The Woman Who Tried To Murder Dr. King

For 50 years, would-be assassin has lived in complete anonymity

AUGUST 4–On the eighth floor of a nursing home in Queens, New York, a 98-year-old woman sits slumped in a wheelchair in the hallway outside her room. She is sleeping, oblivious to the roar coming from the television of her next-door neighbor, who is watching “The Price is Right” at an ear-piercing volume.

Though the corridor is uncomfortably toasty on this July morning, the woman has a knitted shawl over her shoulders. She is wearing green sweatpants, a green t-shirt, and black shoes with Velcro closures. The remaining wisps of her hair are gray and tangled. In her clenched left hand is a wad of tissues that she will use to absent-mindedly dab at her face and rheumy eyes.

As she naps in the hallway, it is hard to imagine that frail Izola Curry was once a would-be assassin, a woman who nearly changed the course of U.S. history with a seven-inch steel letter opener.

For more than half a century, Curry has lived in complete anonymity, despite the fact that she nearly murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. in September 1958, a decade before the civil rights leader was struck down by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Convinced that King and NAACP leaders were surveilling her and conspiring to deny her employment, the delusional Curry approached the civil rights leader as he sat in a Harlem department store signing copies of his first book. She plunged the letter opener deep into the 29-year-old King’s chest after asking him, “Why do you annoy  me?” According to a transcript of Curry’s post-arrest interrogation, she calmly told investigators that her motive was self-preservation: “Because after all if it wasn’t him it would have been me, he was going to kill me.”

Curry, who pulled the letter opener from her purse, was also carrying a loaded Galesi-Brescia pistol, which was hidden inside her bra. Curry bought the gun a year earlier for $26 in Daytona Beach, but told investigators that she had never taken the weapon outside her home–until September 20, the day she stabbed King. Curry claimed that she had no intention to shoot King, but instead needed the pistol for protection in case the reverend’s followers attacked her.

When asked why she placed the gun in her bust and not her handbag, Curry replied, “Suppose I happened to drop the bag and the safety go off and some innocent person is hurt.” Such concern was not evident hours earlier when Curry stabbed King with such force that her letter opener pierced his sternum. As seen above, a photo published on the front page of the New York Daily News showed King with the letter opener sticking out of his upper chest.

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Surgeon who once saved Martin Luther King Jr’s life dies in NYC

A New York City surgeon who was part of the medical team that saved Martin Luther King Jr. from a nearly fatal stab wound in 1958 has died at the age of 95.    

doctor01012014The death of Dr. John W.V. Cordice was announced on Tuesday by the city agency that oversees Harlem Hospital Centre, where Cordice was formerly an attending surgeon and chief of thoracic surgery. Cordice, a native of Durham, North Carolina, was off duty when King was taken to the hospital after being stabbed by a woman as he signed books in Harlem. The blade, a letter opener, was still stuck in the civil rights leader’s chest, millimetres from his aorta, when Cordice arrived from Brooklyn.

The operation to remove the 7-inch (17.7-centimeter) piece of steel was overseen by Dr. Aubre Maynard, the hospital’s chief surgeon, and performed by Cordice and Dr. Emil Naclerio.

King, then 29 and already a name in national politics, was discharged 14 days later. He was assassinated in 1968.

“I think if we had lost King that day, the whole civil rights era would have been different,” Cordice said in a Harlem Hospital promotional video in 2012.

In his final public speech, King talked about that close brush with mortality, noting that the blade had been so close to his vital organs that if he had sneezed before surgeons had a chance to remove it, he would have died.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters,” he said. “If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel … If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.”

A native of Durham, North Carolina, Cordice earned his medical degree at New York University in 1942. He practiced medicine in the city for 40 years. He lived in both Harlem and then Queens, where he was also a surgical chief at the Queens Hospital Centre.

(AP) / 1 January 2014

Fight goes on, without athletes

The rebel runner John Carlos doesn’t expect to see  anything like his Black Power salute at the London Olympic Games, writes Gary  Younge.

Spirit of rebellion … Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Photo: Supplied

Spirit of rebellion … Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Photo: Supplied

You almost certainly know this image featuring John Carlos.  It’s 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and the medals are being hung round the  necks of Tommie Smith (US, gold), Peter Norman (Australia, silver) and Carlos  (US, bronze).

As The Star-Spangled Banner  begins to play, Smith and Carlos, two black Americans wearing black gloves,  raise their fists in the Black Power salute. It is a symbol of resistance and  defiance, seared into 20th-century history, that Carlos feels he was put on  Earth to perform.

