Understanding the African American Freedom Struggle

The Greensboro sit-in was a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement. Four young black men, students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, sat down at a segregated lunch counter and refused to leave. Their protest sparked a wave of sit-ins around the country. Building on the momentum, students at nearby Shaw University, formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Three years later, the SNCC organized the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.”

At the time of the sit-in, Waldo Martin was just eight years old, living in Greensboro. But, he knew something big was happening. Martin would go on to study at Duke University and earn his PhD at UC Berkeley, where he is now the Alexander F. & May T. Morrison Professor of American History & Citizenship. In a recent talk on campus, Martin details the history of the African American freedom struggle, and how the Greensboro sit-in built upon a rich history of black youth activism that continues to this day. He also examines how, “African Americans have globalized their freedom struggle by intimately linking it with the freedom struggles of peoples of color around the globe.”

Watch — Deep Soul: Twentieth-Century African American Freedom Struggles and the Making of the Modern World with Waldo Martin

Pivotal Events

In the early hours of April 20, 1989, 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was assaulted and left for dead in Central Park. The ensuing media frenzy instigated a public outcry for swift justice. Within days of the attack five African-American teenagers implicated themselves, after hours of psychological pressure and aggressive interrogation. The teens were tried as adults and convicted despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim. The convictions were vacated in 2002 after incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men subsequently filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers, and the prosecutors involved in their case. A settlement was reached in 2014 for $41 million.

The story of the Central Park Five has remained in the public consciousness, in part due to acclaimed documentaries on the subject and recent reminders of Donald Trump’s role in fanning public hysteria, and is an ideal subject for composer Anthony Davis. Davis has created several operas that address social and political issues in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular focus on events and figures in American history involving issues of race and social justice.

Davis’ first opera, “X,” examined the struggle of Malcolm X to redefine his identity in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Subsequent operas included such diverse topics as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (“Tania”), the 1870s trial of Standing Bear (“Wakonda’s Dream”), a rebellion aboard a slave ship and the trial that followed (“Amistad”), and the story of Adam’s apocryphal first wife as emblematic of the eternal conflict between the sexes (“Lilith”). Given his concern with America’s continuing racial and political struggles, his latest opera, “The Central Park Five,” is of a piece with Davis’ earlier works.

In conversation with UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis recounts the origins of the opera, the challenges of writing for an ensemble, the use of jazz idioms in his work, his preference for smaller-scale intimate dramas, and the responsibilities an artist undertakes when dealing with historical events. He stresses that there will always be a place for socially-aware works that confront controversies head-on, and in this vein mentions his plan to create an opera focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (depicted in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series). As Davis noted in an earlier interview, “These pivotal events in our history offer windows into understanding who we are today and how we arrived at our present situation. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is not only an important political statement but it is also the central focus of my work as an artist and composer.”

Watch — The Central Park Five with Anthony Davis

A Moral Imperative

Since its inception in 1985 the Eugene M. Burke Lectureship on Religion and Society at UC San Diego has sponsored more than 70 public lectures in which scholars, theologians, and religious practitioners of various faiths address critical issues in the relationship between religion and society.

One such pressing issue is immigration. The first two decades of the 21st century have seen a sharp rise in the number of global refugees as individuals and families flee war, famine, disease, ethic and political strife, economic hardship, natural disasters, and the effects of climate change. As the number of asylum seekers and other immigrants grows, so too do calls in host countries to deny them entry. Here in the United States both legal and undocumented immigrants face an increasingly hostile political climate. In this installment of the Burke Lectureship two prominent religious leaders, Bishop Robert McElroy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego and Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego, discuss their respective faiths’ views on immigration while seeking to forge a common path forward.

Both men assert that immigration poses a moral challenge as well as a legal problem, citing the emphasis in both Christianity and Islam on fellowship and fair treatment of strangers. Imam Hassane stresses the importance of hospitality in Islamic tradition, while Bishop McElroy outlines the Catholic Church’s doctrines concerning social justice, especially as they pertain to the poor and the underprivileged. In both instances the Imam and the Bishop believe that giving aid to immigrants is a moral imperative that transcends political dogma. However, neither man is naïve; both understand the difficulties of preaching and implementing a faith-mandated moral course in the face of widespread popular opposition fueled by demagoguery.

How then to proceed? As Imam Hassane points out, the challenge is not merely to change men’s minds, but their hearts. To do less is to fail the moral test. Both the Imam and the Bishop believe that open, honest dialogue is key, not merely with fellow believers but those advocating opposing views, as well as with those in power who are in a position to effect change. Also vital to the effort are public expressions of solidarity with immigrants in the form of peaceful demonstrations, petition drives, and questioning of public officials and policies. The two religious leaders point out that a faith that is expressed only in words and not deeds is a thin faith at best.

Watch — The Bishop and the Imam: A Conversation on Immigration – Burke Lectureship on Religion and Society

E-Cigarettes: What We Know, What We Need to Learn

In 2014 with vaping newly on the rise, Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander joined us to talk about the potential health risks https://uctv.tv/shows/E-Cigarettes-Vaping-and-MRSA-Health-Matters-28132.

Five years later, we revisit the topic to see how the research is bearing out how e-cigarettes and their usage has evolved. Dr. Alexander shares a physician’s view of the specific dangers of vaping.

For more programs bringing the public and scientists together to explore how science can best serve society, watch Exploring Ethics https://uctv.tv/exploring-ethics/

Watch — How Bad Are E-cigarettes? – Exploring Ethics

Between Cultures

“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser

Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.

In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.

In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.

Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.

Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop