Rhyme by rhyme, a street cop slings his story

Patrol Officer Quincy Iverson The Man on the street 26 years in uniform (retired)

“I get that hate from both sides I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”“I get that hate from both sides, I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”

Black and Blue: A rap soundtrack for a young thug’s journey to the police force

When the lieutenant knocked on the door for the background check, Quincy Iverson was blasting N.W.A. through his stereo speakers and drinking his second 40-ounce of the day. He was four months out of the Army, a newlywed, working as a Sears carpet cleaner and in need of a better job. Iverson let the white cop in and turned down the music.

Three decades later, Iverson still isn’t sure how he got hired by the Akron Police Department. He had a juvenile record from teenage stunts like stealing from the mall. He flunked eighth grade after a house fire forced him to relocate to a hostile neighborhood and fight his way home most days. At 5-foot-5½, he worried about meeting the height requirement. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper, not a cop. “But the grace of God, some way, somehow, they hired me,” Iverson said.

Before retiring in September, Iverson, 50, spent 26 years as a patrol officer on the same hardscrabble streets where he grew up, got married and raised his own three children. Akron’s population of 198,000 is 30 percent black and has been declining since tire manufacturers such as Goodyear and Firestone began moving factories elsewhere. The poverty rate (26 percent) and murders (30 in 2016) are rising. The police force of 450 officers is about 20 percent black. Despite Akron’s problems, Iverson reps his city as hard as native son LeBron James has. He can hardly walk a block without someone giving him some dap or a hug — and he’s not going anywhere.

Iverson spent his entire police career on the frontlines, riding in a patrol car, responding to trouble of all kinds. He’s grateful he never had to fire his weapon, although he was shot at several times. He’s arrested more young brothers than he can remember, including some who thanked him years later. Iverson often felt tugged in opposite directions by his loyalty to the black community and his responsibility to his job. It’s the same mix of emotions he felt over the police killing of Tamir Rice, 40 miles up the road in Cleveland. He was saddened by another black life snuffed out, and disagreed with how the white officer rushed up to 12-year-old Tamir in his patrol car, rather than checking out the situation more carefully. But Iverson also knew that if the only information he received on a call was black male with a handgun, and that suspect made one wrong move, “the kid probably would have got it. He reaches, I don’t have a split second to say, ‘Hopefully this gun ain’t real.’ How Scarface say, you only got a minute to pray and a second to die? It’s a bad get-down, bruh, either way.”

Rap has always been Iverson’s oxygen. He started performing in junior high school and was inspired by lyrical pioneers such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. His crew gained some local fame, but a rapper in Akron before the internet, and more than a decade before Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Ohio on the hip-hop map, had little chance of going national. And Iverson’s day job didn’t help matters, once N.W.A. F’d tha Police and rap became dominated by those who broke the law, not enforced it. Iverson concealed his identity behind a rap name, the Copley Road Bully, that combined his neighborhood and his childhood misbehavior, and he never stopped writing lyrics, making beats and recording songs.

The Undefeated asked Iverson to describe, through his music, his career on the police force. And we followed him with cameras through Akron’s streets, from his favorite breakfast diner to the family gathering spot of his sister’s house, to document Iverson’s story of being “too black for the badge, too blue for the ’hood.”

‘My Cause My Cleats’: The top 24 Week 13 customs — and why players wore them Reppin’ everything from the American Cancer Society to the Trayvon Martin Foundation to Kaepernick

Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.

Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.

“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”

Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.


Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Fender Music Foundation

Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: National League of POW/MIA Families

A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Cause: American Cancer Society

Designer: Kickasso

Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Instagram Photo

Cause: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Designer: Corey Pane

Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers

Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital

Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs

Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers

Cause: Anti-bullying

Designer: SolesBySir

Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Cause: American Heart Association

Designer: Mache Customs

DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Brotherhood Crusade

Designer: SolesBySir

Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition

Designer: Sixth-grade class at Jubilee School, Illustrative Cre8ions

Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina

Designer: Bizon Customs

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins

Instagram Photo

Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.

Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans

Instagram Photo

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: SolesBySir

Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII

A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

Cause: Leukemia patients

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: Autism

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Instagram Photo

Cause: Torrey Smith Family Fund, Show Your Soft Side, Players Coalition, NO More Campaign

Designer: Kreative Custom Kicks, Dez Customz

Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants

Cause: Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles

Designer: Kickasso

Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation

Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope

Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans

Cause: Habitat for Humanity

Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: Why Not You Foundation

Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai

 

Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

Instagram Photo

Cause: CeaseFirePA

Designer: SR Customs

Daily Dose: 11/20/17 Della Reese passes at 86

What’s up, gang? We’re on a short week because of Thanksgiving, but we’re going to power through anyways. By the way, I linked up with the 30 for 30 gang to talk about their first episode of season two. You can listen here!

Della Reese has made the transition. While she was best known later in life for her role on the television program Touched By An Angel, she had quite the career in music before that. But her on-screen work was certainly her calling card, with several films and other television roles to her name. For me, Della Reese always sort of played Della Reese, which was always excellent. She was 86 years old and leaves behind her husband and three children.

Chance the Rapper hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend. I imagine that many people in America aren’t necessarily that familiar with his work, so seeing him in this context was a treat. Considering it was his first time at the effort, it was particularly impressive. Here’s the other thing: When there’s a black host, all the black characters tend to get more airtime with the sketches. If you missed it, you can check out all the sketches here. The Family Feud scene is particularly worth your time.

