At the end of the Civil War, freed ex-slaves were ready to take their place in American society as full human beings with the promise of all rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution through the enactment of the 13TH Amendment (abolition of slavery), the 14TH Amendment (rights to citizenship and due process of law), and the 15TH Amendment (giving black freedmen the right to vote). With the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and savage white mob rule, the hopes of these laws that should have protected millions of black citizens were dashed on the rocks of white supremacy.
As many black people stood up to and fought against the hatreds of white supremacy, so too did a few white men who saw that the South could only rise if it treated and accorded humanity to all of its citizens—white, and black.
The white-run South during Reconstruction fought vehemently against the federal government’s intervention and whites vowed to keep the power of the electorate, ownership of land, and fair wages out of the hands of free black people. The white South re-wrote history, casting itself into the role of “victim”, and the new black citizens as the “victimizing aggressors”. The Nadir of inhuman race hatred began after 1877 and lasted all the way into the early 1970s of the next century. The Nadir when white butality of the condoned the sanctioning of mass rapes of defenseless black women and girls to continue, and the mass lynchings spectacles against black men and boys, which escalated during Jim Crow segregation. Even then, in the most profane of times, there were still a few white men who never lost the faith to do the right thing. To this day, historical bias propagandized during the hellish Nadir still distorts and sows lies in high school textbook after textbook in history books and Civil War monuments all across this country. That there was a Nadir, or even that racism played a continuing role in American life, North as well as South, goes unmentioned in many history textbooks. Therefore, we learn that when history was/is written and who did the writing makes a very profound difference.
History belongs to the victors, and in many cases, to the liars.
But, the lies of history do not rule forever. The truth no matter how beaten into the ground, does triumph: here in Texas, there in Mississippi, later in Maryland, tomorrow in Florida.
The truth prevails, not always on time and not always in our lifetimes, but, the truth does triumph.
But, even during that time, there were still white men who stood on the side of right, white men who worked in solidarity with black women and men. History is often the tale of the winners, and is usually told by the winners, who often make it their main effort to leave out the wrongs of their history and spin webs of lies of what a glorious untainted past they the victors had. Hence the ‘Gone With the Wind’, ‘Myth of the ‘Redeemed South’ lie as if the South was ever was taken from the whites by blacks in the first place.
But, the winners write the history. It is what they leave out that is just as important as what they allow to leave in for the future.
Forgotten by many are the few white men who stood against racist depravities and perversions of justice. History is often deliberate omission of the wrongs done by a society, but most of all history is often a distorted lie of what society allows to be representative of truth.
History needs to be learned and spoken of, and that includes the white men who were anti-racist before there was such a term.
The white men I will speak of lived in the 20TH Century, and some still live in the 21ST Century. These are their stories, in their own words.
The lives and stories of these men need to be recovered from the lies that have buried for so long from mistruths, half-truths and outright lies.
That there were a few white men who chose a different path, a path of truly loving their brother’s keeper, is a story that deserves to be told.
HERBERT APTHEKER (July 31, 1915 – March 17, 2003) CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
“My parents were very wealthy. We had a great big house and lived in Brooklyn, which at the time was rural. We had gas lights and very few neighbors and no Black people whatsoever. Mama hired a Black woman from Trinidad. Her name was Angelina Corbin. She was a big woman and very dark. She lived with us in the room next to mine. Mother had trouble pronouncing “Angelina”, and with permission we called her “Annie”. Annie was as important to me as was Mama, and I loved them both equally. I soon saw that Mama treated Annie as one of the family.
Annie raised me because Mother had four other children and was busy. Annie bathed me, dressed me, fed me. I don’t know why she did not let me kiss her. I remember trying to kiss her, but she never let me do it. She would push me aside and say, “Just be a good boy.” She was absolutely decisive in upbringing. I saw her everyday.
The next thing that was of fundamental importance was that Papa was making a business trip in the summer to Alexander City, Alabama. I asked if I could join him, and he said, “Yes.” I was about twelve or thirteen, which was about 1930. Depression had set in; it was very deep in the South. When we got to Washington, D.C., I saw Jim Crow for the first time in my life. I was astonished.
In Georgia, Papa had some sort of car trouble. We were stopped by the side of the road. I got out with a bag of cookies that mother had baked. Alongside the road there was a field. Deep in the field was a shack without a door. It had a cloth instead of a door. Standing at the threshold was a Black woman who looked just like Annie, with arms akimbo. In the field in front of her was a Negro child, perhaps my age, maybe a little younger, very thin, in rags. We saw each other. So I moved toward him, and I took out a cookie. I handed it to him, but he didn’t take it. He bent forward, and he took a bite out of it and left it in my hand. I didn’t know what to do. I was at a loss. So I turned around and ran back to the car. That scene is very vivid in my mind. I can see it now. My mind has been damaged from the stroke, but I can see that.
