Ellis Cose

Stories by Ellis Cose

  • A Challenge for Leaders

    When it comes to black religious, political and civil-rights leaders, AIDS is simply not the enemy most signed up to fight. But it has given them little choice. As Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, puts it, "The numbers and the growth of the disease are confronting the ... community in a way that will force us to be more responsive."In the old days, civil-rights issues were much simpler. They amounted, in essence, to holding America to its founding promise, which meant attacking Jim Crow. Today, the most pressing issues affecting minority communities have little to do with Jim Crow. Instead, they are things that aren't rooted in formal discrimination, but which, like AIDS, disproportionately affect those who are poor and nonwhite.Given the magnitude of the gathering threat, one would imagine that established black leadership would have launched an all-out crusade. That is not exactly the case. Without question, some prominent blacks have placed...
  • The Dawn of a New Movement

    Every movement has its seminal moment--when an insight patently obvious in retrospect begins to come clearly into focus. Prisoner re-entry guru Jeremy Travis places his moment in 1999. He was then director of the National Institute of Justice, and his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, asked a simple question: "What are we doing about all the people coming out of prison?"No one had a clue. The search for answers subsequently spawned a host of initiatives that may fundamentally alter how society deals with people who have served time. The issue is hardly trivial. On any given day, America locks down some 2.3 million people. And almost all eventually get out. Some 656,000 or so emerge every year; about two thirds of them end up behind bars again.Edward Davis, the top cop in Lowell, Mass., found that scenario profoundly disturbing and resolved to try to change it--at least for Lowell, which "hit the skids," he says, in the mid-'90s. Crime had risen dramatically, and Davis saw no...
  • A Real Racial Tipping Point

    It is generally impossible to say precisely when one generation gives way to the next, when a particular way of thinking becomes passe. Only in retrospect do such moments become clear. Still, 2006 has the feel of becoming a year--at least for black politicians--when assumptions, once considered immutable, yield to a new reality.It is not just that so many blacks--in both parties--are running for top positions, but that their candidacies are seen as something other than symbolic. In Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr. has his heart set on the U.S. Senate, as do Michael Steele and Kweisi Mfume in Maryland, as does Keith Butler in Michigan. And then there are the people running for governor: Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania--not to mention the host of candidates running for other lofty posts.Mfume, a former congressman, predicts that 2006 will be a "watershed year... in terms of African-American participation in both parties." Carol Moseley Braun...
  • Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006: 'The First Lady of the Movement'

    You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees." For an opening line, it was worse than lame. Fortunately for Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott did not slam down the phone."We considered her the first lady of the movement," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a cofounder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The rank was hers through association, "but then she earned it." A shy woman, she took up the cause of her murdered husband even as she raised four children. And though never the formal head of the movement, she "became a symbol of everything it stood for," says Lowery.The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, another SCLC cofounder, looked to the book of Isaiah for a description of her essence: "In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength." "What Martin was in his life, she adopted and became," said Shuttlesworth. But she was far from a faint imitation of MLK. Born poor in segregated Alabama, she was already...
  • Civil Rights: Atoning For the Past

    Emmett Till's death has always raised questions about how a 14-year-old died for allegedly whistling at a white girl. It also presents the more complex dilemma of bringing perpetrators of long-ago crimes to justice. To answer the first question, the FBI this past June exhumed Till's body. The second issue is harder to lay to rest, although this year saw the manslaughter conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, the former Ku Klux Klan member believed to be behind the murders of three civil-rights workers in 1964.America found itself wrestling with the past yet again with the death of Rosa Parks, who became an icon in 1955 when she refused to stand so a white man could sit on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. That members of Congress and President George W. Bush ultimately paid tribute to Parks at the Capitol bore witness that her life stood for more than even she could have imagined.For all the paeans regularly sung to closure, it is rarely easily achieved. Pain and anger have a way of outlasting...
  • The Lessons Tulia Teaches

    Tulia will forever be known as that tiny town in Texas where dozens of innocent black folks were imprisoned on the word of a lying white narc--which is not to say Tulians are comfortable with that fact. "We moved past that. I wish the rest of the world could," said Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart--who has been "burned so much in the past" that he had no desire to talk to thepress. He would rather focus on helping people, such as the two women waiting to see him the day I stopped by.But the world is not yet done with Tulia. Nate Blakeslee, the young Texas Observer writer who produced the first in-depth report on the Tulia sting, takes us back there in "Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town" ($26.95. PublicAffairs) . Blakeslee re-creates the predawn hours of July 23, 1999, when state troopers, local cops and sheriff's deputies fanned out to arrest 47 supposed drug dealers--the vast majority of whom were black--in a town whose entire black population numbered...
  • The Color Of New Europe

