June 7, 1917 – Birth of Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Black Poet, Author, and Teacher

Gwendolyn Brooks, born on this day in 1917, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — the first black woman to hold that position — and selected to succeed Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois. Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honors, including becoming the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


At age 13, she published her first poem in a children’s magazine, and by the time she was 16, she had published some 75 poems. She started going to poetry workshops, and in 1943 received her first award for her work.

Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 to wide acclaim. It was her second book, Annie Allen (1950), that won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Brooks’s work became more political as she got older, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.”

She wrote in 1972:

“There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.”

You can see a difference in tone between the following two poems, the first published in 1959, and the second in 1980:

We Real Cool (1959)


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Primer For Blacks (1980)

is a title,
is a preoccupation,
is a commitment Blacks
are to comprehend—
and in which you are
to perceive your Glory.

The conscious shout
of all that is white is
“It’s Great to be white.”
The conscious shout
of the slack in Black is
“It’s Great to be white.”
Thus all that is white
has white strength and yours.

The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.
And remember, you Blacks, what they told you—
remember your Education:
“one Drop—one Drop
maketh a brand new Black.”
         Oh mighty Drop.
______And because they have given us kindly
so many more of our people

stretches over the land.
the Black of it,
the rust-red of it,
the milk and cream of it,
the tan and yellow-tan of it,
the deep-brown middle-brown high-brown of it,
the “olive” and ochre of it—
marches on.

The huge, the pungent object of our prime out-ride
is to Comprehend,
to salute and to Love the fact that we are Black,
which is our “ultimate Reality,”
which is the lone ground
from which our meaningful metamorphosis,
from which our prosperous staccato,
group or individual, can rise.

Self-shriveled Blacks.
Begin with gaunt and marvelous concession:
YOU are our costume and our fundamental bone.
All of you—
you COLORED ones,
you NEGRO ones,
those of you who proudly cry
“I’m half INDian”—
those of you who proudly screech
“I’VE got the blood of George WASHington in MY veins”
ALL of you—
you proper Blacks,
you half-Blacks,
you wish-I-weren’t Blacks,
Niggeroes and Niggerenes.


Brooks died of cancer at the age of 83 in 2000.


May 28, 1863 – African-American Regiment 54th Massachusetts Infantry Leaves Boston to Fight the Civil War in South Carolina

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be organized in the North during the Civil War. According to an online Massachusetts history site:

Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.”

Colonel Robert Shaw, born into a prominent Boston abolitionist family, was selected as the head of the infantry and organized the group made of freed or escaped slaves.

On this day in history, after the presentation of the unit’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, the regiment then departed Boston on a transport ship for the coast of South Carolina.

The infantry were only paid $10 a week while white soldiers received $13 a week. At Colonel Shaw’s urging, they protested the disparity but were not paid equal wages until towards the end of the war.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

The African-American soldiers lost an assault at Fort Wagner (located on Morris Island in the Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) in July 1863, where Shaw was killed. As battlefields.org reports:

When the Federal forces were within 150 yards of the fort, Taliaferro [leader of the Confederate forces] instructed his soldiers to fire. As he crested the flaming parapet, Shaw waved his sword, shouted ‘Forward, 54th!’ and then pitched headlong into the sand with three fatal wounds.”

Although Union forces were not able to take and hold the fort at that time, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle. This helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory.

Leadership of the 54th was taken over after Shaw’s death by the Quaker abolitionist Edward Needles Hallowell. Hallowell’s brother Norwood, who originally served as Shaw’s second in the 54th, took command of the 55th Massachusetts, another all-black regiment.

The 54th and Hallowell continued to serve with distinction during the war.

May 24, 1833 – Connecticut Legislature Passes the “Black Law” banning out-of-state African Americans from receiving education unless locals approved

Although Northern states abolished slavery, this did not mean they were free of racial prejudice.

In 1831 Prudence Crandall, a well-educated Quaker, opened an academy for girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. The following year she admitted a local black girl, the daughter of a free African-American farmer who lived in the area. White parents protested and withdrew their daughters. Crandall had to close the school, but with abolitionist backing, reopened it as an academy for black girls.

As the New England Historical Society reports, she recruited students with a March 2, 1833 ad in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper “The Liberator ,” calling her school “Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.” By April 1, 20 African-American girls from Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia and Connecticut arrived at the school.

