A note from the behind the 4th screen: it’s me, your sassy, punny spreadsheet maven! *waves* I’m interested in further exploring the “long form nonfiction essay,” as distinct from/related to the “blogpost.” This is the beginning of a series where I’ll highlight admin/operations superstars from the Civil Rights Movement. This is an experiment and a risk I feel ready to take as a writer, thinker, and practitioner. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, I’ll still be writing about them! As always, if you have a spreadsheet dilemma, write me a note in my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column. Onward!
From the first brooding chords chords of The Mountain Goats’ 2015 studio album, Beat the Champ, I was committed. A soundscape rich in texture (even, could it be?, woodwinds!) kept me “hooked” despite missing many of the nuanced wrestling references. I’m a late adopter to the MG fan club. I’ve only been listening for around 10 years; only seen the band live 4 times. In the intervening years, more than a few interviewers have asked lead singer John Darnielle, “why wrestling?” And while he has some fantastic responses, it’s his longtime collaborator Peter Hughes who really captured my attention on the subject:
It’s this great intersection of sports and theater. It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or scripted; that’s so besides the point. It’s just fantastic. It’s about these outsized personalities, and the characters that they’re portraying, and the relationship of those storylines to the actual people, and their individual biographies and backgrounds and stories.Interview in Brightest Young Things (link) (emphasis my own)
This is all a roundabout way of introducing the real subject of this piece, Chauncey Eskridge. We’ll come back to TMG, because, well, they’re my favorite band and “good” essays always seem to incorporate some kind of cultural commentary and intertext. I started doing some research on Eskridge and besides being a lawyer/accountant who played a pivotal role in defending Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. z”l from legal battles in the early 1960’s, there seems to be only one other story of note about his career. His other famous client was Muhammad Ali.
Why Civil Writes?
As we barrel through pandemic-wildfire-uprising-election season, I’m compelled to deepen my learning about the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve noticed my own tendency to tell stories that are the equivalent of a “xerox of a xerox.” I’ve seen persuasive critiques of contemporary social movements for appropriating practices from the Civil Rights Movement without putting in the work to really learn deep history and context for those traditions. This, of course, is also a raced and classed phenomenon. As someone who wants to dedicate my life to justice work, it seems high time to wade through the minutiae (full disclosure, the FIRST book in the trilogy I am tackling is 900 pages long) and find gems of meaning, thoughtful (non-sanitized) discourse, and points of conflict and contradiction. I’m around 600 pages in and overflowing with anecdotes to share with anyone who will listen. I believe we are still living through civil rights movements, so all the better to re-commit to my learning, today and every day.
So much of popular media about the civil rights movement is the history of Great Men and their Speeches. Which, hey, don’t get me wrong, *I’m* the one voluntarily reading a 3-lb book on MLK. Between and betwixt the headlining narrative are a host of complicated figures and regular, working people. I wish we got to hear their names and study their ways. I think this would lead to a more inclusive, powerful, broader movement. And selfishly, if I’m really being honest with myself and with you, I desperately want to see myself in the story. That’s not why I started this endeavor, but when Taylor Branch shed just a few lumens of the spotlight on behind-the-scenes, ordinary administrators and problemsolvers, my pulse quickened. At long last, it’s the story of spreadsheet champions of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a story that must be told.
In preparing for this essay, I read all of the obituaries that I could find for Chauncey Eskridge. Most of them are sparse, to say the least. We know that he lived an impressive 70 years; that he died in 1988 after enduring an 11 month coma; that he had an accomplished career; that he claims several “firsts” as an African American lawyer and judge; that several of his clients were famous public figures; that he was outlived by his wife and two children. He is mostly remembered for his proximity to giants, rather than his groundbreaking contributions. The most substantive tribute was from the Chicago Tribune.
Tax Trials (and Tribulations)
1960 was a year of spontaneity and experimentation in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the American South. Under the tutelage of James Lawson, Nashville students were kicking off a new round of sit-ins; Montgomery students soon followed suit. Septima Clark was already hard at work establishing the prototype for her Citizenship Schools at the Highlander Folk School. The Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was just barely formalizing across a few conferences with Diane Nash at the helm. The hardest and most phrenetic years were yet to come, but momentum was building.
