This interview appeared in many newspapers including the Georgia Inquirer.
Before concluding my interview with Rep. Tyrone Brooks, I want to say how grateful I am to have spoken with him and other courageous men and women for my oral history project and television documentary on civil rights, and to learn from what they did to advance justice, dignity, kindness in this world. Their lives show what Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism explained about the power of ethics in people and in reality itself—a power as elemental as gravity and as constant. Aesthetic Realism explains the biggest fight in people, between the best thing in us—our desire for good will, for justice—and the ugliest thing, contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt has many forms, as everyday as a sneer or sarcastic retort, and as blatant and brutal as racial hatred, beatings and lynchings. How urgent it is to understand the way contempt works in everyone, so that we may be entirely against it, can be seen in Mr. Brooks' narrative.
Going to Jail for Justice
Along with his work in the House of Representatives, the Hon. Tyrone Brooks is president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials (GABEO), with 800 members statewide and programs meant to deter violence and crime among youth; promote voter registration and participation; battle illiteracy; secure economic parity for all Georgians. Earlier we discussed the many times he was jailed in behalf of Civil Rights—66! I commented:
AB: You are probably familiar with the story of the 19th century American writer Henry David Thoreau, who was jailed for not paying taxes to a government that supported slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and said, “Henry David, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau answered, “Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there!”
REP. TYRONE BROOKS: Yes, I remember that story well. I remember the letter Dr. King wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963. He was challenging white clergy persons—they said clergy men back then—that though you may sit in ivory towers, there is more to your assignment than preaching on Sunday. If you're not willing to come out on Monday and face Bull Connor's dogs then you're missing the true calling of the clergy.
I remember all my arrests including in Washington, DC during the Poor People's Campaign in 1968—a 25 day jail experience along with Dr. Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Willie Bolden and Bobby Nelson. I wear that as a badge of honor. Someone who holds public office should never divorce themselves from going to jail for something you know in your heart is right. It may be 67 arrests soon; or 68.
Two years ago Dr. Lowery and I were jailed in Crawfordsville for protesting a Superior Court order to allow a garbage dump in the poor, majority black community. As president of GABEO I was asked to stand with the commissioners who defied the order. Dr. Lowery said, “If you're going to jail, I'm going with you.” The Georgia Supreme Court finally blocked this dump.
My longest tenure in jail was in 1970 in Covington. I was leading SCLC demonstrations and I remember the sheriff pulling a shotgun and threatening to kill me. I said “If you don't kill me tonight, I promise I'll be back tomorrow.” Finally, after more demonstrations, the sheriff arrested me and others on charges of marching without a permit and inciting a riot. I passed 45 days in jail.
An Important Meeting
AB: I read about a very important meeting you had at age twenty with a man named Dan Young. Would you like to tell about that?
Rep. Brooks: Yes, it was in Monroe, Georgia. I drove on SCLC business from Atlanta to meet Dan Young, an undertaker who owned funeral homes in Monroe and Covington. Mr. Young was very close to Dr. King who often visited the Young farm in Social Circle to relax.
Mr. Young, surprised that I came alone, said, “I want you to follow me downstairs.” In the basement he walked to this file cabinet, pulled out a folder and proceeded to flip these photos open. I asked, “Why are you showing me these dead people?” He said, “These are people who were shot and lynched down the road at the Moore's Ford Bridge. I had to pick the bodies up because I'm the only black funeral home director in the county. I want you to understand where you are: in the capital of the Ku Klux Klan, with a long history of lynchings. I'm showing you pictures of two couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey, sharecroppers who dared to stand up and resist segregation, dehumanization, and discrimination. Mrs. Malcom was seven months pregnant when they were captured by a mob of klansmen and lynched around 6:30 PM, July 24, 1946.”
He went on to say, “C.A. Scott, the publisher of the Atlanta Daily World and I are brothers-in-law. I sent him every photo. The Daily World ran big stories, and Crisis magazine at the NAACP in New York ran a full spread. I was trying to get the word out across America. President Truman ordered the FBI in and there was a sweeping investigation. They developed a list of suspects─55 people. But no one has ever been arrested.”
Earlier this year we found clips from the Macon Telegraph on Dr. King's visit there on March 23rd, 1968. In the speech he delivered there, he talked about the significance of going to Washington with his Poor People's Campaign. He also made a commitment: “I've got to go to Memphis to help the sanitation workers, but when I finish, I'm coming to Walton County to deal with the lynchings at the Moore 's Ford Bridge.” In less than two weeks, Dr. King was assassinated.