Prudence Crandall
– Prudence Crandall Museum Collections, Department of Ec. & Community Devt., State of Connecticut

Angry townspeople ostracized Crandall and her students, refusing them admission to their shops as well as access to transportation and medical treatment. They held meetings to figure out how to shut the school down. The Historical Society notes “They also poisoned the school’s well with animal feces and tried to prevent her from getting water elsewhere.”

The Yale University Press blog recounts:

The next year Connecticut enacted a statute allowing local authorities to veto enrollment of out-of-state persons of color. This 1833 ‘Black Law’ came after Wesleyan University had, at the insistence of white students, expelled its only black student, and two years after New Haven barred a college for men of color.”

Richard D. Brown, author of the post, poses the question: “Why was educating a handful of African Americans so objectionable to white people in a state where blacks, at less than 3% of the population, posed no economic or political threat to whites?”

His analysis is instructive:

The answer is negrophobia, racism. The origins of white prejudice were several hundred years old and connected with the non-Christian, ‘savage’ origins of captured sub-Saharan Africans. After the Portuguese and Spanish developed the slave trade, the English and French followed. Anglo-American slavery would embed negrophobia in the minds of North American whites.”

And in fact, the degradation of blacks played a number of self-serving and indeed “necessary” roles for white Americans. It deflected attention from inequalities of class – non-wealthy and/or unsuccessful whites were at least always superior to people of color. It also helped eliminate any guilt over the practice of slavery so necessary to the young country’s economy – if one believed that superior character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness, one could justify the practice. Of course, allowing blacks to be educated and to achieve could give lie to the myth, so it had to be opposed vigorously.

As for Prudence Crandall, she tried to ignore the Black Law and keep her school going. She was arrested and jailed for one night, and fought legal challenges to her school with the help of wealthy abolitionist Arthur Tappan. The controversy became national news.

On July 22, 1834 she won a court ruling. The townspeople of Canterbury responded by breaking windows. Then on Sept. 9, 1834 a mob attacked the house and tried to burn it down. Crandall closed the school the next day.

That summer, Crandall married the Reverend Calvin Phileo and moved with him out of state. She died in 1890 at the age of 86. Prudence Crandall was named Connecticut’s State Heroine in 1995 for her efforts to establish the first school for African American women in New England.

You can read the full text of the 1833 Black Law here.

May 6, 1905 – First Issue of the Chicago Defender, which became America’s Most Influential Black Weekly Newspaper

The Chicago Defender is a Chicago-based African-American newspaper (and now online) founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, an American lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor. The Chicago Defender grew to have the highest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the country.

PBS describes how Abbott began his journalistic enterprise with an initial investment of 25 cents, a press run of 300 copies, and worked out of a small kitchen in his landlord’s apartment. The first issues of The Defender were just four-pages, and were filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers.

Portrait of Robert Sengstacke Abbott
The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke via Getty Images

In 1910 Abbott hired his first full-time paid employee, and with his help The Defender began to attract a national audience and to address issues of national scope. The newspaper reported on and campaigned against Jim Crow era violence and urged black people in the American South to move north in what became the Great Migration. Sensationalistic headlines, graphic images, and red ink were utilized to capture the reader’s attention and convey the horrors of lynchings, rapes, assaults, and other atrocities affecting black Americans. The paper’s slogan was “American race prejudice must be destroyed.”

The Chicago Defender, the iconic black newspaper founded by Robert S. Abbott (right), will now be published online only. Photograph by Gordon Coster / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

A key part of his distribution network was made up of African-American railroad porters, who were highly respected among blacks. They often sold or distributed the paper on trains. Defender circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. As The Defender became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, it became known as “America’s Black Newspaper.” Its success resulted in Abbott becoming one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent; his business expanded as African Americans moved to the cities and became an urbanized, northern population. From the early 20th century through 1940, 1.5 million blacks moved to major cities in the North and Midwest.

Brent Staples of The New York Times, reviewing Ethan Michaeli’s history of The Defender, reports:

The Defender had already achieved national reach by the late teens and was far and away the most important publication in the colored press. Abbott was leading the way toward an indictment of military segregation, but came under federal pressure when the head of the Military Intelligence Bureau named The Defender ‘the most dangerous of all Negro journals.’”

In 1940, Abbott died and his nephew John H. Sengstacke succeeded him. Sengstacke convinced the most powerful black papers that they could better advance their goals by speaking as one voice through an organization of his devising — the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association. He served as its first president.