Meanwhile, in an effort to repress King’s leadership, the State of Alabama was challenging MLK on his tax returns:
The news that [the charges had escalated to] felonies was received, doubted, confirmed, and finally accepted as a stinging blow. The further news that they grew out of King’s [prior] Alabama tax problems puzzled and then outraged the lawyers, some of whom knew that King had already paid the disputed back taxes for the years in question. It was almost unheard of for a taxpayer who accepted and paid the state’s assessment to be prosecuted as a criminal, and even then, the normal procedure was for the state to bring charges of tax evasion — a misdemeanor. King was the first citizen in the history of Alabama to be prosecuted for felony tax evasion, the technical charge being that he had perjured himself in signing his tax returns for 1956 and 1958.Branch, 277 (emphasis my own)
With support from the NAACP, civil rights patron/activist Harry Belafonte, and members of Atlanta’s Black elite, MLK assembled a legal defense team. Taylor Branch goes into quite a lot of detail about the various members of this team and their divided loyalties. Jesse Blayton interested me the most, as he provides a literary foil to Eskridge.
Blayton was a prominent banker and accountant in 1960s Atlanta, where he had amassed significant wealth, prestige, and influence. He was responsible for the bookkeeping aspects of the defense, which he performed at great cost despite being a family friend of MLK, Sr. According to the text, he charged, “nearly as much to audit two tax returns as King earned from Ebenezer [church] in an entire year” (287). This presented an even bigger problem because Blayton was not making much progress in demonstrating King’s financial integrity. The text seems to imply that Blayton himself doubted King’s truthfulness. Lacking this type of financial acumen, there was little that King could do about his predicament, so he continued to face exorbitant invoices yielding little progress: “he realized that the fees he was incurring, while larger than he could reasonably hope to pay, were still smaller than the most important professionals felt entitled to charge for their most important cases. Therefore, King felt a keen mixture of victimization and gratitude, helplessness and faith” (288, emphasis my own). [Writer’s note: this sounds all too familiar!]
All five of King’s lawyers privately delivered a grim appraisal of his chances of spending the new decade outside of prison. (…) They were in a bind. The constitutional issues that the NAACP lawyers had developed in civil rights cases over the years did not apply well to criminal cases involving the tax code. As to the plain facts of the case — whether or not King’s income had exceeded what he reported on his tax forms — the lawyers expected the jury to go against them, and they all agreed that King had little chance of getting an appeals court to overturn a jury verdict.Branch, 293
Given this impasse, one of the lawyers decided to bring in a junior colleague from his Chicago-based law firm. Enter, Chauncey Eskridge. He is described as, “a tax specialist with training as an accountant” and otherwise, no exposure to or proclivity for civil rights work. During a 1:1 meeting that he held with MLK, he learned that MLK “wrote his daily receipts and expenditures into the pocket diary that contained his schedule” (294). Blayton (the other accountant) had tacitly ignored these materials because he did not consider them to be appropriate “financial records.” While the rest of the lawyers haggled over paperwork, strategies, and egos, Eskridge reportedly went off to his hotel room “to face an endless day with the diaries, his adding machine, and his work sheets” (295).
Sure enough, there were notes in King’s handwriting on every page, recording travel expenses, contributions, and speaking fees in meticulous detail. For every check received, King had written down what portions he planned to give to the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Council] or the MIA [Montgomery Improvement Association] or Dexter [Baptist Church], and what portion, if any, he planned to keep.Branch, 294
It was Eskridge who was able to verify that MLK had properly accounted for all of his incoming and outgoing funds, albeit in an unorthodox manner. According to an interview with Eskridge, “the income figures netted out to a paltry $368 more than the outside income reported on King’s tax return. Even that discrepancy might be explained by minor errors” (296-297). In other words, all of the money that MLK collected as donations (in his personal checking account) reached their destination with almost superhuman precision. He didn’t pocket any money (which would otherwise be considered taxable income) and he didn’t owe the IRS back taxes.
