Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It’s the Holiday Season

Call me sentimental, but I’ve always been moved by the holiday spirit at this time of year. What I find most moving are the songs that celebrate life and reuniting with one’s family and loved ones.

I clearly understand the argument that the Christmas holiday has been commercialized to nearly unimaginable proportions. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist, argued that slavery would have been overturned much sooner were it not for Christmas. Yes, people endure a lot so we can have a joyous time with our families.

One of the songs that has become a staple at this time of year is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I found that the history of this song explains much about what this time of year is about.

The Montgomery Ward retailer of Chicago assigned Robert L. May the job of coming up with a Christmas story that would promote their business. This was in 1939 towards the end of the depression. Aside from the depression of those years, May had other problems he needed to deal with.

May’s wife Evelyn had been battling with cancer for several years and her medical bills were overwhelming. Robert and Evelyn had a four-year old daughter Barbara who liked to go to the local Zoo. It was at this Zoo that Robert May first thought of writing a story about Reindeers.

Robert May was small in stature and wasn’t very popular in school. He eventually wrote and identified with the idea of his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer overcoming his sadness and isolation to become loved by the other reindeers.

Eventually Robert May received the ownership rights to this story and convinced his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a song. Gene Autry sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it became one of the most popular songs of all time.

Simeon Booker

The day before I started writing this column, I read and obituary of Simeon Booker. Booker was the Washington bureau chief of Jet and Ebony magazines for five decades.

In 1955 Booker lived in Chicago and learned that the son of Mamie Till-Mobley, fourteen-year old Emmett was missing. Emmett Till had been visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi. Booker immediately understood what this story might be about, he visited Mamie Till-Mobley, and won her confidence.

Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse was found in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Emmett had been raised in Chicago and didn’t think it was a problem to whistle at a white woman. However, there is a long history of lynching in this country. The federal government rarely prosecuted murderers who carried out these lynchings.

In the so-called trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, the courtroom was filled with onlookers who had a bottle of whiskey in one pocket and a pistol in the other. Simeon Booker, as well as others in the courtroom who were outraged by this murder needed to get out of town immediately after the not-guilty verdict. In an interview after the verdict one murderer of Till admitted his guilt.

At Emmett Till’s funeral in Chicago, there were many who didn’t want the press to be present. Mamie Till-Mobley was adamant that Simeon Booker and his photographer, David Jackson, witness the funeral. She also insisted that the funeral casket be opened. These were the words Simeon Booker recorded of Mamie Till-Mobley at the funeral:

“Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home and cried out ‘Darling you have not died in vein. Your life has been sacrificed for something.’ “         

Just a few months after the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This action, as well as the decades long resistance to Jim Crow segregation, sparked the 385-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

During those years Simeon Booker would take off his suit and dress as a sharecropper in overalls in order to avoid the violence against Black people in those years. He also needed to hide in the back of a hearse in order to escape a racist mob.

My ride to work that day

After reading this story, I went to work and listened to the Christmas Carrols on the radio. One of those songs featured Levi Stubbs who sang with the Four Tops. Stubbs lived his life in Detroit, Michigan and refused to have his name featured apart from the Four Tops. The song was about a celebration of life at the holidays and getting together with family.

Clearly Levi Stubbs was well aware of the murder of Emmett Till and the institutionalized discrimination Black people endured in every part of this country. My opinion is that Stubbs as well as many other artists were able to transcend the horrors of their day, and give us their idea of how precious life can be.

Karl Marx once argued that:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people"

My opinion is that Marx felt that if working people look squarely at our condition, we would be motivated to change it. Why should we work for our entire lives, so a tiny minority of the population can have more wealth than they could ever use?
Clearly Marx as well as Frederick Douglass were correct in their observations about religion and the holidays. My opinion is that while we can appreciate their ideas, we can also celebrate life and have good times.

This year we can celebrate the freedom of Oscar Lopez Rivera who served thirty-seven years in the dungeons of the United States. At this same time we see the utter indifference of the United States government in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane that hit Puerto Rico. Given this state of affairs, more and more people understand why Oscar Lopez Rivera dedicated his life to the independence of Puerto Rico.

