Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

“George Jackson” and Bob Dylan

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Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the conditions were perfect for hard-hitting topical rock and soul songs to step in and document the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine,” the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. At the height of the era of music for change, it was more or less expected serious artists would weigh in during times of trouble with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was Blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was spurred on by their chart successes. Of course it was Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that were the catalysts for the decade’s new strain of rock and soul music with a message.

Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, found him mastering pointed and topical song form early on, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  He followed his first act with his famous retreat from political songs and folk music. Resisting the tag, “voice of a generation,” he leaned more toward poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical and developed his own world of song perhaps best exemplified by the rambles, “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and other epics on the trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  From 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile, off the road and away from the spotlight.

Making his way back to performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for all of today’s all-star charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a handful of more apolitical songs. Not long after the concert, on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged prison escape and Dylan would once again  pluck his subject matter from the headlines, returning to his roots as a social and racial justice singer. One could suggest it was Harrison’s and Shankar’s example of engaging with the world outside their door that inspired Dylan’s subject, though perhaps it was more a matter of his coming to terms with his own gift for topical songs.
Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years; his life and songs have been over-analyzed and well-examined, but the 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out remains one of his most intriguing cuts.  Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring, its subject remains almost mysterious and misunderstood to the general audience as the singer himself.
Landing in California following a life on the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery is what landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson immediately found trouble on the inside too when guards took an instant dislike to him and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed.  Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one and set out to decimate them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”

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Filed under: Black Power,, Bob Dylan, California, Civil Rights, video, , , ,

Don’t Call It A Comeback: Frisco 5 Still Hungry

frisco_5_hunger_for_justice_san_franciscoFive days after ending their hunger strike, on Thursday morning the Frisco 5  minus Maria Cristina Gutierrez, returned to the Mission Police Station at the corner of Valencia and 17th Streets in San Francisco to report back on their health and intentions to build a movement for police reform, and one demand, the same as it ever was: Fire SFPD Chief Greg Suhr. Against a backdrop of almost daily revelations regarding the toxicity of the department, and one day after four members of the Board of Supervisors, led by State Senate candidate Jane Kim  called for a national search to replace the chief, the Frisco 5 (Gutierrez, Edwin Lindo, Ike Pinkston, and two hip hop artists, Ilyich “Equipto” Sato and Sellassie Blackwell) remain steadfast in their resolve to keep the pressure on Mayor Ed Lee until the day Suhr is fired.

“People are tired and fed up.  We’re not blind,” said Equipto of the political maneuvering behind closed doors at City Hall. In previous discussions with the Frisco 5 and other community organizations, the Supervisors maintained they had no stake in police matters, that it in fact would be a breach of law to intervene.  However following this week’s Board meeting at which Mayor Lee was in attendance and Frisco 5 supporters voiced loudly their demand to “Fire Chief Suhr,” the Supervisors began to wake up: They started by challenging the Mayor’s position on maintaining an expensive, heavy law enforcement presence at City Hall following last week’s shutdown of the building by citizens.

“Thirty-three people were arrested; they are using violent tactics on us,” said Frisco 5’s Edwin Lindo at Thursday’s press conference. He and the community that supports police reform have a particular distaste for this week’s solution proposed by Lee: He’s suggesting $17.5 million be invested in retraining, the creation of community programs, and the building of a supposedly less-lethal arsenal of tasers and net-guns; detractors say the money could otherwise be allocated to help displaced, homeless, and other persons in need as a result of the Lee administration’s poor civic leadership.

Whether it was the community groundswell, the absurdity of Lee’s proposal, the outcome of the blue ribbon panel that found the department lacks transparency and accountability, or the weight of their own conscience, by Wednesday, Supervisor Kim was followed by her fellow Supervisors David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar in the call for police reform from the top down. Equipto said his mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, who could not attend the news conference due to a decline in her health following the hunger strike, was particularly disappointed in how slow-acting the Supervisors were in understanding their role in challenging police misconduct; her health was the consequence of their inaction and indeed the health of all the hunger strikers was compromised. As Ike Pinkston put it, “The mayor doesn’t give a rat’s ass.  It’s obvious.”

“Ed Lee should be packing his office right now,” said Edwin Lindo, who also offered congratulations to the student hunger strikers at SF State who fought to retain their ethnic studies program and won, ending their nine-day hunger strike and earning nearly half a million dollars for their department this week.

“Everyone said, ‘You can’t do this,'” said Sellassie of the Frisco 5’s intent to launch a hunger strike on April 21. “We did…It think Chief Suhr’s days are over.”