    EDITOR'S NOTE APPENDEDEvery unhappy family, Tolstoy famously observed, is unhappy in its own way. One could make a similar observation about nations--that when it comes to the state of ethnic relations, each has its own unhappy story. If that is not exactly a source of comfort, it does provide a measure of reassurance that the violence sweeping through France in the last two weeks is not necessarily a harbinger of what awaits the rest of Europe. Though other European nations are struggling to absorb fast-growing populations of ethnic minorities, other nations are not France--a point forcefully made by David Lammy, a rising young star in the British Parliament who represents the most diverse neighborhood in London.Lammy, also England's minister of Culture, was born in 1972 to immigrant parents from Guyana. He was barely a teenager, in 1985, when riots broke out in Tottenham, the North London community he serves and where he then lived. In those days, recalls Lammy, to be a young...
  • A Legend's Soul Is Rested

    CORRECTION APPENDEDFor most of America, she was not quite real--more an icon than a full-fledged human being. And Rosa Parks understood that better than anyone. "I understand I am a symbol," Parks wrote in 1992. She died last Monday at the age of 92; but she ascended to the realm of legend long ago. A weary seamstress on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 refused to stand so a white man could sit, ushering in the age of equality. So goes the "children's version of the civil-rights movement," in the words of author Diane McWhorter. The complete story is considerably less child friendly. It would include at least a reference to Thomas Edward Brooks, a 21-year-old black soldier who got on a Montgomery bus in 1950. Brooks made the mistake of entering through the front door instead of the back. For that, as authors Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw relate in "The Thunder of Angels," a policeman bashed him on the head with a billy club and shot him dead. At least two other black men were...
  • The Press: A Mighty Shield

    For all the fuss made by The New York Times, it's less than clear that a federal shield law would have kept reporter Judith Miller out of jail. Patrick Fitzgerald apparently doubts it would have.In his press conference Friday, Fitzgerald denied that he was "looking for a First Amendment showdown." But he also insisted that the particular facts of the case--journalists were not merely witnesses to but central to the possible crime he was investigating--mandated the extraordinary step of subpoenaing reporters. Without talking to them, he had no way of ascertaining whether I. Lewis Libby's story added up.Under the shield law now pending in Congress, Fitzgerald conceivably could have made that argument stick. But he would either have had to establish that outing a source could "prevent imminent and actual harm to national security" or have persuaded a judge to set that provision aside.If Libby actually ends up before a jury and famous journalists are forced to take the stand, America...
  • A Place Worth Calling Home

    The New Orleans we all thought we knew is dead; and that is unspeakably tragic. To find anything remotely comparable, "You've got to go back to Pompeii," observed former mayor Marc Morial. Pompeii, however, was buried under lava for eons; New Orleans is already poking through the sludge, a silhouette, largely bereft of people and charm, of the once vibrant city of freethinkers and jazz."Out of New Orleans is going to come that great city again," promised President Bush. Yet, if one thing is certain, it is this: whatever emerges from New Orleans's ruins will not be the city it once was, and that it not necessarily bad. For long before Katrina came along, New Orleans, despite all its grandeur and grace, was slowly, painfully, slipping away--or, more accurately, the people who gave it its pulse were abandoning the city they had proudly called home.For all its vaunted history, New Orleans had become a great place to visit but not to live--not, at least, in the minds of much of the...
  • TRANSITION

    John H. Johnson, 87 With $500 in borrowed money backed by his mother's furniture, Johnson started an empire in 1942 that would soon include Jet and Ebony magazines, making him the leading black publisher in America. Long before it occurred to the mainstream media that African-Americans might do anything worth celebrating, Johnson forced advertisers to acknowledge black consumers and, along the way, tossed out a lifeline to black models and advertising firms. The magazines' success showed a generation of African-Americans that they could be just as accomplished and as glamorous as anyone else. That his publications are no longer at the center of black American life is a testament to Johnson's vision and impact. It is not that they no longer matter, but that so many others have found their way to a market he knew was there all along.
  • BACK ON THE BRIDGE

