Saturday, October 27, 2012

Velma Roberts: East Austin civil rights activist and all-around hell raiser

Velma Carter Roberts (standing) holds meeting with adults and children attending. looking on is her niece (right) "Penny" Yvette Johnson, one sister Carlean Johnson and Carlean's son Hank Johnson, Jr. (right corner) Sitting behind he is one of the UT student that organized the Welfare Rights Organization.
Velma Carter Roberts was one of  East Austin’s African American civil rights activists. She got involved in politics when she was named president of the local Welfare Rights Organization (WRO). As president of the organization her major focus was on the politics of poverty and the plight of women on  welfare (AFDC.) Roberts, a divorced mother of five, was a working mother on welfare. She was perfect for WRO.

In 1968 a couple graduate students from the University of Texas School of Social Work, came to East Austin to recruit women on welfare to participate in their project. They were looking for a welfare recipient to be president of WRO. Women, basically living in East Austin, were invited to a meeting to get more information about the program. Whereas all the women approached said no to the position, Roberts accepted. All work with Welfare Rights Organization was voluntary. Roberts had never dabbled in politics, but she was confident she could step up to the plate, and hit a home run for impoverished women and their children in East Austin. She was a natural politician.

Velma Roberts

“Even though at the time I didn’t consider myself to be political, I had the personality needed to be an activist. I didn’t take nothing off of nobody, Black or White. I understood what little rights I had and didn’t believe in letting anybody put me down. This, more than being political, was what helped me in Welfare Rights. Sometimes activists are too smart, too intellectual. In some cases what is needed is an old fashioned hands-on-your-hips attitude: ‘You mess with me, I will mess with you.’ All people tend to understand this,” said Roberts in No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the 60s, edited by Daryl Janes, Eakin Press, 1992.

The local WRO was an offshoot of an Ohio chapter. This is where the UT students got the idea to start a chapter in Austin. Women who participated in the program were recruited predominately from Rosewood and Booker T. Washington Projects. At the time Roberts was working as a waitress at the La Petite Restaurant in East Austin, a favorite hangout for middle class professionals. Roberts had to learn to multi-task, wearing more than one face. Not only did she work a split shift, she had to focus on her WRO duties that called for speaking engagements, media interviews and meetings. She was responsible for recruiting, organizing and overseeing fundraisers. She got lucky and was guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. The subject was women on welfare.

Roberts began attending city council meetings. Almost immediately she became a pain the Council’s side, especially for the only African American councilman, Berl Hancock. At one meeting during a heated exchange, Roberts threatened to throw a shoe at Hancock, who rose up from his seat on the dais to call Roberts' threat. Oddly, Hancock was a frequent customer at the restaurant where she worked. They managed to be civil toward each other until they locked horns at council meetings.

With enough volunteers in place, Roberts' the first big project on the table was taking on the free or reduced lunch program in East Austin elementary schools. Not all women on AFDC knew that their children were eligible to get free or reduced lunches. The Welfare Rights Organization wanted schools to cease the discrimination against these children, who were treated differently from paying students When they went to lunch they were issued different color cards, distinguishing them from paying students. There was one color for free lunch; a color for half price lunch, and a color for full price lunch. 

"Welfare children" were scorned and made fun of, and harassed by paying students and some teachers. Taking on this venture drove Roberts further into politics, acquainting her with local politicians that she would be dealing with on a regular basis. Roberts liked the power the Welfare Rights Organization afforded her. She said the power helped her “get things done.”

“With the sweet taste of victory still fresh, we set out to deal with the County Commissioners Court about the way commodities were distributed. . . . Before food stamps, poor people were given commodities--surplus farm products the government bought from farmers who planted too much. Those commodities, packaged in brown paper with USDA stamped in big red letters all over it, consisted of flour, (corn) meal, canned chopped meat (like Spam), rice, butter, cheese, powdered milk and oatmeal.

"People would start lining up outside the distribution station before sunup and would sometimes have to stand there all day. I'm talking about hundreds of mothers, babies and senior citizens in the rain,cold, the hottest of summers, going through hell to get what was rightfully theirs." (No Apologies)

Roberts said WRO wanted the county use a numbers system, and provide a facility for people to wait indoors. WRO members testified before the Commissioners Court for one year. Their Monday testifying eventually bore fruit. The Commission agreed to conduct a study "that told them the same things we had been saying for free," said Roberts. It would have made more sense for the Commissioners to donate the $9,000 fee to the Welfare Rights Organization, but that is not the way politics works. The simple has look complicated, and the complicated has to look simple.

