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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Civil Rights, Race and Culture

Neo-Nazis make even less sense with Leo Felton
Boston Herald, June 30, 2001

Whatever you say about Leo V. Felton, the would-be terrorist being held on a plot to blow up African-American and Jewish edifices in New England, give him credit for finally cracking the color bar of the Aryan brotherhood.

That's because Felton, whose body is covered in neo-Nazi tattoos and who for much of his 30 years has been involved in racist activities, including violent hate-crime beatings of people of color, is black.

As mind-boggling as that fact is, it isn't much tempered by the clarification that technically speaking, he is only half-black as the child of a white mother and an African-American father.

One reason that matters little is that by almost every definition of race in America - most notoriously, the one-drop-of-black-blood rule that permitted slaveholders to keep their own children in bondage - 50 percent black has meant 100 percent.

In other words, if Leo V. Felton isn't quite the Jackie Robinson of the white supremacist movement, he's at least its Tiger Woods.

Like Woods and many other multiracial Americans, Felton apparently doesn't consider himself black, though for completely different reasons.

Reportedly, Felton's identity crisis (or self-hate, take your pick) stems from a bad relationship with his dad. Woods, whose closeness to his father is the stuff of sportswriters' legends, has said he prefers to honor all parts of his black, Thai and Caucasian heritage by referring to himself as "Cablasian."

That sort of choose-your-own definition of race has gained currency in recent years, especially since the overturning of antebellum race laws in deference to more enlightened and scientific definitions of race as a social construct, not a biological one.

As the child of an interracial African-American and Jewish couple, I can certainly appreciate the push toward self-identification and understand it as a legit and even healthy activity for anyone trying to get in touch with long-lost ancestors of many different hues.

But regardless of how we define ourselves, we have little control over how others perceive us.

That certainly was apparent in Woods' case when after winning his first Masters Tournament, competitor Fuzzy Zoeller chose the occasion to make a crack about Woods and fried chicken.

Somehow, Thai food jokes didn't occur to him.

Likewise, in my own experience I have met some folks who clearly see me as black and others hoping to converse with me in Urdu.

Though it's hard to tell exactly what Felton looks like through the tattoos, his complexion was unambiguous enough for at least one neighbor to respond to a Herald reporter inquiring about him, "You mean the black guy?"

Didn't Felton's swastika-saluting comrades at least wonder what he was?

And unless I misunderstood it somehow, isn't race-mixing a cardinal sin in the minds of white supremacists?

That certainly must have crossed the mind of Felton's girlfriend and alleged bomb-plot co-conspirator Erica Chase.

If Felton's racist colleagues didn't know what he was, he certainly pulled the white sheets over their eyes.

And if they did know, then their actions and antics are even more pointless than we imagined.

Boston mag heads into trouble

Boston Herald, April 6, 1998

The caller to the Herald the other day was cool and even-tempered yet irate - looking for a sympathetic ear and a voice to tell him he wasn't imagining something or being overly sensitve or just plain crazy.

"Have you seen the cover of Boston magazine?" he asked. And the headline to a story about Harvard's Henry Louis Gates?

"Head Negro In Charge," it proclaimed. You couldn't look at it without being offended, he insisted. And you sure couldn't help but see it headlined on the cover.

It didn't matter that there was a 12,000-word article inside calling Gates the smartest black man who ever lived; most people wouldn't get that far. And if they did, they would be met by the phrase again, this time in 96-point type on the story's frontispiece.

"HNIC" is common parlance in the black vernacular, only the "N" doesn't stand for "Negro" it stands for that other N-word. As with other uses of America's most notorious pejorative, it means something quite different when it is self-applied than when hurled by someone outside the community.

In its plantation roots, HNIC referred to the house slave or black overseer who got to deal with massa directly and kept other blacks in their place.

Today, with bittersweet humor, it means the one African American executive at a corporation or workplace, or the otherwise highest-ranking black if only on the janitorial staff. The not-so-funny joke is the unspoken general understanding that while the former probably won't do anything for you, the latter will.

I doubt very much any of this was understood by Boston magazine's lily-white editorial elite, who took the phrase out of context from the article to splash it all over the tome. As with most headline flaps, the article's author is not to blame, except perhaps for including the term in the first place and then watering it down to define the "N" as Negro - a curious judgment call since the real N-word and other vulgarities pepper the article ad nauseam.

