsel, said that the plea
was intended to save Mr Ray’s life. Mr Foreman told the court that he had taken
months to prove to himself that the murder of Dr King was not a conspiracy. All
he had ever hoped to do was “to save this man’s life”.
Both the judge and the defence had made efforts to ensure that Mr Ray should not
be “tried by newspaper” through the American tradition of liberal press comment
and speculation before and during court proceedings. The jury did not know what
case they would be hearing when they reported for duty this morning. Dr King was
killed by a sniper’s bullet while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis on
April 4 last year.
The jury did not even leave the jury box before agreeing to the sentence
recommended by the court. In passing sentence, Judge Battle noted: “There is not
conclusive proof that there was no conspiracy.” However, he agreed that there
was no indictable evidence of a conspiracy. Mrs Martin Luther King said today
that Mr Ray’s plea of guilty to the murder of her husband “cannot be allowed to
close the case, to end the search for the many fingers which helped pull the
On This Day - March 11, 1969, The Times, 11.3.2005.
Saturday April 6, 1968
Martin Luther King this side of the Jordan
From the Guardian archive
Saturday April 6, 1968
"He was the first Negro minister whom I have
ever heard who can reduce the Negro problem to a spiritual matter and yet
inspire the people to seek a solution on this side of the Jordan not in life
So wrote the Negro author Louis Lomax, catching the crucial spark that made
Martin Luther King jun. stand out head and shoulders from his fellow-ministers
in the South and step into the ranks of the world's martyrs.
King was above all a man of the Negro South. He knew for himself the deep and
hopeless fatigue, the age-long tiredness, that hangs over the whole communities
in the black belts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
He knew the energy and power that slumbered there, but which only made itself
felt in the feet of the few who migrated to the North in the hope of better
things, or the voices that turned to the blues and the hymns and the spirituals.
King's genius was to waken that energy and send it out into the streets of the
South, marching for justice and social change.
To anyone who was ever there when King spoke, the experience was unforgettable.
A small man, barely five foot seven, he dominated the pulpit or the podium. In a
slow but sonorous voice the biblical cadences rolled out, and the crowd would
sway with them and punctuate them with the answering calls that are the special
feature of Negro churches.
"There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over" ... "Amen" from the
crowd. "And men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice
where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair" ... "Yes, Lord."
"For years now we have heard the word 'wait'"... "Help him, Jesus" ... "But we
are tired of waiting, tired of being humiliated and denied. We have waited for
more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights." ... "Yes,
And the church doors would open and the crowd would surge down to the court
house, with its petitions, its banners and its faith that change at last was on
His last sentence to the crowd before he swung out on the first Selma march, in
defiance of a court injunction and a hostile police force, was this: "I would
rather die today on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my own
In cold print, that reads histrionically, perhaps. King knew, and has now made
others know, that it was a real and conscious choice.
Dr Martin Luther King, the Negro civil rights
leader, died in hospital here yesterday after being shot in the head by a sniper
outside his hotel room.
Police put out a wanted bulletin for "a young white male, well dressed," who was
seen running from a brick building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel,
where Dr King was shot while standing on the balcony of his second storey room.
Officers surrounded the car and the hotel. He was taken to St Joseph's Hospital.
Early reports indicated that police have possession of the weapon. Police said
his assailant had dropped the weapon, while running down Main Street, about a
block from the shooting. The man had jumped into a blue car and driven off.
There were reports that police and civilian cars had pursued and fired upon a
car carrying three white men, that sped out of the city. Police also hustled two
young white men into the police station.
News starts riots
Police reported that sporadic acts of violence broke out in the Negro section of
the town, as news of the shooting spread.
Dr King, aged 39, held the 1964 Nobel Peace prize. He was in Memphis to lead
marches by striking garbage workers. His march on Wednesday ended in violence,
in which one person was killed, 62 injured and 200 arrested.
Federal District Judge Bailey Brown issued a temporary injunction on Wednesday
banning any march for 10 days. But after hearing arguments by Dr King's lawyers
and senior police officers, the judge said he would decide later today whether
he could head another march on Monday.
Dr King had been the subject of repeated assassination threats over the past 10
years, and there had been at least two serious attempts on his life.
When the civil rights march
which started on this day
reached Montgomery two days later,
Dr King addressed a crowd of 25,000
DR MARTIN LUTHER KING today set off from Selma, Alabama, at
the head of 4,000 civil rights demonstrators, on the Freedom March to the state
capital at Montgomery. Before the march started Dr King led the demonstrators in
Montgomery is hardly the promised land, but today the barriers of the last
fortnight were removed and the marchers made their final preparations under the
reassuring if not wholly benevolent, gaze of several hundred steel-helmeted
Those who made the attempted march two weeks ago and were repulsed with tear
gas, truncheons and clubs, required no reminder of the necessity for this
protection but, lest the nation forget, the discovery of at least four crude
bombs at Negro buildings 100 miles away at Birmingham, served the purpose. In
Montgomery a procession of 80 cars, led by Mr Robert Shelton, the Imperial
Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, wound its way through the streets this afternoon in
protest against the civil rights march.