The Welfare Rights Organization teamed up with Larry Jackson’s Community United Front CUF) in the late 1960s to start a free breakfast program, a free day care center and a CUF newspaper. Elementary aged children were fed a hot breakfast before going to school. The program extended to summer when school was out. They eventually approached the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to commence a free breakfast program. AISD refused to implement such a program. Austin schools were segregated, and did not desegregate until 1971.

“Again we started our own program. We fed between fifty and seventy kids every school day morning for three months. We then went to the school board to ask that they put a breakfast programs in the three remaining elementary schools.” (No Apologies) All minority children were bused across town to attend high and middle schools, populated by a majority White student body. Black and Hispanic students were greeted with racial hatred, harassment and ridicule.

Neither Jackson nor Roberts were willing to accept defeat. Attending a school board meeting, WRO and CUF planned in advance to take control of the microphone, blocking others from speaking. “It just so happened that this was the same meeting where teachers were asking for a pay raise. Finally, the board approved a breakfast program—not for three additional schools, but for twelve. Today, every school in AISD has a breakfast program.” (No Apologies) 

In 1974 Roberts began working as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society. Her duties with WRO had prepared her to work at Legal Aid. The clients she represented were mostly poor and on welfare. She also handled other kinds of cases that did not require appearances before judge. Roberts acted as a representative in food stamp and welfare hearings. 

In addition, Roberts and a co-worker worked with Black and Hispanic kids who were getting harassed and suspended at schools. They worked with East Austin residents receiving the blunt end of harassment, death and brutalization by police officers. These three illnesses were like an aggressive disease plaguing minority communities.

Roberts and her co-worker, both of whom worked as paralegals at Austin Legal Aid Society, regularly took affidavits from East Austin residents and business owners, personally delivering the complaints to Police Chief Bob Miles as proof of excessive police harassment and brutality. 

Roberts, her co-worker,  several night club owners and the NAACP President Nelson Linder, often met with Miles in an attempt solve the police problem. In addition to stopping minorities for no reason, police officers waited for customers exit from bars, then stop. Customers were allowed to drive a block or two, stopped and given a DWI or warning. It did not matter if they had only drank one beer or 12. After Miles resigned, the meetings continued with the next chief.

One of the most noted political organizations that Roberts joined was Black Voters Against Paternalism (V-VAP). It was formed to help Dr. Bud Dryden win re-election to the City Council. Dryden, a White physician, had a large Black clientele. Roberts was oneof the founders of the Black Citizens Task Force (BCTF), a political leaning group that addressed high unemployment, discrimination and other problems haunting East Austin residents. The organization confronted businesses that refused to hire African Americans. BCTF also took on the Austin Police Department, the City of Austin hiring practices, the local airport, even a large grocery store chain. As a result of marching and protesting some of the "norms" changed.

In 1975 the Black Citizens Task Force supported, and then opposed single member districts. According to Roberts, “In ’75, Austin was still a fairly liberal, progressive city. Blacks, Browns and young Whites formed a coalition to fight the oppression of the more conservative West Austin establishment. But by the mid-‘80s, the racial climate had changed. Many of Black Austin’s former friends were part of the establishment that oppressed us, and we didn’t think we would gain from giving up seven votes on the council for maybe one Black representative who might or might not serve BCTF’s interests.” (No Apologies) The Welfare Rights Organization disbanded in 1975.

In later years when the Black Citizens Task Force lost the majority of its members. Dorothy Turner became president in 1974, Roberts its VP. Wherever you saw one of these two, you saw the other. Some people tagged them" Batman and Robin." Turner was tall, robust, and bold and  referred to as "Mother of the Struggle"; Roberts was petite, with a medium build.  In her maturing years she managed to tranquilize her biting verbiage. However, she was still capable of resorting to that hands-on-her-hips take no mess younger version of herself when she was provoked. Turner, on the other hand, was a verbal battering ram, who was in no mood to be tamed or roped in. A daily newspaper said Roberts was “cool headed” but Turner was “hot headed.”

Velma Carter Roberts died November, 2000 at St. David’s Hospital. She was 70 years old. On May 31, 2008 the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center was finally dedicated to Roberts and Turner’s honor, after years of opposition from opponents who did not want to see it happen.  At a city council meeting a vocal activist and prominent businesswoman from East Austin suggested that the council "name a small alley" after the two women. 

However they felt about Roberts and Turner, none of the critics--older African Americans-- were willing to step forward and take on the issues these activists tackled.

 Velma Carter Roberts and Dorothy Turner were quite the team, and that meant double trouble for disagreeable politicians. In 2001 City Councilman Danny Thomas proposed renaming Hargrave Street to Velma Roberts and Rosewood Avenue to Dorothy Turner Blvd. The proposals could not garner a full council vote. both ideas were. Many residents  and businesses in East Austin were divided about the recipients and name changes.

Because of inadequate construction and interior problems the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center has been closed indefinitely. If they were alive Roberts and Turner would see this as a slap down of their achievements.