A Major Priority
Rep. Brooks: We have made this mass public lynching a major priority today. As we speak the United States Congress is moving with legislation to address unsolved lynchings and killings of civil rights workers across the South prior to 1970. A $5 million appropriation has been designated for a special task force under the Department of Justice to work on these cases. We want justice! Some suspects still live. There is no statute of limitation on murder. Those who have passed on—they'll have to answer to God. But those still living, will have to answer to the rule of law.
We have been able to post a $25,00 reward for information that can lead to prosecution of persons involved. We plan to raise $100,000 to entice someone to help us arrest these killers of innocent citizens. At some point the Malcom and Dorsey offspring will be able to say, “Finally some persons—though in their eighties or nineties—will stand before the bar of justice and receive the punishment they should have received in 1946.”
AB: I applaud this with all my heart. I recently interviewed filmmaker Keith Beauchamp about his just released documentary on the lynching of a fourteen-year-old child, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Do you know this film?
Rep. Brooks: Yes, he's done a phenomenal job of moving the Emmett Till case to the national level. Hopefully with Mr. Beauchamp's work and with Congress, there will be further arrests, including in the killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi. There are persons beyond Mr. Edgar Killen—who's been prosecuted and is now sitting in jail for sixty years. I said earlier that Mrs. Dorothy Malcom was seven month's pregnant. The mob cut the baby out and killed the baby. So you talk about horror and you talk about gruesome and about heinous—those are just a few of the words to describe the massacre!
Contempt: The Cause of Lynching
AB: There's much I'd like to say, but I'll say some things very swiftly. One reason I respect the study of Aesthetic Realism is that Eli Siegel explained the cause of every brutality and injustice on this earth—contempt. I have a book which I will be happy to give you on this subject—Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism. Contempt is in everybody.
Rep. Brooks: Yes. I would love to have that book.
AB: Contempt has many forms and if it's not criticized, it goes on. For instance, I'm grateful that I learned about my own desire for contempt, which showed in a biting sarcasm. I came to see that while I felt powerful at being able to sharply put someone down—including my husband—I also felt ashamed. When you see that contempt hurts you as well as others, you're on the road to changing it. Learning how to criticize contempt in oneself and in others is a magnificent, practical study—and there's nothing more urgent.
I'd like to show you two paragraphs by Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, with whom I have the honor of studying. Her commentaries appear in the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known . In #1408 she wrote about the photography exhibition about lynchings Without Sanctuary.
Rep. Brooks: That's an awesome collection.
AB: It is. People are hoping to make sense of how human beings can do such horrendous things to each other. I showed this quote to Keith Beauchamp and it meant a lot to him. If you would like to read aloud, please do.
Rep. Brooks: Yes, this is by Ellen Reiss in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:
“How can ordinary people, with families, who tuck their children into bed at night, become a lynch mob? Every person who took part in a lynching had been looking for a chance to see something as against him; to punish and annihilate it; to make himself wholly right and good, and someone not himself wholly wrong and evil. It is horrible and completely unforgivable. Yet the elements I have described have been welcomed by everyone in some fashion….We won't understand how persons can take another person and torment and kill him (in the American South; or Germany of the 1940s; or anywhere) until we understand the contempt that is in everyone.”
Rep. Brooks: As I read this, I think the anger in all of us must be aroused whenever we see an injustice. We must say “No, that's wrong! We will not tolerate this contempt!” If it happens against you because you may be Jewish, or Catholic, or Muslim, or Baptist, or Asian, or Indian, or black, or white—then it really happens to all of us. I think when you read this statement and understand the meaning of it: “until we understand the contempt that is in everyone”—we really cannot feel clean until we are willing to see the cause and rise against it.
I had read for years about Simon Weisenthal's vigilant work to bring those old Nazis and war criminals to justice, and I said, “If we have the same commitment of just one man like a Simon Wiesenthal, we would make a tiny contribution to justice.” I think he should inspire all of us to criticize contempt in ourselves and wherever possible raise the consciousness of this in our children, our families, our communities, so that we won't repeat the atrocities we witnessed, whether in Germany or in Monroe, Georgia or Mississippi.
As Dr. King was saying, we want the best of humanity to rise to the top and continue to fight against the worst in humanity. We have to remember this profound statement by Ellen Reiss: “Until we understand the contempt that is in everyone”—that means a great deal. Yes, it's the right of Aesthetic Realism to be known. Thank you, those words mean a great deal—powerful 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).