Amos’s Sermon: On Carter G. Woodson and the Lambda-sponsored ‘sit-in’

BY AMOS JONES

BUFFALO, NEW YORK, Oct. 7, 2005 – Will the academy forget Carter G. Woodson? Will we fail ultimately to rise to the challenge issued 100 years ago this year by The Father of Black History? Will we stop heeding the early black Harvard Ph.D.’s seminal call, to make available the historical materials that tell the truth about the African and African American past for those engaged in the act of educating?

Recent events present ambiguity on the question of how we are implementing his vision, and the question is, “Will the academy forget?”

On one hand, the events of last week in Buffalo demonstrate that American history in the black context is being seriously studied, systematically analyzed, and intentionally presented to a global audience. To be sure, the weeklong ninetieth annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History featured scores of scholarly presentations involving numerous delegate-discussants. Like the people behind the launching of the Niagara Movement a few miles away in Canada in 1905, the attendees last week were racially diverse. They were serious. They were committed. I was one of them, presenting a paper on a panel titled “The Complexities of African American Ethnicity” in a conference room at the Buffalo Urban League downtown.

Yet, from my point of view, too many people appear to know far too little about black history in America, even though there is no way to understand our country without being knowledgeable about the importation and treatment of black people over the last 385 years. As readers of this column have noticed, I endeavor to play some role in eradicating this ignorance, which can prove destructive if left intact among people likely to lead, as Harvard Law alumni tend honorably to do … which compels me to take issue with the promotional materials regarding the “sit-in” at the Hark on Wednesday at high noon, co-sponsored by Lambda and a long list of other white organizations.

Upon my return to campus from Buffalo on Friday night, I ran across a Lambda poster announcing a “sit-in” for noon Wednesday outside Harkness Commons. It said: “Excluded From The Table: Harvard Rallies Against Discrimination in the Military” and declared a noon “sit-in” and a 12:30 p.m. rally.

What?

According to both textbook definitions I found on the Internet – one from a Princeton University project and the other from the Wikipedia encyclopedia, a sit-in is “a form of civil disobedience in which demonstrators occupy seats and refuse to move” (www.wordnet.princeton.edu/ perl/webwn) and “a form of direct action that involves one or more persons nonviolently occupying an area for protest, often political, social, or economic change” (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sit-in).

Sit-ins were first employed by Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian independence movement and were later expanded on by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others during the American Civil Rights Movement, according to Wikipedia, and in the 1960s students used this method of protest during the movements such as the famous protests in Germany.

I know something about sit-ins, too. A few of our professors here participated in those kinds of demonstrations during the 1960s. Some of us who are black have parents and grandparents who did sit-ins during the 1950s and 1960s. Learning about how the protests proceeded from firsthand accounts is sometimes like pulling teeth, but I have insisted on answers over the years anyway. Those of us familiar with Allied World War II veterans may have noticed how often those heroes today are reticent in discussing their contribution to our freedom. I have found the same characteristic among some of the more dedicated civil rights activists of the last century. As my father, the Rev. LaMont Jones, Sr., said last year, getting involved was a deeply personal decision. As my mother, Kay, told our local newspaper during its retrospective, she would decide not to march when she felt she could not resist striking back at the devils who would attack with impunity the peaceful protesters. On those days, she would head instead to the undercroft of her future father-in-law’s Baptist church to make signs for future demonstrations.

I found out about most of what I know of my own parents’ involvement from a newspaper clipping among archives in the library of the Lexington Herald-Leader, my hometown newspaper, when I was interning there during the late 1990s. The article I found in the Herald-Leader library was dated Feb. 26, 1980, and said: “Sit-Ins Started in Downtown Lexington 20 Years Ago.” It was a one-source story relying entirely on my father, who said, among other things: “We wanted to let Lexington know that there was a problem, to let people know that we were serious about getting redress for that grievance” and that managers of local stores had to put up with “benign warfare on our part, but they never knew- because we never knew – where a sit-in would be held next.”

About the same time, my father’s older brother Clayton, a law student, was looking legally at the matter. I found out the extent of his interest only a few weeks ago, on a brief visit to his home in Atlanta.

Uncle Clayton was quite ill, so he and I talked for a couple of hours at his bedside. We mostly discussed studying law, practicing law, and fighting for what is right. We have read a lot of the same material, and I have read everything he has publicly disseminated over the past 10 years. He encouraged me to download some of his later work from a computer in the office next to his bedroom.

This is a man who has endured dramatic and traumatic racial developments over his entire life. As I located his work (“you know what to do with it,” he declared), I told him how surprised I have grown to find, as I near the age of 30, that so much of the activism by ordinary people that led to progress for black Americans occurred ahead of the famous events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins, but that few people know it.

Uncle Clayton agreed, and then referred me to Reflections on the Sit-ins, 46 Cornell L.Q. 444 (1960-61), an illustrative article with roots in a note he had written under one of his law professors. The inspiration? Uncle Clayton’s protest of one, when, as a student in the 1950s, he entered a segregated lunch counter in downtown Lexington, ordered a meal, opened it, sat down, and began to eat. The white manager threatened to have him ejected. My uncle threatened to inform his father of the slight, his father being a progressive leader who in turn would inform his congregation of approximately 1,500 black consumers and potential patrons to go elsewhere downtown. The next day, a telegram arrived at the Pleasant Green Baptist Church pastorium. The lunch counter, the establishment’s management informed my grandfather, was now officially desegregated, and black citizens could eat their meals there (even though no other downtown lunch counter had made such a move.)

