Sunday, December 7, 2014

"I Can't Breathe: Ralph Metcalfe, Derrick Rose and the Misuse of Police Authority"

Last night, Chicago Bulls superstar point guard, Derrick Rose, used his platform to give an assist to the national movement against police brutality. Wearing a shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe,” Rose became the latest of a growing number of black athletes protesting police violence. With his statement, he also jumped into black Chicago’s long war against police abuse, a war in which another famous black athlete, Ralph Metcalfe, fought one of the most significant battles.

Black Chicagoans have been in a continuous combat against police brutality. In 1927, for example, a writer for the Chicago Defender complained that blacks had been pleading for investigations into brutality for years, but the police never paid attention to these grievances. The writer urged, “Police are paid to protect society, not to perpetrate indiscriminate murder upon those who fall into their clutches. Men upholding the sovereignty of a principality are men sworn to their duty as servants of the people who employ them.” The Defender’s appeal to Mayor Thompson, however, went unheard.

 The continued pleas for justice from the Defender, and from concerned citizens, became louder in the 1960s and 70s as police increased their violence against black citizens. By 1972, an estimated 78 acts of police violence occurred each month. Despite constant calls for justice from the black community, Mayor Daley did nothing, and he allowed the police to continue their abuse. In 1972, using his political power, and celebrity clout, Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, one of the greatest athletes of his generation, formed the Concerned Citizens for Police Reform to confront Mayor Daley and Chicago’s Police Department. For Metcalf, his call for justice was rooted in his blackness, and no doubt, his history of growing up in Chicago witnessing acts of police violence. As he told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m here to clean up the evil system. It is still time for some of you who talk black to start acting black. Some folks don’t work at anything but their mouths.” Metcalfe and his group wrote a list of 6 demands for Mayor Daley designed to eliminate brutality.
The demands:
1.     Eliminate ‘task force-type operations’ by the police department
2.     Establish a citizen’s board in each police district to review abuse cases
3.     Black positions on department proportion to the number of blacks in the city
4.     Upgrade and increase the positions on the police department held by blacks
5.     The immediate recruitment of black personnel
6.     All the demands met by May 31

Of course, Mayor Daley did not pay attention to these requests, and in his first meeting about police brutality, he argued “the police department is the arm of government we look to for protection… there should be no interference in the police operation from politics, business or any other partisan pressure groups.” In other words, Daley wanted his police to have unchecked power to oppress black citizens. Fueled by the mayor’s lack of concern, Metcalfe and the Concerned Citizens for Police Reform continued their fight.  Throughout the summer of 72, the committee held meetings in which citizens detailed their personal history with police abuse. The testimonies of local terrorism, highlighted years of oppressive policing, but unfortunately, did not bring any immediate change. The police and politicians hid behind the trope of black criminality in order to legalize their crimes against citizens. A year later, Congressman Metcalfe used those testimonies and published “Misuse of Police Authority,” a scathing 96-page document that highlighted police brutality, cover-ups, and a long history of job discrimination in the department. What did the city do? Nothing.

Rose’s shirt is a testimony to the continued terrorism the police have waged in their war against black and brown people in Chicago. In fact, last month young civil rights activists from Chicago testified to the U.N. about the history of police violence in Chicago, prompting the U.N. to issue a concern about unchecked police brutality. Rose, a product of Chicago, has bravely situated himself in this war against domestic terrorism. Let’s hope that with Chicago’s brightest star taking a stand against police brutality, local politicians finally listen and end the “Misuse of Police Authority.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Darktown Comes to Atlanta

