*As a journalist and civil rights activist, Janet Langhart Cohen has interviewed some of the most influential newsmakers in the world including Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Mother of Civil Rights Rosa Parks, General Benjamin O. Davis, Senator Ted Kennedy, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, TV host Larry King and journalist/TV host Barbara Walters.
She even interviewed self-avowed white supremacist slash Louisiana Congressman David Duke.
Born in Indianapolis as Janet Leola Floyd, she chose to keep the surname from her first marriage to Melvin Langhart. She later married Harvard Medical School professor and noted women’s reproductive health pioneer, Dr. Robert Kistner and became widowed when he passed away in 1990. Kistner is credited with being involved in the early development of the birth control pill. Janet is now on her third marriage – to the former Defense Secretary, William Cohen. In the first Installment of the EURweb exclusive interview readers learned what drove her to pen the powerful essay that is said to have played a significant role in moving president Barack Obama to finally speak on a subject he has been avoiding since his presidency: The plight of Black America. Readers’ insightful comments and the dozens of FaceBook and Twitter shares demonstrated your interest in the article and for this we say: Thank you!
Today we offer part 2, as Langhart Cohen continues to share her political views, experiences, and their relevance to this presidential administration in particular. Additionally, Janet talks about moving forward with her one-act play, Anne & Emmett, an imaginary conversation between two historical teenagers with one thing in common: They were both murdered as a result of hate.
Never one to let her looks get in the way of her dedication to issues that besiege the black population, on the one hand, while a lucrative modeling career had her appearing in publications such as Ebony and Jet; and renouned publisher John H. Johnson became a mentor and friend; she also broke ground by being the first black female judge in the Miss American Pageant – for an unprecedented three times, mind you! But directly below, journalist Michael Sainte of The Washington Informer tells of a story she once shared with him that, in reflection, may have provided a clue as to the force the former Miss Floyd would one day become.
“She told me the story about enrolling on her first day at ButlerUniversity (Indianapolis) with a childhood friend, who could have easily “passed,” but marked the race block on the form as “Colored.” Janet admonished her and suggested that she mark “Other.” Janet told her, “Make them know who you are, let the uncomfortability be theirs!”
With regard to the Zimmerman trial and the racist consequences thereof, being aware of the bias and cultural conditioning that takes place in society, Mrs. Cohen was not moved for one minute by the fact that most of the women on the Florida jury were mothers. Why? Because, as she so eloquently states, this does not automatically equal maternal empathy, especially as it relates to an African American mother.
“I thought ‘so what, racism trumps maternity’. Whose mother are they going to empathize with, Trayvon’s mother? The one who’s dead or George Zimmerman, the one they don’t want to go to prison?”
“The point is, Lee,” she continues, “…we have a serious, serious, cancer; and it’s not race, its racism. And until those who have the power become enlightened, see…the commonalities of people who are different looking than they are and find the bridges that bring them together rather than the rants and rage and hateful speech of [Sean] Hannity…Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaug and those who are haters; we need people who can bring people together. Those are the giants. Everybody else – to me, who speaks the way they do, are pygmies.”
Langhart wants to make one thing very clear: Had it been any of the presidents during her lifetime, she would have written the same essay; demanding they speak on the issue of racial injustice in the African American community. Yet below she elaborates on why it was important that this president in particular tackle the subject.
“It was particularly haunting for me…I expected a little bit more from somebody who has had a little bit more of the experience of the black person,” she tells Lee Bailey. “That this president would say something. Is he going to step into his time and be the man that Mandela was? Be the man that presidents Kennedy and Johnson were? Or is he going to hide out? And he doesn’t have to hide out for fear of re-election because the Constitution won’t allow him to run again; so he doesn’t have that political reason.”
Finding herself becoming more and more riled up, especially with the emotional toll taken on the African American community in particular after the Zimmerman verdict came out, Janet ultimately felt a sense of anger. Not at president Obama per se, she says, because she understood his plight, but at a history that has forced blacks to be so obedient to the act of silence where their cultural pain is concerned.