”In life, there’s the beginning and the end,” he says.  ”The beginning don’t matter. The end don’t matter. All that matters is what you  do in between – whether you’re prepared to do what it takes to make  change.”

Raised by two involved, working parents, Carlos learnt to  hustle with his friends in Harlem and fight his way out of and into trouble.  When the police gave chase, he was often the only one who never got caught.

Running came so naturally, he never thought of it as a  skill. As a teenager, he used to chase Malcolm X down the street after his  speeches and fire questions at him. Carlos always knew he was good at sports and  originally wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, until his father broke it to him  that the training facilities he needed were in private clubs for whites and the  wealthy.

That single moment on the podium cost Carlos dearly. More  than four decades later, you’ll find him at his desk in a spacious portable  building behind the basketball courts at Palm Springs High School in California,  where he works as a counsellor.

Bald, tall, with a grey goatee, Carlos, who turns 67 on  June 5, is distinguished and convivial..

”The first thing I thought was ‘the shackles have been  broken’,” Carlos says, casting his mind back to how he felt in that moment.  ”And ‘they won’t ever be able to put shackles on John Carlos again’. Because  what had been done couldn’t be taken back.

”The greatest problem is we are afraid to offend our  oppressors … I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater  force than the rules and regulations they had.”

The image certainly captures that  sense of momentary  rebellion. But what it cannot do is evoke the  emotional turmoil and individual  resolve that made it possible, or the collective, global gasp that came in  response to its audacity.

In his book, The John Carlos  Story,  Carlos writes that his mind raced from the personal to the  political and back again in the seconds between mounting the podium and the  anthem playing. Among other things, he reflected on his father’s pained  explanation for why he couldn’t become an Olympic swimmer, the segregation and  consequent impoverishment of Harlem, the exhortations of Martin Luther King and  Malcolm X to ”be true to yourself, even when it hurts”.

It was also a moment of silence. ”You could have heard a  frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go  silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane,” he says.

And then came the storm. First boos. Then insults and  worse. People throwing things and screaming racist abuse.  ”Niggers need to go  back to Africa” and ”I can’t believe this is how you niggers treat us after we  let you run in our games”.

”The fire was all around me,” Carlos says. The  International Olympic Committee president ordered Smith and Carlos to be  suspended from the US team and the Olympic village. Time magazine showed the Olympic logo with the words  ”Angrier, Nastier, Uglier” instead of ”Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The Los Angeles Times accused them of engaging in a  ”Nazi-like salute”.

Beyond the establishment, the resonance of the image could  not be overstated. The Black Power movement had provided a post-civil rights  rallying cry and the anti-Vietnam War protests were gaining pace. Students  throughout Europe, east and west, had been in revolt against war, tyranny and  capitalism.

King had been assassinated and the US had been plunged into  yet another year of race riots in its urban centres. Just a few months earlier,  the Democratic Party’s convention had been disrupted by violence between police  and  Vietnam War protesters. A few weeks before the Games, scores of students  and activists had been gunned down by authorities in Mexico City.

The sight of two black athletes in open rebellion on the  international stage sent a message to the US and the world. At home, this brazen  disdain for the tropes of American patriotism – flag and anthem – shifted  dissidence from the periphery of American life to prime time television.

Globally, it was understood as an act of solidarity with  all those fighting for greater equality, justice and human rights.

Carlos remains politically engaged. Late last year he  addressed Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York. ”It’s the same fight as it  was 43 years ago. We fought unemployment; for housing, education. It’s the same  thing as people are fighting for today,” he says.

He defends the US President, Barack Obama, whom he believes  has not been given a fair shake.

”If George W. Bush can have two terms to put this country  into this mess, we should give Obama two to get us out of it,” he says.

But today Carlos sees little hope of resistance emerging  through sport.

”Today, if an athlete doesn’t have a view of their history  before them, then they have a view of just that big cheque in front of them,”  he says.

”It’s not the responsibility of the oppressor to educate  us. We have to educate ourselves and our own. That’s the difference between  Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali will never die. He used his skill  to say something about the social ills of society.

”There will be someone else at some time who can do what  Jordan could do. And then his name will just be pushed down in the mud. But  they’ll still be talking about Ali.”

