Black women — now and then — lead a recalcitrant America toward justice

Though words are my primary business, I never underestimate the power of images, especially when they so clearly represent different chapters of the same old story — one that’s frustrating, exhilarating and powerful.

What was Gloria Richardson thinking, as she seems to casually push aside the bayonet-tipped firearm wielded by a National Guardsman attempting to control civil rights demonstrators in Cambridge in my home state of Maryland in 1963? Maybe the same ideas she expressed to The Washington Post last year in the wake of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office: “Racism is ingrained in this country. This goes on and on,” she said. “We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention. Otherwise, you’re going to keep protesting the same things another 100 years from now.”

Richardson may not have been as well known as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rep. John Lewis, but she was “born a leader,” as her granddaughter told The Associated Press. Richardson was right there on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, though her speech was cut short after her first “hello,” perhaps for fear of what she would say next. “Before I could say another word, an NAACP official took the mic away,” Richardson once recalled.

The icon of the movement, who was a 40-year-old mother of two when she initiated and led a SNCC affiliate, the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, died recently at the age of 99.

In photos taken just last week, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, can be seen unapologetically carrying on the spirit of Richardson, marching to maintain hard-earned voting rights now threatened by a rash of voting restrictions across the nation. Two bills to strengthen voting rights, heirs to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court seems intent on dismantling, are hitting roadblocks in Congress, from Republicans using the filibuster and Democrats hesitant to meddle with it.

But Beatty and the women and men who protested on July 15 no doubt remember that Richardson and activists faced legal obstacles as well as death threats and countered it all with more activism.

The education gap

Slavery, Jim Crow laws and COVID-19 all have contributed to a yawning gap between white public school students and students of color. While the 1950s Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to correct “separate but equal,” there is still a long way to go before public schools can talk about equity. Mary C. Curtis talks with Terra Wallin of the Education Trust to understand how we arrived at this moment and how the nation’s public schools can do better.

Statues come down, while barriers to truth are erected

In Charlottesville, Va., where a Unite the Right gathering of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Lost Cause devotees and other angry history deniers left destruction and death in their path in 2017, there was a different scene this past weekend.

The city removed statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, memorials to those who fought on the losing side of a Civil War to maintain the brutal and murderous institution of slavery. They were erected as monuments to white supremacy, not in the 1860s but the 1920s, a Jim Crow threat to Black citizens to “know their place.”

Now, as then, there are those opposed to this bit of progress, with arguments that removing the stone idols would mean erasing history, which is ridiculous since that history will never disappear from books, museums and tall tales handed down by the “never forget” brigade.

Ironically, many of these same folks would be only too glad to forget what really happened, during that bloody Civil War and in the 100 years after — the ingenious laws and policies that continue to reverberate through everything from health care to housing.

America’s cultural education also needs a ‘truth’ upgrade

When I visited Monticello, the home of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, it was certainly impressive. But there was so much information shared by the friendly tour guide about the great man’s genius that a lot was left out about just who was making the Virginia plantation turn a profit. Who was building the furniture and brewing the beer? Who was doing the planting?

When I asked the kindly woman for more details on the lived experiences of the enslaved men, women and children at Monticello, her attitude grew decidedly chilly. And when I asked about Sally Hemings, who bore Jefferson’s children, beginning when she was a young teen and Jefferson was in his 40s, well, the docent’s face lost what little color it had and her rehearsed spiel descended into an unintelligible word salad. Then she changed the subject.

Blessedly, if I were to visit Monticello today, there is an exhibit devoted to Hemings, acknowledging the woman, known in Jefferson’s time but disappeared or downplayed by histories, at least until historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s books and other scholarship fueled conversations that DNA testing confirmed.

It wasn’t just embarrassed guides at Monticello that misled for so long. Anyone relying on other cultural interpretations would have been clueless. In 2000, I wrote about a CBS offering, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” which portrayed the relationship between a man of power and privilege and the woman he owned as straight out of a romance novel, complete with swelling chords and actor Sam Neill as Jefferson in a Fabio-style wig, locks blowing in a wind machine-generated breeze.

Disturbing, if a ratings grabber.

History, what is taught in the classroom, is vital if we are to understand the present. Right now, the country is embroiled in a contentious discussion over how much truth about systemic racism to allow in classrooms, with, unfortunately, little consideration of how and why promoting “fairy tale” history can damage schoolchildren of all ages and races.

