Juneteenth – which falls on June 19 but will be celebrated on the 18th here in Benicia – was finally recognized as a national holiday only very recently.
BenIndy Contributor Sheri Leigh has authored a wonderful piece on Juneteenth, which you can read below to learn more.
[Quick note from Nathalie: The QR code in that flier seems to have been deactivated, so I will look into the issue and update this post to reflect changes if I am able to do so.]
Juneteenth – Our Second Independence Day
By Sheri Leigh
As our calendar works its way towards mid-June, we are looking forward to observing the new National Holiday of Juneteenth to honor those who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Constitutional Amendment of 1863.
Although Juneteenth is known as the “Second Independence Day,” it’s really the “First Independence Day” for many. The freedom some gained when England released its hold on the Americas when we won the Revolutionary War in 1783 did not affect a great and important part of our population. In fact, the term “freedom” at that time only applied to those empowered by the color of their skin, their gender, and the coins in their pocket. The practice of slavery— impacting the Africans brought to and sold in the United States, the subjugated Native Americans, and, to a lesser extent, those indentured—continued to experience immense growth over the next century.
March 2023 By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
March has been designated as “Women’s History Month,” and there has been a lot of progress towards women’s empowerment in this country over the last century. Because of the indomitable will of women to be recognized as fully capable citizens, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote; the Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex; and the recent Me Too Movement created a wave of public awareness, condemning sexualization of women in professional settings. Although sometimes women are still treated as sexual objects and/or with derision, a woman’s right to a workplace free of hostility is protected by law. Women, as a group, are now more educated than ever; have climbed the ranks of the professional world, making them a powerful force in the economy; and have equal political decision making power as men. Despite progress, women still have a ways to go to achieve true equity. For example, women currently make up 50.5% of the US population, but only represent ~25% of those in public office. The balance of power is still tipped towards men, but it is slowly and steadily shifting.
But what about women of Color?
Because racism and sexism have been defining features of this country’s history, Black women, on the whole, have a deeper experience of subjugation and disenfranchisement than white women. Their path towards equality has been more difficult. They are a prime example of the effects of “intersectionality,” or social and systemic discrimination towards a person or group based on two or more categories of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation.
Intersectionality and the vote
The history of voting rights for women is an excellent illustration of how intersectionality has affected Black women. At the turn of the 20th century, the powerful Suffragist Movement helped bring about the 19th Amendment giving the right to vote to ALL women. Black women leaders such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Nannie Helen Burroughs worked in conjunction with white women suffragists.
However, many Black women wanting to vote after the Amendment was passed were presented with new and significant barriers, particularly in the South — barriers that were primarily fabricated by white men and often carried out with cooperation from Black men and white women. These included having to wait in line for up to twelve hours to register to vote, paying poll taxes, and being required to read and interpret the Constitution before being deemed eligible to vote. In parts of the Deep South, Black women endured threats, assault, and/or jail time based on false charges if they attempted to vote.This oppressive conduct went unchecked until the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law, specifically protecting the right to vote and banning deterrents like poll taxes and literacy tests.
More recently, however, new threats to the Black female vote have emerged. On June 25, 2013, Shelby County (Tennessee) v. Holder, a landmark Supreme Court decision, declared that the VRA’s formula, in which jurisdictions were required to submit a preclearance plan for voting, is unconstitutional. With the subsequent change to the VRA, several state and local jurisdictions with a significant history of racism were able to formulate their own voter regulations without Federal oversight. Although State voting laws can still be reviewed by Congress, this act significantly reduced the protections provided by the VRA. For example, within three years of the Supreme Court decision, 868 polling stations, mainly in African-American counties, were closed. Those who reside in those areas now must travel a greater distance to vote. Many can’t access the polls because mail in ballots are prohibited and they don’t have transportation or are unable to take time off from work or because they have to present a driver’s license and don’t have time or money to get one. These individuals have become disenfranchised and underrepresented once again. Unfortunately, this probably has impacted Black women voters more than any other group.
In the State of California, voting rights are unencumbered by literacy tests, mandatory poll locations and other factors that would limit access. California and other states like it guarantee freedom to voters, despite the coordinated efforts of many to suppress the role of minorities and women in our country’s leadership.
Black women have been and continue to be at the forefront of voting rights and accessibility for everyone since the earliest days of the Suffrage Movement. Their advocacy has allowed more people to vote than ever before. We have a growing number of Black and other women of Color who have been elected into office to represent their constituencies: Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass; California US Congresswoman Maxine Waters; and former District Attorney of San Francisco and current Vice President Kamala Harris, to name a few. These women represent all of us through positions of power and are backed by a history of strong, brave, and persistent women of Color who fought and continue to fight for their rights to be fully active and engaged and enfranchised citizens of the United States.
