African-American history

Saving Nigeria

by guest contributor James Farquharson

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict.  In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.

Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.

While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.

In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.”  The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.

However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:

Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.

The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.

Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.

As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.

By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.

Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.

James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April. 

“They’re Going to Be Bused, Whether You Like it or Not”: Urban Whites and the Surprising Origins of Metropolitan School Desegregation

by guest contributor Michael Savage

In the United States, segregated metropolitan areas are a national phenomenon, with heavily minority inner-cities typically ringed by much wealthier and predominantly white autonomous suburbs. According to 24/7 Wall St., America’s three most segregated cities are in the North. Cleveland possesses the dubious honor of being America’s most segregated metropolis, followed by Detroit and Milwaukee. Boston takes seventh place, just edging out Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose terroristic violence against African Americans once earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”

This segregation did not occur as the result of impersonal market forces. Significant discrimination – both public and private – produced today’s segregated metropolises. Federal policies instituted during the New Deal had the effect of guaranteeing mortgages for whites only, while the refusal of many whites to sell to African Americans and the considerable community violence that often greeted black “pioneers” who moved to all-white neighborhoods helped solidify metropolitan racial divisions. Historians have told these stories and told them well. This history, however, is incomplete.

For a deeper understanding of metropolitan segregation, historians need to examine the alternate visions of metropolitan desegregation articulated by a most surprising source – segregationist urban whites. In battles over urban school segregation in the American North, it was urban whites of clear segregationist leanings who most forcefully pushed for desegregated metropolitan areas, demanding that desegregation reach beyond the political boundaries of the central city. While this may seem counterintuitive, it was simple pragmatism. Segregationist urban whites proposed metropolitan desegregation to weaken suburban support for integration but also because successful metropolitan desegregation meant a dispersal of the black student population throughout the region, ensuring the maintenance of white majority schools. These metropolitan proposals had the potential of combatting metropolitan inequality. Their failure, in the years following the push for civil rights in the American South, helps explain the near total separation of city and suburb and why Northern metropolises top the list of the most segregated regions.

freedomstayout

A fact sheet on the Freedom Stayout prepared by the suburban Brookline Committee for Civil Rights. Courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Boston, most known for its vehement opposition to desegregation busing, witnessed the longest and most widespread consideration of metropolitan school desegregation. When faced with 1965 Racial Imbalance Act that declared any school with over 50 percent “nonwhite” students “racially imbalanced,” the Boston School Committee responded with a strategy designed to weaken suburban legislative support for integration by proposing that the suburbs participate in mandatory desegregation. This strategy is evident in School Committeeman Joseph Lee’s satirically titled “A Plan to End the Monopoly of Un-light-colored Pupils in Many Boston Schools.” Lee’s first suggestion was to “notify at least 11,958 Chinese and Negro Pupils not to come back to Boston schools this autumn.” These students, a majority of Boston’s minority student population, were to attend suburban schools in order to integrate the suburbs. The suburbs, home to three times Boston’s population, averaged less than one percent black students in their public school populations, which Lee called “racial imbalance, if ever there was.” Though clearly designed to undermine the law and certainly not indicative of any moral commitment to civil rights, Lee’s satirical plan nevertheless raised valid questions about segregation in the metropolitan context.

Lee’s plan bore similarities to the voluntary Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), which voluntarily bused black students from Boston schools to several suburban communities with available school seats. Jointly created by liberal suburbanites and Boston civil rights advocates in 1966, METCO offered city students access to superior suburban schools, provided a measure of socioeconomic integration, and made a contribution to lessening school segregation in the region. However, like the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO functioned at the farthest limits of suburban liberalism. It did not require that suburbanites send their children to black city schools, did not couple black school attendance with increased black residence in the suburbs, and its suburban founders, fearful of a loss of suburban support, downplayed their aims of full metropolitan desegregation.

The Boston School Committee faced several legal challenges to its segregation, none more important than the Morgan v. Hennigan case initiated by the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March 1972. In its filing, the NAACP urged the “inclusion of suburban school systems as appropriate in the plan for desegregation, in order to achieve, now and hereafter, the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.” In May the Boston School Committee voted four-to-one to ask the court to include 75 suburban communities as its co-defendants, seeking a metropolitan desegregation plan in the almost certain outcome of being found guilty.

As similar events in Detroit demonstrated, the Boston’s School Committee’s courtroom calls for metropolitan desegregation had the very real possibility of implementation. When the Detroit Board of Education approved a modest integration plan in April 1970, anti-integrationist whites formed the Citizens’ Committee for Better Education (CCBE) and successfully recalled integrationist Board members. The rescission of the integration plan prompted a legal challenge from the NAACP. Faced with the likelihood that the Detroit schools would be found unconstitutionally segregated, the CCBE urged the adoption of a plan of metropolitan desegregation just one year after recalling integrationist Board members. It was the first party in the case call for a metropolitan solution, and was quickly joined by the NAACP. CCBE members supported plans of metropolitan desegregation for the same reason they opposed intra-city desegregation – both emanated from a desire to keep their white children in white majority schools. CCBE Attorney Alexander J. Ritchie persuaded CCBE members to change course, telling them that “Your kids are going to go to school, and they’re going to be bused, whether you like it or not… Now do you want your kids to go to school where they’re the minority in a basically black school system, or do you want them to go to school where you’re still the majority?” Divergent motivations produced similar results. So similar were metropolitan plans produced by the CCBE and the NAACP that Judge Stephen J. Roth called them “roughly approximate.”

