By David Cason
The story of Graham Jackson is a timeless tale of American ingenuity, hard work and the cream rising to the top.
It’s also a tale of economic inequality, overt racism and America’s Jim Crow caste system.
As one of the first Black musicians to play on national radio, Jackson is best known for the April 13, 1945, photograph of him that was published by Life magazine, one of the leading publications of its day.
In that image, Jackson, dressed in his U.S. Navy uniform, is seen playing the song “Going Home” on an accordion as the train carrying the body of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaves the station in Warm Springs, Georgia, for his burial in Hyde Park, New York.
Jackson’s tear-filled face mourning the death of the nation’s longest-serving president became a symbol of the nation’s grief.
But under legislation that’s been proposed in North Dakota, I am not sure if I can tell the full story of Jackson in one of my college courses without breaking the law.
Officially titled Senate Bill 2247, the measure would criminalize discussing factual history by prohibiting discussions at state universities that involve “divisive concepts.”
The bill defines “divisive concepts” as including white privilege, white guilt, Black resentment or America’s being “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
If passed, the measure would ban any classroom discussions that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
It would also ban courses that would make an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”
As I detail in my biography of Jackson, the story of Graham Jackson involves all of these things.
An orphan with a musical gift
I spent five years researching Jackson’s life, read hundreds of documents and interviewed people who knew him. Through that research, I was able to factually document the racial realities that Jackson and other Black Americans faced throughout the 20th century.
The grandson of enslaved people, Jackson was born into poverty in 1903 and became an orphan. In a twist worthy of Charles Dickens, his mother was committed to Central State Hospital in Virginia after a failed suicide attempt. His father, who had recently lost an arm in a hunting accident, disappeared from his life. He was raised by his aunt.
As an adult, Jackson used his talents as a musician to make a name for himself entertaining. When he moved to Atlanta in 1924, he became the house organist at Bailey’s “81” Theater.
The owner of this theater, Charles Bailey, was a tight-fisted white manager.
Some Black artists saw Bailey as a “cracker from the back woods of Georgia” and accused him of assaulting Blues singer Bessie Smith and having her hauled off to jail.
Jobs like this at Bailey’s were some of the few a young Black artist could find in the 1920s.
Jackson also recorded jazz songs, and while these were popular, they were sold and labeled as race records to separate them from the work of white artists whose songs were labeled “old-time” records.
Still, he found acclaim in white newspapers, which described him pejoratively as a “darktown jazzologist.”
‘The Plantation Revue’
Jackson became the favorite of many wealthy and influential white people in the 1930s, including President Roosevelt.
Jackson spent time with Roosevelt, but only as an entertainer, not as a confidante or friend. Jackson and his “Plantation Revue” singers once performed for FDR in full slave garb, singing traditional spirituals.
In 1939, Atlanta experienced the mania associated with the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
City officials planned lavish Confederate-themed balls and events, and an estimated 300,000 people attended a parade featuring most of the movie’s cast.
Jackson and his “Plantation Revue” were hired to perform at one of the balls, in front of a facade of the fictional plantation named Tara, and in full slave regalia.
Several Black church choirs also performed in slave garb with Jackson. Among the singers was a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.
Jackson’s lost cause
Jackson volunteered to join the Navy in 1942 to both raise money through performing while enlisted and also to recruit Black men to join the newly desegregated Navy, which had just removed some barriers for service.
In 1950, Jackson was invited to perform at the graduation ceremony at a white high school in South Georgia. Within days the invitation was withdrawn because of violent threats by the Ku Klux Klan.
Though Jackson did see some success in the 1950s appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Today Show,” by the 1960s he could find steady employment only at several Confederate-themed restaurants in Atlanta.
Jackson produced two albums of Confederate songs, and his most popular request was the Confederate battle song “Dixie.”
In 1969, Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox appointed Jackson to the State Board of Corrections. The appointment by Maddox, the last known segregationist to serve in Georgia, was a milestone, because Jackson became the first Black person to serve on a statewide board.
But for Jackson, as I learned during my research, the appointment was largely dismissed by many young Black leaders who viewed him as an irrelevant “Uncle Tom.”