In these dramatic circumstances the march was late in starting. An hour after he
should have stepped off at the head of several thousand marchers, Dr King
arrived at the Brown African Methodist Episcopalian chapel to deliver an
address. His audience had been there for some time listening to other words of
encouragement including some from Mr James Foreman of the student non- violent
coordinating committee, who promised that the police state of Alabama would be
done away with. “Hitler had his Storm Troopers: Wallace has his State Troopers,”
The march was described as the greatest demonstration for human dignity since
the emancipation proclamation.
On This Day
- March 22, 1965, Times, 22.3.2005.
July 4, 1964
tests new Civil Rights law
From the Guardian archive
Saturday July 4, 1964
One minute after President Johnson last night signed the Civil Rights Act into
law, Jene Young, a 13-year-old Negro boy from Mississippi, walked into the
barber's shop of an hotel in Kansas City and asked for a haircut.
No Negro had been served in any part of the hotel since it
opened 60 years ago. The boy failed. But this morning he tried again; and this
time was successful.
However, Missouri is not Mississippi, it is likely to be some time yet before
Jene Young and his fellow Mississippi Negroes will be able to have their hair
cut in their own state in the barber's shops of their choice.
Reaction in other parts of the country to last night's historic step has been
varied. The Administration's hope has been that businessmen throughout the
South, who have hitherto been reluctant, would seize the opportunity to act
Apart from this there have been a few encouraging signs. The president of the
largest chain of cafeterias in the South has said that, rather than defy the
law, Negroes would be served. Negroes began receiving service last night, he
said. "We are going to obey the law," he added. "There is no other way." That
epitomises the reaction which the Administration here has hoped for from those
who until today had bitterly opposed the Civil Rights Bill.
In Dallas (Texas) a drive-in last night served Negroes for the first time. And
in the same city, a single Negro dined alone in an hotel which had earlier been
subjected to civil rights picketing.
Many Southern owners of "public accommodations," however, are going to refrain
from complying until the legality has been tested in the courts.
The Governor of Mississippi was asked today if he thought restaurants and hotel
owners should comply with the new laws. He replied: "I don't think they should.
I think it should be tested in the courts." In Mississippi an attempt to test
the voter registration provisions of the Act failed.
The Governor of Tennessee, on the other hand, today urged compliance with the
Governor Wallace of Alabama, predictably, reaffirmed today that he would oppose
the new law by not enforcing it in his State. The Governor of Florida expressed
the slightly enigmatic hope that the new law would take racial conflict off the
street and into the courts.
The Governor of Georgia was equally enigmatic. He said: "I hope that the
enforcement of these laws will never be needed in Georgia." The Governor of
Virginia thought the burden of making the law work successfully rested with the
The United States beyond doubt faces, in President
Kennedy's words, "a moral crisis as a country and as a people". The issue of
equality between men of different coloured skins has come to a head.
We seem, in fact, to be witnessing one of those upheavals
of the collective American conscience that can be frightening in their
suddenness when - as in the McCarthy years - fear is at the bottom of them, but
which can be awe-inspiring when the community searches in its own foundations
for the best resources of the puritanism that made them.
It is easy to say that white Americans would not be searching their consciences
and preparing to act on what they find there if Negroes had not now forced them
to do so by the vehemence of their words and deeds.
This is true enough. But the new Negro impatience and the new white awareness
are part of the same historic moment; the important thing is that the moment has
Now that, in the words of President Kennedy's powerful speech on Tuesday night,
"the fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and
South, where legal remedies are not at hand," and that "redress is sought in the
streets", the hope must be that the great debate will move swiftly.
The changes needed if, as the President says, "we are going to treat our fellow
Americans as we want to be treated," must be embodied in law. Mr Kennedy is now
about to ask Congress for legislation giving all Americans the right to be
served in facilities open to the public.
He wants to enhance the Federal Goverment's powers to pursue in the courts the
integration of schools, so that this burden is no longer left to private groups.
Legislation, though, is not enough. In a moving passage Mr Kennedy pointed out
that a Negro child born today has a life expectancy seven years shorter than a
white child and the prospect of earning only half as much.
This has been the fate of most minority groups in America (some of whom, like
Jews, would even now benefit from the President's proposed legislation); Negroes
are concerned it will not now be remedied by legal action only or by action in
the South only.
The equality the President calls for ought to mean that white residents in
northern suburbs do not automatically move out when the first Negro family moves
in. Will this come about?
Possibly, even probably: for only now are Americans everywhere having to answer
in practice, not in theory, "yes" or "no".