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The Promise of Black Power, Seen Through a European Lens

A documentary reminds us why the black power movement is still relevant

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 , released on DVD this month, is a documentary culled from Swedish television footage of the American black power movement. As such, it presents an unsettlingly European perspective on race in America. From bloated, aging white sunbathers on Miami Beach to apparently menacing, poor, black Harlem residents glimpsed through bus windows, Americans, one and all, are turned into anthropological oddities, quaint parables, and eccentric amusements. In short, the Swedes do to us what we are so accustomed to doing to the rest of the world.

The turnabout definitely has an air of enjoyable schadenfreude. But there’s a painful touch of truth there as well. The Swedes are much more sympathetic to the oppressed black underclass than they are to the oppressive white majority government. And yet we’re all being watched through that European lens. What white and black Americans have never quite been able to do for ourselves, the Swedes do for us, granting every race equality through the blind justice of documentary condescension.

That isn’t to say that an American documentary on this topic would be better. Quite the opposite. The Swedes are clearly repulsed by what they perceive as white America’s smugness and brutality, and are fascinated by black America’s courage, resistance…and brutality. As Stokely Carmichael explains in a fascinating 1967 interview, the black power movement had respect and even reverence for Martin Luther King, but it defined itself in large part in opposition to his non-violent tactics.

“[Dr. King] is a man who could accept the uncivilized behavior of white Americans, their unceasing taunts, and still have in his heart forgiveness,” Carmichael says. “Unfortunately, I am from a younger generation. I am not as patient as Dr. King and I am not as merciful as Dr. King. And their unwillingness to deal with someone like Dr. King just means they have to deal with this younger generation.”

And so, deal with it they did, mostly by shooting it and putting it in jail. One of the more painful moments in the film is an interview with Bobby Seale, where he explains calmly, earnestly, and convincingly that the Black Panther party is armed and will shoot any “racist dog policeman” who tries to give it trouble because the members of the party are “bent on surviving.” Of course, those racist dog policemen eventually imprisoned Seale for years, and racist dog FBI agents broke the Panthers apart. The fatal flaw with black power is that however many guns you buy, whitey always has more.

Or at least, whitey always had more. Today, the man with the most guns in the entire world is black. I’m sure Barack Obama could wax more eloquent than I on the mistakes of the Black Panthers, but there’s a very real sense in which he is the ultimate fulfillment of their dream as much, if not more, than of Martin Luther King’s. Eldridge Cleaver, for example, speaking from exile in Algeria, talks about his hope that black communities in the U.S. might obtain a limited sovereignty. And now, 40+ years later, a black man commands not a limited sovereignty, but the whole sovereignty kaboodle.

Similarly, in one of the modern voice-overs appended to the footage throughout, Erykah Badu insists that a people must have the right to defend themselves and their families. She certainly has a point, but it’s the same point that Obama (or, for that matter, Bush) has when he explains why it’s necessary for us to have our troops wandering around with guns here, there, and everywhere. The logic of power is the logic of power. Stokely Carmichael laid it out, but Obama followed it through to its conclusion—not least by calibrating his rhetoric and compromising his policies in a way that Carmichael never would have. When it comes to the exercise of force, the pragmatist, as it turns out, has a good bit to teach the revolutionary.

If Obama fulfills, and indeed transcends, the black power movement’s visions of empowerment, he also demonstrates vividly the extent to which empowerment, per se, was not the only vision. The Black Panthers weren’t just guns and force and promising to shoot the pigs. They were also free clinics, and food distribution programs, and community building. In this respect, the footage here demonstrates how important women were to the movement. It was they who keeping the social kept running and a dream of change alive while the men followed the dream of violence into prison cells or, at worst, death.

Perhaps the person who makes this aspect of the movement clearest is Angela Davis. In a 1974 interview in her prison cell, a Swedish interviewer asks her if she approves of violence. With some exasperation, she explains that in a society like the United States, violence is going to occur—and then goes on to a heartfelt condemnation of the racist brutality and bombings she experienced growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Though she doesn’t reject violence the way King did, there is in her answer an understanding of violence, and a horror of it. No doubt she’s mellowed some over the years. But still, I don’t think there’s actually any disconnect between her fiery statements about violence from 1974 and a voice over from 2010 near the end of the film in which she insists that even now, “under a black president,” we have to work together for “a future without war and without racism and without prisons.”