You know what happens when you don’t respect your own diversity? You lose money. Take the example of CBS, which decided to jettison actor Daniel Dae Kim after a money dispute regarding Hawaii Five-0. Basically, they did not want to pay actors of color as much as their white counterparts. So Kim walked, and with him went his brainchild The Good Doctor, which he is executive producing. Now, that show is a huge hit for ABC. There’s clearly a lesson to be learned here.

When it comes to video games, I play sports ones. I’m mostly a FIFA guy, but I enjoy a reasonable variety of others too. But some folks take things a little more seriously than that. I feel like the most I’ve ever bet on a turn on the sticks was a case of beer in college, but then again, nobody was balling like that as far as wagers go. But for rap stars Lil Yachty and 21 Savage, the stakes are way higher. Apparently, these two dudes went at it on NBA 2K and Yachty lost $12K. Yeesh.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The American Music Awards were last night, and while the acts were one thing, Tracee Ellis Ross was the host. And to make things even better, her mom, Diana Ross, was getting a lifetime achievement award. Perhaps best of all, our favorite family dropped by to give her a message.

Snack Time: Terry Glenn was a heck of a football player for Ohio State and on into the NFL. He died in a car accident over the weekend.

Dessert: Serena Williams offers up a must-watch tribute for the holidays. Watch.

 

Daily Dose: 11/17/18 Jesse Jackson reveals Parkinson’s diagnosis

Happy Friday, kiddos. Hope you’re ready for the weekend, folks, because it’s all downhill from here in terms of the holiday season. This is the last weekend you are reasonably allowed to ignore your relatives.

Jesse Jackson is an American legend. He is not without his faults, obviously, but his run for president in 1988, on top of all his work as a civil rights activist, will go down in this nation’s history as transformational. A lot of people were prepared to vote for that black man, which is no small matter. He’s now disclosed that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an unfortunate turn. I’ve met Jackson a couple of times, and each time it was an enlightening experience. We’re all wishing him well with his health.

Dave Chappelle’s last stand-up was pretty problematic. The comic legend who graced the world with his Comedy Central show came back to the small screen earlier this year, and it included a whole bunch of jokes that felt like he had maybe not really kept up with the times in terms of what we joke about in polite society. That aside, many people thought it was quite funny, and, if nothing else, it was good to see the familiar face back in his element. His newest Netflix special drops on New Year’s Eve, with him also doing a Stranger Things cameo.

Al Franken has admitted to inappropriate behavior. The Minnesota senator, a Democrat, was called out by radio personality Leeann Tweeden, who told her story about how the former Saturday Night Live writer and actor touched and kissed her inappropriately while the two were part of a USO tour years back. He apologized, and many people have been calling for him to resign as a result. In defense of him, the governor of Ohio came out and dropped a very weird letter about his sexual history because, well, dudes are the worst.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is not here for your nonsense. One of the biggest knocks about the sport recently has been pace of play, and as a result the bigs have instituted all sorts of rules to try to speed things up. Clocks between innings, cutting down on nonsense before and after pitches, it’s all been very helpful. But now, Manfred just doesn’t care. He plans to consider a pitch clock as well as opening up the strike zone, and he might just implement it whether the players want it or not. Alrighty then.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I just want to give a shout-out to all my basics out there. You know who you are. Embrace it. I shop at the mall. I go to normal grocery stores. And when I’m on the road, I eat at pretty basic joints. Here’s a ranking of the top 25 restaurant chains in America, by sales.

Snack Time: If you have a problem with Lil Uzi Vert, that sucks for you. He might be weird, but his dance is awesome and his joints bang. Speaking of, here are four new songs of his.

Dessert: Look, do not have this at your family functions this holiday season. I will destroy the whole table.

 

Miami’s turnover chain is the best thing in college football — and we’re about to lose it Big, black, loud, arrogant and winning — how long can it last?

Just as a reminder to myself / I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house … — Drake, 2013’s “Started From The Bottom

Miami is hardly the first college team to rally around an inanimate object, the most recent high-profile example being Alabama’s “Ball Out Belt.” Much like Miami’s chain, the Crimson Tide’s belt was given for performance on the field. But unlike Miami’s chain, the belt didn’t have black South Florida roots. And it didn’t become anything like the cultural phenomenon the gaudy slab of diamonds and Cuban links so connected to brothers and sisters in the 305 area code.

The Miami Hurricanes’ chain was inspired by a quartet. First-year Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was looking to motivate his players. Cornerbacks coach and Canes alum Mike Rumph told famed jeweler Anthony John “AJ” Machado an idea he had for a necklace that defensive players could wear each time they forced a turnover. Super Bowl champion and former Canes standout Vince Wilfork was at Machado’s shop for an unrelated piece of custom jewelry and told Machado and Rumph the chain had to personally reflect who and what Miami stood for. Not just the campus, but the community’s culture. “In Miami, what are we famous for? We’re famous for the Cuban chains,” Machado told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in September. “But we need to add a little something to it.”

