Archive for March, 2023

Winfred Rembert’s American Journey – posted 3/26/2023

March 26, 2023 Leave a comment

No American artist has a story like Winfred Rembert. What artists have survived a near-lynching? Or grew up picking cotton at age 5 with other family members? Or worked on a chain gang while serving seven years in state prison?

Rembert, who died in 2021 at age 75, survived the most degrading and brutal circumstances. At the same time, he created beautiful works of art out of his painful and joyful experiences. His love for his home town of Cuthbert, Georgia shines through his art. Rembert’s story reflects an American experience that many endured but, to this day, it remains under-acknowledged. America likes to pretend it wasn’t what it was.

In his autobiography, Chasing Me to My Grave, Rembert collects and exposes the truths of his life. Tragically rejected by his mother and with a father who disappeared, Rembert faced very long odds in his life. He was raised by his great-aunt Lillian. From very early, he wanted to escape a dead-end life of picking cotton which seemed like it might become his lot in life.

He grew up in a world where white supremacy reigned. There were separate and unequal facilities for everything. A survivor and a rebellious spirit, Rembert was always being pursued by the police. About white people, Rembert wrote, “…they treated us like they would treat a pig, a cow or a hog”. The whites carried sticks and whips or things with which they could hit blacks for no reason. There was no law to stop the mistreatment and whites could act out with no consequence.

On the town green in Cuthbert there was something called the laughing barrel. White folks would say “Come here n—er!” And they would make blacks stick their head in that barrel and laugh at a joke. The joke was typically at the black person’s expense. If you didn’t laugh in the laughing barrel, you would get six weeks jail time. Lillian told Rembert that the key to survival was not to make any waves. You had to take the abuse or white people would kill you.

A turning point in Rembert’s life came in 1965 with the civil rights movement. White people were attacking blacks who protested or who tried to register to vote. Rembert joined a civil rights demonstration in Americus, Georgia. Armed white people violently attacked the demonstrators. Two white men with shotguns chased Rembert down an alley. To save himself, Rembert jumped into a car that had keys left in it and he drove off.

The police caught him and put him in jail. He languished for a year and no charges were ever filed. Out of frustration. Rembert stuffed a toilet with toilet paper so it overflowed. An angry deputy sheriff came into his cell, kicked him in the face and beat him. Rembert fought back and the deputy went for his gun. Rembert wrestled the gun away, locked the deputy in the cell and fled.

The police again caught Rembert and stuffed him in the trunk of a car. When they pulled him out of the trunk at a country location, there was a mob of white people with a rope hanging from a tree. Rembert was stripped naked and hung from a tree limb by his feet. The mob proceeded to beat Rembert with sticks and bats.

The deputy whom Rembert locked up appeared with a hawk-billed knife, grabbed Rembert’s private parts and viciously sank the blade in there. Bleeding profusely, Rembert wrote his scream could have been heard for miles. Right when Rembert thought he was a goner, another white man stepped forward and stopped the lynching saying “we have better things we could do with the n—er”. They shackled Rembert by the neck, waist and feet and marched him through the black neighborhood in Cuthbert.

Bryan Stevenson, the leader of Equal Justice Initiative, has written that near-lynchings were not uncommon. He wrote:

“Most people don’t ever feel secure enough to talk about this although we’re hearing more of these stories now. But Winfred was such a compelling storyteller, his personal narrative always included this and he was able to talk about it in a direct way.”

Before he saw any judge, Rembert served two years in jail. When he was taken to court, he had no lawyer and there was no trial. The judge looked at him and said:

“N—er, I’m gonna give you some time. I’m going to give you one year for escape. I’m going to give you one year for pointing a pistol. And I’m going to give you twenty for robbery.”

The judge sentenced Rembert to Georgia State Prison. He ended up serving seven years. In prison Rembert learned to read and write. He was locked up with a couple school teachers who were doing time for civil rights activities. They taught him. An excellent letter writer, Rembert helped other illiterate inmates by writing letters to their wives and girl friends.

