Reactions to Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Detroithave beenpolarized, and the considerable backlash may have caused its opening weekend box office to suffer.Bigelow’s films are known for their tightly-choreographed combat scenes and their fictionalization of brutal historical events. In Detroit, Bigelow takes on the story of the Algiers Motel incident, where three young black men—Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard—were tortured and killed by police officers in the motel’s annex. In the early morning hours of July 26, 1967, a few days into the unrest that would eventually become known as the Detroit rebellion, the three young men, along with many others, took refuge at the motel amid a city-wide curfew. Police forces received reports of sniper fire and raided the Algiers, finding a group of black men socializing with white women. There were interrogations, humiliations, assaults, and eventually murder. No gun was ever found on the grounds of the Algiers, and the police involved were found not guilty on all charges associated with the incident.
Conversation about the film has touched on questions about who has the authority to tell what stories. Bigelow is a white woman from the West Coast who said she knew herself not to be the “ideal person” to make the movie. But she and former journalist Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter, worked with black academics, historians, and eyewitnesses to ensure a certain level of accuracy in the story. Jelani Cobb, a historian and staff writer at TheNew Yorker, Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard were among those reportedly consulted.
When you think of zombies, it’s likely you envision something like the flesh-eating, immortal creatures created by George Romero, who defined a new genre of horror with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Thanks to Romero, who died this week at the age of 77, the zombie movie has become more than a chance to feel scared. It’s also an essential lens through which we can view pop culture, politics, and society. In honor of the great director, here is some our favorite writing about the terror of the living dead.
One of Romero’s most famous narrative coups was casting a black actor as the hero of his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. It was a decision that turned a run-of-the-mill horror movie into a complex commentary on the civil rights movement, and imbued other zombie films with the ability to criticize society.
The thing about good zombie fiction (and I say this as someone who enjoys an awful lot of zombie fiction) is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don‘t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don‘t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”
The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.
Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a coveted all-expenses-paid trip to the capital, an expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and a $1,000 cash prize. For local and national civil rights activists, keeping black children from the spoils of spelling fame was an extension of Jim Crow educational policies that should have ended, in theory, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
While the Warren Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” would no longer be the law of the land, there were still “Negro” schools and white schools educating children across the South less than a decade later. A patchwork of local responses met the desegregation orders that followed the Supreme Court ruling, including deliberate foot-dragging, some real confusion about how to undo what years of white supremacy had wrought in the nation’s schools, and full-throated defiance to educational equity.
Did you know that after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Memphis Fire Department sent his widow, Coretta Scott King, a bill for transporting him to the hospital? At Lenny, resident historian Alexis Coe talks with Wayne Dowdy, manager of the history department in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, Tennessee, on how racist tension and discrimination created the environment in which King was assassinated and how Coretta Scott King’s “courage, dignity, and poise” in the face of horrific tragedy fueled the civil rights movement.
Alexis Coe: Coretta Scott King returned to the city where her husband had been assassinated three days after claiming his body. This was truly extraordinary. On a national level, she’s demonstrating that the civil-rights movement would not be deterred by the death of its leader. If she could, in the most nascent days of her widowhood, with small children at home mourning the loss of their father, show up to fight, so should everyone else. And on a local level, she’s telling Memphis, and Mayor Loeb, this needs to end. Now. How closely was the country watching her and, by extension, Loeb?
Wayne Dowdy: The courage, dignity, and poise shown by Mrs. King impressed many Americans and certainly influenced the many white Memphians who pressured Loeb to settle the strike. In addition, Mrs. King’s two visits must have influenced the conduct of the majority of Memphians who, unlike those in other urban centers, stayed true to Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence.
No respect for pencil pushers? Get over it. America’s army of bureaucrats, who number over 750,000 in federal agencies alone, may now be the bulwark between totalitarian plutocracy and constitutional democracy. Imagine if civil servants, from secretaries to social workers to scientists—to police—refused to cooperate? Call it the Bartleby Strategy. Its rallying cry: “I would prefer not to.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was many things — a radical, a moderate, a peacekeeper, a hellraiser, a father, a husband, a crusader against the evils of capitalism, a proponent of love and also revolution. He was a man known to be deeply sensitive, sometimes misogynist, often depressed, blisteringly funny. He was all of these things and more. And like so many brothers and sisters before and since, his beautiful and rich mahogany tones have been flattened to the matte black of the history books that paint him as the friend of well-meaning whites and the moral opposition of angry blacks. And like King, we as black people are so much more than white supremacy would have us believe.
In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:
In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.
From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.
Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.
In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.
Gospel music legend and pioneer Mahalia Jackson is often associated with Chicago, where she moved as a teenager and rose to prominence, but her roots are in New Orleans. It’s there that the “Queen of Gospel” was born, and raised in a “shotgun shack of a New Orleans house,” a three-room dwelling that housed thirteen people and a dog. Her Crescent City childhood also helped shape Jackson’s political consciousness. Below is a short excerpt from “On Conjuring Mahalia: Mahalia Jackson, New Orleans, and the Sanctified Swing,” an article by Johari Jabir that appeared in American Quarterly in September 2009 (registration required):
Mahalia Jackson’s political activism during the civil rights movement was directly informed by her observance of the racism of the pleasure industry associated with New Orleans:
I never did like the world-famous Mardi Gras that went on in New Orleans. It was a beautiful sight, but to me it was horrible. I have seen so many people hurt on that particular day . . . The white people would celebrate their Mardi Gras with big and expensive floats that went down the main part of Canal Street, which were very beautiful and high class . . . But for my people, for them it would be such a tragedy. If one of the tribes demanded that another “take low,” you know, bow to them, they’d kill each other and nobody was punished! The State, the law never did anything about the killings.
Note: the indented section above is from Jules Schwerin’s book Got to Tell It, as quoted by Jabir in his essay.
King sat down for a series of interviews with the author Alex Haley shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. They were edited and compiled into one interview that ran in the magazine the next year, which—according to The Daily Beast—was the longest interview King ever gave any publication. Read more…