A newsboy selling the Chicago Defender, April 1942.
Jack Delano/Library Of Congress via Getty Images

The book review in the Times relates a great story:

Things stood thus in 1942, when Sengstacke traveled to Washington to meet with Attorney General Francis Biddle. . . . Biddle said that the black papers were flirting with sedition and threatened to ‘shut them all up.’ Sengstacke responded that the papers were within their rights and that because they had urged African-Americans to support the war, they had an obligation to tell those readers about federal policies that showed contempt for them. He then added: ‘You have the power to close us down. So if you want to close us, go ahead and attempt it.’

Biddle was stunned. He must have seen that shutting down the papers would entail a public fight and perhaps even riots in the streets. His tone changed from hostile to solicitous when Sengstacke complained about being unable to reach federal officials with reporting questions. Doors that had been closed began to open. In 1944, Roosevelt, who had kept his distance since taking office, invited the Negro press barons to the White House and turned on that thousand-watt smile. Three days afterward, the first Negro press reporter started work in the White House press corps.”

May 3, 1898 – Birth of Septima Clark, Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Called “The Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement”

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on this day in history in Charleston, South Carolina. She faced racial and financial obstacles both in obtaining an education for herself and later, for teaching children when she was adult. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina public schools, but was able to find a position teaching in a rural school district, on John’s Island, the largest of the Sea Islands. During this time, she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night. She developed innovative methods for teaching adults to read and write, based on everyday materials like the Sears catalog.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Clark also furthered her own education during summer breaks. In 1937 Clark studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University before eventually earning her BA (1942) from Benedict College in Columbia, and her MA (1946) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute.

Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute reports Clark participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP. 

By this time, however, Clark was conducting civil rights workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice. Believing that literacy and political empowerment are inextricably linked, Clark taught people basic literacy skills, their rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and how to fill out voter registration forms. Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott.

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott.

When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops. According to the Stanford Institute MLKJr. site:

Clark became SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction” of the CEP, which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department” (King, 11 August 1965). Although Clark found that most men at SCLC “didn’t respect women too much,” she thought that King “really felt that black women had a place in the movement” (Clark, 25 July 1976; McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 93).”


She became known as the “Queen mother” or “Grandmother” of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. commonly referred to Clark as “The Mother of the Movement”. Clark’s argument for her position in the Civil Rights Movement was one that claimed “knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama

In 1978, Clark was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the College of Charleston.[20] U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. In 1987, her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Wild Trees Press, 1986) won the American Book Award.

Clark died December 15, 1987. In a eulogy presented at the funeral, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) described the importance of Clark’s work and her relationship to the SCLC. Reverend Joseph Lowery asserted that “her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation” won her SCLC’s highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award.

April 7, 1915 – Birth Date of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, opens with the line:

“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.”

Billie was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of Clarence Holiday, a musician, and Sadie Fagan. Her father left soon after her birth and Sadie and Eleanora moved to Baltimore. Sadie worked long hours, and wasn’t home much. Billie was raped by the time she was ten (for which she was sent to a house of truancy). At age 12, she was working alongside her mother in prostitution. By age 14, she determined she could have a better life, and began to sing. She changed her name to Billie after the movie star Billie Dove, and used her father’s last name.

In 1933 the young producer and aspiring impresario John Hammond heard her sing in Harlem and convinced Benny Goodman to make a record with her. She was eighteen years old.


In the mid-1930s Louis Armstrong’s manager took on Holiday as a client, and she started to get more work and greater exposure. Before long, she joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Life on the road was not easy for Holiday however, as she was unused to the racism of the Jim Crow South. At one point she was encouraged by club owners to wear dark makeup so that Southern white audiences would not think she was a white woman singing with black musicians. By 1938 Holiday was no longer singing with the Basie Orchestra; she said she left because she was not paid enough.


When the white bandleader Artie Shaw heard that Holiday had left Basie, he offered her a job. She became one of the first black artists to join an all-white band. She traveled with Shaw throughout the country, but again, the constant racial insults on the road were too hard for her to endure.

Although Holiday was a star by 1939, her personal life was not as successful. She had brief affairs with Goodman and Shaw, with Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green, and with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Perhaps the most important male relationship she enjoyed during these years, though, was her platonic friendship with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The two became close both during and after their days together in Basie’s band. Young was Holiday’s musical soul mate. He was renowned for his lyrical improvisations, and together the two achieved a rare musical intimacy. Young gave Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day, and she dubbed him Prez, the president of the tenor saxophone, a nickname that also stuck.

