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The Short Civil Rights Movement

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

This idea comes from a lecture on the “short” civil rights movement, from 1960-1965.

The lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 helped lay the foundation for the youth sit-in protests which began in 1960. By this time, the three predominant activist Civil Rights organizations were the NAACP (especially with their legal strategy) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (led by MLK) and the Congress of Racial Equality (a pacifist organization from WWII-period).

In May 1961, CORE initiated the Freedom Rides. The rides tested to see if federal desegregation laws would be enforced in interstate transportation in states where segregation was the local practice. They quickly found out that the answer was NO:

The mixed success of these efforts led to future fruit. SNCC representatives like Bob Moses came to MS and soon were involved in the 1964 Freedom Summer. As northern students volunteered to register black voters, the deaths of three activists in Philadelphia, MS forced a national spotlight on the horrendous political conditions in the south and, along with the 1965 Selma protests, helped create the political capital to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As for Dr. King and the SCLC, their efforts to force change in Albany, GA floundered when national media could not be attracted to watch the protests. So, in 1963, the “Project C for Confrontation” led to the abuse of child protestors by Police Chief Bull Connor and helped develop the national consciousness for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act are some of the most important pieces of legislation passed in American History. However, almost as soon as this legislation passed, black uprisings in the urban north soured many white moderates on additional Civil Rights legislation. This sentiment could not stop the impending social revolution. But still, the Civil Rights Movement crested at a federal level around this time.

Black Images in an Age of Spectacle

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

This post emerges from a Harlem Renaissance lecture. In Philly, I was introduced to Guy Debord and his consumer spectacle frameworkIn Society of the Spectacle, he claims:

“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor, the formation of classes, had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning.

The sacred has justified the cosmic and ontological order which corresponded to the interests of the masters; it ha[s] explained and embellished that which society could not do…

The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence.”

So, the “sacred” which had previously been used to justify and normalize social relations is replaced in secular 20th century western society with the “spectacle:” the mass media-driven productions which justify and normalize contemporary social relationships. This is noticeable through the promotion of select Black celebrities by mass media sources.

Louis Armstrong is very prominent black entertainers of the early 20th century. Armstrong initially made his name as a blues trumpeter in Chicago, Eventually, he transitioned into film and became a star in Hollywood. Louis Armstrong was dogged his entire career by accusations of Uncle Tom-ism for his cozy relationship with whites–even when he had to accept perceived racial slights to retain access to institutions (like the movie industry) antagonistic to black Americans. In many ways, his power arose from his acceptability and entrenchment within white power circles.

Jack Johnson literally drove distraught white Americans to incite race riots after beating white boxer James J. Jefferies during the “fight of the century” on July 4, 1910. His domination of the boxing world was seen by many as a threat to white supremacy. He was eventually sent to prison for travelling across state lines with his soon-to-be second wife (his white girlfriend) under the terms of the Mann ActThe lengths which white authorities went to imprison Johnson reflects his notoriety among white American boxing fans.

So, despite efforts of black publishers like T. Thomas Fortune to report on the educated entrepreneurs and professionals who increasingly began to comprise the black elite, the most well-known black celebrities in the white community at the turn of the 20th century were musicians and athletes. These roles reflected the limited opportunity for black Americans to break into the white-dominated culture industry–Armstrong was an exceptional talent who played limited roles in films because the culture industry rarely developed starring roles for black talent; Johnson drew thousands of additional spectators to boxing because he was caricatured as a dangerous threat to racial order that white boxers had to defeat; their public personas justified and normalized the subjugation of the black community to the desires of whites and the American state.

In some ways, the Harlem Renaissance challenges this characterization of black culture within the spectacle of mass media as describe by Debord. At a time when most blacks lacked formal education, the literary figures who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance were erudite and cosmopolitan; however, the Renaissance was split between those who sought to demonstrate the best of respectable black society and those who claimed to represent the authentic experience of the black working class.

However, just like contemporary black artists who work within the culture industry, these two viewpoints were put in competition with one another once within the narrative framework of the larger societal spectacle. Elite artists who sought to prove black respectability were horrified by what they deemed to be vulgar, uncouth artistic renditions of black cultural life. On the other side, elite artists who sought to accurate reflect a broader experience of black life bristled at the rigidity of their peers who could not see the value in including base representations of Blacks in the broader culture.

During the Harlem Renaissance, there were a couple thousand of college graduates in the country, yet the significant majority of participants in the Renaissance had college education. Whether their work was interested in respectability or not, works like “City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher reflect an interpretation of the black working-class which appealed to assumptions white Americans had about the nature of black Americans.

While some argue that Renaissance participants were unconcerned with creating art to please white OR black interests, but competition over resources necessitated that Black artists developed work which would be of interest to consumers of the mass media spectacle, and elite black artists often appropriated the voices of less visible members in the community to complicate the narratives shown within the segregated spectacle. In short, art created for a mainstream audience reflect the sensibilities of the clientele.

MLK and the Legacy of Black Civic Engagement

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“The Civil Rights Act… was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of [their] enlightened leadership. This legislation was written in the streets.”

In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made this comment about the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, often described as the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. We must remember that Black activists organized an interracial “coalition of conscience” to create laws for a more equitable society. On Friday, January 17th the University Club of Phoenix hosted presenters who spoke on Black activism and how it connects us all as we approach Black History Month.

