I met James Elder in the early 1980s when he was a creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago. Though he was never one of my students, he was well known in the Writing/English department as a gifted writer whose stories were often written with an inescapable authenticity of gritty, inner-city realism. Back in those days, he struck me as aloof, but decades later, during our interviews for this project in the clubroom of the apartment building where he lived in Milwaukee with his wife Shirley, he freely admitted that he was introverted by nature. This truth about Elder was in direct contradiction to his leadership role as a Black student activist at Chicago’s Tilden High School from 1966 to 1969 and immediately after that as a member of the Black Panther Party. He recalled to me that Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, would advise him to stay outside of news crews’ camera angles at Panther rallies and events because Hampton believed that it was in Elder’s best interest to avoid the trap of notoriety, as that would only draw potentially lethal attention upon him from government authorities. (1)
(1) On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were assassinated in a one-sided gun battle with Chicago police officers. Hampton was twenty-one years old. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, privately called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the county.” history.com/news/black-panther-fred-hampton-killing
Elder spoke in a voice that was as disarmingly honied as it was surefooted. I could be mistaken, but I believe that my whiteness made him try a little harder to explain situations, choices and details, which for the purposes of story worked just fine for us. When he landed on the topic of family, he seemed the most engaged and taken into himself. And so it was that in the middle of my first interviews with Elder, I stumbled across his story of Mama Lizzie.
When I was about nine years old, I experienced my first act of overt race bigotry. I had to learn fast and then digest what had happened to me slowly. In fact, I’m still digesting it. I was raised on the West Side of Chicago, but at heart I am a child of the South. I talk slow, walk slow and still manage to produce a Southern drawl that any Northerner can easily recognize. My parents and grandparents were all born and raised in Georgia. My mother and father used to send me and my two older sisters, Irie and Barbara, there each summer for as far back as I can remember. I didn’t know what was behind that at the time, but now I believe the reason was twofold. They wanted us to bond with our extended family and to get us out of Chicago and the risk of the city in the summer. Not being in school, you have time on your hands for trouble and the like. Also, I think that sending my sisters and me to Georgia freed my parents up to do stuff that they wanted to do without worrying about us. This was the late fifties and early sixties, so Jim Crow was alive and well, and sharecropping was the economic engine for most Black people in this part of Georgia. Sharecropping and Jim Crow replaced slavery, but those things weren’t far removed from slavery. They were just new names for the same thing. There were still whites-only water fountains, bathrooms, and Blacks had to enter most stores through the back door. If a store clerk was waiting on a person of color and a white person walked in, they had to step aside and allow the white person to be waited on first, no matter how long it took. And you couldn’t say anything or communicate through your body language that you were unhappy as well or that would be addressed.
Naturally, at five years old I didn’t understand that this was a race thing any more than I thought you could speak to adults or enter their conversation without being invited. Those were simply the rules. I learned that rule about speaking to adults the hard way when I tried to correct my Aunt Cousin Fronnie Lee, and she spit hot snuff juice on my bare feet and just kept right on talking as if I wasn’t there. I got the message. There were plenty of rules to learn—country rules, city rules and, most importantly, people rules.
My grandmother’s house was in Senoia, a small town thirty-eight miles southwest of Atlanta. She had nine children, and all of them had at least five children. It was just a three-, four-room house. On a slow week, she would have twelve kids staying with her. On a big week, we’d have twenty-three, twenty-four—all family. Her full maiden name was Lizzie Lee Elizabeth Rebecca Mitchell, but everybody called her Lizzie Lee, and when us grandkids came along, we called her Mama Lizzie. My grandfather Daddy Bob had already passed when I started spending the summers with Mama Lizzie. She was a small, petite woman who always wore pants beneath her dress with rubber boots and a baseball cap. Her father was white—some diminution of Irish and Scottish—and her mother, Jessie Lee, was from Madagascar or Cameroon. I’ve heard both countries tossed out. (2) She gave birth to my grandmother when she herself was just thirteen years of age. I would find out later that it was the result of a rape.