The chain’s true price remains a mystery, part of its ongoing fascination. But this 6.5-pound, 10-karat piece of jewelry — like so many trophy-esque watches, tennis bracelets and pearl chokers — is loud, boisterous, arrogant. And fun. Miami is famous for many things, and the swag of a Cuban link chain is one of them. The Miami Hurricanes’ turnover chain is Miami culture to its core. And it goes beyond — just ask Raekwon about his classic 1995 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

The U’s ascension back into the ranks of the elite programs in the game is directly tied to the allure of its turnover chain. College football, fun but far from radical, needed Miami’s swagger again. The team — led by guys such as safety/leading tackler Jaquan Johnson, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, defensive end Trent Lewis, quarterback Malik Rosier and running back Travis Homer — is as counterculture as Allen Iverson was to the Jordan years of the NBA. The team is a breath of fresh air in a landscape with dominant but less personable powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State or Michigan. The NCAA — chided for years for its lockdown on celebrations, which is seen in many circles as the “Miami rule” — enforces the personality of teams over players. So watching a team not only revel in how good they are but also live up to the hype? It’s rich. And the turnover chain has galvanized a defense that’s as physical, violent and cocky as there is in the country — tied for fourth in the country in turnovers forced (24) in one fewer game. Their Sept. 9 game at Arkansas State was canceled as Hurricane Irma barreled toward South Florida.

At 9-0, and currently first in the ACC’s Coastal Division, the Canes are the No. 2 program in the country. They’re also sitting on a streak of four consecutive games of four turnovers, including Nov. 11’s dismemberment of No. 3 Notre Dame — much to the chagrin of Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who all but called the dogs on his own team with a peculiar pregame on-field rant. A recent poll, too, found that many believe the chain is the best story in sports. And even if it’s not, the financial implications and the marketing behind the chain have already paid dividends of hundreds of thousands of dollars for vendors capitalizing on the sudden nationwide appeal with various forms of apparel. It’s great, right? But is it?


Do it for the culture / They gon’ bite like vultures …Quavo, from Migos’ 2017 “T-Shirt

Because already, infatuation with the chain teeters on appropriation. There’s always this tension when something very black — like a big gold chain, being worn by black men — “catches on.” The success of a thing or a gesture or a style is great, but then suddenly it’s not “ours” anymore, the benefit of it is going to everyone else and it’s wrung out and dead before it can be fully enjoyed.

It’s a feel-good story until it isn’t, right? Take the dab for instance, popularized in 2015 by Migos and brought to the doorstep of middle America on Sundays by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Everyone did the dab. That includes candidates such as Hillary Clinton, as well as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s son.

The dab became a caricature of itself. A pure, fun creation of popular hip-hop was bastardized by an American culture that has always fed off its energy — and yet is so very often ultimately demonized. Comedian Paul Mooney talks about in a bit called “Ugly On Us But Cute On Them” in 2012’s The Godfather of Comedy.

He could well have added big jewelry. On black people: grotesque, over the top, showy. On others: bold, edgy, fancy, innovative.

The turnover chain is more talked about right now than the race for the Heisman Trophy. Everyone wants in on the most recent gold mine, the flavor of the moment. But however impossible, how about we try to let the players have this moment? And let’s not forget: Their spontaneously joyful on-field marketing of the chain has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, yet the guys on the field are entitled to none of the profits. The chain should be theirs.

Their spontaneously joyful on-field marketing of the chain has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, yet the guys on the field are entitled to none of the profits. The chain should be theirs.

The turnover chain is a flashback to “The U” that was the baddest, most intimidating and most threatening force in college football. But the rules changed, and the brand of bullying that made Miami nationwide goons (but neighborhood superstars) has been discontinued. So it begs the question, will this new we-the-best momentum of the chain soon feel the clip of new rules? Yes, because, as ESPN’s Dan Le Batard recently said, “This team is still black. And the people doing the ravaging on defense are still black. There will be a turning on that. Showboaty black guy rarely gets embraced. … To be honest with you, if we’re going deep into this, the chain is the only thing from those overtly black Miami teams that is allowed in 2017.”

This season, the Canes have forced 24 turnovers on defense — 23 from black players. The lone exception was defensive lineman Ryan Fines’ fumble recovery in the season opener against Bethune-Cookman.


“Don’t look down on the youngsters because they wanna have shiny things.” — Pimp C, 2013’s “F—WithMeYouKnowIGotIt

How long The U’s undefeated season lasts is no guarantee, especially since there’s a date with No. 4 and defending national champion Clemson on the very near (Dec. 2) horizon. Yet, there’s history that shines brighter than the 900 orange and green sapphires swaying back and forth on the necks of players who have revived arguably the most culturally relevant college football program of all time.

“This team is still black. And the people doing the ravaging on defense are still black. There will be a turning on that. Showboaty black guy rarely gets embraced.”

The chain creates excitement on the field. The chain is useful because the players are motivated by that gleaming trophy. And the chain is important far beyond just the Instagram ops for celebrities and fly-by-night fans. Don’t let the University of Miami’s turnover chain die the same death as the dab. Don’t let the true essence of the chain be swept under the rug. Don’t allow the history of the chain and its place in Miami culture to be overlooked. Because it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t started already.

Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer Founder of new anti-racism center at American University sees impact of policy, culture on black athletes

It’s a Wednesday night at a bookstore in a well-off part of Washington, D.C., and every seat is taken. More than 100 people spill into the aisles or crowd the stacks past the philosophy and cookbook sections to hear Ibram X. Kendi talk about the racist ideas that founded the nation. About how racial progress is always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress. And, especially, about the deeply held beliefs that most Americans, including black people and liberal whites, woke up with this morning that they don’t even know are racist and wrong.

For instance, “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people,” Kendi tells the crowd. Layers of racist ideas account for why we think so.