Pictured above is the  is a monument that stands in front of the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center. Also pictured is long time civil rights leaders Volma Overton. Left is a complete picture of the monument that can be seen at the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, 7201 Colony Loop.

***Also see "Activist Dorothy Nell Turner said what she meant and meant what she said"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Poems by Freddie Fowler


Freddie lives in Florida and is in the process of publishing his first book of poems. He is originally from Lorain, Ohio.


     Children of war
                                  Little Jimmy is not
                              playing ball anymore
                            Susie no longer buys candy from
                              the neighborhood grocery store

                                 Mr. Johnson can't
                                    scream at the kids in the street
                                 Mrs. Jones sits at the bus stop
                                        with no one to meet.

                              All of these life events
                                 will happen no more
                                       because all of our children
                                             have gone off war

                        What is mercy?
    What is mercy?
    Is it the stories
    We were told?
    Stories both young and old?

    What is mercy?
    Is it grace?
    Did it bring
    Us to this place?

    What is mercy?
    Is it all the things
    We hold onto?
    Is it words the choir sings?

    Do we search for it
    In our time of need?
    Is mercy in the
    Bible we read?

    Is mercy something
    We can give?
    Or is mercy
    The life we live?

    I know it's something
    We cannot see,
    But I'm forever grateful
    To God and all his mercy.

                     Friend or Foe

                                                are you a friend
                                                         or foe
                           friends I need
                             foes I don't

                            will you stand by me
                      as my friend
               will you be
                  there until the end

                 will you be there
                 when it's time to fight
                 or be the one
                 who takes flight
                                it's time
                             for me to go
                         which will it be:
                          friend or foe

                   Happy Day
you know you’re happy
when you can say

“It's such a beautiful day.
It's great to have it this way."

when the sun shines
upon your face
and you've
done nothing

to have it this way

is a new birth
you have one more day
above the earth

to sit and watch the
children play
with tears in your eyes
you watch them and then say

“This is a happy day.”

                     Make It Go Away

I cannot sleep this dreadful night
for tomorrow will soon come
time to face the things I dread
things that I've been running from.

Run run run I run so fast
from the sins I hold within 
from those things that are my past
tearing at my mortal skin

How can I make this go away
when can I see a brighter day

I hear a voice from far away
saying it’s easy my son just kneel and pray

                        When I Die

                                                   When I die
                                         What will they say about me
                                                   When I die
                                         Which of you will defend
                                                me in the end
                                                Who will say my life
                                                      was just a lie

                                                     When I die

                                           All of you are not my friends but
                                                   Some of you will say
                                        I was good and kind
                                                   Some will think otherwise

                                     To all my friends I leave behind
                                                Even all the enemies of mine 
                                         Of all the words I fear the most
                                           They come from the Father
                                                The Son and the Holy Ghost

                                                  To all who will discuss me and
                                                          Tell vicious lies
                                                    None of that will matter

                                                            When I die

How much do I love thee

How much do I love thee?
No, I won't count the ways.
I won't count the 

weeks and months,
Nor will I count the days.

I'll only count the times we
Cried and laughed the night away;
The moments we walked
Hand in hand,
Starring into each others eyes.

I’ll only count the times
We shared the little things,
 Like each others smile.

When people see us together,
Happy and filled with glee,
You never have to ask again
 How much do I love thee.

                            I've never seen
                                    your smiling face
                              or looked into your eyes

                        I've never heard
                    your tender voice
                        or laughter
                              when you rejoice 

                 I really wish
                           to see you
                         I really, really do

 until that day
                    comes true
                             I'll  just
                               imagine you
                 Forgotten soldier

He fought for his country when he was
            More heroic.

He fought through summer heat
Even when it grew colder;
For all the fighting he's done,
He's a forgotten solider.

Yes, he got shiny medals,
From his days of battle glories;
Now he’s not so young, 
As he tells his war time stories.

Sitting in silence on the side of his bed,
His body is much, much older;
All he has are memories past,
He’s become a forgotten soldier.

                                     Crying from within
People look at him
When they pass him by
Thinking he looks angry
But they don’t know why

Some people say he looks sad
Some say he looks real bad

No one offers to be a friend
Or say a kind word
Or make a friendly gesture

But here he is without
A single friend
No one to talk to
No next of kin

No beginning or ending
To his quiet suffering
No end to his
Silent crying from within

poems copyrighted by Freddie Fowler

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Agitated Georgia businessman publicly tells the President to kiss his backside

Ray Gaster, Savannah, Georgia businessman proudly points at sign that says "Obama can Kiss my ass."

