O.P. Recommends: Slavery and the History of Abolition: An Interview with Manisha Sinha for the African American Intellectual History Society

1898 portrait of Frances E.W. Harper, one of the multitude of abolitionists so richly featured in Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause

I’ve been reading Manisha Sinha‘s wonderful book The Slave’s Cause as fast as I can, which is not very fast at all given my current master’s degree course heavy reading load. But today, I’m happy to say, I’ll be really digging into it for a seminar essay I’m working on. What a happy coincidence that this interview with Rebecca Brenner for the African American Intellectual History Society is just published today; thanks as always for the excellent work you do, AAIHS!

Here are some audio sources to learn more about Sinha’s work on African American leadership in the abolitionist movement:

Harvard Book Store talk, March 2016, recorded and published at C-SPAN

Manisha Sinha, A History of Abolition: interview with Liz Covart for Ben Franklin’s World podcast

Slavery & Abolition in Antebellum America with Manisha Sinha, interview with Daniel Gullotta for The Age of Jackson Podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr by Lei Yixin on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, is among the world’s most influential and memorable civil rights leaders. The young, respected theologian and pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in late 1955, which ran the bus boycott following Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus earlier that year. King proved to be a charismatic and eloquent leader and soon moved to the forefront of the larger movement to end legal and social discrimination and segregation in the American South. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, resonated widely and still does. It’s consistent with key religious sentiments and principles found in King’s and the majority of Americans’ Christianity, as well as other philosophical and religious systems which emphasize both justice and mercy. The nonviolent tactics that King endorsed also kept the movement on such a moral high ground that it stymied would-be white critics who found it necessary to resort to smear campaigns and ad-hominem attacks, including and especially J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI administration. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ are two of the most moving and most influential creations of the American modern Civil Rights Movement, or indeed of any civil rights movement.

King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was engaged in worker’s rights activism, another major cause to which he dedicated his life.

Learn more about the complex, flawed, and great Dr. King at:

About Dr. King ~ at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Envisioning Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Twenty-First Century ~ by Dr. Elwood Watson for Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)

I Have A Dream ~ speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968) ~ by Clayborne Carson for BlackPast.org

Martin Luther King ~ by the BBC

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ by David L. Lewis and Clayborne Carson for Encyclopædia Britannica

Martin Luther King and Union Rights ~ by Michael Honey for Clarion, newspaper of PSC/Cuny

Martin Luther King, Jr: An Extraordinary Life ~ a project by The Seattle Times

Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice ~ obituary by Murray Schumach for The New York Times

A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail ~ by Martin Luther King, Jr, read and recorded by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and project participants

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The New Black Radical Moment, by Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II. Photo: Society for US Intellectual History Blog

Recent weeks have seen the release of several books that, have in some form or fashion, something to do with the Black Radical Tradition. While much fanfare has preceded the release of the new Ta-Nehisi Coates book, We Were Eight Years in Power (and with good reason), other books also speak to a renewed interest in African American radical thought. Where Coates seeks to describe the past and present of black history in America (in a discourse that ranges between center-left and radical), these other works offer a distinctly radical viewpoint of race and modern life. The rise of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump’s election, and qualms about the limits of the Barack Obama administration have all played key roles in this new Black Radical moment in modern intellectual discourse. Within the academy, growing interest in the works of Cedric Robinson—most notably Black Marxism but also his other works The Terms of Order and Black Movements in America, among others—coupled with deep, penetrating critiques of capitalism’s relationship to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, have provided some of the intellectual fuel for this moment. The “Black Perspectives” blog has also filled an important role in this, being a clearing house for all manner of scholars of the African American experience to talk about these various political and cultural intersections for a wide audience. This is all a long, and winding, way towards saying that everyone who reads this blog should take time, sooner or later, to read the edited collection Futures of Black Radicalism.

The edited collection, curated by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, plays off of Cedric Robinson’s landmark book and gives scholars and lay readers alike the chance to think about what the term “black radicalism” actually means. To their credit, Johnson and Lubin don’t try to offer an ironclad answer to that question. As they put it in the introduction, their goal is “merely archiving a moment in Black radical thought, one which exceeds the pages of this book, and which is always more expansive than the people writing here.”[1] What stands out about this book is the richness of intellectual discourse within its pages. A variety of historians, sociologists, and other scholars all tackle a central question: what, precisely, does the Black Radical Tradition say about life in the twenty-first century?  In the pursuit of these questions, the scholars featured in Futures of Black Radicalism—which is a who’s who of scholars that study political economy, history, sociology, and other fields—demonstrate a determination to enter the kinds of public debates that scholars have argued for years we should join in earnest. In that sense, they speak to another essential tradition from the African American intellectual tradition: the need for scholars to go beyond the academy and join debates in the broad public concerning race, politics, and other intertwined fields.

