A righteous tidal wave of anger followed people seeing the nine-minutes-plus videotaped police lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis late May 2020. Racist monuments glorifying the slave-owning Confederacy came tumbling down, especially in the Deep South. These acts to take down the statues were part of historic mass protests that swept the country during the summer of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The enslaved Black “Mothers of Gynecology” are now honored in this memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Two years earlier the monument paying homage to J. Marion Sims, once praised as the “father of modern gynecology,” was removed from Central Park in New York City, following many years of protest.
What led to the removal was a growing understanding and anger that Sims, a 19th century gynecologist in Montgomery, Alabama, used enslaved Black women as guinea pigs, experimenting on them with new medical techniques without using anesthesia or obtaining their consent. His techniques resulted in unspeakable torture.
Sims believed that Black women did not experience the same kind of pain as white human beings. Black people were nothing more than chattel to Sims and his ilk, who viewed them as less than human and actually treated them worse than animals. This was the prevailing view of enslavers in the South and even in some regions of the North.
Black women during this period were denied the right to control their own reproductive systems and destinies, starting when they were adolescents. This is horribly similar to the recent case of the 10-year-old girl from Ohio, raped twice, impregnated, and in order to receive an abortion, was forced to travel to Indiana, because of the fascistic anti-abortion law in Ohio. The doctor who performed that abortion is now being threatened with prosecution by the attorney general of Indiana, using a legal technicality to harass and punish her.
Treated as property, enslaved Black girls and women were systematically raped and sexually assaulted by white plantation owners and treated as “breeders” to produce more enslaved people. The enslaved grandmother of the great Mississippi activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, was forced to give birth 21 times as a result of this barbaric treatment.
Honoring those who resisted
In Montgomery where Sims first performed his horrific experiments, a stunning new monument was unveiled Sept. 24, 2021. “Mothers of Gynecology” includes figures representing Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, three of the 11 enslaved women who were unwilling participants in Sims’ depraved procedures. Anarcha was reportedly pregnant at age 17 during this time.
The statues, located at the More Up Campus, are almost 15 feet high and were created by local Montgomery artist and activist Michelle Browder. The campus is dedicated to changing how history is remembered, “by finding creative ways to honor the voiceless, the minimized, the ignored.” (anarchalucybetsey.org)
Browder says of her motives, “The endeavor is to change the narrative as it relates to the history and how it’s portrayed, regarding Sims and the women [who] were used as experiments. They’re not mentioned in any of the iconography or the information, the markers.
“No one talks about these women and their sacrifices and the experimentations that they suffered,” Browder said. “And so I feel that if you’re going to tell the truth about this history, we need to tell it all.
“There’s more to this history than Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and the Confederacy.” (al.com, Sept. 27, 2021)
The monument is a gut-wrenching reminder of the strategic role that slavery played in establishing the U.S. as the most powerful imperialist country in the world, through the ongoing systematic and systemic repression of Black people as an oppressed nation.
As every Confederate monument comes tumbling down, new monuments should eventually take their place, honoring those who gave their life’s blood to resist and destroy the monstrous institution of white supremacy.
The Tuskegee Experiment was a 40-year research project that studied the effects of the disease syphilis when left untreated. Black rural farm workers were the subjects of the U.S. government-sponsored study and were kept in the dark as they were being left to suffer. A whistleblower revealed the unethical and morally unjust aims of the study after he went to the press in 1972.
For four decades, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) studied the effects of the untreated disease in 600 Black men from Macon County, Ala. Starting in 1932, 399 of the 600 sharecroppers to be studied were already afflicted with the venereal disease. The farmers were led to believe that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a number of unknown ailments. The Tuskegee Institute, also in Alabama, was the site where the study took place.
The disease spread to the families of the men in a devastating fashion. By the end of the experiments, 28 men died from the disease, another 100 died from complications related to the disease, 40 of the wives contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.
After several years, a foundation in New York has apologized for its role in the infamous experiment. The Milbank Memorial Fund said its role was to pay for the funeral expenses of the deceased men, up to $100, if their widows agreed to an autopsy allowing doctors to further study the bodies of their dead husbands, the Associated Press reported.
The fund’s apology came with a donation to Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a descendants’ group. The Milbank Memorial Fund said it became part of the study in 1935 after the U.S. surgeon general at the time, Hugh Cumming, asked it to. Milbank gave a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies, according to a study by historian Susan M Reverby.
Christopher F. Koller, president of the Fund, said there is no justification for what happened. “The upshot of this was real harm,” he told the Associated Press.
In 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a White PHS venereal disease researcher, got the insidious nature of the study out to the public by way of the Washington Star, Sen. Edward Kennedy called several Congressional hearings over the matter, which Buxtun and other researchers testified. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit, which was later settled for $9 million. The settlement also included free treatment to the surviving study patients and their families.
In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which helped develop guidelines for human medical research and was sparked by the findings at Tuskegee. On May 16, 1997, then-President Bill Clinton apologized to the study participants and their families, calling the act “racist.”
In the wake of the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, monuments to White supremacy have been falling across the country. This moment builds off the recent efforts following the racist killing of nine black churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, as well as generations of unheeded protests and advocacy amongst Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
Here in Los Angeles, where a plaque erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy commemorating the dozens of Confederate soldiers buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery was removed in 2017, the University of Southern California has recently removed the name of its fifth president, noted eugenicist Rufus B. von KleinSmid, from its Center for International and Public Affairs. On June 20, in Father Serra Park next to El Pueblo, the historic birthplace of the city, Indigenous activists tore down a statue of Junipero Serra. Otherwise, public attention has largely focused on the well-documented history of brutality of the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department—further accentuated by the murder of 18-year old Andres Guardadoin Gardena—District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s handling of police misconduct cases as she faces a stiffening re-election, and the fast-changing political dynamics around re-envisioning community safety.
His epitaph reads – “He Was A Man.”
Los Angeles, however, still has a fair number of ex-Confederates in its midst. The Glendale neighborhood of Rossmoyne takes its name from the estate of the Confederate soldier and eventual federal judge Erskine Mayo Ross, who is also the namesake of the city’s Ross Street. Hilgard Avenue, which forms the eastern boundary of the UCLA campus in Westwood, is named for Eugene Hilgard, the UC Berkeley geologist, and chemist who served in the Confederate Nitre Bureau, assisting in the South’s war-making capacity. Hilgard’s colleague in both the Nitre Bureau and at Berkeley was Joseph Le Conte, the slave-owning White supremacist co-founder of the Sierra Club, whose name adorns the LAUSD middle school in East Hollywood. And then there is Captain Cameron Erskine Thom, safely ensconced in the 26th-floor mayoral portrait gallery in City Hall, whose monuments are not so easily torn down.
Thom’s Memorial in Evergreen Cemetery. Source: FindAGrave.com
Confederacy in a Boyle Heights Cemetery
There are few places that still reveal the varied and discordant strata of the region’s history better than Evergreen Cemetery, the oldest private, non-religious burial ground in Los Angeles. Since its opening in 1877, the once-fashionable cemetery has become the final resting place for an array of characters from the city’s past, stretching from real estate barons to carnival workers in the “Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association.” Evergreen, while open to most Angelenos of color, was initially racially segregated, and distinct ethnic and racial enclaves remain to this day.
A still-active cemetery that sees families tailgating next to gravestones or neighbors utilizing the track along its perimeter, Evergreen has for many yearsbeen severely neglected, a victim of water rationing from the state’s recent drought as well as revocation of its operating license and legal action stemming from circumspect burial practices.
Near the entrance of the cemetery stands the weathered, but still imposing obelisk that marks the grave of Cameron Erksine Thom. His epitaph reads—“He Was A Man.” Indeed, Thom’s life stretched the arc of 19th-century America. Born in Culpepper, Virginia in 1825, Thom, whose father was an officer in the War of 1812 and was a longtime Virginia state senator, studied law at the University of Virginia before heading west for California in search of gold, arriving at Sutter’s Fort in late 1849. After a brief and stint as a prospector, Thom relocated to Sacramento, where he opened a law practice.
In his later career, Thom served two additional stints as Los Angeles District Attorney—in which he was the lead prosecutor of the racist lynch mob that brutally murdered at least 17 Chinese immigrants in the 1871 Chinatown Massacre…
An appointment as a deputy agent for the U.S. Land Commission brought Thom to the small town of Los Angeles in 1854 to help resolve property disputes stemming from the end of the Mexican War. In short order, Thom was appointed both City Attorney and District Attorney for Los Angeles, and in 1857 he was elected to the California State Senate to represent a district that covered the near entirety of Southern California, a position Thom held for two years, covering the 9th and 10th legislative sessions.
In his later career, Thom served two additional stints as Los Angeles District Attorney—in which he was the lead prosecutor of the racist lynch mob that brutally murdered at least 17 Chinese immigrants in the 1871 Chinatown Massacre—and he was elected the 16th Mayor of Los Angeles, a position he held for two years, from December 1882 to December 1884. Having invested heavily in real estate, Thom co-founded the city of Glendale and was at one point the city’s single largest taxpayer.
Thom also served as an incorporator and board member of the Farmers and Merchant Bank, a charter member of the Southern California Historical Society, a member of the 1888 City of Los Angeles Board of Freeholders that rewrote the city’s charter, a founding member of the California chapter of the Society of Colonial Wars, and a member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, among his many civic and professional activities.
Thom’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery. Source: FindAGrave.com
Noting his death at the age of 89 on February 2, 1915, the Los Angeles Herald remarkedthat Thom was one “of the most prominent, best-loved and oldest pioneers of Los Angeles” and that he “took a conspicuous part in the upbuilding of Southern California.” The Los Angeles Times was equally laudatory, noting that “the company of several hundred persons who assembled to do honor to his memory was the most notable gathering of leading men of the old school scene at any similar service in the city in recent years.” In the midst of describing his West Adams home as “evidence everywhere of refinement, culture, and wealth,” The Times makes a brief, passing reference to another element of the life of “Capt.” Thom—his service to the Confederacy.
The life of Cameron Thom and his family embodied the early history of Los Angeles, and the corresponding development of the United States, through their efforts to uphold and expand White supremacy. From birth, Thom was surrounded by and benefited from the institution of chattel slavery. Berry Hill, the Thom family’s 600-acre plantation, was run by 200 enslaved persons. As noted in My Dear Brother: A Confederate Chronicle, a collection of the family’s correspondence, “The Negroes were singled out for their abilities: taught carpentry, iron-work, shoemaking…and of course, the various skills required in the growing of tobacco, for long months of cultivation by many careful hands were needed to bring the money crop from seedbed to curing barn, to hogshead, and finally to market.” On his Gold Rush journey to California, Cameron and his compatriots had enslaved persons with them—per his family’s correspondence, “They proposed to buy eight conestoga wagons, to equip them with all necessary supplies, and to man each with its own Negro wagoner and cook.”
