‘Honest Labor Should Be Rewarded’: The plea for equal and civil rights

In the early 1980s, I worked for several years with the late and sorely missed Murray Friedman as his assistant to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. My job was to answer his mail, read and summarize the material the commission sent him on a daily basis (most of it writings dealing with civil-rights matters culled from newspapers and magazines across the country), and help him fashion the opinion pieces he published in various major dailies over that two-year stretch. In addition, I accompanied him to Washington, D.C., to attend the monthly meetings the commission held at its central offices.

Murray had been appointed vice chairman of the commission by President Reagan, who was clearly trying to stack the organization with individuals who conformed to his views. The commission was being led by Clarence Pendleton, known to friends and enemies alike as "Penny," who was another Reagan appointee, an African-American conservative and a distinct feather in the Republicans' cap. The commission was split then right down the middle, with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans – read liberals and conservatives – squaring off against one another. As I recall, not much got done in the way of substantive pronouncements in those two years because of these ideological standoffs.

Murray had arrived in Washington wanting to add to the commission's conservative clout, but he also wanted to act as "peacemaker," as he put it, to bridge the gap between these disputants. His efforts were well-intentioned, but he became the target of Mary Frances Berry, perhaps the most liberal commissioner.

Murray had expected her to oppose him on principle. But I think he may have underestimated her tenacity. She was a veteran in this arena and could verbally spar with the best of them; any time Murray began to speak about mending fences, she saw a splendid opportunity to, shall we say, sharpen her rhetorical skills. She also stood her ground against Penny, and tried to make him squirm any chance she got (they, too, were frequent). She could not imagine how someone of color could take such antiquated stances on substantive issues – and so made him pay for it.

Because I was part of Murray's apparatus, I, too, was held in disdain, but because I had no real political clout, she was simply dismissive of me. Too busy fending off real combatants, she wouldn't waste even her contempt on me.

Still, I recall that when she trained her eyes on you, the look could make you wither inside, perhaps even question your manhood. She pulled out all the stops when it came to arguing her stance, and those in the line of fire came away bruised. But in the end, her toughness won your admiration. She knew what she wanted, and she put up a splendid fight.

An Extraordinary Life

I remembered the force that stare, though, the moment I picked up her new book, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggles for Ex-Slave Reparations, recently published by Knopf. I was aware that she'd headed the commission for more than a decade, I believe, following Penny's untimely death (and Murray's departure from the organization), and that she was a longtime law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I also knew about several of her other books but hadn't heard a thing about this one. Nor was I sure what to expect from it, coming back in my mind to her adversarial stance at the commission hearings. But with just the first few paragraphs, I was hooked.

In My Face Is Black Is True, Berry retrieves and restores to prominence a lost life: Callie House was a native of Nashville, Tenn., who lived from 1861 to 1928, a former slave who decades before the modern civil-rights movement initiated a demand for ex-slave reparations. House's life and times were extraordinary, and what was done to her by government officials was tragic. Berry, by telling the story simply and forcefully, has added an important document to the history of the human-rights struggle in the United States.

House's organization, begun after emancipation, was known as the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. It was a true grass-roots organization – what Berry calls "a poor peoples' movement" – and its membership ranks swelled to close to 300,000 throughout the country during the latter part of the 19th century. But Berry makes it clear that House, who at the time of her activism was a widow with five children, supporting herself as a washerwoman, was the driving force behind the group, and that it was her vision and leadership that kept it on a steady keel.

Not that all was smooth sailing. The group's petitions to Congress for slave pensions didn't sit well with the federal government, with Southern legislators bent on enacting Jim Crow laws, or with the African-American elite of the day. In fact, House's advocacy drew fire from certain black congressmen who worked against the reparations bill in political channels, among them John Mercer Langston, Thomas E. Miller and H.P. Cheatham.

In the end, a trumped-up charge of mail fraud was brought against House to help derail the reparations movement. She was convicted by an all-male jury in 1917, and imprisoned for one year in the Jefferson City, Miss., Penitentiary Women's Wing, as there was no federal prison for women at the time. The organization's national legislative activities fell apart without her, though the work of certain local chapters continued. Within a decade, though, House was dead.

Moments of Clarity

In the sections on the trial, Berry's book summons a tone as simple and moving as Greek tragedy. House's struggles and isolation – along with the government's machinations to crush her – are difficult passages to read. "Callie House, on the witness stand, 'maintained an air of self assurance throughout several hours of examination and grilling cross examination,' according to the Tennessean. She answered the prosecution's questions about the association, trying to interject explanations about their local chapters' work. Mrs. House testified how, despite the federal harassment, the chapters had continued to bury the dead and aid the sick, while agents and members also had continued to collect petitions. The prosecutor, Lee Douglas, pressed her to tell how money had been collected and sent to the national treasurer. She explained that since the imposition of the fraud order had been imposed, they had used most of the national office funds for travel expenses. The association paid House $50 per month – when they could afford to. She insisted that 'she had not received yearly more than about $150.00 over and above the expenses connected with the national office expenses.' "

There are many such moments of clarity in the book. But that's not to say the work is flawless. Berry's strength is not organizational, so there's too much repetition, especially at those times when she switches from the micro-story of House to the macro-story of the national reparations movement; you feel the gears grind a bit as she switches tracks. In addition, her prose might have benefited from an editorial ironing-out.

But these remain minor points in light of the work's accomplishment. I doubt whether I'll ever forget this story, or the classical contours of House's extraordinary face, or the words she wrote to the members of her organization.

"I have been a promoter of the Ex-Slave Bill and an advocate of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. For the past 25 months I have been among strangers laboring to the best of my ability for the rights which my race is justly entitled to. It is my firm belief that honest labor should be rewarded, regardless of the color of the man or woman who performs that labor. …"

I have argued many times before that, considering the particulars of our history, Jews should understand and support – at the very least – the idea of reparations for African-Americans. To my mind, we should be at the forefront of that argument, as well as the fight to make it a reality. This is hardly a popular notion in the American Jewish community – or in American society at large – but Berry's book merely reiterates the justice of it all.

That was the meaning of House's life and her legacy, as rendered by Berry's consummate skill and compassion.



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