Never Again?

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AARON MCLEOD

THE BELOVED SOULS LOST AT SANTA FE HIGH SCHOOL, TX, ON FRIDAY, MAY 18, 2018

 

 

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KIMBERLY JESSICA VAUGHAN

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CHRISTOPHER STONE

Sheikh

SABIKAH SHEIKH

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CYNTHIA TISDALE

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ANGELIQUE RAMIREZ

 

 

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ANN PERKINS

 

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JARED BLACK

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CHRISTIAN GARCIA

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SHANA FISHER

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Pilgrimage to Highlander Folk School

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I’ve taken what I’ve thought of as pilgrimages before, tracing the steps of John Brown and Harriet Tubman.

I did those things alone, and they were invaluable experiences. But I didn’t understand that a pilgrimage is meant to be made with other people until I went on a retreat at St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, TN.

Thirty-eight of us were there to learn to make contemplative silence an underpinning for compassionate action in our efforts to dismantle racism. The retreat included a pilgrimage to the original site of the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, TN. Visiting that site was on my bucket list.

The original Highlander is a legendary and hallowed place for students of the Civil Rights movement. I haven’t been such a student for as long as many, but the intensity of my studies brought the names of Myles Horton, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker to my attention, along with the more famous names of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks.

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MLK Jr., Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy talk to Zilpha Horton.

John Lewis learned about the Highlander School from  Nashville guru James Lawson, who had been teaching the Fisk SNCC students about nonviolence and civil disobedience in the basement of the Clark Methodist Church. Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel signed up for a retreat at Highlander as soon they heard of it.

Horton, a native Tennessean, founded Highlander in 1932 after traveling in Scandinavia and learning about the folk schools there. On some 300 peaceful acres along a river, he began organizing coal miners and other workers during the Great Depression. It was a natural step to become a center for young activists, black and white, to learn more about radical nonviolence and for leaders of the civil rights movement to gain refreshment and renewal.

Septima Clark’s specialty was teaching literacy to poor blacks, sharecroppers, so they could begin the route toward registering to vote. John Lewis gives her great credit in his first memoir, Walking with the Wind, and he also credits the white Myles Horton with being able to tame the fiery James Bevel, who thought the “nonviolent revolution . . . was hogwash.”

Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander, took the old spiritual “I’ll Overcome Someday” and turned into the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” made famous by another Highlander visitor, Pete Seeger.

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The original sheet music for “We Shall Overcome”

Because blacks and white mixed freely at the school, studying together, eating together, cleaning up together, living in dormitories together, that the Highlander and Horton came to be seen as a Communist enterprise. Horton was continually harassed by police, citizens’ groups, and eventually J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The state eventually did close down the school. Today the original library resides in New Market TN, and the former library and grounds have been purchased by the Tennessee Preservation Trust while a concerted effort moves forward to restore the building.

On a warm sunny day in May, my fellow retreatants and I IMG_20180501_103211310piled into vans and cars and made the half-hour drive to the Highlander property. We were greeted by Joe, the property caretaker, who was the epitome of a hard-working man, straight and true, skin bronzed by the outdoors with blue eyes and the warmest smile you can imagine. We all fanned out, going through the small building, walking down to the riverside, taking blankets to spread out on the lawn and breathe in the air. My first sensation was that of awe that I was breathing the same molecules of air as all the long dead and aging living on whose shoulders the likes of Bryan Stevenson and William Barber stand.

Finally, we gathered in semicircles of chairs in front of the building. We chanted, we meditated, we prayed for this hallowed place and prayed for the strengthening of will and commitment to do our part in bringing Dr. King’s dream finally to fruition.

This was a pilgrimage.

 

A Modest Proposal

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White Nationalists Hold Rally In GeorgiaFor preventing the White Supremacists in America, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.

It is a melancholy object to those African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans, who walk through this great country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin doors crowded with people who deny their right to exist on equal terms.