Thom was also supportive of the 1859 effort to divide California into two states, an undertaking supported by Southern politicians hoping to extend slavery to the Pacific.
Moving west did not diminish Thom’s connection slavery—in fact, Thom used his tenure in the State Senate to try to undermine California’s status as a free state. In 1859, Thom proposed legislation to rework the state’s forcible apprenticeship laws to allow for the importation of enslaved Black youths into California. Chronicling the machinations in “Freedoms Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction,” Professor Stacey Smith quotes from The Sacramento Daily Unionthat the intent of Thom’s bill was “negroes under the age of 21 years, the property of Southern gentlemen emigrating to the state, may be admitted and held in bondage until they have reached a majority.” Thom was also supportive of the 1859 effort to divide California into two states, an undertaking supported by Southern politicians hoping to extend slavery to the Pacific.
In March 1863, Thom, one of the most notable political figures in early Los Angeles, would leave his recently motherless child—named Albert after the Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnson and who would die before his father’s return to Los Angeles—and his adopted home to take up arms in support of the Confederacy. In a letter sent to his brother Pembroke weeks before departing, Thom wrote, “God grant a speedy termination of this terrible struggle, but may it never end until the South has all her right is my most ardent prayer.” Thom would eventually reach Virginia, and he spent the next two years in various volunteer aide positions through the end of the war. With the benefit of a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson, Thom returned to Los Angeles, to live the next fifty years amassing wealth and high esteem.
Exterior front view of a two-story house belonging to lawyer Cameron Erskine Thom, hidden behind trees on the southwest corner of Main and Mayo Streets, Los Angeles. Photo via the LA Public Library
Cameron Thom’s antebellum support for Southern interests, and his eventual joining of the Confederate army, was very much keeping with Los Angeles in the early years following its American conquest. Though a county of less than 12,000 in 1860, Los Angeles had a sizable contingent of southern-born residents, a number of which held influential roles. The powerful local Democratic Party machine, known as “the Democracy,” was part of the broader statewide pro-slavery “Chivalry” faction of the party.
After the Civil War, Cameron Thom’s California-born wife would follow her husband’s efforts to propagate a racist social order through her work with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Born Belle Cameron Hathwell in Marysville, California, she was the younger sister of Thom’s first wife Susan, who had passed away in 1862. Belle was 34 years younger than Thom, and according to the early Los Angeles chronicler Harris Newmark, Thom’s goddaughter, whom he helped name.
In January 1899, Belle Thom co-founded the Los Angeles Chapter, No. 277, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (“UDC”), five years after the national organization was formally organized. The local Los Angeles weekly journal The Capital, in reporting the group’s founding, quotes directly from the UDC’s constitution in laying out the group’s purpose, “To collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the States; to honor the memory of those who served and those who fell in the service of the Confederate States, and to record the part taken by Southern women, as well in the uplifting effort after the war, in reconstruction of the South, as in the patient endurance of hardships and patriotic devotion during the struggle.”
In California, which historian Kevin Waite notes had more monuments to the Confederacy than any state outside of the South…
Less than six years later, the Los Angeles Times, discussing the upcoming UDC state convention in Los Angeles – to which Belle Thom was a delegate—noted that the state organization had over 1,000 members, and Los Angeles Chapter, with its 128 members, was one of the largest. In 1905, and so too today, greater Los Angeles would boast three different UDC chapters.
In early 20th century Los Angeles, the UDC’s events were a mainstay of the society pages. A 1903 “Ye Halloween Charity Ball,” per the Los AngelesTimes, “struck out a note of originality highly enjoyable to the brilliant throng of society folk who tripped the light fantastic and otherwise participated in its joys.” Planning for the Los Angeles Chapter’s February 1905 Charity Ball—“one of the gala events of the season”—began in December 1904. In December 1917, the Robert E. Lee Chapter was set to host on the same day both its “annual bazaar” and “an old-fashioned plantation dinner at which a large number of men from the Naval Reserve Camp at the harbor will be entertained.”
The UDC was not a benign social club, but rather one of the driving forces for enshrining the “Lost Cause” mythology across the county and whitewashing the real cause of the Civil War—the preservation of slavery – from history. In an updated preface to “Dixie’s Daughters,” a history of the organization, historian Karen Cox writes, “UDC members became leaders of a movement that looked not only to past to memorialize the Confederate generation but also to the future in hopes of shaping a New South that, absent slavery, would continue to emulate the Old South in its preservation of White supremacy.”
In California, which historian Kevin Waite notes had more monuments to the Confederacy than any state outside of the South, the UDC similarly played an outsized role in transporting the White supremacist propaganda west. “Women played the leading role in California’s Confederate renaissance,” writes Waite. “They did so primarily through the UDC.” After Belle Thom’s death, the UDC would go on to install the Confederate memorial in Hollywood Forever, where dozens of former Confederates would ultimately be laid to rest, in 1925, and open “Dixie Manor,” an old soldiers’ home for aging Confederate soldiers, in 1929.
…his mayoral biography in City Hall notes his “foresighted investments made him a wealthy man”—was in part a result of his ability to exploit the financial ruin of the Californios, the once-powerful Mexican landed gentry…
Writing three days after her passing, the Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr lamented, “The death of Mrs. Cameron Thom takes away one of the last grande dames who ruled California society before the flappers and the movie stars came in. In the 1880s, Los Angeles, in its upper crust, was almost a Southern town. And Mrs. Thom was a leader of that old southern group.” California-born, Belle Thom helped imbue early Los Angeles society with the spirit of “Dixie,” by co-founding a chapter of the UDC that helped enforced a racist social hierarchy far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy.
Cameron de Hart Thom, the son of Cameron and Belle, brought the family’s support for institutional racism squarely into the twentieth century through his work in real estate. Cameron Erskine Thom’s much-heralded prescience and real estate acumen—his mayoral biography in City Hall notes his “foresighted investments made him a wealthy man”—was in part a result of his ability to exploit the financial ruin of the Californios, the once-powerful Mexican landed gentry, through land disputes and lawsuits in the decades after the end of the Mexican War.
In 1870, Thom purchased 2,700 acresof the once 30,000-acre Rancho San Rafael from the blind 88-year-old, Catalina Verdugo, the daughter of Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo, who had been ceded the land by the Spanish empire in 1784. Thom also received 724 acres of Rancho San Rafael from the infamous “Great Partition of 1871,” where 28 individuals received 31 different tracts of lands due to questions around book-keeping and actual ownership. Thom would go on to sell a portion of his land to his nephew and longtime business partner, the fellow Confederate Erskine Mayo Ross.
Thom’s sons, Cameron de Hart and Erskine Pembroke, operating from suite 414 in the Bradbury Building in Downtown, went about selling subdivided portions of the old Rancho San Rafael their father had acquired, which at that point had been renamed “Bellehurst,” in northeast Glendale. In the Saturday evening edition of the March 29, 1913, Los Angeles Herald, the Thom brothers ran a prominently sized ad, declaring “Bellehurst – NOT a Fairy Tale.” The ad asked readers to imagine a pastoral lot with unobstructed views, “with all the delights of fresh country air, wholesome surroundings, fine neighbors, clean streets, in a fine residence section…this is no fairy tale.”.
In 1920, Cameron de Hart Thom co-founded the Glendale Realty Board, which would become today’s Glendale Association of Realtors, serving as the organization’s charter Vice President, and later its president. Writing in his 1922 “History of Glendale and Vicinity,” JC Scherer extolled the virtues of the organization in uplifting the city, claiming it as “one of the progressive factors in the development of the community.” The realtors, according to Scherer, “have been instrumental in bringing many families to this city and most of them take personal responsibility in the fact that Glendale is “The Fastest Growing City in America.”
The work of Cameron de Hart’s fellow realtors laid the foundation for Glendale earning the designation of a “sundown” town, where no Black people were functionally permitted after dusk.
The work of the Glendale Realty Board made clear that the “fine neighbors” from the 1913 Bellehurst ad and the inflow of new families were to be exclusively white. As detailed by Douglas Flamming in “Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America,” in responding to a 1927 survey from the all-White California Real Estate Association on how Glendale enforces racial restrictions, the board president William McMillan asserted, “The Glendale Realty Board, and the Glendale brokers, as a whole, cooperate in every way to keep Glendale and “All American City,” and by enforcing race restrictions, we have been able to keep our standard well up in the front of “All American.”
McMillan would go further in the survey form, responding to the question of how “this important problem” could be dealt with by the real estate industry: “In an American town like Glendale, which has the smallest percentage of foreign population of any city in the State, that by insisting on the subdividers putting in and enforcing suitable race restrictions, we can maintain our high standard of American citizenship.” And while a population of Japanese was moving into one part of the city, they were “mostly gardeners,” and “all property carries race restrictions against Asiatics.”
Per the Glendale Realty Board’s rationale, Whites were the only group who were truly American. Discriminatory real estate practices, then, were expressly positive for the flourishing of “American” communities. A decade before the implementation of redlining, organizations like the Glendale Realty Board were devising ways by which to embed discrimination into the fabric of cities. The work of Cameron de Hart’s fellow realtors laid the foundation for Glendale earning the designation of a “sundown” town, where no Black people were functionally permitted after dusk. In a July 16, 1963, Los Angeles Times article around allegations of the city’s racism, Glendale’s city attorney Henry McClernan bluntly states, “no Negroes are living in Glendale. Some come into the city in the daytime to work as domestics.”
L.A.’s Uncelebrated Legacy of Confederacy Still Lives On in 2020 Across the County
Writing in his 1915 “A History of California,” the historian and educator James Guinn gushed, “The life story of Captain Thom is as full of interest as a romance and contains as many thrilling experiences as a detective story or a tale of the South Seas…It is indeed almost a fairy tale from some enchanted volume of ancient lore.” Contrary to Guinn’s hyperbole, the lives of Cameron Thom and his family were not “fairy tales,” but rather ubiquitous reflections of racial discrimination in California.
Cameron Thom was far from the only Confederate to find a home in the Golden State, UDC chapters held sway from San Diego to San Francisco, and most major cities in the state had realty boards devising exclusionary tactics. What is noteworthy about the Thoms is that over the course of roughly sixty years, the family would go from taking up arms against the United States to using real estate to enforce segregation, a clear distillation of white supremacy’s evolution, and adaptation.