Since Christmas is a religious holiday, I will conclude this column with a quotation from the Bible that I believe is relevant to all those who are religious as well as non-religious. This was about the battle between David and Goliath.

Before David engaged in his battle with Goliath someone argued that this battle would not be fair. Goliath was large and strong and had sophisticated weapons. David was smaller and all he had was a sling-shot. So, they warned David against fighting Goliath. But David said: “Is there not a cause?”

Yes, there continues to be a cause, and this cause is the future of the human race. While there may be times when we feel ridiculed and isolated, history teaches us that we have a real possibility to make this a truly wonderful world. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Looking Back From 2101

By Steve Halpern

Fifteen years ago, I self-published my novel: Looking Back From 2101. In my novel I transported a Jewish factory worker, Harry Goldberg, into the future world of the year 2101. The future world that I imagined had no poverty, and no racial or sexual discrimination. All enterprises did their best to operate in harmony with the environment. From the perspective of this future world, my characters had discussions where they talked about how and why the world had been transformed.

My novel has a similar format as Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward that was published in 1888.  Bellamy lived at a time when humanity first discovered the many possibilities of electrical power. So, even before these inventions, Bellamy wrote about how there would be televisions, radios, telephones, computers, as well as aircraft.

However, the basic change Bellamy imagined was not of a technical nature. He felt that humanity would no longer be motivated to provide for their individual families alone. He felt that humanity would change so the core value would be human solidarity. In other words, an injury to one, would be viewed as an injury to all.

Edward Bellamy’s first cousin was Francis Bellamy and they both had similar political outlooks. Francis Bellamy wrote a piece of literature that millions of school children recite every day, known as the Pledge of Allegiance.

However, the first words of Francis Bellamy’s Pledge were, “I pledge allegiance to my flag.” Francis Bellamy felt that his flag would represent the future world his cousin Edward imagined in the novel Looking Backward. Francis Bellamy protested when the words to his Pledge were changed to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

A few years after Bellamy wrote his novel, H.G. Wells also wrote a novel about the future titled, The Time Machine. Unlike Looking Backward, Wells’ portrayed his future world to be a horror story.

Since that time there have been numerous books and films that portray the future to be a horror story. Two of those films are Avatar and Hunger Games. Kevin Costner had leading roles in two films with horrific futures. These were Waterworld and The Postman.

So, at this point we can ask the question: Since literally everyone would like to imagine that a better world is possible, why do the majority of fictional portrayals about the future imagine a horrific future world? We can begin to see the answer to this question in the words of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. I believe the following words are relevant:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

This quotation illustrates what I would consider two distinct trends in human history. One trend is that humanity has adopted to what I would call horrific political economic systems for long periods of time. These systems were slavery, feudalism, as well as the early years of the capitalist system. But then there is the other trend outlined in the above quotation. This is when the people find the political systems they live under to be intolerable and masses of people organize to bring about fundamental change.

Looking at the world as it is today we can wonder why people haven’t organized for this fundamental change a long time ago. Today, about half of the world’s population lives on about two dollars per day or less. Because of these conditions the United Nations estimates that about 30,000 children die every day of preventable diseases. Hundreds of millions of people in the world do not have enough food to eat, and are without direct access to electricity and running water.

Why do these conditions persist when the resources have been available for quite a long time to eliminate poverty? Before we can answer this question, I believe we need to look at how the capitalist system has functioned throughout its history.

The History of Capitalism

In the first years of capitalism, chattel slavery was the law. This kind of slavery was an institution of the Greek and Roman Empires. In the capitalist system workers are not owned outright, but are directly tied to the wages system. So northern capitalists became convinced that they needed to organize to militarily defeat the slave owners who controlled the U.S. government for sixty years. Therefore, the Civil War was actually the second revolution in the United States.

The U.S. government also went to war against Native Americans for over 100 years. The first nations of this part of the world organized communal societies where everyone shared in the work as well as the wealth of their world. These norms were intolerable to capitalists who’s core value was the accumulation of private property.

When this country industrialized, working people found themselves toiling for twelve to sixteen hours per day. They commonly lived in one-room cold-water flats. Health care and education were unknown to the masses of workers.