“If this president doesn’t do it then when, if he doesn’t do it then who,” she found herself asking. She expands upon this theory in the audio clip below, and addresses why she feels “the first black president” can’t afford to rest on that particular laurel.
Janet tells us why she does not agree with one point made by president Obama during his now infamous Trayvon Martin speech. She also doesn’t expect one speech to make an entire systematic change. What she does hope will happen next is for things to now be “kicked up a notch.” For powerful leaders who don’t necessarily look like Barack Obama to speak out. When Lee Bailey interjects to inform her that she “sounds like Tavis Smiley without the anger,” she gives credence to her colleague but explains in the audio below what may have happened if he had written the essay.
The union between Janet Langhart and husband William Cohen clearly demonstrates that being educated, courageous, comfortable in your own skin, and in love, are the only ingredients two people need when it comes to going against all odds – and winning – in the same racist America she has been speaking of.
Married since 1996, the Cohen’s are opposites in ways that have been deal-breakers for many relationships gone sour. They differ in race, religion and political affiliation. William Cohen is the son of a Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother. Janet Langhart Cohen is the daughter of a single-parent mother, Mary, a Southern Baptist who worked as a domestic and Sewell Bridges, her father who served in World War II and abandoned his family soon after.
As co-writers of the memoir, Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance [Rowman & Littlefield Publishers] in 2007, William and Janet took readers inside their privacy, the experiences they encounter and the bond they share despite their differences. Mr. Cohen is said to have been a significant inspiration in urging his wife to write the play, “Anne & Emmett.”
“I wanted the play because I loved the story of Anne Frank so much because I read her when I was 15. I internalized her, she became my alter ego. She and I had a lot of things in common…I didn’t get along with my mother; she didn’t get along with her mother. My older sister was the favorite; she felt her older sister, Margaret, was the favorite… Curiously enough we both have the same nickname ‘Chatterbox’. I identified with her…and I cried because I knew the ending before I was even done reading her.”
Drawing on “the commonalities of two disparate people in their suffering,” and the fact that “they both ended up dead because of hate,” Janet hopes to get this play into the classrooms of the world; where it can reach young minds. She tells Bailey,
“[I want this to reach] the young Obama’s that may not get the nurturing, [the] young Janet’s, [the] young Lee’s that are hearing racial or racist or prejudiced …bigoted notions in their cradle…Maybe by the time they get to school and…see through a play of …two other teenagers, they can identify with what bullying is; because racism and anti Semitism is only bullying,” she concludes.
Emmitt & Anne was originally set to debut at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. in June of 2009. But on this day the museum was visited by an 86-year old neo-Nazi man. Seeing the elderly man approaching, a young black security officer went out to assist him, at which time, upon seeing him, the elderly man took out a gun and shot the black officer through the heart. The video directly below shares the horrible news:
Going back to this historic election Janet says, “I was hoping that as we celebrate our progress that things had gotten better. But when I look at the parallels of Emmet Till and Trayvon Martin I wonder. And we’re losing the teeth in the Voting Rights Act that Martin died for – so many of us died for, Medgar Evers died for. I wonder, so that causes me despair.”
Below, Oscar winning actor, Morgan Freeman voices a moving introduction to “Anne & Emmet”
In the end, Langhart Cohen refuses to give up hope; certainly recognizing that hopelessness can be the most dangerous weapon of all.
“I want the film and-or documentary to be accompanied with the lesson plan so that it can be utilized as a teaching method,” she tells Bailey as the interview winds down. “Not just entertainment, I use the word ‘edutainment’. I want the play to entertain because that’s how I learn, I’m a visual learner; but I also want people to be enlightened and to use it as a call to action.”
To learn about updates on Anne & Emmett, the venues where it will be produced, or to be placed on Janet Langhart Cohen’s Newsletter subscriber list, visit her website: www.janetlanghartcohen.com
DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur. She is a journalist and creator of the original workshops “Public Speaking for the Private Person” and “How to Talk to Anybody.” She is also an adjunct communications instructor in the Extension program at UCLA, and an independent associate with LegalShield. Reach out to her at [email protected] or visit her website: http://www.dpryorpresents.com