There is also Thom’s mayoral portrait in City Hall. Set against an indistinct background, Thom is a well-coiffed and prominently bearded man shown in his later years, staring quietly into the distance. The four-sentence description below the portrait is almost equally devoid of context…
With its longtime identity as a boomtown fixated on the future, Los Angeles has largely forgotten about Cameron Thom. The Long Beach Camp #2007of the Sons of Confederate Veterans bears the name Captain Cameron Thom. In the Verdugo Mountains, overlooking the city of Glendale in what was once the Rancho San Rafael land grant, is the 2,462-foot peak, Mt. Thom. While not an official designation, and per Glendale historians Katherine Peters Yamada, Mike Lawler, and Rich Toyon, the peak has been called a variety of names, “Mt. Thom” can be found on Glendale city park maps and municipal telecom contracts.
In the South Park neighborhood of Downtown, there are three alleys—Cameron Lane, Catesby Lane, and Pembroke Lane—that bear the names of Thom’s three sons that reached adulthood. In a November 1964 audio recording of her reminisces of early life in Los Angeles, Thom’s daughter Belle Buford Thom Collins, known in the early society pages as “Jette Thom” prior to her marriage to a London theater manager, recounts that her father fell into extensive land holdings in that for years went undeveloped, “Where the Standard Oil Building stands at the corner of Hope and Olympic” west to Figueroa. “The only thing that remains to remind us that it was once his property,” the octogenarian notes, is an alley, “a little strip of land,” Thom had named for his son, Pembroke. That alley is still visible on LA County assessor maps, and while the development around L.A. Alive has reshaped the area, Thom’s three sons can still be found south of Pico.
There is also Thom’s mayoral portrait in City Hall. Set against an indistinct background, Thom is a well-coiffed and prominently bearded man shown in his later years, staring quietly into the distance. The four-sentence description below the portrait is almost equally devoid of context, incorrectly noting his 1854 arrival to Los Angeles from Virginia, and lists a few assorted events that occurred during his mayoralty—acreage set aside for Elysian Park, the founding of the Historical Society of Southern California, a production of “School for Scandal” – meant to convey Los Angeles’s continued emergence into a major city. Left unmentioned is his service to the Confederacy, as well as his ultimately failed prosecution of the 1871 Chinatown Massacre.
The aptest testament to Cameron Thom remaining in Los Angeles, however, is a parking lot. The southeast corner of 3rd and Main Street in downtown was the site of Thom’s longtime home. County parcel maps and city planning documents for the site still read “Property of C.E. Thom.” Where once was Thom’s opulent estate is now a surface parking lot, and where the last rumblings a long-planned second phase to a residential development was an environmental impact report filed back in 2015. The property also serves as the very northwest corner of Skid Row, the epicenter of homelessness in Los Angeles. A line of tents rings the perimeter of the lot.
Civic leaders may not construct monumental structures honoring Thom or other Confederates along Broadway or Sunset, but Union Station was built on what was once Old Chinatown…
That the site of Cameron Thom’s mansion is now the boundary of Skid Row, a mostly Black neighborhood that reflects the structural racism underpinning the region’s unaffordability and housing crises, is the perfect testament to his legacy. Thom and his family, along with other such early “pioneers,” set about constructing Los Angeles for the exclusive benefit of White people.
That the West, and Los Angeles specifically, would be the triumphs of Whiteness was actively promoted by civic boosters. The Press Reference Library’s 1915 “Notables of the West,” a collection of biographies sent to newspapers across the country, begins with “A Word in Advance” from the Los Angeles journalist Otheman Stevens.“Because the great West frowned on white men,” writes Stevens, “and presented to his advantage its redoubts of deserts, mountains, freezing cold, withering heat, vast pathless stretches, inhabited by savage beasts and more savage barbarians, the white man conquered it.” Writing in 1924, the year of Belle Thom’s passing, the longtime Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce trade manager and harbor official Clarence Matson pronounced, “Angle Saxon civilization must climax in the generations to come…The Los Angeles of Tomorrow will be the center of this climax.”
Civic leaders may not construct monumental structures honoring Thom or other Confederates along Broadway or Sunset, but Union Station was built on what was once Old Chinatown, the palaces of culture and 1980s high-rises on Bunker Hill sit on the ruins of the multi-ethnic neighborhood redlined and “urban blight”-ed out of existence, and Dodger Stadium dominates Chavez Ravine as a result of red-baiting and broken promises of affordable housing. The creation, and brutal enforcement, of White space that uplifted statues across the South similarly compelled the contours of Los Angeles’s development and growth.
There are plenty of monuments to be toppled in Los Angeles—start thinking about what should be built in their place.
While updating the plaque beneath Cameron Thom’s City Hall portrait can be a minor corrective for the gauzy narratives Los Angeles has devised about its past, such a move does nothing to improve communities that have suffered from decades of antipathy or outright brutality, or for the hundreds of thousands of Angelenos who sit dangerously at the margins due to the convergence of COVID-19 and structural racism.
To dismantle the legacy of Cameron Thom, Los Angeles, for the first time in its 239-year history, must be reconstructed in a way so as to fully and unambiguously recognize the humanity of its entire populace. This work has been ongoing for generations, but an expansive vision for a more just Los Angeles can be seen in the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets in the past month; in Professor Melina Abdullah and Black Lives Matter’s presentation to the City Council calling for a budget truly reflective of people’s needs and values; in the work of the JusticeLA coalition other community activist groups pushing the county towards decarceration; in the tireless advocacy of the LA Street Vendor Campaign and the vendors themselves to demand recognition that was for too long denied; and in the envisioning and creation of the 1.3-mile long Destination Crenshawin the heart of historic Black Los Angeles, that, as chronicled by Sahra Sulaiman, “Will not just be a place to celebrate unapologetically Black contributions, but also a place where it is safe to be unapologetically Black in Public: A Black Space, full stop.”
There are plenty of monuments to be toppled in Los Angeles—start thinking about what should be built in their place.
A Harvard researcher has declared that Africans are the only race that has 100 percent human DNA while the rest have Neanderthal DNA in them. While this seems controversial another separate study colludes with the Harvard study.
Dr. David Emil Reich, a genetics professor at Harvard, and his colleagues analyzed the genetic variants of 846 non-African people, 175 people who live in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, and a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal man.
They have found out that nine genetic variants found in humans are associated with specific traits that can be found in Neanderthals. The same genetic variants are the same ones responsible for such diseases, such as Type-2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, optic disk size, and biliary cirrhosis.
The Harvard researcher and his team also found that this Neanderthal DNA affects how keratin filaments developed. As opposed to humans, Neanderthals have more keratin filaments than humans making their skin tougher. This allows them to survive in harsh, cold, climates. That DNA was beneficial to the human survival in such climates.
A separate study conducted by Dr. Benjamin Vernot and Dr. Joshua Akey from the University of Washington yielded the same conclusion after the scientists analyzed the genetic makeup of 286 East Asians and 379 Europeans.
According to the duo, Neanderthal skin genes are present in Europeans and East Asians. On the other hand, the rest of the genes are not compatible with the human genome and they most probably become extinct. One area of the human genome where the Neanderthal DNA is absent is that which affects human language and speech.
Harvard researcher DR. Reich said that the goal of the study is to understand how this DNA impact the biological impact of how human and Neanderthal DNA flow. It will also show the scientists what genes have been preserved and which ones have been rejected through the process of natural selection.
This canyon in Jefferson County originally had the N-word in its name and was renamed John Brown Canyon in 2013. Many Oregon geographical features still contain the word “Negro” in their names. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Humanities)
The names serve as a reminder of the state’s colonial history while also providing clues to early Black presence
Editor’s note: This story contains racist epithets that some readers may find triggering. Watering down the toxicity of these words in the context of this story, we felt, would dilute the racist reality still present in Oregon’s geographic features.
Racist monuments have been toppling at the speed of reckoning throughout the country in the wake of George Floyd’s execution by police. Whether it be the statue of Thomas Jefferson being unceremoniously dismounted from the front entrance of the North Portland school that bares his name or Mississippi lawmakers voting to remove the Confederate battle emblem from their state’s flag this week, the layout of America is beginning to look different. However, in Oregon, some of the state’s legacy is more insidiously stitched into the fabric of its colonial roots.
There are more than a dozen geographic features in the state featuring the word “Negro” in their name, inlcuding Negro Ridge and Negro Hallow just southeast of The Dalles in Sherman County, Negro Gulch and Negro Knob mountain peak in Grant County, and Negro Creek in Douglas County. The use of the outdated term for Black Americans was used to replace the epithet “nigger” by the federal U.S. Board of Geographic Names in the 1960s across the country.
Locally, the president of that organization’s subsidiary, Bruce Fisher of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, describes his faction’s role as being more passive.
“We typically have to wait for someone to come with a proposal. We’re not proactive,” he said, “we’re reactive.”
Once a proposal is submitted, the 25-person board of volunteers goes to work on researching the history of the place, its surrounding area and how it came to be, to inform a vote on whether to move it up to the chain of command for a final decision.
One of the proposals they’ll consider in October is to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain in Jackson County. The mountain appears to derive its name from a local blacksmith who owned a shop at the base of the mountain in the late 1800s, a Black man by the name of Ben. While Census records show a man by the name of Ben Johnson and his wife, both listed as “mulatto,” living in the area, historians cannot say with certainty that they are in fact the same people, meaning the mountain’s namesake likely has been lost forever.
As part of the research for this proposal, the Jackson County commissioners were contacted and responded that they have “no opinion on the matter.”
The documentary pieces together the history of John A. Brown, Oregon’s first known Black homesteader.
“He made his life there,” said Stanton, who had no idea of the 900-acre canyon’s existence before the project, despite living in Oregon for more than a decade. “It’s a shame that this history was lost or that there wasn’t more documentation of it because how he got there, how he was able to thrive there — I’m just so curious to know more.”
What is known of the man further reveals a life of cultivation and defiance. Although it was constitutionally illegal for Black people to own property in Oregon at the time, he came in, likely by way of Canada around the time of the Gold Rush. After working the land for number of years, Brown managed to acquire the title to the 160-acre property close to the Deschutes River where he would grow fruits and vegetables, selling parts of his crop in nearby Prineville. Eventually he would sell part of his property, before dying in 1903 around the age of 63.
He’s said to have had a daughter, but a lack of documentation makes it difficult to trace the extent of his family tree. While there are rumblings of possible Brown descendants in the Portland-area today, no one can say with certainty at present.
A small headstone was erected in Brown’s honor in 2007 by the Crook County Genealogy and Historical Societies in Prinveville, where he’s buried.
Despite Fisher’s assertion that the Oregon Geographic Name Board is mostly passive, he does note it was actually then board member Jarold Ramsey who filed this name change proposal.
It was renamed from Negro Brown Canyon to John A. Brown canyon in 2013.
