Sunday, December 30, 2012

Silent bigotries – more correspondence from Anita Wills



Anita Wills shared with me a little more of her experience trying to get her work on her revolutionary soldier ancestors into the public sphere. See here. Ambrose and Charles Lewis fought in Virginia, and though serving long indentures, Charles still managed to buy property and set up a business in Richmond. But Anita was not invited by either the Library of Virginia or the Black History Museum of Virginia to tell his story.

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Why not? Black fighters, like the Pinns, also her relatives, were central to Yorktown and the struggle for freedom; emancipation is the realization of American freedom, not tangential to it, and slaveholding underlines the hypocritical corruption and brutality of leading Founders like Washington, Jefferson and Monroe. See "The People and the 'Monster of Monticello'" here. Aren’t the stories of individuals who broke free from bondage and played a central role in the fighting – unknown to most people educated in America from kindergarten to graduate school – worth hearing?

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There were some 1,000 free blacks in Virginia at the time of the Revolution out of whom roughly 154 fought for the Patriots and also 25 slaves (cf. Luther Jackson'w pamphlet "Virginia's Negro Soldiers and Seamen during the Revolutionary War," tracking black soldiers through public records and likely short in its count, which was published in 1944; I have recently commented on black soldiering in Virginia in Black Patriots and Loyalists, pp. 163-68). Are there too many stories, too many descendants writing books, too much recognition for these important Virginia institutions to sponsor Anita's talks?

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A much larger number of blacks answered Royal Governor Dunmore's Proclamation - he freed blacks and indentured servants who came to the English and threatened, from 1772 on "to sow destruction wherever I can reach and raze the mansions to the ground" - and escaped to and fought for the British in Virginia. They, too, fought for emancipation, and this escape, like a "snow ball in rolling," as Washington feared, nearly eclipsed the American cause.

The Patriots were saved only by a smallpox epidemic, ravaging especially blacks just then, Dunmore's tactical incompetence and at last, their own willingness to rely on black soldiers, for instance in the First Rhode Island Regiment.

***

Anita has run into obstacles not only with the Daughters of the American Revolution – as a recovering racist organization, its retrograde character is unsurprising, see "July 4th, the DAR and the Times' misrepresentation of black soldiers in the Revolution here – but also with some African-Americans who are perhaps not keen on the story of often involuntary racial mixing (what Southern white masters and their male relatives frequently forced on enslaved women), her forebears being both Native American and the Washington and Monroe families.

***

In addition, Anthony Baxter, Anita’s brother, differentiates his experience with the Sons of the American Revolution in Massachusetts – where he has participated in events honoring soldiers black and white – and the S.A.R. in South Carolina. South Carolina still flies the flag of the Confederacy (Bush and McCain debated in 2000 under it and refused to criticize its preservation as a state flag!) and was a center of the secession in the Civil War.

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So far, South Carolina has little interest in black Patriots during the Revolution and less in noticing that the Colony seceded from Britain only to preserve bondage. The representatives and many scholars of that State have corruptly denied the persistent efforts of John Laurens, a great anti-slavery fighter and aide-de-camp to Washington, to recruit 3,000 blacks to fight in exchange for freedom. Laurens’s proposal passed the Continental Congress (Henry, his father, though a vacillator on this issue, was the Second President of Congress). While fighting in South Carolina, John also served in the new state legislature, and proposed and fought for this measure twice. He was defeated by bigots for bondage who would rather bow down to the Crown than mobilize blacks to defend their own genuine liberties (obviously, not the "liberty" to own other human beings) as well as the common good.

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After leading black troops at Yorktown along with Alexander Hamilton to take the two Royal strongholds, Laurens was killed in an ambush at the Combahee River. His story has been long suppressed both in South Carolina and nationally. Black Patriots and Loyalists hopes to do Laurens justice – see here.

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The New York Times has published two fine recent op-eds on the Wilmington 10 and on a judge reducing three North Carolina death sentences to life in prison. Read the editorials and the column below them and the extraordinary racism of the prosecutors will come across. These are not (simply) Klansmen but high officials and guardians of "law."

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Their conduct is tied to and enables the largest prison system in the world, 2.3 million prisoners (with 5.1 million more on probation), 25% of the world’s prisoners. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow and here.

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Many of the prisoners are black or chicano, some poor white. In 2001, according to the Justice Department, 1 in 3 black male babies could expect to be caught up in the prison system at some point in their lives; 1 in 7 Chicano male infants; and 1 in 17 white male babies...

The prison-industrial complex ruins the lives of many poor people, often as teenagers and for mere possession of marijuana. It, along with militarism, is the great enemy of American decency and democracy.

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North Carolina recently passed a law permitting the overturning of convictions in which black jurors were struck from service disproportionately by prosecutorial challenge. That was an enormous step out of darkness.

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Reviewing the death verdicts, the judge found such laughable cases as dismissal of a black woman for "coming from a bad neighborhood," approval of a white former marijuana dealer as "a fine man." Twice the number of blacks were disqualified as whites in one case, four times as many in the other two...