Another book, coming out soon, also promises to shake up discourse about the Black Radical Tradition. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new collection of essays and interviews, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective will be a valuable work for reminding people of the importance of the Combahee River Collective’s radical interpretation of feminism in the 1970s. The Collective was founded by African American women who wanted to make sure feminism did not remain an ideology linked exclusively to white, moderately liberal political discourse. More importantly, the name alone—Combahee River—recalls radical action and liberation (Combahee River was also the location of a famous raid led by Harriet Tubman during the American Civil War). It’s no surprise Taylor is doing work like this—her previous book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation was also a crucial entry into modern debates about black radicalism and American society.

Other books also promise to open new avenues of thought on the long history of black radicalism. Works such as Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women offers much to think about when considering the history of African American intellectuals. The forthcoming work from Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, will be an exciting—not to mention much-needed—evaluation of the role black women played in various Black Power-organizations and movements. We’ve already had a few works tackle this topic—most impressively The Revolution Has Come by Robyn C. Spencer—but I doubt we’ll ever have enough books about African American women and the role they played in various social movements in the twentieth century. Speaking of, Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, which is slated for release early next year, follows this same vein.

The Black Radical Tradition lives on through both the scholarship of historians and activism in the streets. It is no coincidence that whenever the struggle for black freedom heats up in American society, the scholars and intellectuals always provide the literary firepower necessary to further the fight for justice. We are living in another such time—one that, I believe, will be both an exciting time for intellectual curiosity and a dangerous time to be an honest, opinionated intellectual.

[1] “Introduction,” Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, in Futures of Black Radicalism. London: Verso Books, 2017. P. 13.

This article was originally published at The Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

“Held in Trust by History:” The Intellectual Activism of Lerone Bennett Jr., by Christopher Tinson

Lerone Bennett, Jr, by John H. White for Series DOCUMERICA, Oct 1973, public domain (cropped)

On the morning of December 11, 2016, a notice in the Chicago area news read as follows: “Author Lerone Bennett Found Safe After Being Reported Missing.” The 88-year old scholar and journalist had decided to go for an early morning walk, without telling anyone. According to the notice, Bennett had been located hours after he had gone missing. While the news report provided few details about the incident, it indicated that Bennett was “the author of multiple books” who had “previously worked as an editor at JET and Ebony Magazine.” The brevity of this note calls attention to two important facts: that Bennett is not dead as many have assumed, and that he is still largely known for his work at Ebony and for the publication of two critically acclaimed texts even though he produced over ten. While this notice locates Bennett, it fails to account for the extraordinary impact of this important figure.

Lerone Bennett, Jr.—social historian, Black Studies architect, and intellectual activist—spent over four decades at Ebony magazine. Ebony, arguably the premier African American lifestyle magazine of the 20th century, was founded by John H. Johnson in 1945. In addition to Ebony, Bennett also maintained a full organizational life, holding memberships and associations in such organizations as the short-lived Black Academy of Arts and Letters, the Race Relations Information Center, the Institute of the Black World, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center. In 1965, John Henrik Clarke was the first to announce Bennett as a social historian and historian Pero Dagbovie revisited Bennett’s influence on Africana Studies in an article in the Journal of Black Studies. Renewing the interest in Bennett’s life opens us to several objectives: to gain a sense of African American historical expertise and craftsmanship, to achieve an expansive definition of intellectual history and the social function of the historian, to contextualize Bennett’s productivity, motivations, and range as a thinker, to achieve a view into his philosophy of life, and lastly to arrive at the creatively disruptive and reparative dimensions of history, all of which are discernible in Bennett’s robust body of work.

