Black History Month — The First Black Voter

Today is February 1st … well, okay, by the time you’re reading this it’s actually February 2nd, but right now, as I am writing, it is February 1st.  February 1st marks the beginning of this year’s Black History Month.  Now, obviously I cannot give Black History Month the attention it deserves, but I do plan a few posts throughout the month.  This year’s theme could not be more relevant to the times, and although this post is not part of mine and Jeff’s project, Discord & Dissension, it ties in nicely with our theme this week.  The 2020 Black History theme is African Americans and the Vote.

black-history-2020The year 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement.  The year 2020 also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the right of black men to the ballot after the Civil War.  The theme speaks, therefore, to the ongoing struggle on the part of both black men and black women for the right to vote. This theme has a rich and long history, which begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, i.e., in the era of the Early Republic, with the states’ passage of laws that democratized the vote for white men while disfranchising free black men. Thus, even before the Civil War, black men petitioned their legislatures and the US Congress, seeking to be recognized as voters. Tensions between abolitionists and women’s suffragists first surfaced in the aftermath of the Civil War, while black disfranchisement laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries undermined the guarantees in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for the great majority of southern blacks until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The important contribution of black suffragists occurred not only within the larger women’s movement, but within the larger black voting rights movement. Through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1960s, African Americans made their voices heard as to the importance of the vote.  Indeed, the fight for black voting rights continues in the courts today.  The theme of the vote should also include the rise of black elected and appointed officials at the local and national levels, campaigns for equal rights legislation, as well as the role of blacks in traditional and alternative political parties.

So, today let’s take a look at the very first African-American to cast a vote in the United States …

Thomas_Mundy

America’s first Black vote was cast in New Jersey

On Feb. 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting “the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color, or previous condition of servitude” giving Black men the right to vote across the nation.

Just under a month later the first African American vote was cast in Perth Amboy, N.J. on March 31, 1870 by Thomas Mundy Peterson.

Born in 1824 in Metuchen, N.J., Peterson was the son of ex-slave Lucy Green. Peterson worked as a janitor and handyman in Perth Amboy.

After the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted, Peterson participated in Perth Amboy’s local election held at city hall over the city’s charter. A member of the Republican and Prohibition Parties, he cast his ballot in favor of revising the existing charter, making him the first African American to vote in any election in the nation.

Along with being the first Black person to vote in America, he was also the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury. Peterson would go on to be one of seven people appointed to make amendments to the charter’s revisions he voted in favor of.

In 1884, in honor of his history-making ballot, the Perth Amboy community raised the equivalent of $1,800 in modern dollars to buy Peterson a gold medallion featuring Abraham Lincoln’s profile.

“Presented by the citizens of Perth Amboy, N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 31st 1870,” the medallion’s inscription states.

Peterson died in 1904 at the age of 79. The medallion Peterson received is housed at the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. In 2017, the university loaned the medallion to the City of Perth Amboy for a presentation at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

“During the 19th century, and even up to the present day, many communities have attempted to stop African Americans from voting. Perth Amboy is different, that is, we encouraged the right to vote,” said local businessman and historian John Kerry Dyke. “The Thomas Mundy Peterson medal is more than just an award. It represents the efforts of all good people that want to enfranchise America’s voters. It embodies the concept that all men are created equal.” – Cyril Josh Baker, New York Amsterdam News, 30 January 2020

Elijah Cummings — A Brief Tribute

“Our Congress & our country has lost a champion for justice, a fighter for good, an honorable and zealous leader.” – Democratic U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who was a fierce advocate for civil rights and for Maryland for more than three decades. Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore City and working to improve people’s lives. He was a passionate and dedicated public servant whose countless contributions made our state and our country better.” – Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland

“There was no stronger advocate and no better friend than Elijah Cummings. I am heartbroken for his wonderful family and staff—please pray for them. I will miss him dearly.” – Republican Representative, Member of the House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows

These are but a few of the comments that could be heard today following the announcement that U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings has died.  People on both sides of the political chasm were deeply saddened to hear of his death.  Let me tell you just a little bit about this man …

Born on 18 January 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, his parents were sharecroppers.  But Elijah rose above his beginnings, graduating from law school at the University of Maryland School of Law, receiving his J.D. in 1976.  He practiced law for 19 years until 1996 when he successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served tirelessly ever since. Elijah-4Elijah came of age in the Civil Rights era, and got his first taste of racial hatred when he was eleven years old.  He and his friends were getting too big for the small, shallow public pool where they had been spending the summer of 1962 …

“As a matter of fact, it was so small, we had to wait turns to get in.”

