Dangerous women


Meet Theresa Burroughs, of Greenesboro, Alabama. This picture was taken, as the placard states, on July 28, 1965. That’s about three months after the infamous “Bloody Sunday” voting rights confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Mrs. Burroughs marched on the bridge. A police baton of the American state bloodied her head — and many other heads.

I’m not sure who took the picture above, or precisely where. As I noted, it came after the triumph of Selma, in the aftermath of some subsequent and forgotten Greenesboro-area protest.

At Selma, the American state — not anonymous “racists” — had already blasted Mrs. Burroughs’ skull with a weapon. At the moment of this picture, the American state — not anonymous “racists” — was arresting her. The picture and placard aimed to prevent her from disappearing into the state with no record of her existence.

Today, in her early 80s, colleges and newspapers celebrate Mrs. Burroughs as a queen of the Civil Rights generation. She is the force that animates The Safe House Museum in Greensboro. It’s a tiny little museum, curated marvelously with the help of Auburn University, inside a house that belonged to Ms. Burroughs’ mother.

Two weeks before a different assassin got him in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hid in the Burroughs house while an ad hoc black militia guarded him from roving bands of white men said to plot his abduction and murder. The American state, which named a holiday for King in death, did not bother to protect him on this night.

Mrs. Burroughs is now a go-to source for King Day articles, like this one from the Birmingham News. And she says the solemnly unthreatening, moral arcish things America expects to hear from Civil Rights royalty.

Follow the link and take a look at her picture. Compare and contrast 2014 and 1965; compare 80 and 30.

Some have said that Martin was sent to us. Others say he rose up from among us. I don’t know which is true. What I do know is the Bible says that in the fulfillment of time all things will come to pass. Dr. King’s work was to finally fulfill the dream of every black man and woman from the day the first one stepped off the slave ships; the dream to be a free people. It was a dream that so many died to make come true, including Martin.

My great great great grandfather prior to the Civil War operated a massive plantation within walking distance of the Safe House. Just south of Greenesboro, you can drive for seven miles on Highway 25 and see nothing but one-time family wealth on either side. John William Walton cultivated this land with a small army of slaves. He and his brother together owned as many as 400.

My family long owned a desk said to be built by one of John William Walton’s skilled slaves. Here’s the narrative my beloved great aunt wrote down once:

[Walton] was not a believer in slavery although he owned slaves. When he could teach them a trade that would enable them to earn a living, he would free them. This was done for the slave carpenter who built this little desk.

Its wishful historical thinking largely speaks for itself.

But for the record, I see no evidence my great great great grandfather ever freed any slaves. Moreover, I see no evidence that he could’ve have done so without legal and social ruin for his family, enforced by personal and state violence. Looking back from today, I know I’m lucky he didn’t try.

A couple years ago, my family donated the desk to the museum. And last July 4th, with several uncles and my dad, I visited the Safe House for the first time as part of a family history road trip. We drank and smoked and mulled our way through the South, as revealed by Prospect Bluff, Marianna, Montgomery, Selma, and the Walton land in Greensboro. We ended up at the joyfully touristy honkytonks and July 4th fireworks of downtown Nashville. I’ve always cherished my family’s simultaneous indulgence of the profane and the sacred.

Mrs. Burroughs, who graciously received us outside the normal open hours of the the museum, was a particular highlight of the trip.

Mrs. Burroughs speaks with some difficulty today. But when she gets to telling her well-practiced account of the Bloody Sunday march and state violence, her cadence quickens and clears. The words acquire force and momentum. I found the moments just before the violence especially riveting. She spoke of the man who confronted the marchers on the far side of the bridge — and gave them a count. She remembers it somewhat differently than John Lewis does in his testimony, which is source material for the outstanding movie Selma. She also remembered Hosea Williams walking back along the line of marchers, telling them this was the moment to turn back if they wanted, that the coming violence would be real.

Yet, for all of that Selma bridge drama, I was most taken by 25 or so framed photos that hang on one of the museum walls. Each contains the image of a young adult or teen under process of arrest after that forgotten protest I mentioned at the start. Each person carries a handwritten sign meant to safeguard their existence. Each face carries a look that speaks of war.

Mrs. Burroughs was 31, I think, and a hair dresser/business owner. She stood to lose her life and livelihood for that defiance — just as John William Walton would have 100 years before, had he acted as bravely. But the consequences did not matter to her as much as they did to him.

Voting mattered to her. Power mattered. Defiance mattered. For that, in 1965, the American state considered Theresa Burroughs a dangerous enemy. It considered her a thug.

“Your mother’s going to kill me”

Meet Cynthia Mitchell Clarke and Maude Burroughs. Burroughs attended — and Clark hung around as a high school girl — the activist hothouse of Florida Memorial College during St. Augustine’s pitched and brutal Civil Rights confrontation in 1963-64.

Maude Burroughs (no relation to Theresa) sat-in at a St. Augustine Woolworth’s.

And you can probably see Cynthia Clarke somewhere in this film depicting efforts to integrate a St. Augustine beach.

