Is civil rights leadership on the sidelines?

December 11, 2014 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Marching in center city the Ferguson protestors on South Broad at City Hall, Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo / The Philadelphia Daily News, Steven M. Falk )

Marching in center city the Ferguson protestors on South Broad at City Hall, Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo / The Philadelphia Daily News, Steven M. Falk )

Guest editorial by Kevin C. Peterson

PHILADELPHIA, PA –Its not clear that this generation of civil rights leaders can win this one.

Thousands of defiant marchers protested across the nation this weekend where hundreds lay prostrate in the streets whispering “I can’t breathe.”

The chant has become almost ubiquitous since a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict a white police officer for the death of Eric Garner last July. The protests–some riotous–have also been in response to the death of Michael Brown, victim of a similar “death-by-police” scenario.

Here in the “City of Brotherly Love,” emotions and racial discontent continue to smolder, reflecting a duality of perspective as revealed in national polling results released over the weekend about race and law enforcement.

A Bloomberg Politics poll reveals a growing racial cleavage: While 64% of white respondents agreed with the Ferguson, Mo. ruling where a grand jury refused to indict a white officer accused of killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, 71% of African-Americans strongly disagreed with the decision.

A CBS/Marist poll reported that: “By more than two-to-one, African Americans are more likely than whites to say law enforcement applies different standards to whites and blacks.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton is calling for a “March on Washington” this weekend to bring a civil rights focus on the justice system.

But will Sharpton’s agitation help? More profoundly, has the efficacy of the civil rights coalition abated? Can it produce the efforts won in Montgomery, Birmingham or Selma?

“For the first time we are having a [civil rights] movement that is not really being led by the [black] church,” said the Rev. Alyn Waller to 4,000 worshipers at Philadelphia’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Sunday. “And quite frankly the church is not really out in front of this like we could and should be. And this could be the reason that the fight is not there.”

In the meantime, President Barack Obama offers protesters and the nation the anemic solution of “time.”

Monday night he told BET: “When you are dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society you got to have vigilance but you have to recognize that its going to take some time and you have to be steady.”

The president’s comments fall flat five decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued against the brand of systemic racism clearly visible in Ferguson and Staten Island.

If he were present, King would push Obama to make bolder statements about the justice system and the plight of black men. King would chide the president’s hesitancy on forming stronger national policies on race and the law. King would urge Obama to embrace the activism on the streets to galvanize public opinion.

King would say what he uttered in the 1960s: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is a senior director at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is founder of the New Democracy Coalition.



(The views expressed in the editorial are those of the author.)

Lessons from Ferguson

September 26, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Photo credit: Associated Press.

Photo credit: Associated Press.


September 26, 2014

WGBH News’ Morning Edition host Bob Seay spoke with Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and author of Stokely: A Life, about the continuing lessons from Ferguson, MO about race, civil rights in the aftermath of the killing of an unarmed black youth.

“What you saw in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting was a really militarized police response, where the police were looking at the residents of Ferguson as local enemy combatants instead of citizens who you’re trying to proactively solve situations with,” observed Joseph.

The full conversation from WGBH News:


For more on events in Ferguson, watch America After Ferguson on your local PBS station, September 26, 2014 at 8:00pm (EDT).  Follow the conversation on Twitter: @BasicBlackNow or #AfterFergusonPBS.


Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? …Now

September 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lonnie Farmer, Julia Duffy, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014. Photo: Paul Marotta

Lonnie Farmer, Julia Duffy, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014. Photo: Paul Marotta

Guest review by Kevin C. Peterson

Against the political backdrop of a dashing, brilliant black president, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the racial crisis now roiling in Ferguson, Missouri over the murder of unarmed Michael Brown by a local white police officer, the themes and tropes that comprise Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston this week–seem absurdly lame and unforgivingly naive.

Originally released as a movie in 1967 to critical acclaim, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was also widely popular, featuring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as white ultra-liberal parents who face a moral and racial reckoning when confronted with the “situation” that their daughter was on the verge of marrying a black man–played in the film sensationally by Sidney Poitier.

The current cast performing in Boston is excellent, led by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo, from The Cosby Show, playing the pliant Dr. John Prentice), Will Lyman and Julia Duffy portraying Matt and Christina Drayton, the parents of Prentice’s fiancée, Joanna Drayton (Meredith Forlenza) and Patrick Shea, the grog-loving, but soulfully insightful Monsignor Ryan.