But there was another pool, and someone they knew as “Miss Mitchell” told them they could swim there.  It was Riverside Park Pool, an Olympic-size pool that was theoretically open to all, but the reality was somewhat different.  So, Elijah and his friends headed over to the pool, and for a few days enjoyed swimming there.  Until … hordes of arrogant white people, numbering nearly 1,000, showed up carrying signs that read “Keep Our Pool Germ Free”, “Go Back Where You Came From”, and “White People Have Rights Too”.

The mob surrounded the pool, held back by a line of police with K-9 dogs, while the kids tried to splash and play. Then, over the police officers’ heads, the mob threw rocks and bottles. One of them hit Cummings in the face, cutting his eyebrow and leaving a scar he carried all his life.  Perhaps it was this that led Cummings to a lifetime of fighting for justice.

While Cummings has long been an advocate for Civil Rights, and has fought for justice since his early days, he first came onto my radar in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray in Cumming’s district in Baltimore.  He gave an impassioned speech at Gray’s funeral in April 2015, promising “we will not rest until we address this and see that justice is done.”

In early May of that year, charges were filed against the six officers who were involved in the murder of Freddie Gray, and riots erupted in the city.  Elijah Cummings defused the situation, placing himself between the crowd and the police, and urging protestors to go home, to be peaceful.  (Not a single one of the officers involved in Gray’s death was convicted)Elijah-3Former President Barack Obama paid tribute to Cummings this morning …

“It’s a tribute to his native Baltimore that one of its own brought such character, tact, and resolve into the halls of power every day. And true to the giants of progress he followed into public service, Chairman Cummings stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most. May his example inspire more Americans to pick up the baton and carry it forward in a manner worthy of his service.”

Elijah-2.jpgElijah Cummings was one of the good guys.  There are too few of them left, and he will be sorely missed.Elijah-1

♫ Dancing In The Street ♫

I hope you’re in the mood for a bit of something upbeat tonight, for I am greatly in need of what I think of as ‘happy music’, which often leads me to Motown, and tonight is no exception.

This song was written by Motown songwriters Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter, and William “Mickey” Stevenson. It became the biggest hit and trademark song for Martha & the Vandellas.  According to the song’s co-writer Mickey Stevenson, the idea for dancing came to him while riding with Marvin Gaye through Detroit. During the summer, the city would open up fire hydrants and let the water out in the streets so they could play in the water to cool off. They appeared to be dancing in the water.  I actually remember one city I lived in as a child doing that … opening the fire hydrants on hot summer days!

Martha Reeves was the leader of the group.  Back in the early days, she was trying to get her foot in the door at Motown, but they wouldn’t even give her an audition, so she applied for and got a job as secretary.  Part of her secretarial duties was singing lyrics to new songs onto tapes so backup singers could learn the words. This led to fill-in work as a backup singer, where she impressed Motown executives with her voice.  She convinced them to hire her friends, Annette Sterling and Rosalind Ashford, and thus was born Martha and the Vandellas!  After backing up Marvin Gaye on some of his songs, Motown gave them songs to sing on their own, including the hit Heat Wave.

Martha Reeves told the story behind this song …

“Marvin Gaye had recorded ‘Dancing in the Street” when I first heard it, and he had put a real smooth vocal on there, sort of like (jazzy singing) ‘Calling all around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat baby?’ and for some reason, Marvin said, “let’s try this song on Martha.” I was in the office and they let me hear the song, but I couldn’t quite feel it that way. I had been to Rio De Janeiro, I had travelled to New Orleans during Carnival time, so I just knew it had to be somewhere about dancing in the street. I said, ‘Can I sing it the way that I feel it?’ And they said, ‘Go ahead.’