From another inmate, he learned the art of leather craft. Beginning with making wallets, purses, belts and pocketbooks, Rembert moved on to drawing on leather, using assorted tools and dyes. His wife Patsy inspired him to use his art to tell stories from his life. Rembert’s life outside prison was a constant economic struggle until he started his art work at age 51. He worked many jobs, including longshoreman, cleaner and laborer.

Chasing Me To My Grave contains 75 photos of Rembert’s art. He drew juke joints, cotton field laboring, pool rooms, chain gangs, his search for his mother, his own near-lynching as well as other lynchings and their aftermath. It is a tour de force of witnessing. With great originality and in brilliant colors, Rembert depicts the Jim Crow South. For those especially interested in Rembert, there is also a documentary about him, All Me, written by Vivian Ducat and available on Prime.

Rembert’s work is a window into the past and where we have come from as a nation. Too often America wants to forget or pretend to a phony past but Rembert’s work is unforgettable.

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On not learning from the Iraq War – posted 3/19/2023

March 19, 2023 3 comments

This March marks the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is amazing how little public reflection there has been about the American role in that endeavor. The Iraq War was not an error or a tragic mistake. It was a crime, a needless war fought on false pretenses.

The American ruling class, Republican and Democratic, has utterly failed any test of accountability for what it did to Iraq. There has been no reckoning, making the likelihood of future Iraq-type invasions, probable. When I call the war a crime, I am not being hyperbolic. After World War II, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg wrote:

“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

The U.N. Charter forbids military aggression unless in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it. Neither allowing criteria applied here. In this instance, an invasion proceeded because our government systematically lied. The U.S. government committed the supreme international crime.

After 9/11, instead of focusing on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration claimed Iraq and Saddam Hussein were to blame. This was in spite of the fact Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Why the Bush administration shifted focus to Iraq remains something of a mystery. Possibly it had to do with Iraq’s immense oil reserves and possibly it had to do with Bush’s dislike of Saddam because Saddam had wanted to kill Bush Sr.

The Bush administration created a false narrative around weapons of mass destruction (or WMD) existing in Iraq. They spread entirely unfounded lies about Iraq possessing lethal weapons including biological weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. In January 2003, national security advisor Condoleeza Rice famously said to Wolf Blitzer:

“..there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he (Saddam) can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Vice-President Dick Cheney repeatedly declared…”there’s no doubt Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction”. In January 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared Saddam “has large unaccounted for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism and possibly smallpox”. The Bush administration fabricated conclusions from intelligence in many statements even though the CIA had told them there was no reliable evidence about WMD.

Hans Blix, the UN Weapons Inspector, had found no WMD in Iraq but he was ignored. The Bush administration did not want to wait to see what Blix found. There was a rush to war.

A complacent and willing mass media acquiesced in the Bush fantasy about WMD. The list of Iraq War cheerleaders was bi-partisan, including many liberals as well as neo-conservatives. All shared a colonialist mentality. In its coverage of the war, the Fourth Estate failed America by buying into lies and deception and regurgitating the propaganda.They lent a helping hand to American imperialism.

Still, before the war was fought, many millions around the world saw through the falsity and knew the war lacked any justification. Absolutely massive anti-war demonstrations flared up around the globe. I recall marching in front of the State House in Concord with many others. The anti-war voices were ignored though and what ensued was a monumental and predictable debacle.

Forty-three days after the “shock and awe” start of the war, Bush dressed up in a military flight suit and appeared on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a large banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”. In cocky fashion, Bush and company had predicted a quick victory but the only thing accomplished was massive death and destruction and a terrible worsening of the quality of life in Iraq. The invasion led to a lengthy and unexpected occupation, insurgency, sectarian violence and the rise of the Islamic State..

In the Iraq war 4,418 Americans died and 31,994 were wounded. That statistic doesn’t capture the full picture of the harm done to our troops. In her book, They Were Soldiers, Ann Jones quotes a military Mortuary Affairs specialist, Jessica Goodell:

“War is disgusting and horrific. It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the list of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”

Then there is the matter of veteran suicides. Since 9/11 the number of veteran and service members who have died by suicide has dramatically spiked up. The trend greatly outpaces the suicide rate of the general population.