Challenges to academic freedom
Florida’s “anti-woke” legislation and the state’s recent rejection of the AP African American studies curriculum are well-known examples of a disturbing trend that attempts to criminalize exploring the stories of Black people such as Graham Jackson.
But Florida is not the only state walking down this dark path. Some 44 states have proposed legislation in the vein of the Florida law. Some states target K-12 education. Others target state universities.
Beyond the subjectivity of many of these prohibitions lies the more serious issue of academic freedom in a democratic society.
Challenges to those freedoms have been around for centuries.
Galileo was famously placed under house arrest in 1633 for the heresy of theorizing that the sun was the center of our solar system.
In 1907, Charles W. Elliot, President of Harvard University, wrote, “My subject is academic freedom, a difficult subject, not as yet very well understood in this country, but likely to be of increasing interest and importance throughout the coming century.”
“In all fields,” Elliot continued, “democracy needs to develop leaders of high inventive capacity, strong initiative, and genius for cooperative government, who will put forth their utmost powers, not for pecuniary reward, or for the love of domination, but for the joy of achievement and the continuous, mounting satisfaction of rendering good service.”
One of the primary functions of a higher education is to empower critical thinking, challenge long-held assumptions and promote intellectual honesty and integrity.
In my view, the promise of higher education means access to stories like the one of Graham Jackson’s.
Before he died on Jan. 15, 1983, he overcame many barriers caused by systemic racism. In all, Jackson performed for six American presidents and was named the official musician for the state of Georgia by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.
But in my view, Jackson remained a prop of sorts for wealthy white patrons who did not see him as fully human but enjoyed his performances of Confederate songs.
Under the proposed legislation North Dakota, I can say his name but I can’t tell his story without arousing a sense of guilt and resentment – and, ultimately, shame – for a nation still unable to see people, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “for the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
David Cason, Associate Professor in Honors, University of North Dakota
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
David Cason is Associate Professor in Honors at the University of North Dakota.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
That is a VERY misleading headline – “could” now be illegal. Is it or isn’t illegal?
Pierre Tristam says
It’s not misleading. Teachers and professors across the state are in a daily gray zone as to what they think they may and may not teach. The anti-wokism law’s text, like the thinking behind it, is extremely poor, vague, broad and contradictory.
Ray W. says
As my father recounted to lawyers on many an occasion, during his first year in law school a professor told my father’s class that he was about to teach the most important rule for all lawyers: “The law is what a judge says it is on the day he says it, and don’t ever forget it.”
Winston Churchill described the English system of common law as the greatest form of the law, because it offered both consistency in the four corners of the English countryside and it allowed for slow change. Flexibility and consistency, to Churchill, was the goal of the law. He opposed the continental law system, a system that allowed a legislature to instantly rewrite any law, because in the continental system of Churchill’s day, legislatures held primacy over the judicial system. This legislative primacy issue is what is causing fits in Israel today.
Is it possible that “slow change” may be an extraordinary understatement? I submit that English history from 1066, to this day, is far from exemplary of any notion of human decency, fair play, equality in law, or any other measurement that could be compared to others. Fast-forward through the centuries from 1066, to the 19th, of which, Victoria’s reign spanned over 80 years, and is by no means far and distant from today.
The injustices and societal maladies of life that were the fabric and daily bread for the common person, in England, and its empire, during the little queen’s rule fill volumes: child labor in mines and factories, famines greatly exacerbated by the rights of property owners, formal opposition to women’s suffrage (in a country led by a woman?!), a penal system and corporal punishment that the word Draconian is totally inadequate to describe. The canon of English literature, and England’s historical record, are witness to what I stated.
The history of the United States during the aforementioned period of English history, if not generally, is well known to you. Do you dispute that DeSantis, Renner, McConnell, Scott, et al., are working like ditch diggers to return us to the 1850’s?
Finally, “…This legislative primacy issue is what is causing fits in Israel today.” True. And here is another truth about that truth:
Compare DeSantis’ (and Scott’s before him) authoritarian, nakedly lawless power grabs, with those of Netanyahu. What is the difference?
Ray W. says
The idea of checks and balances was designed to slow the pace of change. Our founding fathers were more worried about demagogues uniting the public mind and installing sweeping and wholesale changes to the law. The English common law provided for ample time to argue each possible course and evaluate every potential side effect of changing course. Individual court decisions were published far and wide so the debate could remain anchored to the issue.