But education extends past hours sitting at a school-room desk. Let’s face it, a lot of folks absorb what we see on TV or in the movies as kind of true. We half-listen to a museum guide without questioning the motives of the people who crafted monuments and museums that shape memories of the dead.

‘The intrinsic value of whiteness’

The country’s history of redlining, racially restrictive covenants, zoning regulations and more has embedded racism in its housing policies. Simply put, Black communities have been devalued through these policies. Untangling that legacy has proved difficult, especially when some politicians have resisted progress. Mary C. Curtis sits down with Andre M. Perry, author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” to discuss how we got here, what the Biden administration is trying to change and what can be done to dismantle housing discrimination.

With freedom rides and ‘states’ rights’ refrains, old times in America are not forgotten

Buses of civil rights demonstrators are on the road carrying Americans who want to send a message to their political leaders. They want to add their voices to the Washington debates over stalled infrastructure legislation, voting rights protections and every important discussion that could affect participation in democracy.

Shades of the 1960s activism that spurred history-making laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, all steps toward a more inclusive country — the goal, unfulfilled, in the idealistic words of America’s founding documents.

An unfortunate throwback also front and center is the opposition, exalting the primacy of “states’ rights.” It is not showing out in the violence that met the earlier bus occupants at stop after stop. But that familiar phrase or the sentiment animating it, the condemnation of interference from the big, bad federal government so dear to the heart of obstructionists back then, was the refrain from Republican senators who on Tuesday voted down any attempt to discuss proposed legislation that would protect the fundamental franchise for all.

Who is afraid of critical race theory?

Even as the U.S. will likely have a federal holiday to mark June 19th or Juneteenth — an important date not a part of many history books — battles over teaching race continue. After the murder of George Floyd, many sought to learn lessons that were absent in the traditional white-washed version of American history taught for generations.

But educating students about race — what some call critical race theory — has become another flashpoint in the culture wars pitting red against blue. Mary C. Curtis talks with education policy expert Jazmyne Owens of New America about why some states are trying to ban the teaching of systemic racism and what it will mean if they succeed.

Following the ‘Golden Rule’ is proving a political impossibility

Most religious traditions follow a set of commandments, perhaps written down in a holy book. They differ in the particulars, but the sentiment can be boiled down to what’s called the “Golden Rule” — treat others as one would want to be treated.

You don’t need to subscribe to any faith; just strive to live with honor in a civilized society. But apparently, even that’s too much for some folks who have other priorities.

A Jan. 6 report should be just the beginning. Just like the riot was

The details are scary, but not surprising to some of us.

Capitol Police intelligence officers had warnings as early as Dec. 21 of what was going to happen on Jan. 6 at the Capitol: Pro-Trump protesters were planning to “bring guns” and other weapons to confront the police — the “blue” that conservatives swear they “back.” Lawmakers were in danger of being trapped and harmed while doing the job they were elected to do, certifying the election of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (though quite a few Republicans shamefully failed even that routine task post-insurrection). Conspirators giddily shared maps and discussed entry points.

And nothing.

A few Capitol Police command officers did get some information, which they failed to share widely. According to the department’s statement: “Neither the USCP, nor the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, Metropolitan Police or our other law enforcement partners knew thousands of rioters were planning to attack the U.S. Capitol. The known intelligence simply didn’t support that conclusion.”

Known intelligence? Anyone paying attention to the social media bragging of self-styled “militia” members, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, red-state secession groupies, white supremacists and their ilk could have figured it out. Those swept up in QAnon delusions and Donald Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election excitedly posted travel plans and loving photos of weaponry, all shiny and ready for action. The dry run of a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman was killed, happened in 2017 — and that was over a statue. And just last year, armed Michigan militia members swarmed a state capital and plotted to kidnap a governor.

In preparation for the insurrection, Trump himself issued a pretty vivid invitation, one of several: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he tweeted on Dec. 19. “Be there, will be wild!”

Why do Black American women die having babies?

The United States has the highest — yes the highest — maternal mortality rates in the developed world. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women. That is in keeping with other sobering statistics of racial health inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary C. Curtis sits down with Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, President Biden’s pick to lead the task force on health equity. They discuss why Black people suffer disproportionately and what is being done to change the equation.