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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Alpha Phi Alpha Act of Reading


August 21, 2012




                When you read such autobiographical writing as W. E. B. DuBois’ Dusk of Dawn (1940), Ja A. Jahannes’ WordSong Poet: A Memoir Anthology (2011),an innovative variant,  or Thelma V. Reed’s Black Girl from Tannery Flats (2003), you accept an invitation. On the other hand, you and the biographers are collaborating intruders when you navigate the pages of Seeds of Southern Change: The Life of Will Alexander (1962) by Wilma Dykeman and James Stokely or John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism (2010) by Keith Gilyard.  What, however, do you say about the act of reading

Long, Michael G., ed. Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

The mediated invitation to intrude is somewhat different in this case. Not only does the book bear Derrick Bell’s authenticating Foreword, but it incorporates necessary orchestration by Michael Long.  Your option is to read through Bell and Long, to go to the heart of Thurgood Marshall’s letters from 1934 to 1957 and to discover overlooked portions of civil rights history.

                It is often not noticed that African American writing encompasses more than African American literature.  Formal literary study valorizes a limited body of canonical works on aesthetic grounds, but cultural studies which attend to both writing and literature recognize the importance of letters as autobiographical acts.  Reading correspondence between Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes or between John A. Williams and Chester Himes enlarges our sense of literary politics and ideological contradictions.  Reading Thurgood Marshall’s letters expands our sense of the history of legal action and cultural practices in the United States.  As “texts,” his letters make new knowledge and unusual reading pleasures available to us.  Attention to African American writing enables us to discern why one of Michael Long’s potentially divisive rhetorical gestures is especially important.

                In his introduction to Marshalling Justice, Long compares Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., compares a graduate of Lincoln University (PA) with a graduate of Morehouse College.


Commentators often state that the time was right for King to emerge as forcefully as he did, and King himself talked about the zeitgeist of history being far more important than his own role in galvanizing the civil rights movement. But what many of us fail to note is that the time was right exactly because Marshall had already pushed the clock ahead, sometimes single-handedly.  For twenty long years before King assumed leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Thurgood Marshall, the young NAACP attorney known to everyday blacks as “Mr. Civil Rights,” struggled day and night against racial discrimination and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, businesses, voting booths, courtrooms, and neighborhoods. (xvii)


Long, an everyday white, could not know, without having read Charles H. Wesley’s The History of Alpha Phi Alpha : A Development in College Life (Chicago: Foundation Publishers, 1959), that Marshall and King were Alpha men.  Everyday whites seldom know what a certain class of everyday blacks takes to be common knowledge. Marshall and King had taken a sacred vow to be first of all, servants of all, and to transcend all.  Their transcendence brings to the surface many things that the zeitgeist of America’s penchant for forgetting would have us leave buried.  Being myself an Alpha, I exhume what memory ought not allow us to forget.

                Marshall’s letters are models of good writing and of grace under extreme pressures, and his grace is not the self-serving kind famously broadcast by Ernest Hemingway.  These letters remind us of what human character is or can be; Marshall and King were brave men not saints.  My deliberately biased reading of Marshall’s letters enables me to see more clearly the human dimensions of America’s ongoing battles with race and civil rights.  In 1956, it was very appropriate that King received the Alpha Award of Honor in recognition of “Christian leadership in the cause of first-class citizenship for all mankind” and that Marshall got the Alpha Founder’s Award “for his contributions to constitutional law and citizenship”  (Wesley 556-557).  But brave men because they are men have feet of clay.  Marshall exposes some of his imperfections in his correspondence with the Federal Bureau of Investigation between 1955 and 1957.  Reading toward fuller disclosure is not always pleasant. It is always a matter of brutal discipline.

                When I need respite from this brutality, I find pleasure in what is absent in Marshall’s letters: commentary on his relations with his Alpha brothers.  Marshall had no need to comment.  The fraternal bonds were always already there in his work with Charles H. Houston (his most important mentor), Walter White, A. P. Tureaud, Frank DeCosta, Herman M. Sweatt, Arthur Shores, and Channing Tobias. When Marshall wrote to his wife in May 1940 that A. Maceo Smith (a figure of great importance in Texas civil rights history) “drove us over 400 miles yesterday in eight and a half hours,” he was commenting on services rendered by his Alpha brother.

                My pride in having fraternal association with Thurgood Marshall is innocent trivia.  What really counts are his letters as examples of literary excellence in African American writing and our gaining fuller disclosure from reading them;  Marshall’s bravery in the face of danger and his legacy to America; the splendid record of his life’s  work in civil and human rights, and his lifelong ability to “rabble.”  Thurgood Marshall was a righteous rebel and a king of the rabble at Lincoln University (PA). As Ja  A. Jahannes wrote in WordSong Poets ----

Perhaps the rabble is what prepared Thurgood Marshall (Class of 1930) with the argumentative skills to lead the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to victory against segregation in Brown vs. The Board of Education, or enabled him to become Solicitor General of the United States, and eventually Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Perhaps, too, it is in this milieu of verbal gymnastics of the rabble that the rich tradition of literary excellence sprang forth at Lincoln like truth-filled thunderstorms and ice-cold rain revelations, volcanic and whispered truths, and pulsating distillations of a world needing defining and refining (11-12)

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.









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