For a month, Memphis sporting fans had been hyped about the upcoming fight between the great black fighters Sam Langford and the former Welterweight Champion the “Dixie Kid.” A local newspaper paper mockingly noted blacks had “been saving for days and days trying to rake together $2 admission to see [Jack] Johnson’s only rival in his race,” and “every smoke in town” bought a ticket. With black fans buying a good portion of the seats, the Langford-Dixie Kid fight was the most successful battle in Memphis history. But a week later, racial complaints resurfaced about boxing in Memphis. White fans had been complaining for the last 8 months about the lack of good white fighters. A local sportswriter commented that the “Phoenix Athletic club ought to have found out by this time that negroes will not turn out unless there is a strong negro attraction… More white bouts on such occasions would make a hit with the fight crowd.” In other words, the club needed to focus on white spectators and host white fights. But, this was easier said than done. Black athletes represented the best product and the most lucrative paydays for the club. As one writer observed, “the biggest houses at the Phoenix have been drawn by negro fights—and the patronage was always about three whites to one coon [black.]” “White bouts,” on the other hand, did not draw “overly well.” Much like the Atlanta Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson, the Phoenix Athletic Club [Memphis] had business problems revolving around race and fandom. How do you attract white spectators? And what do you do with black fans? But this was 1910, not 2012.

Selling sports tickets has always been about white spectatorship. Black fandom, however, has been an afterthought. Before the mass integration of team sports, most black spectators attended horse races and prizefights. In white sports entertainment spaces, however, whites treated black fans like pathogens and not participants in the spectatorship process. Whites openly complained about the proximity of black fans and detested their presence. Black fans in the stands reminded whites of social equality that whites did not want to accept. To deal with the problem of black fandom, while also appeasing white fans and keeping black dollars, stadiums, clubs, and arenas segregated blacks. Newspapers commonly mocked the black section by referring to them as “smokes” and “darktown.” But, as long as black spectatorship remained relatively small, whites could deal with the supposed black problem.

In post WWII America, however, the Second Great Migration and the integration of team sports resulted in the first mass wave of black spectators in white sporting spaces. Black fans flocked to major league ballparks to see their black stars in action. After the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson the team sold out most of their home and road games. Based on rumor alone, black fans in Detroit bought 40,000 tickets to see Satchel Paige pitch for the Cleveland Indians. While some teams like the Indians signed black players to tap into a black fan base, many franchises like Detroit refused to acknowledge their presence. Reportedly, the increase in black fans pushed Brooklyn to move to Los Angeles. The Atlanta Braves, for example, have continued to avoid recruiting black fans. The situation got so bad that in 2000 Braves icon Hank Aaron, complained “[Blacks] aren't wanted on the field and they're not wanted in the stands, and that's the gospel truth." Unfortunately, it seems that the Atlanta Hawks are following the Braves.

The most ironic aspect about the Hawks’ black problem is that the Hawks once openly recruited black fans. During the 1971 season blacks comprised 8% of the fans and only bought 9 season tickets in Atlanta. In comparison the Baltimore Bullets (32%) and the Detroit Pistons (30%) had the highest black attendance. In 1972, the Hawks GM Richie Guerin met with local black businessmen to develop a strategy to attract black spectators and season ticket holders. Guerin told the group “ We really need your help because the whole league has been lax in the area.” He continued, saying “But I’m more interesting in Atlanta than in the rest of the league.” To woo a black fan base, the Hawks leadership decided to use black business leaders to recruit other black middle-class customers. Forty years later, we see that the Hawks’ strategy worked and black spectatorship grew to 70%. So what did the Atlanta Hawk do about their success?

Although their problems were 100 years apart, the Phoenix Athletic Club and Levenson arrived at the same answer. They cowardly capitulated to their white fans. In Memphis, in 1910, the club “comprising bankers, millionaires and others,” had “gradually placed more white and less black in the color scheme for the preliminary sport.” In short, the Phoenix Athletic Club stopped featuring black fighters as headliners and actively sought out white talent. But the Hawks can’t replace their black product with white talent. It doesn’t work like that in the NBA. Instead of courting black dollars, Levenson fell back on an old trope that that situated black spectators as bad for business. He wrote “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant[sic] season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean[sic] back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.” To draw more whites fans, he proposed more white cheerleaders, less black people on the kissing cam, and changing the music to appeal to white audiences. The tactics might have changed, but the goal remained the same. The black fan base was reduced to roughly 40%, still too high for Levenson. But the Hawks and other teams need to know, black spectators will support a quality product. Franchises should follow the 1972 Hawks and actively recruit black fans.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Big Bill Tate: The Prizefighter and the Proletariat

Note: This is an ongoing project. Please share, but don't steal my ish.