* * *
I went to Columbia University. But at that time, Columbia did not allow Jews uptown. They had a ghetto school in Brooklyn. It was called Seth Low Junior College. It had two floors of a building that housed a law school, but the teachers and the books were the same as at Columbia. We were all Jewish or Italian. I had become a leader of the student body in the struggle against Spain. I became known.
One day I was visited by a Black man who was an attorney in Chicago. His name has skipped my brain. This man was originally from Oglethorpe County, Georgia. He told me of the peonage that existed in Georgia and that it was really a form of slavery. He wondered if anything could be done about it. I took him to William L. Patterson, who was also a lawyer, but he had given up the practice of law, become a leader of the Communist Party, and devoted himself to the struggle. So I took this fellow to see Patterson, and Patterson did what I thought he would do. He organized us, saying, “We now have the Abolish Peonage Committee. Herbert, you’re the secretary” and told the other man that he was the chairman. So we now had an Abolish Peonage Committee. We began to meet with famous people of the left.
We realized that we had to go down and get some of these people out of Georgia. You had to be white, and so I went. I was about twenty. I went as a traveling salesman, under the name of Beale. I don’t know what I was selling. Of course the Black people knew I was coming—it was arranged ahead of time. I used to meet one or two, usually one, at night in a whorehouse above a saloon. Usually Black women serviced men in the whorehouse, so it was not unuaual for me to be up there and have a Black woman come to me. The Black women I was meeting were not whores; they were slaves on plantations.
There were thousands of them being exploited on the plantations.
In this way, I would be able to give a bus ticket to a woman each night so that she could go north. We had raised enough money through the Abolish Peonage Committee, including from the party. I would give them the ticket and some money and tell them that they’d be going to New Orleans—they couldn’t go north from Georgia. In New Orleans, we had comrades who owned a bookstore. I would tell the Black woman, “They know you’re coming; they will meet you; you can trust them with your life. They will have a ticket for you to Nashville. In Nashville, there is a woman who is a piano teacher. She will take care of you and send you to Chicago, where you will be free.” That’s what we did.
Well, I stayed in a different room every night, and in this way, we freed maybe fifthteen people, maybe more. I used to shave about three times a week, and there was a separate washroom at this place. There was a mirror. I don’t think it had a door. And there was a Black man sweeping, and he said, “Go home.” I turned to him, and he didn’t look up, and I asked him, “What did you say?” He said louder, “Go home, now,” which meant, of course that I had been discovered. So, I went home.”
On giving advice to younger anti-racist men:
“I’ve never thought about that, but I’d say that one of the important things is history. Of course the knowledge of the history and the reality is vital. To the best of your ability, you should spread it, let people know. That is what I’ve done. That’s what I’ve tried to do. You have to inform yourself of the realities of history, of what slavery was, of what Black people, especially Black women, went through. And you have to learn about the postslavery so called freedom. I think it helps to saturate your conscious with that, so that you understand what you are dealing with— a horror that has to be overcome and how difficult it is. And knowing that we white people are responsible for the horror. Therefore, if we have some conscience, we should be very important in eliminating the horror. That’s my life. That’s the way I see it. I think that’s logical, and a person should be persuaded of that.
“I think it’simportant that people understand that it’s not easy. If this is serious, if you’re really committed to an egalitarian existence in life, it’s not simple. Because the society is otherwise. You are a rebel. You have to be careful of your behaviour, that you’re not superior to others who are unfortunate enough to have the prejudice. And if you are superior, you’ll never change them. You have to watch your own behaviour. You mustn’t be supercilious or a big shot. You musn’t think, “These poor, stupid people don’t understand.” Well, they don’t understand. But they are not stupid, and they’re not poor people. They just don’t understand.”
ART BRANSCOMBE ~ ‘MILITANT INTEGRATIONIST AND A PATRIOT’ (Art was 81-years-old at the time of this interview.)
“For a long time, Blacks were absolutely forbidden to live here in Park Hill. It was the same in other cities around the country because of the policy of the National Association of Real Estate Boards from about 1920 to about 1950. Starting about 1918 or 1919 in Chicago, the realtors asked the business leaders there to stop letting Blacks live wherever they wanted to live. They were getting spread around too much, and the Chicago Board of Realtors asked them to restrict Black residents to areas where they already were and fill up those areas with Blacks before they opened up any more blocks. That’swhere our big ghettos came from.
