Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Civil Rights Matters

Pete Souza for White House/"The Problem We All Live With"  in background

Civil rights matters have been in the news recently. Here are some developments that may be of interest to blog readers.

President Obama approved the installation of Norman Rockwell's famous painting "The Problem We All Live With," in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office.  The painting depicts the 1960 desegregation of a New Orleans elementary school by Ruby Bridges, then 6 years old. When Obama met Bridges in July of this year, he noted, "I think it's fair to say that if it wasn't for you guys, I wouldn't be here today." You can view a short video about Bridges' meeting with the President and the installation of the Rockwell painting here. The New Orleans school desegregation case, Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board, has been the subject of several books, most notably, Liva Baker's The Second Battle of New Orleans: The Hundred- Year Struggle to Integrate the Schools.

Many commentators have praised the new Martin L. King Jr. National Memorial, but the civil rights icon's children came in for a blistering attack in an article by Charles Cobb, Jr., a veteran civil rights activist.  The title of Cobb's commentary for Slate and The Root speaks for itself: The Shakedown at the King Monument. In the article, Cobb vehemently objects to fees paid by the memorial's designers to Intellectual Properties Management Inc., a foundation established by elder King son, Dexter King, to control use of his father's words and images. The fees amounted to "extortion," in Cobb's view.  "I cannot know this for sure," Cobb continued, "but I doubt that the family of the murdered John F. Kennedy would charge a fee to a group organizing to place a memorial to him on the National Mall." David Garrow, the biographer of Dr. King and a frequent critic of King's children, added: "I don't think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family [or] any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington."  Here's my take on the situation: the Kings are as entitled as any other Americans to assert their intellectual property rights. But the family should expect to be scrutinized and even held to a higher ethical standard than others (whether or not the higher standard is fair is a different question).  The "what-would-the-Kennedys-do" standard is hardly the best one to use in assessing the King family's ethics.  If anything, the ways in which the children choose to control their father's words and images should be measured against the words and image of the man himself. What would Martin Luther King Jr. do?    

Lawyers, heirs, and property rights also are at the root of a controversy involving civil rights icon Rosa Parks. A recent editorial by Jeanne Theoharis (Brooklyn College--political science), the author of Fearless: Rosa Parks and the History of the Civil Rights Movement (Beacon Press), a forthcoming biography of Parks, and Julian Bond (UVA--history) explained that most of Parks' papers, held by Wayne State University, are closed to scholars.  According to the editorial, "Why Don't Scholars Have Access to Rosa Park's Archives," in 2007 a probate court presiding in a legal battle waged between Parks' heirs and a friend issued a troubling order. The court awarded custody of Parks’ possessions to Guernsey’s Auctioneers, ordered the collection sold to a single buyer, and the proceeds of the sale divided among the litigants. The single-buyer stipulation places the archive, valued at 8 to10 million dollars, out of reach of most universities and scholars. Bond and Theoharis argue that Parks' deification has contributed to the present state of affairs.  

It is unthinkable that a collection of Thomas Jefferson’s or Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers could be locked away for four years, let alone put up for auction without a single scholar being allowed a preliminary view to assess its value to American culture and history. [R]osa Parks has been reduced to a children’s book hero — lauded as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” not treated as a serious political thinker in her own right. Through the hype surrounding the posthumous sale of her possessions, which include her party gowns, glasses and sewing basket, she has been transformed into some sort of celebrity commodity.  This treatment is at odds with how Parks lived. One of her greatest commitments was to the preservation and dissemination of African American history. She read voluminously and participated in countless programs, school initiatives and museum exhibitions on black history. ...Parks spent her life working against the idea that wealth should determine access.
One lesson here: family matters.

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