So, I sang it (singing on the beat) ‘calling all around the world are you ready for a brand-new beat,’ and, they loved it. There was all kinds of congratulatory hand slaps and ‘hey man, we got a hit in that window up there,’ and the engineer, Lawrence Horn, looked and said, ‘I didn’t turn the machine on.’

I had to sing it again. So, the second time I sang it, there’s a little bit of anger there because I had to repeat it. It was a straight performance and that’s why it sounds live. I think that’s the secret of the success of the hit – the fact that I had to do it again, and I did it without a mistake or without any interruption, and the feeling was just right on that song.”

The song took on a different meaning when riots in inner-city America led to many young black demonstrators citing the song as a civil rights anthem to social change which also led to some radio stations taking the song off its play list because certain black advocates such as H. Rap Brown began playing the song while organizing demonstrations.

The British press aggravated Reeves one time when someone put a microphone in her face and asked her if she was a militant leader. The British journalist wanted to know if Reeves agreed, as many people had claimed, that Dancing in the Street was a call to riot. To Reeves, the query was patently absurd. ‘My Lord, it was a party song,’ she remarked.

Like many a Motown hit, this song has been covered by many, including The Mamas and The Papas, Val Halen, Grateful Dead, David Bowie & Mick Jagger as a duet, and many more.  But to me, Martha and the Vandellas own this one.

Dancing in the Street
Martha and the Vandellas

Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
They’re dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
In New York City.

All we need is music, sweet music.
There’ll be music everywhere.
There’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing,
Dancing in the street.
Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear,
Just as long as you are there.
So come on, every guy, grab a girl.
Everywhere around the world
They’ll be dancing.
They’re dancing in the street.

It’s an invitation across the nation,
A chance for folks to meet.
There’ll be laughing, singing, and music swinging,
Dancing in the street.
Philadelphia, P.A.
Baltimore and D.C. now.
Can’t forget the Motor City.

All we need is music, sweet music.
There’ll be music everywhere.
There’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing,
Dancing in the street.
Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear,
Just as long as you are there.
So come on, every guy, grab a girl.
Everywhere around the world
They’re dancing.
They’re dancing in the street.

Way down in L.A. ev’ry day,
They’re dancing in the street.
(Dancing in the street.)
Let’s form a big, strong line, get in time,
We’re dancing in the street.
(Dancing in the street.)
Across the ocean blue, me and you,
We’re dancing in the street.

Songwriters: Marvin Gaye / William Stevenson / Ivy Hunter
Dancing in the Street lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Carlin America Inc

On Black History Month

It is easy to lose sight of many things with all the hoopla that comes out of Washington, D.C. these days.  Things that might otherwise be front-page news, are relegated to a paragraph of small print somewhere in the clutter.  February is Black History Month in the U.S. and Canada, and it deserves attention, rather than being stuck in a dark corner filled with the smoke left by Washington politics.

black history quoe1The History:

The origins of Black History Month date back to 1926 when Harvard historian Carter G. Woodson declared the second week in February ‘Negro History Week’.  February was chosen as it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.

In 1976, during America’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

black history quote2The Purpose:

Some question the need for a special month during which to celebrate black history, but I would argue that historically in this nation, the contributions of African-Americans have been minimalized,  swept under the rug.  I grew up during the Civil Rights era, and I cannot recall during my primary or secondary education learning about the contributions of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, C.J. Walker, Bessie Coleman or others.  Yet, their lives contributed to what our nation has become just as much as any others.

This nation was founded on diversity, yet that concept seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. No single race or its culture can define this nation, and to fully understand our history and who we are today, we need to be able to look at our past from a variety of perspectives.  And yet, we often fail to do that, we fail to recognize the contributions by Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and African-Americans.

Black history (just like Hispanic, Asian, European, and Native history) belongs to all of us — black and white, men and women, young and old.  The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness. Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.

98f/42/hgmp/12704/tep039In 1964, author James Baldwin reflected on the shortcomings of his education. “When I was going to school, I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”

This year, perhaps more than any in the past five decades, bigotry and racism are raising their ugly faces.  White supremacism is seemingly on the rise, and bigotry flows down from the highest office in the nation.  I think that now, more than at any time in our recent history, it is important for us to stop a minute, turn our attentions away from the three-ring circus in Washington, and remind ourselves of the contributions and achievements of our brothers and sisters who have given so much to this country.

