Tag Archives: human rights

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties
–by Jinny Batterson

When, about a decade ago, I entered semi-retirement and moved from Richmond, Virginia to central North Carolina, I vowed to do better than in my preceding move (from rural Vermont to urban Virginia) at initially learning about my new locale. The Old North State might not be all that different from the Old Dominion, but I decided to make a more proactive effort to learn about it. It seems to me that our loosely-rooted culture loses something by our tenuous connections to various places we never quite call “home.”  What had made North Carolina the way it was, I wondered?  What might it become in the future? In a larger context, what was the gist of this mysterious, often self-contradictory region called “the South” where I’d lived most of my adult life? 

Works I found helpful early on were Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, and William S. Powell’s North Carolina: A History. More recently, as an acknowledged import, I was pleased to find a copy of Hal Crowther’s 2018 collection Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners. During the 1990’s, I’d read some of Crowther’s hard-hitting editorial commentary in Richmond’s alternative weekly. He currently lambasts our foibles and praises our better angels from a home base in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Freedom Fighters adapts and expands on earlier sketches to profile 19 movers and shakers of Southern culture, starting with Texas journalist/writer Molly Ivins and finishing with North Carolina blind guitarist Doc Watson. Most of those profiled were born during the first half of the twentieth century and lived into the first decade of the twenty-first. Some were born outside the South but concentrated their activities in the region, others were raised southern and later moved elsewhere. Given the time span of Crowther’s profiles, it’s not surprising that the majority were white men. At least seven of the freedom fighters and/or hell raisers spent their most active years in North Carolina.

Among the journalists, musicians, artists, politicians and activists that Crowther spirits off the page and into our consciousness are two former Crowther acquaintances from his undergraduate days at Williams College, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts that was all male when he attended in the 1960’s. Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah-bred member of the class of 1967, became an expert on painting and sculpture and was for over a decade chief curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. James R. “Jesse” Winchester, Jr., bred in northern Mississippi and member of the class of 1966, spent most of his adult life in Canada after leaving the U.S. rather than participate in the military during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Granted amnesty in 1977, he eventually moved back to the U.S. south in 2002. Though he never became as famous as some song-writing contemporaries, his songs have been covered by artists including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris.

Just after the entry for Jesse Winchester was a paean to one of the four women profiled—Anne McCarty Braden, someone I had read briefly about in a decades-old alumnae magazine from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now co-educational Randolph College). Anne was profiled at length in the 2003 biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=1592#.XGxXpJNKhdg). An English major in the class of 1945, Anne later became a civil rights activist of long standing in Louisville, Kentucky. In the spring of 1954, Anne and her husband Carl purchased a house in a Louisville suburb as stand-ins for a black family who would not have been considered as buyers in the heavily segregated housing market of the times. For their efforts, the Bradens received death threats. Carl was tried for “sedition” and spent months in jail before his conviction was overturned. For most of her adult life, this “embarrassing woman” was vilified and/or ignored by the establishment of her time and place. After Carl’s death when Anne was 50, she continued for three more decades tirelessly advocating for civil and human rights. The Randolph College web entries for notable alums fail to mention Anne, but I hope that a little of her fearlessness and dedication to advancing human dignity will rub off on those of us who’ve come after her at the school.         

The Firebrand and the First Lady

The Firebrand and the First Lady     —by Jinny Batterson

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, published early in 2016, was written long after the deaths of its protagonists, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray. Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and the activist wife of her distant cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She continued in her own right after her husband’s death. Pauli Murray was an activist, organizer, lawyer, writer, and eventually a priest. She dealt with the double whammy of discrimination for being black and female in a time that undervalued both.

Just after the title page, author Patricia Bell-Scott introduces the two women through quotations taken from their extensive writings and correspondence. The first listed entry, from Pauli Murray, was published over 20 years after Mrs. Roosevelt’s death in the journal of Murray’s university, The Hunter Magazine:

“For me, becoming friends with Mrs. Roosevelt was a slow, painful process, marked by sharp exchanges of correspondence, often anger on my side and exasperation on her side, and a gradual development of mutual admiration and respect.” 

Mrs. Roosevelt’s initial quotation came from an article, “Some of My Best Friends are Negro,” published in the magazine Ebony in 1953:

“One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyer—Pauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond.”

Over three hundred well-researched pages chronicle their developing friendship during the years when the two women’s lives intersected, and then the years after Mrs. R.’s death when Murray continued to write, speak, work for social justice, and honor Mrs. R.’s legacy.   

The two were born a generation apart—Roosevelt in 1884, Murray in 1910–to economic and social circumstances that could hardly have been more different. However, the emotional traumas of their early lives were similar. Both lost parents at a tender age. Both were shunted among relatives and schools throughout their teens.

Mrs. Roosevelt first encountered Pauli Murray on a visit to an upstate New York camp for unemployed single women in 1934 or 1935.  Murray had gone there during the depths of the Great Depression to help regain her strength after a couple of years of intermittent employment in New York City. Mrs. Roosevelt had helped finance the camp. She had insisted that it be racially integrated. During the first lady’s visit, Murray hung back and said nothing, later getting scolded by the camp director for her lack of manners.

The two women next interacted when Murray copied “Mrs. R.” on an impassioned 1938 letter to FDR criticizing his spotty civil rights record, especially his recent speech praising “liberal” University of North Carolina, which repeatedly rejected Murray’s graduate student application on racial grounds.

By the early days of 1940, Murray was executive director of a non-profit highlighting the problems of sharecroppers. She and several colleagues had a chance to meet with Mrs. Roosevelt in Mrs. R.’s Manhattan apartment. From then on, the two women carried on an irregular but spirited correspondence for the rest of their mutual lives. Mrs. R. helped when she could with some of Murray’s causes, but cautioned restraint, occasionally even upbraiding Murray’s brashness.

