The urban rebellion in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that followed the April 7 death of yet another black man, Timothy Thomas, at the hands of police shocked city residents. Mayor Charlie Luken lamented the "violence" as "unthinkable" and at a press conference pleaded for it to stop. At times like these it is vital to think clearly about how social problems, especially violence, are defined. In Cincinnati the media identify the core problem as "police-community" relations. But reducing the myriad and interrelated forms of violence in the inner city to a problem of police-community relations misses an opportunity to understand such issues in a deeper and more systemic sense. We need to understand how violence has been waged against people of color for a very long time.
Since the late 1940s a series of moves on the part of government and the private sector have reinforced an American form of apartheid. Ushering in the explosion of the suburbs for the white middle class, the Federal Housing Authority's liberalization of the mortgage market, its regulations favoring new construction of single-family detached houses and its appraisal process helped insure that neighborhoods continued to house the same social and racial classes. Under "urban renewal," many black neighborhoods were razed to make way for freeways, sports arenas and corporate redevelopment. Global restructuring of the economy then gutted the black working class's job base in the manufacturing sector.
Add to these the rise to power of neoconservatives, who divest the state of responsibility for meeting social needs, evidenced by rollbacks of affirmative action, the elimination of welfare and cutbacks in housing, combined with more punitive measures like increases in police forces and prison-building and a continued militarized economy.
The "hypersegregation" of blacks in the inner cities is now a structural reality. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton note in American Apartheid, "One-third of all African Americans in the United States live under conditions of intense racial segregation.... No other group in the contemporary United States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society."
Recent census data show that Cincinnati is the ninth most segregated city in the United States, with Over-the-Rhine, about 77 percent black, being its poorest neighborhood. This extreme social and spatial isolation exacerbates the effects of poverty, making it difficult to sustain neighborhood institutions and social organizations. These trends take a particular form in Cincinnati. Consider that in 1996, at the request of an alliance of corporate, business and city power, the Urban Land Institute came to Over-the-Rhine bearing gifts of a homeownership agenda for a community where approximately 75 percent of the population have incomes well below the reach of the rental market, let alone homeownership. Consider Cincinnati Pops director Erich Kunzel's "dream" to build the Greater Cincinnati Fine Arts and Education Center near Music Hall, which, after originally promising no displacement, called for the removal of the Drop Inn Center, the area's largest homeless shelter and lead institution in the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement.
And consider the motion passed by the City Planning Commission last July not to fund additional low-income housing units on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, a motion that discriminates against a particular race and class and ignores the city's own Consolidated Plan, which identifies the need for 30,000 affordable housing units. Further, city records show that between January 1995 and the first quarter of 2000, 60 percent of the $8 million invested by the Department of Neighborhood Services in housing programs in Over-the-Rhine supported market-rate rather than affordable housing development.
Last, consider the mayor's about-face decision last summer not to support the $4.5 million tax-credit package of ReSTOC, a community-based, nonprofit housing cooperative, intended to finance construction of economically mixed housing in Over-the-Rhine, a project that qualified for state funding. The mayor then forced ReSTOC to sell one of the buildings in its package to a private owner to develop dotcom enterprises.
These examples of institutional violence have one thing in common: the way they market Over-the-Rhine as an idealized version of itself, effectively erasing it as a place for poor people of color. Revitalization efforts are selling an image that has no place for the poor who actually live there. "Development" means attracting people of higher incomes to live and play and work.
I am not suggesting that the neighborhood keep out newcomers, including people of higher means. The point is that the city fights to deny resources to community-based organizations while promoting renovation that caters to white, wealthier residents. And in this process, the buildings and urban ambience are sold like a stage set to folks who want to consume an urban night out. Over-the-Rhine is being Disneyfied, and this requires pushing people who don't fit the postcard image out of the way. No wonder Over-the-Rhine residents feel resentful.
Gentrification is often advocated as an antisegregation measure. This may be true in the short run, before poor residents are displaced. But community development today is rarely conceived outside the ideology of corporatism, with its lingo of public-private partnerships, enterprise and empowerment zones, tax incentives, and abatements and deregulatory legislation, all of which are ploys to advance privatization and subordinate social movements to the interests of business and the profit system. Community development has been reduced to a kind of plea bargaining with the powers that be, and thus what gets constructed as hope within the community is the desire to have a little more money funneled in its direction. That community institutions persist at all in these circumstances is an amazing testament to their perseverance in meeting desperate need.