(2)According to James Elder’s wife, Shirley, Jessie Lee originally came from Mali as did her older sister Nonie.
This is how my Mama Lizzie came to be. My Great Auntie Nonie was already working for this white family, the McDays, as a servant, when she brought her sister, Jessie Lee, over from Africa to work for the McDays as a servant, too. Jessie Lee was like eleven, twelve years old. She was raped by a member of the McDay family, got pregnant, and produced my grandmother, Lizzie Lee. Everybody in Senoia—the white families and the Black families—knew that this child didn’t look like the other Black families or these two African women that was working at the McDay’s household. This is after the Civil War when Lizzie Lee was born—1903 or somewhere thereabouts. So again, it was new slavery, different than old slavery that we referred to as Jim Crow, but to Black folks it was the same slavery just with a different label on it. The next thing you know, Jessie Lee was pregnant again and from the same McDay family member. So, the McDay men got together and decided what they were going to do something because you can’t keep producing these half-white babies around here. They were going to discard Jessie Lee and Lizzie Lee to get rid of the evidence of these two rapes. They wanted to take them and abandon them like dogs you get rid of, take them so far away that Jessie Lee couldn’t find her way with her infant daughter back home. (3)
This white lady from Texas, who had married into the McDay family, overheard the men talking. She did not have a child of her own and had already developed some attachment to Lizzie Lee. She fought to cut a deal, more or less, for my Great Aunt Nonie to keep and raise her niece as her own child. And so that McDay compromise was reached.
Some white family found Jessie Lee on the streets of Atlanta pregnant and starving, took her in, and placed her with a Black family. Otherwise, she would have just died. With their help, she raised her second daughter, Georgia, maybe only thirty-eight miles away from Senoia. This is about 1905, so at that time thirty-eight miles must have seemed like one thousand miles. I think that my grandmother, Mama Lizzie, got a chance to see Jessie Lee on a couple of occasions, but there was never a relationship, and she looked at her Auntie Nonie as her mother and treated her as such because that was the only mama that she ever knew from infancy on up. This is why we called my Great Aunt Nonie “Grandma.”
Grandma Nonie got killed on a railroad track. She was hit by a train. We weren’t familiar with the term Alzheimer’s, senility, and the like, but when I was four, five, or six, they had to lock her in one of the rooms at my Mama Lizzie’s house, and that’s why there were three rooms as opposed to four. Sometimes, she would escape, go down to the railroad, sit on the tracks, and talk to herself. They used to get my wagon, which I was totally opposed to, mind you, and would go and get her—have to tie her to my wagon to bring her back to the house. I thought that in some strange way they were corrupting my wagon [laughter], and that I might catch her fucking craziness, and I’d end up sitting on tracks talking to myself.
(3) Concerning the repeated use of the family name Lee, Elder said the following: “I didn’t know Robert E. Lee had that much influence on my family’s naming convention—Lizzie Lee, Jessie Lee, Fronnie Lee, even my grandfather’s name was Robert Lee. I don’t know of anybody named Grant or Ulysses.”
To me, staying in Georgia with Mama Lizzie was like going to a prison boot camp. I hated it. I didn’t want to sleep in a bed like sardines—three kids this way, three that way. And the biggest thing you’re trying to do is to avoid being in a bed with a pisser. You had no options at that point other than to kick them out of bed and avoid the wet spot. In Chicago, I had the convenience of opportunity. I can go right down the street and play baseball. I can go around the corner and play basketball at the Marcy Center. I can go swimming if I want. (4) I had a whole assortment of friends in Chicago, but in Georgia my friends and adversaries were all relatives. My biggest thing down there was trying to avoid doing farm work. But again, my older sisters liked staying with Mama Lizzie because they had a little bit more freedom down there. They could earn their own money doing daywork picking peaches or chopping cotton. Later, as teenagers, they worked at a local bell pepper plant as well as at the Atlanta airport.