The second stage of Holiday’s career began in 1939 with her appearances at a Greenwich Village hangout frequented by an interracial audience of intellectuals, bohemians, and jazz fans. It was here that she first sang “Strange Fruit.” Written and set to music by Lewis Allen, the song was a stark, metaphorical portrayal of southern lynchings of blacks, sung by Holiday at a dramatic, funereal tempo. Many critics consider her rendition of “Strange Fruit” (1939) to be one of the most powerful, understated commentaries on prejudice committed to music.

Billie Holiday in 1943

Billie Holiday in 1943

Holiday had smoked marijuana regularly since her teenage years, and she now began to use harder drugs. In the spring of 1947 she entered a clinic to kick her heroin habit, but federal agents arrested her on narcotics charges soon thereafter. She spent almost a year in a federal reformatory, and she was back on heroin shortly after her release.


When not taking heroin, her drinking became heavier, and her voice steadily deteriorated. She gave her last performance on 25 May 1959 at the Phoenix Theater in New York City.

Holiday collapsed on Memorial Day 1959 and fell into a coma, ravaged by liver problems and cardiac failure. She died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Holiday had a small voice with a range of only about an octave, but she could transform a song, inflecting words and pitches to give them her own meaning and emotional content. She was a minimalist, singing only the notes that counted and infusing songs with new and deeper meanings. She had a relaxed sense of swing; she stretched rhythms and sang around, behind, and ahead of the beat. She considered herself a musician collaborating with other musicians, and she phrased and improvised like a horn player.

You can see her sing “Strange Fruit” in this video:

April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight to Bring His Killer to Justice

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

April 3, 1968 – The Last Speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”


With these words, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. built a crescendo to his final speech on April 3, 1968. The next day, the civil rights leader was shot and killed on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Read the entire certified text of his last speech here.

March 26, 1981 – Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne Moves into Public Housing & Review of “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing” by Ben Austen

On March 26, 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne decided to move into the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green Homes housing project on the near-north side of Chicago after 37 shootings resulting in 11 murders occurred during a three-month period from January to March 1981. She wanted to draw attention to the violence and poverty there, writing in her 2004 memoir:

How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map? … Suddenly I knew — I could move in there.”

Byrne stayed at the housing project for three weeks to bring attention to the housing project’s crime and infrastructure problems. Byrne’s stay at Cabrini ended on April 18, 1981, following an Easter celebration at the project which drew protests and demonstrators claiming Byrne’s move to the project was just a publicity stunt.

Byrne touches hands with youngsters outside her building, three days into her stay. Photo: Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune

What was Cabrini-Green and why was it such a disaster?

Ben Austen’s book, High-Risers, tells the story of public housing in America in general and in Chicago in particular through the history of one infamous project (Cabrini-Green) and four individuals who lived there. The book resonated with me because of my personal history. I lived in a Chicago housing project (not Cabrini-Green) for five years; I drove a bus as a summer job, and my principal route took me through the largest of Chicago’s projects; and after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, I was second chair as a lawyer defending the Chicago Housing Authority (the “CHA”) in the notorious Gautreaux case, which ruled on February 10, 1969 that the CHA had systematically discriminated against blacks in its choice of sites for constructing projects.

The Chicago Housing Authority was formed in 1937 to alleviate a perceived housing crisis. Chicago was in the throes of coping with the “Great Migration” of rural black families from the south to northern cities in search of work. The goal of the CHA was to eradicate the deplorable slum buildings and replace them with decent, affordable, rent-subsidized housing for the needy. Modest progress in that direction was made with the construction a few small projects before the outbreak of World War II. But the crowded neighborhoods into which these families were forced to live (because of segregated housing practices) deteriorated rapidly and became slums. Money was not spent on upkeep, with leaks, cracked walls, and broken doors going unfixed.

The end of World War II created another dimension to the problems with housing. An acute shortage developed as 11 million men were mustered out of the military and started having families. The Baby Boom of the late 40’s and early 50’s resulted in a population expansion that simply overwhelmed the existing housing stock. Few, if any, cities experienced the obstacles and difficulties produced by the combination of the Great Migration and the Baby Boom in as great a degree as Chicago. Whites and blacks were competing for housing which exacerbated racial tensions. “White neighborhoods established racial covenants,” Austen writes, “bylaws that barred homeowners from selling to African Americans. At one point, 85 percent of Chicago was covered under these restrictions.”