The civil rights campaign in the US
continued into the
and was ended
only after Congress introduced legislation
the opposition of state
and local government
THE City Bus Company of Montgomery has lost no time in
acting upon yesterday’s Supreme Court in a test ruling against segregation on
buses travelling within the state boundaries. Within 12 hours of the court’s
decision, the company announced that in the circumstances it had “no choice”
except to discontinue the practice of segregation of passengers on account of
race, and drivers will no longer assign seats to passengers by reason of their
Negroes who have joined in the boycott of the Montgomery company since last
December, in an effort to force the abandonment of its segregation practices,
have claimed that the company was losing $3,000 (approximately £1,000) a day as
a result, and the suggestion is made that the company has found the court’s
decision a useful screen behind which to retreat from an increasingly
The Attorneys-General of Virginia, South Carolina and Texas described the
decision as “another unwarranted invasion of state and municipal rights”.
Governor Griffin, of Georgia, promised that his state would oppose this “overt
usurpation of the liberties of the people.”
Segregation on inter-state buses was described by the Supreme Court as
unconstitutional in 1946, but it was only last November that the inter-state
commerce commission ordered that segregation should cease on all inter-state
transport and in waiting rooms used by inter-state travellers.
On This Day -
April 25, 1956, The Times, 25.4.2005.
May 25 1954
A pitiless subjection is outlawed
May 25 1954
decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that segregation in public
schools is unconstitutional has ended a legal battle of several generations.
It may be instructive to recall the landmarks of this constitutional struggle.
This controversy is rooted in memories of the Civil War. In 1875 Congress passed
the Civil Rights Act. But the act was silent on the subject of schools.
Exhausted by war, the energies of the North recoiled from the task of enforcing
the rights of the Negro, won at so tragic a cost.
The first case came before the Supreme Court in 1935, and especially from 1948
to 1950 the Court handed down decisions which struck at discrimination.
Physical violence has stained no campus. Negro students have entered freely into
the academic life of the various universities, but their record has by no means
always been very distinguished. Almost without exception they do not live in
mixed residences, bathe in the same pool with white students, or share the
exuberant social life.
When the public school cases were argued before the Court the American people
suddenly realised that the final stage of the constitutional struggle had been
reached. The Court, after two years of argument and after months of
deliberation, responded to that plea. By a creative exercise of judicial
statesmanship it was able to resolve all its discord and to speak with one voice
through the judgement read by Chief Justice Warren.
This unanimity has in itself had a profound influence upon the country. It has
subdued many extremists to a whimper of protest and given massive reinforcement
to the counsels of moderation.
The Court also gained credit for caution, and for refusing to bludgeon the South
into hasty and provocative action, by wisely deciding to hear additional
argument in October on the transition in establishing the non-segregated school
system. Finally, as significant as the gallant restraint of most responsible
leaders of Southern opinion, is the exemplary caution of Negroes themselves.
They have won a great victory, but they are walking quietly in their hour of
They know they can summon any hostile or recalcitrant Southern state to the bar
of the Supreme Court; but they are issuing no threats nor proclaiming any
manifestos of defiance. It will take many years before the full harvest of the
Court's decision can be gathered, but a brave beginning has been made.
A remarkable case has been before the law courts of
Louisiana. The plaintiff, Augustus Johnson, a negro, was in the employment of
the Cromwell line of steamers, and earning over 500 dollars yearly. While some
carboys of sulphuric acid were being landed there was an explosion, by which one
man was killed and several were injured.
Johnson's eyesight was entirely destroyed by this
lamentable accident; he brought an action against the steamship company for
damages, and a jury awarded him 10,000 dollars. The defendants regarded this sum
as excessive, and applied for a new trial before the United States Circuit
When the matter came on for argument, Judge Billings asked how much would have
been allowed before the war to the master of a slave who had been thus injured.
Mr Forman, the counsel for the negro, very properly protested against such a
view of the matter.
The slaveholder, he said, would have received "whatever the slave would sell for
on the block", added to a "sum sufficient to enable the master to support" the
slave during his life. But the master could "recover nothing for the pain and
agony of body and mind of the slave".
That was not a test of "amount of damages proper to be allowed now". The negro
was no longer a chattel or to be valued as a chattel, but was on the plane of a
freeman and a citizen, and all distinctions on account of race or colour were
abolished. There is still, it would appear, a colour line even in the American
law courts, for the Judge has decided to grant a new trial unless the plaintiff
will accept 5,000 dollars - half of what the jury awarded. Does anyone suppose
that Judge Billings would have taken similar action if the plaintiff's skin had
History inverts itself
The American papers recently had to record an elsewhere amusing inversion of a
famous situation in history. It is now 117 years since Boston harbour was, as
Carlyle says, "black with unexpected tea" protest against a tea duty.
To-day the tea traders of Boston, New York, and Chicago are petitioning both
Houses at Washington for the reimposition of a tea duty of 10 per cent. They
complain that as the United States are [sic] the only nation in the world which
admit teas duty free, foreign countries have special facilities for unloading on
American soil their low-priced and inferior stock.
This petition is received by the same democracy, now a centenarian, which when a
spirited child, unloaded the foreign tea into the bay.