Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 7: David Steele on It Was Always a Choice

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast. Host Gary Kramer/Sam Cohn interviews author David Steele about his book It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism, which examines American athletes’ activism for racial and social justice, on and off the field.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you an hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

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About this episode

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he renewed a long tradition of athlete activists speaking out against racism, injustice, and oppression. Like Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos—among many others, of all races, male and female, pro and amateur—all made the choice to take a side to command public awareness and attention rather than “shut up and play,” as O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods did in the years between Kaepernick and his predecessors. Using their celebrity to demand change, these activists inspired fans but faced great personal and professional risks in doing so. It Was Always a Choice shows how the new era of activism Kaepernick inaugurated builds on these decisive moments toward a bold and effective new frontier of possibilities.

David Steele identifies the resonances and antecedents throughout the twentieth century of the choices that would later be faced by athletes in the post-Kaepernick era, including the era of political organizing following the death of George Floyd. He shows which athletes chose silence instead of action—“dropping the baton,” as it were—in the movement to end racial inequities and violence against Black Americans. The examples of courageous athletes multiply as LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe, and the athlete activists of the NBA, WNBA, and NFL remain committed to fighting daily and vibrantly for social change.

Celebrating Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we provide a roundup of some of the Press’s recent and classic Black History titles. 

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century, by Keneshia Grant

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also had serious political consequences. Keneshia Grant created one of the first listings of Black elected officials that classifies them based on their status as participants in the Great Migration. She also describes some of the policy/political concerns of the migrants. The Great Migration and the Democratic Party lays the groundwork for ways of thinking about the contemporary impact of Black migration on American politics.

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans at the End of Slaveryby Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer

In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.  Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture.

Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, by Tommie Smith and David Steele

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and his teammate John Carlos came in first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. As they received their medals, each man raised a black-gloved fist, creating an image that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports. In this, his autobiography, Smith fills out the story around that moment–how it came to be and where it led him. Smith engagingly describes his life-long commitment to athletics, education, and human rights. He also dispels some of the myths surrounding his famous gesture of protest: contrary to legend, Smith was not a member of the Black Panthers, nor were his medals taken back by the Olympic Committee. Retelling the fear he felt in planning and carrying out his protest, the death threats against him, his difficulty in finding work, and his determination to live his values, he conveys the long, painful backlash that came with his fame, and his fate, all of which was wrapped up in his “silent gesture.”

Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War Americaby Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin

As Philadelphia prepares its first monument in honor of Octavius Catto, a little-known civil rights activist, the publication of a new paperback edition is especially timely. In Tasting Freedom Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin chronicle the life of the charismatic black leader, a free black man whose freedom was in name only. A civil rights pioneer–one who risked his life a century before the events that took place in Selma and Birmingham, Catto joined the fight to be truly free–free to vote, go to school, ride on streetcars, play baseball, and even participate in Fourth of July celebrations.

The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, by David W. Young
David Young, a neighborhood resident who worked at Germantown historic sites for decades, uses his practitioner’s perspective to give examples of what he calls “effective public history.” The Battles of Germantown shows how the region celebrated “Negro Achievement Week” in 1928 and, for example, how social history research proved that the neighborhood’s Johnson House was a station on the Underground Railroad. These encounters have useful implications for addressing questions of race, history, and memory, as well as issues of urban planning and economic revitalization.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis

In Healing Our Divided Society, Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, along with Eisenhower Foundation CEO Alan Curtis, re-examine fifty years later the work still necessary towards the goals set forth in The Kerner Report. This timely volume unites the interests of minorities and white working- and middle-class Americans to propose a strategy to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work—and not work.

Mediating America: Black and Irish Press and the Struggle for Citizenship, 1870-1914, by Brian Shott

Mediating America explores the life and work of T. Thomas Fortune and J. Samuel Stemons as well as Rev. Peter C. Yorke and Patrick Ford—respectively two African American and two Irish American editor/activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Brian Shott shows how each of these “race men” (the parlance of the time) understood and advocated for his group’s interests through their newspapers. Yet the author also explains how the newspaper medium itself—through illustrations, cartoons, and photographs; advertisements and page layout; and more—could constrain editors’ efforts to guide debates over race, religion, and citizenship during a tumultuous time of social unrest and imperial expansion. Black and Irish journalists used newspapers to recover and reinvigorate racial identities. As Shott proves, minority print culture was a powerful force in defining American nationhood.

The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnappingby Lucy Maddox

In 1851, Elizabeth Parker, a free black child in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was bound and gagged, snatched from a local farm, and hurried off to a Baltimore slave pen. Two weeks later, her teenage sister, Rachel, was abducted from another Chester County farm. Because slave catchers could take fugitive slaves and free blacks across state lines to be sold, the border country of Pennsylvania/Maryland had become a dangerous place for most black people. In The Parker Sisters, Lucy Maddox gives an eloquent, urgent account of the tragic kidnapping of these young women. Using archival news and courtroom reports, Maddox tells the larger story of the disastrous effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on the small farming communities of Chester County and the significant, widening consequences for the state and the nation.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, by Roger C. Aden

The 2002 revelation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park that George Washington kept slaves in his executive mansion in the 1790s prompted an eight-year controversy about the role of slavery in America’s commemorative landscape. When the President’s House installation opened in 2010, it became the first federal property to feature a slave memorial. In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of this important historic site and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory.

 

Revisiting The Kerner Report, 50 Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, we look at the Kerner Report 50 years later, and our new book,  Healing Our Divided Society edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis. 

Following the terrible summer of 1967 disorders in many American cities, like Detroit and Newark, then-President Lyndon Johnson appointed a bipartisan citizens investigative commission, the Kerner Commission, to analyze the sources of unrest and propose solutions.

On February 29, 1968, the Commission issued its historic report which concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The Commission recommended significant, long run federal government-led progress in reducing poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality and racial injustice in America.

Healing Our Divided Society_smHealing Our Divided Society is a fifty year update of the Kerner Commission, a kind of Kerner Report 2.0, edited by Fred Harris, former U.S. Senator and the last surviving member of the Commission, and Alan Curtis, President of Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the Commission—along with contributions by a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond.

“In Healing Our Divided Society,” writes former Secretary of State John Kerry,” Senator Harris and Dr. Curtis have curated brilliant pieces authored by a diverse group of respected experts and activists, to examine the places we’ve gone wrong and wrestle with what we must do to live up to the promise of our country, and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.”

Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his domestic policy, President Johnson rejected the “two societies” warning.  But leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the Kerner Report in 1968.

Since then, Healing Our Divided Society concludes that there has been only some progress, much of it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s—yet we have learned what works and must assemble “new will” among a broad-based coalition of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.

Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president.  There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.

Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years.

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