(4) James Elder would hop on a CTA bus with friends and go to a beach on the Lakefront.
The McDays allowed Mama Lizzie to grow crops on a few acres of their land. She had a huge garden, and she grew some of everything—squash, cabbage, turnips, mustard greens, corn. On Sundays or one day a week, she would go into Senoia and the various communities with her car trunk overflowing with food to sell, just drive through and call out like a ragman, “Tomatoes! Greens! Collard Greens! Sorghum! Corn!” Everybody knew her. People also brought sorghum cane to her farm to grind and as a result make sorghum syrup. Mama Lizzie would get a percentage of the sorghum syrup as payment. She sold moonshine and homemade beer, which they call homebrew. She’d gone deaf somewhere in her teens from scarlet fever, but even though she couldn’t hear music, she still loved to watch young people dance. For fun and to raise a little cash on the weekends, she often had a fish-fry party in the front yard of her home and sold fish sandwiches and Coca-Colas to all attendees. There would be music playing, and her children and grandchildren would help to serve and assist all attendees.
Mama Lizzie could read lips exceptionally well, so none of us considered her to have a disability. Here’s just one thing that I’ve always found interesting. My grandmother could not hear, but when we all spoke to her, we whispered. I don’t know why. We’d say [James stage-whispers] “Mama. Mama. Mama!” And she’d start telling us something, but we whispered. It seemed as though the inclination would be to scream or to say something louder. If you were talking too fast and you were close to her, she would slap you—“I say slow down there!”—for her to be able to read your lips better. The McDays paid for her to go to boarding school. They also bought her wedding dress and the like and allowed her to live off this land.
Mama Lizzie and I had some strong interactions because I was rebellious and a contrarian to all the rules of order when I came down to the South. They’d send you to do chores or to go work in the field, and they called it minding. “He minds well.” I wasn’t minding anybody for bullshit, because I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be in Chicago having fun with my friends, and you done sent me off down here. The first day, my father and uncle or someone would start driving us down to Georgia. It was never on the bus or the train. We’d leave on a Friday once my father got off work and get to Mama Lizzie’s house early Saturday morning. They would usually have a barbecue and a cookout for all the parents bringing their children to dump them on my grandmother, who loved this. (5) There would also be the families of friends there, ‘cause they were coming back home to visit in Georgia, too.
Parents left on that Sunday, all of them going back to their distant destinations—Knoxville, Tennessee, Chicago, Ohio, wherever they were living at that time. Monday morning, Mama Lizzie confiscated my shoes, my long pants, and socks. Put me in a pair of hand-me-down short pants and a T-shirt of no particular consequence, but it was also a hand-me-down and more likely than not came from some white family that donated it to her and her brood. I hated it. I’ve got city feet. I don’t have country feet, right? I’m walking on ground, roots, and pointed rocks. This shit was just very unbecoming for a city kid to have to toughen up his feet and the like. Mama Lizzie thought there’d be no point in messing up good Sunday-going-to-meeting shoes. She said, “You’re not going anywhere special.” You’d put on these short pants, and on top of that, didn’t have any underwear. It’s like My goodness! But this is what everybody had to do, so you get in line with that. She had all of the kids work in the garden that was really so big it was a field. Whenever I went out there to chop down weeds, I chopped down whole vegetable plants, too, until she’d get so pissed off and say, “Just get out of here!” But other kids try to do that, she’ll go get the rifle and pull it on them. Said, “No, you gonna work.”
I would go to the front yard of Mama Lizzie’s, sit under this big oak tree. On calm days, you could hear the truck wheels rolling on Highway 16 and Highway 85, and I would imagine one of them taking me back to Chicago or places I had seen on a map. My grandmother used to call me lazy with emphasis on “He’s laaaaaaaaaa-ZAAAAAAAAAAY!” She’d stretch the word out for what sounded like a week. But I was never intimidated by those types of condemnations. I had other cousins that they would compare me to: “They mind well. James doesn’t mind well,” and the like.