Born and bred in the south, Bennett moved to Chicago after a stint at the Atlanta Daily World and was named Associate Editor at Ebony in 1954. Bennett’s time at Ebony was unique. Starting out slowly, he later emerged as one of Johnson’s trusted advisors—he eventually co-wrote Johnson’s autobiography. He used the prestige of one of America’s most successful black entrepreneurs to teach and disseminate black history. The common association of Bennett with the popularizing of history reduces his impact. His record shows that far from watering down the African American experience in the United States, he sought to forge a reparative, justice-centric, visionary account of past human endeavor and the stakes of social disequilibrium. For Bennett, history looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. A brief survey of Ebony issues over this period reveals several principal social concerns, including: African American struggles over rights, passionate interest in the decolonization of the African continent, the uncovering or rediscovering key contributors to Africana intellectual life, and measuring the growing discontent with the prospects of American democracy. On one hand, Ebony emphasized high-life aspiration and on the other it cultivated a devoted and deeply engaged readership. Throughout the 1960s Bennett published a broad range of essays commenting on African American politics, culture, and Afro-diasporic history. Virtually no subject escaped Bennett’s pen. Among the writings in this period are essays on African independence, civil rights militancy, popular culture, and other histories that comprised the series “Pioneers of Protest.”

However, Bennett’s career took off upon the publication of Before the Mayflower in 1962, which began as a series of Ebony essays in 1961. The book was an immediate sensation. Mainstream press outlets such as the Chicago Tribune favorably reviewed the book. The Tribune also carried book reviews written by Bennett while he served as associate editor at Ebony. Historian and activist John Henrik Clarke’s review essay for the black left periodical Freedomways in 1965 locates Bennett in relation to the Civil Rights upsurge carried out by “A new generation of restless black Americans.” For Clarke, Bennett was part of a new generation who, like himself, could be called participant historians. In other words these were historians who not only documented history, but were themselves poised and principled activists in their own regard. Clarke offered readers a glimpse into Bennett’s background before diving into a review of key sections of Before the Mayflower and several of his seminal Ebony articles. Accompanying the piece was two of Bennett’s poems, showcasing a multitalented intellect.

The great irony of Bennett’s career, perhaps, is found in his relationship with Ebony, a magazine known for its dependency on advertising that peddled skin lighteners, platform shoes, cigarettes, scotch, the latest styles, and wigs. Bennett was bent on using the popular magazine of the black high life as a reputable platform to document and forecast black struggle, and he succeeded. Still, this did not mean he went unquestioned about what some perceived to be a contradiction.

Without question, Ebony was a critical platform for Bennett. In the front matter of every book he published for JPC, he earnestly thanked Johnson for allowing him the massive platform, time, and resources to research and write. He could reach larger audiences than professors at exclusive colleges or universities, but he could also keep relationships with those institutions that had no effect on his work. Ebony thus emerges as a premier, if unlikely, site of black cultural knowledge production. In this sense Ebony was a different kind of public institution. Bennett certainly benefitted from this unique arrangement and never took it for granted. Not only could he be in the thick of key debates as sage and journalist and historian, but also Ebony’s book publishing gave him a direct line to the national book networks. Among their many publishing pursuits, Bennett and Johnson had plans for an Ebony Encyclopedia.

Bennett’s approach to publishing was methodical and systematic. Lectures and speeches became articles, articles became books, or anthologies. Ebony therefore was unparalleled in its disruption of American consumer trends and U.S. based intellectual work. Bennett had the best of both worlds in terms of institutional credibility among all sectors of the black community. Bennett’s work ethic and standards of excellence had earned him the trust of John H. Johnson. The two carved out what was an enviable relationship. Bennett had access to the publishing mogul, and Johnson needed Bennett’s intellectual heft to bolster the magazine’s reputation and commitment to sincere and earnest coverage of black life beyond the simple demands of capitalist advertising and an aspiring black middle class’s pursuit of the high life. But Johnson was no fool. And although he refused to wear his politics on his sleeve, Bennett viewed Johnson as a sincere and chief advocate of black life. Effectively, Bennett was the bridge across a full spectrum that stretched from a petty capitalist, black bourgeoisie, churchgoing, assimilationist community, to grassroots militants and middle- and working class intellectuals with nationalist proclivities, alongside full expressions of black elite aspiration. No matter the segments of the black community and their ideological shadings or capitalist accouterments, in Bennett’s view, their fates were linked, and, moreover, they all had to answer the call of history and the demands of time.

At the turn of the 21st Century, Bennett remained active. On April 26, 2000, Bennett testified in front of the “Joint Hearing of the Finance and Human Relations Committees of the Chicago City Council on Reparations for African-American Slaves and Their Descendants.” The sage historian took full advantage of the opportunity to underscore the unpaid debt long past due. Interestingly, atop the typed speech, in Bennett’s cursive handwriting are the words, “Held in Trust by History.” It was as if Bennett was reminding himself of the duty to once again shine due light on the evidence and make the case plain.

