Hero of the First Amendment: Pauli Murray

First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

 

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Pauli Murray has been one of my personal heroes for years.  It’s a good thing she was a real person, because if she were a fictional character, any decent editor would complain that she was unrealistic and demand that the author tone her down to something more plausible. Pauli Murray (born Anna Pauline Murray) was a poet, a lawyer, a civil rights activist, an educator, and the first female African-American to be ordained as an Episcopalian priest.  She helped co-found both CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1942 and NOW (National Organization for Women) in 1966.  She was turned down when she applied for a position at Cornell University because her references (Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph) were too radical. In her younger days, she’d been turned down from attending the University of North Carolina (which her ancestors had helped found) because she was Black and from attending Harvard because she was female. Her reply to Harvard was classic.

“I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”

Pauli Murray was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of the bus fifteen years before Rosa Parks, and for following Gandhi’s example of peaceful civil disobedience while Martin Luther King was still in short pants. She led sit-ins in Washington, DC during WWII.

Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1944, Pauli Murray and fellow students from Howard University began a demonstration at Thompson’s, at Eleventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, a cafeteria only a few blocks from the White House.  Some picketed outside.  Some, including Pauli, went inside and asked to order. The cafeteria refused to serve them, so they took empty trays to vacant tables and sat down. Pauli, as the only female law student at Howard University at the time, was spokeswoman for the group.  Politely but firmly, she reminded the staff at Thompson’s that Washington, DC, law did not require segregation.  It was custom, not legally required.

Police watched the picketers and the crowd gathering to protest the protesters to make sure no laws were broken, but they did not interfere. The posters said:

  • “Are you for HITLER’S Way (Race Supremacy) or the AMERICAN Way (Equality)?  Make Up Your Mind!”
  •  “We Die Together.  Why Can’t We Eat Together?”
  • “Our Boys, our Bonds, our Brothers are Fighting for YOU!  Why Can’t We Eat Here?”

The students from Howard entered the restaurant in small groups, two or three at a time.  They continued to occupy tables, preventing paying customers from eating.  Six African-American soldiers, who were not involved with the demonstration and had not known Thompson’s didn’t serve African-Americans, came in to get a meal.  White soldiers and sailors were already inside Thompson’s eating.  When the manager refused to serve them, they, too, sat down at empty tables and read the newspapers, rather than going elsewhere to look for somewhere that would serve Blacks.  By five o’clock that evening, there were fifty-six demonstrators (including the soldiers) taking up tables.  Thompson’s was losing money.  The manager asked them to leave, but Pauli pointed out they were not breaking any laws.  The district supervisor of the Thompson’s chain came and asked them to leave.  Pauli refused, politely.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. will do years later, she was practicing civil disobedience (with an emphasis on the civility).  Finally, after telephone consultations with Thompson’s main office in Chicago, the restaurant agreed to serve them, after four and a half hours of peaceful sit-in.  The cafeteria’s waitresses refused to serve African-American customers, so the manager and the district supervisor had to act as waiters.

Pauli, being a law student at the time, knew the First Amendment and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

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“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.” Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray was born November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland.  She died July 1, 1985 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In between 1910 and 1985, she fought against racism and sexism.  She was the first African-American Deputy Attorney General for the state of California.  In 1947, Mademoiselle Magazine named her Woman of the Year. She wrote poems, essays, and books. She was the first African-American to earn a doctorate of law at Yale University.  She taught law at several colleges, both in the United States and Ghana.

She held these truths to be self-evident:  that all men and women are created equal.

 

 

 

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Hero of the First Amendment: Richard Allen

First Amendment of the Constitution:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Related image Bishop Richard Allen, 1760 – 1831

Richard Allen is an important figure in American history, especially the history of religion and civil rights in this country. He founded both the Free African Society,  a “non-denominational religious mutual-aid society dedicated to helping the Black community,” and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which later spun off the A. M. E. Zion Church and the C. M. E. Church.

Richard Allen was probably born in 1760, in or near Philadelphia.  He was born a slave, which means his birth was probably not recorded at the time.  February 14, 1760 is given as his usual birth date, which makes today his 257th birthday, and he was born in Pennsylvania or Delaware.  As a teenager he converted to Methodism and became a lay preacher.  His owner, Stokeley Sturgis, also converted to Methodism, and permitted Richard Allen and his other slaves the opportunity to purchase their freedom.  (He did not convert in so holy a manner and to so generous a heart that he freed them without at least partial reimbursement for the loss of their labor.) He bought his freedom in 1783 (some sources say 1780) for $2,000.  In 1786, “joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became active in teaching and preaching.”  He often preached at all-Black services early on Sunday mornings, at 5:00 a.m.  However, when he and other Black members of the congregation attended the regular services later in the day, they were required to be segregated from the white members of the congregation.

Details differ as to the great walk-out of St. George’s by the Black congregation members.  It may have been in 1787 or 1792.  It may have been because visitors to the church did not realize they were sitting in the “whites only” section of the church or it may have been a deliberate attempt at integration by Allen’s friend, Absalom Jones.  Some versions of the story claim the church forced segregated seating on the congregation without warning, and this was the first — and last — Sabbath they did so.  What is sure is this:  African-Americans sat in the “white pews.”  An usher tried to tell them to move, but as he was doing so, it was the time in the service to kneel for prayer.  They refused to move until prayers were over and scolded the usher for interrupting the prayers.  When the prayers ended, they rose to their feet and walked out of the church.  Richard Allen and Absalom Jones led all the other Black members of the church out.

