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

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

Imagining Prison Abolition

Imagine a world that is more just, laws that are more compassionate and people being freer.

Georgetown Law professor and author Paul Butler is very familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system. As a former prosecutor, he once fought for long sentences. Now he’s advocating for the abolition of prisons. While that sounds extreme, in this talk he explores what would replace prisons, how people who cause harm could be dealt with in the absence of incarceration, and why abolition would make everyone safer and our society more just.

Incarceration is a relatively recent development in the history of punishment, with the first modern prison constructed in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. The American penitentiary was intended as a reform, making the institution of punishment more humane and rehabilitative. Because the United States now locks up more people than almost any country in the history of the world, this nation is perhaps the best laboratory to assess the success of the experiment. By virtually any measure, prisons have not worked. They are sites of cruelty, dehumanization, and violence, as well as subordination by race, class, and gender. Prisons traumatize virtually all who come into contact with them. Is there a better way? He posits that 50% of the prison population could be released and we would feel no effect.

Butler frequently consults on issues of race and criminal justice. He feels the system is broken and advocates for non-violent drug offenders to receive treatment rather than punishment. Abolition of prison could be the ultimate reform. Butler is not saying there should be no consequences for criminality. He calls it gradual decarceration and looks at ways to accomplish the goals of prison more effectively.

Butler is a Professor in Law at Georgetown. His most recent book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, published in July 2017, was named one of the 50 best non-fiction books of 2017 by The Washington Post. The New York Times described Chokehold as the best book on criminal justice reform since The New Jim Crow. It was a finalist for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for best non-fiction.

Watch — Prison Abolition, and a Mule with Paul Butler

Why School Integration Works

They are some of the most ambitious education programs of the 20th century – school desegregation, school finance reform, and Head Start. Today, many view these initiatives as failures, but professor Rucker C. Johnson of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy disagrees. He and a team of researchers combed through data from over four decades to figure out the true impact of these programs. Their findings are detailed alongside compelling stories of real people in Johnson’s new book, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works. Recently, Johnson sat down with Goldman School Dean Henry E. Brady to discuss the book and his research.

Johnson and his colleagues used big data and new techniques to look at the wide-ranging impacts of school desegregation. They tracked everything from high school graduation rates, to employment, wages and health. Thanks to the uneven implementation of desegregation, Johnson was able to compare children who grew up in similar environments, but experienced different levels of desegregation. He found a big part of the positive impact came from how desegregation affected access to class resources, after school programs, quality teachers, and smaller class sizes. And, the longer a student spent in desegregated schools, the greater the impact. In fact, the achievement gap between white and black students closed faster following desegregation than at any other time in American history.

Unfortunately, the United States has moved away from integration. Today, many schools and classrooms are heavily divided along racial lines. Opponents of desegregation appear to have won. But, Johnson says there is still hope. He lays out the case for making integration a priority once again, using data to prove its effectiveness. He also delves into school finance reform and Head Start, showing how sustained investment in education is the surest way to change children’s lives for the better.

Watch The Success of Integrating Schools with Rucker Johnson — In the Living Room with Henry E. Brady

Criminal Justice and the Latinx Community

The criminal justice system’s impact on Latina and Latino people in Southern California and across the nation was the focus of the annual UCLA Law Review symposium at the UCLA School of Law. Featuring leading scholars and practitioners who work to uncover and combat the ways in which bias affects Latinx communities’ interactions with law enforcement, panelists addressed incarceration, policing, community organizing and criminal adjudication, plus related issues involving ethics and capital punishment.

UCLA Law professor emeritus Gerald López delivered the event’s keynote address. He captivated the crowd with reflections on his childhood in East Los Angeles in the 1950s, where he watched the criminal justice system target Latinx people — activity that, he noted, continues to this day.

“It left impressions on me that shape everything I do,” he said while encouraging budding attorneys and activists to continue his lifelong effort to respond to those challenges and “change the world.”

Browse more programs in Latinx Communities, Race, and the Criminal Justice System