Each character alternatively gives the play superb moments that are lighthearted, grim, then sometimes earnestly introspective–reflecting the racial realism of the sexual taboos of the time.

The ensemble sparkles generally but is made more radiant by Lynda Gravatt, who plays the maid, Matilda Binks, the moral epicenter of this story. Gravatt’s protean talent brings to this production all of the spiritual and psychological gravitas of what it then meant to be Negro, female and American–the pangs of love and hate, servitude and dignity, bitterness, promise, and no-nonsense racial conservatism, that stresses family, continuity and tradition.

But mostly Matilda signifies–like Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Aunt Ester Tyler in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the hopeful recognition that our humanity is ever waiting for opportunities to bloom, a careful optimism that, despite the country’s many tragic, racial sins, there is space for redemption for those on both sides of the aisle.

The issue of interracial marriage was all the rage at the time of film’s release. During its production, 17 states deemed interracial marriage a crime.

Decades later, this is now an archaic matter layered over and made obsolete by the elimination of anti-miscegenation laws and the emergence of an integrated national popular culture that has made aesthetic and cross-racial erotic choices sometimes simply a peculiarity of taste.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains an important literary artifact mainly because it reminds the carefully attentive clear insight into how hard the task is of achieving a racial democracy. This reality is made so clear as we simply look at neighborhood apartheid patterns that persist as an embarrassing American social feature.

The play, (which runs at the Huntington through October 5th) is good nostalgic theater that possesses moments that will evoke laughter and even raise high the irony that the guests at dinner at the White House every night currently are black.

But for Americans today–including Bostonians–who continue to take race seriously, who acutely understand the persistence of racial supremacy, this is a theater production that will also evoke some sadness.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at UMass Boston and a democracy activist.

African American history through a life of service: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

A guest post by Kevin C. Peterson

At the very center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the poignantly resonating reminder of the country’s enduring conversation about race–its many complicated tensions, variations, contradictions and resolutions.

The movie, which opened in Boston-area theaters last weekend, is a compelling meditation loosely based on the long career of Eugene Allen, a stoic Southern-born son of a murdered black sharecropper who eventually rose from a restaurant wait boy to the position of maitre d’ at the White House, serving in fine fashion 8 Presidents over 34 years and enduring the protracted pains that are associated with a man of his race and intelligence in a country determined to keep him invisible.

The Butler is based on a 2008 Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, who formerly worked for the Boston Globe. It chronicles a remarkable swath of American history that highlights the Civil Rights era of the last century where countless citizens, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., made signal contributions to ending American apartheid and advancing domestic democracy.

The Butler spans Allen’s White House employment, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, who desegregated United States military bases, and ending with Ronald Reagan, who signed into law the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Depicted in between are Allen’s (in the movie his name is Cecil Gaines) high hopes in President John F. Kennedy, his ambivalence toward President Lyndon Johnson, and a smoldering intolerance for Richard Nixon. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are barely mentioned. Through the course of this film, directed expertly by Lee Daniels, one feels the slow, inexorable move toward civic inclusion for which Allen and many other Americans yearned. The change is propelled at times by acts of Southern violence, the slow grind of the political legal system and the gradual melt of old customs weighted in racist mores.

Written and performed brilliantly by a cast of actors in their prime (see Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Vanessa Redgrave as a southern racist and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), The Butler is an allegory of our post World War II domestic experience, mining the social fears and guilt within our national psyche.

Viewers are prompted to reflect on the rapid changes in our racial terrain over three generations, emerging from de facto racism to a civic culture that would elect the first American of African descent in 2008.

Forest Whitaker plays Allen skillfully. He will likely earn another Academy Award nomination (he won the best actor award in 2006 for his role as an African despot in the King of Scotland) and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Allen’s adulterous and dipsomaniac wife, Gloria, gives a performance that matches the superior effort she gave as Sethe in the movie Beloved. Their oldest son, Louis, portrayed by David Oyelowo, gives the movie added narrative depth, providing youthful angst and rebellious conflict toward his parents.

The Butler falters in only minor areas. It fails to offer fully rounded characters and also treats its audiences as if it is completely knowledgeable of the complex nuances of the modern civil rights movement.

Where it succeeds extraordinarily is in offering its take on universally human themes that transcend race. Its nuanced depiction of the strains between the father and son summons the tragic feelings of loss, alienation and separation. The often cold marital relationship between Allen and his wife is likewise told with realistic pathos and the tang of sacrifice, slow forgiveness, and then enduring love.