Absalom Jones was the first African-American to be officially ordained in the United States; he chose to join the Episcopal Church.  Richard Allen did not want to leave the Methodist church, but decided that what was needed was a church where African-Americans could worship together.

“I was confident that there was no religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple Gospel suits best for any people.”

Using his own money, Richard Allen bought an old blacksmith’s shop and established the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Bishop Francis Asbury consecrated the building. He also ordained Allen.

Richard Allen Richard Allen, circa 1784

Having been a slave himself, Allen naturally became an abolitionist. Both his home and Bethel Church were stops on the Underground Railroad.  He worked for better conditions and civil rights for free African-Americans, especially education.  He opened a school for African-American children.  He wrote articles on the evils of slavery,  on the brotherhood of slaves and free Blacks, on religious topics, and on African-Americans staying in the United States and improving themselves, gaining self-determination, rather than freed slaves going back to Africa.

“We will never separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country; they are our brethren and we feel there is more virtue in suffering privations with them than fancied advantage for a season.”

The local white Methodist Episcopal churches tried to exercise authority over Bethel Church, but Allen fought them in court. January 1, 1816, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled the church belonged to Allen and his associates. In that same year, Allen “united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Salem, New Jersey; Delaware and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. On April 10, 1816, the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop.”

Bishop Richard Allen died on March 26, 1831,  at his home on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was buried under Bethel Church, which is considered the Mother Church of the AME Church.

Biographies of Bishop Richard Allen
Richard Allen, The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, 1793; reprinted Nashville: Abingdon, 1960)

Carol V. R. George, Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches (New York: Oxford University, 1973)

Richard Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers (NYC: NYU Press, 2008)


 

Happy St. Valentine’s Day.

Happy African-American History Month.

Happy Richard Allen’s Birthday.

Hero of the First Amendment: Ida B. Wells

First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Mary Garrity - Ida B. Wells-Barnett - Google Art Project - restoration crop.jpg Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Who was Ida B. Wells?  She was an American heroine.  She was a teacher, a journalist, a lecturer, and a civil rights activist. She fought for freedom of the press and freedom of speech.  She worked to publicize the evils of lynching and fought to stop it.  She worked for female suffrage and equal rights for men and women, white and Black.

Ida Bell Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. When her parents and one of her brothers died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, she became a teacher to support herself and her remaining siblings, so the family would not need to be split up among various relatives. She eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where teachers earned better pay, although she still earned less than white teachers.

“On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers.” She refused, and was forcibly removed from the train. She sued. A local circuit court awarded her $500, but the railroad appealed, and the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the case.

Wells began writing for newspapers, mostly on racial issues.  She became editor and co-owner of the Free Speech and Headlight in 1889.  In 1891, she lost her teaching job when the Memphis Board of Education disapproved of her articles criticizing the condition of the “colored” schools in Shelby County.  In 1892, she began in earnest the crusade for which she is most famous:  publicizing the evils of lynching, and explaining that lynching was not the result of white justice-seekers too impatient to wait for the courts, but of white businessmen and leaders determined to stop African-American economic competition and social improvement.  In 1892, Tom Moss, an African-American grocery store owner and a friend of Ida B. Wells, was arrested for defending his store from white vandals.  He and his business partners, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, were dragged from the jail and murdered by a lynch mob.

Wells not only wrote about her friend’s lynching.  She traveled the south for two months, investigating other lynchings and collecting statistics.  When she wrote about her findings, especially  that lynchings were not the result of Black men raping white women, a mob in Memphis broke into her newspaper office and destroyed her printing press.  She was out of Tennessee at the time, and was warned not to return to Memphis.  She traveled in the north and the midwest, writing and lecturing about lynching. She went to Europe on a lecture tour.

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Unable to return safely to Memphis, she settled in Chicago, where she and Frederick Douglass organized a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She, Douglass, Irvine G. Pen, and her future husband, attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, co-wrote a pamphlet explaining Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. More than 20,000 copies of the pamphlet were passed out to visitors to the exposition.

Ida B. Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, an African-American lawyer and journalist, in 1895. He was a widower, with two sons by his first wife.  He and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (one of the first women to keep her own name after marriage) had four children together.

 The Ida B. Wells-Barnett House, a National Historical Landmark in Chicago, IL, is where Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Ferdinand L. Barnett lived from 1919-1930.

In addition to her many newspaper articles and speeches on lynching, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote two pamphlets, both of which are out of copyright and available on-line.  In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, published in 1892, she examined the causes of lynching and suggested that African-Americans use their Second Amendment rights to protect themselves.

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

In 1895, she published The Red Recordwhich examined lynchings since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  Most white northerners were either unaware or refused to believe how widespread lynching was in the south.  Wells-Barnett explained “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood,  without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution” since slavery had ended.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Ida B. Wells-Barnett tried to balance raising her family with fighting against lynching, fighting for women’s suffrage, and working for urban reform for the many African-Americans who were fleeing the dangers and poverty of the south to come to northern cities looking for a better life.  She founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Afro-American Council in 1896. In 1909, she helped W. E. B. DuBois found the NAACP.  She founded the Negro Fellowship League in 1910.  She died in Chicago, March 25, 1931.

Image result for ida b wells Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Her home in Chicago is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is currently a private home and not open to tours. The Bolling-Gatewood House in Holly Springs, MS, once the home of Spires Bolling, the man who owned her as a child, is now the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum. Several schools are named after her, including the Ida B. Wells Academy in Memphis and the Ida B. Wells Preparatory Elementary Academy in Chicago.

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