(5) Elder’s wife, Shirley, said that the women in the family were often “full-bodied” while the men were often slim.
* * *
I believe that Mama Lizzie felt that I was a contrarian just like my grandfather, Daddy Bob. I never met my grandfather. He died in forty-eight. The family thinks it was from diabetes as we look back on it now. But at the time, no one knew what he died from, just the symptoms that later on they could define. My mother, who is named after my Grandma Nonie, became a diabetic, so she realized that that’s what happened to Daddy Bob. (6)
I’ve heard it said that when Daddy Bob was alive, he worked in the field no more than he absolutely, positively had to in order to pay his minimum share of crops to the McDays and meet his obligation. Other than that, he wanted to do his own thing, spending his time weaving chairs, making furniture, and grinding sorghum at his mill, which he owned.
One time, Daddy Bob was accosted by a McDay man and his cousin who came to visit from Alabama. Mama Lizzie had complained about the way Daddy Bob had been treating her, and this McDay man and his cousin had come to browbeat my grandfather. They’re white, this is their land, and Mama Lizzie is their half-breed relative, so they felt as though they got a right to talk to my grandfather any way they chose to. The cousin, who didn’t really know my grandfather, said to Daddy Bob, “Why, boy, if we had you back in Alabama…” and at that point my grandfather grabbed him, and said, “We can walk to Alabama right fuckin’ now,” and started walking up the road with him. [Here, in the telling, James Elder raised his fists as if he’d grabbed either side of a man’s shirt collar and were forcefully half-dragging the McDay cousin.] The McDay man tries to intervene for his cousin, and say, “Bob, don’t have to be like that, don’t have to be like that.” And my grandfather says, “Don’t tell me how to treat my fucking wife. I don’t tell you how to treat yours.”
This is how my grandfather was. Oftentimes, I was not a violent person, but I was a contrarian like him. He spent a lot of time daydreaming. He was a good writer as well. I saved some of his love letters that he wrote to my grandmother, as well as when he asked for my Mama Lizzie’s hand in marriage.
(6) Elder’s mother was named Nona Mae Middlebrook.
There were times when Mama Lizzie would show me huge amounts of respect. Since I refused to work in the field like a slave, she gave me an alternative, which was a powerful life lesson for me. I had to watch all of the younger children. That had a certain amount of responsibility to it, so my grandmother just did a bit of jiu-jitsu. I kept those children in line by telling them stories. I would tell them ghost stories. I’d make up stories. I’d interchange them with Hansel and Gretel. I’d talk about dead people coming to get them. Whatever I could do to keep them in line, those are the stories that I told.
Mama Lizzie saw that I would push back at what was right and what was wrong and would hold my ground. She really respected people who had values that they believed in. As a result, I would challenge her. I remember once, she got a fingernail file and cleaned my fingernails out to severe pain. I’m hollering “Don’t do it!” and pushing back at her. She said, “Well, keep your fingernails clean!” And so, it was the little things, the pushing back and forth. I wasn’t like the other kids who just did what they were told. It had to make sense to me. And at the end of the day, she was okay with that.
Mama Lizzie never allowed her grandchildren to go anywhere by themselves, especially me. We always had to be accompanied by an older child or at least one who knew the rules of the South. When it came to going into town and interacting with white people, this was the first time that I encountered Jim Crow rules that made absolutely no sense to me. We’d go downtown, which is only about one short street. As a matter of fact, Senoia is the same town where they filmed “The Walking Dead,” so it’s a movie studio town now that has grown up tremendously. The white people in the town knew my Mama Lizzie, knew her children, such as my mother, and knew that some of us grandchildren were from different cities.