Urban disruptions like the rebellion in Cincinnati are indictments of entrenched patterns of police-community relations and community development. Gentrification that produces displacement is an act of violence. Economic development that neglects to provide jobs for Over-the-Rhine residents is an act of violence. Building stadiums and supporting corporations at public expense while closing inner-city schools are acts of violence. We should not be surprised when communities erupt in righteous anger against the bonds of their oppression.
Thirty-eight years after the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, two of the four principals are dead, but the issues are still full of life. Thomas Blanton Jr. is one of two surviving Klan bombers, and after a jury convicted him in early May of murdering the four black girls that Sunday morning, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley wrote a blistering Op-Ed for the New York Times accusing the FBI of concealing evidence and aiding the Klan for decades after the event. The FBI's denial made page one the next day: "There's no reason we would have done that," a bureau spokesperson declared. The Times also published a letter from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Birmingham office, calling Baxley's Op-Ed "a disservice to all the agents who tirelessly investigated the 1963 bombing."
Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home is a history of that bombing, of the FBI "investigation," of the people responsible for it--high and low--and of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. She grew up there--she was 10 years old at the time of the bombing--and later she worried, because her father, who had fallen from an elite family, had spent many evenings attending what her mother called "civil rights meetings." But Diane knew he had Klan literature around. Eventually she realized that her father could have been attending Klan meetings, and might even have been one of the bombers. Many years later she set out to find out the truth about him--and ended up writing this magnificent book.
Although the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrators in the 1963 campaign, it was not a Movement church. McWhorter calls it "the snootiest black congregation in the city," and its founding minister worked with the local industrialists to persuade blacks not to join the union. At services they didn't sing gospel songs but rather "the sedate hymns of white Christianity." And 16th Street Baptist was the only church in the city that charged the Movement for using its facilities.
The bomb was a huge one--perhaps a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the blast was heard across town, Klansman Ross Keith, almost certainly one of the bombers, told a friend, "I guess it's somebody discriminating against them niggers again." The four girls who were killed were in the women's lounge, freshening up for their roles as ushers in the main service. Denise McNair was 11; the three others were 14: Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley--Wesley was wearing high heels for the first time, "shiny black ones bought the day before."
There is a survivor who was in the women's lounge with the other four: 12-year-old Sarah Collins, sister of Addie May. When they found Sarah in the rubble, her face was spurting blood. She was loaded into an ambulance--a "colored" one. On the way to the hospital she sang "Jesus Loves Me" and occasionally said, "What happened? I can't see." Today she is 50 and still blind in one eye.
Immediately after the four girls were identified, the authorities began "furious background checks on them, the search for some flaw deserving punishment." But their records were clean: None, that is, had participated in the recent civil rights demonstrations. Thus, even the city fathers and the local press had to agree they were "innocent."
The big question was never who the bombers were--they were identified by the FBI and the police almost immediately. The big question, McWhorter shows, is what permitted them to get away with it--"the state's malevolence or the FBI's negligence." Dozens of bombings had been carried out by the Klan in the preceding few years, virtually none of which were prosecuted. The FBI's informant in the local Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, participated in some of them. McWhorter's index has ninety entries for "bombings," starting in the late 1940s. Most Klan bombings in the fifties targeted upwardly mobile blacks moving into middle-class white neighborhoods.
After the 16th Street church bombing, local authorities kept suggesting that blacks were the bombers. The police took the church custodian in for questioning. The FBI's pursuit of witnesses was unhurried, which gave the Klansmen more time to coordinate alibis. FBI informant Rowe told a Birmingham policeman that the man who put up the money to have the church bombed was Harry Belafonte.
The man convicted just weeks ago, Thomas Blanton Jr., was part of an extremist subgroup of the Klan. Initially he focused his violent hatred on Catholics, like the Klan of the 1920s. He had a neighbor, a widow, who was Catholic; she received regular "anonymous calls" from a voice she recognized as his--she had known him for eighteen years--telling her "Niggers and Catholics have to die." Once he threw red paint on her new white Ford and slashed her tires. Earlier in 1963 Blanton had been talking about organizing a church bombing, but he wanted to bomb a Catholic church, not a Negro one. "His associates pronounced him not intelligent enough to make a bomb but dumb enough to place it."