Back to Eskridge, so the story continues:
Eskridge hastened to Ebenezer [church] witht he exciting result. King maintained his reserve until he was sure he understood the full impact of the report, then suddenly rushed across his study to hug Eskridge like a long-lost cousin. The Chicago tax lawyer dated his interest in politics from that moment. His devotion to King began to grow, splitting him apart from his family and consuming his life with the movement. He would be standing beneath the Memphis balcony at the instant King was shot down.Branch 297 (emphasis my own)
Let’s take a moment to digest this – because it honestly made me stop in my tracks. Essentially, MLK’s tax attorney became so committed to the civil rights struggle that he transformed his career and family trajectory at tremendous personal sacrifice, would go on to defend MLK and the SCLC at various tough spots, and stood by MLK (almost literally) until the day he died. According to a published obituary,
On April 4, 1968, he was in the Memphis apartment where Rev. King was staying when the civil rights leader walked onto the balcony and was shot. Judge Eskridge helped place Rev. King’s body on the stretcher and followed him to the hospital, where he died. Judge Eskridge subsequently acted as attorney for Rev. King’s estate.Kenan Heise, Chicago Tribune (link here)
Much to the surprise of all involved, MLK’s tax case, City of Memphis v Martin Luther King, resulted in a verdict of “not guilty” from an all-white Alabama jury (visit link to see MLK’s press statement after the trial).
In the section that describes the tax trial, Taylor Branch accuses Blayton of presenting arguments that he essentially lifted from Eskridge’s careful calculations. (Remember, Blayton was the accountant who more or less took MLK for a ride). Branch doesn’t pull punches; Blayton is portrayed in a a pretty unsavory manner throughout his profile. [Writer’s note: According to the extensive footnotes, Branch got most of his info on this subject from direct interviews with Eskridge, so one must ask if Eskridge had an ax to grind].
MLK, too, wrote some commentary on the tax trial in his autobiography:
I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, from Chapter 14 (accessed here) (emphasis my own). I originally encountered the quote in a phenomenal blog post from Tax Girl.
It’s no surprise to me that Eskridge doesn’t make it into MLK’s biography, as Ming and Delaney were much higher profile lawyers, and it was Ming who recruited Eskridge to work on the case in the first place. Plus, who gives a shout-out to their accountants in their biographies? [Writer’s aside: I DO! This one’s for you, Amy S. <3 and I see you, Rachel L and Maire M!]
What I find most compelling about this quote is how he pivots from his own acquittal to the need for competent lawyers and accountants as a matter of justice and dignity for all Black people. [Writer’s note: My bias is to extend this sentiment to include database, administration, and operations experts working shoulder-to-shoulder with cultural and political organizers].
Eskridge Branching out
Eskridge has a few more cameo appearances in Parting the Waters. Leading up to the presidential elections of 1960, a coalition of civil rights organizations (including NAACP, SCLC, and emerging-SNCC) organized marches at both the DNC and RNC. Reportedly, MLK “spent most of the week [of the RNC] under the escort of Chauncey Eskridge, the lawyer-accountant who had deciphered his diaries for the Montgomery perjury trial” (321). There is no further commentary or context about how they spent their time.
Through perusing some of Branch’s extensive footnotes, I learned that Eskridge “represented — and later married — one of Dr. Pettus’ daughters from Montgomery” (1001). [Writer’s aside: Loving the love in the movement tapestry!] [Writer’s aside: This Dr. Pettus was a local physician who delivered Coretta Scott King + MLK’s babies. I couldn’t find information about the genealogy tracing back to Edmund Pettus (who’s name you might recognize from the brutal march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma). Edmund Pettus was a Confederate “hero” and avowed racist].
According to his obituary, the SCLC retained Eskridge as legal council during the late 1960’s, presumably while he was also settling MLK’s estate. I think that he spent most of the 60’s more or less in MLK’s entourage, putting out fires and fixing operational discrepancies behind the scenes as needed. He was there when MLK had one of several “showdowns” with leadership in the National Baptist Convention. And he was even there to do special errands for MLK, such as attempting to retrieve journals and sermons from the larger-than-life pastor, Vernon Johns. (Perhaps there is more, but I haven’t made it to volume two yet!)
Resources on Eskridge (outside of the Branch text) are few and far between. He went on to serve as a member of Muhammad Ali’s legal team and represented him in several proceedings. In some sources, he is described as Ali’s “personal attorney.” The most prominent case of his career was defending Ali in Clay v. United States, a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1971, ultimately overturning his prior conviction for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War draft. (Learn more directly from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund here). In an unconventional dose of pop culture on this blog, Eskridge did appear as a character in several Muhammad Ali biopics; he was played by Joe Morton, Chuck Cooper, and Paul Winfield. [Writer’s Note: Perhaps if I ever expand this essay, I should watch them].