“Big” Bill Tate hung up his gloves in 1928. During his 15-year career, Tate, who settled in Chicago’s Black Metropolis, became one of the most popular black fighters in America. His peak fighting years coincided with the development of Chicago’s political New Negro that battled exploitive capitalism. Armed with an understanding of economic exploitation he gleaned from prizefighting, and empowered by the rhetoric of the New Negro, Tate quit prizefighting to battle for black men on the killing floor. As a labor organizer Tate stood at the forefront of a black political movement linking civil and economic rights. Equally as important, he was the first black athlete to use his platform to advocate for labor rights.
            Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1893, Tate used fighting to escape Jim Crow. He graduated from the state normal school (Alabama A&M) in Huntsville, where he learned the printing trade, but after college, like most black men, Tate could only find unskilled work. Tate’s formative years in Montgomery overlapped with legal Jim Crow, and white enforcement of such policies, that worked to violently and legally strip black men of their manhood rights. By March 1911, for example, of nearly 53,000 blacks in Montgomery County, only 1,000 had registered to vote.
 Tate’s lot in life changed, however, when Dr. F.C. Caffey discovered him in 1910. Dr. Caffey, the leading health and exercise advocate in black America, had just returned from assisting Jack Johnson with the Jim Jeffries battle. Like white managers who searched for white hopes to dethrone Jack Johnson, Caffey convinced the 6’7’ Tate, who reportedly had plans to attend Meharry Medical College, to enter prizefighting to win the championship. Caffey trained Tate for two years in Montgomery before sending him to New York in 1912.

As a fighter, Tate earned more money and had more mobility than his black southern brothers in the fields and northern brothers in the factories. Despite the freedom and economic mobility boxing provided black men, the politics and fears surrounding race and manhood reduced black fighters’ earnings. Simply put, interracial fights earned black men the most money, but the racial politics of that era restricted mixed bouts. As one white writer observed “the number of bouts between negroes, in fact, the recurrent bouts, they might be called, is due in no small measure to the feeling against so-called ‘mixed bouts’ throughout the country.” Black fighters had two choices, “fight among themselves or quit the ring.” Unfortunately, during his 15-year career, Tate’s fights against black opponents took a physical toll on him. Never great at defense, Tate suffered several vicious beatings by Harry Wills, Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, Kid Norfolk, and George Godfrey.

Tate’s career coincided with the Great Migration of blacks who left the South for better opportunities in Chicago. Between 1910 and 1920 nearly 56,000 blacks moved to Chicago. The following decade the black population increased by 114%, and by 1930, 233,903 black people lived in the Black Metropolis. In Chicago, however, most blacks struggled to find adequate work. The onslaught of the Depression exacerbated the situation, as blacks were the last hired and first fired. After he retired in 1928, Tate, a leading soapbox orator, helped the Chicago Whip, a radical black newspaper; lead their “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” campaign. By 1930,Tate and the Whip helped 2,600 blacks find work.
In Tate’s most important battle, he fought for black unionization in the meatpacking industry. The meatpacking industry was the number one employer of blacks in Chicago, but the industry had a long history of discrimination and violence from white co-workers that made black workers wary of unions. Until WWI, when the factories needed cheap black labor, most blacks only worked at the slaughterhouses as strikebreakers. By 1930, however, blacks represented 30% of workers in the stockyards, but “the bottom rung on the ladder of success was the bloody, slippery floor of a killing room.”