“The time is always right to do the right thing. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
“The stones that the builder rejected are now the cornerstones of this experiment called America…When the rejected get together, we can in fact redeem America from hate and discrimination. When the rejected join hands, our togetherness becomes the instrument of redemption, and we can revive and ensure that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and equal protection under the law, and care for the common good will never be taken away or forfeited for anybody, any time, anywhere.”
– The Bishop Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, III (2017)
February 6, 2023 By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
February has been designated as Black History Month. It’s interesting that the public education system and the national government now sanction a month to focus on the history of Black people when Black history has been part of American and world history all along, as have women’s history, gay history, and the histories of other marginalized groups. Ideally, the history of these groups shouldn’t have to be singled out for special consideration. However, the designation does provide a good opportunity for everyone to reflect on the historical progress and continuing challenges Blacks and People of Color and marginalized groups face. Let’s take a moment to consider what progressive and much needed changes the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King’s efforts precipitated and the challenges he faced in the process, and compare that to where we are today.
The late Reverend King is much revered by many. With his organization and leadership skills, he orchestrated several momentous demonstrations that ultimately led to legislative changes that helped Black Americans access civil rights and made significant progress towards an equitable society. The ensuing Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two of the most powerful pieces of legislation that brought an end to legal segregation, voting suppression, and an imbalanced workplace based on race. Dr. King’s efforts were not only directed towards rights for Black people, he also focused on jobs for everyone. One of the goals of his March on Washington in 1963 was to train and place unemployed workers, and the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 sought to address solutions to poverty in general through better employment and housing. Dr. King embraced personal responsibility, urging people to judge others by their personal qualities, rather than by the color of their skin. This is why we honor Martin Luther King with a special day of commemoration. But what about his challenges?
Dr. King was largely despised while he lived. His leadership threatened the way of life for the white community and many of them, acting out of fear of losing their social advantages, treated him with utter disdain and hatred. He was arrested 29 times. The FBI pronounced him a threat to National Security. He was dismissed by other leaders of his own faith, both Black and white, who publicly (and with great hypocrisy) claimed that the Church should not involve itself in social issues. Despite his commitment to non-violent tactics, the marches he led were met with vehement and aggressive attacks, sometimes by white bystanders and sometimes by law enforcement. His marchers were frequently assaulted by activated fire hoses and trained attack dogs. Some were targeting children who were peaceably marching for the right to an equitable life in this country. Dr. King was stabbed, his home was bombed, and he was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt ten years before James Earl Ray finally shot and killed King on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
But one of the most difficult challenges Dr. King faced was among his own race. Some members of the Black community preferred to keep the status quo in order to remain safe. Others believed that King’s commitment to non-violence was a strategy intended to bring a “Christian” ideology to his efforts and to wake up the consciousness of white “Christians,” rather than as an authentic practice. King’s early partnership with organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) served to strengthen this viewpoint. The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, claimed that “King was tragically misleading Black Americans.” A few prominent Black organizations, including the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), did not agree with the passive protesting model. Several factions of Civil Rights advocates agreed with CORE and promoted defending themselves against the rampant violence inflicted on them by white individuals and mobs during the protests, as well as at other times, particularly when police stood by and did nothing to protect the protestors. As the “Black Power” slogan gained momentum, a rift developed between the followers of Dr. King and those who sought justice by fighting back. For a time, King was one of the most hated men of his time within his own community.
It was a complicated and dangerous time, and Dr. King was angry, as he had every right to be. What he endured was unfathomable. Yet he continued to channel his anger into leading a national, non-violent movement and making passionate speeches, which, seventy years later, we are still quoting. Today, he is recognized as the primary leader of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. With his tremendous oratory and leadership skills, and his untiring commitment to civil rights and equity, he instigated tremendous advancement for People of Color in this country. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize of 1964 as a tribute to the enormity of his efforts.
Today, there is still rampant and unnecessary violence against Black people. With the well publicized murders of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and just last month, Tyre Nichols, to name a few – all Black and all killed by law enforcement officers for dubious reasons- it is obvious there is still a serious lack of decorum and training in many prominent law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Most states, including California, grant qualified immunity to law enforcement agents, keeping them protected from prosecution when they have injured or killed someone while on duty unless there is reason to believe that they knowingly violated that victim’s constitutional rights. This violation is often difficult to prove. It’s no wonder many People of Color don’t feel safe around those sworn to “protect” us. Systemic racism in schools, government agencies, and financial institutions remain a considerable roadblock to many individuals and families of Color towards obtaining equal opportunity and economic and social advancement.