    Bloody Sunday 1965 is Selma, Alabama's defining moment. It is the day America peered into the Old South's soul and saw a scene of such unimaginable ugliness that stunned disbelief was the natural response. Even those who were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge--who were scattered like so many bowling pins by badge-wearing goons on horseback--still have a hard time grasping how a pleasant, peaceful protest suddenly turned into a bloodbath.Joanne Bland (now director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma) was only 11 at the time, but she was something of a veteran, having participated in demonstrations with her family. She looked forward to a day of spirituals, prayer and fellowship. But once she was on the bridge, pandemonium broke out. "People were screaming, running." A horse galloped over a woman. "I will never forget that sound," says Bland. Deputized thugs beat marchers as they scampered back to the church, and some followed them inside. One officer, obsessed with finding a girl...
  • The Soul of a New Brazil

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva vowed to take Brazil in a radically new direction when he was elected president by a landslide in 2002. The high-school dropout, labor leader and onetime shoeshine boy declared war on hunger and promised to help the underprivileged. And in a highly symbolic move, Lula named Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes to the Supreme Court soon after taking office.The soft-spoken scholar and former prosecutor became the first black high-court justice in a country where color and class still matter greatly.If Lula is the new face of Brazil, Barbosa is its soul. Coming from an impoverished background rivaling that of the president himself, Barbosa is the embodiment of upward mobility. One of eight children who grew up near the capital, Brasilia, he watched his father's brickmaking business go bankrupt. At the age of 16, he moved to Brasilia and landed a job with the Senate press office. Working in those corridors of power confirmed his already strong sense that education...
  • Criticizing Cosby

    When it comes to celebrities, Americans lose all sense of proportion. We savor even their most inane acts and words. So Bill Cosby certainly could not have been surprised when his rants on the black poor last year--"Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal ... These people are not parenting"--became a diatribe heard around the world.Following his surprisingly truculent speech last year at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Cosby launched a tough-love tour, delivering his unvarnished message of uplift and condemnation to black communities across America. "You young males, you can't just knock up five, six girls and then not take on the responsibility of fatherhood," he lectured young men. And he castigated unmarried mothers for living wildly: The child "hears you having sex in the room, he hears you arguing, he hears you cursing ... And then four days later, you bring...
  • Long After The Alarm Went Off

    The Statistics, So Worrisome About Blacks Then, Would Eventually Describe Reality For Whites. A Third Of American Births Are To Single Women.
  • DOES COSBY HELP?

    You would think the story would have died by now. What's the big deal, after all, about Bill Cosby's blasting a bunch of poor kids and their parents? While the initial salvo was fired months ago, the aftershocks are still being felt. Columnists continue to harp on Cosby's statements, and the comedian has gone on a crusade, sermonizing across the land--and being received like a revered Biblical prophet."It is not all right for your 15-year-old daughter to have a child," he told 2,400 fans in a high school in Milwaukee. He lambasted young men in Baltimore for knocking up "five, six girls." He tongue-lashed single mothers in Atlanta for having sex within their children's hearing "and then four days later, you bring another man into the house." "The audience gasped," reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.People have been gasping since May, when Cosby blasted "lower-economic people" for "not holding up their end," for buying kids $500 sneakers instead of "Hooked on Phonics." His...
  • A CIVIL-RIGHTS ENGINE IMPLODES

    Death is an inevitable part of life, but to watch one of America's most hallowed civil-rights organizations slowly fall apart is to feel shock and deep sadness--not simply at the passing of a once great institution, but at the fact that the demise is so painful, public and lacking in dignity. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King led to the mountaintop, is not quite ready for its obituary--least of all in the minds of its current leaders, who have ambitious plans for revival. But the more realistic view may be that of a longtime insider. "Martin was the heart of SCLC," he said. "It began dying the day he was shot."The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth blasted the current leadership when he stepped down as president late last month--alleging personal improprieties, financial neglect and micromanagement by vice chairman Raleigh Trammell. Shuttlesworth, who left in frustration after less than a year in office, also released an odd interoffice memo from Trammel,...
  • READING BETWEEN THE SENTENCES

    For some 20 years judges have pretty much known what they were doing. If the job wasn't always easy, the rules--at least when it came to sentencing--were reasonably clear. But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, that clarity has vanished, leaving judges and prosecutors stumbling in confusion and the fate of thousands of convicts and defendants up for grabs.It all started in Washington state when a troubled husband kidnapped his long-suffering wife. Ralph Howard Blakely apparently hoped to persuade her (with the help of a knife and a shotgun) to drop divorce proceedings. Incensed at Blakely's behavior, a judge sentenced him to considerably more time than Blakely had plea-bargained for--taking advantage of a Washington law allowing an "exceptional sentence" for "substantial and compelling reasons." Blakely, of course, objected. And the Supreme Court took his side. The June 24 ruling rejected the notion that (as routinely happens) a lone judge could find the defendant guilty of...
  • A Dream Deferred

