(Video) Where is the Joy in Freedom? By NYC Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson

On June 13th, 2021, we welcomed NYC Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson as a guest speaker at our Juneteenth platform titled “Celebrating Juneteenth: Where is the Joy in Freedom?” Below is a transcript of his talk:

 

Where is the Joy in Freedom?
By NYC Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson
June 13th, 2021

Thank you for inviting me to speak today in commemoration of Juneteenth. This is the first time I’ve been asked to speak before an audience on the significance of Juneteenth, and I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of freedom from slavery. 

This topic is deeply personal for me, as it is for most people of African descent in the Americas. I will tell you why. My father was raised from age 4 by his grandmother in Virginia. My great-grandmother, whom we called Ma Bessie, lived with us for a while when I was very young. Ma Bassie kept a bible that belonged to her mother, my great-great-grandmother. In that bible, my great-great-grandmother recorded the day that Ma Bessie’s sister was born. She wrote in big bold letters, “BORN FREE.” 

My Dad died when I was 7, and my Mom became very ill when I was 9, so I lived with my mother’s parents from age 10. We lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon line—meaning just north of Maryland and the line that separated the North from the slave South during the 1800s. My grandmother’s family had escaped from slavery in Maryland around 1800. My grandmother’s most prized possession was a small cloth sack with some silver dollars in it from the early 1800s. These were the first dollars her ancestors had earned after their escape from slavery—her ancestors had saved those dollars to pass down through the generations—as a reminder. That dollar symbolized freedom for them.

My mother’s father was originally from North Carolina. His mother’s brother, his Uncle Jerry, had been a slave. I once asked my grandfather to tell me what he knew about slavery. He said that Uncle Jerry told him that the worst thing about slavery was the daily humiliation. He said women in the family would be pulled out of the shack at night and raped within earshot of the entire family—and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. I only saw my grandfather cry twice in my life. Once when my grandmother died, and the second time was when he told me this story. Uncle Jerry said that their economic life didn’t change much after slavery, they were as poor as they had been during slavery—they ate plenty of wild game just to survive. The humiliation didn’t end either. My grandfather told me that one day in the early 1920s a ferris wheel came to North Carolina. This was a big deal. He bought a white suit and a white hat and invited his sweetheart to ride with him on the ferris wheel. In the seat behind them a drunk white man got on board. When the ferris wheel had them on the way down, the white man was in top of them. The white man leaned over and threw up all over my grandfather’s white hat and suit—deliberately. My grandfather said there was nothing he could do about it—this was during Jim Crow.  

My grandfather didn’t believe black people had ever been truly free, only somewhat less humiliated. My grandfather didn’t believe that poor whites were really free either, only somewhat less humiliated than black people.

I wanted you to know a little about my family’s history so that you might understand why the Juneteenth event and the topic of freedom from slavery is complicated for me—as I’m sure it is for many black people.  

First of all, while ending slavery helped us have more dignity and control over our lives, it did not free us economically. Most black people, like my family, ended up working for the same white people they had been enslaved to—for what amounted to the same provision of goods. We never got an opportunity to come close to equal property ownership, or to accumulate wealth. We are still a poor people; many of us are vagabonds in a country we spent hundreds of years building, with no payment at all.

Second, the humiliation never stopped. This is what underlies a lot of the protest we’ve seen in the Movement for Black Lives. Police murders like that of George Floyd and Eric Garner are the most visceral examples, but the humiliation is daily and constant. I was once stopped by a white police officer at the Triboro Bridge. My mother, who was 70 at the time, was in the car, and she asked the policeman why we were stopped. He called my mother all kinds of foul names for simply asking him the question. My mother was a church lady. I never heard her say a curse word in my entire life. She didn’t deserve that humiliation. I have a lot more stories like this. We live in a country that diverted poor white people from dealing with inequality and their own poverty by giving them a false enemy, black people. And, then we give them guns and uniforms to take out their frustrations by stomping all over us. 