I don’t disagree with your comparison of Netanyahu to DeSantis or Scott, but tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are on the move, protesting the proposed undermining of their judiciary. In Florida, a politician proposes an undermining of the judiciary and the money rolls in. The protesters number in the tens, perhaps even as many as 100.
In the ’70’s, in the face of perceived judicial corruption, Floridians reformed the judicial nominating process. At the time, there were 20 circuits, four districts and a supreme court. A total of 25 nominating commissions, with nine members each, were established. The governor appointed three members to each commission, the Florida Bar appointed three members and the six members voted in three more members. The goal was to obtain as politically neutral a judiciary as possible. When Jeb Bush took office, one of the first bills he signed into law undermined this goal of a neutral judiciary. Now, the governor appoints five members to each of the now 27 commissions and the Florida Bar submits a list of names, from which the governor selects the other four members.
Thank you for the McConnell article. The “internal affairs” language is striking. Since its founding, the UN Charter has had language about human rights. The Chinese government has tried for decades to remove that language and replace it with language guaranteeing the right of each nation to manage its “internal affairs”, without interference from the UN or any other nation.
I agree with you that draconian acts against humanity occurred in pre-Victorian England, but in that light, please consider that it took roughly 2200 years to convert the idea of an Athenian democracy (overthrown twice (411 and 404 BC) by authoritarian leaders, who were then removed by democratic forces — two insurrections and two retaliatory wars in seven years) into an experimental liberal democratic Constitutional republic ideal. When Franklin commented on the last day of the Constitutional Convention that the members had given the nation a republic, “if they could keep it”, he wasn’t thinking of politicians abusing the government in a way that justified overthrow, he was thinking of the two historical insurrections against Athenian democracy, with the rich allying with the middle class to deprive the poor of citizenship. If a poor Athenian fought in the army, he was granted citizenship and given the right to speak in the assembly and vote. The rich were repeatedly thwarted by the poor voters, so they overthrew the democracy. The middle class found out the hard way that the rich, once they got rid of the poor Athenian voters, turned on the middle class. The autocratic government seized the assets of many of the middle-class Athenians and killed a significant number of them as well. So, the middle class allied with the expelled poor and drove the rich autocrats out of power, reestablishing democracy. One of the first things the rich did when they ousted the poor from the city was to summon Socrates and order him to stop teaching the youth of the city his theories of rhetoric and logic, which was and still is the cornerstone of a liberal arts education. In 399 BC, the leaders of the newly reestablished democracy summoned Socrates and ordered him also to stop teaching rhetoric and logic to anyone under 30. Socrates chose death by hemlock. DeSantis taking over the Board of Sarasota’s liberal arts curriculum at New College is a 2400-year-old idea.
There may very well be a slow moral arc in the universe towards justice (and away from vengeance), complete with stumbles along the way, but I have to hope that one day people will once again enjoy carefree days at the beaches below the heights of Beirut.
As for returning the U.S. to the 1850’s, I don’t think that is the focus. Years ago, Putin told a Financial Times reporter that liberalism had become “obsolete.” Authoritarian rule is the future, in Putin’s mind. Then-EU President Tusk countered by stating that if liberalism was obsolete, then the rule of law was obsolete, individual rights were obsolete, and freedom was obsolete. Tusk put words to what we are facing. In Federalist Paper #1, Hamilton wondered whether mankind was forever destined to rule by accident or force (kings or tyrants). He hoped that maybe, just maybe, a liberal democratic Constitutional republic could be formed and maintained, based on reason and choice, but he had many doubts.
Your reply surpasses my best hope for this dialogue. Thank you.
Where would you set the doomsday clock for our republic, after reading this:
Supreme Court to take on controversial election-law case
Renner’s dream team eagerly planted the seed (Jesse Helms’ NC grown, Moore v. Harper) of the tree they will use for the lynching; just in time to steal the 2024 general election. If I may, well, I will, repay your excellent synopsis of ancient and recent history — with some very recent history. Today’s Republican Party rodents, as is the nature of reactionaries, use their family inheritance to start off at the top. And what a legacy it is:
I believe, if he was posting here, and now, Winston C., would have the same profound concern he did for Hindenburg’s acquiescence to the ascension of the DeSantis of 1933.
