Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021

From the cries of the enslaved to George Floyd’s anguished cry for his mother, Black people have sung “sorrow songs” of suffering and oppression.

For African Americans freedom is a constant struggle. From slave songs to freedom songs music is the glue that binds African Americans together in the struggles for emancipation, civil rights and racial justice. In an interview, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses” were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, TV One will premiere UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT, a two-part documentary of 400 years of “auditory dissent.” The film features interviews with artists, archival footage from memorable speeches, and live vocal performances.

Cathy Hughes, Chairwoman of Urban One Inc., said in a statement:

Music is the heart and soul of Black culture – giving life to our experiences, voice to our stories and growing power out of our pain. Every melody, lyric and rhythm artfully depicts the layers of Black diversity, scope of Black creativity, and depths of the complexity of our people. TV One’s Music & the Movement special pays homage to the music and music makers whose talents created a soundtrack of Black music during moments of political and social unrest throughout our history.

Robyn Greene Arrington, Vice President of Programming and Production, added:

Throughout history, Black music has been a clarion call to amplify the voice of our community and important social and political movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. After an unprecedented year of social, economic, and political turmoil, we felt MLK Day was a great time to chronicle the ongoing struggles of Black Americans along with those who tirelessly lend their voices to protesting injustice and instigating positive changes for our community and social justice movements.

UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT will air on TV One on Monday, January 18, 2021, at 8 p.m. ET.

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free

In a 1969 interview, Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.”

The upcoming PBS documentary How It Feels To Be Free tells the story of six Black artists who reflected the times – Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson.

Michael Kantor, American Masters series executive producer, said:

These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism. We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.

Executive producer Alicia Keys added:

I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project. Art is the most powerful medium on the planet, and I continue to be inspired by and learn from these powerful, brave and stereotype-shattering women who leveraged their success as artists to fearlessly stand up against racism, sexism, exclusion and harassment. I honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.

How It Feels To Be Free premieres Monday, January 18, 2021 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check your local listing here.

Black History Matters

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Still’s last place of residence was 244 S. 12th Street.

Still’s neighbors included abolitionist Henry Minton who lived at 204 S. 12th Street. While Still’s residence has been demolished, Minton’s former residence and place of business is still standing, for now.

In the coming weeks, Midwood Investment & Development will demolish one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad. The road to demolition was paved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission which for an “inexplicable” reason ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation. The sole vote for designating the Henry Minton House was cast by the representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke, the only Black man with a seat at the table.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote:

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.

Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

Demolition of the Henry Minton House is not the end of the story. Midwood has a conditional public art bonus that allows the developer to build more cookie-cutter apartments for “the demographic moving to Philly.” The zoning density bonus is site-specific and must be approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission. If the developer erases the history of the specific site, 204 S. 12th Street, the community will fight the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Without a CO, Midwood’s shiny new high-rise will sit empty.

For updates, follow me on Twitter. The struggle continues.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.

New Billie Holiday Documentary Now Showing

Billie Holiday is an international icon. She also holds a special place in my heart. During a particularly rough patch, I started every day listening to “Good Morning Heartache.”

You can imagine my dismay when I moved to Philadelphia and noticed she didn’t have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. So I did what I do.

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Months later, I was all smiles when Lady Day’s plaque was installed on Avenue of the Arts.

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I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.

Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the hundreds of interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice.

The civil rights pioneer said “Strange Fruit” was her personal protest. She performed the song at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”

The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.

Billie is now showing in theaters and on virtual cinema. For updates, go here.

Election 2020: Counting on Democracy

I am a longtime voting rights advocate. Under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, I monitored elections in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and led voter education workshops in Angola and Kazakhstan. The American democracy is the gold standard for free and fair elections. As votes are counted in the 2020 presidential election, it feels like déjà vu.

When the polls closed in the 2000 presidential election, the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush was too close to call. The winner would be determined by Florida’s electoral votes. For 36 days, the streets were filled with protesters chanting “Count Every Vote” and “Stop the Count.” At the same time in the suites, partisans on both sides were filing lawsuits. Gore asked for hand recounts in Democratic-leaning counties only. Bush took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court stopped the recounts on the grounds they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. With that decision, Bush won Florida by a margin of 537 votes out of six million cast.

Punch card voting machines have since been replaced by electronic voting machines. But then as now, the perceived loser is cherry-picking election results. President Donald Trump is challenging the vote count in selected states. Then as now Roger Stone is engaged in dirty tricks. Also then as now, partisans are spreading conspiracy theories. As in 2000, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy to “steal the election” is evidence of the conspiracy.Trump’s baseless claims of “vote tabulation irregularities” undermine confidence in the integrity of the election. The machinery of our democracy has changed over the years. For instance, in 2000 I cast my vote on an 800-pound lever voting machine in Brooklyn. Now living in Philadelphia, I voted by mail and tracked my ballot status online. What remains unchanged is that public trust in the electoral process separates the American republic from, say, a banana republic.

Since 1989, The Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter, has monitored more than 110 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia. For the first time, the Carter Center will monitor a U.S. election. CEO Paige Alexander said in a statement:

What we’re monitoring is what many people have been calling the hand recount. Because the margin in the presidential race is so close, this sort of audit essentially requires review of every ballot by hand. This is unusual, but it provides an opportunity to build trust in the electoral system prior to the state’s certification of results.

Voter trust is the bedrock of our democracy. The 2020 presidential election is yet another reminder that the right to vote and to have that vote counted cannot be taken for granted. As Pennsylvania and other states certify the election results, the whole world will be watching.

Voters to Trump: You’re Fired!

Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election after winning Pennsylvania and securing its 20 electoral votes.

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Voters sent Donald Trump a clear message: You’re fired!

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Cue the theme to “The Apprentice,” the reality show that propelled the grifter into the White House.

On January 20, 2021, it will be time for the worst president in modern American history to exit, stage right.

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Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer Usdan said:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

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Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.