Black workers experienced institutionalized discrimination and didn’t have citizenship rights where Jim Crow segregation was the law. Women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920. In the Jim Crow states most Black people weren’t allowed to vote until the mid-1960s.

The labor movement carried out a series of strikes from the year 1877 to the years 1934. Then, in the middle of the depression workers mobilized and forced employers to recognize the union. After the Second World War workers continued their battles in an all out strike wave. Then, the Civil Rights Movement erupted and the government was forced to do away with Jim Crow segregation.

Many liberals argue that since the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements were able to force the government to change it’s policies, all we need to do is to organize to force the government and employers to make changes again. Clearly working people need to organize ourselves. However, history has shown that the capitalist system can not be made to serve the interests of working people.

After the labor and civil rights victories, the government worked with capitalists to move their factories to nations where the prevailing wages are two dollars per day or less. Many people who were aware of this shift thought that this was an example of corporate greed. While greed clearly was a factor, this was not the primary reason.

In the capitalist system there is an absolute law that costs must be reduced while sales of commodities must increase. By moving factories to nations throughout the world, capitalists created new markets and cut costs at the same time. These events happened during the past forty years when the overall standard of living in the United States deteriorated.

So, understanding this history, we can say that increasing poverty is not something that can be eliminated in the capitalist system. No, dire poverty has always been an absolute necessity for capitalism. Without the hundreds of millions of workers who toil for ten dollars or less per day, the capitalist system would collapse.

Where is the money?

Every year advertising agencies spend hundreds of billions of dollars in an attempt to convince working people that we need to have the commodities they promote. Rarely, if ever, do we see a discussion of the goods and services working people actually want and need. When we think of these goods and services, I believe they are desirable for our entire lives. Today, we can only have these things when we have the money required.

I believe there are about eight things working people want and need. These include: food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, health care, education, and exposure to cultural activities. Cultural activities would include: music, art, sports, dance, literature, theater, recreation, and the film. If we had a government that supported the interests of workers and farmers, the top priority would be to ensure that everyone would have a lifetime right to all these things. How would this be possible?

The capitalist system gives us visual aids to answer this question. In most of the largest cities of the world, there are massive buildings known as skyscrapers. These buildings typically cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. In order to work in these buildings, most people need to wear expensive clothing that conforms to a dress code. So, what are the enterprises housed in these astronomically expensive buildings?

Well, there are banks, investment companies, insurance companies, advertising agencies, corporate law firms, and corporate headquarters. When we read the last few paragraphs, there appears to be something strange going on. The enterprises housed in the skyscrapers do not contribute directly to the goods and services people want and need.

Clearly bankers never build homes or cars. Insurance companies never do the actual work of providing health care. Advertising agencies never actually produce the goods and services they promote. Corporate officers, rarely if ever, do the actual work that they benefit from. Corporate lawyers usually defend the interests of corporations against the interests of workers. Yet, the price of literally every commodity we purchase includes the cost of the enterprises housed in these skyscrapers.

At this point one might think that something very strange is going on. Massive amounts of money are used for enterprises that do not directly contribute to the goods and services people want and need. However, this state of affairs only illustrates a part of the problem.

Anyone with a computer can Google the question: How much money is invested in derivatives? The astounding answer is $1.2 quadrillion. That is one-thousand-two-hundred-trillion dollars.

If we combine the gross national product of every nation in the world, that amount of money would be about $60 trillion. This means that the amount of money invested in derivatives is about twenty times more than the gross national product of the world. Derivatives are nothing more than extremely complex bets on how the stock market will perform.

Today Bernie Madoff resides in a federal penitentiary. He was sent to prison for violating the laws that regulate the sales of bonds. Derivatives are not regulated by the government. The people who invented derivatives received Nobel Prizes. Therefore the massive investments in derivatives underscores that this was not a mistake of people who didn’t know any better. No, this investment is literally essential for the day-to-day functioning of capitalism.

So, when we look at the unvarnished reality of the capitalist system, we can also begin to imagine how the world might be transformed.

What can a socialist world look like?

When we look at the above facts, we come to an inescapable conclusion. If the funds used to benefit the affluent were used to benefit all of humanity, there can be a profound improvement in the standard of living.