Problematic terrain doesn’t end with this canyon, or even anti-Blackness in the Beaver State though. Features named for “Dead Indians,” a “Jew Valley” and terms like “Chinaman” and the equally misogynistic and racist “squaw” permeate the trails, creeks and mountains that carve out Oregon’s majestic landscape in droves.
Fisher says his board is considering about 20 name-change proposals at present. “There’s been a lot more activity on (renaming offensive feature names) worldwide in the last year,” he said.
Once a proposal clears the federal level, the change is made almost instantaneously in their database, which will be reflected on digital platforms like Google Maps quickly. However, physical maps can take years to update, he said, because of a downtick in their usage in the face of the massive takeover of technology.
However, the pathway to upending Oregon’s colonial roots remains a tireless one.
Although the board is deciding whether to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain, the road that surrounds it bears the same name and is simultaneously out of their jurisdiction.
Examples as such are plentiful throughout the state.
“A number of our counties are named after people with backgrounds that were racist, pro-slavery or KKK,” said Fisher, who noted that Lane County is named for Joseph Lane, one of the state’s first legislators and a documented slaveowner.
Stanton said ultimately wiping offensive names from Oregon’s geography cuts down to something much deeper than policy: humanity.
“How can you value someone’s contributions if you’re disrespecting them in how you speak about them?” she said. “I think by correcting those names, it’s part of all the work that we’re doing to kind of rewrite history and re-tell Black people’s place in it because it’s been erased basically by the white supremacists who’ve written and told the history up until this point.”
In Esquire‘s July 1968 issue, published just after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the magazine talked to James Baldwin about the state of race relations in the country. We’ve republished the interview in full—and his words are incredibly relevant today
ESQ: How can we get the black people to cool it?
JAMES BALDWIN: It is not for us to cool it.
ESQ: But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?
JAMES BALDWIN: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.
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Can we still cool it?
That depends on a great many factors. It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders.It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. I think the President goofed by not telling the nation what the civil-disorders report was all about. And I accuse him and the entire administration, in fact, of being largely responsible for this tremendous waste and damage. It was up to him and the Vice-President to interpret that report and tell the American people what it meant and what the American people should now begin to think of it. Now!It is already, very very late even to begin to think of it. What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future. And when the summer comes, both fathers and sons are in the streets- they can’t stay in the houses. I was born in those houses and I know. And it’s not their fault.
From a very short-range approach, what should the federal government do, right now, to cool it off?
What do you mean by the federal government? The federal government has come to be, in the eyes of all Negroes anyway, a myth. When you say the federal government, you’re referring to Washington, and that means you’re referring to a great many people. You’re referring to Senator Eastland and many people in Washington who out of apathy, ignorance or fear have no intention of making a move at all. You’re talking about the people who have the power, who intend to keep the power. And all they can think of are things like swimming pools, you know, in the summertime, and sort of made up jobs to simply protect peace and the public property. But they show no sign whatsoever of understanding what the root of the problem really is, what the dangers really are. They have made no attempt, whatever, any of them, as far as I know, really to explain to the American people that the black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.
If the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.
You say that existing jobs are just make-work jobs. What kind of job program should be adopted?
It’s very difficult to answer that question since the American Republic has created a surplus population. You know it’s created not only people who are unemployable but who no longer wish to be employed in this system. A job program involves, first of all, I would think, a real attack on all American industries and on all American labor unions. For example, you’re sitting in Hollywood. And there are not any Negroes, as far as I know, in any of the Hollywood craft unions: there is no Negro grip, no Negro crew member, no Negro works in Hollywood on that level or in any higher level either. There are some famous Negroes who work out here for a structure which keeps Negroes out of a union. Now it’s not an Act of God that there aren’t any Negroes in the unions. It’s not something that is handed down from some mountain; it’s a deliberate act on the part of the American people. They don’t want the unions broken, because they are afraid of the Negro as a source of competition in the economic market. Of course what they’ve made him is something much worse than that. You can’t talk about job programs unless you’re willing to talk about what is really holding the structure together. Eastman Kodak, General Motors, General Electric- all the people who really have the power in this country. It’s up to them to open up their factories, their unions, to let us begin to work.
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They would have to begin, say, on-the-job training programs for those..
Yes, and by the way, I know a whole lot of Negroes on the streets, baby, that are much brighter that a lot of cats dictating the policies of Pan American. You know what this country really means when it says on-the-job training programs is not what they are teaching Negroes skills, though there’s that, too; what they’re afraid of is that when the Negro comes into the factory, into the union, when he comes, in fact, into the American institution, he will change these institutions because no Negro in this country really lives by American middle-class standards. That’s why they pick up half-dozen Negroes here and there, and polish them up, polish them off, and put them in some ass-hole college someplace, and expect those cats to be able to go back to the streets and cool the other cats. They can’t. The price in this country to survive at all still is to become a white man. More and more people are refusing to become a white man. That’s the bottom of what they mean by on-the-job training. They mean they want to fit you in. And furthermore, let’s tell it like it is. The American white man does not really want to have autonomous Negro male anywhere near him.
In on-the-job training programs, the white American structure wants a worker who is trained, who shows up regularly at eight-thirty in the morning and works till five in the afternoon.
Yeah, well I know an awful lot of cats that did that for a long, long time. We haven’t got to be trained to do that. We don’t even have to be given an incentive to do that.
Would you say, then, that many black people have been able to go nowhere, so they’ve lost any feeling that it’s worth working regularly?
That is part of what we’re talking about. Though it goes deeper than that, I think. It’s not only that. What is happening in this country among the young, and not only the black young, is an overwhelming suspicion that it’s not worth it. You know if you watched your father’s life like I watched my father’s life, as a kid much younger than I watches his father’s life; his father does work from eight to five every day and ends up with nothing. He can’t protect anything. He has nothing. As he goes to the grave, having worked his fingers to the bone for years and years and years, he still has nothing and the kid doesn’t either. But what’s worse than that is that one has begun to conclude from the fact that maybe in this Republic- judging now on the evidence of its own performance- maybe there isn’t anything. It’s easy to see on the other hand what happens to the white people who make it. And that’s not a very attractive spectacle either. I mean I’m questioning the values on which this country thinks of itself as being based.
What you are calling for, then, is a radical change in thinking by government and industry.
And given the inertia plus..
…and fear and whatever else there may be, any such changes seem…
Certainly they will come slow. A union will not throw open its doors and bring on several hundred people from the black community right away. Now my question is…
You’ve answered your question.
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“Sweeper jobs,” then, just won’t work?
No. I’ll tell you what you will do. You will do what did last summer and summer before that. You’ll pour some money into the ghetto and it will end up in the hands of various adventurers. In the first place, thirteen dollars and some change is not meant to do anything. And a couple of cats will make it, and the rest of it will be where they were.
But can you buy time with this kind of program; enough time for the longer term changes?
You could if you meant it. What’s at issue is whether or not you meant it. Black people in this country conclude that you mean to destroy us.
But if industry and government seriously planned job-training programs, and the unions opened up?
Look, the labor movement in this country has always been based precisely on the division of black and white labor. That is no Act of God either. Labor unions along with the bosses created the Negro as a kind of threat to the white worker. There’s never been any real kind of threat to the white worker. There’s never been any coalition between black and white. It’s been prevented by the government and the industries and the unions.
What would be the first steps a union could take to demonstrate that it seriously wants to correct such inequities? What should the leadership do?
Educate their own rank and file. Declare themselves. And penalize any member of the union who is against it.
What can industry do on a short-range basis?
I’m not sure that you should be asking me these questions at all. But I’ll do my best to answer them. What can industry do? Well you know, the same as the labor unions. The labor unions won’t have Negroes in the unions above a certain level. And they can never rise out of that local, or what they might be able to do of they weren’t trapped in that local at a certain level. Industry is going to hire me to build a city or fly a plane. It is unable to look on me as just another worker. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously, to be found everywhere. But this is the way it works and the exceptions, in fact, prove the rule.
Do you think it would help if industry were to get involved as co-sponsors of low-income housing?
No I think we’ve had more far more, more than enough of low-income housing which simply becomes high-rise slums.
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Well what if they were not high-rise slums?
I don’t want any more projects built in Harlem, for example. I want someone to attack the real-estate lobby because that’s the only way to destroy the ghetto.
But what about building low income housing out in the suburbs where factories are beginning to move?
Well, that depends on the will of the American people, doesn’t it? That’s why they are in the suburbs—to get away from me.
What about certain plans of industry to set up factories or businesses which would be owned by ghetto people? Would you see this as a positive step?
What would be produced in those factories?
Piecework, small items subcontracted by larger manufacturers.
It’s a perfectly valid idea except that in order to do that you have to eliminate the ghetto. Look, it is literally true that from a physical point of view these houses are unlivable. No one’s going to build a factory in Harlem, unless you intend, you know, really to liberate Harlem.
Well, New York State, for example, plans to build a State office building in Harlem.
In Harlem. I know exactly where they’re going to build it, too. And at the risk of sounding paranoiac, I think I know why. It’s going to be where the Black Nationalist Bookstore is now, and one of the reasons for it, I am convinced, is simply because the Black Nationalist Bookstore is a very dangerous focal ground- 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. You know, it’s what in Africa would be a palaver tree. It’s where Negroes get together and talk. It’s where all the discontent doesn’t begin, exactly, but where it always focuses.
Wouldn’t you think it would be a very foolish idea, because you can always pick some other place to meet and talk?
Yes, but the American white man has proved, if nothing else, he is absolutely, endlessly, foolish when it comes to this problem.
Let’s talk about the average citizen, the white man who lives on Eighty-ninth Street and Riverside Drive, what should he be doing?
It depends on what he feels. It he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children, He shouldn’t, by the way, be talking to me.
What should he be telling his neighbors?
That if I go under in this country—I, the black man—he goes, too.
Is there any action he can take? Pressure on the local government?
Pressure on his landlord, pressure on the local government, pressure wherever he cane exert pressure. Pressure, above all, on the real estate lobby. Pressure on the educational system. Make them change textbooks so that his children and my children will be taught something of the truth about our history. It is run now for the profit motive, and nothing else.
What about the white suburbanite who fled the city, while making sure the blacks stayed there? What does he have to do now?
If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They’re his cities, too. Or just ask himself why he left. I know why he left. He’s got a certain amount of money and certain future, a car, two cars, you know, scrubbed children, a scrubbed wife, and he wants to preserve all that. And he doesn’t understand that in his attempt to preserve it he’s going to destroy it.
If I go under in this country—I, the black man—the white man goes, too.
What about the poverty program, does that offer any remedy?
Are you joking? There has not been a war on poverty in this country yet. Not in my lifetime. The war on poverty is a dirty joke.
How would you improve it?
By beginning it.
In what fashion?