The critical work of Dr. King continues to be carried out by leaders such as Bishop Doctor William J. Barber III, who is leading a campaign very similar to what Dr. King did in the 1960s. Dr. Barber is President of his growing non-profit organization, Repairers of the Breach, and a Senior Lecturer at several universities, including the Yale Divinity School. He is also Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He served as President of the North Carolina NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 2006 -2017 and continues his work there on the Board of Directors. Through his organization, Repairers of the Breach, Dr. Barber is committed to a movement he calls Moral Fusion, which emphasizes grassroots protesting through non-violent civil disobedience and change through education, voting rights and engagement, much like Dr. King. And like Dr. King, Dr. Barber is focusing his efforts primarily in the deep South, where the damaging history of race-based slavery has created lasting racial discrimination and tension.
Black history, which is a significant part of American history, today is much like the history of seventy years ago. Although legislatively, we have come a long way, Blacks and other marginalized groups are still fighting every day to be free from discrimination, and for social and financial equity, public respect, and the right to a safe and happy life. The question is, what can we do, collectively and as individuals, to bring an end to this imbalance and injustice?
Benicia Black Lives Matters hopes that you will join us for our free upcoming Black History Month event on Sunday, February 19. We are sponsoring a children’s Scavenger Hunt to learn about Black historical figures along First Street from 1 – 4pm. The hunt will culminate at the Benicia library. For the first clue and more details on the Scavenger Hunt, please email: BBLMEducationTeam@gmail.com. There will also be a short program and a movie screening of the documentary, “We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest,” at the library in the Dona Benicia room from 3:30 – 5pm. Everyone is invited and welcome!
“Benicia Schools joined thousands of other schools around the country to commemorate and celebrate Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first African American children to attend an all white school in the segregated South.”
November 22, 2022 By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
Last week, several of the Benicia Schools joined thousands of other schools around the country to commemorate and celebrate Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first African American children to attend an all white school in the segregated South. This was the second year that any of our schools participated in this important event. Last year, Benicia Black Lives Matters (BBLM) partnered with the PTA and the administration at Robert Semple Elementary School to hold the first march and celebration in Benicia to honor the young American heroine and her family for the brave decision to risk Ruby’s personal safety and comfort to help create a more equitable future for all American children. Every student at Robert Semple was present for readings of Ruby Bridges books and Ms. Bridges’ letter to students. The children were enrapt while listening to the readings and asked in depth questions about Ruby’s life. The event at Robert Semple was so moving and powerful that BBLM worked with the City and School District to make this an annual, City-wide event.
Ruby Bridges was born in 1954 during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, shortly after , Brown v. The Board of Education was enacted. The famous Supreme Court ruling declared that separate public schools for white children, from which children of color were banned, was unconstitutional. The segregated schools had six years to integrate. Many of the southern states were extremely resistant, waiting until the end of the transition period or until they were forced into compliance by the US government.
In 1960, young Ruby was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, which was one of the last southern areas to enforce the federal mandate of integrated schools. As Ruby prepared to enter the first grade, her parents responded to a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans schools. With the intent of continuing to keep Black children out, the Orleans Parish School Board opted to administer a rigorous entrance exam at their all-white schools. Ruby was one of six Black children who passed the challenging admissions test. Two of the other five children decided not to attend the soon to be integrated schools. Three of the others were transferred to McDonogh Elementary, and Ruby was sent alone to William Frantz Elementary.
On Ruby’s first day of school, the white community and nearly all of the white families protested by pulling out their children from that school and/or by gathering at the school entrance to shout at and threaten the small girl and her escorts. It was reported that Ruby conducted herself with dignity and stoicism. She did not cringe or cry, but simply ignored the threats as she bravely walked into the building. All but one teacher protested by refusing to teach. Although most of the children and teachers eventually came back, Ruby was taught in class by herself for the first year by Barbara Henry, a teacher from Boston.
The impacts of her bravery were harsh on Ruby and her family. Her father was dismissed from his job. Stores refused to sell goods to the family. Her grandparents in Mississippi lost their land. Her parents, under extreme stress, eventually divorced. But there was support as well. One family in the community donated clothing and supplies to Ruby to help aid her success. A local psychiatrist volunteered his time to provide Ruby with mental health support, and she remained strong and mentally sound despite the stress.
Today, Ruby Bridges (now Ruby Bridges Hall) still lives in New Orleans with her husband and sons. She is an activist for tolerance and equity and the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” Describing the mission of the group, she says, “racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
On Monday, November 14, with the help and support of members from BBLM and the community, the Benicia City Schools organized walks, pledges, displays and in-school activities to commemorate the tremendous efforts that were made by Ruby Bridges and others to provide a safe, integrated and equitable education for all children in this country. Robert Semple, Joe Henderson and several of our other schools participated with great enthusiasm. Although some of our schools sadly minimized the activities or did not participate at all, this is a tremendous step Benicia Schools have made towards the recognition and celebration of the history of all our families.