James Cannon was a founding leader of the Socialist Workers Party. In 1946 he gave a speech that outlined what he thought a Socialist America would look like. He argued that in the future working people would give a certain amount of time to needed labor during their entire lifetimes. How much time would people need to work? This was Cannon’s opinion:

“I incline strongly to the idea that the great majority will elect to get their required labor time over with in their early youth, working a full day for a year or two.

“Thereafter, they would be free for the rest of their lives to devote themselves, with freedom in their labor, to any scientific pursuit, to any creative work or play or study which might interest them. The necessary productive labor they have contributed in a few years of their youth will pay for their entire lifetime maintenance, on the same principal that the workers today pay for their own paltry ‘social security’ in advance.”

We might think about the fact that these words were written in 1946 before the widespread use of computers and automation. Yet, when we look at the massive waste of capitalism that I’ve outlined, these words merely outline what a rational use of workers’ labor might look like.

When we look at the world from this point of view, we can ask another question: Why are there wars in the world?

As I’ve said, every day about 30,000 children die of preventable diseases. Hundreds of millions of people live on $2 per day and lack direct access to water and electricity. In order to maintain this state of affairs, capitalists and their governments have supported some of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. When the people choose to fight against these dictatorships, as they did in Vietnam, the United States government used it’s military power to intervene.

During the war against Vietnam, I can’t remember even one media outlet that argued that the money used to murder the Vietnamese people might be better used to unconditionally improve the standard living of that nation. A workers government in this country would make the elimination of poverty throughout the world its main priority. In this kind of environment, the idea of war would be inconceivable.

Today students and workers are alienated from school and work. When we come to grips with our reality, we can say that this is only logical. In the extreme, working people have become addicted to drugs so they might escape from the profound alienation they feel. Many, if not most workers, look forward to having a drink at the end of a grueling workweek.

Think about how this would change if all of society was dedicated to improving our standard of living. Certainly we would continue to have some stress, but this stress would come from doing the things we genuinely want to do. 

If you have read this column, you might be thinking that these might be nice ideas, but they are completely unrealistic. Only a tiny minority of people are thinking about making the kind of transformation that I’ve outlined. For those who are thinking along those lines, the following information might be useful.

When we look at the enormous amount of money invested in derivatives, we can say that the money we receive in our pay packets is borrowed money. Without the continuing performance of these derivatives, banks as well as investment companies will close their doors.

In 1929 there was an international depression that lasted for nine years. The Second World War and the loss of 67 million lives was the only way the world escaped from that depression. The coming depression, I believe, will be even worse than the last one. We will not survive another world war when there are literally thousands of nuclear weapons capable of eliminating human life on this planet.

My opinion is that working people have the capacity to transform ourselves into creating a movement capable of rebuilding the world on new foundations. This is why I wrote my novel Looking Back From 2101.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Starring Chadwick Boseman

A review and historical background to the film

On our forty-second anniversary Judi and I viewed the film Marshall. This is a true story about how Thurgood Marshall and his assistant attorney, Samuel Friedman, attempted to overcome a thoroughly racist judicial system, and convince an all caucasian jury that a Black man was innocent of the crime of rape. At that time Thurgood Marshall was working for the NAACP.

This trial took place in the predominantly working class city of Bridgeport, Connecticut in the year 1940. The caucasian woman who alleged this crime, Eleanor Strubing, was the employer of the accused, Joseph Spell, and lived in the affluent town of Greenwich, Connecticut.

We might consider that the rise of the labor movement before, during, and after the Second World War began to change racist attitudes of workers in this country. By 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player to play for a major league team. By 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This action sparked the 385 day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The idea of Black men being accused of raping caucasian women has a long history in this country. Thousands of Black people were lynched in this country and the primary reason for most of these lynchings was the accusation of rape. Racist mobs carried out these lynchings and the government rarely if ever prosecuted the murderers.