The other man recently charged with the bombing has been judged mentally incapable of standing trial. But in 1962-63, Bobby Frank Cherry was 32 years old, had "no upper front teeth, a 'Bobby' tattoo on his arm, seven kids, and a wife he beat and cheated on." He had been a police suspect in the 1958 attempted bombing of Birmingham's Temple Beth El, and McWhorter has evidence strongly suggesting that he also participated in bombing churches in January 1962, almost two years before the four girls were killed. If the FBI had investigated him after the 1962 explosions, that might have prevented the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, but as McWhorter points out, "instead the FBI was investigating Martin Luther King," proposing to, as the bureau put it, "expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the leader of the civil rights movement. (In the middle of the Birmingham battle, Bobby Kennedy agreed to let J. Edgar Hoover wiretap King.)
The killing of the four black girls finally spurred the Kennedy Administration to propose, Congress to pass and new President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination in public facilities--the first significant civil rights legislation in a century. The bombing followed the biggest and most successful mass civil rights demonstrations in US history--police met the thousands of marchers with fire hoses and dogs. Today the history of the civil rights movement seems like one of steady progress: first the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which propelled King to national prominence and established nonviolent direct action as the new tactic, supplanting the legal gradualism of the NAACP; then, in 1960-61, the sit-in movement, in which small groups of courageous students across the South took the lead in a direct personal challenge to segregation; then the Freedom Rides, where a few brave people provoked racist violence that compelled the Kennedy Administration to enter the civil rights arena; and finally Birmingham, where mass protests filled the jails and finally won national legislation outlawing segregation in public accommodations.
What's been forgotten is the grim situation that faced King and the Movement at the outset of the Birmingham campaign in 1962. It had been seven long years since the Montgomery bus boycott--seven years with intermittent acts of immense heroism but without concrete victories. The Southern states were defiant, and the Kennedys, as Victor Navasky argued in Kennedy Justice, considered activists like Martin Luther King to be a problem that endangered their real initiatives, like a tax cut and fighting communism. By 1963 King and the Movement desperately needed a nationally significant victory, somewhere.
King himself had not, up to 1963, initiated any civil rights protest himself--starting with Montgomery in 1955, he was brought in as a spokesman after the action had already begun. Birmingham was no different. Here the real hero and moving force was Fred Shuttlesworth, in many ways the opposite of King--a man of the people, not of the elite; a man who courted danger and pushed the envelope, who stayed till the end, unlike King, who was criticized for leaving town early and leaving "a community stranded with false hope and huge legal fees." Much of the story of Birmingham is the story of Shuttlesworth's brilliant strategic initiatives and awesome physical courage--and King's more cautious efforts to negotiate a settlement by enlisting the White House, in exchange for calling off the demonstrations. It was Shuttlesworth who set out to launch mass demonstrations, fill the jails and compel the city leaders to desegregate downtown businesses and public facilities. McWhorter's book also shows just how close the Birmingham campaign came to failure. A month into the campaign, few people had signed up to go to jail--barely 300 in total, even though King himself had gone to jail. "There are more Negroes going to jail for getting drunk," one Movement leader commented.
What turned this around was an idea of James Bevel's--he had been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, who later became field secretary for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His idea for Birmingham: Fill the jails with children. The adults were full of doubt and fear, but the kids were eager. Hundreds boycotted school on May 2, 1963, instead gathering at the 16th Street Baptist Church, then marching into the streets--more than a thousand of them. The children confronted the cops, singing in high voices "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" and "Which Side Are You On?" and then were ushered into buses to go to jail. For the first time, King and his lieutenants had achieved Gandhi's goal--fill the jails.
The next day thousands more showed up to march. That was the day of the fire hoses. The city's fire chief initially resisted officials' attempts to enlist the fire department in attacking demonstrators, on the grounds that the national union of firefighters officially opposed using fire equipment to "control" crowds. But when the orders came, they turned on high-pressure hoses powerful enough to knock a big man off his feet, blast the shirts off people's backs and flush individuals down the gutters.
The success of the civil rights movement on the national political landscape required not just heroic action by large numbers of ordinary black people; it also required that the viciousness of the opponents of civil rights be presented vividly and dramatically to ordinary American newspaper readers and TV watchers. In this, the Birmingham movement turned out to be supremely fortunate to have the grotesque Eugene "Bull" Connor as police commissioner. Photos of young demonstrators linking arms and standing up to the high-pressure hoses made page one around the world. Life magazine ran a two-page spread of the most dramatic photo of firemen blasting demonstrators, headlined "They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out." The photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators had the same effect. The New York Times ran a photo of a dog biting a demonstrator on page one, three columns wide and above the fold, headlined "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham."
