April 11, 2013
The powerful protest song We Shall Overcome served as the unofficial anthem of the American Civil Rights movement and symbolized an era. 50 years after the March on Washington and 150 years following the Emancipation Proclamation, have we overcome racism? Are civil rights guaranteed for all?
Victoria Christgau, Founder and Executive Director of the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, is a lifelong peace and nonviolence educator. She is also the Founder and Director of the Peace is Possible Chorus and serves as a Peace Representative for the World Peace Prayer Society. She is the winner of the Hartford Courant's 2010 Tapestry Award for her work building bridges and understanding.
Deacon Arthur L. Miller is director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Hartford. An African American who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, Deacon Miller was 10 years old in 1955 when his schoolmate Emmett Till, age 14, was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman -- an incident that energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Today, Deacon Miller speaks out against 21st-century examples of the same intolerance.
OPENING REMARKS:Victoria Christgau Victoria suggested that “Have we overcome?” is so broad that it is almost not a question – it is obvious that it is a work in progress. She was 12 when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and her class wore black wristbands and cried for a week; her principal almost got in trouble for allowing her students to do so. That was when the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence was “formed…not officially, but in my soul.”
She shared Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence and focused on #3: Non-violence recognizes that evildoers are also victims, and not evil people. The non-violent resister seeks to defeat evil, not people. Dr. King said the forces of evil were militarism/war, poverty and racism.
Victoria shared that even though we have begun to overcome:
- In 2003 a famous author visited a restaurant in Litchfield County and felt a sense of racism.
- 25.4% of residents in Hartford are classified as “poor,” being 2x below the poverty level.
- Insidious forms of voting control exist: misinformation, fliers, the internet.
- The election of the first black president was an important moment in our history, but we cannot stop there; we must continue the momentum.
- 1 in 3 black and 1 in 6 Latinos born in 2001 are likely to be incarcerated.
- 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence.
- 3 out of 4 Americans know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence.
- A child dies or is injured by guns every 30 minutes.
- More children under 5 were killed by guns in 2010 than law enforcement officers in the same year.
- We cannot be satisfied until we end this culture of racism, violence, modern slavery.
Her organization, the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence does work in schools across Hartford. Some schools have no windows, and are designed by the same architects who design prisons. We need to call on our conscience as a nation and appoint ourselves as “ambassadors of learning” to understand such issues. We can all affect each other and make a difference.
Deacon Arthur L. Miller
Deacon Miller read an excerpt from one of his speeches about the Emancipation Proclamation and the “watch night” experience of December 31, 1862 (the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln). Today, black Americans continue “watch night,” awaiting fairness and equality. He spoke about one of his childhood classmates, Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14.
Two weeks before Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech, at the age of 17, Deacon Miller sat in prison as a result of participating in a sit-in in Chicago. He was told that if he was hit by the police, he could not hit back otherwise they’d get arrested. He realized that his hope could not be beaten.
Deacon Miller talked about how even today he is followed by the police, his male children and grandchildren continue to be followed by officers.
Audience comment: A woman introduced us to her daughter who is black, though she is white. She adopted her daughter when she was 9 months old, and though they bonded, the “powers that be” wanted her to be with a black family. She had to hire a lawyer to keep her daughter, and felt it was a misuse of power. She found her voice and has had to continue to voice her thoughts on inequities and discrimination.
Audience question: Why did they want to take her away from you?
Audience member: “Because I was the wrong color.” Her father was a Congregational minister in Meriden, and was fired because he allowed a black church (whose building was burned down) to use his church. She met Martin Luther King, Jr. when she was 10 years old. She feels like she is a “voice in the wilderness” and gets lonely.
Deacon Miller: We need to stay strong and speak up, the act of righteousness stands along as the support. He asked why Emmett Till was murdered – history books say it was because he whistled at a white woman, but the perpetrator is the reason why he was killed; he ventured into a community of hatred in a country that allowed it. We will not succeed until false histories like this are corrected
Victoria: We desegregated but did not integrate.
Audience comment: Desegregation did not necessarily benefit the black community. She only knew 3 white families where she grew up in Alabama. When schools became desegregated, all the whites fled and only one white boy remained. Sheff vs. O’Neill in Connecticut is about money, test scores – education officials know what they’re doing is wrong, but do not want to sacrifice their jobs.
Audience comment: Many northerners agreed with Dr. King, but when he decided it was not about voting rights and started talking about poverty, making changes in the system, etc., things started to change. The audience member was part of a group that read about Dr. King and his views on poverty after his assassination, and found he was killed when he was on his way to a poverty gathering.
Audience comment: The north was alright with MLK as long as he came to work on the tobacco fields. When he returned as an orator, spokesperson, thinker, is when they had a problem with him. It’s not until the history is correct that things will work out.
Deacon Miller: The only difference between the north and south were the signs that did/did not allow blacks. In the south, signs told the blacks and whites where to be, but in the north everyone was segregated by housing; those barriers continue.
Audience comment: We have not overcome. We have removed some legal impediments: you can go to a better school if you can get there, you can eat at the same place if you can afford the food. When the audience member was a child, kids of different races played together outside – but that no longer happens. Magnet schools are great, but are still predominantly black and Hispanic. They are economically diverse, but not racially. People who live in Hartford should go to other communities and meet someone “who you don’t know and who doesn’t look like you”; get out of your comfort zone and break down some barriers.
