Entries by Jamil Zainaldin

‘Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom’: the civil rights crusade has been a long time coming

It is difficult for many born after 1965 to imagine what life was like in the South before the “freedom movement,” which is exactly what the civil rights crusade was.

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a mere fifty years ago, life in the segregated South was risky, even fatal, for those who crossed the line of racial mores engraved in law and social customs.

Felt by everyone and in every dimension of life, the danger of disregarding segregation affected persons of all color, gender, and age. Any attempt at change to this bedrock of social order, from any quarter, by anyone, became a threat to the South’s way of life and was immediately responded to.

The Okefenokee, Folkston’s Funnel, and Other Wonders of Georgia

Not long ago my wife and I visited the great Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Somehow, in our 15 years in Georgia, we had missed this spot, though it had always been on our must-see list. We read up on the surrounding countryside and the largest blackwater swamp in North America in the New Georgia Encyclopedia and the Georgia Humanities Council’s New Georgia Guide (University of Georgia Press).

Mountains and beaches tend to be more familiar, accessible terrain for most of us, while a swamp rightly conjures up the idea of a forbidding place where we need special skills or guides to help us penetrate its full beauty.

The Physician as Moral Leader

Not many people realize that the proposed health care reforms of the Clinton administration and President Obama’s national healthcare plan have roots in the term of a former African American Secretary of Health and Human Services who served under a Republican president.

That information is only one of the revelations to be found in Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine (University of Georgia Press, 2014), coauthored by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan and David Chanoff.

Letter to a liberal arts graduate: the world awaits you

This commencement address was delivered by Jamil Zainaldin at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, on May 3, 2014.

This is an important day for graduating seniors. It marks the completion of the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. You are about to walk out the doors of this college and into the waiting arms of the world.

And what kind of world is that? Let’s take a quick survey. First, the difficult part: we have poverty, here and abroad. We have war. We have various kinds of inequalities and unfairness. Today we have competition — plenty of competition — in the world marketplace, and that brings its own kind of pressure to bear on U.S. companies and workers.

There’s good news, too, about our world. We’ve experienced in recent years amazing breakthroughs in science, medicine, and public health. And we are seeing great strides in human rights and equality that have their roots right here in Georgia and the civil rights movement of the last century. And we might add, at long last.

A timeless tale of conquest: how the Cherokee created a civilization in good faith, then lost their place in Georgia

If the founding of Georgia began as an effort to create a civic City on a Hill, then the formation of a “new” Cherokee Nation in north Georgia was yet another one, something homegrown but also more than that. The Cherokee Nation won friends and garnered immense national respect, too.

Nevertheless, the Cherokee Nation and the state of Georgia were on a collision course. The American economy was taking off, and in the South, land for growing cotton — land the Cherokee occupied — became ever more valuable. The 1829 discovery of gold in those lands only added fuel to the fire of removal.

Under intense pressure from Georgia and other southern states that wanted Indian lands, Congress reluctantly gave in and passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The new law empowered the president to negotiate with Native American tribes for their relocation in the West.

A civic dream: Cherokee Nation in Ga. was another kind of “City on a Hill”

In a previous column I talked about the founding of Georgia in 1733. A second “civic moment” in our history is equally remarkable, and likewise inadequately acknowledged: the story of the Cherokee of north Georgia.

When the Europeans arrived in the New World they encountered Native American tribal societies, inhabitants of the land for millennia. The nature of the encounters varied, but the overall story is the same: Europeans eventually wrested the lands from those already here.

But what is not much spoken of is what the Cherokee Nation did before they were pushed out. That story begins in the state of Georgia in the 1790s. White settlers migrating west out of the coastal region into the Piedmont bumped up against the Cherokee, not far from present-day Atlanta.

To maintain peace, the Cherokee agreed to successive treaties ceding portions of their land, and eventually found themselves backed into the northwest quadrant of the state.