Look, there’s no way in the world to do it without attacking the power of some people. It cannot be done unless you do that. The power of the steel companies, for example, which can both make and break a town. And they’ve done it, they’re doing it. Everybody knows it. You can’t have a war on poverty unless you are willing to attack those people and limit their profits.
Is it a matter of limiting the profits of industries only, or is it also a matter of limiting the power of the politicians?
But the politicians are not working for the people; they’re working for exactly the people I say we have to attack. That is what has happened to politics in this country. That is why the political machinery now is so vast, and so complex no one seems to be able to control it. It’s completely unresponsive to the needs of the American community, completely unresponsive. I’m not talking only as a black man, I mean to the whole needs of the American people.
You mean in so far as it responds to industry?
It responds to what it considers its own survival.
What would you say ought to be done to improve the relationship of the police with the black community?
You would have to educate them. I really have no quarrel particularly with the policemen. I can see the trouble they’re in. They’re hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened. They believe everything they see on television, as most people in this country do. They are endlessly respectable, which means to say they are Saturday-night sinners. The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared. And it’s not the policemen’s fault; it’s the country’s fault.
In the latest civil disorder, there seems to have been a more permissive attitude on the part of the police, much less reliance on firearms to stop looters as compared with last summer when there was such an orgy of shooting by the police and the National Guard.
I’m sorry, the story isn’t in yet, and furthermore, I don’t believe what I read in the newspapers. I object to the term “looters” because I wonder who is looting whom, baby.
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How would you define somebody who smashes in the window of a television store and takes what he wants?
Before I get to that, how would you define somebody who puts a cat where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there. The question I’m trying to raise is a very serious question. The mass media-television and all the major news agencies-endlessly use that word “looter.” On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.
Would you make a distinction between snipers, fire bombers, and looters?
I’ve heard a lot of snipers, baby, and then you look at the death toll.
Very few white men, granted. But there have been a few.
I know who dies in the riots.
Well, several white people have died.
Several, yeah, baby, but do you know many Negroes have died?
Many more. But that’s why we’re talking about cooling it.
It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won’t.
Aren’t they the one’s getting hurt the most, though?
That would depend on the point of view. You know, I’m not at all sure that we are the ones who are being hurt the most. In fact I’m sure we are not. We are the ones who are dying fastest.
The question posed, however, was whether snipers could be classified as true revolutionaries; fire bombers, as those overwhelmed with frustration and seeking to destroy the symbols of their discontent; looters, as victims of the acquisitive itch?
I have to ask you a very impertinent question. How in the world can you possibly begin to categorize the people of a community whom you do not know at all? I disagree with your classifications altogether. Those people are all in the streets for the same reason.
How in the world can you possibly begin to categorize the people of a community whom you do not know at all?
Does some of our problem come from our flaunting the so-called good life, with its swimming pools, cars, suburban living and so on, before a people whom society denies these things?
No one has ever considered what happens to a woman or a man who spends his working life downtown and then has to go home uptown. It’s too obvious even to go into it. We are a nation within a nation, a captive nation within a nation. Yes, and you do flaunt it. You talk about us as though we were not there. The real pain, the real danger is that white people have always treated Negroes this way. You’ve always treated Sambo this way. We always were Sambo for you—you know we had no feelings, we had no ears, no eyes. We’ve lied to you for more than a hundred years and you don’t even know it yet. We’ve lied to you to survive. And we’ve begun to despise you. We don’t hate you. We’ve begun to despise you. And it is because we can’t afford to care what happens to us, and you don’t care what happens to us. You don’t even care what happens to your own children. Because we have to deal with your children, too. We don’t care what happens to you. It’s up to you. To live or to die because you make your life that choice all these years.
What about the role of some of the black institutions. Does the church have some meaning still in the black community insofar as the possibility of social progress is concerned?
You must consider that the fact that we have a black church is, first of all, an indictment of a Christian nation. There shouldn’t be a black church. And that’s again what you did. We’ve used it. Martin Luther King used it most brilliantly, you know. That was his forum. It’s always been our only forum. But it doesn’t exist anywhere in the North anymore, as Martin Luther King himself discovered, it exists in the South, because the black community in the South is a different community. There’s still a Negro family in the South, or there was. There is no Negro family essentially in the North, and once you have no family you have no church. And that means you have no forum. It cannot be used in Chicago and Detroit. It can be used in Atlanta and Montgomery and those places. And now since Martin is dead—not before, but certainly since he is dead—that forum is no longer useful because people are repudiating their Christian church in toto.
Are they repudiating Christianity as well?
No more intensely than you have.
Then the black church is dead in the North?
Let me rephrase it. It does not attract the young. Once that happened to any organization, its social usefulness is at least debatable. Now that’s one of the great understatements of the century.
In that case, what is the role of Adam Clayton Powell?
Adam Clayton Powell is not considered a pastor, he is considered a politician. He is considered, in fact, one more victim. People who can’t stand Adam would never, never, never attacked him now. Crimes which Adam is accused of—first of all, the people in Harlem know a great deal more about that than anybody who has written about it. That’s one thing. And for another, as long as you don’t impeach Senator Eastland, it’s a bullshit tip and we know it. We’re not fighting for him, we’re fighting for us.
James Baldwin with Bayard Rustin at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery
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What about some of the other leaders of the black community?
The real leaders now in the black community you’ve never heard of. Roy’s not a leader, Whitney’s not a leader.
Floyd’s not a leader either, but Floyd is closer to the tempo, to the pulse. First of all, leaders are rare. A man is not made a leader by the mass media of this country. A man is not made a leader in spite of all the opposition he got, even from black people. Because that’s what he was. And because he loved his people. He loved this country.
Stokely in my view is perhaps a little too young. Look, I’m nearly twenty years older than Stokely. I can’t answer that question. Stokely is a leader for a great many people. Stokely is even more than that, Stokely is a symbol for a great many people. A great many emasculated black boys turn to Stokely because he’s fighting against their emasculation. I understand that, and they’re right. I may have my own disagreements with Stokely from time to time but I’m on his side. What Stokely is saying essentially is true and that is why people are so uptight about Stokely. Because they can’t deny what he is saying. And what he is trying to do is anathema to the white people of the United States because what he is saying is that we have no hope here. These white people are never going to do anything for use because they cannot. Also, as long as we are on the subject of Stokely, let me point out to you that Stokely has never said he hated white people. And I happen to know him and I know he doesn’t. What he is insisting on is black autonomy and that puts everybody uptight. That’s all he is saying. What he is suggesting that frightens the American white people is that the Black people in this country are tied to subjugated people everywhere in the world.
Furthermore, he is saying very clearly, and it’s true, that this country, which began as a revolutionary nation has now spent god knows how many billions of dollars and how many thousands of lives fighting revolution everywhere else. And what he’s saying is that black people in this country should not any longer turn to President Lyndon Johnson, who I after all at the very best (and this is an understatement; I’m speaking for myself now) a very untrustworthy big daddy. But to other black people, all the other people who are suffering under the same system that we are suffering from, that system is led by the last of the Western nations. It is perfectly conceivable, or would be if there were not so many black people here, that the Americans decide to “liberate” South Africa. Isn’t it? That is to say to keep the horrors of communism away, all the freedom fighters in South Africa would turn South Africa into another Vietnam. No one is fooled about what you are doing in Vietnam. At least no black cat is fooled by it. You are not fighting for what the Western world calls material self-interest. And that means my back. My stolen tin, my stolen diamonds, my stolen sugar. That’s what it means; it means I should work for you forever.
And I won’t.
But the idea is that people who are divided by so many miles of the globe, and by so many other things, should begin consider that they have something in common—this is what Stokely says. What they have in common—this what Stokely says. What they have in common is to get the man off their backs. It’s a very dangerous and frightening idea for Americans, because it happens to be true.
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Do you feel that there’s a conscious understanding of American imperialism by…
The Americans are not imperialists. According to them, they’re just nice guys. They’re just folks.
But we are talking about a form of imperialism…
We’re talking about the very last form of imperialism, you know—Western imperialism anyway— the world is going to see.
But do you feel the under class of black people, given an insufficient education, understands the specifies of this imperialism you describe?
We understand very much better than you think we do, and we understand it from letter we get from Vietnam.
Is there any white man who can…
White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice.
Then black is a state of mind, too?
No, black is a condition.
Who among the white community can talk to the black community and be accepted?
Anybody, who doesn’t think of himself as white.
White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice
Among the Presidential candidates, whom do you feel would be accepted as speaking in good faith? Richard Nixon?
You must be joking.
Maybe, that would depend very much on what he does now. I don’t put him down.
What about Robert Kennedy?
What about Robert Kennedy indeed! Bobby’s a very, very, very bright man. The best thing said about Bobby Kennedy, and I’m not trying to cop out on this, was said by Al Calloway in that rather curious issue about Soul that Esquire just did. Al said that if Soul could be studied and learned, he’d learn it. He’d study and learn, but it can’t be studied and learned. I’ve had one very publicized thing with Bobby so that anything I say is suspect. He’s very bright, and all the liberals will be on his bandwagon. He will probably be President. Almost surely he will be. And what can I say? I have to leave it open. I, myself, will not be on that bandwagon. I think he’s very shrewd but I think he’s absolutely col. I think he may prove to be, well, very dangerous.
He’s very attractive. He says all of the right things, you know, not always at the right time. And I can see the kind of appeal he’d have; after all, he is the brother of J.F.K. But I’m in another position. I have to be as clearheaded as I can be about it and look beyond the particular event or the particular man. I could not myself put my life in his hands.
Do you know of Eugene McCarthy?
Nothing at all. I can’t discuss him. But I ought to say that it’s been a very long time since I’ve had any respect for any politician. I have to say, too, that I’m looking through the political spectrum from the standpoint of my rather bitter forty-three years in this country. What I’m also saying is that if I endorse anybody, no matter what it means, I don’t want to tell black people to vote for so-and-so or him or her because I don’t want to be killed by those black people when they discover they’ve been betrayed.
Do you care to expand on that?
No, just forget it. I point to his record since he became Vice-President. The flaming liberal.
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Do you think the riots can be considered in another light than simply an outburst against the system? Are they possibly also, consciously or unconsciously, a struggle to bring to a culture purification by blood?
Well, that refers back to Thomas Jefferson, I think, who said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
He also said that the tree of liberty should be watered with blood…
The blood of tyrants. We call it riots, because they were black people. We wouldn’t call it riots if they were white people.
What does the death of Martin Luther King signify?