Tate believed that “economic conditions” created “most of [blacks] ills” and the discriminatory job market—97% of blacks in the meatpacking industry had low-paying unskilled jobs—stood as the biggest barrier for black advancement. In his new fighting career, Tate led economic boycotts, parades, and organized black workers. To best serve black workers Tate took a job working as an international organizer for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. Tate organized workers in meatpacking centers including Omaha, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Kansas City and gave speeches trying to organize black and white workers. One study noted Tate’s “success in attracting men to the organization constitutes a brilliant record.” And a union leader from Omaha reflected, “We haven’t had much success organizing Negroes. The only one that helped us was Bill Tate.” Tate continued to organize black workers until his death in 1953. Although most blacks remained reluctant to join unions, Tate’s work laid the foundation for a labor movement that triggered the slow move of blacks factory workers into middle-class jobs.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jackie Robinson and Police Brutality

As protests continue over the execution of Mike Brown, we are starting to see more Black athletes use their platform to challenge police brutality. The players' courage on Washington’s professional football team, for example, has been amazing to witness. I hope Black athletes and entertainers continue using their voices. In doing so, they are following a path blazed by Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to consistently protest police brutality.

Surprisingly, in Jackie’s lowest political moment, he first used his platform to publicly take a stand against police brutality. Looking for a way to attack Paul Robeson’s powerful protests against American racism—Robeson questioned if Blacks should fight against Russia—in July 1949, HUAC dragged Jackie Robinson to Washington D.C., to testify on behalf of Black America. Instead of passing Civil Rights legislation, Congress wanted a loyal Black face to reassure White Americans that America was a beacon of racial democracy. Jackie’s testimony, unfortunately, cut Robeson deep.  Regretfully, Robinson said “I can’t speak for any fifteen million people any more than any one person can, but I know that I’ve got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country, and I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare, for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass.” Robeson was noticeably upset by Jackie’s attack and told a reporter, “The only other time Negroes were called on to publicly proclaim their loyalty was when Jeff Davis called them during the Civil War.” For his stance against the Black icon, White America praised Robinson. Robinson did more than just appease White America, however, he used his testimony to take a swing at racism. In one of his boldest statements, the baseball pioneer told HUAC, “because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching, when it happens, doesn’t change the truth of the charges.” Robinson added “Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist party, and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.” Jackie Robinson put Whites and the federal government on notice. If America truly wanted racial equality, police brutality had to end.

From that moment, Jackie joined a cadre of Black voices across the country and denounced police brutality. During the 1950s and 60s, he led marches, gave speeches, and used his newspaper column to attack injustice. He often linked Black rage as a response to police abuse, and warned of the potential problems if brutality went unchecked.  A month before the 1964 Harlem Uprising—the rebellion started after the police murdered an unarmed Black teenager—in an article entitled “Watch that Brutality,” Jackie urged, “I think our Police Commissioner must be warned that police brutality will not be tolerated by the Negro and Puerto Rican people of New York City. There has been too much of it and unless it is seriously curtailed, there can be serious and crucial times ahead for the city.” A week later at a rally to denounce violence—legendary catcher Roy Campanella, who Jackie called out for being silent on civil rights, also spoke—Jackie further warned about the brewing problems. He told the crowd “Harlem is the key to Negro areas throughout the country and efforts by Comm. Murphy or the Mayor to meet and ease problems here on police brutality will have an effect throughout the nation.”

The powers that be did not listen to Jackie Robinson and other Black leaders across the country demanding an end to abuse.  Between 1964 and 1968, hundreds of uprisings started in response to police brutality.  Predictably, a number of Americans, especially those on the Right, blamed the destruction on Black violence. In response to complaints, Robinson noted that so-called Black violence was a byproduct of police brutality. He argued “One cannot expect leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.” 

Jackie was right. Civil Rights legislation has failed to protect Blacks from the police. Since emancipation, Blacks have pleaded with local, state, and federal politicians to end police brutality. Let’s hope politicians finally listen to our complaints.