    Sometimes history serves as a magnifying mirror--making momentous what actually was not. But Brown v.Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, is the real thing: a Supreme Court decision that fundamentally and forever changed America. It jump-started the modern civil-rights movement and excised a cancer eating a hole in the heart of the Constitution.So why is the celebration of its 50th anniversary so bittersweet? Why, as we raise our glasses, are there tears in our eyes? The answer is simple: Brown, for all its glory, is something of a bust.Clearly Brown altered forever the political and social landscape of an insufficiently conscience-stricken nation. "Brown led to the sit-ins, the freedom marches... the Civil Rights Act of 1964... If you look at Brown as... the icebreaker that broke up... that frozen sea, then you will see it was an unequivocal success," declared Jack Greenberg, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. and one of the lawyers who litigated...
  • Voices Of Brown

    Joseph A. DeLaine Jr., retired marketing and advertising executive for Hoffmann-LaRoche and son of Joseph A. DeLaine Sr., the minister who was the driving force behind Briggs v. Elliott:[Joseph DeLaine Sr.] was forced to leave [Summerton, S.C.] and take a church in a neighboring county ... which was in the town of Lake City, S.C. That church provided a parsonage and required that the pastor live there. So, he split his residency between Summerton and Lake City. It was just after that occurred [in 1951] that the home in Summerton was burned. And when the house burned, the fire department refused to put the flames out, saying it was 20 feet across the town line. When my father went to collect the insurance on the house, it had already been paid to settle this [libel] judgment [to a corrupt school principal DeLaine had insisted be fired].When the second Supreme Court decision came down, which was the one that said "with all deliberate speed"--there was also the development of the White...
  • LEARNING TO HEAL

    FROM RWANDA TO ROSEWOOD, FLA., PEOPLE ARE SALVING THE WOUNDS OF THE PAST. OUR CONTRIBUTING EDITOR EXPLORES THE QUEST FOR TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
  • How To Mend A Massacre

    Such things were not supposed to happen in America. People peacefully assembled were not supposed to be gunned down. And murderers, especially if caught on tape, were not supposed to walk free. But that's what happened in Greensboro, N.C. Gun-toting self-declared Klansmen and Nazis took aim at union organizers, many of whom professed to be communists, and sent five of them to their graves. That was in November 1979--when the rules (the unwritten ones in much of the South) were different than they are today. Then Klansmen could believe, with a certain amount of confidence, that they could kill people (particularly communists helping to organize blacks) and blithely walk away--if not with the larger community's blessing, certainly with its understanding.After two criminal trials (one state and one federal, where the Klansmen and Nazis were indeed vindicated by all-white juries) and after one civil action (where the police and the hate groups were held liable for one death), many...
  • Race In The Newsroom

    How could The New York Times have been so stupid? How could it have let a twenty something chronic screw-up wreak havoc on its credibility? For Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, the answer is glaringly clear: "favoritism based on race."Certainly, only the most naive soul could believe race played no role in Jayson Blair's ascent. But to focus on race as the major reason that Blair could insinuate himself with and ultimately sabotage his bosses is to focus on an ideologically convenient fact at the loss of a larger truth. In dealing with Blair, the Times committed just about every journalistic sin in the book--and trying to give a brother a shot was probably the least of them.As any number of distressed black journalists have pointed out, if race could explain Blair's rise, the Times's ranks would be filled with up-and-coming black stars. Yet at the Times, as at other major newspapers in America, the stars are generally white.Race may have gotten Blair in the door; it may even...
  • The Black Gender Gap

    Black Women Are Making Historic Strides On Campuses And In The Workplace. But Professional Progress Is Making Them Rethink Old Notions Of Race, Class And Romance.
  • Lessons Of The Trent Lott Mess