Last year, the 35-year-old scholar became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for nonfiction in 30 years for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And this year, his moment continues. He’s just moved to Washington, where he is launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University next week. He’s a historian of racism at a time when our public conversation is fixed on it, when successive presidents have triggered the tribal apprehensions of our Mason-Dixon lines, and when the threat of shoot-you-down, run-you-over racial violence feels as close at hand as the peril to the republic from fake facts and revisionist history. This convergence of circumstances keeps him perpetually on book tour.

Ibram Kendi, right, addresses the audience as Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was the presenter for the event, stands by.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A diverse group made up a standing-room-only audience during Dr. Ibram Kendi’s recent book promotion event at Politics and Prose.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With the breadth of his scholarship and expanse of his reach, Kendi has been compared to the famed late historian John Hope Franklin, except he wears his locs long and his edges laid. He used to fantasize about a career in the NBA — or, at the very least, on SportsCenter. He’ll hit you back on Twitter.

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.” He wants to correct our misunderstandings.

Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.

As the evening wears on in the crowded bookstore, people line up at microphones to question, challenge or offer up hosannas to this young scholar, who, in many ways, is just getting started.


Ibram Kendi is the new founding director of The Anti-Racist and Policy Center at American University. He is a leading thinker on race and his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won the National Book Award.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi apologizes for the spare office space he shares with a colleague inside American University’s School of International Service. The walls are bare, and his name has not yet made it outside the door. He’s still unpacking from the move to D.C. with his wife, Sadiqa, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s National Health Center, and their 1-year-old daughter, Imani. It’s an ambitiously busy life.

Besides being the founding director of the research center, he’s teaching history and international relations as part of a joint appointment that brought him from the University of Florida, where he was a professor of African-American history.

He’s learning the city, and working on priorities for the center — part think tank, policy shop and incubator for anti-racism strategies — which formally launches next fall. It joins dozens of other customized centers of racial research. One of the earliest and most notable, the W.E.B Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, rose to prominence under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. This year, “year zero,” is to raise funds and recruit researchers, faculty and students.

The goal is to identify inequalities, identify the policies that create and maintain those inequalities, and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking. He’s still considering initial projects.

But when he talks about racism, he is not still puzzling out his ideas. Kendi has spent thousands of hours reading thousands of documents, including “some of the most horrific things that have ever been said about black people,” to uncover the origins of racist thought. His words are distilled, precise, authoritative. His voice never rises. He is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times.

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,” Kendi said. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.

The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.”

Kendi boils racist ideas down to an irreducible core: Any idea that suggests one racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way is a racist idea, he says, and there are two types. Segregationist ideas contend racial groups are created unequal. Assimilationist ideas, as Kendi defines them, argue that both discrimination and problematic black people are to blame for inequalities.

“The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

Americans who don’t carry tiki torches react viscerally to segregationist ideas like those on display at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one young counter-protester dead. Assimilationist ideas are more subtle, seductive and coded.

“You can be someone who has no intention to be racist,” who believes in and fights for equality, “but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas,” says Kendi. No matter what color you are.

Anti-racist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. That the only thing inferior about black people is their opportunities. “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people,” a line that Kendi uses like a mantra.

The Blue Lives Matter (the problem is violent black people) Black Lives Matter (the problem is the criminal justice system, poor training and police bias) and All Lives Matter (the problem is police and black people) arguments are extensions of the same, three-way debate (segregationist, anti-racist and assimilationist) that Americans have been having since the founding of the country.

“We’ve been taught American history as a steady march of racial progress,” but it’s always been a dual march of racial and racist progress, which we see from Charlottesville to “their Trump Tower,” Kendi says.

This is the jump-off Kendi uses to frame the most roiling issues of the day. But before he could build that frame, he first had to deal with his own racism.


Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi was born Ibram H. Rogers in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to parents who’d been student activists and were inspired by black liberation theology. He grew up playing basketball and still is an ardent New York Knicks fan.

The family moved to Manassas, Virginia, where Kendi attended Stonewall Jackson High School (named for the Confederate general) and dreamed of a career on the hardwood. The slim, 6-foot-1 former guard says he specialized in the no-look pass. “I consider the beautiful pass the most beautiful part of the game of basketball,” he says.

Sweet passing aside, his basketball aspirations were irrevocably dashed his sophomore year when he failed to make the junior varsity team. “I was so crushed,” Kendi says.

He studied journalism at Florida A&M University and initially wanted to be a broadcaster or a sportswriter. But after internships at The Mobile Register and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, he began to shift his career focus. He wound up getting a doctorate in African-American studies from Temple University. His first book, on the black student protest movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was published in 2012. He began researching Stamped from the Beginning the following year.

That’s when he started to re-examine some of his most deeply held beliefs about race. “I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”

The highest instances of violent crime correspond with high unemployment and poverty, and that holds true across racial lines, Kendi found. Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods. If impoverished white communities “had five times more people, then that community would have five times, presumably, more violent crime.”

“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself.”

Another racist idea: “I believed that black children were achieving at a lower level than white children. And I believed in the existence of an achievement gap,” says Kendi. Standardized tests prioritize reading and writing as measures of verbal proficiency, as opposed to the wider ability to articulate. And they test subject areas where black schools are vastly underresourced.

“I certainly am somebody who advocates equalizing the resources of school and creating a situation in which we actually live up to our pronouncements that we live in a meritorious society,” says Kendi. “But even if these schools persist in being resourced unequally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students in the schools with lesser resources are intellectually inferior to the students with better resources.” He reaches into history to illustrate his point: Just because slaves’ lives were circumscribed, they faced more adversity and they dealt with more violence, that doesn’t mean enslaved people were inferior to people who were free.