The black power movement, as seen here, had multiple goals. On the one hand, it hoped to give black people the kind of power that white people had. And you could argue that, despite the massive continuing disparities between black and white in this country, with Obama that hope was to some extent fulfilled. But the black power movement also hoped for a different kind of world; a world where violence would not be necessary, where America would forswear imperial adventures like Vietnam. It hoped for a world where, as Davis said, there would be no racism and no prison, and where, as someone else said, justice would roll on like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream. This second goal was more ambitious, and the progress in attaining it has perhaps inevitably been less. But the dream isn’t dead as long as we remember it. The creators of The Black Power Mixtape, white and black, Swedish and American, deserve credit for helping us to do so.

The Human Spirit: Shabbat in Harlem

Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By 1930, 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had lived in Harlem.

Simply put, Harlem was the synonym for inner-city crime while I was growing up in America. Every comedian’s repertoire included a joke about getting off the subway at 125th Street.

So when the broker from a short-term apartment rental agency in Manhattan clarified that the listing for “a luxurious and spacious, yet affordable apartment, 15 minutes from Central Park and a quick subway ride to Grand Central” was in East Harlem, I nixed it.
We would be arriving from Jerusalem, meeting up with our Sabra son, who is in the States for a post-doc stint, and his family. How could I tell them we were staying in Harlem?

A young American house-guest assured me that East Harlem – alternatively called Spanish Harlem or Il Barrio – is now hip and popular. I typed “synagogue” and “Harlem” into a search engine and found the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th Street. After correspondence, my husband, Gerald Schroeder, was invited to give the sermon there about science and Torah.

WE ARRIVE in Harlem. The apartment turns out to be roomy and convenient. The young moms with strollers on the street are smiling and helpful. The only problem is noisy late-night street partying at the 24/7 McDonald’s across the street. By the second night, I sleep through it.

Comes Shabbat, and on a sunny, late autumn morning, we walk toward the Old Broadway Synagogue. Congregation president Paul Radensky has sent walking directions. Red and yellow trees surprise us along the busy city streets. New Yorkers are in the midst of a planting an additional million trees in their city. They reached 500,000 in October, right here in Harlem, with the planting of a pin oak. The greening initiative is supported by Jewish singer and actress Bette Midler, a Harlem resident. Former president Bill Clinton has his offices here. Harlem’s main streets, squares and playgrounds bear the names of famous black Americans: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Ironically the decades of neglect in Harlem meant that some of the finest townhouses were never replaced by high rises. Ubiquitous for-sale signs announce luxury condos. City demographers say the black population in Harlem has been shrinking for half a century; in the last decade, white, Asian and Puerto Rican residents have been moving in. Chain stores like Marshall’s, Starbucks, and Cohen’s Optical line the main streets, along with pushcart vendors selling incense, “I Love Harlem” T-shirts and CDs of reggae music.

Amid the festivity, a middle-aged man is hawking tickets to a new show at the Apollo Theater. This is where famed black singers and musicians performed when white stages were not welcoming. Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and dozens of other megastars got their break at the Apollo, a club owned by Jews.

TWO DECADES before Lady Ella sang “A Tisket, a Tasket” at the Apollo, a Ukrainian-born cantor named Yossele Rosenblatt revolutionized Jewish cantorial music at the neighborhood’s Ohab Tzedek synagogue. Rosenblatt introduced tearful sounds – krechts, as they’re called in Yiddish – before an adoring congregation. As the Roaring Twenties opened, Harlem was the third largest Jewish community in the world, after the Lower East Side and Warsaw, Poland. Between 175,000 and 200,000 Jews lived here. More than 100 synagogues and Torah study centers flourished. Perhaps my own grandparents lived right in East Harlem with the other Jewish factory workers. I’d never thought of it.

Jewish Harlem was never romanticized like the Lower East Side, even though Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and radio/TV show creator Gertrude Edelstein, who wrote The Goldbergs, lived in Harlem; the beloved Goldbergs lived in the Bronx.

What happened to the rich Jewish life in Harlem? Black Americans moved to New York City from the south, seeking inexpensive housing in the northern part of the city. The Depression shriveled economic opportunity. Unemployment and crime escalated.

Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By 1930, only 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had lived in Harlem.

Although the majority of property owners in the neighborhood were now black, Jewish business owners, landlords and shopkeepers who had remained there became the target of frustrated, poverty-stricken residents. Three years before Kristallnacht, rioters smashed windows and looted Jewish shops in Harlem. One by one, the great synagogues of Harlem became churches. Today, Ohab Tzedek is the Baptist Temple Church. Other churches retained their stained-glass windows and women’s galleries. Only Old Broadway Synagogue has remained. It began as a minyan meeting in storefronts, and just as the tides were changing in the Jewish community in 1921, it inaugurated its building.