Of course, we couldn't use the N-word in the title, the magazine's editors said. Yet cleaning it up a little suddenly gives them license to say what they really wanted to say - like so many stogie-stokers of country clubs or executive boardrooms who suddenly change the protaganist of a black joke to "this country fella" when the one black member walks into the room.

Lest someone accuse the pot of calling the kettle some-color-or-other, it should be pointed out that the Herald's editorial management is no more racially diverse than Boston magazine's is. But at least when the caller asked to speak with a black reporter on staff, he got one. (Ironically, as he and I laughed at the end of our conversation, he had been looking for the Herald's HNIC.)

Today, Boston magazine's editors will meet with the presidents of the Boston NAACP chapter, the Urban League and the Organization for a New Equality, who will attempt to teach them journalistic as well as racial etiquette. It is a meeting that should have come eight years ago, when the magazine published "Blackout," an article explaining to the world that black Bostonia had no real leaders.

Now, in Gates, the magazine has amazingly found one. And with one Freudian slip of the pen, they called him what they've always been calling us.

Civil rights pioneer finally recognized
Boston Herald, August 6, 2000

GLOUCESTER, Va. - It's easy enough to find this small town in an atlas, but don't bother looking in most textbooks. Nor are you likely to find an equally deserving mention of Irene Morgan, though both are inextricably linked. Indeed, if not for the incident that occurred at Hayes Store on July 16, 1944, there would likely be little reason to look for either.

Yet that date and both names live in history as part of the opening chapter in the long obituary of Jim Crow. A decade before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education and 11 years before Rosa Parks' protest in Montgomery, Ala., Morgan also refused to bow to indignity on a Southern bus.

The differences are more than chronological: While Parks was riding on a city bus, Morgan was on an interstate bus headed to Maryland, where black riders would not be forced to the back. Parks was near middle age. Morgan was 27. Parks was seated near the middle of the bus; Morgan was in the second-to-last row, about as far back as she could go. And while Parks kept a demure composure when a driver demanded she yield her seat to a white passenger, Morgan was anything but quiet when her bus driver fetched a deputy sheriff.

"He put his hand on me to arrest me. So I took my foot and kicked him. He was blue and purple and turning all colors," she told me in a 1994 interview for a public television documentary.

"I started to bite him but he looked so dirty I couldn't bite him. So all I could do was claw him and tear his clothes!" she added in a telling as clear as if it had happened the day before.

She is now Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, and at 83 the stories flow just as trippingly off her tongue in scores of interviews as Gloucester honored her yesterday for her brief visit more than a half century ago that help lay the groundwork of the Civil Rights movement.

That ground began to heave when NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson, later a federal appeals court judge, and Thurgood Marshall, later a legal icon and Supreme Court justice, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision came in 1946, memorialized in a song penned by civil rights activist Bayard Rustin: "On June the third the high court said, when you ride interstate, Jim Crow is dead. You don't have to ride Jim Crow!"

Celebration of the ruling would prove to be premature. Robinson and Marshall had cautiously steered away from arguments along moral grounds, instead using the constitutionally based power of Congress to regulate commerce between the states to make the case that forcing black interstate passengers to ride segregated in some states and integrated in others would be "an undue burden on commerce."

Undue or not, the Southern states refused to enforce the ruling, leading Rustin and a group of 15 others a year later to mount the first organized freedom ride of whites and blacks traveling on buses and trains in a direct challenge to Jim Crow laws. Although their journey was chronicled in the documentary "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" - the same program in which Morgan appears - their story and Morgan's have been otherwise virtually lost to history.

Their lessons, however, were carefully studied by the leaders of more famous subsequent civil rights actions.

That may be changing. In preparing for its 350th anniversary celebration, Gloucester has rediscovered its famous short-term visitor. Many more TV crews and newspaper reporters vie for her story. Perhaps those who write textbooks are also beginning to take note.

In her newfound fame, Morgan Kirkaldy is frequently described as "brave" and "a pioneer." Yet those words do little to convey that to stand up as she did when she did more often meant a reward of violence or death than heroism. She herself downplays it all, saying simply: "If I see something wrong, I respond. I was just born that way."

For that, we all must be grateful. Whether we knew her story or not.

Robin Washington, a member of the Herald staff, was producer of the PBS documentary "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!"

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