“About 1955, after the area to the west of us filled up with Blacks, a developer bought a few blocks north of here and announced he was going to sell to Blacks. The whispers and then the panic started soon after that. In may of 1956, the ministers of seven of the big white churches here delivered a joint sermon, welcoming Blacks to the neighborhood, telling their parishioners that they should welcome Blacks to the neighborhood. All this did was increase the panic.
“We moved here in 1959. We had trouble getting a loan for this place. The first two or three mortgage bankers we approached said, “No way. If you were Black, we’d give you a loan, but we’re not giving loans to whites in that neighborhood anymore.” Finally we got a loan from a banker who lived in Park hill.
“Soon after we moved in, we started hearing rumors among our neighbors that the NAACP was going to move a welfare family into the middle of the block and scare the whites out. Flyers from realtors started landing on the front porch, saying, “Wouldn’t you like to move out while you can still get a good price for this house?” That’s how the panic was being purposely spread by realtors to buy these houses up cheap and sell them dear to the Blacks—-Negroes as they were called in those days. I had better things to worry about than that.
“Eventually we got a flyer from a Montview Presbyterian Church nearby, saying that they were going to have a meeting on the “changing character of the Park Hill neighborhood.” The people at the meeting formed a laymen’s committee to see what they could do. Out of that in due time came the Park Hill Action Committee. The core of it was lay persons from seven churches; the agreement was that if the laymen would carry the flag and take the flak, the ministers and their churches would try to raise funds to support us. I guess either Bea [Art’s wife] or I were the first chair of the public relations committee. That committee rode off in all directions at once, trying to figure out what to do. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. So we had to find out what was going on and figure out what to do about it.
“The goals of that initial group were to preserve property values. Part of the motivation was fear—not so much us since we’d bought this house for only $13,500—but most of our neighbors thought they were going to lose their life’s investment. There were also some people who believed that we had to do the right thing—welcome people. If white people fled, they weren’t going to learn anything.
(Bea chimes in): In my view, the person who put the real goals together was Art Branscombe. In my view–and I’m undoubtedly biased–I feel that in this little area of 25,000-30,000 people, he was the Thomas Jefferson; he articulated the goals.
“As we got to know more Black people and found out what they were going through—they kept telling us about various manifestations of racism in their lives—we saw things happening that we’d never noticed before. When we’d run across some of our Black neighbors downtown or on the street somewhere, they’d hurry by saying hello. We asked them about this. They said, “Well, we’re used to white people not saying hello to us.” So when I satrted saying hello to these people as I came on them, why, that made quite a difference. That really opened up things. Just a little thing like that never occurred to me—I passed people on the street downtown, and so what?
“There was one man in particular, a Black pediatrician who was moving into a house nearby, on Albion Street. I went to see him one day, and he was just furious because there were “For sale” signs on houses across the street and next to him. He said to me, “What are these clowns doing moving out of here? I’ve got a better education than any of them; I make more money than they do. How come they’re moving out when I’m moving in?”
I started to realize that there was a lot more to this; it wasn’t the NAACP putting welfare families into the middle blocks, the way the rumors had it. Somebody was telling those whites to move out. They weren’t getting this idea all by themselves. Of course, they’d been telling us to move out, too. So that was my changing attitude on the whole business. I started out just believing that this was about preserving our property values, but pretty soon I started to realize what a tough row the Blacks were facing here, and this wasn’t their doing; it was somebody else directing this, making it happen.
“I was reading these books about segregated neighborhoods, learning about what happened in other cities. As I got more involved and realized what the heck was going on, why, I got madder and madder at the real estate people, except that the president of the Board of realtors lived down on the next block and turned out to be a nice guy.
I think it took me only about three or four months to realize that preserving property values wasn’t the real answer to this. We had to make it possible for Blacks to live whereever they wanted to live, for Christ’s sake. This was just a matter of ordinary humanity and justice and whatnot. That’s what did it for me. That’s what changed me from just another middle-class white guy trying to preserve property values into an increasingly militant housing integrationist.
I realize what was happening to us: that this was white racism that I was fighting. I and some of the other leaders of Park Hill Action began to realize that we couldn’t solve Park Hill’s problems inside Park Hill. We had to open up the rest of the city to Black residents. That was why we supported strengthening the Fair Housing Act, and also we hatched a scheme of sending out what we called “missionaries” to the suburbs. We’d go in interracial teams to different suburban churches and urge those people out there to set up human relations councils to welcome any Blacks who were courageous enough to move out there. What really made it impressive to those people out there was that here was a real, live Black—well spoken and educated—with a white person, coming out to speak to them.
. . .