In their tribal councils, they pondered whether to cede yet more of their lands to the federal government by treaty, in exchange for land beyond the Mississippi River; or perhaps go on the offensive, defending what they already had; or become a “civilized” tribe (adopting Anglo-European ways), which would allow them to continue living on their land.

The mill industry created the modern South — and left behind structures we can regard as civic monuments

Around Georgia, a number of mostly crumbling brick cotton mills remain — the remnants of massive buildings that employed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. For the most part mill workers were poor, uneducated, and white. (Few blacks worked in the segregated mills until after World War II.) Mill hands migrated from the countryside’s sharecropping and tenant farming families, as did laborers who struggled to scratch a living from a land that was still trying to recover from a devastating war.

Mill work was rough and not infrequently dangerous. The average day began with the factory morning whistle. Shifts typically ran 10 to 12 hours, and the workweek six days. The high-end hourly rate for men in 1928 was 25 cents, and as low as 10 to 15 cents for women and children.

Cotton mills and the fabric of our past

Old cotton mills can make for beautiful ruins.

Those weather-beaten red-brick buildings with bell towers and rows upon rows of windows have a haunted quality. They stand like long-abandoned monuments, scattered through the countryside and in our towns and cities.

And they give no hint of the deafening roar and lint-clogged air that once spewed from their machines during one of the most culture-changing periods of Georgia history.

Natasha Trethewey: poetry of place

Natasha Trethewey’s poems are like anonymous dispatches from a southern past, waiting to be opened by the reader.

They are evocations of another time, another place — stories told hauntingly through the sustained contemplation of a single aged photograph in which bales of cotton and American flags, black children in freshly starched clothes and the image of an American president merge; or a clouded childhood memory of a mother’s bruises hidden by makeup; or the preserved Civil War–era fortress on Ship Island, where the hopes and dreams of the African American native guard — the first black soldiers mustered into the Union Army — swelled for a time and was then forgotten.

Georgia’s natural world

Georgia’s history is closely tied to our natural environment, which has been the source of economic opportunity and a destination for leisure activity, a magnet for explorers and tourists, an inspiration for writers and other artists.

Our natural world — Georgia’s wilderness — is of ineffable quality, breathtaking beauty, mysterious beckoning. Our expansive landscape is gifted with a range of natural diversity. The records of Europe’s earliest visitors document their astonishment at the variety of flora and fauna they encountered in this place.

No empty place

All place has meaning, so long as it can still support memory.

The spot of earth upon which we stand has importance if we can remember what once was there. The stories about the places we occupy give meaning to them and thus to our own lives. Sometimes our sense of place becomes so strong that it establishes sacred space.

For many, Camp Toccoa in north Georgia is sacred ground.

The boys of Currahee: they stood alone (Part 2)

In part one of this story, I talked about the origins of Easy Company — the boys of Currahee — and their training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and their participation in the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944.

By November 1944, the Allied push toward Germany had stalled in the hills and valleys of France and Belgium. German defenses along the Rhine River were seemingly impenetrable. Then, on December 16, at the onset of winter, the enemy launched a massive counteroffensive that caught the Allies by complete surprise.

A German force of seven tank divisions, 250,000 Wehrmacht soldiers and Waffen-SS infantry pushed through the Allied lines in the Ardennes forest of Belgium—the first step in a daring lightning strike to the Meuse River. If successful, it would divide the American and British forces and quite possibly lead to their defeat.

The boys of Currahee: they stood alone (Part 1)

Seventy years ago, dug into the bitter ice and snow of a Belgian forest, a U.S. Army infantry company helped to withstand a massive German onslaught and thereby changed the course of history. Did you realize that the story of Easy Company began at Camp Toccoa, Georgia?

At Camp Toccoa, in 1942, the 150 men of Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), began an excruciatingly arduous training regime to forge them into a strike force whose members could withstand virtually any physical challenge.