The abyss over which this country hovers now. It’s a very complicated question and the answer has to be very complicated question and the answer has to be very complicated, too. What it means to the ghetto, what it means to the black people of this country, is that you could kill Martin, who was trying to save you, and you will face tremendous opposition from black people because you choose to consider, you know, the use of violence. If you can shoot Martin, you can shoot all of us. And there’s nothing in your record to indicate you won’t, or anything that would prevent you from doing it. That will be the beginning of the end, if you do, and that knowledge will be all that will hold your hand. Because one no longer believes, you see—I don’t any longer believe, and not many black people in this country can afford to believe— any longer a word you say. I don’t believe in the morality of this people at all. I don’t believe you do the right thing because you think it’s the right thing. I think you may be forced to do it because it will be the expedient thing. Which is good enough
I don’t think that the death of Martin Luther King means very much to any of those people in Washington. I don’t think they understand what happened at all. People like Governor Wallace and Mister Maddox certainly don’t. I would doubt very much if Ronald Reagan does. And that is of course where the problem lies, with the institutions we mentioned earlier. But to the black people in this country it means that you have declared war. You have declared war. That you do intend to slaughter us, that you intend to put us in concentration camps. After all, Martin’s assassination–whether it was done by one man or by a State Trooper, which is a possibility; or whether it was a conspiracy, which is also a possibility; after all I’m a fairly famous man, too, and one doesn’t travel around—Martin certainly didn’t without the government being aware of every move he made— for this assassination I accuse the American people and all its representatives.
Every time, including the time the President was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman; no one can face the fact that this madness has been created deliberately.
For me, it’s been Medgar. Then Malcolm. Then Martin. And it’s same story. When Medgar was shot they arrested some lunatic in Mississippi, but I was in Mississippi, with Medgar, and you don’t need a lunatic in Mississippi to shoot a cat like Medgar Evers, you now, and the cat whoever he was, Byron de la Beckwith, slipped out of the back door of a nursing home and no one’s ever heard from him since. I won’t even discuss what happened to Malcolm, or all the ramifications of that. And now Martin’s dead. And every time, you know, including the time the President was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman; no one can face the fact that this madness has been created deliberately. Now Stokely will be shot presently. And whoever pulls that trigger will not have bought the bullet. It is the people and their representatives who are inciting to riot, not Stokely, not Martin, not Malcolm, not Medgar. And you will go on like this until you will find yourself in a place from which you can’t turn back, where indeed you may be already. So, if Martin’s death has reached the conscience of a nation, well then it’s a great moral triumph in the history of mankind, but it’s very unlikely that it has.
Some people have said that the instant canonization by white America is the cop-out…
It’s the proof of their guilt, and the proof of their relief. What they don’t know is that for every Martin they shoot there will be ten others. You already miss Malcolm and wish he were here. Because Malcolm was the only person who could help those kids in the ghetto. The only person.
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I was just about to say, we white people…
…wished that Malcolm were here? But you, the white people, no matter how it was done actually, technically, you created the climate which forced him to die.
We have created a climate which has made political assassination acceptable…
…which made inevitable that death, and Medgar’s and Martin’s. And may make other deaths inevitable, too—including mine. And all this in the name of freedom.
Do you think “cooling it” means accepting a culture within a culture, a black culture as separate?
You mean, white people cooling it?
White people cooling it means a very simple thing. Black power frightens them. White power doesn’t frighten them. Stokely is not, you know, bombing a country out of existence. Nor menacing your children. White power is doing that. White people have to accept their history and their actual circumstances, and they won’t. Not without a miracle they won’t. Goodwill won’t do it. One’s got to face the fact that we police the globe–we, the Americans, police the globe for a very good reason. We, like the South African black miners, know exactly what they’re protecting when you talk about the free world.
Black power frightens white people. White power doesn’t.
Are there some viable black institutions that…
Why does a white country look to black institutions to save it?
Well, to begin a dialogue, to find out what should be done…
That is up to you.
But doesn’t white America need instruction from…
…the streets of any ghetto.
But on the streets of any ghetto can you learn…
Ask any black junkie what turned him into a junkie.
But what I’m after are programs that you can work with.
What you mean by programs is a way of alleviating the distress without having it cost you anything.
Well, even, if we’re willing to spend the money…
I’m not talking about money.
But if we are willing to change our point of view…
Well, then, the person to talk to is first of all your own heart, your wife, your child. It’s your country, too. I’ve read a great deal about the good white people of this country since I came back to it in 1957. But it’s the good white people of this country who forced the black people into the streets.
I’ve read a great deal about the good white people of this country. But it’s the good white people of this country who forced the black people into the streets.
Do you think it counts for anything having a mayor like John Lindsay walking the streets?
I like John Lindsay. Just because he walks the street, perhaps. Or for the same reasons I like J.F.K., you know, with enormous reservations. He’s somewhere near the twentieth century at least.
What kind of President should we have? Would a black President help?
You’re going to need somebody who is willing, first of all to break the stranglehold of what they call the two-party system. John Lewis was right on the day of the March on Washington, when he said we can’t join the Republican Party— look who that is made up of. We can’t join the Democratic Party—look who’s in that party. Where’s our party? What we need is somebody who can coalesce the energies in this country, which are now both black and white, into another party which can respond to the needs of the people. The Democratic Party cannot do it. Not as long as Senator Eastland is in it. I name him, to name but one. I certainly will never vote for a Republican as long as Nixon is in that party. You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it. And by the way, while we’re on this subject, on of the things we should do is cease protecting all those Texas oil millionaires who are one of the greatest menaces any civilization has ever seen. They have absolutely no brains, and a fantastic amount of money, fantastic amount of power, incredible power. And there’s nothing more dangerous than that kind of power in the hands of such ignorant men. And this is done with consent of the federal government.
Are there any natural allies for the black people?
We’re all under the same heel. I told you that before. We are all under the same heel. That’s why everyone was so shocked when Fidel Castro went to Harlem. They think Negroes are fools, as Langston Hughes put it once. Second-class fools as that.
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You feel that any people who are oppressed outside the United States are natural allies for the black Americans
Yes, From Cuba… to Angola. And don’t think the American government doesn’t know that. This government which is trying to free us is also determined we should never talk to each other.
In The Fire Next Time, you questioned whether the black people want to be integrated into a burning house. Do you still feel they do not have the same goals of materialism as the white man?
I think Stokely’s right when he says that integration is another word, you know, the latest kind of euphemism for white supremacy. No, I don’t want to be integrated into this house or any other house, especially not this burning house. I don’t want to be become… like you. You, the white people. I’d rather die than become what most white people in this country have become. What one is after is something else, which is exactly what Martin was after, and this community. You know, I just want you to leave me alone. Just l-e-a-v-e-m-e-a-l-o-n-e! And then we can take it from there. And above all, leave my child alone.
Do you think that the local community control of schools is necessary?
Schools and policemen.
Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do id shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper. I can police my own community far better than you ever will. Because you can’t. It’s not in you to do it. I know why somebody there is upset when he is upset. The cats were right when they were told by somebody, some cop, some leader, some mayor to go home. They said you go home—we are home, baby. We can take care of ourselves. This is the message we’re trying to get across; we don’t need you to take care of us. Good Lord, we can’t afford to have you take care of us any longer! Look what you’ve done. To us. And to yourselves in taking care of us. No. I think the black people in this country should run their own schools, and run their own police force. Because you can’t do it. All you can do I bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.
We don’t need you to take care of us. Good Lord, we can’t afford to have you take care of us any longer!
There used to be a New York City regulation that a policeman couldn’t reside in the precinct to which he was assigned. You are saying that the regulation should require him to live there.
Yeah, I’m telling you that.
Do you have any hope for the future of this country?
I have a vast amount of determination. I have a great deal of hope. I think the most hopeful thing to do is to look at the situation. People accuse me of being a doom-monger. I’m not a doom-monger. If you don’t look at it, you can’t change it. You’ve got to look at it. And at certain times it cannot be more grim. If we don’t look at it, we won’t. If we don’t change it, we’re going to die. We’re going to perish, every single one of is. That’s a tall order, a hard, hard bill to pay; but you have been accumulating it for a very long time. And now the bill is in. It is in for you and your children, and it is in all over the world. If you can’t pay your bill. There’s nothing more that you can do to me, nothing more at all. When you, in the person of your President, assure me that you will not tolerate any more violence, you may think that frightens me. People don’t get frightened when they heard that, they get mad. And whereas you’re afraid to die, I’m not.
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So the one thing that is fairly certain about cooling it is that the National Guard…
I am not the one to be cooled.
But it can be said that the National Guard, the police, tear gas, these methods are not the answer.
I suggest that the mayor of every city and the President of this nation go on the air and address the white people for a change. Tell them to cool it.
In the most recent disturbances, why have certain black leaders attempted to get other black people off the streets?
To save their lives. Not as a favor to you. Nobody wants this generation to die. Except the American people.
You would say, then, that we have a lot to answer for?
I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have an awful lot to face. I don’t envy any white man in this century, because I wouldn’t like to have to face what you have to fade. If you don’t face it, though it’s a matter of your life or death. Everyone’s deluded if they think it’s a matter of Sambo’s life or death. It isn’t a matter of Sambo’s life or death, and it can’t be, for they have been slaughtering Sambos too long. It’s a matter of whether or not you want to live. And you may think that my death or diminution, or my disappearance will save you, but it won’t. It can’t save you. All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history…which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language. And what has happened is as though I, having always been outside it —more outside it than victimized by it, but mainly outside it—can see it better than you can see it. Because I cannot afford to let you fool me. If I let you fool me, then I die. But I’ve fooled you for a long time. That’s why you keep saying, what does the Negro want? It’s a summation of your own delusions, the lies you’ve told yourself. You know exactly what I want!
All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history—which is not your past, but your present.
So that when we come to you with the question, How do we cool it? All we’re asking is that same old question, What does the Negro want?
Yes. You’re asking me to help you save it.
Yes. But you have to do that.
Speaking strictly, from your point of view, how would you talk to an angry black man ready to tear up the town?
I only know angry black men. You mean, how would I talk to someone twenty years younger than I?
That would be very difficult to do. I’ve tried, and I try it, and I try it all the time. All I can tell him, really, is I’m with you, whatever that means. I’ll tell you what I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him to submit and let himself be slaughtered. I can’t tell him that he should not arm, because the white people are armed. I can’t tell him that he should not let anybody rape his sister, or his wife, or his mother. Because that’s where it’s at. And what I try to tell him, too, is if you’re ready to blow the cat’s head off—because it could come to that—try not to hate him, for the sake of your soul’s salvation and for no other reason. But let’s try to be better, let’s try—no matter what it costs us— to be better than they are. You haven’t got to hate them, though we do have to be free. It’s a waste of time to hate them.
This interview originally appeared in the July 1968 issue of Esquire Magazine. Read every Esquire story ever published on Esquire Classic.