He changed three death sentences to life without parole.

***

But life imprisonment is the most serious sentence in civilized countries. The good step the judge took, denouncing the prosecutors, and even the Times editorial which is otherwise admirable, does not speak to the wrong of the original convictions.

These individuals need new trials if there is serious evidence against them. But a decent judicial system could just say: racist convictions must be thrown out, period, and the “prosecutors” subject to criminal charges for perverting justice.

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That is a level of civilization and democracy, however, which is several steps up from here.

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If one wants to understand the roots of the North Carolina corruption, think of the words of the prosecutors and the burying of the stories of black soldiers and anti-racist whites who were, in fact, central to the American Revolution. One might conclude that the Founding Myth - see here, here and here - with its idolization of slaveholders as the seekers of “freedom” far away in time and substance; the refusal to look at bondage, black soldiering and the abolitionism of white sailors and many others is linked to the racism, ignorance and depravity of these high North Carolina officials…

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Silent bigotries, bigotries enabled because of silencing.

Anita speaks for all of us.



***

"Alan,

This may or may not be something you could add to the blog. This is an exchange I had with the Library of Virginia in 2009. I wanted to do a reading of my book, Pieces of the Quilt the Mosaic of An African American Family, and the response was no. They did not offer me another date, or go in to detail as to why my book was not acceptable. In fact they told me to go to the Black History Museum in Richmond, which also declined my request.

Tameka Hobbs is African American and ignored my request until I contacted her Supervisor. This is what I mean by having my book Blackballed, by the Library of Virginia. They do have my first book, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color, on Reserve, however the patron would have to know it was there to request it.

Anita

On Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 10:41 AM, Hobbs, Tameka (LVA)‬ wrote:

Ms. Willis -

I received your subsequent email and telephone message. I have also been forwarded messages that you've sent to other members of the Library staff. I thought I made this clear previously but your book [h]as been presented through the normal decision-making channels that we have here at the Library to consider our programs and events. After much discussion and consideration, our program committee voted not to extend you an invitation. Additionally, all of our slots are filled during the month of August, which, I believe, is the time frame during which you'd hope to make your presentation.

I know this is disappointing, but the decision is firm. I, too, would suggest the Black History Museum of Virginia as an alternate outlet.

Best of luck promoting your work.

- Tameka Hobbs"

***

"Alan,

I neglected to mention that my brother, Anthony Baxter is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), in Massachusetts. He was active when he and his wife lived in Massachusetts, but was not as active when they moved to South Carolina. He said that in Massachusetts they had reenactments with Colored Soldiers, something that was not happening in South Carolina.

Anita Wills"

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EDITORIAL (New York Times)
Pardons for the Wilmington 10
Published: December 22, 2012

Before leaving office next month, Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina should finally pardon the Wilmington 10, a group of civil rights activists who were falsely convicted and imprisoned in connection with a racial disturbance in the city of Wilmington more than 40 years ago. The convictions, based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony, were overturned by a federal court in 1980. But by then, the lives of the convicted had been broken on the wheel of Jim Crow justice.

Wilmington was experiencing a bitter civil rights struggle in 1971 when a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood was firebombed. The police officers and firefighters who arrived to extinguish the flames came under gunfire. Nine black men and one white woman were railroaded to jail in connection with the event.

Years later, both the prosecutor and the state trial court were denounced in a blistering ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.

The court found that the prosecution’s chief witness had repeatedly perjured himself on the stand and that prosecutors either knew or had reason to know that the testimony had been fabricated. Beyond that, evidence showed that prosecutors had concealed crucial discoverable material and that they had offered witnesses gifts or lenient treatment for unrelated charges.

Newly discovered notes attributed to the prosecutor paint an even more sordid picture of how the case was pursued. The notes suggest, for example, that the prosecutor used racial profiling and other unethical tactics to disqualify black jurors, while searching out racist jurors who would endorse the case against the defendants without question. In some instances, for example, he appears to have written “KKK” (for Ku Klux Klan) next to names of prospective jurors, occasionally commenting that this was “OK” or “Good.” Taken together, the notes and court documents offer a window into a time when many Southern prosecutors and courts saw it as their mission, not to administer justice, but to preserve the racial status quo.

Most of the defendants were young — some just high school age — when they were collectively sentenced to a total of more than 280 years in prison. Prison robbed them of the promise that their young lives had held. Even after the sentences were overturned, the notoriety associated with the case made it difficult for some of them to find or hold decent jobs, and sometimes led to their being shunned.

Four of the 10 have already died; others are battling illness. As one journalist has noted, their lives “have been marked by struggle, hardship and indignities.”

Anger over this case has continued to fester in the black community. At a 40th anniversary commemoration last year in Wilmington, civil rights leaders rightly decided that the wrongly convicted warranted a pardon from Ms. Perdue. By providing it, she can finally bring a close to one of the more shameful episodes in North Carolina history.

