Posts tagged with "history"

The Killing of a White Civil Rights Champion in America

In early March 1965, a peaceful crowd of 600 people began a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to show their support for Black voting rights. Police armed with batons, pepper spray, and guns attacked the marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in a violent assault that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

After the attack, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other organizers remained determined to complete the march. Dr. King urged clergy to come to Selma and join the march to Montgomery. Hundreds of clergy from across the country heeded the call and traveled to Selma; one of them was the Reverend James Reeb, a 38-year-old white Unitarian minister from Boston.

On March 9th, Dr. King led 2,500 marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a short prayer session. That evening, three white ministers–Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb–were attacked and beaten by a group of white men opposed to their civil rights work. The Rev. Reeb was struck in the head with a club and suffered a severe skull fracture and brain damage.

Fearing that he would not be treated at the “white only” Selma Hospital, doctors at Selma’s Black Burwell Infirmary ordered the Rev. Reeb rushed to the Birmingham hospital. After a series of unfortunate events, including car trouble and confrontations with local police, the Rev. Reeb reached the hospital in Birmingham in critical condition. He died on March 11, 1965, leaving behind his wife and four children. Three white men later indicted for the Rev. Reeb’s murder were ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury.

More widely reported than the death of local Black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier, the Rev. Reeb’s death brought national attention to the voting rights struggle. The death also moved President Lyndon B. Johnson to call a special session of Congress, where he urged legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act. Congress did so, and President Johnson signed the act into law in August 1965.

For more on the history of racial injustice in America, follow Equal Justice Initiative, (EJI).

A History Of Racial Injustice

On this day — Apr 05, 1880

Black West Point Cadet Brutally Beaten by White Students Days Before Graduation

In the early hours of the morning on April 5, 1880, Cadet Johnson Whittaker, one of the first Black students in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was brutally beaten by white cadets while sleeping in his barracks. Three white cadets ambushed Cadet Whittaker, slashed his head and ears, burned his Bible, threatened his life, and then left him in his underwear, tied to the bed and bleeding profusely.

Born enslaved in South Carolina in 1858, Cadet Whittaker received a congressional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1876. For most of his time at West Point, Cadet Whittaker was the only Black cadet at the institution; he endured social exclusion and racial terrorism perpetrated at the hands of white cadets and faculty alike. Twenty-three Black cadets attended West Point between 1870 and 1890, but due to the violent discrimination that they faced, only three graduated. Cadet Whittaker would later testify that he had “read and heard about the treatment that [Black] cadets received there, and expected to be ostracized.”

After Cadet Whittaker reported to West Point administrators that he had been attacked, the institution opened an investigation into him and declined to hold his white attackers accountable. Administrators instead claimed that Cadet Whittaker had staged the attack to get out of his final exams, and in May, a West Point court of inquiry found Cadet Whittaker guilty of that charge. He was forced to take his final exams while incarcerated and withstand court-martial proceedings in New York City where the army prosecutor repeatedly referred to Black people as an “inferior race” known to “feign and sham.”

In January 1881, Brigadier General N.A. Miles affirmed Cadet Whittaker’s conviction and authorized him to be expelled from West Point, dishonorably discharged from the military, and held for continued imprisonment. Cadet Whittaker’s case was ultimately forwarded to President Chester A. Arthur for approval, and, a year later, President Arthur issued an executive order overturning the conviction based on a finding that military prosecutors had relied on improperly admitted evidence. By the time of President Arthur’s intervention, Cadet Whittaker had been incarcerated for nearly two years; even after his conviction was overturned, West Point reinstated Cadet Whittaker’s expulsion, claiming he had failed an exam.

Johnson Whittaker went on to work in several professional fields and raise a family, including several generations of descendants who served in the U.S. military. In 1995, more than 60 years after his death, Mr. Whittaker’s heirs accepted the commission he would have received upon graduating West Point. At the ceremony, President Bill Clinton remarked: “We cannot undo history. But today, finally, we can pay tribute to a great American and we can acknowledge a great injustice.”

To learn more the racial discrimination and violence Black service members and veterans have faced in the U.S. military, explore EJI’s report, Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans.

Portrait of Cadet Whittaker at the court-martial proceedings. (Library of Congress)

The History Of Thanksgiving And Why It Matters Today


Every year Americans gleefully celebrate Thanksgiving. Today the holiday has morphed into consumerism, displays of costumed harmony and gratitude shaped by the fables and illusions constructed by those in power demanding we overlook the harsh truth and history of Thanksgiving. Still, no matter how far we stray from the path of truth, and as long as grass grows and water runs, history will remain seated in its scared place on top of the mountain awaiting man’s arrival for deeper knowledge and finally, true freedom rooted in a just and equal world.

Today, young people are still drawing pictures of pilgrims eating harmoniously with Native Americans when that depiction is far from historical fact. The truth, unfortunately, is the brutal genocide of Native Americans. And the official commemoration of Thanksgiving by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 was an idea born from George Washington as a political strategy for pilgrim unification, and in celebration of The Constitution. Historians say the turkeys significance as part of the origin of Thanksgiving, is due to the pilgrims dependence on wild turkeys they found to sustain themselves in their new world. And the national day of celebration was directly tied to their protestant religion of praising God for all the glory, land and newfound opportunities for riches outside the boundaries of Europe.

Equally important to note is how the European settlers defined themselves in an effort to unify and strengthen their hostile takeover of Native American lands. At some point, they no longer wanted to be seen as immigrants. Thus, after forming The Constitution, they evolved from being called pilgrims, colonists, Europeans and finally settling on whites, which essentially removed their specific place of origin across Europe from their identity. This new white institution was to form a political force and also to establish world dominance via the construct of white supremacy. Unfortunately, the “white” label of unity didn’t stop the Civil War from dividing the country, but I digress.

There are numerous historical accounts describing the brutality inflicted upon Native Americans by the pilgrims who came to be known as whites. It’s also important to remember, Black enslaved people were part of this journey of discovery to colonization. And they endured the worst of the pilgrims voyage and eventual settlement of the new world. It’s no secret our American teachings is shaped with many untruths and myths about our journey to this point in time, including the rotund myth of Christopher Columbus. As we advance in our knowledge of the world and its history, it’s becoming more evident that all the lies spun have been to lionize white men and their place in the world. This, despite clear, historical and anthropological accounts to the contrary. From human evolution to advancements in civilization, Africans paved the way.

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated as a unique American tradition. It’s a day we celebrate the blessings of family, friendships, abundance and American liberty as we know it. Sadly, many Native Americans recognize this day as one of mourning. And rightfully so when you consider the ugly truths of Thanksgiving, which depicts their ancestors in a tale of brotherhood with their killers. Also, Black folks remain economically and socially oppressed in America despite the riches and bounties their ancestors reaped under forced slave labor that the pilgrims who turned white control and use as a dominating global force and superpower.

The significance of Thanksgiving matters, especially today, because we celebrate despite the reality on the ground for the people who suffered the greatest toll in the establishment of this day of harvest, feasting and celebration of our bounties. It’s a callous truth and yet every year we skip to the festive beat of Thanksgiving, with presidential turkey pardoning’s, parades and family gatherings, all while blindly ignoring history and realism. The world I want to live in celebrates a Thanksgiving where all the people who labored for the harvest equally enjoy and benefit from it. And until that day comes, the gobble, gobble will never be sweet in America.