Intimately familiar with the history of sit-ins and righteously offended by the gay-rights groups’ often uninformed appropriation of the language of the civil rights movement with none of the confrontational tactics to back it up, I e-mailed the Lambda address on the poster. I introduced myself as a columnist for this newspaper and asked: “What will the demonstrators be doing from noon to 12:30 as the sit-in?” The anonymous reply came a few hours later from the address: “Lambda and our allies will be eating our lunches on the ground around the tables as a way of symbolically demonstrating how we’re excluded from the table when it comes to military recruiting.”

That is what they were calling a sit-in.

I am all for groups standing up for themselves and issuing demands in a defiant fashion. I have no problem with any group’s utilization of any legitimate tactic they wish to adopt, whether I agree with their ultimate aims or not. But, as a descendant of black slaves and activists un-conflicted by the comforts of acceptance (u
nlike too many of the people I observe these days), I cannot allow to go unchecked false advertising flowing from what at best is ignorance and at worst is mendacity.

To call what was planned as of the writing of this column on Monday evening a sit-in is a cavalier misappropriation. Wednesday’s exercise is not a sit-in.

As we have seen, in a sit-in, people and their allies walk into an establishment where they are not wanted (thereby intentionally disrupting the environment), request service, antagonize the authority figure on the other side of the counter, demand equal treatment, and accept some form of abuse at the hands of the individuals who in many cases physically assault them, arrest them, place them in jail, and interfere significantly with their public image and professional viability. Sit-ins are about confrontation and sacrifice.

A sit-in in the case of Lambda and the military should have proceeded this way: Individual gay students sign up for military interviews on campus, walk into the meeting to see the recruiter, announce their homosexuality, and demand to have their candidacy processed like those from heterosexual applicants and gay applicants who do not reveal their homosexuality (who are allowed to serve in the military). Rejected applicants mass around the recruiter and wait for the police to arrest them on various charges. Upon release from the jail, these bona fide activists go public, perhaps staging a rally where each victim can reveal publicly how he or she has been mistreated in order to foment public support to force President Bush or the Congress to act – because they, and not the military, set the policy. This procedure could be repeated at the Pentagon, exposing the facilitation of oppression from the highest levels.

That would have been a sit-in: presentation, persecution, publication, and persuasion.

Why didn’t Lambda do that?

The truth is that Lambda on this campus rarely gambles through confronting authority in an activist manner, apparently because the stakes are just not high enough to act up for real. The gay rights lobby in general has come to include an amalgamation of insiders, known to be insiders, but trying to operate as if they are not on the inside when doing so is politically expedient. Consequently, we watch a supposedly activist organization allow the woman who signed away the rights and respect that they had demanded in exchange for money that Harvard can do without – Dean Elena Kagan – while calling the show featuring her speech in front of Langdell Hall a protest demonstration. A few months later, when she does it again, she is praised in Lambda literature.

As we all should have learned in high school, that’s not how civil rights activism is supposed to operate. Those of us who know the difference must call for organizations like Lambda to present their policy recommendations with language that fits the situation. That would be far more effective to a predictably skeptical body politic, as Martin Luther King showed us.

I hasten to point out that I am not opposed to what an e-mail message circulated on Monday by an organizational co-sponsor to which I belong forecast: “Lambda and our allies will be eating our lunches on the ground around the tables as a way of symbolically demonstrating how we’re excluded from the table when it comes to military recruiting.”

This is a powerful and important statement to make in the face of what I have come to view as a form of employment discrimination whose supporters have difficulty defending. But it is not a sit-in.

But then, HLS Lambda has a history of promoting its events with disingenuous black-history pegs, detracting persuadable fence-sitters from its larger message.

On one of their posters earlier this semester, they quoted from President Truman’s 1940s executive order integrating black and white military units, suggesting that the current situation of don’t-ask-don’t-tell demands similar resolution. They might be right that the policy is wrong, but the gay issue is quite unlike that of blacks: while many white homosexuals were and are fully integrated into the military, blacks were not until Truman decreed. In fact, when blacks returned from World War II, white German prisoners were seated ahead of them and treated better – because they were white, says Lena Horn, who walked out of a performance hall for veterans because the organizers refused to move the black war heroes out of the balcony to replace the Nazi fighters who had been fighting to destroy the United States of America down front. Harry Truman’s order reversed this abomination, and the military today has become one of the best-integrated organizations, at least where black advancement is concerned, in the world.

Imbued with the spirit of Woodson, I rebuke any organizations’ flippant appropriation of the language of the civil rights movement. I reject the simulated outrage that mocks the struggle responsible for my being able to function peacefully in this extraordinary community. I call on my contemporaries at Harvard Law School to inform themselves of the extraordinary black history that has shaped our national heritage, so that we might avoid mistakes like Lambda’s racially offensive posters that appeared all over this campus last week.

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at amosjonescomment@aol.com

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