Third, and this is the worst thing, why are we still gripped by racial conflict 156 years after slavery? I was listening to the Velshi show on MSNBC yesterday morning. He had a journalist on the show who had written a book about the danger of fascism in the US growing out of the Trump movement. Velshi asked if there are any examples of democracy being overthrown in an advanced industrialized democracy. The author said she had consulted with many scholars, and not one could think of an example. This really stunned me. The answer is so obvious. What was Jim Crow, if not a successful rebellion against democracy? Jim Crow lasted until I was in junior high school, this isn’t ancient history. Why were the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th mostly white nationalists? Why can’t the United States look itself in the face?; why can’t white Americans see the race hatred that has undermined true freedom in this country?

This brings me to the main thing I want to discuss this morning, which is the meaning of freedom. If freedom is what distinguishes democracy from every other system, and makes us superior, then what does this freedom consist of? How did we convince ourselves that we are a democracy, a free country, with liberty and justice for all, while practicing slavery and Jim Crow? How do we say we’re a free country today when 1% of the population owns 40% of the nation’s wealth? What kind of freedom are we talking about here? 

Indeed, we have a peculiar notion of freedom in this country. We talk about freedom as ‘free will’: the ability to do what you want to do, without government getting in your way. So, freedom in this way can be individualized: “I’m doing what I want to do. I’m free, even if you aren’t.” Or, “My freedom is so valuable, it’s worth sacrificing yours.” My question is, is this really freedom? Of course, it isn’t freedom for the oppressed person. But, is a willing participant in a system that oppresses Others truly free? Is freedom something that can be divided, between haves and have nots? You can live in a gated community, surrounded by security guards and NYPD patrols. You can avoid riding in the subway or going to low-income parts of the City. But is this freedom, or is it a golden jailhouse? You can go around the world and stay in fancy hotels and eat in the best restaurants, but will you ever know the joy of having someone genuinely happy to see you, as opposed to someone who just wants your money? Can any of us imagine a world where we didn’t need nuclear weapons, armies, and police at every corner? A city where we could walk anywhere without fear, and get welcoming smiles wherever we went? Wouldn’t this be a deeper freedom than what we have now; wouldn’t it create more joy? 

What prevents us from getting to such a world? I believe the obstacle is the hubris that underlies our popular liberal conception of freedom. The liberal concept of freedom is that, ‘I can do what I want, so long as I don’t impede on the ability of others to do what they want.’ But, in society, we are constantly linked together economically, politically, and socially in towns and cities. The truth is that the more powerful among us have always impeded the ability of the poor, or of minorities, to do what they want. The powerful marginalize the voices of the impeded people so we don’t hear much about oppression until there’s a disruption—like a protest movement. The hubris is when the powerful people declare that this is indeed freedom; that we have figured out the best possible way to live—no more exploration necessary. But if this is the best society can hope for, why are there mass shootings every week? Why are so many Americans depressed and drugged up? Why is there not more joy?

Freedom, I suggest, is not something that individuals can possess by themselves. We must share freedom broadly or none of us can have it. None of us can expect to be free by ourselves, or truly happy, in a world full of hunger, militarism, and disease—as the pandemic has shown us once again. Even a hermit, living alone in the woods, cannot answer the question of ‘who am I’ without confronting the prior question of ‘who and what made me.’ Answering the question of who made me invariably involves family and society. The ability to think for oneself, and to question things, which is an essential part of freedom, begins with understanding thoughts already implanted in your head by society. A hermit that doesn’t understand society can’t really distance him or herself from society, no matter how far in the woods they go. In the same way, a person in this country that doesn’t try to understand racism cannot distance themselves from racism implanted by society in their heads, no matter how much they claim it has nothing to do with them. Nobody thinks with words and concepts they’ve created entirely on their own.