Like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, he showed a commitment to “living history” and modeled a kind of public intellectualism that was both strident and sensitive. His time at Ebony suggests that a popular media platform could just as easily become a classroom. For Bennett, history was not just a discipline–it was obligation, memory, and art. He was moved by the opportunity, calling, and challenge of doing good work on behalf of a people’s struggle. Lerone Bennett, Jr. no longer needs an “All Points Bulletin/Missing Persons Report.” He has been here the whole time.

This piece was originally published at The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) Blog

~ Christopher Tinson is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Hampshire College. His interdisciplinary research and teaching focuses on the intersections between Africana radical traditions, Ethnic Studies, critical media studies, incarceration, and community-based education. His book on Liberator magazine and black activism of the 1960s, entitled Radical Intellect, is forthcoming. (Bio credit: AAIHS)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Civil Rights and Healthcare: Remembering Simkins v. Cone (1963), by Ezelle Sanford III

Dr. George Simkins, Jr.

Dr. George Simkins, Jr.

Upon her release from L. Richardson Memorial Hospital’s maternity ward in Greensboro, North Carolina, my grandmother, Ann Wilson Scales, walked a few short steps to her mother’s home with a small baby in hand. She had just given birth to my mother, La Tanya Wilson Sanford, in the city’s Black hospital. It was 1965. Unbeknownst to either of them, a small group of L. Richardson’s physicians, dentists, and patients had waged a quiet war against segregation two years earlier. The city was the site of arguably one of the more consequential yet little-known civil rights battles in American history. No, it was not the beginning of the student sit-in movement initiated by North Carolina A&T students in 1960. Rather, this small contingent fought in district and circuit courts to desegregate U.S. healthcare. At issue was where medical professionals could practice and where patients could access care: in the older, segregated L. Richardson Hospital, or in the newer, more modern (and better funded) Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.

In 1962, dentist George Simkins, Jr. unsuccessfully attempted to admit a patient to Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, one of two private white hospitals in the city supported by tax dollars. Combining his role as community dentist and President of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP, Simkins initiated a class-action lawsuit against both Moses Cone and Wesley Long Community Hospitals. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund assisted in litigating the test case. Not only were African American patients barred from these institutions, Black physicians were barred from practicing there, even as both institutions received state and federal funds provided by the 1946 Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act. Hill-Burton emerged from President Harry Truman’s failed healthcare reform and promised to rebuild and modernize the U.S. healthcare infrastructure. However, this program included a loophole where states that engaged in de jure racial segregation could use the money to build segregated facilities. Cone and Long Hospitals both benefitted from this program and its segregation loophole. This is not to say that segregated hospitals did not exist before the Hill-Burton Program, however; historian Vanessa Gamble chronicles the movement to establish Black hospitals from 1920–1945.

Initially, the district court of North Carolina sided with the defendant hospitals; however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and later the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case) deemed that the two hospitals’ policies of racial discrimination for both patient admissions and visiting physician staff privileges violated the fifth and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.

Last September, the CEO of Cone Health Network, of which Moses Cone Memorial Hospital and Wesley Long Hospitals are now a part, issued a public apology to the last surviving plaintiff of the historic court ruling. Dr. Alvin Blount, 94, graciously accepted the long overdue apology from the health system, initiating local reflections on racial discrimination in healthcare. This is not the first apology issued to acknowledge the long-strained history of race and racism associated with medicine and healthcare. In May 1997, former President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the United States Public Health Service’s “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” (1932–1972). In 2008, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially apologized for its exclusion of Black physicians from membership, an important acknowledgment given that AMA membership became increasingly important for hospital admitting privileges, licensure, and broader steps in professional development. As historian Thomas Ward notes, until the AMA desegregated in 1968, Black physicians were barred from white hospitals and denied opportunities for continuing medical education, thereby justifying their own professional societies and medical schools. All of these apologies were too little, too late, and their legacies continue to influence healthcare to date.

