Saturday, August 29, 2009

On the Trouble in the Nation

By: Harold Michael Harvey

It was 2 a .m. I couldn’t sleep. Maynard Holbrook Jackson had just been elected the first African American Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. And by accident of history, his election was the first for any major southern city.

This was October 1973. I was finishing up course work on a Bachelor of Science degree in political science at the famed Tuskegee Institute.

Something beckoned! The muses always seem to beckon from the far recesses of my mind when topsy-turvy events turn the world on its ear and say, “how do you like me now?”

At daybreak, I put on my sneakers, dungarees with a matching Tuskegee Tee and headed to campus. Up Johnson Street and onto U. S. Highway 80 I trod. I sauntered through “The Block” and passed old Man Carter’s Five and Dime store across from the residence of President Luther Hilton Foster.

Reaching Campus Avenue, I encountered Milan Williams, keyboard player for the Commodores. He and the group were just back from touring Japan where their album “Human Zoo” was No. 1 on the charts. The Commodores were perhaps three years from making it to the big leagues. We spoke with a nod of the heads. Williams’ wife at the time, Gwen, was a political science classmate of mine, and his soon-to-be nephew, Kebbi Williams, would later become my godson and a musician in his own right. Neither of us knew any of this in that moment.

At 8 a.m. I was in the old ROTC building in my class on Comparative International Government and Politics, taught by Dr. Dalji Singh. It was the only course I had all semester and the only one remaining between me and a ticket into the job market. If not Dr. Singh’s top student, I was at least the only one who came each morning with eyes wide open. Yet I didn’t believe he could explain why I felt elated over the election of John Wesley Dobbs’ grandson as mayor of Atlanta.

I’ve written elsewhere of the first time I saw a crowd of angry white people (“The Three Reasons Why I Hate Being in a Crowd of Angry White People,” The Harvey Journal, April 16, 2009) when a group descended upon my grandfather’s farm looking for some poor black soul. It was John Wesley Dobbs who had aroused the southern gentry into mob-like action when he came into middle Georgia farm country advocating the tenets of his “Georgia Voters League.” It didn’t take much for any local black man without the blessing of a local white man to run afoul of the law after Dobbs had gotten into the southern nostril and left for the safety of Atlanta.

But this morning, Dobbs’ grandson sat atop the ashes left by General Sherman and was giving form and shape to the city like it had never been seen before Sherman nor since.

Following class, I was done for the day. This being a Wednesday morning, I was done for the week, but I didn’t rush to the Alcohol Beverage Control Store for revery. I headed over to Collins P. Huntington Hall. I was in search of the political historian, Professor W. J. Fluker. Surely he could put this event into perspective. I heard a buzz of activity coming down the hallway behind me. There was a familiar voice, I turned and was overtaken by the entourage of Stokely Carmichael. He smiled, apologized for the rush and invited me to attend his lecture.

Carmichael’s seminal work, “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation”, co-authored with Dr. Charles V. Hamilton was the catalyst driving Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent protest into the mode of the outdated. Only the assassination of Dr. King one year after the publication of “Black Power” and the unfaltering devotion to King’s strategy by his widow, Correta Scott King, saved his movement as a practical form to achieve equality under the law.

“In 1967, this revolutionary work exposed the depths of systemic racism in this country and provided a radical political framework for reform: true and lasting social change would only be accomplished through unity among African-Americans and their independence from the
pre-existing order,” thus stated the front flap to “Black Power.”

I got in line and followed this icon to the Tuskegee Chapel where within 200 yards of the burial site of Booker T. Washington, he turned on the polemics and urged students to answer all problems through the use of logic. As he spoke, you could have closed your eyes and heard the
reasoned discourse of the television character from Star Trek with the pointed ears, Mr. Spock

Six years after the publication of his book, someone from the Philosophy Department – I believe it was Dr. Herbie Mosher – asked him to quantify “Black Power.” “How do you measure it?”

Carmichael replied, “Yesterday there were no black mayors of a major southern city in the South. Today there is one. That’s progress.”

Thirty-six years later and nearly a decade into the 21st century, African American scholars continue to quantify “Black Power” through the prism of 1960s politics. This to the chagrin of their offspring who benefitted from the civil rights battles of old after the battle lines had been erased. The new “Talented Tenth” does not care to know how “bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died.” All they care to know is thank God those days are gone. We have moved on up with the Jeffersons in a post-Cosby America.

Why did I digress to get to this point? A “white paper” written by an Atlanta Think Tank surfaced on the Internet last week which threatened to make this fall’s mayoral elections in Atlanta a referendum on race. The memo boldly states in no uncertain terms: “African Americans could lose the mayoral seat in Atlanta, Georgia, especially if there is a runoff.” The memo cites the fact Atlanta has elected an African American mayor since that fall morning in 1973.