    Ritual apologies are, by definition, insincere and embarrassingly predictable, but few are as willfully obtuse as that offered by Trent Lott. Though not as comical as the Flip Wilson ("The devil made me do it") defense, it was equally absurd. As Lott explains it, he was "winging it." He was "too much into the moment."The problem is that Lott has been in that moment for a very long time.In supporting discrimination at Bob Jones University, in cheerleading for the white segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens, in standing against the Voting Rights Act, in rejecting an array of minority judicial candidates, Lott has made it clear that the moment in which he lives is one most Americans have left behind. As Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, put it, "Even Strom Thurmond evolved somewhat."Last week the fact that Lott helped lead the fight to bar blacks from his fraternity while at the University of Mississippi received considerable attention. Tom Johnson, then a...
  • The Voices That Nobody Heard

    Before September 2001, Lochinvar was a myth, a heroic knight from the West--"so faithful in love... so dauntless in war"--who steals the damsel from an unworthy mate. But in the aftermath of Al Qaeda's attack, America craved its Lochinvar. So George W. Bush was reborn. Many who see themselves as the heart of the Democratic Party--labor activists, political progressives, blacks, Latinos-- witnessed the emergence of this fearless figure with bemusement. As they watched last week's consolidation of power, bemusement turned to dread. (America now faces "the gravest threat to fundamental liberties in decades," declared Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way.) But there was also something else: a sense that their party, in taking them for granted, pandered to voters it could not hope to win; and that in surrendering its true identity, it perhaps got its just deserts. As Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, put it: "When the shameless compete against the spineless, the shameless...
  • Learning From East Timor

    East Timor is still more an idea than a reality--surviving, for the moment, on the kindness of friends. A former Portuguese colony forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975, the tiny state became independent in May--the first new country of the new millennium. Last month it joined the United Nations, which is a huge step for a fragile country struggling to stabilize and define itself.Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's foreign minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes the media, in a sense, created his nation. In the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion, an estimated 200,000 people died in East Timor (out of a population of less than 700,000), and the world was largely silent. "We did not make it into the prime-time news of global television because there was no global television at the time," recalls Ramos-Horta. By the 1990s, things had changed. The Internet and 24-hour news programming were realities. And as the struggle for independence intensified, scenes of destruction from...
  • A New Kind Of Race

    He takes it as a given that demography is destiny; and in the movie in his mind this particular truth has a sound. It is the roar of a mighty river that once was a shallow stream. For Roberto Ramirez, former Bronx Democratic chief, the soundtrack is part of a glorious vision in which black and Latino voters, once marginalized, coalesce into an irresistible political force. It is a vision so obvious, so inevitable, that he marvels that more do not see it. "These constituencies step forward at the same time. And for the first time in my life, I see a coalition of equal partners, with equal contributions to make."Ramirez's dream may not have the poignancy of the one made so famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, but it has sufficient power to fuel this portion of his political life. Ramirez was a principal in the spirited, though ultimately failed, campaign last year to make Fernando Ferrer New York City's first Latino mayor, and he is now engaged in the fight to make Carl McCall New York...
  • What The Revolution Was For

    The comparison to Bill Clinton comes easily--not just to the media, but to Cory Booker himself. A fellow graduate of Yale Law, a Rhodes scholar, policy wonk and charmer, Booker has seduced America's glitter people. The celebrities and other boldfaced somebodies who latch onto the new political hot thing have found a messiah in the making--in, of all places, Newark, N.J. But before he becomes a savior, he must vanquish a mayor, which makes for the city's most interesting election since 1986, the year Sharpe James toppled Kenneth Gibson.Gibson was the first black mayor of a major Northeastern city. Voted in on the heels of race riots and following a mayor indicted for extortion, he came to office in 1970 symbolizing both racial hope and a sharp break with a corrupt past. Sixteen years later, James argued, in effect, that Gibson had fossilized into what he had once loathed.Now it is James who feels the breath of a young challenger, one who is not impressed with the fact that James...
  • The False Promise Of Being First

    "For 40 years, I've been chasing Sidney." that was Denzel Washington's way of noting the nearly four-decade drought endured by black leading men between Sidney Poitier's best-acting Oscar and his own. Yet Washington's wait is nothing compared with that of Clifton R. Wharton Jr.: it took America 96 years to make him the second African-American to head a big, predominantly white university.The first was Patrick Healy, the son of a mixed-race slave and the Irish immigrant who bought her and made her his wife (or some approximation thereof in an age when miscegenation was illegal). Healy earned a Ph.D. in Belgium and became president of Georgetown University in 1874. When Wharton assumed the presidency of Michigan State University in 1970, the press made much the same fuss over him that was made last week over Washington. "Local and national reporters scrambled to cover me... ," Wharton recalls, "and the broader significance of a Negro who had breached the walls of another barrier."But...