Despite the touted gentrification of the area, as we walk to synagogue, a parade of men and women marches down 125th Street carrying a banner calling for the end of neighborhood shootings. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman is preaching at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building Plaza about the destruction of the Israelites. Turns out she’s reading our own Isaiah. Gwendolyn Pratt says she’s answering a calling to wake up the people of the neighborhood. I invite her to the synagogue lecture.

The stained-glass windows with the Star of David on Old Broadway Street are a welcome sight. The windows, boarded up after the brick-throwing in the violent 1960s, have been restored with a grant from New York Landmarks Conservancy. Congregants step out of the sanctuary to meet us. Coffee and tea are waiting in the women’s gallery.

The wooden pews are old and unvarnished, the ceiling peeling. About 30 men and women have come to Shabbat services, two-thirds of them Caucasian, one-third black. The man leading the prayer service isn’t Rosenblatt, but has a melodious voice. The only unusual touch in this standard Orthodox Shabbat service is that after the misheberach for sick Jewish men and women, prayers for the ill among non-Jews are elicited as well.

Says Radensky, “We are in much better shape than we were a few years ago. The Jewish population in the neighborhood is growing. I suspect that most of the Jews in the neighborhood are young and not connected Jewishly, and if they are, they are largely not connected to Orthodox Judaism. But I think the prospects are good that more religious Jews will move in over time.”

After services, everyone takes part in spicy vegetarian cholent and Middle Eastern salads while they hear about Torah and science. A Saturday night program is announced: An Israeli musician, originally from Ethiopia, will perform together with local talent. We say the Grace after Meals, introducing it with Psalm 126, “Shir Hama’alot.” It was Rosenblatt’s most famous piece, a runner-up to “Hatikva” as our national anthem. “Those who tearfully sow, will reap in glad song. He who bears the measure of seeds, walk along weeping, but will return in exultation, a bearer of his sheaves.”

I think of the ebb and surge of the tides of Jewish history, not only in Europe, but here, in the most Jewish of all Diaspora cities. The liquor store near our apartment already has five different kosher wines, a sure sign that the Jews are moving back. Harlem will be Jewish again, but the shadows of the past are not easily banished, at least not for this short-term tenant from Jerusalem.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


Due to the great number of Black atheists that have come out of Harlem, I have decided to blog about them. My last posting focused on some of the women. Now I will focus on some of the men.

Claude McKay was one of the leading poets of the humanistic arts and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1940s. He was raised a Catholic. However, he was exposed to atheism, freethought, and rationalism at an early age during his childhood in Jamaica. His older brother, U. Theo, was a freethinker and embraced Fabian socialism. U. Theo had contacts with influential British humanists, and he became a member of Britain’s Rationalist Association. He read widely on rationalism. Eventually, young Claude founded an agnostics group composed of boys his age.

McKay’s best-known poem is “If We Must Die.” McKay was motivated to write the poem in response to deadly violence against Blacks by White supremacists. He called upon Black people to defend themselves rather than die “like hogs.” Winston Churchill read the poem aloud (without properly accrediting McKay) to rally his people against the Germans during W.W. II.

Though McKay had been a nonbeliever for several years, he again embraced Catholicism near the end of his life.

Langston Hughes was widely regarded as Black America’s poet laureate. His poetry influenced Martin Luther King, Lorraine Hansberry and numerous other prominent African Americans. His writings were wildly popular among the Black masses, from whom he drew his strength. He, too, was a major poet during the Harlem Renaissance.

In “Salvation” from his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes discussed a negative experience with religion when he was about 13. He asked Jesus to come into his life and save him from sin. However, nothing happened, and he was devastated.

As an adult, Hughes wrote some works deemed blashpemous by critics. Two poems, “Goodbye Chrsist,” and “Christ in Alabama,” were strong targets of religious critics. Hughes’s leading biographer, noted scholar Arnold Rampersad, wrote that Hughes was “secular to the bone.” However, he loved the drama and passion of religion, such as the singing.

In personal correspondence to humanist writer Warren Allen Smith, Hughes stated that he was certainly nonreligious. However, he rejected the term “humanist,” even though the term could certainly describe his life stance. Like Claude McKay, Hughes became increasingly religious in his later years.

Jean Toomer wrote what is widely regarded as the greatest masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane. The novel features non-religious characters that critique religion’s hold upon African Americans. One character, Kabnis, refers to Blacks as “a preacher-ridden race.”

