First of a three-part series
I recently had the honor of interviewing Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks (D-District 63), who is important in the fight for justice in America. His district combines parts of Douglas and Fulton Counties, including Atlanta, and he is also president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials (GABEO) which has over 800 members—a fact with tremendous meaning in the South.
Since being elected in 1980, Rep. Brooks has fought many battles for justice to the people he represents. Despite death threats, he has introduced and supported legislation on behalf of poor, oppressed people in Georgia and elsewhere. He led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa and called for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. He waged a 20 year battle to remove the Confederate emblem from the Georgia state flag, which finally succeeded in 2003! He is working to preserve the environment and the Voting Rights Act, so hard-won and still in danger; and introduced legislation to address domestic terrorism. In 2005, along with civil rights groups, he opposed a state law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls—which, for many poor, elderly people, and those in rural areas, amounts to a poll tax. A federal court has temporarily barred Georgia from enforcing this law.
It was in the offices of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP that this interview took place, and I thank Judith Hanson, Executive Director, and her assistant Saundra Douglas, for their generous hospitality. This is one of over 60 interviews I've conducted for my oral history project, documenting what Eli Siegel, the American philosopher, poet, and founder of Aesthetic Realism identified as the “force of ethics” in history. There is a force in the world—and deep in the human mind—that sometimes impels a person to stand for justice in a courageous way. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Civil Rights movement illustrate this force, and Mr. Brooks enables us to learn more about them.
I recall Eli Siegel stating, “ One's greatest question can be put very simply: Do I feel the world in the right way?—Do I have the best feeling for people and things not myself, near and far?” We all have this question. I myself want to be kinder, deeper, fairer and Aesthetic Realism explains what interferes with seeing justly: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” For America to be sane and kind, and for racism to end, all of us need to criticize contempt wherever it may be, including in ourselves. Every day Mr. Brooks confronts the brutal results of contempt, including hunger, homelessness, racism, and the history of slavery and lynchings.
As I spoke with Rep. Brooks and heard his voice with its measured, quietly musical power, I felt I was listening to someone whose feeling for people was large. This is how our interview began:
ALICE BERNSTEIN: I'd like to begin at the very beginning. Would you like to say when you were born and where that was?
REP. TYRONE BROOKS: I was born on October 10, 1945 in Warrenton, Georgia. That's the home of my mother, Ruby Brooks. My father lived down the road in Sparta, about twenty miles away.
AB: Can you tell us what kind of work they did?
Rep. Brooks: My mother still lives in Warrenton at the age of 96—she is a retired domestic worker. My father was Mose Brooks who passed away December 7, 1987. He's buried in Sparta behind the New Beulah Baptist Church. He was a railroad man all of his life—from 18 until his early sixties. He worked on the CSX Railroad Line in Georgia and then moved to Pennsylvania and worked on Penn Central. He was active in the A. Philip Randolph Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union (BSCP), working on behalf of black men who wanted to be treated fairly, fighting segregation in the railroad cars and every aspect of the transportation industry.
My mother was an NAACP activist in her own right. They are the people who did as much as anybody to steer me into the Civil Rights revolution.
AB: Would you like to say anything about your father's work for the union?
Rep. Brooks: A. Philip Randolph was the great labor leader who was trying to make it possible for African Americans to move from laying the cross-ties and rails to working in the sleeping cars as the trains moved across the country; to make sure they would be treated fairly; that they made the equal wage of whites and were not subjected to dehumanizing racism and discrimination.
The BSCP Union became a civil rights organization within organized labor. Even today we have the A. Philip Randolph Institute which works very closely with the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations.
AB: I'm very interested in how the labor movement encouraged the civil rights movement.
Rep. Brooks: It was a partnership. The early days of the labor revolution in this country, so that workers could earn decent wages, have contracts, retirement and benefits, preceded the civil rights revolution. The civil rights movement of the 50s into the 70s was an automatic marriage with the labor movement.