As for the Iraqis, it is estimated 275,000 to 306,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by violence in the war. Many more died from indirect causes like poor health care, degraded infrastructure and increased lawlessness. Four million Iraqis were displaced and 1.5 million Iraqis left the country.

We left a legacy of torture at Abu Ghraib and other black sites. We got rid of Saddam but the country remains a kleptocracy with millions mired in poverty. Food scarcity and lack of clean drinking water are common. Corruption is rampant and dangerous militias roam the streets and threaten perceived enemies. Women remain enslaved by extremist religion and lack freedoms. The only winner appears to be Iran whose influence has increased.

The American perpetrators of the Iraq War, including war hawks like Bush, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Paul Bremer, have faced no consequences. They have effectively been rehabilitated. They are not in the dock at the Hague waiting for war crimes prosecutions. It is like America is in the grip of collective amnesia and delusion. There is no recognition or statement of regret or contrition for how the Iraqi war came about nor how it was conducted.

When our leaders critique Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine, they fail to recognize that we lack any moral standing in the eyes of most of the world because of our own imperialist mis-adventure in Iraq.

The lies of the Iraq war paved the way for a pathological liar and fascist like Donald Trump. Government lies conditioned the public to an acceptance of a war on truth. I wish I could say we have learned lessons from Iraq but we clearly have not. The military-industrial complex and our capitalist system are heavily invested in war-fighting. It remains to be seen whether our policy makers will avoid future disasters as foolish, unnecessary and destructive as the Iraq war.

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The little-known legal lynching that sparked the civil rights movement – posted 3/15/2023

March 15, 2023 7 comments

In Greenwood Mississippi, there is a statue of Emmett Till that pays homage to the 14 year old who was murdered in the summer of 1955. Till’s murder fueled the burgeoning civil rights movement. There is now a movie, Till, starring Danielle Deadwyler, which recreates the story. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, forced public awareness by having an open coffin funeral that revealed Emmett’s horrific injuries. The photos of Till shocked the conscience of the nation.

What is not remembered is that at almost the same time there was another case which also played an extremely consequential role in propelling the civil rights movement forward. That is the case of Jeremiah Reeves Jr., an Alabama high school student who was falsely convicted and executed for a series of rapes and assaults that occurred in Montgomery in 1951.

As often happens with history, some stories which should be widely known, disappear. Almost as much as the Till case, Reeves’ kangaroo court conviction and later execution enraged the black community and all who supported the civil rights movement. The case had a galvanizing effect on a generation of activists including Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and Martin Luther King Jr. but now it is not remembered.

Reeves’ story goes back to 1951 when he was sixteen. According to Jerome Ennels, author of Hold Back the Night, the definitive book about the case, Reeves was a model teenager. He had excellent grades and he was a talented drummer in the school band and in local black jazz bands. His family believed he had a very bright future. He was a stylish dresser and quite handsome. On the side, he worked along with his father in a delivery business.

When making deliveries, Reeves met some young white women who lured him into their homes on the pretense of needing something done inside. They then seduced him. Reeves was having consensual affairs with several white women. At that time, a black man having an affair with a white woman was extremely dangerous for both parties. Ennels writes:

“…a black man having an affair with several white women was nothing short of suicidal. In the case of Reeves, his sexual relationship with several white women made him a “menace” to Southern society and a threat to the “purity of white southern womanhood”. “

The fact of Reeves’ affairs became known by neighbors who noticed the frequency of his deliveries. A peeping tom neighbor reported Reeves to the police. Around the same time, Montgomery police were under pressure to find a “Phantom Attacker” who had committed six unsolved assaults in the last year. Although the police had no case against Reeves, they pursued him.

Any black man would do but they particularly wanted to convict someone who committed the ultimate transgression against southern mores. They picked up Reeves, booked him at the local jail, and immediately drove him to the Kilby maximum security prison.