Toomer attended lectures on atheism, science and numerous other topics. He was familiar with the work of Clarence Darrow and other agnostics of his day. He was very well-read in history, religion, and many other subjects, and drew upon his vast knowledge to add depth to his writing.

Carlos Cooks was the leader of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement in Harlem during the 1960s. Cooks and other members of the group spoke on the streets of Harlem. They displayed red, black and green flags at their rallies and called for Black self-determination. They promoted atheism. However, the group was essentially reactionary, and they made homophobic comments and assumed other reactionary positions.

John Henrik Clarke was a major Afrocentric historian. He was the man behind Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, and other excellent books. He wrote the introduction, commentary, and bibliographic notes for the 1972 edition of anthropologist J.A. Rogers’s World’s Great Men of Color (2 volumes).

Clarke seemed to have believed in some vague concept of God. However, he was a strong critic of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He was highly critical of the late Libyan dictator Mu’ammer Gaddafi and Louis Farrakhan, calling them “fakers.” He accused Gaddafi of using his oil money to buy African leaders. He said that Farrakhan is a theocrat, and that only a fool wants to live in a “religious” society. He was especially furious over Farrakhan’s support of the slave-owning regime of mass murderers in North Sudan. Prior to the first Million Man March, Clarke said that as long as Farrakhan supported the regime in Khartoum, “I’m not marching anywhere with Farrakhan.”

Joel Augustus Rogers spent over 50 years researching history and uncovering little-known facts about Black people throughout the world. He traveled to 60 nations and won numerous awards. He spoke at rallies organized by the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. As an atheist, he believed that Black people should read more Nietzsche and less Jesus. He believed that Christianity did a great deal of harm to people of African descent. However, he generally thought highly of Islam.

Rogers’s books include Africa’s Gift to America, As Nature Leads, Nature Knows No Color Line, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, Your History: From the Beginning of Time to the Present, The Ku Klux Spirit, The Real Facts About Ethiopia, and Sex and Race (Three Volumes).

James Baldwin was one of the greatest essayists in U.S. history. His best-known work is The Fire Next Time. He wrote movingly and shockingly about race relations. During his youth, Baldwin was a preacher. He came to the conclusion that religion was phony at an early age. He was highly critical of Christianity. However, though he rejected the racial dogma of the Nation of Islam, he had a great deal of respect for its leaders, particularly Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Last but not least, Hubert Henry Harrison was one of the leading intellectuals of the early part of the 20th century. He was originally from St. Croix, a Caribbean island. He supported women’s rights and human rights struggles throughout the world. He became an agnostic during his first ten years in New York City, and he was skeptical of paranormal claims.

According to Harrison’s leading biographer, Jeffrey B. Perry, Harrison’s New Negro Movement paved the way for Alain Locke’s 1925 highly influential publication of The New Negro. Harrison’s movement was embraced by the ordinary people and was political. Conversely, Locke’s movement was not political, and it was embraced primarily by the middle class.

Harrison argued for the taxation of churches and in defense of the separation of church and state. He defended evolution and wondered how Black people could worship a White Jesus. He viewed Christianity as a major weapon used in the war against the poor. In Harlem, he sold books containing speeches of the 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll.

Harrison greatly influenced Marcus Garvey. He devised the first tripartite colored flag for unity. (Garvey would later develop the red, black and green flag.) Harrison promoted the idea of “Negro First” when he discovered that the socialists of his day put the interests of Whites before class interests. Harrison advocated armed self-defense against White supremacists. (Garvey would later popularize the expression, “The New Negro is ready for the Klan.”)

Perry summed up Harrison well by stating that he “was the most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals. ” (Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, (Vol. 1).

These are just some of the great Black atheist men of Harlem. Harlem has been home to groups of nontheists such as the Harlem Atheist Association and the Center for Inquiry/Harlem group. Harlem has hosted debates on the role of religion in the Black community and other important issues. Influential people from this community have long provided strong evidence that not all Black people embrace the God concept.

(For more information on great Black atheists of Harlem, see my first book African-American Humanism: An Anthology.) 

20 Essential African-American Writers

Though things have steadily improved a bit over the past few decades, the literary canon is still dominated by what’s commonly criticized as “dead white men.” Because of this phenomenon, the contributions of female and minority writers, philosophers, scholars and activists fall to the wayside — sometimes completely missing opportunities to pick up prestigious awards. Readers from all backgrounds hoping to diversify their intake of novels, poetry, essays and speeches would do well to start here when looking for African-American perspectives. Far more than 20 fantastic writers exist, of course, but the ones listed here provide an amazing start.