Ida Wells

The lynch mobs in the south had their allies in members of the established society who argued that their actions were in part justified.  Philip A. Bruce was a so-called historian, the son of a plantation owner who had 500 slaves, the nephew of the Confederacy’s former secretary of war, and a Harvard graduate.  Bruce wrote a book called The Plantation Negro as a Freeman.  In this book Bruce demonstrated that he was in effect a 19th century mythologist who fantasized that black men, “found something strangely alluring and seductive in the appearance of White women.”  Bruce also argued that free blacks had become criminals since they were no longer shacked by the bonds of slavery.  This sort of mythology convinced many people that although lynchings were wrong, they might have been provoked by crimes committed by blacks. 

Ida Wells answered this argument in a pamphlet where she studied 728 lynchings that had taken place during decade prior to 1892.  Paula Giddings summarized Wells’ findings in her book, When and Where I Enter.

“The result was a fastidiously documented report.  Only a third of the murdered Blacks were even accused of rape, much less guilty of it, Wells discovered.  Most were killed for crimes like ‘incendiarism,’ ‘race prejudice,’ ‘quarreling with Whites,’ and ‘making threats.’  Furthermore, not only men but women and even children were lynched.  ‘So great is Southern hate and prejudice,’ Wells wrote, ‘they legally (?) hung poor little thirteen-year-old Mildrey Brown at Columbia, S.C., Oct., 7th on circumstantial evidence that she poisoned a white infant.  If her guilt had been proven unmistakable, had she been White,’ Wells concluded, ‘Mildrey Brown would never have been hung.  The country would have been aroused and South Carolina disgraced forever.  .  .’ ”

Frederick Douglass admitted to being influenced by arguments made by people like Philip Bruce and stated he “had begun to believe it true that there was increased lasciviousness on the part of Negroes.”  Upon reading Ida Wells pamphlet Southern Horrors, he sent her a letter stating, “Brave Woman!  You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.  If the American consciousness were only half alive.  .  .  a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven.  .  .”[2]

In 1894, two years after writing the above letter to Ida Wells, Douglass gave one of his most important speeches aptly titled, “The Lessons of the Hour.”  In this speech Douglass rebuked those who claimed to be friends of the black community, but argued that, “the colored race” provoked lynchings in the south.  Douglass quoted Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who fantasized about problems that she felt white men and women in the southern states suffered from, “ ‘The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt.  The safety of women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment, so that men dare not go beyond the sight of their own roof tree.’”

Douglass made it clear that Willard’s charge was not directed only against individuals who may or may not have committed crimes, but against all African Americans.   He also pointed out that the victims of lynchings were denied their constitutional right to be tried in a court of law, and were instead judged by mob rule.  The mob, “Blinded by its own fury, it is moved by impulses utterly unfavorable to a clear perception of the facts and the ability to make an impartial statement of the simple truth.”

Douglass continued by pointing out that the charge of rape was never made against blacks during slavery.  “I reject the charge brought against the Negro as a class, because all through the late war, while the save-masters of the South were absent from their home, in the field of rebellion, with bullets in their pockets, treason in their hearts, broad blades in their bloody hands, seeking the life the nation, with the vile purpose of perpetuating the enslavement of the Negro, their wives, their daughters, their sisters and their mothers were left in the absolute custody of these same Negroes and during all those long four years of terrible crime now alleged against him, there was never a single instance of such crime reported or charged against him.”

Although African Americans had not been accused of raping white women in the past, this was not the first time violence was carried out against them.  Douglass cited the following reasons given to justify this violence.   “First, you remember, as I have said, it was insurrection, (against slavery).  When that wore out, Negro supremacy became the excuse, (in reconstruction).  When that was worn out, then came the charge of assault upon defenseless women.”

The actual reason for the lynchings was that, “The landowners of the South want the labor of the Negro on the hardest terms possible.  They once had it for nothing. They now want it for next to nothing.”

Douglass went on to describe how the brutality against black women in slavery was not imagined but real.  “Slavery itself, you will remember, was a system of unmitigated, legalized outrage upon black women of the South, and no white man was ever shot, burned or hanged for availing himself of all the power that slavery gave him at this point.”

These are some of the solutions Douglass offered to solve what he considered a “national problem.”  “Let the South abandon the system of mortgage labor and cease to make the Negro a pauper, by paying him dishonest scrip for his honest labor.

“Let them give up the idea that they can be free while making the Negro a slave.  Let them give up the idea that to degrade the colored man is to elevate the white man.  Let them cease putting new wine into old bottles, and mending old garments with new cloth.”