A tenement on South Indiana Avenue, the type of housing for half of the city’s black children. From Chicago’s South Side. 1946-1948.© Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos.

The story of public housing in Chicago, and to a lesser extent in the country as a whole, is in fact a story of race relations. In High-Risers, author Ben Austen states that from 1945 to 1950, there were 500 recorded outbreaks of racial violence in Chicago, and 350 of them involved housing. The CHA attempted to alleviate the situation by providing decent housing, but was greatly constrained by the attitudes of the people and the government of Chicago.

The concept that some people (in particular, black people) would receive subsidized rent and desirable housing simply because they were poor was not popular with middle class white America, and it was almost universally despised by lower-middle class whites on the south side of Chicago. Whites had little appreciation of the effects of generations of white privilege (indeed, this is still largely the case), and saw this as nothing but “mooching” at their expense. Knowing the bad feelings that attractive public housing might engender, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio made certain that federal money would not be spent to beautify public housing projects. Chicago’s largest project, the Robert Taylor homes, was positively ugly. No money was spent on landscaping; instead, the perimeters were just paved over. There were “no flowers, no trees, no nothing. Everything became blacktop.” Cabrini-Green was not as bad, at least not initially, but after years of neglect and mismanagement it became an eyesore. As a result, few, if any, white families desired to move into Chicago’s projects.

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio

Selecting sites for projects proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of operating the CHA. Chicago was – and still is – one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Austen writes that the authorizing legislation required the approval of a site by the City Council before construction could begin. Depositions taken in the Gautreaux case revealed that the Council had established an informal working procedure whereby the Council as a whole would defer to the wishes of the alderman in whose ward a potential site was located. In effect, this procedure gave white aldermen effective veto power over the location of projects in predominantly white wards. This in turn meant that projects could be constructed only in predominantly black wards or unpopulated neighborhoods. One sub rosa argument used by the CHA to justify its site locations to the white population was that the projects’ black residents would move “there” instead of “near you.”

Returning from WWII meant the realization of the American Dream for some, but for most African American G.I.s it meant the continuation of segregation.

An invidious consequence of greatly restricting the number and area of potential sites was that the CHA had to build high rise structures if it was to meet the enormous demand for subsidized housing. In the words of a CHA executive:

We no longer had power to select where the projects were going to go, and we had very little space to work with, so we had to go to the high-rises.”

Thus, most of the housing units constructed by the CHA were contained in towers of 14 or more stories, located close to one another. In all, the CHA constructed 33 projects containing 168 high rise buildings. All the projects but one were located in predominantly black neighborhoods.

There were also projects for poor whites, and one had an interesting history, particularly to me, since I lived there from ages 3 to 8. It was a CHA project of temporary housing for [white] WWII veterans called Airport Homes near Midway Airport. Before the CHA could assign tenants to the building, the office where the keys to the buildings were kept was broken into by some veterans looking for housing. The burglars distributed the keys to their friends, who were able to move in as “squatters.” My father was one of those friends.

My earliest memory was being awakened in the middle of the night at my grandmother’s house where we were living at the time with her and several of my father’s siblings. My father said that we had a place to live! We moved with some furniture that night. The CHA initiated eviction procedures against the squatters. Some recent law school graduates volunteered to represent us squatters for a small fee, and we and the other squatters lived there for five years before being evicted. That project was razed, and is now a park.

In the early days after the war, the CHA made an effort to “qualify” good families for the projects. Two- parent families with at least one employed parent were given priority. The CHA even attempted to move a highly qualified black family into the project in which I lived. Austen describes the black family as “Jackie Robinson-like” in their presumably acceptable (to whites) traits. But that wasn’t good enough for the white residents of the project itself or for its neighbors. Not very peaceful demonstrations materialized almost immediately after that family moved in. I remember having to walk through a cordon of (white) police officers to go to and from kindergarten.

Trumbull Park Homes, located in a white neighborhood, was also supposed to be “whites only.” However, as the Encyclopedia of Chicago reports, the project was “accidentally” integrated on July 30, 1953, because the CHA assumed that Betty Howard, an exceptionally fair-skinned African American, was white. Beginning on August 5 and continuing nightly for weeks thereafter, crowds of whites directed fireworks, rocks, and racial epithets toward Betty and Donald Howard’s apartment. Police responded with a show of force but few arrests.