Historical marker for landmark decision of Simkin v. Cone, 1963

Historical marker for landmark decision of Simkin v. Cone, 1963

Cone Health commemorated the legacy of the Simkins decision by allocating $250,000 in scholarship funds for students pursuing healthcare professions. Guilford County commemorated the case by placing a marker outside Cone Hospital and a bronze statue of George Simkins on the grounds of the Guilford County Courthouse. These symbolic gestures speak to the case’s broad importance, defining Simkins not only as a significant battle for civil rights in medicine, but also as a touchstone moment in a much larger movement for freedom and liberation. Simkins was decided only months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was ratified; the Title VI of this act and Medicare funding forced the desegregation of healthcare facilities almost overnight, as historian David Barton Smith argues. In a short documentary produced by Cone Health, Dr. Blount recalled that the Simkins case “ended ‘separate but equal’ forever.”

Yet, the Simkins decision does not figure prominently in many popular renditions of civil rights history.1 Contrary to the aforementioned Clinton and AMA apologies, which received national attention, the Simkins apology did not move beyond the local media. In many of these local reflections, the Simkins case was likened to the historic 1954 Brown v. Board ruling. Though both cases ostensibly achieved similar ends, eliminating separate but equal institutions in education and healthcare, respectively, the comparison obscures more than it reveals. Even I am guilty of this shorthand, an easy way to communicate the gravity and significance of this decision. But this shorthand has the unintended effect of perpetuating Simkins’ invisibility.

History plays a role in why Brown lives on in the popular imaginary and Simkins does not. A majority of Americans interacted with both systems as they each cared for the nation’s most vulnerable: children and the infirm. Desegregating American education, however, was a very public battle, as images and video captured the Little Rock Nine or Dorothy Counts (who integrated my high school, Harding University High School in Charlotte, North Carolina) confronting inflamed white mobs. Brown was not simply waged in court; debates around school segregation seeped into American homes and into popular discourse. On the other hand, Dr. Blount remembered that the Simkins plaintiffs wanted to engage in a quiet challenge to segregated healthcare.2Although their fiscal independence allowed some physicians, like T. R. M. Howard, to jump to the fore of a broader movement, others sought to challenge their exclusion from the medical establishment in a more dignified manner.

While the Supreme Court heard Brown, it did not take the Simkins case. Until the Civil Rights Act months later, the lower Circuit Court’s ruling stood as jurisprudence only in the Fourth Circuit’s Mid-Atlantic region. Moreover, the two cases had distinct legal questions at their heart; Brown questioned the separate but equal doctrine established in 1896, while Simkins questioned whether public funding of private institutions counted as “state action.” Undoubtedly, Brown was an essential step leading to the Simkins decision. Without its challenge to the separate but equal doctrine, Simkins may have failed. Finally, the speed by which institutions in the fields of education and healthcare were desegregated differed dramatically. In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, school desegregation was ordered with “all deliberate speed,” while the Simkins case, combined with the Civil Rights Act and Medicare legislation, helped to desegregate many hospitals rather quickly. Political scientist and historian David Smith’s The Power to Heal: Civil Rights Medicare, and the Struggle to Transform America’s Healthcare System (2016) recovers this connection and situates health policy implementation in the broader movement for equality, employment, and rights.

Though the Simkins case is lauded for bringing about a swift end to segregation in healthcare, among other things, it led to the decline of Black community hospitals. While some, like Grady Memorial in Atlanta, successfully negotiated the new terrain of race relations, federal monies, power, and increased opportunities for Black medical students and doctors elsewhere, others like Homer G. Phillips Hospital of St. Louis and L. Richardson Hospital shuddered under the burden of increasing medical costs, lack of staff, and changing ideas around the importance of these institutions. In effect, Black hospitals were an anachronism in the post-Simkins era. Where some Black patients could, like my grandmother, walk to and from their community hospitals, such an action is almost inconceivable today given the large, distant campuses of many contemporary urban hospitals and medical centers.

Cone Health’s apology, though overdue, came at just the right moment. Dr. Alvin Blount passed away earlier this year, only months after his former legal foe recognized and applauded his pioneering work. The silences around the Simkins decision demonstrate that more work still needs to be done on our understanding of the history and legacy of Black liberation. Specifically, the nexus between civil rights and health remains fertile ground for scholarly inquiry. We must heed the warning of W. Montague Cobb, physician, anthropologist, editor, activist, and intellectual, “lest we forget.”

This piece was originally published at The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog

Ezelle Sanford III is a fourth-year graduate student at Princeton University in the Department of History, Program in the History of Science. He is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis working on his dissertation project, “A Source of Pride, a Vision of Progress: The Homer G. Phillips Hospital of St. Louis, MO.” (Bio credit: AAIHS)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!