Key reporters had already found the civil rights drama a compelling story. In 1960, the New York Times published a blazing Harrison Salisbury story on page one before the Birmingham campaign got going: "Every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." State authorities responded by charging Salisbury with forty-two counts of criminal libel. The Times's response was to order its reporters to stay out of Alabama--not exactly a fighting stance--which meant that other news organizations would henceforth get the story while the Times relied on wire copy for the climactic battles. The Times didn't return until a year later, when Claude Sitton persuaded executives to let him cover the aftermath of the Freedom Rides.
While the Times proved gun-shy on Alabama, CBS-TV didn't; network president Frank Stanton sent reporter Howard K. Smith to Birmingham to make a documentary. (Even though Stanton was not exactly a civil rights advocate; he also "blacked out all Negro speakers at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.")Smith's crew set out to interview leading whites; the head of the elite Women's Committee told him on camera that "one of the contributing factors to our creativeness in the South is sort of a joyousness of the Negro." But she was worried because it had been four or five years since she had "heard Negroes just spontaneously break into song." Smith also turned out to be the only national reporter on the scene when the Freedom Riders arrived and were savagely beaten by a white mob while the police stood by.
Who Speaks for Birmingham? aired on CBS in 1961 and featured Smith's account of the mob attack on the Freedom Riders. Network executives complained that the program "presented Birmingham's Negroes in a better light than its whites," but executive producer Fred Friendly fought to keep the whole thing, and in the end gave up only Smith's closing line, a quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." But when the same Howard K. Smith criticized Kennedy in his regular Sunday radio commentary, asking whether "we really deserve to win the cold war" in view of the racist violence in Birmingham, CBS News suspended him from his job as Washington bureau chief.
The media coverage was crucial, but one of the secrets of the demonstrations was that neither the police nor the media distinguished between marchers and spectators. Only a couple of hundred people joined the early official demonstrations, but a thousand or more turned out to watch and see what happened. The police attacked everybody, and the press reported thousands of demonstrators.
Carry Me Home includes the most detailed account ever of the Birmingham Movement's strategy and tactics, day by day and hour by hour, but what makes it unique is its account of the local opposition to civil rights, and particularly the links between the "Big Mules," who ran Birmingham's industrial economy, and the Klan bombers. The book's most important contribution is its decisive evidence that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church "was the endgame in the city fathers' long and profitable tradition of maintaining their industrial supremacy through vigilantism."
Birmingham had never been what you would call a happy place--the New South's one center of heavy industry, it was a city where the ruling elite fought working-class militancy with the most blatant racism. Power in Birmingham centered on US Steel, which ran the town along fascist lines--one Communist organizer in the 1930s was sentenced to a shackled road crew for possessing "seditious" literature, which included The Nation magazine. The dirty work of the Big Mules was carried out by the Alabama Klan, which was reorganized in the 1930s as an antiunion shock force.
Charles DeBardeleben headed the Big Mules--he ran the biggest coal company in the state, and his father had pretty much founded Birmingham as a coal and iron center. By the mid-1930s DeBardeleben was also a secret corporate benefactor of the Constitutional Educational League, part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists. The league's 1938 banquet featured George Van Horn Moseley, who "advocated sterilizing all Jewish immigrants to the US." McWhorter names the names of the other key Big Mules and shows their connections to the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s.
History also loomed large for the Jewish businessmen who owned the downtown department stores that were the target of the demonstrators' demands for integration and jobs. Birmingham's Jews had been traumatized a generation earlier during the Scottsboro trial, when the nine "Boys" were defended during their rape trial by a Jewish attorney from New York named Samuel Liebowitz. The state's closing statement challenged the jury to "show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The jury obliged.
That was 1933. Thirty years later, Birmingham's Jews were still feeling defensive. One liked to tell his gentile friends, "It wasn't the Birmingham Jews who killed Jesus. It was the Miami Jews." Now they declared that they were as opposed to "outside agitators" as Bull Connor--indeed, one Birmingham Jewish organization issued a public statement demanding not only that Martin Luther King stay away but that the Anti-Defamation League stay out of Birmingham.