Finally he said, “Banish the idea that one class must rule over another.  Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizens are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest and your problem will be solved.”[3]

When we consider this history, I believe that the trial portrayed in the film Marshall takes on new meaning. Had this been a trial interested in justice, Ida Well’s study of 728 lynchings would have been allowed into evidence. This information would have shown government complicity in murdering thousands of Black men and women in order to terrorize the Black community. If this would ever happen, we can question whether juries would ever take the words of prosecuting attorneys seriously.

To the contrary, the day after Eleanor Strubing made her accusation of rape against Joseph Spell, these accusations were reported in the New York Times. While the Times argues that it reports, “all the news that’s fit to print,” their coverage of this story followed a pattern long established by the Ku Klux Klan.

McCleskey v. Kemp

In the film Marshall we get the impression that things have changed with respect to the so-called justice system in this country. Perhaps the language of judges and prosecutors may have changed, but the 1987 Supreme Court case of McCleskey V. Kemp illustrates how institutionalized discrimination continues to be a part of this so-called justice system. Michelle Alexander reported on this case in her book, The New Jim Crow – Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.

Warren McCleskey was a Black man facing the death sentence for murdering a police officer during an armed robbery in Georgia. The NAACP legal defense fund supported McCleskey’s claim that Georgia’s death penalty was infected with racial bias and violated the Fourteenth and Eight Amendments to the Constitution.

McCleskey’s claim was supported by a study conducted by Professor David Baldus. Baldus found that Georgia prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70 percent of the cases involving Black defendants and caucasian victims, but only 19 percent of cases involving caucasian defendants and Black victims.

The Supreme Court ruled against McCleskey. The court argued that statistical evidence was not proof of discrimination. Unless a defendant like McCleskey could prove that the prosecutor intentionally sought the death penalty because McCleskey was Black, the statistical evidence of discrimination was irrelevant.

The Supreme Court fully understood that prosecutors are shielded by laws that prevent attorneys from questioning their motives. Therefore the case of McCleskey v. Kemp made it clear that discriminatory practices by prosecuting attorneys were legal, except when prosecutors admitted they had racist intentions.

In my opinion, this is almost like saying that if someone who is accused of murder refused to acknowledge that he or she was guilty, this evidence would automatically exonerate the accused and supersede all evidence to the contrary.

Tanya McDowell

Thurgood Marshall argued several cases to the Supreme Court. One of his most famous cases was Brown v. the Board of Education Topeka in 1954. This case argued that state laws that established separate schools for Black and caucasian students were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of this argument.

The case of Tanya McDowell illustrates how prosecuting attorneys have twisted this decision in order to make Brown v. the Board of Education Topeka largely meaningless. This case happens to take place in the same area as the trial portrayed in the film Marshall.             

Tanya McDowell was a homeless mother who sent her son to a public Norwalk, Connecticut school while residing in Bridgeport.  The authorities in Norwalk felt that this was a crime.  As a result, a Norwalk court sentenced McDowell to twelve years in prison and she has been fined $6,200. Her sentence was reduced to five years in prison.  McDowell happens to be Black.   

The idea of sending a mother to prison for sending her son to a public school appears to be incomprehensible.  However, the court decision sending McDowell to prison took place in a nation that claims to represent “liberty and justice for all.”  In order to understand the background to this case, we need to look at a bit of history.        

The heroic struggle to free the people of the United States from Jim Crow segregation is known throughout the world.  The Civil Rights movement effectively forced the Supreme Court to make its decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education Topeka.  This decision ruled that the idea of separate but equal, or segregated education is illegal.  However, this decision only applied to students living in a particular school district.  Today, education continues to be segregated when we compare many inner cities to the suburban communities.  This is the problem that Tanya McDowell faces today.

The Census Bureau lists the Norwalk, Stamford, Bridgeport, Connecticut metropolitan area as the 13th most segregated metropolitan area in the nation.  Typically this means that educational facilities are funded at a much higher rate in the suburban areas than in the inner cities. 