In 1967 when I became active in SCLC full time, I noticed how Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, and Dr. Lowery had working relationships with George Meany of the AFL-CIO, Walter Reuther of the UAW, Cleveland Robinson of 1199, the hospital workers union, Teamsters with the Hoffa family, International Ladies Garment Workers Union, AFSCME, all working to advance the cause of workers. The labor movement recognized that it had to support Civil Rights across the South—voter registration, sit-ins, marching, picketing, going to jail—and labor leaders were right there with us!
I remember one day when Dr. King was going to Atlanta Airport and Hosea Williams asked me to ride with him. Hosea told me Dr. King was not going on a commercial flight, but on a UAW plane with Walter Reuther. The planes from the major labor leaders were always available to the Civil Rights leadership and took Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee to help the sanitation workers. That marriage of Civil Rights and labor is active today—maybe not as much as there should be.
AB: I hope there will be more, because they both need each other.
Rep. Brooks: We do need each other. We're in the same boat. We need to reform our federal legislation in Congress. One of these days hopefully we can repeal Section 5 of the Taft-Hartley Act that prohibits unions from having the same kind of power in the Southern states that we have in the rest of America. Taft-Hartley is a detriment to organizing in the South where we have right-to-work laws.
AB: Were either of your parents members of the United Negro Congress?
Rep. Brooks: No. My mother and my grandmother were members of the National Council of Negro Women which is still being run today by Miss Dorothy Height. They joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and encouraged us to join. As a matter of fact, I had a membership card in ACLU before I had an NAACP card. The participation of my maternal grandmother, my mother and father really had a lot to do with not only myself but other young people who ventured off into Civil Rights—whether it was NAACP or SCLC or Congress of Racial Equality or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
We watched Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, Dr. Lowery and others on the network news and read Life, Look, Ebony, Jet magazines and black newspapers such as the Atlanta Daily World and Pittsburgh Courier. Receiving all this information was designed by our parents and grandparents to educate us as to the changing world. SCLC really attracted me more than anything else. Maybe it was because of Dr. King: his charisma, ability, and youthfulness. When I met Dr. King he was barely thirty years old. In 1955, when he and Dr. Abernathy responded to the attack on Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Dr. King was 26 and Dr. Abernathy was 28. Their youthfulness and the excitement around what they were doing attracted people to join SCLC.
AB: I read that you volunteered for SCLC at a very tender age—
Rep. Brooks: Fifteen. Yes, that's true. We had been active in the NAACP Youth Council because of my grandmother and mother selling NAACP membership cards as best they could—the State of Georgia considered it a terrorist organization. Of course you know the history of the NAACP and the FBI. When the sit-in movement started and Freedom Riders began to move across the South to desegregate lunch counters, we began to notice that SCLC was emerging from Montgomery, being incorporated in New Orleans and coming into Atlanta, setting up headquarters here. SCLC began to impact students—high schools and college campuses, etc. The excitement around Dr. King and his youthfulness became an attraction to me.
So at fifteen, I and other students began to picket the Board of Education and we attracted the attention of SCLC. Rev. Hosea Williams made it possible for us to meet Dr. King as he traveled through my hometown going to South Carolina. There was no Interstate 20 at that time, so they had to come down Highway 278. Rev. Hosea Williams made it possible for us children to wait on the side of the road in Warrenton, under a big oak tree, to meet this black Cadillac that was taking Dr. King—I think he was on his way to meet Miss Septima Clark in Charleston. She was an educator who had begun to work with him. Yes, it was an introduction as a fifteen-year-old that allowed me to travel with Carl Farris, Hosea Williams, Willie Bolden and others around the country. I learned a great deal as I was sitting in cars or in the back of rooms, going to workshops and seminars, just taking in everything; learning from the veterans of the movement. I had an opportunity that I wish more young people had had, to be with these giants—it was just an awesome, awesome blessing that I don't think I could ever describe in words.
To learn about Aesthetic Realism visit the website of the not-for-profit educational foundation www.AestheticRealism.org. Alice Bernstein is a journalist and co-author of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press).