 

Filed under: Civil Rights, gentrification, Hip Hop, police, racism, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-six years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Uncategorized, , ,

The Last Holiday: Remembering Dr. MLK, Jr.

 

mlkIt was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumous memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retracethe long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., video, , , ,

National Poetry Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, and Record Store Day: Go Get Yourself a Gil Scott-Heron LP

April is National Poetry Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, and the consumer holiday known as Record Store Day (RSD) is April 18. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano. He also has a vast recorded catalog, most all of it available on vinyl. Though he was often classified as a jazz artist, his emphasis was truly on his words. Truth was, there were echoes in his grooves of blues and gospel, rock and soul. If ever you seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the rock, jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find the discs there. Last year’s RSD release by Heron, Nothing New, is a collection of stripped-down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980, as a full band, gospel-synth track.

It’s amazing how timely the song and its story of border crossings remain, though it is of course the nature of visionary poetry and jazz to foreshadow our concerns. The song’s refrain, “hold on” is recurrent in liberation songs and movement: The most obvious reference is the spiritual “Gospel Plow,” rendered as the civil rights anthem, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” Scott-Heron conjures its spirit of persistence in his own tenderly rendered immigrant song.

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout the rock ‘n’ soul songbooks, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock, soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. His memoir, The Last Holiday, details this background and is gloriously written in plain spoken style.  As a musician, Scott-Heron’s sound was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff. Scott-Heron died on May 27, 2011 leaving a huge void in vision and voice, poetry and jazz, though through the miracle of recorded sound and the printed page, his words and music still echo in hearts of his fellow travelers.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, , , , , ,

The Staple Singers: The Long March on Freedom’s Highway

StapleSinger_cover-450x450In April of 1965, just weeks after the historic marches for voting rights across Alabama, the Staple Singers convened at a South Side Chicago church for a service dedicated to the marchers. The resulting live album, Freedom Highway, has since become a recorded classic, merging soul-solid messages and spirit-rising music. Long out of print, it was reissued in an expanded edition this week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, though its gospel-sung dreams of justice for all are yet to be won.  Read my full review at Blurt online.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Gospel, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

MLK: The Last Holiday

01269r-1“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend I joined hands with Down With Tyranny! to present a series of guest blogs. Following a bit of background on the creation of the King holiday by a musician, I write a little about the music in the extraordinary film, Selma, and direct listeners to the old songs that still sing out strong during the current justice movement afoot in the US.

Yesterday’s post concerns the State of San Francisco following last week’s mayoral address.  Tuesday will feature an everyday story of gentrification and how it is impacting the lives of two working people here in town.

Wishing you peace and enjoyment of this day of service.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, , , ,

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

First-Ever Howard Zinn Bookfair Convenes In San Francisco: Marcus Books is Back!

Today’s first-ever Howard Zinn Bookfair zinnportraitconvenes at San Francisco’s historic Mission High School with a list of right-on authors as long as your arm so you’re going to have to check the program to believe your eyes. Organized by author James Tracy who also founded the San Francisco Community Land Trust,  the day is jam–packed with discussion and presentations concerning the people’s history—past, present and future—and is free to the public. I’ll be leading the discussion titled Supporting Our Bookstores in a Time of Gentrification from 1:30-2:30 PM in the James Baldwin Room, and will be joined by Karen and Gregory Johnson of Marcus Books San Francisco and Kate Rosenberger of the Mission District’s Dog Eared and Alley Cat Books. We hope to see the room filled with bookstore workers and supporters as we imagine ways in which our City’s bookstores can work cooperatively and reach out to each other more in what was a record-breaking year of small business closures in San Francisco.

As the day-long celebration of our stories transitions into the evening, there will be an arts and awards ceremony: I’m pleased to say, Marcus Books will be making an announcement about the store’s future and will be receiving a lifetime achievement award for their service to the people of San Francisco and beyond it.  Read my coverage on the current state of San Francisco’s bookstores at 48 Hills,  and I’ll see you at the people’s bookfair.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, Civil Rights, income disparity, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, , ,

Stolen Legacy of Marcus Books Must Be Returned To Owners & The Community

In February: Mayor Ed Lee (center) of San Francisco signs the historic landmark designation for 1712-1716 Fillmore Street, former home of Marcus Books and Greg and Karen Johnson (also pictured).