I think it is agreed by all rational parties, that this prodigious number of Fascists is in the present deplorable state of the United States, a very great additional grievance, and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Nazis sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

My proposal is thus: Let us empty out all the prisons in the country of those people of the ethnicities mentioned above who have been wrongfully imprisoned, over-sentenced, unfairly convicted, and/or any other fitting reason why those persons are not a danger to society.

This would certainly include all those convicted of low-level drug offenses now that recreational marijuana use is legal in so many states.

These facilities could thus be used as rehabilitation centers for those amongst us who believe they have a grievance because of their white skin and frail egos that make them fear and hate anyone with a different lineage.

Since many who endorse and support neo-fascism believe that homosexuality is a human condition that can be reversed, would it not therefore be profitable to see whether race hatred can also be reversed through a strict deprogramming method?

If the *president* can use terms such as “breeding concept” when referring to immigrants in California, perhaps such a concept could also be used in rehabilitation. That is, initiate a program of breeding among males and females of the guests at such facilities, remove the offspring immediately after birth and foster them in the homes of those marginalized communities that White Supremacists seek to destroy.

The children would thus grow up learning firsthand that they are but one part of the human family, no more, no less.

The closing of so many prisons would undoubtedly provide funding that could help the foster parents of these children. This model would also open up many jobs to people who have been kept out of the job market; it would certainly include a wide range of employment as it has been proven that fascism has no economic boundaries. Indeed, from Congressional and cabinet positions to law enforcement, there will be no end of opportunities.

It would also be provident to have the rehabilitation centers self-supporting; guests will grow their own food (they will have to become vegetarians as they will not be allowed to have any equipment that could kill animals or other human beings). They will thus learn thrift and get a taste of life as a sharecropper.

The de-childrened inhabitants of the rehabilitation centers could be hired out for menial jobs now held necessarily by those who will assume higher levels of employment and their wages used to fund their programs.

Yes, there are many details to be worked out, such as who should work as guards at these rehabilitation centers, etc. But I think that the basic plan should be carefully considered.

 

 

 

Chokehold, Literally & Figuratively

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The Paul Butler who appears often on MSNBC as a legal expert has a very different voice from the Paul Butler who wrote Chokehold: Policing Black Men. Both voices are critical for our times.

All I knew about him was his role as a legal commentator on shows such Joy Reid or All In With Chris Hayes, where he has mainly been asked about the Trump-Russia investigation. In this book, he is a passionate revolutionary fighting for social change.

Mr. Butler is the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University and was formerly a federal prosecutor. The awards he has received and the scholarly articles and other books he has authored lead me to the conclusion that this is a man I need to listen to. His latest book came out last July, but it took me a while to catch up with it.

He uses the term “chokehold” both literally, as in how Eric Garner was murdered, and figuratively, as in the chokehold that official (read white) society has over the lives of African Americans.

As someone who has been arrested for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Butler knows whereof he speaks. He also knows how fortunate he was to have had legal colleagues to help him get out of his dilemma. The vast majority of African-American men and women who are wrongfully arrested, if they are not outright killed by police first, do not have such resources.

And the point is not to make those resources help, though in the short term they are needed. Mr. Butler is looking at the long term and calls for a revolution that will completely reform the way policing is done in this country.

This is from Elizabeth Hinton’s review in The New York Times last July:

“ “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do,” Butler writes. “The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” “

We have seen that with our own eyes, but still police are rarely held accountable and Supreme Court decisions have given them the impunity to do what they do. When SCOTUS decisions support racial profiling, how do we think those in our society who are already racist will behave?

I can’t help but agree with his argument that a complete transformation, not incremental steps, is what is needed in this country. “The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew,” he writes.

Not only do incremental steps not help in the long run, they are an obscene insult to people whose entire history is one of oppression and inequality at the hands of white society. I’ve heard the “Why can’t they be patient?” argument in every decade of my life. It was an appalling argument in the 1950s and it is an appalling argument now.

Systemic racism, which leads to chokeholds and police violence against African Americans, has been a cancer on this continent for almost 500 years. No matter whether there’s someone we love in the White House or someone we hate, American society has a rot within it that needs to be surgically removed.