I will go one step further to say that the question of who and what made me has an existential or spiritual side to it that we should not avoid. We speak in terms of science and causality, of regularities we find in nature. But, underlying those regularities is the great unknown. We do not know the origins of the universe, and we therefore don’t know our own origins. Nor do we know destiny. What we see as regularities and relationships, even that between space and time, may only be coincidences of our galaxy. In other words, God (or the spirit of the universe) is not bound by our will or understanding, far from it. God is free. So maybe freedom does not begin with the human will or ego, but in our appreciation of God’s will. I do not mean by ‘appreciating God’s will’ that we should follow the prescripts of some human saint who tells us what God says or what God means—I mean something quite the opposite of settled conclusions and dictates. I mean that perhaps we can attain freedom by beginning with an appreciation of the wonder of our being alive with other human beings, with animals, and with the earth itself. Maybe the questioning that underlies the human desire for freedom begins with the wonder of our existence. Maybe love, and the desire for justice, eminates not from our heads so much as from our hearts–our common fragility, suffering, and ignorance in the face of creation—rather than from our individual willfulness. Maybe we can find greater joy and fulfillment in protecting and caring for the earth and its beings—in appreciation of universe and creation–than in doing something for ourselves individually. Perhaps the domination we think our technology hs exerted over the earth is as false as our claims that we have mastered democracy. Maybe the most important thing we can take from Juneteenth is a spirit of humility: we have done great wrongs, we have a long way to go, and we must cultivate the freedom to question ourselves and each other along the way in the course of building a more caring and joyful world. Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

The 1960’S: Decade of Assassinations

By Lujira Cooper

Medgar Evers 1963 June CIVIL RIGHTS
John F. Kennedy 1963 November EXTERNAL CONFLICT
James Chaney 1964 June FREEDOM RIDER
Michael Goodman 1964 June FREEDOM RIDER Led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Andrew Schwerner 1964 June FREEDOM RIDER
Malcom X 1965 February INTERNAL CONFLICT
Martin Luther King Jr. 1968 April EXTERNAL CONFLICT
Robert F. Kennedy 1968 June EXTERNAL CONFLICT
Fred Hampton 1969 December EXTERNAL CONFLICT (FBI)

The 1960’s was a tumultuous and exciting time. People observed Flower Power, anti-Vietnam protests, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the Black Arts Movement against a backdrop of a slew of assassinations. The greatness of the decade was obliterated by the untimely, unnecessary and the unfortunate deaths those living in that time experienced.

In the decade of clamoring for civil rights death reared its racist head. In the decade of the Black Arts Movement to instill Black Pride with “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” voices were silenced. In the decade of fighting for voting rights, assassinations were the soup du jour.

Civil rights took a brutal hit in the 1960’s. Assassinations ruled this time some from internal conflict and others from external forces. Nine individuals died and seven of them (maybe all) due to civil rights activism. A charged time when Black people began to flex their power, however, Freedom Summer (1964) was not freedom to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. It led to their deaths or more appropriately murders.

In a time when Black people began to fight back because they as Fannie Lou Hamer said, “were sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Note: Lottie L. Joiner spoke of Hamer’s impassioned speech as a catalyst for the all-White male Southern Democrats to switch to Republican. A tsunami of blood flowed through this decade. It began with the death of Medgar Evers born in Decatur MS, a was murdered in Mound Bayou, MS., in front of his home. The murderers didn’t care he had small children who might have seen him killed. According to the NAACP, Evers fought in the Battle of Normandy but as we know that did nothing for him when he returned home. Later the University of Mississippi’s Law school rejected his application.

Before his assassination there had been several attempts on his life. A Molotov cocktail thrown and being nearly run over. His murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, three decades later was convicted. The killing spurred by investigation of the death of Emmitt Till (1955) and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard whose integration actions led to him being framed for robbery. Mickey Levine, past chairman of the American Veterans Committee, said of Evers, “No soldier in this field has fought more courageously, more heroically than Medgar Evers (NAACP).

Our next ghastly crime is the assassination of JFK. Basically, it’s a story no one knows the truth about. We do know Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot and killed JFK and then through some magic was killed by Jack Ruby while being transported from one jail to another. Questions still abound about this. Oswald’s death leaves many unanswered questions. Like why he wasn’t guarded better? How did a civilian get into the area and a host more? That’s two in 1963.

In 1964 the country faces the deaths of Freedom Riders Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. The three stopped by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price (aka KKK) for on a fabricated charge of a church are thrown into a jail cell. Price released them after seven hours then dropped off another deputy and raced to catch them before they got out of Philadelphia, MS. With the help of other KKK members shot to death and burned their bodies. With the help of an informant, the FBI arrested nineteen men for violating their civil rights. In 1967 nine were acquitted and seven found guilty including Price and KKK Imperial Wizard Bowers. Although hailed as milestone, since no one had ever been convicted of killing a civil rights worker, the judge, William Cox, an ardent segregationist sentence would be laughable if not tragic. He meted out time of three to ten years saying, “They killed one n*****, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved.” Question how serious did he take it if that was his comment? (seven guilty, nine acquitted and three deadlocked). The longest sentence came in 2005 when Edgar Ray Killen received a sentence of sixty years for three counts of manslaughter, (History.com). another note to this tragic story was it took three years of wrangling until the Supreme Court upheld the indictments.

