Lift Every Chair and Swing
How a chair became a megaphone for Black American ancestors
No historian or forecaster could have seen the storm brewing earlier this month in Montgomery, Alabama. Many Americans had their Sunday afternoon social media scrolling disrupted with what initially seemed like a race-based brawl on the Montgomery, Alabama riverfront on August 5, 2023. The final victory blows were executed with a single folding chair.
Within hours of the initial video, additional footage was shared showing the hour leading up to the brawl. Apparently, Damien Picket, who is the Black co-captain of a riverboat (ironically named the HARRIOTT), continually asked the owners of a private pontoon boat to move so he could dock into the city’s designated space for the riverboat. The group of white folks, who were local business owners, responded with curse words, obscene gestures, and more. This went on for 45 minutes. It was at this point that Mr. Picket “peacefully move the boat over just enough so the Harriott could park.” This enraged the pontoon boat owners enough to attack Mr. Picket. When four men surrounded him and started to get violent, he threw his cap in the air. The rest, you might say is history.
Over the course of a few days, social media archaeologists began to pontificate about what happened both to the naked eye, the hours leading up to the event, and the historical significance of what happened. Some of the coincidences that were cited was:
- The Harriott prominently shown on the riverboat during the melee served as a reminder of the first conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman.
- 16-year-old Aaron Rudolph swimming over to help get the men off of Mr. Picket. At his young age, he probably didn’t know the historical significance of his actions. The ocean, especially along the route of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is the largest graveyard in the world. He swam past that graveyard to help stop a hate crime.
- Learning that the folding chair patent that many black churches used, similar to the one used during the brawl, was held by a black inventor, Nathaniel Alexander.
However, two incidents that happened within hours of the Riverfront event called upon hundreds of years of American history.
Friday, August 4, 2023
Former President Trump speaks to the Alabama GOP in downtown Montgomery, Alabama identifying a list of embattled politicians and groups as “warriors” before an enthusiastic crowd. I wasn’t able to stomach the whole speech, but in the first 20 minutes he bragged that he was “one more indictment to close out this election” and lauded Montgomery, Alabama as the place that “launched the greatest political movement in the history of our country.” He was speaking of the Montgomery rally for his 2016 campaign. However, the part about Montgomery launching the greatest political movement in the history of our country is correct. Many times over. Here are a few times that Montgomery, Alabama “launched the greatest political movement in the history of our country”:
- In the mid 1800’s. Montgomery, Alabama was one of the largest slave trading stations with four auction blocks within a short distance of the brawl. Almost half a million of these enslaved persons stayed in Alabama.
- In 1861. Montgomery, Alabama had emerged as a darling of the slave-holding states and was even called the “Cradle of the Confederacy”. For a short time, it was selected as the Capital of the Confederacy comprised of 11 states that attempted to secede from the union after Lincoln was voted in as President. In fact, according to historian John Ashworth, the exact spot where Rosa Parks sat on on the bus is “directly across the street from the marker in front of the building where the telegram sent on April 11, 1861 started the civil war.” To be noted: President Abraham Lincoln was posthumously honored with the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson. This song would later become known as “negro national anthem” and added to pews in many black churches. (Here goes that folding chair again.)
- In 1955. The brilliant resistance-based activism of Rosa Parks and civil rights organizer, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , launched a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Not only did this force the bus system to desegregate the busses, it accelerated to a Supreme Court decision to desegregate all public transportation in 1956. It also is generally seen as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
- In 1965, people from all backgrounds and ethnicities marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a former brigadier general, senator, and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan) for equal voting rights for Black Americans. State troopers turned the peaceful protest into a massacre, which is how it earned its name “Bloody Sunday”. It was the intermingled blood of Americans seeking equality from the government they fought for and lived under which leaked across millions of living room TV sets that precipitated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- In 2018. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum honoring thousand of lynching victims and the enslaved, was opened in Montgomery on the site of a former warehouse where Black people were bought and sold into slavery. Tennessee Voting Rights Activist (lynched in 1940), Elbert Williams, was one of those honored at this museum.
Saturday, August 5. Two hours prior to the Riverboat incident
Over 100 women gathered together, as part of a healing ceremony to conclude a health and wellness conference. They paid homage to the black ancestors that were unnamed and uncounted for in historic Montgomery. In the honoring of the ancestors that were victimized, brutalized and murdered – there is also space for the ancestors that stood up and fought back, non-violently and otherwise from the mud pits that held African captives until deployment to ship mutinies, and protests and pushes for equity and justice.
“There have been martyrs throughout history, in every land and people, in many high causes…The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has had its share of sufferers…Elbert Williams, secretary of the Brownsville, Tennessee NAACP who was lynched in 1940; Rev. George W. Lee, officer ofthe Belzoni, Mississippi NAACP who registered to vote and was assassinated in 1955…We tend to forget pioneer fighters. We say, unfeelingly and thoughtlessly, “No one really acted before now”… The truth is that through all the years before our time men [and women] have fought for freedom. Now it is our turn, not to re-write the record, but to add to it…” – Roy Wilkins at the funeral for Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary for Mississippi who was ambushed and killed outside his home in front of his wife and children.
So, from the moment the surrender hat that went up in the air to the final blow with the chair, “the folding chair” now has a place in history. Some are coining this memorable moment “Lift Every Chair and Swing.”
Black TikTok, Etsy, and other online vendors have created everything from chair earrings to bracelets to framed stills of the footage. Distill Social, a Michigan nonprofit group aimed at sharing truth and disarming lies, has come up with “Thoughts and Chairs” stickers with the acronym FAFO (which stands for Eff Around and Find Out). A portion of their proceeds will be shared with the Elbert Williams Voting Corner. Get yours here.