A Savannah, Georgia businessman mentally turned flips because of a statement made by President Obama, regarding businesses and  their success. Gaster contacted a severe case of annoyance when President Obama said:

 “. . . You didn’t get there on your own. You’re not successful because you were smarter or work harder. Somebody built the roads and bridges to help your business thrive. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.”  This statement was part of a stump speech he made
this July 13, in Roanoke, VA.

Ray Gaster, owner of Gaster Lumber and Hardware, used his company billboard to let President Obama know what he can do to a certain part of his (Gaster) anatomy. He said he built his business without government help. However, he forgot to mention that he uses government roads, bridges and highways  to transport his merchandise to his customers. Government infrastructure aided in his success.  

Gaster refused to realize that he utilizes other entrepreneur's inventions and creations that have supplemented his success. Being a lumberman, he might have build his home and business, but I wager he did not build his own furniture and appliances to furnish either one. He purchased these items from other businesses that might have gotten a small business loan from SBA, a government agency.

Gaster is not the lone island he thinks he is. He did not write on his billboard if he has ever bidded on government contracts, as was the case with several of the speakers at the Republican convention. Their successes were totally owed to multi-million dollar government contracts they bidded on. Nonetheless, they boasted with pride, "I built that!" Those big government contracts were the reasons they are successful. Because he is in the lumber business, Gaster has probably bidded on, and received government contracts. No matter the kinds of businesses independent people have created, a percentage of them would be hard pressed to say that government agencies are not among their biggest customers.

President Obama did not accuse entrepreneurs of not building their own businesses. He said they were successful because they had help along the way. If truth be told, a lot of successful businesses were inherited from parents. In my eyes these inheritors cannot honestly say, "I built that!"

Gaster said when he heard President Obama’s remark, he decided to send a message to him in language "they understand in Chicago." Intent on building a coalition of businesspeople who stands on his sentiment, Gaster sent a photo of his billboard to 45 friends and business associates. He wants them to put up similar billboards and signs, sending a stronger message to President Obama. He appeared on Fox News to explain his outrage.

“We Built That” was the cornerstone of the Republican Convention held in Florida last month.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Senior citizens yell at cardboard cutout of President Obama at Romney/Ryan rally (Video)

YouTube Video

On October 1, 2012 a rally for presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan was held at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. Thousands of people attended, their brains loaded with silliness. The majority were senior citizens, most likely receiving Social Security and Medicare. Some are probably getting food stamps and other government help. I was surprised that no one had a poster informing big government to "Keep Your Hands Off My Social Security!"

In the video a reporter with ProgressNow is seen walking back and forth, holding a life size cardboard cutout of President Obama. People passing by look at it and make belittling comments. One woman can be heard saying the President makes her want to puke. A pot bellied senior proudly holds a poster that said he is one of the "47 percent." Little does he know that he is one of the freeloading, welfare  getting, food stamps collecting, I don't want to work bums that Romney got caught talking about on a secretly recorded video at a high end fundraiser. Romney, the candidate they went to see, is not concerned about them. Yet,  this man is proud to display his ignorance on his big yellow poster.

Another senior female stuck her tongue out at the ProgressNow reporter videoing them. Someone told the cardboard cutout to "Go back to Kenya!" Someone else yelled at the reporter, "Is that your Muslim communist buddy?" Yet, another deranged senior yelled, "Strangle him!" It is not clear if he was talking about the reporter or the Obama cutout.

Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow told KDVR in an email,  “It’s clear that not all, but many within Romney’s base of support dislike the President for irrational and often hateful reasons. Comments like ‘go back to Kenya,’ and asserting Obama is ‘black and used up’ reflect a much uglier prejudice than most Americans would not identify with. Everyone we videotaped yesterday has a right to free expression. But others have the right to publicly reject intolerance. In a free society, we have an obligation to call this out.”

On video the behavior of these senior citizens borders on childish nonsense.  That's what hatred and racism does to a person. It drives them bat shit crazy.  These are the same kinds  xenophobic White people that belongs to the tea party club.  Strutting around in various city parks and streets, wearing ridiculous homemade costumes, holding equally ridiculous homemade posters, these lost souls steadfastly broadcast that they are the "true American patriots".

The haters in Colorado are akin to other bigots who go into a tizzy,  proclaiming, "We want our country back!" The hype began after Barack Obama was elected president. If America went somewhere, no one told me. So obviously, America has never gone anywhere. It would be nice if these discombobulated folk packed their suitcases and moved to a Third World country, taking their buffoonery and antagonism with them.

The big problem here is that thousands of White people--educated and uneducated-- cannot stand an African American man being president of the United States. The America they grew up in has changed and will continue to change. The merry-go-round, like a fast moving train, will not stop for them to hop on board if they are standing in the wrong place. These sick seniors are too blinded their memories of the past. They do not to realize the world is passing them by.