The next chapter in this tragic saga is the death of Malcom X. who was killed in the Audubon ballroom in Harlem, NY.  According to Josiah Bates of Time magazine, three people in 1966 were convicted for his death “Talmadge Hayer or Thomas Hagan (a.k.a Mujahid Abdul Halim), Norman Butler (a.k.a Muhammad Abdul Aziz) and Thomas Johnson (a.k.a Khalil Islam).” Why was Malcolm killed? Bates reports a few things led to his death, however his comment “chickens coming home to roost” regarding to JFK’s assassination led to a final break with the Nation of Islam (NOI). The question remains were the three following orders of Elijah Muhmmad, a mandate of the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services (BOSS) or J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI since spies were very prevalent in Malcolm X’s breakaway organizations Muslim Mosque, Inc (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Law enforcement perceived him as a threat to the social order. Hoover, according to Bates, said, “Do something about Malcolm X.”

Two intriguing factors may have contributed to his death. The first telling his security not to search for weapons. The reasoning was to get away from NOI’s image and the other more striking no police presence there. This is surprising since they always showed up. Bates further notes an intriguing comment about Malcolm’s death from Elijah Muhammad who claimed no involvement, “He got just what he deserved.” Wonder what he meant.

The next victim was Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, another day that goes down infamy. King had arrived in Tennessee in preparation to march with Memphis striking sanitation workers.  An escaped prisoner, James Earl Ray, was the alleged assassin who eventually was sentenced to 99 years in prison since he confessed to the crime. King was shot with a 30.06 Remington rifle. King a man of peace had his life cut short because he spoke out against the injustices he saw.

Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General pressured the FBI to investigate the deaths of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner. Which culminated a trial where the segregationist, U.S. District Judge William Cox took the case seriously from fear of impeachment.

RFK along with his brother and later Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed. Ted Kennedy said of Robert’s funeral, he was, “a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it,” (History.com). Also of note was his travels to “Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, migrant workers’ camps and urban ghettos to study the effects of poverty and made trips abroad to such places as apartheid-ruled South Africa to advocate for the advancement of human rights” (History.com). RFK was an outspoken opponent to Johnson’s escalation of the VietNam war. RFK sent troops to enforce a ruling that allowed James Meredith to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan assassinated RFK allegedly because of he resented Senator’s Kennedy’s” support of the Six-Day War intervention in Israel the previous year,” (History.com).

Our final fatality of the decade is Fred Hampton. He was a charismatic leader allegedly betrayed by one of his own. Hampton led the Chicago arm of the Black Panthers. According to the Chicago-Sun Times, Hampton was “A young, gifted leader with a talent for organizing.” In high school he led a boycott of homecoming. In doing this it permitted black girls to compete for the coveted title. He also led the Inter-Racial Council to diffuse racial conflict at Proviso East High School (Chicago-Sun Times). Racism, capitalism, and police brutality were an anathema the Black Panthers who formed community alliances to defeat these isms. Now onto why he was hunted and killed. Bring in the same culprit who worked hard to discredit King, FBI Director Herbert Hoover who called them, the Black Panthers, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” according to Curt Gentry’s “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets.” Hampton was betrayed by one of his own according to information allegedly by William O’Neal head of Security for the Black Panther party. Hoover’s fear of Hampton’s charisma and Chicago’s untamed and corrupt police force fought the idea of Black folks rising and with help of a “friend” silenced the voice of Hampton.

Each change creates a new normal.