There is a political subtext in The Butler about hope and change, the same tagline branding that was reflected in the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign.

The Allens also possessed those sentiments as they bore witness to their evolving lives and ever shifting commitments to each other. Unfortunately, as Haygood reported in his 2008 story, Allen’s wife died just days before the Obama election, but he savored the victory nonetheless.

On a parallel level, change was reflected in Allen’s late reconciliation with his son, an act that gives this picture an overall fullness and resolve that nothing is really over until it’s over, including our enduring struggle over race.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.

Rosa Parks: A National Day of Courage

February 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In commemoration of Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday, Detroit Public Television and The Henry Ford Museum are presenting A National Day of Courage: a full day of performances, speakers and tributes (livestream below.)   In 2010, TIME Magazine called Rosa Parks one of the 25 most powerful women of the past century.

Relevant links:
National Day of Courage
Rosa Parks, Eyes on the Prize (American Experience/WGBH)

Friday News & Notes: November 2, 2012

November 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Editor: Valerie Linson

M. Gertrude Godvin School, Walnut Avenue, Roxbury, MA circa 19th century. The building is currently the home of the National Center of Afro American Artists.
(City of Boston Archives, via Flickr)


The Cleveland Uppercut, Lil Reese and camera phone savagery
Akiba Solomon,, October 29, 2012
In my neck of the online woods, two violent camera phone videos have been making the rounds and sparking disturbing reactions about if and when it’s OK for a man to strike a black woman.

The first video, popularly known as “The Uppercut,” shows a Cleveland bus driver later identified as Artis Hughes, 59, arguing with passenger Shi’dea Lane, 25, for several stops. Witnesses claim that Lane struck and spit on Hughes, provoking the 22-year employee to punch the woman in her face and physically throw her off the bus. When an unseen passenger screams, “That’s a female,” Hughes retorts, “I don’t care! She want to be a man? I’ma treat you like a man.” Hughes has been suspended and charged with assault.
Read more…

National Civil Rights Museum to open balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot
Agence France Presse, November 2, 2012

The motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 is being opened to the public, a spokeswoman said Friday.

It is the first time that visitors to the erstwhile Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, will be able to stand on the very spot outside Room 306 where King was gunned down by sniper James Earl Ray.
Read more…

The African American debate on voting rights
Jamila Aisha Brown,, September 25, 2012

Not voting in the age of Obama has become almost a taboo subject among African Americans. After record black voter turnout helped elect the nation’s first black president in 2008, the decision not to vote is regarded by many as an affront to the ancestors who died and activists who bled to exercise this right.

They are not worth the color if they don’t vote. They oughta give us their color back. Their African-American credentials should be snatched if they don’t vote,” proclaimed an impassioned Representative Emanuel Cleaver (Democrat, Missouri) in his address to the 42nd annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation before the “voting rights and new age discrimination” panel.
Read more…

Small Wonders: Winning images from Nikon’s 2012 Small World Photo Micrography Competition
Washington Post, November 2, 2012
Read more…

Yes, you can criticize Obama and not be racist
Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post, October 31, 2012
I’ve long argued that Obama’s most ardent supporters should not ascribe racial motives to the president’s critics when none exist. Doing so undermines their argument and the ability to call out real racism — explicit and implicit — when it happens. And at the height of the tea party movement, I made a point of separating those who had genuine concerns about the direction of the country and its mounting debt from the right-wing extremists who latched onto the conservative movement.
Read more…


Highlights from the Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy

October 23, 2012 at 11:48 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Editor: Valerie Linson

Associate Professor Jeffrey Taliaferro joined WGBH News Morning Edition host Bob Seay for a conversation on the major takeaways from the presidential debate on foreign policy.  Professor Taliaferro is in the Department of Political Science at Tufts University (Medford, MA).

Professor Taliaferro was a guest on Basic Black last year in a discussion about the political and foreign policy impact of the death of Osama bin Laden.