A couple of whites, Mr. Kingsley and Mr. Kingsley Jr., made a point to let me know where I was at, and how I needed to act. I went into a service station they owned right on the intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 85. I wouldn’t be shocked if they already knew who I was specifically. (7) I’m with my cousin, Harvey Jr., who lives there in Georgia. I’m approximately nine and about two weeks older than him. (8) Now, I’ve heard and used the words honky and nigger. In Chicago, if we were in white people’s neighborhoods, they’d call us names. If it was our neighborhood, we’d call them names. It was just back-and-forth. I never saw it as anything other than neighborhood conflict. But I knew that honky wasn’t a positive name to call somebody. So, I go in the store with Harvey Jr. I don’t know the rules, and I’m following his guidance. Mama Lizzie’s outside. We want to get some ice cream. I know an ice cream bar and an ice cream sandwich. I look in the cooler. In Chicago, you can grab anything that you want to buy as long as it’s not behind the counter, but in Georgia, Blacks are not supposed to reach in; you’re supposed to point at what you want. Let the white man get it out for you so you’re not sticking your Black hand in their cooler. Harvey Jr. tells me that an ice cream bar is called a honky bar. It’s just like here in Wisconsin and Chicago I’m used to saying pops, right? Down in Georgia they call them drinks or sodas. It’s a different vernacular I’m trying to get used to. But I don’t want to call it a honky bar! My cousin’s setting me up just to get a rise out of white people! (9) Mr. Kingsley Jr. is going to be pissed off. So, I’m reaching in the cooler to point closer at the ice cream. Again, he knows who I am, knows who my mother is, and who my grandmother is. As a matter of fact, Mama Lizzie used to babysit him when he was a baby and a kid. He says, “What are you doing?” I say, “I’m trying to show what ice cream I want.” And then as I’m explaining this, he reaches in his front pants pocket and pulls a gun on me. It looks like it may have been a .22 or .32 revolver and not big enough to be a .38. Says, “Boy, when you talk to a white man, you say sir.” He’s got the gun in his hand, and I’m like What the fuck is this about? I’m just trying to get an ice cream. It was my habit always to say sir when speaking to adults, but I’m so overwhelmed… At this point, Mama Lizzie, who can’t hear, senses something’s wrong. She comes in and intervenes, and they [by now Mr. Kingsley Sr. must have joined his son behind the counter]—back off. That’s when I heard Mr. Kingsley Jr. make the reference to “I know he from Chicago, but he needs to know how to act when he down here.”
Mama Lizzie was a master of humility. She gave the appropriate deference for the moment. If I only had such negotiating skills. She begged the situation down, left the Kingsley’s egos intact, and we all departed and were done. As I reflect back on it now, it was her body language and tone that may be one of the most painful aspects of the incident. I think that it becomes very exemplary of what African Americans have had to go through. You’re not seeking justice. You’re just trying to get the bullseye off of you. Whatever it takes. It’s never on an equal footing.
(7) James added: “One of the things that you have to recognize in the small-town South, everybody knows everybody, and they know as soon as you hit town, and as soon as you leave town. This is how they safeguarded their community. Me and my cousins would take off, leave home, and wander out to swimming ponds and the like. I was always amazed at how Mama Lizzie was waiting with a switch when we came back home because we had gone to where we weren’t supposed to go. Everybody tells everybody. Mama Lizzie didn’t even have a phone, but she would know where we were at and how long we were there. When people came to town, that’s what they talked about. They talked about cars, what the license plates were, and who was visiting. This was for white and Black people. I think Black people paid less attention to what white people were doing than white people were paying attention to what Black people were doing because there was always the thing in the back of the mind that you didn’t want too many unknown Blacks congregating, as it could lead to bad outcomes.
(8) If this incident in the convenience store happened when James Elder was nine, it was most likely in 1960 and only five years after Emmett Till’s death, a murder that many historians agree was responsible for launching the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. Elder said that he wasn’t aware of Emmett Till’s murder at the time, but that, “The act and idea of lynching Black people was pervasive among Blacks and whites,” and that furthermore, “Every community had its own historical references.” Elder went on to say, “This [lynching] was a subject spoken about in whispers among white and Black adults separately.” But even in Elder’s youth, he was “aware of the foreboding tone of the whispers that would later reveal themselves in gruesome detail.”