Since the May eviction of Marcus Books in San Francisco, the speculators who purchased the property have waged a hateful campaign against the historic, landmarked Jimbo’s Bop City building that housed the oldest black bookstore in the US and the Richardson-Johnson family, its longtime proprietors. Theft of valuable store inventory and business tools, destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, displacement of four generations, and most recently a slander campaign against the family who ran the store for 50 years are the contributions made by new owners, the Sweises, to 1712-1716 Fillmore Street. That the City of San Francisco has done little to prevent the attacks, aside from rubber-stamping the building and business as a community and cultural resource with a landmark designation earlier this year, isn’t that surprising: Since the 2009 Mayor’s Task Force Report on African American Out-Migration, few of the recommendations for education, economic development, and cultural and social life have been implemented.  But the City’s negligence and complicity in this recent act of cultural genocide in the black community was so shocking, it must not be allowed to stand unchecked.

The continual and unrestrained despoiling of predominately black and brown neighborhood resources is not a newsflash:  There has been a concerted effort toward black neighborhood “redevelopment” since at least the early ’60s. Certainly evictions overall have been unprecedented on Mayor Ed Lee’s watch, but the way in which the dismantling of the Marcus Bookstore was carried out was particularly aggressive. Small business owners, especially those of color, know well the lack of protections for their tenant and human rights, but the Marcus Books story was under-reported by local media and the details remained largely a mystery to those outside the community until this response by the Johnsons was published on Friday.

In May: Contents of the Marcus Bookstore in process of being dumped and prepared for hauling away.

Following the store’s eviction, the new owners broke several moving dates, then took hostage the store’s books, art work and equipment. Said to be put in storage, to date the materials have not been returned. Community members suspect most all of what was contained in the bookstore—including 50 years of history and ephemera documenting black San Francisco—was either stolen or destroyed, hauled away in a landscaping truck by day workers. That the historic Marcus Bookstore should be physically dismantled in broad daylight as District Supervisors, various commissioners, Mayor’s Office and the NAACP leadership who supported the motion to preserve the property stood by and did nothing to prevent it is the question that remains shamefully unanswered. That passerby were allowed to rifle through the dump truck and take what they liked is simply further evidence of the uncivil and unjust treatment of a community’s history, co-signed by the City.

As a native San Franciscan, an author, and community advocate for the preservation of our most valuable cultural assets—in this case books and literacy—I support the campaign to return the Marcus Bookstore to its Fillmore location. As witness to the community meetings, in store events, Board of Supervisors and Historic Preservation Commission proceedings, and desecration of the property, I have observed and documented with astonishment the trail of broken promises and lies told by District supervisors, Mayor’s Office appointees, and the African American community’s own faith leaders about the bookstore and its proprietors. These erroneous claims–that a bookstore is an unsustainable model for 21st Century business–entirely misses the point. The campaign to support Marcus Books goes beyond keeping open the doors of a mom and pop bookshop: It is an attempt to shine a light on and preserve African American culture, community and literacy, particularly for readers of the future.  The removal of Marcus Books on the block could once and for all to erase the rich cultural heritage African Americans created in San Francisco—through art, music, literature, civic engagement and action and replace it with a whitewashed version of history that does not include black contributions. Further, it negates the interests of the wider community of black and other interested folks who relied on the Marcus Bookstore’s products, services, warmth, and humanity.

In July: The vacant and vulnerable historic landmark at 1712 Fillmore Street.

I am curious how the City officials and employees who reportedly bought their first books at the store, who sat at the owners feet as teenagers and said they were in support of the store can now step back and refuse to take notice or phone calls and deny their previous public statements of support. But I’m not surprised that the landmarking of Marcus Books was insincere and just another photo op: The City’s allegiance to money and power is well known: Given an opportunity, I can imagine Mayor Lee selling his own ancestors down the river. Expecting him and his regime to understand the struggle waged by Marcus Books as a cultural one was a non-starter from the gate. But there is no doubt Lee and Co. failed to “Provide full support of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage District and to make sure that African American culture is fully respected and highlighted in the effort” according to Out-migration Report recommendations.

Despite the setbacks, the original owners of 1712 Fillmore and its family of supporters continue to fight injustice in their community and reclaim justice for all. We have not heard the last from the Marcus Bookstore.

 

If you are interested in expressing support and solidarity with the owners of Marcus Books San Francisco, please contact the Support Marcus Books site directly. If you are a bookseller, author, or publishing professional interested in joining a new alliance of Bay Area independent bookstores, please contact keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you will be added to an email list.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Civil Rights, Editorial, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

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