Do I exaggerate?
Ray W. says
No, you do not exaggerate.
Since I am a closet Hegelian, I am ever hopeful that every societal proposal (hypothesis) will instantly by opposed (antithesis), and that the necessary clash between the hypothesis and the antithesis will thereby yield an ever-changing synthesis. I believe we will eventually hit rock-bottom and begin to return to a more secure form of government. The transformation of NATO and the EU, not without its own significant tensions, is proof that the world’s advanced democracies possess a measure of resilience.
I have been waiting for a good time to submit a more complete version of Churchill’s view of the difference between a democracy and an autocracy. Thank you for the opening. As a preface, the British government had arrested a prominent citizen early in the war, because he was openly supportive of the national socialist movement. That citizen spoke often, to great effect, of the benefits of Great Britain adopting Nazi policies, and even of allying with Nazi Germany. I post the exchange between Churchill and his home minister to emphasize the difference between the distribution of governmental executive powers in Churchill’s time and how one of today’s American political parties openly concentrates powers in one leader. Remember, the dates of these exchanges were some six months before D-Day and the outcome of the war remained in considerable doubt.
From Volume V of Churchill’s, The Second World War, Appendix A, Book Two.
“While we were in conference in Cairo and Teheran, a domestic issue of Constitutional importance which had been before us since the beginning of October came to a head. It is recounted here in order not to break the narrative.
“Prime Minister to Home Secretary 6 Oct. 43
” Let me know what is the report of the Medical Commission upon Sir Oswald Mosley’s state of health. I have received privately some rather serious medical reports about him, but they are of course unofficial.
“Mr. Morrison’s reports confirmed this information, and he decided to release Sir Oswald and his wife. I was sure this would raise controversy.
“Prime Minister to Home Secretary 21 Nov 43
“I expect you will be questioned about the release of the Mosley’s. No doubt the pith of your case is health and humanity. You might however consider whether you should not unfold as a background the great principle of habeas corpus and trial by jury, which are the supreme protection invented by the British people for ordinary individuals against the State. The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian governments, whether Nazi or Communist. It is only when extreme danger to the State can be pleaded that this power may be temporarily assumed by the Executive, and even so its working must be interpreted with the utmost vigilance by a Free Parliament. As the danger passes, persons so imprisoned, against whom there is no charge which courts and juries would accept, should be released, as you have already been doing, until hardly any are left. Extraordinary powers should be yielded up when and as the emergency declines. Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilisation.
“Differences arose between Ministers on the step the Home Secretary proposed to take. I assured him of my full support, though I should have preferred to deal with the question as a whole, rather than in a particular case.
“Prime Minister to Home Secretary 25 Nov 43
“I am convinced 18B should be completely abolished, as the national emergency no longer justifies abrogation of individual rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury on definite charges. I doubt very much whether any serious resistance would be made to this. There are of course a number of totalitarian-minded people who would like to keep their political opponents in prison on lettres de cachet, but I do not think they constitute a majority. I have already on more than one occasion expressed in Parliament my distaste for these exceptional powers, and my hope that success and security would enable us to dispense with them. However, as these views conflict with the line you have adopted I shall not press them at this time.
Any unpopularity you have incurred through correct and humane exercise of your functions will be repaid in a few months by public respect.
“Prime Minister (Cairo) to Deputy Prime Minister and 25 Nov 43
“In case there is a debate on an amendment to the Address to terminate 18B, I would strongly recommend counsel the line that we very much regret having to be responsible for such powers, which we fully admit are contrary to the whole spirit of British public life and British history. These powers were conferred on us by Parliament because of the dire peril of the State, and we have to administer them in accordance with the principles of humanity, but all the time we desire to give back these powers from the Executive to Parliament. The fact that we have gained great victories and are in a much safer position makes the Government more desirous of parting with exceptional powers. The time has not yet come when these can be fully dispensed with, but we can look forward to that day.