(9) Later in life, Elder realized that Harvey Jr. would never have violated those rules on how to act.
I’m sure that Mr. Kingsley Jr. would not have wanted any harm to come to my grandmother. I think that shows just how strongly white people felt about her. But that didn’t go for the rest of us in her family. My grandmother was always given a heads-up as to when the Klan would be out and “riding” so she could make sure that we stayed off the road. I don’t know if other Black families were informed of that. You were called being “disappeared.” I have relatives who have been disappeared. No one definitively said that they were lynched, but you know that one day they were just no longer there. A close friend of my grandmother—a Mr. Jim who lived up the road—his son was drowned. White people called all forms of murder of Black people—drowned, shot, stabbed—lynchings, as if to ingrain that deeply into what happened to people. There was always an amusement aspect put to it as oftentimes whites would have a picnic or an event with these types of murders.
I would be hard-pressed not to think that everybody who was white in that area as well as most Blacks knew who was and wasn’t in the Klan. Mr. Kingsley Jr. wanted to get a message directly to me, and that message was received and understood.
I believe the entire subject of “Black Protest” and the state of race relations are distractions from the real issues, which are social justice and economic depravity. Slavery was and is an economic institution. Social justice is a moral issue. When I look at voter suppression, I don’t see America perceiving it as a real injustice. There’s over sixty million people in America who cannot vote due to felonies, but who has the most felony convictions? African Americans. Where this is most prominent is in Florida and Alabama. (10) When we talk about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, we were running from injustice and toward jobs and opportunity for a better life. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a lot of times people in the North, they want to talk about racism as it relates to the South. He said that racism exists everywhere south of the Canadian border in America. I approached racial injustice differently than Dr. King, and that’s why I joined the Black Panther Party right after graduating from Tilden High School. I did not join the Black Panther Party to fight racism, racial injustice or racial inequality. I joined the Black Panther Party to fight for justice and to fight against injustice. A lot of times, we use racial epithets as a distraction as to what’s really going on. So, whether it’s Black or white racism, I understand what systemic racism is. I understand what white privilege is. But if we were to focus on what is just as opposed to what is unjust, we could solve and address America’s issues and live closer to the ideals of America because the ideals of America are about justice, equal justice for all.
Maybe it’s part of that contrarian nature of mine, but there’s just certain shit I’m not going to take or stand for. Dr. King lived down the street from me when he came to Chicago. I lived on 16th and Hamlin; he lived on the corner of 15th and Hamlin.(11) All the marches that Dr. King did during the Civil Rights movement, the only ones that he didn’t complete were in the Chicago neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park, where marchers were pelted with bricks and bottles and stuff.
(10) Shortly after this initial stage of my interviewing process with James Elder, Floridian voters approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to more than one million people who were previously convicted of felonies. https://time.com/5447051/florida-amendment-4-felon-voting/
(11) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Chicago from January,1966 to January 1967. He and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led the Chicago Freedom Movement, “a campaign that marked the expansion of their civil rights activities from the South to northern cities.” (The Martin Luther King Jr. research and Education Center, page one. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/chicago-campaign)
I remember when I first started at my job working in administration at a major corporation in Wisconsin. A lot of times upper management talked about diversity training. They’d gather up some Black people to talk about diversity, and I told them that I refuse to be part of any diversity training because African Americans don’t need diversity training. We’ve been dealing with this shit for hundreds of years. White people need diversity training. They need sensitivity training because they don’t recognize the privilege that they have. And if you can’t recognize that simple premise, it’s almost impossible for you to understand the grievance that African Americans have by being the financial underpinning that built America. No other country got a jumpstart like America through hundreds of years of free labor. Almost every major industry was based around that. They’re companies right now that exist that are financially wealthy as a result of slavery.