Historian Peniel Joseph Dissects The Latest Presidential Debate

October 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Editor: Valerie Linson

Peniel Joseph on the set of Basic Black

Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and current fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, spoke with WGBH News radio anchor Bob Seay the morning after the second presidential debate:

Professor Joseph is a regular panelist on Basic Black, Friday’s at 7:30 on Channel 2 (PBS) in Boston, MA.  You can watch the broadcast or live stream and join the conversation via live chat at


A walk around the web… October 5, 2012

October 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Editor: Valerie Linson

Love this design…

The Real Economics of Big Bird
Matthew Yglesias, Slate (Moneybox), October 4, 2012
Mitt Romney’s decision to use Sesame Street’s Big Bird character as a synecdoche for cutting funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which, in turn, served as the only example of a program whose spending he’d cut to balance the budget has prompted a lot of discussion but little really serious analysis of the situation. For starters, cutting federal CPB subsidies actually isn’t the main policy threat to PBS—it’s base broadening tax reform.
Read more here…

It’s Jim Lehrer’s Turn To Respond To The Debate
Paul Farhi, The Washington Post, October 5, 2012
Jim Lehrer has a few words in response to those who thought he let President Obama and Mitt Romney ramble on and roll over him in Wednesday’s presidential debate:

“So what?”

The veteran PBS newsman, who was persuaded by the Presidential Debate Commission to moderate his 12th debate — the last one he’ll do, he vows — says the event wasn’t about “control” or the strict enforcement of rules. It was about producing a sharp discussion and substantive contrast between the candidates. Besides, he says, few people seemed to understand that the new format, which divided the discussion into 15 minute segments, was supposed to encourage such exchanges.
Read more here..

South African Company Fires 12,000 Miners
CNN Wire Staff, October 5, 2012
South African mining giant Anglo-American Platinum said Friday that it has fired about 12,000 striking workers who declined to attend disciplinary hearings.

Workers at the company’s Rustenburg, South Africa, mine have been on strike for three weeks.

The company called for disciplinary hearings for the strikers, and those who attended were informed of the outcomes Friday. Those who did not attend were fired, the company said.
Read more here…

Get To Know “Africa Straight Up”
Stacy-Ann Ellis,, October 5, 2012 plans to school the masses on the continent’s rapidly expanding society in terms of business, politics and technology with its forthcoming documentary, Africa Straight Up.

The website, one of the continent’s leading sources of news and information, will debut the 30-minute film on Oct. 8. Teresa Clarke, the CEO of as well as the film’s writer and executive producer, hopes Africa Straight Up will change the way the world sees the region.
Read more here…

An Earthy, Sexy, New “Wuthering Heights” (Heathcliff is black ya’ll!)
Andrew O’Hehir,, October 4, 2012
In most descriptions of “Wuthering Heights,” Heathcliff (that’s his one and only name) is described as a dark-skinned Gypsy or Roma child, who is found wandering the streets of Liverpool and taken in as a foster child by the sternly religious Mr. Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights (Paul Hilton in the film). But his actual origins are never made clear, and one neighbor even speculates that he might be “a little Lascar or American castaway.” In other words, nobody has the slightest idea who he really is or where he came from, but to use obnoxious contemporary language, he’s clearly a racial “other.”
Read more here…

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Dedication, October 16, 2011

October 17, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Thousands converged on the National Mall in Washington, DC on Sunday October 16th for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.  The dedication will be remembered as a historic event as King is the first African-American to be honored with a statue on the National Mall.  The event featured performances by Aretha Franklin and Nikki Giovanni and remarks by Rev. Al Sharpton.  (I imagine a lot of pews in Washington, DC were empty that morning…).  President Barack Obama delivered the keynote speech; Obama was only 6 years old when King was assassinated.

In thinking about the dedication of the memorial I’m reminded of the passing of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth less than two weeks ago on October 5th.   Shuttlesworth was an icon of the civil rights movement, in many ways the opposite temperament of King, but certainly no less effective and absolutely courageous.  In the seminal documentary film series Eyes On The Prize, Shuttlesworth is one of my favorite interviews and an incredible witness to history.  In describing the need to confront racism and segregation head-on and with force, Shuttlesworth says, “You can’t shame segregation… rattle snakes don’t commit suicide; ball teams don’t strike themselves out – you got to put’em out!”  Shuttlesworth survived beatings and bombings; he took the battle against segregation to the streets and to the courts.  In 1965, securing the passage of the Voting Rights Act was a major goal of the civil rights movement; in Selma, Alabama, civil rights activists were beaten and tear-gassed by state troopers.  The television news coverage of the brutality faced by the non-violent protesters helped shift the national conversation about the civil rights movement.

In 2007, a march was held to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.  As the crowd crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the notorious “Bloody Sunday“, it was then Senator Barack Obama who pushed Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair across the bridge.

President Obama’s remarks at the King dedication:

Valerie Linson
Series Producer
Basic Black

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