Another year, I might have committed to a daily post to honour the contributions of African-Americans throughout this nation’s history.  This year, due to the toxic environment on which I feel compelled to opine, and with my limited visual acuity, I am unable to do so, but I plan at least a few posts about people who I think made special and interesting contributions, and I will include some trivia at the end of some of my other posts.  It is little enough, but hopefully you will learn at least one thing you didn’t already know about our history, our culture.

black history quoet3

 

One Hero In Congress …

Today I am tired of writing about Trump & Co.  I have started two posts, one about the G-20 summit, and another about some strange goings-on among the White House staff his week.  Both remain ‘works-in-process’ at this point, not because I got bored with them, but because I realized I was disgusted by everything pertaining to Trump and the administration, Congress and their boot-licking legislation, and the whole works.  So, I was just flipping through some friends’ posts on Facebook, hoping to gain a fresh perspective, when I came across this:

john-lewisAnd that led me to the thought of writing about somebody in Congress who is not driven by greed, not led by fear of Trump, but a true representative of We The People.  While it is true that there are others in Congress who have more of a conscience than the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, in my opinion, there are none to compare with Representative John Lewis.

Most of you probably know at least a bit of Lewis’ history, but please bear with me as I quickly recap for any who may not.

john-lewis-2John Lewis, one of the most notable heroes of the Civil Rights movement, began his career as an activist in 1959, at the age of 19, by organizing student sit-in demonstrations, bus boycotts, and non-violent protests for voter and racial equality.  Then in 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, becoming one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders. Lewis risked his life on those rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for whites. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

John-Lewis-SNCCLewis’ was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963, at only age 23!  As such, he became a member of the Big Six, leaders of six prominent civil rights organizations, and the organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his I Have A Dream Speech.

5 minutes 17 seconds, and worth every second!

On August 28, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the march, John Lewis along with President Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter addressed a crowd at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Also present were Caroline Kennedy and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Other participants included the parents of Trayvon Martin, Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.

 

Perhaps Mr. Lewis’ most notable moment came in 1965 when he helped organize the now-famous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and was among 600 demonstrators attacked by police. This day became known as Bloody Sunday, and 58 people were taken to a local hospital, including Mr. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

John-lewis-skullJohn Lewis won the House seat for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in 1986.  He has since been re-elected 15 times, and has dropped below 70 percent of the vote only once. He is one of the most liberal members of the House, and one of the most liberal congressmen ever to represent a district in the Deep South. On May 21, 2006, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said Lewis was the “only former major civil rights leader who extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress.” In the same article, they referred to Mr. Lewis as the ‘conscience of Congress’.

Though now 77 years old, Lewis’ passion for justice has not dimmed.  In June 2016, he staged a sit-in demanding House Speaker Paul Ryan allow a vote on gun-safety legislation in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Speaker pro tempore Daniel Webster ordered the House into recess, but Democrats refused to leave the chamber for nearly 26 hours. He is no fan of Donald Trump, having compared him to George Wallace at one point during the campaigns last year.  In a Meet The Press interview one week before Trump’s inauguration, he stated, “I don’t see the president-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in having this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the Inauguration. I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians, and others, that helped him get elected. That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not the open, democratic process.” Trump, naturally, responded with ugly tweets.

There is so much more to be said about Congressman Lewis, but if you want to know more, there are many good books out there, including his own autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, originally published in 1998 and re-issued in paperback in 2015.

John-Lewis-Barack-Obama-medalIn 2011, John Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and on January 6, 2016, it was announced that a future United States Navy underway replenishment oiler would be named USNS John Lewis. He has won so many awards that I cannot possibly list them all.

Lewis was the only living speaker from the March on Washington present on the stage during the inauguration of Barack Obama. Obama signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”

In response to his earlier tweet, one of his followers tweeted the following: Katy Otto ‏@exfkaty to tweet. “You are one of a small handful of politicians that gives me hope for this country. Thank you immensely for your service.” I second that, Ms. Otto. In my opinion, Representative John Lewis is a hero both of the past and the present, and possibly the most conscionable of the 535 members of Congress.