Then the torture began. Prison officials sprayed Reeves with the insecticide DDT and then used a water hose to wash off the chemicals before giving him a septic bath. Without being convicted of any crime or even charged, Reeves received a maximum security prisoner classification. He was taken to Death Row and put in a Death Cell next to the prison’s bright yellow electric chair known as Yellow Mama.

For the next three days, police questioned, cursed and threatened Reeves. They allowed him no contact or calls with anyone. They did not let him sleep. After allowing him to doze for 20 minutes, they woke him and moved him into the death chamber, strapped him into Yellow Mama, and continued the interrogation.

The police told him he would be electrocuted unless he confessed. They also threatened they would get his family members. Reeves was repeatedly told the only way to save himself from the electric chair was to confess. On the third day of essentially non-stop interrogation, in a state of absolute exhaustion and terror, Reeves agreed to sign any statement and “say anything”. With the coerced confession, the state prosecuted Reeves for all six assaults.

However, when the assault victims were brought in for line-up identification they failed to identify Reeves as their assailant. The police read the women Reeves’ coerced statements and told them he was the perpetrator. Only one woman was willing to participate in the coached farce and she gave a completely different physical description of her attacker than the small 130 pound Reeves.

After a two day trial, an all-white jury deliberated for less than thirty minutes and convicted Reeves. He was sentenced to death. Reeves recanted his signed statements but the trial judge excluded the jury from hearing evidence of the police torture used to extract the confession.

The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. The NAACP and Thurgood Marshall took the case on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1955, the Supreme Court reversed and vacated the conviction because an illegally obtained confession was used at trial and also because black people were systematically excluded from juries in Montgomery County, Alabama.

The case was re-tried before the same trial court judge who had heard the case the first time. In spite of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, again an all-white jury sat on the case. After hearing the evidence, the jury retired for deliberation and quickly asked the Court for a lunch break. When they returned from lunch, they took 35 minutes to find Reeves guilty and to sentence him to death. There was an absolute paucity of evidence against Reeves.

The Defense again appealed to the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court but this time the High Court voted not to accept the appeal. The Governor of Alabama then denied clemency. The state of Alabama electrocuted Jeremiah Reeves in Yellow Mama, the same chair he had previously been strapped into, on March 28, 1958. He was 22 years old. The state had to wait until he was old enough to execute.

Jeanne Theoharis, Rosa Parks’ biographer, said about the Reeves case:

“This was a legal lynching in parallel in many ways to the lynching of Emmett Till.”

The effect of the Reeves’ case on the black community was explosive. Both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin (who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white woman nine months before Rosa Parks) became fired-up activists, defying bus segregation rules that still were in effect across the South.

Reeves’ punishment was a warning message the Southern white power structure sent not to challenge white supremacy. His prosecution was not instigated by a handful of Southern white extremists. Leaders in the Alabama white community, especially judges and law enforcement, countenanced the torture and execution.

It is important to remember Jeremiah Reeves and the many unknown others like him. His story should be known. A culture of silence compounds the harm and it is a statement of devaluation. To this day, neither state nor federal officials acknowledged their inaction in the face of a legal lynching.

Among other things, Jeremiah Reeves was a poet. While in prison, he published this poem in the Christmas 1953 issue of the Birmingham World newspaper:

“I am tired of worrying and shedding tears,
Behind these lonely walls even hours seem
like years,
True love is one thing I’ve never known,
In this make believe world of my very own.”

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Why New England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade matters – posted 3/5/2023

March 5, 2023 5 comments

New England has a reputation as a historic, progressive and culturally rich region. Probably no area in the country can match our colleges and universities. In the 19th century New England played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery. As a region, we have tilted undeniably blue.

So it was with shock that I recently learned much more about New England’s significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. The Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama, set up by Bryan Stevenson and his organization, Equal Justice Initiative, presents a detailed chronology of the evolution and history of the transatlantic slave trade. They present an overview of the East Coast’s regional areas’ participation in the slave trade.

New England’s role is little understood and has been minimized. It has largely escaped scrutiny because most conventional historians begin their inquiries with the years around the American revolution. History before that gets little attention as has been pointed out by the 1619 Project. I also think New Englanders like to maintain the conceit that we are much better than the South. The history of abolitionism dictates a pass for the early history.