During the height of the 1953 Trumbull Park riots, roughly 1,000 uniformed officers in four shifts patrolled the area.

The CHA abandoned the attempt to integrate the projects after a short time.

Austen focuses his story on the notorious Cabrini-Green project. One aspect of Cabrini-Green that made it stand out from other projects was its proximity to the Loop, Chicago’s shopping and business center, and the “Gold Coast,” Chicago’s most expensive residential neighborhood. As you can imagine, the whites didn’t put up with that “waste” of lucrative real estate for long.

Austen is quite sympathetic to the people who lived in the projects. His sketches of four long-term project residents shows that they tried hard to maintain their neighborhood in the face of white animosity, CHA incompetence, and black gang activity. Nevertheless, reading between the lines, the reader can infer that even if they had been white, his subjects’ socioeconomic status made them less than desirable neighbors, particularly to Gold Coast residents.

Two miles of 16-story towers, including the Robert Taylor homes in the foreground, stretch toward the Chicago skyline in 1996. They have since been torn down. (NPR). My bus route ran up and down the left side (from the perspective of this picture) of the projects

Despite the efforts of tenants like those featured in the book, the physical condition of the projects (particularly the high-rises) deteriorated rather rapidly. As mentioned above, money for maintenance was a low priority. By 1965 when I drove a city bus on routes through the projects, broken windows, poor lighting, and abundant graffiti were evident to anyone driving by. In addition, Austen notes that the CHA was particularly inefficient when it came to repairing elevators, in spite of the buildings being high-rises. The stairwells were murky, with lightbulbs not replaced once they burned out. Austen quotes architect and city planner Oscar Newman who said at the time: “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

Moreover, Chicago’s black gangs eventually took over most if not all of the buildings. My law school classmates who took Chicago police “ride-alongs” said the police officers told them that “the law stopped at the sixth floor,” which was as high up in a building they could get in response to a complaint before the perpetrators would be warned of their presence in time to escape. In addition, the apartments were so cheaply constructed that criminals could just push through a bathroom vanity in adjacent apartments to get into the one next to it.

Cabrini-Green at night

In the aftermath of the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the black neighborhoods of Chicago erupted in violence. An enormous number of (non-project) houses and apartments in predominantly black areas were destroyed in the rioting. The people left homeless by the rioting had no option but public housing, which put a tremendous stress on the already limited resources of the CHA. Many of those people, who would not otherwise have qualified for public housing because of prior criminal convictions or lack of employment, were assigned to the projects. The deterioration of the projects accelerated thereafter.

Burning Buildings on Chicago’s West Side, April 5, 1968

There were other difficulties as well. Over 60 percent of the families in public housing had only one parent at home. Th author writes: “Women on welfare were in many ways discouraged from marrying or officially sharing a residence with the father of their children, since the presence of a man could leave them ineligible for benefits.” Thus the median income of CHA residents was low and many kids spent days and nights unsupervised while their mothers worked, often at more than one job. Kids had no places to play besides the blacktop, unless they could get to churches or youth centers. Area schools were grossly deficient. Other amenities were scarce as well: for instance, grocery stores were literally miles away, and no one could afford cars.

Children in the Ida B Wells Projects play in the rubble, 1973

The Cabrini project became nationally notorious when two white officers were shot by snipers ensconced well above the sixth floor in one of the towers. The police response was swift and brutal, but it alienated most of the black residents of the project. The project received even more notoriety when then Mayor Jayne Byrne moved into one of the units, on this day in history, to publicize the conditions faced by the residents.

Aerial View of Cabrini Green 1981

Despite efforts of the residents and the CHA to renovate Cabrini, there was really no hope of maintaining a public housing project on the Cabrini site. Chicago was in the process of urban gentrification that expanded inexorably from the Loop. Older housing near Cabrini was either being renovated or razed and replaced with new, high standard housing. The second Mayor Daley wanted to convert the Cabrini site to an up-scale neighborhood. Would-be gentrifiers did not see displaced families; they only saw dollar signs. [A four bedroom apartment with a lake view in that neighborhood (now that the projects are gone) would cost at least $1.5 million today.] The response of the CHA was to let the Cabrini project slowly disappear through attrition: as any family moved out, it was not replaced. Gradually, every tower became vacant or nearly so. Once a building was reduced to just a few residents, the CHA moved them and razed the building. The residents of the projects had no choice as to when and where they would be relocated. By the end of 2002, forty-two out of fifty-one high-rise public housing towers were demolished, and some 25,000 households were evicted in the process.