2. On no account should we lend any countenance to the totalitarian idea of the right of the Executive to lock up its political opponents or unpopular people. The door should be kept open for the full restoration of the fundamental British rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury on charges known to the law. I must warn you that departure from these broad principles because the Home Office have a few people they like to keep under control by exceptional means may become a source of very grave difference between us and the totalitarian-minded folk. In such a quarrel I am sure I could carry the majority in the House of Commons and the mass of the nation. Anyhow, I would try. It seems to me you have a perfectly good line in deploring the fact that such powers are thrust on you and in proclaiming your resolve to use them with the utmost circumspection and humanity. Do not quit the heights.
“Mr. Attlee now reported to me that the Cabinet had decided to support the Home Secretary in releasing the Mosleys from prison. There was, I learned, considerable Parliamentary agitation against this step.
“Prime Minister (Teheran) to Home Secretary 29 Nov 43
Considering you are supported by the Cabinet, and by me as Prime Minister, you have no choice whatever but to fight the matter through, and you will no doubt be supported in any direct issue by a very large majority.
2. There is no hurry about the general question of 18B. I certainly recommend however that you express your distaste for such powers and your regret that dangers of the country have forced you to assume them, and your earnest desire to return to normal. This is a becoming attitude in a democratic Minister.
“Mr. Morrison showed firmness and courage in resisting the storm that threatened him, as is often the case, it dispersed. People who are not prepared to do unpopular things and to defy clamour are not fit to be Ministers in times of stress.
“Prime Minister (Teheran) to Home Minister 2 Dec 43
“I congratulate you on the strong support given to you by the House of Commons. Your courageous and humane discharge of your most difficult and disagreeable functions will gain its reward in the respect of the British nation.”
What a different time it was! Executive power was shared among the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and Ministers of government, with Churchill suggesting, but not ordering, with Churchill occasionally deferring to the decisions of his Home Minister, with Churchill backing a Minister in a politically unpopular move at a time of continuing great external threat to the nation.
Ray W. and Pogo: Personally, I’m waiting for the discovered monolith in “2001 A Space Odyssey.”
Ray W. says
It’s already in Flagler County, in a storage area in the Flagler-Palm Coast High School, hidden behind a stack of banned books. Human progress will have to wait.
Anything to keep African American achievements under a lid I believe his what this country is doing. This country.
The dude says
A small price to pay to keep our coddled white kids from being upset, or even informed, by historical events.
Ray W. says
Snark, cleverly disguised. I am being schooled today. Thank you.
David Sullivan says
Nice to see my Uncle Ed Sullivan video from 1951 in this article. Uncle Ed was always way ahead of the times in the Country when it came to race relations. Graham Jackson was a great talent, and I would be surprised if any restrictions were put on the telling of his life story. Dave Sullivan
This whole thing about what teachers can teach and what students can an cannot read is the Cult GOP parties way of showing how much they still till this day are discriminating against black people. It is a disgrace to hide the truth about what actually took place and the Cult GOP party throws all it under the carpet like it never happened and that is a down out lie.
The Geode says
…and just WHAT is stopping parents from teaching this to our kids? While we’re at it, what is stopping us from “Googling” what we want to know? Why do you think everything we know, do, and learn has to come from white people? Like I said many times before, white (liberal) people seem to think we cannot do anything alone or by ourselves …or are too ignorant to own a computer and an ID
Jane K says
This would be a travesty. How sad that we’ve come to THIS!
Brad W says
What I think is also very notable here is what North Dakota includes in their bill which is indicative of where things are going. “If passed, the measure would ban any classroom discussions that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”” Notice the words “sexist” and “oppressive”. This is attacking equality for women too. Keep in mind that in was just 70 years ago that women could not have a bank account. Sure women could work and earn, but not in equal jobs as males nor earn equal pay and could not deposit their money in a bank. There have been a great number of women who have sacrificed and fought for the right to vote which took over 100 hundred years, for equal rights, for the protections to not be discriminated against, and more. Where are we headed, and what are you willing to stand up for?
Brad W.: Thank you. I remember when I was at a Kmart and pulled out a credit card to charge my cart of stuff, when the older woman cashier wanted unmarried me to provide my husband’s information before running my card. I asked her why I needed a husband to purchase the selected items. I know I hit a kindred spirit’s nerve when she ran my card without another word!
What is happening now is an attempt to take us backwards again, and to control women.