Early on as a child, I didn’t know what racism was, and I thought that all people were just different colors due to the complexion of their skin. I didn’t know that skin color originated from people being descendants from Africa, Ireland, Scotland, North America, you name it. I eventually—through this experience at the service station, and how Mama Lizzie had to remove me from that situation by showing humility and deference to this white person who she had babysat and who at some point, as a kid, had leaned on her as he might his parent—fully understood what race bigotry was. I still did not understand what systemic racism is. I come to learn later that the more powerful thing, the thing that has held back an entire people and deprived them even to this day, is a power that is invisible to the majority of privileged white Americans, and because of that their humanity is being stripped from them in their ignorance as they watch but do not see.
I understand, being a parent, that you do what you need to do to survive the moment. Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, I’ve been in any number of harrowing events in my life, inside and outside of the Black Panther Party, and you use your wits to survive those moments in time because you may not have the opportunity to survive if you don’t extricate yourself from that situation as soon as you possibly can. I respect that. But the fact Mama Lizzie had to do that in that manner is what cuts at my soul. I don’t think I ate an ice cream bar for maybe about ten years.
On July 17, 2021, James Elder died at the age of seventy from what was likely a massive heart attack. While visiting with a friend in an Oak Park, Illinois apartment, he had gone to the bathroom and never came out. He was eventually found crumpled on the floor. At the time, Elder and I had been taking a break from our interviews. When I contacted Shirley Metcalf-Elder after Elder’s death, she said that “James wore his pain inside.” She generously agreed to help me verify historical facts and dates and enlisted Elder’s sister, Mitri Licieur, to help in that effort as well. For example, it is Mitri who confirmed that Lizzie Lee Mitchell-Middlebrooks died on November 7, 1988 at the age of eighty-eight. In one of the last phone conversations that I had with Elder, he told me that a male member of the McDay family had attended Lizzie Lee’s funeral, thereby “acknowledging” that she was indeed family.
James Elder shared with me an excerpt from a piece that he wrote to his grandsons, Quinton and Brandon, who had asked for his take on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, sparked in cities and towns across the United States by the police and white vigilante killings of George Floyd (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Eric Garner (New York, New York), Laquan McDonald (Chicago, Illinois), Ahmaud Arbery, (Atlanta, Georgia), Walter Scott (Charlotte, North Carolina), Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida) and many others.
“Now, revolution represents an abrupt sudden change in an otherwise slowly evolving movement of events. Revolutionary change does not bend the arc of history toward justice any more than evolution does. However, it does heighten the contradiction or conflict at issue. To see innocent children attacked by dogs and billy clubs, to hear four girls brutally murdered by a bomb in a church, or to see the grotesque and decayed body of Emmett Till in Jet magazine were revolutionary events in race relations in America that were already evolving from ‘Jim Crow’ politics. But they too did not halt the injustices in American race relations. We got the Voting Rights Act that has since been nullified by state gerrymandering where smaller populated districts win more congressional representatives than larger predominantly minority-populated districts.
“So, when we see George Floyd lynched on national TV just as we saw the attempted murder of Rodney King on national TV, it sparks a revolution. The silent majority joins forces with the impacted community and shares in our pain and suffering. But soon they will retreat to the sanctity of their tribes and the indifference that protects the status quo. We must vote and elect leaders with the moral courage to make revolutionary change to archaic systems that promote injustice for financial gain. We don’t need to blow up the system, we simply need to correct its flaws and inadequacies. This requires everyone getting involved, and voting their conscience, and holding elected leaders accountable. If they fail, we vote them out. This can be a slow, evolutionary process but it can produce revolutionary and long-lasting results….”
James Elder was married to Shirley Ann Metcalf on August 2, 1981. They lived in Chicago, Atlanta, and then relocated again in 1995 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. James worked at Quad Graphics until he retired in 2016 which gave him more time to hone his craft and love of golf.