Birmingham is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King composed his best-known written work, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It wasn't King's idea. Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, suggested that King write a "letter from prison" for the magazine. The missive that King wrote turned out to be a classic, "the most eloquent treatment of the nexus between law and injustice since Thoreau's essay 'Civil Disobedience.'" But when King submitted his piece, the Times editors rejected it. It wasn't printed for another two months, and then in The Atlantic Monthly.
The Martin Luther King who appears in McWhorter's account is not very heroic. His claim that "unearned suffering is redemptive," made at the March on Washington earlier that year, seemed irresponsible to more and more blacks, ranging from SNCC militants to ordinary Birmingham blacks. In King's first statement after the bombing, he asked, "Who murdered those four girls?" and answered, "The apathy and complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil." Carole Robertson's mother had not participated in the demonstrations; she was so outraged at King blaming her for her daughter's murder that she refused to join the three other families in a mass funeral for the girls.
At the other end of the spectrum in black Birmingham were the men who saw the events as providing "a chance to kill us a cracker." The Movement's insistence that marchers take a pledge of nonviolence was based on leaders' knowledge of the deep rage that black men in particular bore for whites. "At mass meetings, King began passing around a box for people to deposit razors, knives, ice picks, and pistols, and salted his inspirational calls to dignity with reminders that being black did not in itself constitute a virtue." People needed courage and hope before they could take the pledge of nonviolence.
McWhorter's panoramic cast includes blacks on the wrong side of the Movement. "Rat Killer" ran the 17th Street Shine Parlor, a popular after-hours spot where visiting stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and the Temptations hung out, and where Movement preachers got their shoes shined. But Rat Killer was "Bull Connor's right-hand man" in the black community--he traded information for informal permission to sell bootleg liquor and do some pimping.
McWhorter weaves her personal story throughout the book, and these sections provide uniquely rich and revealing evidence of the blindness of middle-class whites in this era. The book opens at Birmingham's elite white country club on a Sunday, when McWhorter was having brunch as usual with her family. It turns out to have been the morning the church was bombed. McWhorter was a year younger than the youngest of the four girls killed. Although the bombing marked a turning point in the nation's history, her family took little note of it. She doesn't remember it at all, and her mother's diary entry for that day says only that Diane's rehearsal for the community theater production of The Music Man was canceled--not in mourning over the deaths but because whites feared that black people would riot.
The police dogs that horrified the world were well-known to McWhorter. Before the historic day they attacked the demonstrators, the police brought one of the dogs to an assembly at her school to demonstrate its crime-fighting abilities. McWhorter was so excited by the event that she changed her career goal to police-dog handler (she had planned to become an Olympic equestrian).
At the end of the book, McWhorter finally confronts her father on tape. He says he's told friends his daughter is writing a book about "the nigger movement," but says he wasn't in the Klan and was never involved in murdering anyone. She concludes he was a camp follower but not much of an activist.
The rest of the key figures in the story are mostly dead now: Bull Connor died in 1973; Robert Chambliss, until Blanton the only man convicted in the bombing (in a 1977 trial brought by then-Alabama Attorney General Baxley), died in 1985 while serving his prison term. (Baxley ran for governor in 1978 and lost.) The FBI's Klan informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, admitted that he and three Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; the killers were acquitted of murder (but not of violating her civil rights), and Rowe went into the witness protection program after the trial and died in 1998. The other Klan bombers died too, until the only ones left seemed to be Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton.
Chambliss's 1977 trial exploded back to life early this May with Baxley's New York Times Op-Ed. He wrote that he had "requested, demanded and begged the FBI for evidence" from 1971 through 1977; that his office was "repeatedly stonewalled"; that the bureau practiced "deception," the result of which was that Blanton went "free for 24 years" while the FBI had "smoking gun evidence hidden in its files." He concluded by describing "the disgust" he felt over the FBI's conduct. No state attorney general has ever spoken so forcefully in criticizing the bureau.
Now Blanton has been convicted, but virtually all the other Southern white men who killed blacks during the heyday of the civil rights movement have gone unpunished. In the end the Klan bombers may not be the biggest villains in this story. It's the city and state officials, including the police and the FBI, who tolerated and sometimes encouraged racist violence, and the Kennedy brothers, who didn't want to do anything about it until they were forced to. Diane McWhorter started writing about "growing up on the wrong side of the civil rights revolution"; she ended up with the most important book on the movement since Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. It should become a classic.