She’s in there. Pick a young woman — or girl — and decide it’s her.

Hosea Williams had recruited these Cynthia Clarkes to sunbathe — in swimsuits — on St. Augustine’s segregated sand, to wade — in swimsuits — into its segregated ocean. Pay attention to the body language of the Cynthia Clarkes. Look at the instinct to cover up when attacked. Wearing a bathing suit publicly — in any era or racial combination — is vulnerability enough. But these Cynthia Clarkes exposed intimate acreage of girlish black flesh to men vested with the almost absolute historical right to violate it. That’s extraordinary bravery.

These violent men and boys inherited the right to violate black bodies from their fathers and grandfathers. They inherited it from their culture and their heritage. They inherited it from their country. It was integral to their patriotism. It remains integral to their politics today.

The American state held Cynthia Clarke and the bathers at least equally responsible, legally, for the consequences of peacefully challenging the abuse rights of those men and boys. Identical numbers of bathers and beaters were arrested, as the film notes. Behold the American state’s political centrism and moderation at work.

Fifty years on, Cynthia Clarke and Maude Burroughs told their stories during a session at the Florida Historical Society annual conference in May at St. Augustine’s International Golf Resort. I managed to tape a little bit of Clarke’s talk. She was utterly charming, whether recounting what mob violence feels like or confessing a high school girl’s crush on Andrew Young.

Here’s her quick rundown of what happened on the beach:

There were men, big men, rushing out to us, and knocking everybody in sight. And I was one of those who was hit. And I received a broken nose.

[When fellow protestors asked if Clark was hurt] I said, “No, somebody just slapped me.” And then I realized after I got in the car that my nose was tilted to the side.

We went back to [St. Augustine movement leader Dr. Robert] Hayling’s office; and I knew Hosea was going to lose it. He said, “Your mother’s gonna to kill me; she’s gonna kill me. I know she is; but I’ve got to call her and tell her what happened.”

Before the beach trip, Hosea Williams had promised Clark’s mother nothing would happen to her. Perhaps it’s telling that he made no such promises to Theresa Burroughs a year later on the Pettus bridge.

Clarke’s mother did not, in fact, kill Hosea Williams. But she feared that Flagler Hospital, where Clark was first taken for treatment, would kill her daughter.

I couldn’t stay there because you didn’t know if you would come out of there alive… I recall one of the Freedom school students there, just crying, crying, “Lord what are they doing to my people.”

Clarke eventually got surgery for her nose at historic Brewster hospital in Jacksonville, one of the first African-American-owned hospitals in U.S. history.

Clarke went on to a long and distinguished public education career. She served as an educator and professional development specialist in South Florida. She rose to assistant superintendent of leadership development for Miami Dade Public Schools. You can see her Linked In profile right now. I don’t think it says “civil rights violence absorber” anywhere.

Maude Burroughs also went in to public education after sitting in. She became a lifelong teacher, a fact so obvious from her bearing that I was almost embarrassed to confirm it with her after the session.

As an aside, it’s deadly relevant to note how African-American education professionals, working in newly integrated public schools, became a cornerstone of black presence in the mainstream American middle and professional class. It’s deadly relevant to note the dishonest and destructive education “reform” movement — both its willfully blind liberal form and its segregationist conservative form — turned on traditional schools at roughly the same time this happened.

Spoiled, sheltered Inside and Out Ivy Leaguers consider these women failures in their life’s work, who must be taught by tougher-minded people how to reach kids, who must be taught there are “no excuses” in life. Just listen to the “education reform” rhetoric if you doubt me.

Exclusive, enrollment-curated charter schools built what they built and market what they market by lying about the effort, sincerity, and talent of Maude Burroughs and Cynthia Clarke. And because their parents didn’t want to keep paying private school tuition.

If education reformers — left and right — believe any of their own bullshit, they blame these two women for the supposed ills of traditional public schools. If America believes its own bullshit linking education and crime (I don’t), much of America of all political persuasions blames Cynthia Clarke and Maude Burroughs for our prison populations and the angry, violent, defiant behavior of kids wherever it happens.

That same America turns around and accuses the kids-these-days of betraying the work of Clarke and Burroughs as non-violent civil rights activists. It’s a neat circle.

Near the end of the Florida Historical Society session, someone asked Clarke and Burroughs about the recent Baltimore unrest and the entire national climate. Clarke and Burroughs gave very different answers.

Burroughs immediately chastised the unruly kids of Baltimore. My phone died, and I wasn’t taking notes, so I don’t have a quote. But the disorder and destruction of the Baltimore CVS store — though vanishingly minor by American historical disorder standards — offended her.

That’s hardly surprising.

Every inch of Burroughs, every word she spoke communicated reserved order, dignity, and social expectation. Prim personifed. I’m sure she productively terrified her students in that vital way that only a certain species of female teacher can — with a deep, cool love. To me, she voiced that strain of black conservatism that Bill Cosby symbolized most vividly until his monstrous behavior toward women emerged clearly.