Philadelphia is rated as the ninth most segregated metropolitan area in the nation.  Per student funding for education in Philadelphia is about $11,000 per year and about 90% of the school population is Black or Latino.  When we cross the Philadelphia border at City Line Avenue, we enter the Lower Merion School District where per student funding for education is about $22,000 and about eighty to ninety percent of the student population is caucasian. 

In my opinion, Tanya McDowell has a more consistent view of the educational system in this country than the Supreme Court.  McDowell understands that segregated educational facilities are not equal.  While the judicial system allows gross disparities in the funding of education, McDowell took a different approach.  She used the address of her babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marques, to register her son in a Norwalk school while she resided in Bridgeport. 

The authorities in Norwalk charged Tanya McDowell with stealing $15,000 in educational services from the district.  The housing authority in Norwalk evicted Ana Rebecca Marques from her so-called public housing for providing the documents that allowed McDowell’s son to go to school in the district.  Twenty-six other students have been thrown out of Norwalk’s so-called public schools for similar reasons. McDowell was singled out for prosecution because she sold illegal drugs to an undercover agent.

When we consider the charge that Tanya McDowell stole money from the Norwalk School District, we might consider a few facts.  The historical facts are that huge amounts of money were effectively stolen from Black people during slavery, Jim Crow segregation, as well as the legalized discrimination we see today.  This theft was, and continues to be perfectly legal. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever went to prison for steeling this money.  To the contrary, some of the most lucrative financial enterprises have reaped enormous profits from this discrimination.

The Mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut is Richard A. Moccia.  His daughter, Suzanne Vieux, is the District Attorney who prosecuted Tanya McDowell.  These politicians have a similar outlook as the top government officials, which include former President Barack Obama.  These officials understand that there is blatant discrimination in the educational system in this country, and they have decided to do nothing about it.  To the contrary, they advocate for horrendous cutbacks that have made the disparity in educational funding even more dramatic.   

The Connecticut Parent’s Union, and the NAACP gave their support to Tanya McDowell.  There was also a petition with 15,600 signatures that also supported her fight to avoid incarceration.

Gwen Samuel, who heads the Connecticut Parent’s Union, had this to say as to why she supports Tanya McDowell:

“She [McDowell] understands something about the importance of education…I’m disappointed and I’m scared… I’m afraid of a system that would rather arrest me for being a good parent than help me raise my child to be a productive citizen.”

Thurgood Marshall and Malcolm X

We can clearly commend Thurgood Marshall for using his skills to defend individuals like Joseph Spell. As the film Marshall documents, Marshall’s life was threatened many times because of his defense of Black rights. However, Marshall also believed in the rule of law and felt that change would only come about through actions like his in attempting to change the law. For these reasons Marshall opposed the politics of Malcolm X.

Malcolm argued that the government Marshall attempted to reform was an enemy to Black people. He argued that the way to deal with racial discrimination was to gain control of the communities where Black people lived. Towards the end of his life, Malcolm supported the idea of socialism and was a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution.

Today we can ask the question: Who’s strategy was more effective, Thurgood Marshall or Malcolm X? Clearly the attempts to reform the government did have positive effects. The legal system of Jim Crow segregation was pushed aside. Black people began to have educational and employment opportunities they never had before.

However, the average wage for Black people continues to be below that of caucasians. The system of Jim Crow segregation was replaced by a system of mass incarceration. The Supreme Court decision of McCleskey v. Kemp effectively legalized this discrimination. While the Supreme Court opposed separate education for Blacks and caucasians, Tanya McDowell went to prison for sending her son to a predominantly caucasian school district.

On the other hand, the Cuban Revolution has shown that when a workers government comes to power, there is a real possibility of doing away with racist discrimination.

After the Cuban Revolution there is a story that is pertinent to this discussion. A Black Cuban went to a barbershop and asked to have his hair cut. The barber refused. The Cuban returned to the barbershop with a police officer. The officer told the barber that he had a choice. He could cut the Black man’s hair, or he would be going to jail.

In my opinion, the Cuban government has been able to deal with this question because they follow the advice of Frederick Douglass when he said: “Banish the idea that one class must rule over another.  Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizens are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest and your problem will be solved.”



[2]McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass P.362
[3]The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume IV, P. 491-523