Last but not least, Eskridge was elected a judge in 1981 and served as an associate judge on the Cook County Circuit Court until 1986. He had a brief retirement as his death was reported in January of 1988. I don’t know if Eskridge managed any other Herculean feats of spreadsheet algebra in his career, but one is enough to land him in my personal Hall of Fame.
I feel disillusioned when I face the fact that Eskridge will always be more prominently remembered (though barely remembered at all) because he represented Muhammad Ali in a Supreme Court case rather than single handedly orchestrating a defense case for MLK that allowed him to keep stewarding the Civil Rights Movement, arguably during its most pivotal years. This is my creeping voice of judgement and righteous indignation, the kind of cultural criticism that ought to be edited out of essays in favor of more erudite analyses which I hope to offer. Whining that my passion is more important than your passion is child’s play at best.
In the forthcoming paragraphs, I’m going to write about what I’ve been learning from the twin worlds of boxing and wrestling. To a novice like me, they seem quite similar but to an aficionado, speaking the two in the same breath might be considered blasphemous! It seems that I’m not the only person who wants to unite these disparate sports; purists, beware. Forgive my ignorance.
This afternoon, as I meandered through the Italian Market in South Philadelphia (which really should also be considered the Mexican Market), I paused to appreciate the Lucha Libre themed COVID-19 face masks, and in that moment, I allowed my nascent senses of wonder and curiosity to take over.
Many of those words can easily be ascribed to social movements. Many of them are qualities that I hold dear.
In researching this post, I learned that true wrestling fans follow not only the wrestlers, but also the promoters, the bookies, the coaches, the script writers, the referees, and more behind-the-scenes-esque figures who build their career in the industry. In my experience, a similar reverence has never caught on in social movements. The mobilizers, the organizers, the logistics, and particularly the operations/admin people, are too often ignored, burned out, treated as disposable, or labeled sellouts while the strategists and speech-makers are labeled visionaries (and don’t get me wrong – they are!). How did this niche in pro-sports cultivate such an appreciation for the process, and not just the product? Is this true in other fandom subcultures?
I think a big piece of the answer is kayfabe – the quality in pro-wrestling of suspending disbelief while the industry presents a staged performance as genuine. Sure, you can imagine the fight as being pure and spontaneous, and certainly that’s part of the fun, but so is seeing the “4th wall.” Once people get over the disillusionment, I think their reverence for the sport only swells. Somehow it’s even more awe inspiring that this world was actually orchestrated! There’s a sarcastic incredulity in the worst-kept-secret of invisible labor.
John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats, elaborates on these points in a phenomenal interview from Paste Magazine:
My stepfather’s father had been a wrestling promoter in Indiana in the ‘50s, in the ‘40s or ‘50s. I knew from the first time I started watching it in the living room, just sort of explaining to me how it worked. And it was interesting to try and reconcile that. So I knew this the whole time, but wrestling fans would always talk about back then, how much of this is real? They knew to some extent—the matches were planned—but, are they really hitting each other? And the thing is—a lot of wrestling people have always pointed out—you can’t fake being thrown onto the mat. That’s real. You are being thrown. You can maybe learn how to fall, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when you hit the mat. These are people with a tolerance for pain, here. You cannot jump off the top rope and land on your chest on somebody without a profound sting in your sternum, and so it is real to that extent. It’s real like dance is real. The outcomes are predetermined, but there’s a lot of other people banging each other around the ring. But yeah, I knew the outcomes were predetermined back then. Although, I feel back in the days of kayfabe, they weren’t as scripted. Like, you knew who was supposed to win, but how it happened was kind of up to the wrestlers.Read full interview here
In the social movement world, do we have our own version of kayfabe?
The past few weeks, I’ve been reading graphic, detailed descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the lunch counter sit ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Albany Movement. In many of these direct actions, it seemed as if the outcome was pre-determined, but the brutal choreography was still real. So much of the nonviolent training that James Lawson and MLK offered was about how to take punches, how to fall, how to protect each other, how channel rage. And yet they came to these 99.9% pre-determined-outcome actions with a genuine attempt to re-write the script – and sometimes they succeeded.
I can connect with that spiritual premise – going to an action, expecting the worst but leaving the “window ajar” because it might just be the day the CEO comes down from the tower to announce our victory. That’s what “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom” means to me. Perhaps this is our kayfabe – going through action ritual each time as if it is new, each time with increasing, authentic urgency until the tension of maintaining those tired, old, violent roles is too great for our opponents. Yielding kayfabe as a weapon, a mirror, a protest: the script must be revealed for what it is. The script must change.