That posturing gets in the way both of looking at the actual history and thinking about how it affects us today and what we can do about it.

Starting back in the 15th century, European powers sent ships and troops across the ocean to exploit new lands for wealth and profit. Quite a few European powers including England, France Spain and Portugal sought to extract wealth in the New World and wherever they could.

In the process, between 1501-1867, 13 million African people were kidnapped, forced into European and American ships and trafficked. Two million died in the Middle Passage. The Legacy Museum, through sculptures and visual representations, forces a reckoning with the dehumanizing brutality of the Middle Passage and slavery.

Barbaric conditions were the norm. Slaves were stowed away below deck like sardines, “locked spoonways” together, naked, shackled and forced to lie in urine, feces and blood with little to no fresh air. During the journey across the ocean, the Africans were chained and manacled for weeks, unable to stretch or stand except during limited time on deck.

The Middle Passage lasted roughly 80 days on ships that ranged from small schooners to massive slave ships. For the enslaved, the Middle Passage followed traumatic removal from family which must have been both disorienting and extremely distressing.

Initially the Europeans tried to utilize indigenous people to supply labor but massive numbers died from disease or were killed. Because that was largely unsuccessful, colonists in New England resorted to enslaving Africans.

Slavery existed long before the formation of the United States. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first North American colony to legalize slavery. New Hampshire followed in 1645. The enslavement remained legal in Massachusetts for 140 years until 1783. The New Hampshire legislature didn’t officially eliminate slavery until 1857.

Slavery was justified on a narrative of racial difference that categorized black people as sub-human. Part of the justification was the idea it was not wrong to take the Africans because they were being Christianized and saved. By 1640, enslavement was codified as a hereditary and permanent legal status that all the New England colonies followed.

The slave trade grew dramatically and New Englanders profited from the kidnapping and trafficking of African people. The buying and selling of black people included many New England business owners, not just large firms. New England docks, especially in Rhode Island and Boston, were critical for the traffickers. Equal Justice Initiative writes:

“In what became known as the “Triangle Trade”, New England traders imported sugar and molasses produced by enslaved people on Caribbean plantations and manufactured rum that they shipped to West Africa, where it was exchanged for enslaved Africans, who were sold to Caribbean plantations for more sugar.”

Until the American revolution, rum production was New England’s largest manufacturing business. Massachusetts and Rhode Island taxed the traffickers for each person they kidnapped and brought to the colonies through 1732. New Hampshire declined to impose a tax on the traffickers in order to lure more ships to its ports.

Along with rum production, other New England industries were also reliant on enslaved labor. Between 1790 and 1860, 300 textile mills opened in Rhode Island alone. They relied on cotton harvested by slaves who worked on Southern plantations or in the West Indies. New England merchants profited enormously not just from trafficking humans and using their labor but also from trading raw goods produced by enslaved people.

Until the 1850’s, insurance companies in Connecticut issued policies to enslavers and shipowners that promised to pay enslavers hundreds of dollars for each enslaved person who died on board or while laboring. The scheme incentivized murder. In one case in 1781, shipowners threw 133 sick Africans overboard the slave ship Zong so they could collect on the insurance.

Slavery was integral to the building of much New England infrastructure. There was no cash crop in the region and the number of enslaved people was much smaller than in the South but enslaved people were a backbone of the economic system that did emerge.

The history I cite has not been integrated into most accounts of American history. I would suggest that the stories we tell ourselves about our history matter. It is about honesty and intellectual integrity. We all benefit from a more informed and thoughtful understanding of race-based slavery.

Experiencing the Legacy Museum made me wonder about questions like: how much are racial hierarchy and economic inequality rooted in the transatlantic slave trade? And how long does the obligation to right historical wrongs persist? And what would righting those wrongs mean?

I would say that like most of America, New Englanders have buried this important discussion rather than embracing it. We could do much more to acknowledge the history and to think about what rectification would mean. A different understanding of the past would very likely dictate a different political and economic agenda for the future.

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