Damn you scary ass muthfucks back on this pussy ass bullshit. Well you want to bring the noize this way come wit it cause i am that big Black muthfucker that your parents warned you about. So make damn sure when you step to me make sure you got your big boy pants on and you better be ridin 10 deep cause truth be told 2 or 3 weak bitch made girlie men can’t hang.
In a corner of desert country at the northernmost edge of Los Angeles county, Black boys have grown up watching their fathers handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies during routine traffic stops. Black girls have had racial slurs shouted at them from passing cars and been warned not to go out by themselves at night.
They have stood in line at the grocery store alongside white men with swastika tattoos. They have organized to protect themselves when they felt no one else would. They have learned which streets to not drive down to avoid law enforcement traffic stops. Some have stopped driving at night al together.
“The Confederacy of southern California is the Antelope Valley,” said Ayinde Love, a longtime Lancaster resident and organizer.
When the body of Robert Fuller, a 24-year-old Black man, was discovered hanging from a tree near Palmdale city hall earlier this month, it plucked at a trauma that had been etched into the Black community for generations. Just over a week before, the body of Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old Black man, had been found hanging from a tree just 50 miles east. Together, Fuller and Harsch’s deaths ignited a firestorm of fear in the region, of white supremacist hate group violence and police conspiracy, during a time of racial reckoning nationwide.
Coroners with the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department preliminarily declared Fuller’s death a suicide. But following widespread outcry, the Los Angeles sheriff, Alex Villanueva, backtracked on the finding and announced that the FBI and the state attorney general’s office would monitor the department’s investigation.
Two days later, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies fatally shot Fuller’s brother. It was the department’s sixth fatal shooting since the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests and heightened scrutiny of police violence.
Two mysterious deaths of Black men, a thin investigation from a sheriff’s department with a documented history of misconduct, another police killing, all within a dry desert landscape rife with historic anti-black hate. To many in Antelope Valley’s Black community, it came to represent the years of racism, bigotry and violence that has gone overlooked in what is considered one of the most left-leaning counties in America.
“People are arguing whether it was homicide or whether it was suicide, but that’s not the position that I’m taking,” Love said. “It’s a lynching regardless, because it is an act of violence when the people that are supposed to serve your community send a message through their lack of concern.”
‘Black men’s fear? The police’
Fewer than 500,000 people live in this sunbaked valley, where the gnarled branches of the Joshua trees splay under miles of open sky. About 70 miles from the city of Los Angeles, hardscrabble brown mountains loom far in the distance on clear days – the Tehachapi mountains to the north and the San Gabriel mountains to the south.
Of those living in Antelope Valley, about 15% are black, compared with 9% in all of Los Angeles county, and 6.5% statewide. The community has grown rapidly, and recently: from 1990 to 2010, the Black population in Lancaster, one of the main cities, grew from just 7% to 21%, while the white population shrank from nearly 80% to less than 50%.
As that population shifted, in the years leading up to 2010, the region saw the highest rate of hate crimes in Los Angeles county.
A 2013 US justice department investigation documented a series of white supremacist-related crimes that had haunted Antelope Valley in the 1990s and early 2000s. The First African Methodist Episcopal church in Palmdale was firebombed in 2010. Three white youths allegedly killed a Black man in 1997 to earn a white supremacist tattoo. Two Black men were stabbed by a white mayoral candidate’s son who had been reciting “white power” slogans, and homes were vandalized with racial slurs and a swastika.
But when asked about what they feared more in Antelope Valley, Black men overwhelmingly responded: the police.
“I don’t care about the KKK because I’m allowed to defend myself against the KKK,” said Arthur Calloway II, 39, a Lancaster resident and president of the Democratic Club of the High Desert. “But every day I have to leave the house, not knowing if I’m going to get pulled over that day and if that could end up in an escalated situation with me actually not coming home.”
At the tree where Robert Fuller’s body was found in the early hours of 10 June, supporters had placed a bright green sign, splattered with red paint, among the flowers and the candles: “Cops and Klan go hand in hand”. Just 30 years ago, a group of deputies described by a federal judge as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” had been rooted out through a lawsuit that cost the county $9m. Authorities are investigating whether similar other gang-like cliques of deputies, stationed primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods, persist today.
Combined with the stories of the Black community, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department’s reputation of racism has solid footing in the valley. While working for a car rental agency, Love, the community organizer, was pulled over so many times that he had to ask his manager to call the sheriff’s station.
“One time, I was driving into a community and deputies were coming out and passing me and immediately, they turned their lights on and turned around and pulled me over,” said T, a black Lancaster man who asked to only be identified by his first initial out of fear of retaliation. “They said there was a break-in in the neighborhood I was going into. If there was a break-in, why would I be going back into the neighborhood where I just broke into a home?”
In 2015, the US justice department settled a lawsuit against Lancaster, Palmdale and the Los Angeles sheriff’s department for targeting black people with discriminatory enforcement of the federal housing choice voucher program. The investigation that preceded the settlement found that deputies in Antelope Valley engaged in a pattern of misconduct that included pedestrian and vehicle stops in violation of the fourth amendment, “stops that appear motivated by racial bias”, unreasonable use of force and discrimination against residents on the basis of race. A review of use-of-force cases from 2010 to 2011 in which the only charge was obstruction-related – resisting arrest – found that 81% involved black or Latino subjects.
‘If this had been a white man’
Jamon Hicks reacted the same way many others in the black community did when he learned about Robert Fuller’s death. His initial thought was that it felt odd, that he had never heard of a Black man committing suicide in such a public way, and from a tree. When he learned of the other hangings, not just Malcolm Harsch’s in San Bernardino county but around the country, he got scared.
A few days later, he was retained as the attorney for Fuller’s family. Sitting at his home about an hour south of Palmdale on Juneteenth, he took a more reasoned approach. He was preparing the family for the findings to come back as a suicide, or even undetermined, he said. What mattered, he argued, was that the findings came back at all, and followed a thorough investigation.
“What I look at is: if this had been a white man hanging from a tree, if this had been a white woman hanging from a tree, would you have so easily just said, ‘Well, we think it’s a suicide?’” Hicks said. “I’m saying the investigation seemed very haphazard from the beginning. And I wonder, was it that way because this was just a 24-year-old black man?”
The family needed answers, he said. Instead, they were left with more questions.
Seven days after Robert Fuller’s body was discovered in Palmdale, Fuller’s brother, Terron Boone, was fatally shot by Los Angeles county deputies. According to the sheriff’s department, when they tried to stop his car, Boone opened the door and started shooting. The sheriffs were reportedly in plainclothes and an unmarked car, trailing Boone, a suspect in a domestic violence case.
“My question,” Hicks said slowly, “is did they know beforehand that it was his brother, before they attempted surveillance and before they followed the car?”
He wondered about the fears and conspiracy theories floating around the community, and whether they had reached Boone, who had been deep in grief. “If he’s thinking, ‘I’m being followed, something happened to my brother, now it’s me’ – if he’s in that mindset and he doesn’t know that they’re police, he’s in defense mode,” Hicks said. “He’s paranoid. He’s scared.”
‘You have to constantly think about your safety’
That sense of fear blanketed a Juneteenth rally in Lancaster, where hundreds came to demand justice for Robert Fuller, Malcolm Harsch, Michael Thomas, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. Amid the high energy and rousing speeches, a tension thrummed through the crowd.
There had been rumors that the local Ku Klux Klan chapter would be hosting a meeting at the same park where the march would end. The Los Angeles sheriff’s department said it had been unable to confirm whether the meeting was to take place. Still, organizers put out warnings for everyone to travel in groups. They had a check-in system – when people got home, they had to text someone, and if that person did not receive a text message, then everyone had to mobilize as if it were an emergency. At the rally, people were on alert, watching to see if people got too close to the speakers.
Giovanni Pope, 17, had been scheduled to speak at a press conference a few days earlier. His parents have been incredibly supportive of his efforts as a young Black and gay activist – but they told him he couldn’t speak at this one, not with the rumors of hate groups.
At a recent protest, he left his face uncovered because he had been a main organizer and wanted to make sure he was recognizable. Near the end of it, a white man whom nobody could identify kept following him and taking his picture.
“In other parts of Los Angeles county, people don’t have to think about this at all,” said Pope, a Lancaster resident. “I go to Pasadena regularly and every young person there seems so carefree in that sense. It’s really easy to be an activist for things you believe in in those areas. Out here, you have to constantly think about your safety.”
Homicide by society
On Juneteenth, the family of Malcolm Harsch, the 38-year-old man found hanging from a tree 50 miles from where Robert Fuller was found dead, posted on Facebook that after reviewing surveillance video, they had accepted that Harsch’s death was a suicide. “We urge you all to continue your efforts concerning the hanging deaths of African Americans,” they wrote.
The next day, a small crowd gathered for a vigil at the tree where Harsch died near the Victorville public library. Harsch had been living in a nearby homeless encampment at the time of his death. Organizers of the vigil brought food and water for the encampment residents, stepping around the debris and garbage under the unforgiving sun.
“Even if it wasn’t murder, it was still homicide by society,” said Kareema Abdul-Khabir, an organizer, pointing out that city hall spent more of its budget on policing than on care for vulnerable people of color.
That’s why Love, the Antelope Valley community organizer, has characterized these hangings as lynchings. Racism comes in many forms in the high desert. There’s the specter of the hate groups. There’s police violence and overcriminalization. And there’s the damage of the passive slights and the allowance of racism. It’s Pope sitting in on a meeting with the mayor of Lancaster, listening to him talk about the need to differentiate “between the hip-hop kids and the good African American students”. It’s 24-year-old Isabel Flax, learning that when her family moved to Palmdale in 2000, her white mother was informed at two homes she had tried to rent that it was “a problem” that she had a Black husband. “It was always the little things, the things that happened when I was seven and I didn’t understand until I got older,” Flax said.
“Lynching was a tactic to instill fear and control the slaves. It had to be something perpetual,” Love said. “When all Black people have to experience the unacceptance of society to the point that life in itself can seem harder than death, it’s a lynching. It’s a lynching via the white supremacist systems that have been set up in place to oppress us.”
‘We’re not going anywhere’
Black people across the US are exhausted, and those in Antelope Valley appear to feel no different. With each passing day come more Black lives lost, and in making sure all Black lives matter, they find themselves forced to wear the mantle of slain names, loudly and publicly, even as their legs buckle under the fatigue.
One day after Robert Fuller’s body was found, sheriff’s deputies fatally shot 62-year-old Michael Thomas in his home in Lancaster. Deputies had been responding to a domestic violence call and said Thomas had reached for their gun. His family and his fiancee, who was at the scene, disputed that account.
