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The story of graham jackson is a timeless tale of American ingenuity, hard work, and the cream that rises to the top.
It is also a story 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 magazineone of the leading publications of its time.
In that image, Jackson, dressed in his US 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-streaked face mourning the death of the nation’s longest-serving president became a symbol of the nation’s grief.
But under proposed legislation in North Dakota, I’m not sure I can tell Jackson’s full story in one of my college courses without breaking the law.
officially titled Senate Bill 2247The measure would criminalize discussing factual history by banning discussions at state universities involving “divisive concepts.”
The bill defines “divisive concepts” including white privilege, white guilt, black resentment, or America being “fundamentally or hopelessly racist or sexist.”
If approved, the measure would prohibit any classroom discussion that “an individual, by virtue of race or gender, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether knowingly or unknowingly.”
It would also ban courses that would cause an individual “to feel discomfort, guilt, distress, or other forms of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”
As detailed in my biography of jacksonGraham Jackson’s story 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 document the racial realities faced by Jackson and other black Americans throughout the 20th century.
The grandson of enslaved people, Jackson was born into poverty in 1903 and was orphaned. In a Charles Dickens twist, his mother was admitted to Virginia’s Central State Hospital 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 yourself. When he moved to Atlanta in 1924, he became the house organist at Bailey’s “81” Theatre.
The owner of this theater, Charles Bailey, was a stingy white manager.
Some black artists viewed Bailey as a “Georgia backwoods cracker” and accused him of assaulting blues singers. bessy smith and have them take her to jail.
Work like this at Bailey’s was some of the few a young black artist could find in the 1920s.
Jackson also recorded jazz songs and although they were popular they were sold and labeled as career records to separate them from the work of white artists whose songs were labeled “records of yesteryear.
Still, he found praise in the white newspapers, which pejoratively described him as a “dark neighborhood jazzologist”.
‘The Plantation Magazine’
Jackson became a favorite of many wealthy and influential whites in the 1930s, including President Roosevelt.
Jackson spent time with Roosevelt, but only as an encourager, not as a confidant or friend. Jackson and his “Plantation Revue” singers once performed for FDR in full slave regalia, 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 some 300,000 people attended a parade featuring most of the film’s cast.
Jackson and his “Plantation Revue” were booked to perform at one of the balls, in front of a fictional plantation façade named Tara, and in full slave regalia.
Several black church choirs also performed in slave regalia with Jackson. Among the singers was a 10-year-old boy. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jackson’s Lost Cause
Jackson volunteered to join the Navy in 1942 both to raise money by performing while enlisted and to recruit black men to join the newly eliminated Navy, which had just removed some barriers to service.
In 1950, Jackson was invited to perform at a graduation ceremony at a white high school in South Georgia. A few days later he withdrew the invitation due to violent threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
Although Jackson had some success in the 1950s appearing in “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Today Show,” in the 1960s he could only find steady employment at various Confederate-themed restaurants in Atlanta. https://www.youtube.com/embed/qASxacohq_o?wmode=transparent&start=0 Graham Jackson performing in Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” on June 17, 1951.
Jackson produced two albums of Confederate songs, with his most popular request being the Confederate battle song “pot.”
In 1969, Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox appointed Jackson to the State Board of Corrections. The appointment of Maddox, the last known segregationist to serve in Georgia, was a milestone because Jackson became the first black person to serve on a state board.
But for Jackson, as I learned during my research, the appointment was largely rejected by many young black leaders who saw him as an irrelevant “Uncle Tom.”
Challenges to academic freedom
Florida’s anti-wake legislation and the recent rejection of the State to the AP African American Studies Curriculum are well-known examples of a disturbing trend that attempts to criminalize exploration of the stories of black people like Graham Jackson.
But Florida is not the only state walking this dark path. 44 states they have proposed legislation along the lines of Florida law. Some states target K-12 education. Others point to state universities.
Beyond the subjectivity of many of these prohibitions lies the more serious question of academic freedom in a democratic society.
Challenges to those freedoms have been around for centuries.
galileo he was 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. Elliotpresident of Harvard University, wrote: “My subject is academic freedom, a difficult subject, not yet well understood in this country, but likely to be of increasing interest and importance over the next century.”
“In all fields,” Elliot continued, “democracy needs to develop leaders of high inventiveness, strong initiative, and genius for cooperative government, who will deploy their greatest powers, not for pecuniary reward or love of domination, but for the joy of achievement and the continuing and growing satisfaction of providing good service”.
One of the primary functions of higher education is to foster critical thinking, challenge entrenched assumptions, and promote honesty and intellectual integrity.
In my opinion, the promise of higher education means access to stories like Graham Jackson’s.
Before he died on January 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 the then Governor. Jimmy Carter.
But in my opinion, Jackson continued to be something of a prop for wealthy white patrons who didn’t see him as fully human but enjoyed his renditions of Confederate songs.
Under proposed legislation in North Dakota, I can say her name, but I can’t tell her story without arousing guilt and resentment – and ultimately shame – for a nation that still can’t see the people, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin”.
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