***

Editorial
Intentional Bias in North Carolina
Published: December 25, 2012

A North Carolina trial judge recently resentenced three death-row inmates to life without parole under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allows inmates to have their sentences reduced if it can be shown they were tainted by racial bias. In the trials of two blacks and one Lumbee Indian, the judge found “powerful evidence”of such bias.

The law does not require proof that the bias was deliberate. But, in this case, the judge found “intentional” prosecutorial bias aimed at securing a death sentence for the defendants, bringing grave “harm to African-Americans and to the integrity of the justice system.”

The bias was manifested in the prosecutors’ use of peremptory strikes of prospective jurors during the jury selection process. In one case, the prosecutor struck prospective blacks at two times the rate for whites. In each of the other two cases, the rate was almost four times greater. Even when adjustments were made for other factors, like the criminal record of a prospective juror, race was “a significant factor” in the rigorous ways that the North Carolina statute required the defendants to prove.

The judge found that words and deed of the prosecutors themselves confirmed his conclusions about racial influence in the jury selection process.

In one case, the prosecutor compiled pages of notes called “Jury Strikes” to help guide him as he challenged prospective jurors. The judge concluded from the notes that any blacks summoned for jury duty “had a strike against them before they even entered the courthouse.”

A prospective black juror with no criminal record was struck because she was said to live in a “bad area,” whereas a white juror who had been a marijuana dealer was picked in part because he was a “fine guy.”

The judge observed that the injustice abundantly proven in each case was common throughout North Carolina during the past two decades. Prosecutors excluded blacks from juries for going to church too often or for other reasons that “simply make no sense” and that could be explained only by intentional and ugly bias.

***

Judge in North Carolina Voids 3 Death Sentences
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: December 13, 2012

A judge in North Carolina on Thursday ruled that race had played a significant role in the sentencing of three convicted murderers to death, and changed their sentences to life in prison without possibility of parole. It was the second such decision under the state’s Racial Justice Act and the first since the act was amended by the state legislature.

Lawyers representing Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine had argued under both the new and old versions of the act, contending that statistics as well as anecdotal and documentary evidence, like handwritten notes by prosecutors, showed that race influenced the sentencing process and particularly the picking of juries.

“In the writing of prosecutors long buried in case files and brought to light for the first time in this hearing, the court finds powerful evidence of race consciousness and race-based decision making,” wrote Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court, who also ruled last April in the first case to be heard under the Racial Justice Act.

According to a report on local TV station WRAL, the brother of a state trooper killed by Mr. Golphin had to be removed from the courtroom, shouting, “Judge, you had your mind made up before this ever started!” [one hopes that the evidence is good that Golphin did the killing; murders of police officers often lead to a special hunger for conviction of someone and then keeping them in jail, regardless of whether that person committed the crime, viz. Mumia Abdul-Jamal; that the reporter inserted this remark early in the story is odd...]

The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to seek to have their sentences changed to life without parole if they can show that race was “a significant factor” in sentencing.

In the original version of the law, passed in 2009, defendants were allowed to make their arguments using statistical evidence alone, and to demonstrate the influence of race in the state at large at the time of sentencing, rather than in their specific counties.

After the act was passed, researchers from Michigan State University studied the application of the death penalty in North Carolina and found that peremptory challenges had been used to remove blacks from juries at a rate more than twice that of whites, a rate that was even higher in Cumberland County. Removing potential jurors solely on the basis of race has been ruled unconstitutional.

In 2011, a newly Republican state legislature passed a repeal of the act [a disgraceful action, one among a legion throughout the country], but the governor at the time, Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed it.

This year, Republicans passed a law that did not repeal the act, but modified it. Governor Perdue vetoed this as well, but Republicans were able to attract a handful of Democratic legislators [the old South hangs on...] and overrode her veto.

Under the new law, statistical evidence by itself is insufficient in proving the influence of race, and a defendant must prove that race was a factor in death sentencing in “the county or prosecutorial district” when he or she was tried, rather than regionally or statewide [there must be some ideal patch of North Carolina which is exempt from the evidence about bigotry...]. The law also eliminated consideration of the race of the victim in defendants’ arguments.

Mr. Golphin and Mr. Augustine are black, and Ms. Walters is a Lumbee Indian. They were convicted of unrelated murders and have been on death row at least 10 years. Their victims included whites and blacks; in Mr. Golphin’s and Mr. Augustine’s cases, the victims were law enforcement officers.

Nearly all of North Carolina’s 155 death row inmates had filed motions under the old act [does this mean that "nearly all of North Carolina's death row inmates" are...black?], and lawyers on their behalf have argued that the amended law does not apply to them. In his decision on Thursday, Judge Weeks agreed that the law did not apply retroactively, but ruled that lawyers for the three defendants in this case had met the burden of proof under both versions anyway.

The defense produced handwritten notes taken by prosecutors during jury selection that noted which potential jurors were black, sometimes associating them with drug and alcohol use for no apparent reason.

The defense also highlighted another trial in the county, in which the defendants were white supremacists and the victims were black. Prosecutors in that case struck black jurors at a rate far lower than they did in cases where the defendants were black — evidence, the judge found, of racial intent in jury selection.

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