A “more lighthearted area” he had to confront was his ideas about dating black women. “Black women were angry, they didn’t know what they want, they’re difficult,” he’d heard. “And from my standpoint, those are some of the things that I said when I was having some difficulties in dating.” When we have negative experiences with individuals, “we often say there’s a problem with that black group,” without realizing those are racist ideas.

Now, he’s a poster child for black love. He and his telegenic wife met on Match.com and debuted their new last name Kendi (“loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru) at their 2013 wedding in Jamaica, which was featured in Essence magazine.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, calls Kendi part of a vanguard of young black historians, which includes Treva Lindsey at Ohio State and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers, who are transforming the field. Part of what makes him right for the moment is his ability to speak to millennials, who have access to lots of information but can’t always decipher what is good or bad. “What he has written is an accessible history of black folks,” said Neal. In terms of a book for general readers “that covers such a wide historical period, the only thing I can think about in terms of comparison is John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.”

Kendi’s book resonates like the 2015 National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said Neal. “Ta-Nehisi’s was kind of an emotional analysis of what this moment is. Kendi’s was to bring that kind of energy, except to do it in a historical context. I think it’s important to be able to talk about the history of these racist ideas, the impact they’ve had on black people and black life.”

With regard to the most front-and-center issue in sports today, athletes and activism, Kendi says it’s important to remember that the athlete/activists of the 1960s — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith — all spoke out in the context of the Black Power movement, which is “precisely what’s happening now” with Colin Kaepernick and others who were inspired by Black Lives Matter. “We look for athletes to generate movements, when historically athletes have been good at being athletes, which is precisely what they should be good at, and we should be looking to activists to generate movements.” There will then be those athletes who use their platforms to support those movements and ideologies.

Kendi says that while the numbers of black players on the fields, courts and arenas have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, it’s been harder to make shifts at other positions.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”

This kind of analysis gives Kendi cachet beyond the ivory tower and makes him popular with students, Neal said. Young people see Kendi with his locs and his ability to communicate in a vernacular they know and that expands their thinking about the possibilities for their own lives. They’ll say, “This is somebody I can imagine being somewhere down the line,” said Neal.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sportswriters, like the executives.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and one of those responsible for bringing Kendi to the university, cites Washington as an organic place to do anti-racist work. “To make real lasting change, change that lasts beyond changes of administrations and flips from one party to the next, you really need to reach out to people who are making more fundamental policy on the ground, in the agencies and throughout the government,” he said.

Starr calls Kendi’s vision to use researchers from around the country an approach that mirrors what happens in the sciences. “He’s got a very expansive vision of the center, and we really think this is a center that’s not just the usual, relatively small, one-person shop,” he said.

He calls Stamped from the Beginning the kind of book scholars write in their 50s and 60s. But Kendi’s impact will transcend the written words, Starr said. Especially since American has struggled with racist incidents recently.

In May, bananas were found hanging from nooses at three locations on the American University campus. This followed racist social media messages and a banana thrown into a black student’s dorm in the past few years.

For students of color and “all students, being able to look to someone like Ibram Kendi, who is a model of intelligent scholarship and activism informed by deep contextual and historical understanding,” is powerful, said Starr. He’s got “a fire to make a difference in the world that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another scholar, frankly.”


Ibram Kendi greets fans at Politics and Prose after discussing his book.

André Chung for The Undefeated

At the bookstore, the questions, and disquisitions posing as questions, continue as the crowd grapples with, or pushes back against, Kendi’s ideas about race and America.

“I think that the issue is that the Africans and the Europeans really can’t mix,” one person steps to the mic to say.

Across the room, another questioner says, “Gentiles are underrepresented on Wall Street. White males are underrepresented in the NBA. At what point does the assimilation shift into something where other factors come into play?”

“All right now, tell it like it is,” says E. Veronica Pace, a genealogist who steps to the microphone and identifies herself as a student of Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She asks about the book’s title, which was taken from a speech in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis called racial inequality “stamped from the beginning.”

Finally, the talk is over and people form a line that stretches toward the door to have him sign their books. “If we are all mindful about this and put our hearts and souls into it, we can turn this ship around,” says James Kilgore, whose wife is in the line. He’s says he’s waiting to see what Kendi is going to do.

For starters, he’s working on another book, a memoir entitled How to be An Anti-Racist. “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world, right?” Kendi says. “I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people.”

And he’s focused on launching the center he’d like to help change the world. The former sports reporter reaches for a metaphor. It’s a rare moment where his equanimity seems to falter, just for a bit, perhaps from the weight of the task at hand. “I’m on the court and I’ve suited up. Now the game is about to start and I have to be ready to perform,” Kendi says. “And to win.”

Bree Newsome’s social justice fight continues two years after taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina ‘Staying quiet is also like its own form of death’

It has been more than two years since Bree Newsome became a household name for climbing a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and removing the Confederate flag. She knew jail would follow. However, Newsome, now 32, knew it was a task she had to do.

The mood in South Carolina at the time was bleak following the evening of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The flag that Newsome removed was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the civil rights movement. Many individuals have always hated what the flag represents.

In many communities, Newsome became a hero and her actions caused a domino effect. In August, two years after Newsome’s act, 22-year-old Takiya Thompson was arrested after helping to take down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Thompson was charged with disorderly conduct by injury to a statue, damage to real property, participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 — and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. This was following a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly and prompted a call to action by many people for the removal of Confederate statues.