Audience comments: A woman’s mother said she could not clean bathrooms at G. Fox because no black people worked there. A young man told the audience member last week that he could not get a job because he could not fill out the application. Blacks continue to do the menial work downtown, which does not allow them to move on.
Audience comment: Many things have changed. The audience member’s mother was one of the first black mailroom women at AT&T. She is one of 11, but they all went to college with good financial support. They moved to the north and got jobs as productive citizens. She also studies African American history. In the 1960s, the main employment for black women was maid and housekeeper. Today, many black women are overeducated, but racism still exists (as her current research shows). “Since we cannot change the color of our skin…what are the markers for you of us having overcome? The black middle class does not seem to be it, and the gains in education does not seem to be it.”
Deacon Miller: Racial and economic injustice are twin demons, they go hand in hand. The disparity between poverty and non-poverty riches has grown. What does true freedom look like? He doesn’t know, but he can dream about it. About his grandchildren growing up where they can grow and be successful no matter what they look like. That is not where we are now. Coming together for conversations like this is what fosters advancement. We need a history where there is no black history, where truths are not about the victims (as is with the story of Emmett Till).
Deacon Miller passed out a quadrant chart he has been working on (see below):
- Parents’ wealth
- Two parents
- Food and water
- Good education
- Terrible schools
- Parents who don’t care
- Things that warp a human spirit and “kill” a child
Deacon Miller has done this talk for CT parole officers and other groups. When you look at the characteristics, the unearned advantages tend to be characteristic of white communities, unearned disadvantages tend to be characteristic of black/minority communities. People need to understand where they fall, and not let their disadvantages affect their earned advantages.
Audience comment: Slaves did not overcome when they were free. The audience member was released from parole 10 years ago but finally just got his right to vote back; he is still building his life back, he has not overcome. Like a former slave he has been kept in the stigma of poverty and oppression. We haven’t overcome yet, but we can – it takes “forums like this.” People who are incarcerated will come home and they need to be educated on becoming a good citizen – but will they be accepted?
Audience comment: Connecticut has the largest population of incarcerated black and Latino men, as well as the longest prison sentences of the entire country. When you look at those numbers and the education disparities, the numbers align. When you have a lack of education, what are you going to foster? There are young men under 17 who have committed murder but will be released if they have completed half their sentence – psychologists have said they did not have the proper education; it is an imbalance all the way around. After incarceration, people need to be helped and educated so they can get jobs – when you go in with a lack of education, then have a lack of education when you leave, how do you succeed? “We are a small state but we have some tall numbers” when it comes to disparities.
Audience comment: When we live in a state with the highest per capita income, we know we will have high disparities. Young men have to understand that they can become citizens after prison – they do not understand they can get their voices back. The whole mystique of white privilege: someone said “these black men are coming up and are coming up strong. They are educated and taking our jobs, we need to do something about it.” Because we are the highest per capita state, we have people with a lot to lose. To make a difference we need to fight for a better educational system.
Audience comment: Racism is a well-planned strategy. We have to develop a strategy to counteract what racism is doing to black people.
Bill Costen: Bill has a traveling exhibit on black history that he takes to different schools and venues. For three years he took the exhibit to MacDougall-Walker and York Correctional Institutions. As he observed the inmates looking at the exhibit, he was surprised by the number of brilliant inmates. The inmates just made a mistake. In 1966 he got to go to lunch with Martin Luther King, Jr., though he did not know who he was. He has spent the past three years putting black history on Facebook every day as his effort to help raise awareness of blacks in American history. (http://www.skyendeavors.net or The Costen Cultural Exhibit on Facebook.
Audience comment: There is an exhibit at the Y on Albany Avenue entitled Question Bridge: Black Males (www.questionbridge.com), a three hour video with no beginning, middle or end – it is a series of questions by young black men that are answered by older black men. A program will be held at the Y on May 4 at 12pm.
Victoria: Her organization has made the effort to bring history into Hartford communities to raise awareness and show it is not black history but American history. “When will we arrive? When it becomes American history across the board.” They are concerned about systemic violence which has created internal violence, and the outgrowth is what we are seeing. We are inextricably tied, and Dr. King’s message of love is what unites us.
Audience comment: The audience member encouraged attendees to teach people what the laws say. She worked through the 1960s to get laws changed so that racism and prejudice are not allowed. Most people, however, do not know about the law and what it allows. Audience comment: When you talk about law in Hartford, it is hard to sell to young people. She had a young man call her to help when his car was stopped randomly for a drug bust – his future was on the line, but the officers were ready to put him in jail. When she herself drives around, especially when her son is with her, she runs the risk of being pulled over because of the color of her skin.
Inspiration to Action:
Explore the links featured on our Takeaway Sheet for more information and ways you can take action!
Inspiration to Action:
- Dr. King’s 3 issues: war, poverty, racism – are we satisfied?
- Find your voice and speak up!
- Meet someone who doesn’t look like you
- Get out of your comfort zone
- Shop in a different neighborhood
- Dream about it change, imagine what it looks like
- Make black history American history
- Help and allow people to see where they are
- Share your experiences with young people
- Accept who you are, accept others
- Fight for our educational system
- Develop a strategy to combat racism
- Find The Costen Cultural Exhibit on Facebook and help spread the history
- Visit QuestionBridge exhibit at the Y on Albany Ave or Wesleyan University (questionbridge.com)
- Bring American history to children
- Avoid internal violence
- Know the law and talk about it
- Remember that we are all in this together and there is lots of work to do!
Explore the links featured on our Takeaway Sheet for more information and ways you can take action!