Blog #36: 400 Years is Today

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400 years is a very long time, especially when counting each minute of fear, suffering and hopelessness caused by racism. At the same time, the past is not so long ago; wounds still fester. This paradox – about the length and shortness of history – is embodied by my neighbor Daniel Smith (husband of Loretta Neumann – see Blog #34). You see, Daniel’s father was born a slave.

This stunning fact meant little to a man who interrupted a conversation I was having with Daniel about racism with this common rhetorical question, “Why are we still talking about this?” Perhaps he didn’t know that in 1863, in Massies Mills, VA, Daniel’s father, Abram Smith, was born enslaved. Most likely he didn’t realize the prejudice Daniel’s mother weathered while raising a household of children. Maybe this person was ignorant of Daniel’s lifetime of work healing race and class divisions – his years with VISTA, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program, and the U. S. Office of International Health. And he probably didn’t know of Daniel’s time in “Bloody Lowndes County,” Alabama.

In the 1960s, Daniel directed the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) to teach poor Black residents how to read and write so they could vote. Governor Wallace, an outspoken white supremacist, said that the LCCMHR program bordered on treason. He sent officials to intimidate Daniel. The program’s headquarters was burned down by arsonists. The KKK endangered his life (he was “bumper chased”). Those days must have felt long. But Daniel, a veteran of the Korean War, who walked with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, and later escorted presidents as head usher at the Washington National Cathedral, is alive today. This proves true the title of Nathan Robinson’s article in Current Affairs – “Slavery Was Very Recent.”

Robinson writes, “…slavery wasn’t just recent. It was yesterday. [A]ny argument that we have gotten past its effects is likely to be downright ludicrous. After all, we are dealing with the multi-century denial of any rights to an entire group of millions of human beings. We are dealing with the erasure of language, identity, family, and property, with the mass shackling, raping, and beating of multiple generations of a single ethnic group. Getting past such a rupture in a group’s ability to prosper seems intuitively as if it would take eons.” The work continues.

  • Lesson #177: To be clear, Daniel’s father Abram was born enslaved, defined by the law as property. Born in 1863, he was 70 years old when Daniel was born. He died in 1938. Daniel is currently 87. Race-based chattel slavery existed in our country not so very long ago.

  • Lesson #178: Daniel Smith does not personally remember a lot about his father, perhaps for reasons related to racial economic oppression in a country where Black parents often had to be away from their family for many hours. It’s not a surprise that born enslaved, swindled out of property he owned by unscrupulous lawyers, limited in job opportunities, having to walk an hour to and from work as a janitor from 7AM-6PM, Abram had little time to be with his family. Daniel does, however, remember his father as “religious, refined, well respected, and stern but gentle.”

  • Lesson #179: Alabama Gov. Wallace labeled Daniel’s work as “bordering on treason” because the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) initiated the original Black Panther Party. Limited in its effectiveness in registering Black voters, LCCMHR founded the all black, independent, political party—the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) or Black Panther party. Subsequently, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves and formed the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” in Oakland, California. Meanwhile, the grassroots Lowndes County group, whose political activities were branded unpatriotic by the system, was trying to break the white supremacist stranglehold on power.

  • Lesson #180: Stokely Carmichael, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC ), and who had recently coined the phrase “Black Power,” was dispatched to Lowndes County to register voters in the summer of 1965. This four-minute YouTube clip offers gives you more of this story.

  • Lesson #181: Daniel Smith’s widowed mother became the family wage earner, with six children ranging in age from four to sixteen. She persevered through dark times, able to feed her children better only when, after a long delay, she received food through a federal program and worked as a domestic. Even then, upon receiving the food aid, Daniel remembers having to listen to a Mrs. Jones who, while distributing the food, told them “how lucky we were to receive commodities since hard-working people had to pay their taxes to provide food for poor people like us.” Daniel continues, “We always noted that she never said hard-working white people, but it was always implicit that white America had contributed money through taxes and that it did not come from black Americans.”

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