References

“The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute” Stanford University

“Slain civil rights workers found.” August 1964. A&E Television Networks

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/slain-civil-rights-workers-found

Bates, Josiah 2020. “The Enduring Mystery of Malcolm X’s Assassination” Time 

https://time.com/5778688/malcolm-x-assassination/

Cooper, Lujira. (2019). LGBTQ AGING IN A HETEROSEXUAL WORLD

Joiner, Lottie L. (2014). Remembering Civil Rights Heroine Fannie Lou Hamer: ‘I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired’ Daily Beast 

© 2021 Lujira J. Cooper 

Conference

Conference

19th Century America: Fiends, Fugitives and Friends

May 26 and 27 - June 2 and 3

Enslaved Blacks, Native Peoples and Allied Others in the Frenzy of American Expansionism.

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"The past is the unseen hand that writes the present."

Barely twenty years after the American Revolution, racially dominant interests turned internally to securing wholesale the country’s physical land space and harnessing its resources. It was done at the consistent disadvantage — in the extreme — to Blacks and Native Peoples. Driven by greed and supported by oppressive laws and cultural norms, nonetheless, they prevailed. However, there were activities that sought to counter some of those over-arching conditions. Yes, cooperation and support were intermittent and infrequent, but they did happen. This conference will bring forward some of those experiences. Please join us in this rare probe as we look at some historical events as America unfolded from east to west.

Conference Schedule

May 26 and 27 – June 2 and 3

Wed, May 26
10:00 am
Surveying Principle Factors Creating the Crucible of 19th Century America

 

Muriel Tillinghast
Wed, May 26
11:30 am
The Pocahontas Myth: What it means to be Black and Native in America
Thearse McCalmon
Thursday, May 27
10:00 am
The Underground Railroad, and the Seminole Diaspora
T. Rasul Murray
Thursday, May 27
11:30 am
Rethinking Underground Railroads: On Freedom Fighters who Claimed Freedom in Mexico”
Maria Esther Hammack
Wed, June 2
10:00 am
Coexistence and Cooperation: How Native Americans Assisted Freedom Seekers in the Early Midwest
Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, PhD.
Wed, June 2
11:30 am
“William Swan among the Greensky Indians. A Sanctuary Story
Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, PhD.
Thursday June 3
10:00 am
Wyandot, Shawnee, and African American Resistance to Slavery in Ohio and Kansas
Diane Miller, PhD.
Thursday June 3
11:30 am
“Clara’s Porch” – Reflections on the interactions between the indigenous people and African Americans on Long Island”
Asiba Tupahache

Speakers

Meet Our Speakers

Muriel Tillinghast
Muriel Tillinghast

Conference Coordinator

Muriel Tillinghast is this conference’s originator and coordinator. She is also the Co-Chair, Lucy’s Children. She is a history buff with a particular interest in American slavery and its systemic residual effects..

Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, PhD
Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, PhD

Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, Ph. D., is co-chair in the History Department, the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit, MI. His teaching area includes African American history, modern Africa, slave resistance, the Civil War era, and the Underground Railroad. He is the Director of the Black Abolitionist Archive. Dr. Finkenbine’s writings include many articles and a number of books. Currently, he is completing a new book entitled Freedom Seekers in Indian Country.

T. Rasul Murray
T. Rasul Murray

T. Rasul Murray has been a student of the Afrogenic dimensions of cultures since the early 1960s. His general interest includes the African Diaspora with a particular concentration on Old New York and its African past. He is an avid researcher, published writer as well as a noted lecturer.

Asiba Tupahache
Asiba Tupahache

Asiba Tupahache has deep Matinecoc cultural roots. She has served as Chair of the Matinecoc Longhouse and has been active in reviving the Mantinecoc language as well as their forms and practices. Her book, Taking Another Look will be expanded in a new book entitled, Takin Another Look: A Further Examination. The focus of both books is the normalization of chronic oppression.

Maria Esther Hammack
Maria Esther Hammack

Maria Esther Hammack is a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin. She is a Mellon ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow for the year 2020-2021.

Thearse McCalmon
Thearse McCalmon

Thearse McCalmon is the former Director of Programs, Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, Founder of Native American Daughters in Education, and an avid social advocate.

Diane Miller, PHD.
Diane Miller, PHD.

Diane Miller, Ph.D., is the National Program Manager of the  National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, National Park Service.

This Event is Free, But Room Is Limited

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This conference is made possible by a generous grant provided by The Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, the Ethelwyn Doolittle Justice and Outreach Fund.

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