44288156_1577125248498726_rFirstly, the event was preceded with a dedication to the life and legacy of community activist, Tameka Spence, who tragically lost her life in a crash in downtown Phoenix on December 22nd, 2019. The ASU graduate worked for the Arizona Coalition for Change as a black census organizer and was beloved in the community. Rest in power, Tameka.

637039054807700000The first presenter, Rashaad Thomas, father, USAF veteran, poet and essayist, provided rousing poetic musings that honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. His reflections and personal experience helped inspire those in attendance leaving a legacy and with his rhythmic cadence inspired reflection on their past, present and future.

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Next, Channel Powe, Balsz School Board President, shared stirring stories of local activism by highlighting the Black impact of civic change throughout Arizona’s history. Additionally, Powe encouraged a persuasive call to action to become a part of progressive leadership by joining local school boards, serving on city council panels and participating in the various Black community events around the Valley.

J.T RoaneThe final presenter, J.T. Roane, Assistant Professor in African and African American Studies at Arizona State, delivered an educational keynote address on environmental activism and urban renewal in the Black community. The focus of rehousing poor and Black displaced people was work continued long after King’s assassination. Organizations such as Mothers for Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers and MOVE, the esoteric black liberation group that combined revolutionary ideology and work for animal rights, were cited as movements that were designed to take Dr. King’s vision forward. Roane also lead a Q&A after his presentation that received many engaging questions from the group.

“This event was truly eye opening,” shared Robert V., a A.T. Still University student. “I feel like I learned a lot about the Black contribution to Arizona history and activist groups such as MOVE, which I’d never heard of. The speakers make me feel like I want to get more involved in the community.”

This powerful event was well received by the nearly thirty culturally diverse attendees and allowed them to take home pieces of history and perspective to reflect on and share long past Black History Month.

“I thought the presentations were both educational and thought provoking,” stated Jaime B., an IT specialist in Phoenix. “The call to action makes me want to be more personally responsible about my attendance within my community. I want to be an advocate, not just for us, but for everyone.”

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Today, this legacy of Black civic engagement is strong in Phoenix. The demand for more events reminiscent of this is one will help foster more introspective gatherings to help shape the future and improve conditions in our Phoenix communities.


Phoenix Black Historical Sites:

George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center

415 E. Grant St.,

Phoenix, AZ 85004

George Washington Carver High School (formerly known as Phoenix Union Colored High School), was a segregated high school in Phoenix, Arizona. The school’s building was the only one ever built exclusively to serve African American high school students in Arizona and is now part of the Phoenix Historic Property Register.


Eastlake Park Community Center

1549 E Jefferson St,

Phoenix, AZ 85034

Eastlake Park has been the focal point of African American history in Phoenix for much of its existence. The park was the home of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration, and has been home to many civil rights rallies, visits from civil right leaders and the starting point of all civil rights marches to the Capital. It is home to the Annual Juneteenth Celebration and the Phoenix Arts Commission Civil Rights Memorial.


Black Theatre Troupe

1333 East Washington Street

Phoenix, AZ 85034

This non-profit Thespian group has been providing soulful entertaining theatre reflecting the African-American experience for over 30 years; Performances take place in the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, and have included plays by August Wilson, Pearl Cleage, and Cheryl West encompassing productions like The Old Fiddler, Mahalia and Black Nativity.


African American Multicultural Museum

617A North Scottsdale Road

Scottsdale, Arizona 85257

See exhibits that emphasize the contributions of African American and African cultures to the progress of humanity.

MLK and the Legacy of Black Civic Engagement Event – January 17th, 2020

mlk banner“The Civil Rights Act… was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of [their] enlightened leadership. This legislation was written in the streets.”

In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made this comment about the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, often described as the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. We must remember that Black activists organized an interracial “coalition of conscience” to create laws for a more equitable society.

Today, this legacy of Black civic engagement is strong in Phoenix. Channel Powe, Balsz School Board President, will share stories of local activism. J.t. Roane, Assistant Professor in African and African American Studies at Arizona State, will deliver a keynote address on environmental activism in the Black community. Rashaad Thomas, father, USAF veteran, poet, and essayist, will provide poetic musings for to help us reflect on our past, present, and future.

Join us this Friday, January 17, 2020 from 5:30 pm- 7:30 pm at the University Club of Phoenix, 39 E Monte Vista Rd, Phoenix, Arizona 85004, for this thought provoking, free event. Everyone is welcome! Complimentary appetizers and a cash bar is available. Please R.S.V.P. at 602-254-5408 or office@uclubphx.com.

Spring Presentations

This week, I will be bringing a little desert heat to New England: on Thursday, I will be presenting “The Colored Metropolis: Race, Housing, and Metropolitan Development,” at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race + Ethnicity in America. This talk will explore the shifting praxis of residential segregation in metropolitan Phoenix in the late 20th Century. Then, on Friday, I will be presenting my revised manuscript introduction, tentatively titled, “Annexation, Activism, and the Ascendance of Metropolitan Phoenix,” at Boston University’s Initiative on Cities Urban Inequality Workshop. Springtime is for sharing new research! Click on the links or for more information.

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Newberry Scholarly Seminars

I am delighted to be presenting a draft chapter from my unpublished manuscript, tentatively titled, Ashes and Dust: Settler Colonialism and the Ascendance of Metropolitan Phoenix, later this month in Chicago, IL. The presentation will begin at 3pm on Friday, November 30. at the Newberry Library. Much thanks to the Labor History and History of Capitalism Workshops, along with D. Bradford Hunt, for hosting me. Please email me if you’d like a pre-circulated copy of the paper.

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