While Judge Roth accepted the CCBE’s metropolitan arguments and ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan affecting 54 independent school districts, the Supreme Court did not. In a strictly partisan five-to-four decision, in July 1974 Justice Potter Stewart joined Republican President Richard Nixon’s four appointees in reaffirming the separation of city and suburb, ensuring the maintenance of separate and unequal education in American metropolitan areas. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his impassioned dissent, the Court’s decision would allow “our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities – one white, the other black.” Though this divide already existed, the Milliken decision exacerbated metropolitan segregation and helped codify metropolitan inequality.

As historian Matthew Lassiter’s analysis of desegregation in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta demonstrates, school desegregation plans that incorporated the suburbs provided more lasting integration than plans limited to the central city alone. Affecting the entire region, metropolitan plans did not allow well-heeled whites to simply flee the desegregation mandate by leaving the city. In light of both cities’ re-segregated schools that are attended almost uniformly by the intersecting categories of poor and minority and their persistent residential segregation, it is worth revisiting these proposals. Undeniably conceived in white racism and prone to viewing black students as a problem population that needed to be dispersed, in such metropolitan plans also existed possibilities of meaningful racial and socio-economic integration.

Boston School Integration 1974

White Boston parents demonstrating outside Judge Arthur Garrity’s suburban Wellesley home. Though their protests primarily targeted arriving black students and buses, anti-busers frequently trekked to the suburbs to protest busing and decry elite busing supporters whose suburban residences placed them outside the desegregation mandate. Image courtesy WBUR FM.

The metropolitan proposals made in Boston and Detroit have been most influential in their failure. With mandatory metropolitan desegregation an impossibility, middle-class whites accelerated their flight from the central cities and the public schools. Suburbanites worked to ensure suburban autonomy from the central city. In Boston, a program proposed by 56 school districts before the busing decision that was designed to entirely eradicate segregation in the metropolitan area was hardest hit by the renewed push for suburban autonomy. In the program’s first and only year, 1976-77, a mere 210 students from three suburbs and Boston participated in its school pairing program. Suburbanites opposed participation in the program, fearing that it would lead to a metropolitan school district and mandatory busing. While the METCO program continued, it never experienced another period of growth and previously stalwart communities threatened to withdraw when the state planned to modestly trim the funds it provided to participating communities.

While historians have noted an increase in white flight following intra-city desegregation, they have failed to connect this to declining support for metropolitan cooperation and governance in the 1970s. Conversely, the burgeoning literature on “metropolitics” neglects the long history of proposals for metropolitan school desegregation. This is a mistake. A focus on proposals for metropolitan desegregation made by ostensibly segregationist urban whites allows for a broadened understanding of the history of metropolitan reform, urban history, and civil rights. This focus helps explain the growth and persistence of extreme disparities between the central city and its suburbs in America’s metropolises, particularly those in the North, and can help account for the lack of metropolitan solutions to a wide array of metropolitan problems.

Michael Savage is a graduate student in American History at the University of Toronto whose dissertation focuses on metropolitan approaches to school and housing desegregation.

Sadie P. Delaney: Our Lady of Bibliotherapy

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The debate over whether reading is good or bad for your health is as old as the habit itself. In The Anatomy of Melancholy reading and scholarship sometimes cause, sometimes cure, Robert Burton’s depression; the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a Wertherfieber, causing young men in Germany to dress and act like Werther, possibly to commit suicide like Werther, and with other novels it contributed to a public health debate in Germany over the consequences of reading. Robert Darnton’s “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” cites J.G. Heinzmann, who in 1795 wrote that reading caused “susceptibility to cold, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, haemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.” On the other hand, in 1812 Benjamin Rush advocated strongly in favor of reading in Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Disease of the Mind. Departing from the exclusive prescription of the Bible, he wrote that “when there is no relish for the simple and interesting stories contained in the Bible, the reading of novels should be recommended to our patients.” The power of reading binds together the fate of the body and mind, and transforms them both—if you ever took duality for granted.