Much of that training involved literally running up and down 1,735-foot high Currahee Mountain both day and night. The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (based on Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name) brought international renown to the mountain, and to the men who called themselves the Boys of Currahee.

What is true leadership?

A trip down the main aisle of most any bookstore will make it clear that leadership continues to be a hot topic in our 21st century. What I as an historian find interesting, however, is that this greatly admired trait, once commonly applied exclusively to male war heroes or politicians or industrial leaders, is now generally recognized as a gift or skill that also includes women, men, and young people from the highest rungs of the corporate ladder to one’s immediate family. True leadership is the story of success, not for one’s self, but for others.

The truly effective leaders I have observed seem to share similar inclinations and ways of functioning in the world, regardless of the sector from which they come or their scale of leadership.

Remembering Susie Wheeler

Between 1917 and 1932, some 5,000 lovingly designed and constructed Rosenwald Schools were built for rural African American children throughout the South. They constituted a network of educational training camps in which minds were fed and nourished against the dark backdrop of legalized segregation. As such, they helped to lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

But the Rosenwald Schools were only physical forms and shapes. To animate the education that took place in them required hundreds of dedicated teachers who devoted their lives and careers to the inspiration and transformation of the children in their charge. To name them all could fill several columns, but to honor them all, let us remember the grand story of Dr. Susie Wheeler—an authentic Georgia hero.

Bearing witness: the Rosenwald Schools

By 1917 the Reconstruction that was to have secured freedom and equal opportunity for 4 and a half million former slaves in the South had vanished. In its place was the vision of a “New South” that promised commercial success for the crippled region and profit aplenty for Northern industry.

Marring that vision, however, was the Jim Crow system built upon the legal separation of the races that was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. By the second decade of the 20th century, most of the region remained an agriculture-dominated society that suffered from economic, educational, and cultural poverty and deprivation.

The poorest of the poor were African Americans who lived in the country, for whom the dream of freedom was virtually extinguished. Public education in the South was generally lacking for everyone, including most whites, but the minimalist support for rural black schools (where they even existed) was appalling.

A civic dream: Oglethorpe and the founding of the Georgia colony

Hidden in Georgia clay, floating in Georgia air, are stories that have the power to tell us who we are, where we’ve come, and maybe even where we’re headed. These are what I call “civic stories” — stories about building new kinds of communities.

Such stories can be thought of as dreams, as civic dreams, and even if they lack a happy ending, civic dreams can’t really die. They usually carry some message for us to decipher. When this message is revealed, civic dreams can become guides and even inspirations. They can help us take the measure of the present in our long journey of learning how to live together.

Georgia’s rural churches

Passing through rural towns and countryside, drivers come across unmistakable beacons of another time. They represent glad tidings, plain beauty, and sacred space. They are the ground of memory, where words once uttered inside their walls hang like invisible curtains. They are spiritual mountains, despite their modest presentation — aging, mostly one-room structures graced by the simple lines of clapboard siding, shingles, pitched tin roofs, colored glass, and modest bell towers.

Lillian Smith: The artist as activist

The arts are entertaining, educational, invigorating. The arts are part of life, though we may not all agree on what constitute “the arts.” I am inclined to put music, drama, literature, stories, poetry, and so forth into “the arts” category. Of course, categorization has its own challenges. Shakespeare’s plays are theatrical, and also proper subjects of deep scholarly inquiry by experts in literature and history, areas of study sometimes described as “the humanities.”

Education for all seasons

We have grown accustomed to seeing front-page news concerning K-12 public education in Georgia and its progress (or lack of progress), but some of us may wonder what is prompting all the attention. Is the public school system “broken?” Are we falling farther behind the rest of the nation, and the world, in our educational “race to the top?”

Education has always been on our national mind. One of the very first legislative acts produced by our young national government was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance’s most astonishing provision involved education. Free public schools, which previously existed only in New England, were mandated in every township of the new territory.