“I just see this shifting in the consciousness, and people just kind of reaching a point where we just can’t be quiet anymore, because I think there has been, in some ways, this belief that we keep ourselves quiet in order to survive,” Newsome said. “But staying quiet is also like its own form of death. I think people are just tired of living that form of death.”

Newsome is now a local organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and focusing on housing.

“We have a real affordable housing crisis going on in our city, as many cities around the country are,” Newsome said. “We have communities that were redlined in the late Sixties, that’s kind of when the cities drew, basically, lines around areas that were predominantly black that had been segregated. So, these are areas that were basically divested from, by the city and now they are prime real estate. So we have a lot of developers wanting to develop in this land, but the folks who have lived here for decades are not benefiting from it. So, housing remains an ongoing justice issue.”

Newsome says housing is a human right.

“A lot of times people say, well, it’s just a byproduct of development. But, it’s really important, again, to understand why,” Newsome said. “That’s obviously one of the basic things that we need in order to live. Then, it’s a justice issue, because we’re still very segregated. Segregation is not forced upon us anymore, it’s not part of the law, but we are still largely racially and economically segregated. How are we addressing any of these issues with wealth and with race if folks are being pushed out of their homes?”

Newsome’s father, Clarence G. Newsome, served as the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and was the president of both Shaw University and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Her mother spent her career as an educator addressing the achievement gap. Newsome studied film at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

She spoke to The Undefeated about social justice, today’s battle for equality and her plans.


How do you feel about today’s racial climate?

What we are seeing today is kind of part of a pattern, I would say, in history. On one hand, I was born in ’85; in my lifetime it is maybe one of the most tense periods, racially, that I have experienced. But, when I look back over the history of America, it’s kind of part of a pattern where racial tensions kind of ebb and flow.

We’re integrating certain institutions. We obviously had the election of the nation’s first black president. Now what we’re seeing is, again, this period of racist backlash to that. But there is, kind of, this pattern of like, we make this progress forward and then there is this racist backlash. No, it’s not as bad, and I think if you talk to most folks, like my grandmother, my grandmother is 91 years old. When she saw on TV the police in Ferguson tear-gassing folks in their yard, she said, ‘It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan.’ So, on one hand, yes, we’ve gone far, but clearly we haven’t gone far enough at all.

When I look at what is going on today, the main thing it says to me is that we cannot rest on our laurels. And that’s part of what spurred me toward becoming an activist in the first place, it was after the Trayvon Martin case.

What do you think about the protests for Colin Kaepernick?

I think that’s amazing. I support that. Two histories in America that I find really fascinating is the treatment of black veterans and the treatment of black athletes. … Even at the college level, there’s a real justice issue around the treatment of black athletes. They are clearly the majority, especially when you are talking about a sport like football. The majority of athletes are black men. They generate billions of dollars for this industry, not just in pro football, but also in college football. In many ways they are exploited. They are exploited physically. We see the kind of damage that is done physically to their bodies.

Part of what I think is really awesome about what is happening right now is there’s greater solidarity. In some ways, it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s about protesting for Colin Kaepernick to have a fair shot, but it’s also kind of bigger than that because it’s like, he has a right, as a human being, to speak. Especially to speak about a system that is killing us. When he’s out of uniform, and he’s off the field and he’s just driving down the street, he has just as much a chance of getting killed by the police as anybody else. I think that that is sometimes what people forget. They think just because a black man puts on a uniform and goes in to play football that he is supposed to disconnect from all the other realities of the nation in which he lives.

Do you recall the first thing you did as an activist?

I don’t know if you remember the Moral Monday movement that was happening here in North Carolina. That was organized by Reverend Barber and the North Carolina state chapter of NAACP. This was back in 2013. This was the same summer that George Zimmerman was acquitted. This is the same summer that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina just went H.A.M. on the voting issue. They hadn’t yet passed it, but they brought up this legislation, House Bill 589, and at first it was this five-page bill that focused on student voter ID. It said the students could no longer use their IDs to vote.

I go up to this Moral Monday protest about voting rights. At that time, I wasn’t considering myself an activist. I was very much aware of things that were going on. Literally overnight, between that Monday and the Tuesday, they sent the bill from the House to the Senate and they added almost 50 more pages to the bill. It was clear that they were targeting black people. They had things like ending Sunday voting.

That was the wake-up moment for me. I had always been socially and politically conscious, but I wasn’t the person out on the street protesting.

Why did you make the decision to fight for justice in North Carolina?

When I was about 2, my family moved up to Maryland. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I would spend all of my summers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live now. That’s where my grandmother is.

My grandmother would come stay with us during the school year and then I would come stay with her during the summer. Then my dad’s family is from eastern North Carolina, so the Carolinas have always been kind of like home. In a way, it’s kind of like my family home. It really wasn’t until I got back in the Raleigh-Durham area and Moral Monday was going on and I kind of connected with the folks there and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to work now, this is too crazy.’

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

I think it’s always finding the balance. I would say, you know, in 2013 when I’m walking to the protest and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to anything, I’ve got to stay in the street.’ And I pretty much did, for like the next two years. Just protesting. I went up to Ohio when John Crawford was killed. I marched with the Ohio Student Association. I went down to Florida. We were just out protesting, just trying to raise this awareness around what was happening.

