Today in Black History: August 11


1873 – Birth of J. Rosamond Johnson

Born in Florida less than a decade after the Civil War, John Rosamond Johnson was a musical prodigy who played piano at age four. A prominent figure in Black music & culture in the early 20th century, he was known to have studied at the New England Conservatory and with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in London.

Immediately following his studies, Johnson became a teacher in Florida. Around 1900, he and his older brother, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the now-iconic song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. Shortly after, John Rosamond brothers moved to New York and focused on music.

Becoming friends & partners with Robert Allen “Bob” Cole, Johnson wrote and co-wrote a number of songs, vaudeville acts, and musicals. Cole passed in 1911, but Johnson’s musical career continued and expanded. When the U.S. joined WWI in 1917, Johnson joined the Army and received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. After the war ended, he formed his own group and toured.

In 1919, the NAACP named  “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” the Black National Anthem for its powerful cry for liberation and equality. Johnson continued his varied career, acting in 1935’s original cast of Porgy & Bess. Though he passed in 1954, his music is still in use today, with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” featured in film as recently as 2021’s Infinite.

1934 – Alcatraz Federal Prison opens

A military fort and prison since before the Civil War, Alcatraz officially reopened as a Federal prison. Also known as “The Rock”, the Bureau of Prisons spent nearly a year renovating the facility into a 500 cell prison with six gun towers, metal detectors, and extra-high, razor wire-topped fences. The name “Alcatraz” comes from Isla de los Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans).

Rumors surrounding the severity of Alcatraz as a Federal prison flew around the country within the first year. Several investigations were done over the years, resulting in small changes for the better. In 1960, in a last attempt to improve public reputation through transparency, the Bureau of Prisons released a booklet on Alcatraz. Of the 254 prisoners on the island that year, 64 were Black, over 25% of the prison population (compared to only 10.5% of the total U.S. population that year). The Rock was exclusively a men’s prison. While mobsters such as Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson are among the few well-known Black prisoners, inmates such as Robert Lipscomb had an effect on the country at large.

Lipscomb was initially sent to Kansas’ Leavenworth Penitentiary with a 25-year sentence for distributing $340 of counterfeit 20-dollar bills. While at Leavenworth, Lipscomb studied laws surrounding segregation and organized fellow prisoners to advocate for equal treatment, especially centered around work assignments and privileges. His activism saw him transferred to The Rock. Lipscomb continued to advocate for equality among prisoners, writing to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, as well as organizing demonstrations. He was labeled a “racial agitator” and spent long spells in solitary confinement.

The expansive library at Alcatraz encouraged him to advocate for equal sentencing in the justice system, as well; case studies showed him White counterfeiters who served less than 10 years for millions of dollars compared to his quarter-century for less than $400. In one letter, Lipsomb noted “Such gross disparity between persons for the same crime seemed to me to be racial persecution rather than judicial prosecution.” His continued “agitation” saw him transferred out of Alcatraz, as well. The prison closed shortly after. Alcatraz was never integrated, and California did not integrate and equalize the prison system until the 2005 SCOTUS decision in Johnson v. California.

1965 – Beginning of the Watts Riots

Also called the “Watts Rebellion” or the “Watts Uprising”, the series of violent protests lasted for six days and ended with 34 deaths, over 1,000 injured, around 4,000 arrests, and over $40 million in damages, including 1000 completely destroyed buildings.

It began with a traffic stop for suspected DUI. The young, Black driver, Marquette Frye, panicked when he failed the sobriety test and began scuffling with the officer, trying to avoid being handcuffed. The passenger, his brother Ronald, tried to protect his brother from a riot club the officer started using. The commotion attracted attention in the largely Black neighborhood, including bringing the boys’ mother, Rena. All three were arrested, though it was noted that Ronald had been peaceful throughout.

The surrounding crowd grew angry over the treatment and arrests, especially as more White officers and patrol cars arrived throughout. The crowd was also subjected to police violence, even though to that point they were merely observing. As the police began to leave, someone spit on a motorcycle cop. Police waded into the crowd and dragged out Joyce Ann Gaines for spitting on the officer. That was the final straw.

Crowds of angry Black citizens threw rocks at White motorists in the area, dragging some out of cars and beating them. In turn, police brutality turned murderous. NAACP and local Black leaders requested that Black police be dispatched to the area, but then-Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker refused and requested the National Guard. Many felt this escalated the riots to another level.

The National Guard dispatched 14,000 members, but before they could calm the situation, the Police Commissioner referred to the protestors as “monkeys in a zoo” and blamed Muslims for agitating the community. The next day, police broke into and destroyed a mosque in the community. This added religious persecution on top of the racial injustices. It took the National Guard several more days to quell the riots. 26 of the 34 deaths were ruled “justifiable homicide”.

2017 – Charlottesville’s infamous “Unite the Right” White Supremacist rally begins

Commissioned in 1917, dedicated in 1924, and listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1997, the Robert E. Lee Monument in a Charlottesville, Virginia park was part of the resurgence of white supremacy of the Jim Crow Era. In 2015, a massacre of Black Americans in a South Carolina church spawned a nationwide movement to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces. By February 2017, Charlottesville’s City Council voted to remove the statue by a slim majority, along with a statue of Stonewall Jackson. They also decided to change the park’s name from “Lee Park” to “Emancipation Park”. For some white supremacists, this was the last straw. 

A lawsuit was files in March 2017, and a number of white supremacist groups began chatting online about protesting the removal. After a May injunction that delayed the removal, a number of groups began chatting with each other, resulting in the “Unite the Right” rally, which drew a variety of far-right, white supremacist groups from across the United States.

Because there had been a large amount of internet chatter, far-left organizers created a counter protest. On the night of August 11, 2017, masses of white supremacists lit tiki torches and marched in a display reminiscent of the KKK’s cross burning processions. The rally continued the next day, with counter-protestors clashing with the rally. A white supremacist purposefully driving his car into counter-protestors injured 35 and killed at least one.

When asked about the actions and attitudes of the white supremacists, then-President Trump noted that a few people had gotten a license to protest the statue’s removal. He used it as an excuse to say there were, “people that were very fine people, on both sides” of the rally and protest, effectively excusing the hatred that spawned the rally. The statue was finally removed July 10, 2021 and the park was renamed again to the neutral “Market Street Park”.

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