The Leading Edge: Charles McKinney on the Rhodes College Civil Rights Conference

March 4, 2014, 1:22 am

This is a slightly different kind of Leading Edge. Charles McKinney, a fellow Duke alum, helped organize and run a conference on civil rights at Rhodes College in Memphis. During the conference, he posted regular Facebook updates on the speakers. I thought a retrospective gathering of them would be a wonderful stream of consciousness account of the conference, and Chuck agreed. Headings are my words, the rest are Chuck’s.

From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race, Region and the Making of Public Memory

The conference schedule is here.

Rhodes Jazz Ensemble kicking off the conference! Copyright Charles McKinney 2014
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First up is Professor Kate Masur’s plenary lecture:

Masur: “Birth of a Nation” and “Lincoln” have the same narrative line regarding the caricature of Black/Republican politics. BOOM.

Masur: We should confront the tenuous nature of black life in the South. Have NEVER Confronted the impact of black land loss.

First question from the floor – from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It. Is. On.

Professor Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University on teaching the Civil Rights movement.

Jeffries: 2008 was not a MOVEMENT. It was a MOMENT. If there was any movement building going on, it was *on the right*.

Jeffries: We’ve forgotten about the *Freedom Rides* that black folk engaged in. A movement about BOTH civil and human rights. Want to understand civil rights? Then you have to understand EMANCIPATION.

Jeffries: By April 1867, 6000 blacks in Alabama have registered to vote. And are building schools and institutions.

Jeffries: Constant struggle, yes. But that doesn’t make their battle a movement in a formal sense.

Jeffries: We have to show our students the TRUE obstacles to equality. We have reduced the struggle against Jim Crow to SIGNAGE.

Jeffries: Jeffries: “The signs aren’t the problem. It’s the people who put the damn signs up! If it’s about signs, we take them down, now what are you Negroes complaining about?”

Jeffries: racist politicians are IN STEP with their constituents.

Jeffries: purveyors of violence NEVER HAD TO WEAR MASKS. They could do it at will, casually. Your white *neighbor* can walk up and shoot you dead. And let’s not forget police murders. Focusing on the Klan misses the larger point of violence.

Jeffries: White violence gets reduced to “crazy crackers.” Black Nationalism gets reduced to “crazy Negroes.” Black radicals CONSTANTLY referred to as CRAZY.

Jeffries: If you can dismiss people as crazy, you can dismiss their PROGRAM seriously. Can’t dismiss political thought as crazy!

Jeffries: Have to be serious about the issue of armed self-defense. Nonviolence came in SECOND to self defense. The default mode was ALWAYS self defense.


Jeffries: The Obama moment reduces the complexity of black politics down to “black anger.”

Next morning, Tim Tyson of Duke University on Oral History.

Timothy B. Tyson getting ready to drop it on Oral history. Did I mention his new book is on Emmett Till?

Tyson: First interview – I asked a man in my home town why he shot Henry Morrow, a black veteran.

Tyson: Oral sources are absolutely necessary in the study of black history. It’s a source that gets at experience.

Tyson: Most government documents are *designed* to lie to you! Newspaper source good for the date, though.

Tyson: Most folks putting in work are not writing down their exploits. That’s where OH can come in.

Tyson: Books to read Facebook folks: c”Radio Free Dixie”, “Blood Done Signed My Name.”

Tyson: “How did you manage to interview the black radical Robert Williams?” I called him on the phone.

Tyson: You HAVE to do your homework so you know the questions to ask. The questions allow their EXPERIENCE to shine through the narrative.

Tyson: People can wreck the facts, but they will always remember exactly how they Felt. And this is crucial information too.

Tyson: History is gone. You can’t bring it back. But you want the reader to have an experience, give some sense as to what happened back in the day.

Tyson: A rumor may not be factual, but it can be a FACT. It’s a piece of information you may be able to use.

Tyson: Rumors and wild tales often get us to the feeling and experience of a moment. The Charles Drew died cuz he was denied service story is false, but the EXPERIENCE of exclusion is true and REAL.

Tyson: I don’t do this to reform people. I’m here to get the story. If you have a chance to get a story from folk you don’t like, do your job.

Tyson: I always give folks a copy of the interview. Respect. And it’s fair. And just think: what would you give to have a copy of your deceased father’s interview?

Tyson: There’s a certain ruthlessness about being an historian. Your job is to get the info and make your assessment/analysis.

Tyson: Start with childhood, work your way up to what you’re really interested in. You’ll be amazed at what you learn from folks’ childhoods.

Tyson: Got an interview with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who Till allegedly whistled at in Mississippi in 1955. She gave me a copy of the trial transcript which has been missing since 1955.

Tyson: The money that black Chicago raises for the Till case by A. Philip Randolph is given to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The amount would be equal to 1.5 million on today’s dollars. Boycott folks use the money to buy a bunch of “union-made station wagons.”

The plenary luncheon, with a discussion between Kate Masur and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Ta-Nehisi and Kate in dialogue.

TNC: It’s hard to invest in the history of the civil war when it’s built on a lie and massive omissions.

KM: SO disappointed with the lack of black portrayals in movie Lincoln. Civ War historians blasted me about what I had to say. Whatever.

TNC: I had the privilege of growing up in a house where my father loves black history. Taught me that it was your responsibility to educate yourself. And that there’s a power in self-discovery.

TNC: It’s frustrating to see these ahistorical convos about American history. Like Detroit doesn’t exist until the riots of the 1960s.

TNC: Has America really recognized the depths of white supremacy, plunder and pillage? We need a NEW definition of what America is. The current narrative is so very disruptive. Can we accept a new one? Can we accept that the first president to be assassinated was killed for white supremacy?

TNC: One of the great lessons of democracy is that the masses of people can and frequently do come together for the oppression of other groups.

KM: White immigrants framework doesn’t work for black folks. Their experience is intertwined with the history of white supremacy. Apples and oranges.

TNC: Black folks who aspire to freedom have always been met with violence.

TNC: Jordan Davis was murdered for being an American teenager.

TNC: The difference between emancipation and freedom.

KM: We butcher the term freedom as we overuse it. Equality is a matter of public policy.

And then the finish.

How do you cap off a killer conference? With an intimate concert by Bobby Rush at the Audubon House (The first house Elvis bought for his parents). That’s how.

Copyright Charles McKinney 2014
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