I was getting to a point where I’m exhausted. It’s traumatic. … When you ask me what has been the greatest challenge or struggle, I think it has been finding out how to sustain in this work. … How do we continue to support ourselves and do this important work? How do we balance life, and all these other things, because we’re out here fighting for our lives and there really is nothing that’s more important. But I know I reached a point where I was, like, you know, I have to live too.

Living is also resistance. If I’m out here killing myself, that’s not, at a certain point I’m no longer resisting. I have to thrive at the same time.

How would you describe your personal feelings after seeing what happened in Charlottesville?

The first word that’s coming to my mind is revelation. But I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m trying to think of a word that is kind of revealing, because I feel like what happened with Charlottesville was, like, it was all there. All of that was there. But, it was kind of like Charlottesville was the moment that it could no longer be denied. … We’ve known for a while, we’ve known since 2008, at least. Because as soon as Obama was elected, you had a surge in white supremacist groups.

White supremacist groups have been out here organizing. They have been out here planning and connecting. And in a lot of ways folks are looking away.

So, when I think about Charlottesville, to me it was kind of ‘blatant.’ It was like that’s when America could no longer look away from what had been going on, cause here you had all of these white supremacist groups from around the nation organizing and converging on this city over this monument. And, the same way people kept saying, ‘Well, you know, does the monument really represent this, does the Confederate flag really represent that?’ People were really trying to still be kind of wishy-washy about it and it was like Charlottesville was the moment that they could no longer deny what had already been there. It’s not that Charlottesville was new. It’s that Charlottesville made plain what was already there.

How do you see your work in social justice?

The way I look at the work is two ways. One, I think we have system-facing work. There’s work where we are trying to dismantle a racist system. We have a system of white supremacy, and that’s one of the main things I speak about all the time is trying to get people to understand. Racism is not just prejudice. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin.’ It’s a system that was designed. It’s an economy. It’s a social caste system that is built based upon, not just the color of a person’s skin, but African ancestry. It is built on the subjugation of people who are descended from Africans. So, I think there is system-facing work and then there is community-facing work. And I try to get people to see both ends. Because I think sometimes we think it’s either-or. Either we’re out here fighting white supremacy or we are doing work in the community. We’re trying to come out of 500 years of slavery.

My family was enslaved in South Carolina and North Carolina. So, I know the personal story of my family trying to come out of slavery. But as a people … that’s the work that we’re trying to do. It’s about economic freedom, it’s about mental freedom. It’s about having agency over ourselves. It’s about how do we break free of oppressive dynamics that we have internalized from the people who have oppressed us. … Sometimes I’m speaking to the system and then sometimes I’m just talking to my people.

Drake really wants Vince Carter to come home Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — At this point, the most magical words Drake could hear come out of Vince Carter’s mouth might be, “Hold on, we’re going home.”

In July, Carter, 40, signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. But at a Q-and-A after the premiere of The Carter Effect at the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake made his feelings plain: He wants the man who launched Vinsanity to come back to this city.

“It would be amazing, hopefully, for Vince to give us one last chance to not just give him a standing ovation for one night or two nights out of the year,” Drake said.

Saturday’s Carter lovefest (with the star basketball player nowhere in sight) was something to behold. The premiere was studded with sports and music notables: LeBron James, Cory Joseph, Akon, Director X (the guy who caused a sensation with the James Turrell-inspired visuals of “Hotline Bling”), sprinter Andre De Grasse, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, and former Raptors Chris Bosh and Patrick Patterson were among those in attendance. And since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, Drake fans were lined up everywhere for a glimpse of their hometown rapper.

Instagram Photo

Drake was an executive producer of The Carter Effect, along with James and his longtime business partner Maverick Carter.

“Me being from Ohio, when Vince signed with Nike, he actually made me believe that putting on those damn shoes would make me jump to the rim,” James joked after the screening.

Director X appears in the film and likened himself to John the Baptist and Drake to Jesus when it comes to Toronto and hip-hop. I asked him where Carter fits into that metaphor.

“He’s Moses,” X answered.

I also had a chance to talk to Mona Halem, a party host who had a front-row seat to the transformation Carter brought with him to Toronto, a city so unacquainted with basketball that its fans didn’t know they were supposed to be quiet when Raptors players were shooting free throws.

Halem, who also appears in the film, is a cross between an NBA doyenne, unofficial Toronto ambassador and social scene producer. She puts interesting people together with liquor and good music and has made it her personal art form here.

“Because basketball and entertainment around basketball was more popular in the U.S., [Carter] shone a light on Toronto,” Halem said. “It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this place Toronto?’ Everyone thinks we live in igloos and it’s so cold.”

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Courtesy of TIFF

Director Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in a way, has been her life’s work.

Strain, who is a professor at Northeastern University (she canceled last week’s class to attend TIFF), has been working on Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart for 14 years. Most of that time has been spent raising more than $1.5 million to make the film. The rights for film clips, music and other properties cost about $300,000.

I spoke to Strain on Sunday morning before she departed for Boston so her students wouldn’t miss a second week of class. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will air in the future on PBS, and it’s a deep dive into the jam-packed 34 years of Hansberry’s life and the world that created the fictional Younger family of A Raisin in the Sun. Strain said she became taken with Hansberry when she was a 17-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother took her to see a community theater production of the autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.

“You know how you know something in your gut?” Strain asked. “[That’s] how I felt when I was exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s words.”