Pastor Jacob Johnson, vice-president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the NAACP, said the deputies appeared to have violated at least several points of the consent decree set by the federal justice department as part of the 2015 settlement of the housing discrimination lawsuit – a section of the settlement covers use of force. Yet it’s unclear whether the officers will face any repercussions. This same drama has played out too often in police departments across the country. Officers violate policy. Black people die. No one is held accountable. “What’s the penalty if they break a consent decree – the oversight committee stays on for two more years?” Johnson said. “To be honest, if I’m the sheriff’s department, I could care less. Right now, there seems to be no repercussions. There seems to be no penalties.”
When it comes to police killings, people tend to ask first what the person killed did to deserve it – if he was suspected of a violent crime, if he had resisted arrest, if he had been armed. Always with this question, Black organizers think of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine in a mass shooting of a black church in South Carolina and was taken into custody unharmed. “Obviously there is no need for extra training because white adult males make it out alive all the time,” said Arthur Calloway, the Lancaster community organizer.
Johnson is tired. But in talking about the movement in Antelope Valley – and the Los Angeles sheriff’s department – he is reminded of another valley mentioned in the Bible, the Valley of Elah. “When David comes to fight Goliath, Goliath had been taunting the children of Israel for a while now, standing in the middle of this valley,” Johnson said. “By the time David shows up, his brothers say, ‘What are you doing, David? You can’t really do anything.’ And David says, ‘Is there not a cause?’
“That’s what keeps bringing people back,” he continued. “We’re tired, but we’re not going anywhere because there is a cause.”
Police will be held accountable
After years of living with racism, the black organizers in Antelope Valley are working to make sure this moment of protest is more than just that. Calloway has co-founded Vote Your Power Back not just to encourage people to vote, but to shape the next generation to run for leadership roles as well. “Once you get a mom on the city council who can feel the pain of Robert Fuller hanging from that tree, who can put that emotion and passion and empathy into legislation, police will have to be held accountable,” Calloway said.
Giovanni Pope, the 17-year-old activist, had planned on leaving for Syracuse University in the fall. But he too recognized that a shift was happening in his home, and he chose to take college courses from Antelope Valley for at least his first year so that he could also continue his work on some local campaigns. “I decided that having that localized attention on our valley was very, very important,” he said.
At the Juneteenth rally, Isabel Flax spoke about her five-year-old son, and how she wanted him to grow up in a different world than she did. In a later interview, she said that after watching the video of George Floyd, she couldn’t sit by the sidelines any more. She organized the first protest in Lancaster, and, together with the other organizers, has a strong future planned for the movement.
As Flax spoke, supporters were still on high alert for hate groups, watching the stage and pacing through the crowd. Armed sheriff’s deputies stood at a distance. “You almost fear the sheriffs, if they’re here to protect us and make sure nothing happens or if they’re here just to say they were here and to look the other way if something happens,” one protester wondered.
But for just one moment after Flax passed on the microphone, in a brief musical interlude, Frank Beverly and Maze’s Before I Let Go blasted out over the speakers. A wide smile broke out over Flax’s face and she allowed the beat to take her. Soon, she was leading an entire group of Black women and children in the Electric Slide, the BLM tattoo she got after her first protest still bold and fresh on her left calf.
Beyonce’s Formation came on next to loud cheers and the handful of dancers grew. Pope jumped into the middle of the circle to groove, as everyone sang along. And for one brief moment, there was celebration.
Incandescent Whiteness: Dispatch from Portland, Oregon
We are murdered, but there is no recourse because there is no crime. No death occurred because we are not human.
“Oregon started out being the only state in the nation with a Black exclusion law in its founding constitution.”
A few days ago, I was approached by a reporter from KOIN to discuss a potential interview about current events. The reporter wanted to discuss my views on violence. I stated that the United States government (city, state, county and federal) is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and felt it is improper to condemn the violence of protesters that has no proportional equivalent to the utter destruction reeked on Black people in Portland, Oregon, the nation and the world. The reporter did not call me back for an interview.
So, getting back to the question of violence, it is important to define it. Violence cannot be defined as solely a physical thing and one could argue more violence is done through non-physical ways. Gentrification is violence. Racial and class disparate outcomes in health care are violence. Racial and class based disparate outcomes in education are violence. We can go on and make this claim in relation to every mainstream institution, i.e., incarceration system, employment, transportation etc. This does not even get at the psychological violence that Black people experience everyday walking, driving, social mediating and watching a movie or tv show, where these venues routinely benefit from the absence, death and suffering of Black people. But we should not diminish in any way the incredible power of physical violence. The US supported the 6 million deaths of the Congolese during the 1990s.
“The United States government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
These disparate outcomes cause what is referred to as premature death. Black people die earlier because we are marked as Black and experience anti-Black racism in each of these institutions. And it is important to understand that the premature death is just the tip of the iceberg. Before we die, we suffer individually and collectively often in silence and shame. Anti-Black racism is the particular experience of Black people that deems us within civil society as not-human, we are abject. As a result we can be murdered, and at the same time, we are not murdered. No death occurred because we are not human. Thus, there is no recourse because there is no crime. That’s why white police officers and vigilantes who murder Black people almost never go to prison. One could argue no crime in fact occurred because in the eyes of the state no murder occurred. Just like the rape of Black women during slavery. There was no crime because an object cannot consent. The police, vigilante or rapist was in fact defending themselves. Similarly, our mainstream institutions act the same. That Black people experience amputation as a result of diabetes at three times the rate of non-Black people is not a crime. Health care is never held responsible. In fact, it’s the Black person’s fault. We just need to eat better.
I have often asked my students why we are not going crazy because of the million Black people in prison, millions more who are out of prison with no ability to participate in mainstream society because they have the felony charge, and the incredible discrepancies in education, health care, housing and employment. It’s because nothing is wrong. No crime has been committed. This demonstrates we are not part of society. We do not care. I know that many of us do care, but not enough of us do to act differently. Please be cognizant here that there are Black folk who do not think anything is wrong with the criminal injustice system. You do the crime you do the time. Not enough of us acknowledge the depth of anti-Black racism. And, more incredibly this is the normal many would like to return to.
Tthere are Black folk who do not think anything is wrong with the criminal injustice system.”
Let’s look at the facts in Oregon. Oregon started out being the only state in the nation with a Black exclusion law in its founding constitution. It wanted to be a white homeland. Thus, the Black population is no more than two percent and Portland is the whitest large city in America. Oregon has the highest drop/push out rate of Black high school students in the country. This means that many of these Black youth are destined for the incarceration system. It is no surprise than that Oregon has higher than national rates of incarceration for Black people. The Portland Metro Area has the largest proportion of Black people in the state, so it is the schools in this area that are doing the majority of this school to prison work. Gentrification of the Black community is relatively complete. There is no longer a physical space of contiguous city blocks that determines a Black community in Portland. If you look at health care and employment, Portland and Oregon are no different from the rest of the nation. I know this all sounds depressing, but it cannot be denied. I think it’s important to sit with and acknowledge the truth. We owe that to ourselves, our children friends and lovers at the very least. My dad, for example, never told me that the reason his family moved from New Orleans to the Bay Area in California was his uncle was murdered by a white man because he would not give up his job as a porter.
“Oregon has the highest drop/push out rate of Black high school students in the country.”
The solution. I offer none that could flip the above on its head. I could offer reform measures, but we already have these answers. They have been provided for centuries now. These are redistribution of wealth, free health care, reparations, free public higher education, ethnic studies curriculum and disarm the police. Tax the rich. These are each viable and would impact Black people’s quality of life, but we can’t even get there. For many people the reason is because no crime has occurred. I remember in graduate school this young white woman said to me if you want change just vote. The only option back then, it was the 1990s, was the democratic candidate. I voted for Clinton the first time, but then the book The Bell Curve came out and Clinton said nothing about this. His wife went on the affirm my suspicions with her comment of “Super Predator.” The Bell Curve was a huge success (the author still works at Harvard and is asked to speak) and argued Black people were genetically inferior so do not invest in them. When Obama came around, he did not seem like a good option, so I voted for Cynthia Mckinney of the Green party. Cynthia Mckinney, a Black woman, was a US Congressperson then and staunch advocate for Black and poor people. I knew she could not become president. Obama won the presidency largely because of Black people and then went on to successfully contribute to the destruction of three countries, Libya, Syria and Colombia. The first two counties are pretty obvious. The second not so much. The Plan Colombia started by president Bush killed 1 million Black Colombians. Obama took it on with enthusiasm.
I would suggest voting is not an option. This moment appears and has the weight of being more significant than a few days ago, before Breonna Taylor’s murder, before George Floyd’s. Was there any significant difference between a week and half ago and today? I’m not dismissing their death’s. I’m saying weighed against the last five centuries? Next week, two months from now, in a year, I am going to have to go back and work with the same mostly white people that got us here. I’m going to have to defer to their power. Many of these people act surprised, although we have been yelling and screaming for our whole lives that substantively little has changed. We remain slaves, abject, without honor, and gratuitously violated.
“Historically, white males worldwide have suffered the deep sense of male inferiority and inadequacy because they represent a mutant, genetically recessive, minority population that can be genetically annihilated by all non-white people….The gun as a symbol in the white supremacy system/culture…cannot be banned because it is the symbolic phallus substitute for the white male. The white male’s penis and testicles genetically cannot annihilate Black and other non-white males, but his gun can. Therefore to ban the gun for the white male is to castrate him symbolically, to remove his defense mechanism for the ever present threat of white genetic annihilation.” – Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, The Isis Papers
Between the legs of every black man on planet earth is a “weapon” that can cause the genetic annihilation of the entire caucasian race.
By now we’ve all heard the saying “once you go black, you never go back”. This is due to the power of melanin, it is a dominant substance. That’s why interracial children usually take on the traits and genetics of their melanated parent.
Most white males are aware of this phenomena, consciously or unconsciously. They know that their genetics are recessive and not capable of dominating so this leads to frustrations and insecurities.
In order to compensate for this inadequacy, they created their own “weapon of annihilation”, the gun. Which ironically, is almost always black or brown and generally shaped like a penis. Coincidence? No.
When white police officers explain why they killed an innocent black man their usual response is, “I thought he had a gun”. Even unarmed, they still see a black man as dangerous and threatening, because deep down they understand that the black male genitals are capable of annihilating caucasian genetics. Even with no gun, a black man is still seen by them as “armed and dangerous”.
The collective response from caucasians, in particular the white males, to this frustration and anxiety is a culture that promotes and encourages them to acquire as many black and brown penis shaped weapons as possible so they too can feel like a “real man”.
There will never be gun control wherever the system of white supremacy exists, because without guns white males do not feel “safe” or adequate for survival.