  1. Maya Angelou (1928-): This incredible Renaissance woman served as the American Poet Laureate, won several Grammy Awards, served the Civil Rights cause under the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught numerous classes and enjoyed a respectable performing arts career — all while never losing sight of her elegant poetry and prose. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains one of the most essential and inspiring examples of the genre, often finding its way onto syllabi across the nation. Like every other entry on this list, she’s more than an essential African-American writer — she’s an essential component of the literary canon, period.
  2. James Baldwin (1924-1987): Writer, activist and expatriate James Baldwin fearlessly tackled challenging, controversial sexual and racial subject matter at a time when hate crimes and abuse against the African-Americans and members of the LGBTQIA community ran riot. The impact of religion, for better or for worse, amongst the two marginalized minorities comprises one of his major themes. Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin’s sublime debut novel, pulled from his own life experiences and opened readers up to the realities those forced to the fringes of society must face on a daily basis — and how they find the strength to continue in spite of adversity.
  3. Sterling Allen Brown (1901-1989): Folklore, jazz and Southern African-American culture greatly inspired the highly influential academic and poet. In 1984, Sterling Allen Brown received the distinguished position of Poet Laureate of the District of Colombia for his considerable contributions to education, literature and literary criticism — not to mention his mentorship of such notable figures as Toni Morrison, Ossie Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many more. Along with Langston Hughes and many others during the “Harlem Renaissance” (a term Brown considered a mere media label), he showed the world why poetry written in the African-American vernacular could be just as beautiful, effective as anything else written in any other language.
  4. William Demby (1922-): In 2006, received a Lifetime Achievement recognition from the Saturday Review‘s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He has only written four novels to date, with 1950s reflection on West Virginian race relations Beetlecreek garnering the most attention. These days, he works as a contributing editor for the nonprofit, bimonthly literary journal American Book Review after having retired from academia in 1989.
  5. Frederick Douglass (1817-1895): Today, schoolchildren across America remember Frederick Douglass as one of the most inspiring voices in the pre-Civil War Abolitionist movement. Because of his autobiographies and essays — most famously, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave – readers fully understood the mortal and dehumanizing dangers found on slave plantations and farms. Following emancipation, Douglass continued working as a political activist and lecturer, traveling all over the world to discuss issues of slavery and equal rights.
  6. Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906): Even those unfamiliar with the amazing Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writings still know of them tangentially — “I know why the caged bird sings,” the inspiration for Maya Angelou’s autobiography, comes from his poem “Sympathy.” Way before that, though, he earned a reputation as the first African-American poet to gain national renown, though his oeuvre stretched into novels, plays, librettos and more as well. Most literary critics and historians accept that the sublime 1896 piece “Ode to Ethiopia” the defining work that launched him to national acclaim, paving the way for later writers from a number of different marginalized communities to shine through.
  7. Ralph Ellison (1914-1994): To this day, Invisible Man remains one of the most intense portraits of a marginalized community (American or not) ever printed. Writer, literary critic and academic Ralph Ellison bottled up the anger and frustration of African-Americans — specifically men — shoved to the fringes of society for no reason other than skin color, paying close attention to how they channeled such volatile emotions. Even beyond his magnum opus, he made a name for himself as an insightful scholar with a keen eye for analyzing and understanding all forms of literature, and he published numerous articles fans should definitely check out.
  8. bell hooks (1952-): Gloria Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, stands at the forefront of postmodern feminism. Thanks to her impressive activism work meaning to break down racial, gender and sexual barriers, she published some of the most essential works on the subjects — including the incredibly intelligent and insightful Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Today, she continues to lecture, publish and teach classes that carry on her philosophies pushing towards a more equitable, harmonious society.
  9. Langston Hughes (1902-1967): Regardless of whether or not one considers the Harlem Renaissance a broad media label or a legitimate literary movement (or somewhere in between), few argue that Langston Hughes emerged as one of the most essential American writers of the period. He worked in a wide range of styles, from plays to novels to essays to songs, but today’s audiences seem to know him from his poetry more than anything else. Though the short story collection The Ways of White Folks still garners plenty of attention for its sarcastic take on race relations in the early decades of the 20th Century.
  10. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960): Because Zora Neale Huston intently studied anthropology and folklore, her fictional characters crackle with nuance that becomes more apparent in subsequent readings. Her oeuvre stretches across four books, with Their Eyes Were Watching God easily the most recognized, and over 50 plays, short stories and essays — all of them considered some of the finest examples of Harlem Renaissance literature (not to mention American in general!). Interestingly enough, her conservative leanings placed her at odds with her more liberal contemporaries from the movement, most especially the heavily influential Langston Hughes.