Now that the proverbial stink has hit the fan, no one is willing to come forth and take ownership of this “white paper,” but I’m willing to wager it was written by a certain political scientist at Clark-Atlanta University. It smacks of his scholarship. There are five candidates in the non-partisan election: three African American men, one African American woman and one European American woman.

The memo presupposes Carmichael was right in 1973, that the way to quantify black political power is in the number of blacks holding office in the land. It disregards the notion that of the four African American mayors to lead Atlanta since 1974, the last two have had a less than favorable perception by the citizenry. Bill Campbell, who succeeded Maynard Jackson after his second two-year term, was recently released from federal prison just ahead of this fall’s elections. Campbell saddled his successor, Shirley Franklin, with a crumbling infrastructure with which she has put forth a gallant fight to improve, but at the cost of police and fire services.

Thus the key issue in this election is public safety and not the color of skin worn by the mayor. A side issue appears to be boiling underneath the surface in Midtown, home of many of the city’s gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens. It evolves around the issue of gay marriage. Four of the five candidates have spoken in the language of the gay community. The lone exception is State Senator Kasim Reed who speaks in the language of civil unions when discussing the wedlock of gays, etc; although his legislative record reflects a profound commitment to equality under the law. Nevertheless, members of this group are amassing at the border to cut short his bid for mayor.

Of such is the politics of the 21st century: issues revolving around sex, gender and the almighty color of the skin. With the transition of the “lion of the Senate”, Teddy Kennedy, should the politics of the last half of the 20 th century transition with him?

“The Dream,” Kennedy said a year ago at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, “lives on.” Indeed, it does, albeit threatened by black scholars on the left who can not posit it into a workable equation for the 21st century. And by mostly white ideologues on the right who fear a loss of the one thing James Baldwin said white people had that black people should need or want: “Power. “ Baldwin went on to say that “no one holds power forever.”

White conservatives seek comfort in the thought that government headed by an interloper is the enemy of the people and its policies and procedures must be nullified. Their voices are raised in protest, and anger resounds in confusion, frustration, and venom.

Are these citizens patriots, libertarians or revolutionaries? Has their speech gone beyond the constitutionally protected right to free speech? Has their right to bear arms gone beyond the limits of constitutional protection?

To harbor these questions is to give life to them. As Uncle Teddy takes his leave, who then shall pick up his mantle and bridge the great divide?

Something beckons still! Beckons for the bottom line price of the nation’s troubles. Is the price to be paid in the blood of the black Camelot?

Of the souls of the nation, what shall be their drive-out price? Will the calculus of the nation pay the price to progress into something more rather than regress into something less?

© August 29, 2009


Brad Bechler said...

Well, done, again. So many elements of history embodied into one piece of literary genius. As scientists would say, "Matter is neither created, nor destroyed". In comparison to our human condition, "Ignorance is neither created, nor destroyed; it merely changes form as the physical realm ages."

Juanita said...

I was not there to fight along side all the people who lived through the struggles to 1 (give women the rights they have today) and 2 (give people of color equality). I enjoy both of these today and as a person from this Generation X I will not forget that.

You are absolutely right, for me my vote is never about race, religion or sexual orientation. I vote on what I think is the right think to do for America. Weather I will oppose something in my religious freedom or not is not up to what I should do for my fellow countryman's freedoms.

Maybe we (my generation) have taken a little something away from all the past battles that were fought for us. I think it is us who speak now by voting in record numbers as we did. We are at an age (in our 30s) that we feel comfortable in our own skin and feel OK making our own choices. We understand that we do not have to shout we only have to use the our vote and our solidarity to change our world.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Harvey,

As always, well written! However, you didn't bring this entry to a head! Please “bottom line” this article! Thanks!

Nickalus T. Holt

Lee said...

You write of a world that is foreign to me. To achieve equality under the law has only related to me in the female form and even then I have never given it much thought because I have never had to give it much thought. First of all I would never attend any mob type gathering in any form, I think they are barbaric and that includes political conventions. To be a political leader requires attending and even organizing some of these gatherings and to be a black political leader in the world seems to be dangerous. Your writing and blogs are opening up a world that I guess I knew existed on the peripheral edge of my world but I never gave it much thought.

Keep writing Michael. There is enlightenment in your words.

Anonymous said...

Very well written, some see the country as occupied and not not belonging to them any more- them is the big point here. Who are they? These folks want the the White House back and won't be satisfied with anything less. They are hurt, angry, frustrated and confused. They will stir up trouble also. In the mean times it's to impede the work of the president.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I have just read your new blog posting ("On the trouble in the nation") and I have a few thoughts I'd like to leave with you.