His mayoral campaign platform is the most progressive in modern city history.
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Angry over the Florida debacle, African-Americans may retaliate in 2002.
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.
The grand ambition of the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life.
In the near future we plan to expand our faith-based initiative, Holy Terror Sandblasting and Demolition Corp. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani finds much merit in our proposal for a workfare program in which homeless people (men only, naturellement!) would be trained in medieval theology, art criticism and the use of explosives. Please send dollars and the floor plan of the Brooklyn Museum. Or else.
Dear Professor DiIulio,
With medical costs going through the roof, you'd think there'd be a better way. And now, with the Lord's help, there is! Our idea is to buy up struggling inner-city hospitals and turn them into profit centers--no doctors, no nurses, no fancy-shmancy machines and best of all, no messy malpractice suits. Just the blessed healing power of prayer, provided 24 hours a day at bedside by recovering drug addicts as part of their therapy. It's total win-win--the government saves, the patient is saved--if not in this world, the next. And that's the world that counts, right?
Rev. Tommy Johnson
Pentecostal Holiness Church, Memphis, TN
People say communism is just another religion, and they're right! We have everything the other faiths have--an all-encompassing worldview, sacred texts, meetings (and how!), schisms, excommunications and declining numbers and influence. We'd like to reverse that last item with funding for our workfare proposal: First, we provide welfare mothers a crash course in job readiness, parenting skills and the works of Karl Marx. Then, we get them jobs in daycare centers, where they pass their new "faith" on to the next generation, hopefully in time for the stock market crash. Don't count us out--a god that failed is still a god.
The Communist Party, USA
Dear Brother in Christ,
Did you know the Chicago Archdiocese has an exorcist on staff? Our faith-based initiative, The Exercist, would get this superbly trained but underutilized man out of the apse and into the community, where he'd help the so-called mentally ill get their sillies out with a carefully graduated low-impact aerobic workout that goes beyond head swiveling and projectile vomiting to get at the real nitty-gritty of diabolical possession! Then, everyone cools down with a sharing session, novena and group hug: because admitting you're possessed by the Devil is half the cure!
Hope to hear from you soon,
Msgr. George O'Reilly
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
Dear Prof. DiIulio,
For ten years we've been trying to get our own public school district so our kids wouldn't have to go to school with goyim. The courts keep turning us down. Then we wanted buses with only male drivers and sex-segregated seating, and the self-hating Jewish liberals said no to that too. So we would like to become a Faith-Based Initiative with ourselves as clients. Our project is, we stay in our own town and only talk to each other. Because that's what G-d wants. Eventually we hope to get NEA funding as a conceptual art project ("The Choice: Chosen People Choose Themselves"), but a starter grant from your office would really put us on track.
Let us know,
Rabbi Shlomo Greenblatt, Kiryas Joel, NY
Ever wonder what's really behind that weird weather of recent years ? Hint: It's a long time between burnt offerings. How about paying some deadbeat dads to slaughter a herd of oxen and throw those fabulous thighbones on the barbie? Everybody benefits: They learn the meat business, you get fruitful harvests, favorable winds and calm winedark seas, and we get a decent meal. Reply soonest--the wife is pushing me to zap you with a thunderbolt.
Death Row Dad is a moving story of one father's embrace of capital punishment--despite his own imminent execution! While his ACLU lawyer tries frantically to turn up new evidence even as his own marriage unravels, and beautiful crusading nun Helen Prejean pleads with the governor for a stay, Leroy, who is in fact innocent, wants only that his son renounce his homosexual lifestyle and accept Christ as his personal savior. Soon the whole prison--even the crusty warden and a pair of racist guards--is praying for Leroy to get his wish. Jack, I promise you, when Leroy looks up from the gurney just before the lethal injection, sees his son standing there with his new girlfriend, and rejects the last-minute stay of execution ("I reckon the Lord is waitin' for my sorry self"), the audience won't know whether to cheer or go down on its knees. Morgan's people think yes for the lead, Julia's very interested in doing the nun. A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your office comes through with co-financing.
Talk to you after the prayer meeting,
How about a grant where I become a lay minister and practice laying on of hands? There's a whole heck of a lot of lonely women out there with big spiritual needs. I mean, really big.