Asked about his experience in taking direction and leadership from women:
(Bea responds): He’s had three daughters, all of whom are feminists.
“Oh, boy, I’ve been surrounded here! Ye gods. No way I could have avoided being somewhat of a feminist!
(Bea): He’s been my prince and taken care of me on stuff I know he doesn’t particularly like to do, but he’s done it graciously. He’s a gentleman.
“Ah, yeah, sometimes.
(Bea): Yeah, sometimes, not always. But toward me, you’re always a gentleman.
. . .
Two months after the interview, in the summer of 2000, Bea died. When he was editing this narrative, Art told us, “We were a team in this work. I miss her terribly.”
PAT CUSICK ~ ‘COMMUNITY ORGANIZER’ (Pat was 70-years-old at the time of this interview.)
I have only two white friends. I don’t hang out with white people. I really don’t associate with white people. I haven’t thought about that until recently. There was a big shift for me in my willingness to hang out with white people that’s related to my sexual orientation. In the early 1960s, I had not come out of the closet. I knew I was gay, but I hadn’t come out. In 1963, my mental sexual object choice shifted from white men to Black men. Up to that time, my ideal sexual choice was blonde-haired and blue-eyed. That totally shifted in a month. Looking back on that, I can figure that out. There were two things. White men were a danger to me—white people were beating me, kicking my teeth out. And my heroes were the Black high school students. At every step of the way, white meant danger to me.
Here in the neighborhood where I live now, the people I fight with every day are white. The whole white privilege thing is pervasive in their lives. The greatest example was last Thursday. There are two Black guys from Roxbury who want to develop a shopping complex down the street. The city tried to slow them down, and yet at the same meeting, the city is pushing Best Western to move quickly on developing a site just up the street.
“Now the NAACP ranks hotels in terms of what it’s like for Black folks to work there. Best Western is the worst category. At the planning meeting, we asked the representative from Best Western about this, and he said that he didn’t know anything about that. This was a very patrician-looking guy with silver hair. I knew that this guy owned several Best Westerns, and so I asked him, “In the hotels you own, how many people of color work there?” He said, “I’m a liberal. I don’t know. I don’t keep track of those things in my business.” I was outraged. I said, “You know, if you’re going to build here, you will report weekly on the race of the construction crew”—because these were Boston requirements—“and you will do that if you want this hotel.” I felt like I had been thrown back into the 1950s and 1960s. He got very angry, and he didn’t understand it. His white privilege was all over the place. Unfortunately, he got the hotel he wanted.
Do you care if white people like you?
No. If you look at all the pictures hanging up on the walls of my apartment, other than my socialist grandfather, there are not many pictures of white people. Almost all of them are of people of color.
“There are no white people in this neighborhood. Well, actually, that’s not true. There’s the white gentry.This is one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Boston and one of the most affluent at the same time. This is a neighborhood of haves and have-nots, and I’m interested in identifying with the haves, especially not the gay white gentry in this neighborhood. I got over being ashamed of being gay and came out of the closet. And I’ve also been ashamed of being gay because of the way they act and the racism in that community. It’s very much a kind of trench warfare here between the haves and the have-nots.
Do feel any sense of loss in not hanging out with white people?
None whatsoever. It’s not hostility. It’s just that they don’t matter to me. They matter because they do a lot of damage. Now this sounds really crazy. I don’t think of myself as a white person that much—I don’t ponder it. On the other hand, people are always telling me, “You’re Black.” I’m not trying to be Black. I never tried to be Black. In fact it’sinsulting to me if someone says that to me because it’s saying that to be humanistic, you have to be Black. If a white person is sensitive and progressive, people will say that you’re trying be to Black, when you are just trying to be a white person who is a human being who has certain values.
“Lord, it took me a long time to come out. But around Black folks now, I never hesitate to come out. It’s easy to slip back into the closet, so I will intentionally go out of my way to come out. I’ll casually say something like, “As a gay person, . . . .” That helps me not to go back into the closet. I don’t think I could, but nevertheless, it’s insurance that I don’t go back in.
Did yoy ever question your commitment to challenging racism?
I’m an organizer. There are consequences when we challenge the people in power. I was part of a coalition with Mel King, Dianne Wilkerson, Bryon Rushing, and others to stop Northeastern University from expanding into Black neighborhoods. Because of my involvement in that, my angency, S N A P, will never get funding from the city. And I have a reputation of being a bulldog. I have to watch that, too. The local HUD office then characterized our coalition, which is all people of color except me, as “Cusick’s gang.” That’s a racist statement.
“. . . .I can’t conceive of leaving this work. My life as I know it would die if I did. I’m delighted with my life.”
TO BE CONTINUED. . . .