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Thank You Miss Emma Rose

Ken Krayeske

January 24, 2010

This is a shout-out to Miss Emma Rose, wherever she may be. The assessor's database for Hartford says she has lived at 135 Tower Avenue in Hartford since 1959, and for many of those years, she also served as a librarian at Sands Elementary School.

Like a good librarian, she kept at least one newspaper and magazine clipping file about black liberation and American history, many of them from magazines she received at her home. I know this because I now possess 30 years’ worth of news clippings that she thought important enough to give to a dear family friend.

Miss Emma Rose's gray oaktag folder contains weekly news magazine covers, editorial cartoons from the Hartford Times, and creased pages from the New York Herald Tribune featuring epic moments from the civil rights movements. She even saved a 1961 Harper's Magazine Essay by James Baldwin about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s future challenges.

For a lifelong newspaper junkie and archivist, this was a gift from heaven, during the week of MLK's birthday, no less. A blessed friend unearthed Miss Emma Rose's amazing archive from her storage facility this week, and suggested I do something with it.

When I opened the musty packet, the first headline to greet me was "Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks". This undated clip, cut out in a neat rectangle and pasted onto a thick black construction paper, featured MLK quotes from 1958 and 1964.

"The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed people all over the world," King said somewhere, sometime in 1958.

In 1964, King said "As one approaches the emancipation of today’s Negro from all those traumatic ties that still bind him to slaveries other than the physical, this half-forgotten system that bartered dignity for dollars stands as a painful reminder of the capacity of society to remain complacent in the midst of injustice."

At first, when browsing the articles and collection, including a 1963 special section of the Hartford Times called "The Negro in Hartford" by a young Don Noel, I didn't see a rhyme or reason to Miss Emma Rose's collection.

Leafing through the pages, the clips seemed disparate. I found an editorial cartoon of a black man being hauled into a paddy wagon by white cops by Hartford Times cartoonist Ed Valtman from 1967. As the black prisoner looks over his shoulder at his crying wife, who holds a baby, he says "Don't Worry, I'm on my way to better housing."

Perhaps this cartoon applied to the column I wrote two weeks ago, about the police brutality from the Welfare Incident in Asylum Hill in 1966. But the date, and the prisoner's coy smile, played off the frowning police officers seemed to play to stereotypes of irresponsible black men feeding off the system, leaving their women to fend alone.

As I continued to look through the file, I realized that while Miss Emma Rose cared about her freedom, more importantly, she wanted whoever looked at this file to listen to what the pundits were saying about the state of her black community.

Through this snapshot of her life, I feel like I have met a kindred spirit. She had no idea who would one day open the folder when she gifted it to my friend's family in 1992.

But there I was, staring at a proud Thomas Jefferson painting on the cover of the Time magazine special July 4, 1776 issue, no doubt commemorating the 1976 American bicentennial. Miss Emma Rose loved her liberty, and she was confident in her vision of society.

The next clip, from the July 26, 1964 New York Herald Tribune Sunday section, is the jump from a story about a great poet's take on race. Entitled "LeRoi Jones Speaking," the piece gives the man now known as Amiri Baraka a platform.

Baraka's pull quote in the left hand margin reads: "The mainstream mentality does not even know what a Negro is That is why is keeps asking 'What does the Negro want?' What does any man want?"

Reading the file, I got the feeling that although Miss Emma Rose was confident in her worldview, she still wanted to make sense of the world around her. By collecting and preserving news articles, she could compare them over the arc of time.

I can see her placing the July 31, 1964 Time magazine, with a photo captioned "Rioting Harlem youth flee club-wielding cops" next to the map of the march on downtown Birmingham from the Time of May 17, 1963. Or with the Editorial page of the Hartford Times from April 5, 1968, the day after MLK was shot.

In the July 31, 1964 Time, below the photo of black youth running from a white cop ran a story where Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater wondered how to create racial peace in the United States. Goldwater offers only that it would be a good idea to bring blacks and whites together.

A few pages later, Time captioned another photo from Harlem "Negroes find spiritual solace in 400 churches." Like an anthropology feature for the suburbs, the journalists reported how the natives live.

"Love Is the Legacy Left by the Martyr" wrote the Hartford Times editorial board, which was probably composed of upper middle class, white men, many of whom either had a college education or had been in the news business since they were 12.

They were nothing if not God-fearing, and they thought themselves if not combating injustice, the to at least be doing right. In the deck head, below the Martyr line, they quote scripture, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul."

An editorial cartoon by Ed Valtman to its right places MLK looking in the distance, under black and white hands shaking peace, and the of course, the Washington Monument.

Miss Emma Rose surely would have wanted us to consider not only the column written by the young Bob Novak, discussing LBJ's decision not to run, but the editorial hashing out who will now lead the black community, as if it is a monolithic group which elects a leader.

This question seems to have vexed white America, and perhaps part of Miss Emma Rose's genius was that she recognized this, and collected stories about this. For some stories, Miss Emma Rose cut out the cover, and the pages of the feature she wanted, and carefully placed three staples along the left edge, so it was still readable like a magazine.

She did this with the Newsweek from May 15, 1967 asked "Which Way for the Negro Now?" Newsweek's editors featured a cover of five floating black heads: MLK, Jr., Whitney Young of the Urban League, Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers, Floyd McKissick and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.

These are virtually the same names the Hartford Times editorial board bandied about in the hours after King’s assassination. They quoted Mr. Young as saying "The time is past … when any black leader can successfully call for patience. Only white America can now assume the mantle of Martin Luther King."

Funny, then, that Time presented an essay on April 4, 1969 entitled "The Future of Black Leadership." Or that Newsweek on February 19, 1973 queried "What Happened to Black America?" Newsweek's answer, hidden in a caption: "After a decade of tumult, the impulse for change is flaming out."

Miss Emma Rose, I bet, knew that these pundits standing outside the community, looked in for answers they wouldn’t find.

That is why perhaps my favorite piece in the 2-inch thick folder is the Hartford Times' exploration of Hartford’s black community in 1963. A pipe-smoking Don Noel, many years before he would become the chairman of the Connecticut ACLU board of directors, spent five months covering "The Negro in Hartford."

Among the many stories, by black and white writers, Noel documented the "spectacular kneel-in" at on July 13, 1963 at Carville's Restaurant, on the Hartford/Windsor border.

The North End Community Action Project, the National Student Movement and the Congress on Racial Equality teamed up to organize a picket, funded in part by a grant from Martin Luther King, Jr., demanding that Carville’s hire more blacks.

I wonder where are those groups today, those pickets today, with unemployment in our fair city probably hovering around 50 percent, despite whatever the reported numbers are.

Miss Emma Rose saved this, along with pictures of young civil rights activists being manhandled by cops, suffering the pains of fire hoses or batons.

These are not the iconic Life magazine images that have lost their context because we have seen them so many times. These are the daily photos depicting the reality, and massive scope of the civil rights struggle.

King's description of slavery fits here, for these news clips remain "as a painful reminder of the capacity of society to remain complacent in the midst of injustice." One need only look at how we allow 47 million Americans to remain without health care.

I don't think it was. I think white America just perceived that. Nor do I think Miss Emma Rose did. So Miss Emma Rose, wherever you are, thank you for your work and collection. Now if we would all just listen to history's echoes.

Reprinted with permission of Ken Krayeske, author of the blog The 40 Year Plan. To view other stories on this topic, search The 40 Year Plan at http://www.the40yearplan.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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