Pause. It just happened: as soon as I begin to talk about hope, strategy, even my own experience in courageous actions, I feel like I loose the part of myself that comes alive when I’m doing the tedious, monotonous, visionary, creative, necessary tasks of data reconciliation, system crafting, mail merging, and problem solving. Can we learn from Eskridge, from MLK, from Muhammad Ali, from Hulk Hogan about the delicate interplay of administration and performance?
At first, it seemed like a stretch to juxtapose “fighting-as-wrestling” with “fighting-as-social-movements,” but in this exercise, I find myself appreciating the symmetry in these high-drama, good-versus-evil, self-referencing worlds. I am fostering some deeper compassion and curiosity for how Chauncey Eskridge must have moved between these worlds, how he managed to show up as a background problemsolver among two of the most famous men of his generation. I wish I could ask him how he did it.
Lessons for changemakers
- We have an obligation to tell the stories of “regular people” who bring their skills to justice movements. If all of the stories we tell about social movement people are like prophets, no one will think that they have potential to join and contribute as they are right now. Eskridge is a story of a regular lawyer lending his talents (for pay) to social justice movements that yielded transformative outcomes. I think the next Eskridge’s might be reading this blog!
- We have a right to high standards for lawyers, accountants, admin/operations practitioners in movements. Despite experiencing unprofessional conduct from his legal defense team, MLK did not speak up for himself to expect more. He was desperate and these figures were politically connected with his father, prominent banks, and the most influential newspaper in town. Without Eskridge saving the day, MLK could have faced further exorbitant legal fees as well as a decade-long sentence in prison (or worse). I see social movement organizations settle for subpar admin support due to limited resources, imposter syndrome, underdog syndrome, and/or ignorance and this pattern wreaks havoc on our movement infrastructure.
- Lawyers and consultants frequently overcharge and underdeliver movement clients. Too many practitioners extort small, social movement organizations by charging inflated market rates, utilizing unethical sales tactics, or taking advantage of clients’ lack of experience. The Blayton case was a prime example! I would love to see more firms offer sliding scale and (where applicable) pro-bono support services for social justice organizations. We continuously need to develop a network of vetted, internal or movement–adjacent problem-solvers.
- “Forensic spreadsheet reconciliation” is responsible for preventing MLK from spending the entire 1960’s in prison. Next time you are faced with a thorny spreadsheet problem, remind yourself that you are building the skills you might need to defend freedom fighters!
- Eskridge’s “way in” to movement work was through bringing his skilled labor, not his ideology. Some people are politicized first, and find a role later. Other people come with their skills and pick up righteous anger along the way. We need to welcome both, and treat our beloved, movement “back office” people as worthy of respect. When faced with the biggest challenge of his career at the time, MLK needed a competent, creative, outside-of-the-box problem-solver more than he needed a civil rights activist pal to work on his case. Lucky for him (and us) he ultimately got both.
- Problem solving might mean using unconventional methods. One of the reasons why Eskridge was successful is that he used MLK’s diary instead of his bank statements to reconcile his accounts. This teaches me that there are likely organic systems that have a lot of value and those data that should be treated with care by expert practitioners, rather than discarded as “unofficial.” Also, this teaches me that Eskridge was a creative problem-solver and did not abide by the status quo. This proved to be essential in getting to the bottom of the case! If the obvious method doesn’t work, what other tools can we use to solve problems?
- Perhaps kayfabe is a spiritual practice. Wrestling fans know that the outcomes have been pre-arranged and the personas scripted for maximum entertainment value, yet they suspend disbelief anyway. What if social movements engaged this framework and exploited the unfairness of the script through direct action until the script is simply untenable? This will take discipline, spiritual imagination, and a willingness to experience retribution. But when it’s employed well, as civil rights campaigners model so beautifully in the 60’s, and as wrestlers have done for generations, there is potential to dramatically shift power.
4 thoughts on “fieldnotes on kayfabe and spreadsheets”
Sam, I loved loved loved the section on “kayfabe”. I feel like I understand something about non-violent direct action design that I’ve never fully seen before. Thank you.
Sam, I loved loved loved the section on “kayfabe”. I feel like I understand something about nonviolent direct action design that I’ve never quite noticed before. Thank you.