Robert Taylor Projects Demolition

The end of the Cabrini-Green project marked the end of an era. The utilization of high-rise buildings to house under-employed black residents was deemed by most observers to be a failure, one which was blamed on the residents themselves.

The most invidious consequence of building subsidized high-rises was to institutionalize segregated neighborhoods. In the Gautreaux case, even though the court found that the CHA had unlawfully discriminated against blacks in the choice of sites for projects, the court was severely challenged to find an appropriate remedy. Its initial order prohibited the CHA from constructing future projects in predominantly black census tracts. (The use of census tracts as a measure or definition of neighborhood was my idea.) But an unintended consequence of that order was that the CHA simply stopped building any new housing. Instead, the CHA merely subsidized qualified families to move into existing housing. This procedure at least opened the possibility of fostering racially integrated housing. Future public housing in the rest of the country took the form of low density, low-rise buildings and supplemental rental payments to allow poor families to move into units they could not otherwise afford. But of course, wherever the poor moved into, the better off moved out of, and segregation once again prevailed.

While Austen’s High-risers personalizes the story outlined above by giving details of four real people who lived in Cabrini-Green, I found I was less interested in their personal stories than I was in the history of public housing in Chicago. I have deliberately short-changed the stories of the individuals in order to give my personal view of that history. In that regard, I apologize to the author, who has written a moving and compelling book.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

February 10, 1881 – Tuskegee Institute Established as a “Normal School for the Education of Colored Teachers”

Tuskegee University is a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was founded on July 4, 1881, as the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers.

The agreement to establish the school was made by a former Confederate Colonel, W.F. Foster, who was a candidate for re-election to the Alabama Senate, and Lewis Adams, a former slave and now a local black leader in the community. Foster asked Adams what he wanted in exchange for securing the black vote for him, and Adams said he wanted an educational institution for his people. As the Tuskegee University website reports, when Foster won the election he carried out his promise. With the assistance of his colleague in the House of Representatives, Arthur L. Brooks, legislation was passed for the establishment of a “Negro Normal School in Tuskegee.”

Lewis Adams

A $2,000 appropriation for teachers’ salaries was authorized by the legislation. There was no land, no buildings, and no teachers, but there was now legislation authorizing the school. A board of commissioners to get the school organized requested recommendations for teachers from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school opened in 1868 “to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people first by example.”

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856 near Hale’s Ford, Virginia on a tobacco plantation. He was born into slavery to Jane, an enslaved black woman impregnated by a white man. He, his siblings, and mother gained freedom after the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

In 1872 at the age of sixteen, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. From 1878 to 1879 he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and returned to teach at Hampton. It was Booker T. Washington that Hampton president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended to become the first principal at Tuskegee Institute. Such positions heading schools, even black schools, had traditionally been held by whites. Booker T. Washington was 25 years old.

The new school opened on July 4, 1881, initially using space rented from a local church. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; growing their own crops and raising livestock, and providing for most of their own basic necessities. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to the mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The school later grew to become the present-day Tuskegee University.


Tuskegee provided an academic education and instruction for teachers, but placed emphasis on providing black males with practical skills, such as carpentry and masonry, which many would need for the rural lives most blacks led in the South. The Institute illustrated Washington’s philosophy about his race. His theory was that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would gain acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens. Washington was head of the school until his death at age 59 in 1915.

A history class at the Tuskegee Institute in 1902, via Library of Congress

Tuskegee rose to national prominence under the leadership of its founder, Dr. Washington. During his tenure, institutional independence was gained in 1892, again through legislation, when Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was granted authority to act independent of the state of Alabama.

Today, the university states as its mission not only providing a solid foundation in the liberal arts.:

In addition, the University’s programs focus on nurturing the development of high-order intellectual and moral qualities among students and stress the connection between education and the highly trained leadership Americans need in general, especially for the work force of the 21st Century and beyond.  The results we seek are students whose technical, scientific, and professional prowess has been not only rigorously honed, but also sensitively oriented in ways that produce public-spirited graduates who are both competent and morally committed to public service with integrity and excellence.”