When Murray graduated from Howard Law School in June, 1944, ER sent a congratulatory note and a bouquet. When FDR died in April, 1945, Murray sent Mrs. R. a lengthy condolence: “…There is not one I’ve seen who has not expressed a physical illness over the disaster which has befallen each individual American today. …I pray for your strength and fortitude, because we all need you more than ever now.”   

ER went on to chair a U.N. commission that developed and got General Assembly approval for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She worked at the U.N. for several more years, then continued writing, speaking, and humanitarian work until her death in 1962.

Murray offered this public tribute at a 1982 conference celebrating Mrs. Roosevelt’s life:

“I learned by watching her in action over a period of three decades that each of us is culture-bound by the era in which we live, and that the greatest challenge to the individual is to try to move to the very boundaries of our historical limitations and to project ourselves toward future centuries. Mrs. Roosevelt … did just that.”

Murray attended a 1984 conference celebrating the centennial of ER’s birth, but was hospitalized soon afterward with serious health problems.  She died in 1985.

If the delay in publishing The Firebrand and the First Lady partly resides in the meticulous scholarship to track down sources and verify quotations, it seems to me that the timing of the book’s release is providential. It comes as this year’s U.S. Presidential campaign intensifies. One of the chief actors is a former first lady with extensive qualifications of her own. It comes at a time when LGBT communities, of which Murray was a closeted member, are becoming more insistent on full citizenship. It comes as we approach this year’s celebration of Mother’s Day, when we acknowledge both our physical mothers and those who have nurtured and challenged us, in the best tradition of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray.


Putting the Puzzle Together

Putting the Puzzle Together    —by Jinny Batterson

This past weekend I traveled from my home in central North Carolina to Washington, D.C. with a bus full of college students and a couple of other “gray hairs” to participate in parts of a “Democracy Awakening” weekend. Early Sunday afternoon, we gathered on the National Mall for a voting rights demonstration co-sponsored by over 200 civic and religious groups.  People stood, sat, or sprawled under budding trees to listen as a series of speakers from a wide diversity of environmental, labor, human rights, and faith organizations described the need to restore voting rights and democracy to our increasingly dysfunctional political system. 

Once the speeches were over, we formed a loose phalanx to march around the U.S. Capitol. For a while, I walked near a guy on stilts who’d crafted an Uncle Sam parody costume, decorated front and back with corporate logos. While marching, we sang, chanted, and waved banners. Among my favorites were several protesting recent U.S. Supreme court decisions that give corporations and wealthy individuals unfettered funding access during political campaigns: “Money’s not speech, corporations aren’t people,” or “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” or, more generally, “The system isn’t broken—it’s fixed.”

My guess is that most members of Congress were not at the Capitol, which had scaffolding surrounding its dome due to a much-delayed infrastructure repair project. They may have been off fundraising somewhere.

On the bus rides back and forth, I eavesdropped a bit on the students’ conversations. I was impressed—they were more politically savvy and engaged than I had been at a similar age. They wanted to be sure they would have a chance to vote in this year’s upcoming elections, despite photo ID requirements that did not recognize North Carolina student IDs, and decreases in early voting times and places that make it less convenient for college students to vote. Several students had participated in more local protests at the North Carolina state capitol, where our most recent, highly gerrymandered legislature seems intent on bringing back the worst excesses of earlier eras. 

At the end of the bus ride, my husband picked me up and gave me and a neighbor a ride the rest of the way home. Our neighbor, a retired lawyer, commiserated that she’d thought the speeches varied too much in their focus.

“Why didn’t they just add arguments for political reform in a logical, cumulative way? Why talk about labor, environment, health, LGBT rights, immigration?” she wanted to know.  “Isn’t that too broad an agenda to make any headway?” 

It took a while for me to process what she’d said, which didn’t match my experience of the rally. Later we had another chance to talk.

“I’ve been pretty involved in voting rights work for a while now,” I told her. “I’ve internalized that many other issues—labor fairness, living wages, environmental stewardship, good health care, human rights for LGBTs,  immigrant rights, reducing and adapting to climate change—are all connected to a fair and free election process, something we’re losing and need to help restore. All of the speakers were promoting better election practices and voting rights as necessary means for achieving their other goals.” 

“Ah,” she said, “that makes sense. I guess I just wasn’t seeing the entire puzzle.”

My neighbor’s responses got me to thinking. Often, I do a poor job of articulating why I believe diminished voting rights and funds-distorted elections make progress on other issues so difficult. Full voting rights and broad funding sources are not guarantees of good government, but poor rights and highly concentrated campaign funding diminish us all. They:

1) Discourage those without deep pockets or powerful backers from running for office
2) Distort the focus of campaigns away from issues and toward fundraising
3) Thin the pipeline of candidates who move from local to state to national office, having picked up compromise and consensus-building skills along the way
4) Help create a “political class” with little experience or empathy for the problems of the disadvantaged
5) Promote single-issue lobby groups such as the NRA whose influence far
surpasses their membership
6) Reduce the time that elected officials spend on governing because of the
near-constant emphasis on fundraising for the next election cycle.

As I mulled through this list, I discovered a more basic puzzle piece for my own involvement. My most permanent takeaway from the rally is condensed in a small button I purchased just as the rally ended:

“Fear sells, until you stop buying it.” 

Perhaps the most basic problem with our dysfunctional funding and election system is how often it runs on fear—be it an incumbent’s fear of losing the next election to a well-funded candidate with even more extreme views, or minority voters’ fear of intimidation during voter registration or at the polls, or trumped up fears of Mexicans, Muslims, gender misfits, or even of “monolithic” corporations. Such fears blind us to the vibrant diversity that makes and keeps our democracy strong.