And for those who believe in the transformative power of reading, now and throughout history, Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) is a modern hero. Reading’s health benefits were not a theoretical pursuit for her, but a matter of will. As the chief librarian of the Veterans Administration Hospital and a “Pioneer Bibliotherapist,” she ensured it had a positive influence on her patients.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliotherapy, the idea of reading certain books for their healing purposes, is not new: Diodorus Siculous tells us that the Egyptian King Ramses II inscribed “House of Healing for the Soul” over the entrance his library, and lived to be ninety. Religions of the book—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—incorporate a notion of bibliotherapy into the reading of sacred texts. Institutions like the York Retreat in England, a Quaker-run asylum, prescribed sacred texts, but Benjamin Rush’s more wide-ranging reading recommendations were influential over the course of the nineteenth century in American asylums, including the Hartford Retreat, the Bloomingdale Asylum, the McLean Hospital, and the Friends Asylum. But the word “bibliotherapy” was only coined in an Atlantic Monthly article from 1916.

Since then, above all thanks to the work of women like Sadie P. Delaney, there has been a rise in the body of bibliotheraputic writing and research that would make an immense resource and library for the historian of reading practices if gathered together in one place. The practice connects the efforts of library and medical professionals alike. Both feature reading lists and their application to case studies: bibliotherapy is applied to children in order to change their attitudes towards race, class, and disability; it’s applied to those whose parents are divorced or who have experienced abuse; it’s applied to adults who suffer from alcoholism or post traumatic stress disorder. A dissertation has been conducted on the effects of reading Zhuang Zi’s fables on stressed Taiwanese college students (“the results show the beneficial effects”); another dissertation applies a “bibliotherapy approach to preventing dating abuse in adolescent girls” through readings of Twilight, True Love, and You (2011)—an intervention that “did not demonstrate clear effects…. but there was some indication of change in attitudes regarding romantic myths and identification of controlling behaviours in relationships.”

Eleanor Frances Brown shows in Bibliotherapy and its widening applications (1975) how much of the widening application of bibliotherapy has been made possible by Delaney herself. In 1920, Delaney was assigned to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. She would have worked with African-Americans as well as immigrant communities of Italian, Chinese, and Jewish heritage. During that time—according to a profile on her life by Betty K. Gubert in the American Libraries journal—Delaney especially worked with building the library’s collections of books in Braille and Moon Point (another language for the visually impaired), learning both languages herself to better aid visitors to the library, and working with “juvenile delinquents.” The NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses the Sadie P. Delaney Papers, featuring correspondence from the time between Delaney and W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other black luminaries of the time.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

In 1924 she was appointed chief librarian at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. The library opened with two hundred books in 1925 and increased to four thousand volumes by the end of the year. Likewise, book circulation began at 275 and increased to 1,500, based on Delaney’s practice of getting to know patients on an individual basis and recommending books to them, creating circulation lists and pamphlets, holding a weekly radio talk, and establishing book clubs and other activities to connect readers with one another. She started debate clubs and stamp clubs, taught bookbinding and natural history, and installed “talking books” and projectors to display books onto the wall or ceiling for patients who couldn’t physically hold them. She continued her work with the blind, teaching no less than six hundred patients to read Braille and creating a special department for the blind at the hospital library in 1934.

Within a decade of her librarianship, there were around six thousand books in the Veterans’ Library collection, including a pioneering collection of books by and for African-Americans. Delaney saw her library as a tool for correcting the injustices of a segregated, unequal society. By including works about black soldiers, she could use books to help the veterans who were her patients “in [their] upward struggle to lay aside prejudice, all sense of defeat, and to take in that which is helpful and inspiring by the means of books.” Delaney wrote about the experience in a 1932 article for the Wilson Library Review, “The Negro Veteran and His Books,” which was also a rallying cry for the publication of more books by black people. Today, institutions like the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library carry on her important work in addressing racial injustice through access to education and to books.

Her innovations were recognized where it mattered, making their diffusion widespread: library schools in Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia built links with the Veterans’ Hospital so that their students could train with Delaney. Veterans’ libraries across America studied and implemented her approaches. She collaborated with the Antabuse Clinic in Tuskegee to use bibliotherapy to treat alcoholism. The United States Information Service (USIS) profiled her and her methods, and distributed that information to no less than a hundred different USIS branches across 75 countries.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

But at the same time, the greatest testimony to Sadie P. Delaney’s hard work and lasting contributions is the most frustrating and insulting of all: her ideas have diffused so widely that she is not credited enough by name. The New Yorker featured an article on bibliotherapy with no mention of Delaney at all. The free online course from the University of Warwick, “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing,” bears no mention of her efforts (yet). While she is a staple in articles by library and medical professionals, her recognition within popular culture and history is not nearly as extensive as she deserves—vast as her influence would be if traced within a twentieth and twenty-first century of reading. Histories of reading are much more likely to pay homage to the Frankfurt School than to cite the many decades of one woman’s applied generosity—her gift of time and accessibility in order to find the perfect book from which a person can grind a lens for looking at their own life. This is important in a time where algorithmic culture is beginning to bear more seriously on how people read, and it also is a way of linking reading history with politics, activism, and education. There is both a history of reading to be written of Sadie Peterson Delaney’s far-reaching contributions, and a model for reading history to be drawn from her deeply personal, richly emotional, systematically individualized approach to reading. It is a model that puts the huge scope of influence and lifelong struggles of the librarian in the central position that they deserve.