Prejudice takes many forms in human interaction. For a couple of centuries, at least, in America that form has been predicated mostly on skin colour, on black and white. My own history is Irish, and there prejudice took on the form of religion, language and nationality. Unlike black Americans who were stolen from their homes by white sailors and brought to America to be slaves, Irish Catholics had their homes stolen from them and were made into slaves without ever leaving the place. It amounted to much the same thing. My family were Catholics, but had the rare privilege of being Catholics with money and position in society (descended from the First Earl of Antrim Sorley Boy McDonnell). My grandfather lost the last vestige of that money and position when the storm-troopers known as the Black & Tans came and burned his farm and forced him to emigrate to Canada with eight of his nine children in tow, leaving the youngest to die in Ireland as he was too sick to board the boat. But while the line the British used to divide the Irish was the Catholic-Protestant line, there were great protestant leaders (Charles Stewart Parnell for one) who championed the republican cause and the emancipation of the enslaved Catholic Irish. This remark I make in regards to the situation you describe in Atlanta, where for the first time in almost 40 years it appears a white woman may become mayor, replacing a long string of black leaders. Is this a loss of power for blacks? Doesn't the leadership provided by the new mayor, whoever it may be, count for more than the skin colour? If a black man should not be denied power BECAUSE of his race, then it follows that he should also not be granted power BECAUSE of his race.

Rory M.

Anonymous said...

Just read your blog post from Saturday and LOVED IT!
Being born when I was and growing up in rural NY throughout the 60's and 70's I was just a child when most of what you write about here happened and didn't fully understand or become aware of the civil rights struggles until a little later in life.
I really appreciate your look back and also forward.....thanks for directing me to this piece. It's definitely worth reading and I hope you continue on documenting your views and experiences.....past and present!

Upstate New York

Anonymous said...


I read your blog post! I like it! Keep on keeping!

Kathryn E.

Anonymous said...

Michael, your article was very thoughtful and well written. I grew up in Ohio, and my father, while relatively conservate, liked people and was really opened minded and cared about social justice. He even signed up african amercians to vote in Oklahome after the voting rights passed. I guess I grew up sheltered in Ohio, but with values of understanding and equality. I went to college in a very conservative part of Virginia in the early to mid 90s. I was shocked by how badly some of my african american friends were treated, had just assumed we were past a lot of the awful history in the US. It opened my eyes that we need more discourse and reach out to each other and engage in a respectful dialogue, in order let go of the anger and hatred of the past.


Anonymous said...

Great writing Michael.
I don't see how this race thing can still be an issue. You have abilities that far exceed the poor white trash who still cling to the Conferacy1
I was in Selma in '62 and marched with my ministers group with Dr. King. And to think, all this time and a black president, and these fools still have an agenda they should be ashamed of themselves for!

London, England

Anonymous said...

I am appalled (to be polite) by the blatant racist perspective of the presenters of this "so called black agenda." I am black and this is NOT my agenda. If I had an agenda for black people in Atlanta it would be a quest for a quality education; safe, decent affordable housing; access to healthcare; jobs that pay a living wage; and public transportation that goes where people want to go timely and economically! I want black people to act like black people are supposed to act! Stand up straight and walk with dignity, act decent and have respect for our community! How's that for an agenda?

Atlanta has had a black Mayor and majority black leadership for the past 36 years. What benefit was it to more than a handful of black people who because of their "name" get to participate in politics or government contracting opportunities? Where is the opportunity for the rest of the people in Atlanta? This "black leadership" has failed to enact its "black agenda" in 36 years and there should be little expectation from black people that these same "black leaders" are going to do anything different if they continue to reign in power. The problem is these people are NOT "black leaders" they are "leading blacks" and they have been leading black people in the wrong direction for far too long. What happened to “the city too busy to hate”? How can America elect a Black president, but Atlanta can’t elect a white Mayor?

What Atlanta needs now is to elect the best qualified candidates with the ability to deliver what is important to Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians and any other ethnic group that may call Atlanta home. Atlanta can no longer continue to elect people because they are their "friends" or because their "name" is the same as someone else who was prominent in their own right at some time in the past. The problems we have in Atlanta can be solved partly by selecting top quality leaders as Mayor, City Council and Department Heads and not under motivated, under achievers who are friends or relatives of "somebody who is, or was, somebody.”

In my book, "everybody is somebody" and we all want the same quality of life in Atlanta! That's why I am asking the citizens of Atlanta to elect me on November 3rd to Atlanta City Council in the Post 1 At Large race. Is it bold of me to run? Hell YES!

I think the voters of Atlanta have enough common sense to elect who they believe is the best person qualified to serve them despite their race and they don’t need the Black Leadership Forum to tell them different. Someone’s race should not be the deciding factor and voters should not be afraid to exercise their own mind when it is contrary to the command of the black leadership.

What should be important in any election is the experience, education and ability of the candidate to get the job done! In the Post 1 race, I AM that person. When the voters elect me, I won’t say I’ll make you proud, but I do promise “I won’t let you down.”

Ashamed for the Black Leadership Forum
Dwanda Farmer, Candidate – Post 1 at Large
Forward with Farmer Campaign

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