In Sighted Eyes, Strain makes it clear that Hansberry is so much more than the one-paragraph biography schoolchildren get during Black History Month before they watch the film adaptation of her celebrated play. In fact, early in the movie, one of Hansberry’s contemporaries insists on making it clear that Hansberry was not a liberal but a “radical leftist.”

I was astonished to learn Hansberry began her career as a journalist before venturing into playwriting, and even more astonished to learn that she’d basically mapped out her life, and told her would-be husband what it was going to be like, when she was just 23 years old. This woman did not waste time. Strain fell in love with Hansberry’s sense of humor: It’s hard not to crack up upon learning Hansberry bought a house on 2 acres in New York and named the place “Chitterling Heights.” She sounds like someone I’d desperately want to be friends with if she were still alive.

Sighted Eyes also works as a bit of mythbusting. My eyes grew large when Strain informed me that I, like so many others, had been fooled by this photo, supposedly of Hansberry dancing with writer James Baldwin. It’s not her but rather a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker from Louisiana. There are no photos, at least none that Strain could find, of Baldwin and Hansberry together despite their close friendship.

Labor Day and Dr. King should always be in the same thought MLK was assassinated in Memphis just after speaking in support of striking sanitation, and AFSCME’s president wants to make sure we never forget that

“The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Many Americans around the country celebrate Labor Day annually as the last three-day weekend before the summer ends and cooler weather kicks in. True, but it is also a day of reflection for those who fought for an equitable job market for all.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) wants to change that narrative of how many Americans think of the labor movement. Saunders wants citizens to be aware of King’s contribution to a cause that essentially was his last call to action before being killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

That’s why Saunders is heading a new campaign with AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and King’s “Mountaintop” speech. I AM 2018 was launched in June. The program entails holding town hall meetings across the country to spread King’s message of fairness and equality.

“It’s just not a commemoration, it’s activity, and it’s activity leading up toward the activities that will take place on April 3rd and 4th in Memphis, Tennessee, where on April 3rd we will recreate that level of excitement that existed when Dr. King gave his mountaintop speech, and then have a march leaving the union hall in Memphis and going to Mason Temple Church of God in Christ [where King made his final speech],” Saunders said. “But we’re also planning to have similar events around the country, so we really want this to be a major mobilization effort, No. 1 to understand our history, understand that we’ve come a long way since 1968 but we still have a long way to go, and to link that story with what we must do presently.”

For Saunders, the labor movement hits close to home, and so does King’s death. A leader of the labor movement in the United States, Saunders grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a bus driver and a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. His mother was a community organizer and, after raising two sons, returned to college and became a community college professor and a member of the American Association of University Professors.

Saunders, the first African-American to serve as AFSCME’s president, began his career with AFSCME in 1978 as a labor economist, and he recalls King vividly.

“I was in high school and I remember when Dr. King was killed, and I remember the next day the African-American students who attended that high school walked out, walked out of school, and we gathered in downtown Cleveland to pay respect and to make a statement,” Saunders said. “That’s ingrained in my memory. I mean, we did that collectively. That was a collective action that those African-American students believed that we needed to take to recognize that Dr. King did not give his life in vain, that we have a responsibility. Our community has a responsibility, and folks who care about working families and the issues that affect all of us — all of us, not just a few but all of us — we have a responsibility to organize and mobilize and make our voices heard. I try to do that every single day.”

King’s support of unions was long-standing, although that endorsement was not returned by unions that did not allow African-Americans to join. In 1961, King’s address at the AFL-CIO’s annual convention was considered a turning point.

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community,” he said. “That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

Saunders now serves as a vice president of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which guides the daily work of the labor federation.

By 1968, King would make his last attempt to stand up for the labor movement. Details of the sanitation strike once existed in an exhibit prepared by the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

“Wages and working conditions for Memphis sanitation workers were atrocious,” reads the online text from the exhibit. “The average pay was $1.80 an hour. The wages were so low that forty percent of the workers qualified for welfare and many worked second jobs.”

They lifted leaky garbage tubs into decrepit trucks and were treated unfairly. During foul weather, black workers were sent home without pay while the white workers were paid for a full day. There were no benefits, vacation or pension. The sanitation department refused to modernize ancient equipment used by the black workers. Black sanitation workers were called “walking buzzards.”

Aside from the pay and unfair treatment, it was dangerous. Two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed when each was crushed to death in a garbage truck with faulty wiring. The families of the workers were given just $500 to pay for the funeral services and one month’s pay from the Memphis Sanitation Department.

As Saunders recounts those events, he reveals that moment when the members of Local 1733 AFSCME had to go out on strike for a change in conditions. King was right there to help lead the charge.

“That was something that was unheard of, but they were sick and tired of being disrespected and being mistreated, and they went on strike to have a seat at the table and for dignity and respect,” Saunders said.

Reflection on the true meaning of Labor Day prompts a short history lesson. Celebrated on the first Monday in September, the day was formed during the height of the Industrial Revolution to commend the contributions that workers made in building and strengthening their country, while also offering a day of respite for some. Founded after the Pullman Strike of 1894 gave railroad workers increased recognition, it ironically failed to include black Pullman porters in that same labor movement.

Black porters were a huge part of the workforce but were not allowed access to the American Railway Union. They later formed their own union, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, which was the first black union in America.

Given the fact that labor gaps exist right now, taking the day to remember the history of the labor movement, King’s contribution and the strides that influencers like Saunders are continuing to make, Labor Day should be more than just another three-day weekend at the beach or the mall.