  11. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968): The passion and backbreaking effort Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put into nonviolently protesting the state of African-Americans and other minorities needs no further introduction. His historical impact, still resonant and relevant today, came about through his eloquent, inspiring writings — largely speeches, essays and letters. “I Have a Dream” and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” are essential readings for anyone interested in history, Civil Rights, politics, culture and even excellent persuasive nonfiction.
  12. Toni Morrison (1931-): Among Toni Morrison’s litany of accomplishments sits two incredible awards — both the Pulitzer Prize (which she won for Beloved in 1988) and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Along with the aforementioned novel, The Bluest Eye and Song of Soloman have both received plenty of acclaim for their fearless approaches towards racial, sexual and economic divides. Today, she remains politically, educationally and creatively active, touring the world to receive some impressive, distinguished honors and promote the importance of literacy and equality.
  13. Barack Obama (1961-): Though known more as a politician than a writer, America’s 44th president published the incredible memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance in 1995 — right at the very beginning of his political career. Such literary giants as Toni Morrison have praised Barack Obama’s writing style and very raw exploration of his biracial identity at a time when such things were not exactly embraced. Most of his writings these days center around politics, naturally, but the autobiography remains essential reading for anyone interested in American history, race relations and other similar topics.
  14. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Because of Sojourner Truth’s unyielding strength and integrity, both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements propelled forward and changed American history forever. Her writings bravely addressed some incredibly controversial subject matter, and she put her beliefs into practice with the Underground Railroad and the recruitment of Union soldiers. To this day, the haunting “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech remains her most celebrated, influential and inspiring work, encapsulating how frustrated and overlooked she felt as both an African-American and a female.
  15. Alice Walker (1944-): The Color Purple rightfully earned Alice Walker both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1983, and to this day it remains her most cherished and essential work. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement and professor Howard Zinn, she used the novel format to expound upon the double marginalization of African-American women, speaking frankly about tough racial and sexual issues. She wrote many other novels, short stories and essays tackling similar subject matter as her more famous book — any fans should certainly head towards her more “obscure” works for more in-depth explorations of such complex themes.
  16. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915): As with many other early African-American writers of note, impassioned activist and educator Booker T. Washington used his talents towards abolishing slavery and establishing equal rights. Though he butted heads with many other Civil Rights leaders of the time — most especially W.E.B. DuBois — his efforts certainly lay the foundation for Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and other leaders who rose to prominence in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Washington wrote 6 books in his lifetime, among many other formats, but his autobiography Up From Slavery earned him the honor of being the first African-American ever invited to the White House in 1901.
  17. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): In spite of her unfortunate slave status, this absolutely essential writer became the first African-American woman to see her lovely poems pushed to print. So impressed was the world at large by her lyrical prowess, she received special permission to travel abroad and meet influential English politicians and delegates — though she only attained freedom following her master’s death. Most of her poems revolved around historical figures, close friends, Classical ideas and images and Christian propriety rather than the plight of the enslaved and the female.
  18. Harriet E. Wilson (1825-1900): Most historians and literary critics accept 1859′s Our Nig as the very first novel ever published by an African-American writer in the United States. Drawing from her own life story, Harriet E. Wilson used her pen to shed light on the true horrors of slavery, but unfortunately it fell from the public’s attention until Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rediscovered her talents and revealed her significance. Outside of her writing, she also garnered some degree of attention as a political activist, lecturer, trance reader and Spiritualist.
  19. Richard Wright (1908-1960): Regardless of whether or not one picks up Richard Wright’s fiction or nonfiction, he or she will be treated with some oft-controversial observations on race relations in America prior to the Civil Rights movement. Black Boy is, by and large, probably his most popular work, regardless of format. Most of his works, like many other African-American writers of the time, revolved around promoting awareness of the marginalization they experienced because of restrictive laws and general antipathy from mainstream society.
  20. Malcolm X (1925-1965): 1965′s The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains an incredibly essential read for anyone desiring to learn more about American history and the Civil Rights movement. Journalist Alex Haley interviewed and assisted the activist in compiling what became his only book, published with an addendum following his assassination. However, for a deeper glimpse into X’s beliefs, his relationship with the controversial Nation of Islam and his efforts to further the African-American cause, one must also pick up his published speeches as well.

January 12, 2011 by ghwelker