To greatly oversimplify, you might see Clarke as Burroughs’ “liberal” counterpart. She seems warmer and more openly emotional. She has a great physical charisma in her personal presentation. You can see how training and professional development would make a natural career path. Frankly, I was kind of smitten. If she had a crush on Andrew Young in high school, Andrew Young was lucky. She told us she had never publicly told the story of the beach before. Fifty years later, the violence is still painful and traumatic. It bears on her life — still.

She gave a much more inconclusive answer to the Baltimore question. She was more accepting of its ambiguities. You could see her working through the intersection of personal behavior, systemic injustice, and worldy incentives. Again, I wasn’t taking notes, so I don’t have her actual words. You’ll have to trust my impressions. In any event, I sensed an emotional and intellectual distance between these two women and the sometimes violent youthful activism they were asked to consider.

Cynthia Clarke couldn’t fully wrap her head around it. Maude Burroughs thought it simply destructive. But both women seemed to understand one fact clearly, as they spoke over bagels in a conference room of St. Augustine’s World Golf Village: the Maude Burroughs and Cynthia Clarke era of activism is well over.

An altogether intoxicating experience

Today, people generally see the tight, orderly columns of the Bloody Sunday Selma marchers, with John Lewis and Hosea Williams in the lead, as the emblem of the Civil Rights era.

Likewise, mainstream white America marvels at the non-threatening dignity of the later life versions of Theresa Burroughs, Maude Burroughs, and Cynthia Clarke. Much of mainstream America imagines and describes the modern kids of mass incarceration America as betraying their sacrifices and restraint. Dr. King would be so ashamed.

You’re welcome to think that.

But it’s a straight up historical fact that violent uprisings exponentially beyond anything in Ferguson or Baltimore occurred chronically during the non-violent Civil Rights movement — during the era of King and Cynthia Clarke and the Burroughs women.

It happened in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood in 1965, just five months after Selma. 43 dead. $40 million in property damage in 1965 dollars. It happened in Detroit, on what’s now Rosa Parks Blvd., in 1967. Another 43 dead, or so Wikipedia tells me. Odd that the death totals are identical. Harlem, Philadelphia, and Rochester rioted in 1964. The Hough riot in Cleveland, which I’d never even heard of, killed four in 1966. Cleveland had another in 1968. After King’s murder in April 1968, massive uprisings and spasms of violence happened in 110 cities and towns across the country, with the worst occurring in Washington D.C, Chicago, and Baltimore.

It makes those #blacklivesmatter kids seem rather tame and targeted by comparison, doesn’t it?

Call violence of the Civil Rights Era what you will. Riots. Protests. Uprisings. Looting sprees. It doesn’t matter what you call it. Just don’t call it something that didn’t happen. Each incident followed a violent confrontation with the American state or white Americans as surely as Selma did. And each led to defiance of the American state as surely as Selma did. Only the tactics and orderliness differed.

The Civil Rights era was just one major faction’s campaign in the never-ending, multiple front, American civil war. It is distinguished by the fact that one side, blessed with extraordinary national leadership and dedicated desperate foot soldiers, regularly deployed non-violence as a tactic with great bravery, shrewdness, and effectiveness. But do you think King’s good cop would have worked as well without the bad cops of the street as an alternative?

The apotheosis of modern white power’s thoughtful interpretation of black “pathology,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had this to say in March of 1969.

The Negro poor having become more openly violent — especially in the form of the rioting of the mid 1960’s — they have given the black middle class an incomparable weapon with which to threaten white America. This has been for many an altogether intoxicating experience. “Do this or the cities will burn…” What building contracts and police graft were to the 19th-century urban Irish, the welfare department, Head Start, and Black Studies programs will be to the coming generation of Negroes. They are of course very wise in this respect.

It’s easy to imagine that as true, even if it’s actually muddled and nonsensical in its details of who is threatening whom with what.

The broadness of Moynihan’s assertions make it impossible to wholly prove or disprove. Regarding individual circumstances and moments, you could do both. But as we see even today, critics of confrontation with American power make no real effort to distinguish among distinct moments and circumstances — or know the individuals that power movements. It’s much less work to speak in fake archetypes like the “Negro poor” or the “Negro middle class” and adjust who belongs to each as time and propriety make necessary. Indeed, many of the same people who claim to want Rosa Parks on the $10 bill once called her part of a Negro “goon squad” intimidating people away from riding buses in Montgomery.

Likewise, take another look at Theresa Burroughs’ face, next to another, from another generation.



Would the American state allow your children opt out of schools filled with children who experience America in a way that puts that look on their faces? Or that Americans imagine wearing those looks?

Would major factions of the American state make sure not to expand health insurance and access to care for young adults with that look? Would that look be enough for the American state to exonerate a violent and abuse-prone adult — even make a folk hero of him — if he provoked and then killed an unarmed teenager with no record? Would it justify blind, uncritical support of how agents of the state deploy violence against that look?

These are not difficult questions to answer.