I will let you read Mr. Butler’s vision of solutions for the problem for yourself. Some seem shocking at first, such as abolishing prisons. But when you look soberly at our history and where we are now in equal protection under the law, you might start thinking along those shocking lines yourself.

How The Light Gets In

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In 1977, my friend Caroline and I made a pact. We were coming home from Pittsfield after having seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Driving down Route 183 by Gould Meadows overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, a full moon shone on the white and frigid earth. Everything was crystal clear. A perfect place to see a UFO!

We agreed then and there that if either of us ever told the other we had seen a UFO or met an alien, we would believe each other.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene, who seems to have understood Jesus’s message better than the male disciples, should have made a similar pact with them.

There are so many concepts to ponder in today’s Gospel, and for me, the least of them is Thomas.

Poor Thomas, whose name has come down through the centuries to be synonymous with “doubt.” Derivation of doubt? In fact, most of the disciples were doubters at that point.

A week before, with Thomas absent, they were living behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them, they rejoiced, then said good-bye and re-locked the doors. Hmmmm.

There is also the question of why, when Mary saw him, Jesus told her not to touch him because he was in an in-between state of life and death. Yet when he appeared to those in the locked room, he invited them all to touch him.

Each of the Gospels has different versions of Jesus’s post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension appearances to the disciples, and you can find quite a lot written on whether these were dreams, or visions, or hallucinations.

Regardless, John’s is the Gospel in which everything is a metaphor for something else. So for me, the locked doors and the image of seeing Jesus’s wounds are what John wants us to focus on here, and they are closely related.

They are also crucial to our own responses both to Jesus and to the world we live in.

Have you ever seen a horror movie where the heroine couldn’t get out of the house because, in her panic, she couldn’t unlock the door. When you lock your door at night, it’s so that no one can enter. But what if the thing you fear is already in the house?

When we lock a door, we also lock ourselves in.

When we lock our minds, we lock out knowledge that might be helpful. When we close our consciousness to realities we don’t want to deal with, when we are fearful and won’t let ourselves admit to that which scares us, we keep that fear locked inside. The realities are there no matter what.

The Good News is that Jesus can break through the locks and bolts and closed minds and let in the light of understanding, of comfort, of guidance, of reassurance. If we let Him.

The Rev. Michael March, an Episcopal priest from Texas, points out on his blog the irony that while Jesus’s tomb was empty, the disciples had created their own tomb in which they had interred themselves. But Jesus found a way in anyway; Mr. March called it “eastering in us” and every year we have this most wonderful reminder that Jesus can break through any barrier.

For the disciples, this took place just one week after the Resurrection. We are now just one week after Easter. Are we different from the disciples? Are our lives perceptibly changed? Or have our minds and hearts gone back on lockdown?

Here’s where Jesus’s wounds come in.

During Lent, those who participated in the gatherings at Crissy Farm watched a short video of a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she suggested that faith depends upon vulnerability.

She didn’t say it, but the word “vulnerable” comes from Latin roots meaning the capacity to be wounded. In no other instance do we make ourselves more vulnerable than when we dare to show our wounds.

Jesus the Christ is the ultimate archetype of vulnerability. First, he became human. Second, he came as a homeless baby. Third, he spoke truth to power in a dangerous age. Fourth, he willingly accepted a painful, horrifying death. Fifth, He loved us all the while and loves us still.

Inviting someone to touch a wound is an extremely intimate and vulnerable act. Do we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable? Do we allow ourselves to be fully human? Do we allow our spiritual or emotional wounds to show, or do we put on a stoic face and act as if we have everything together?

If we saw someone walking around with a physical wound, wouldn’t we take that person to the ER or get gauze and bandages? What about all the people, including ourselves, walking around with psychic wounds; how do we help them?

Why should we show our wounds? What’s the point in that?

Well, John’s Gospel today answers that. Jesus showing His wounds is how the light got in to the disciples’ minds. Jesus is also showing us that showing our wounds is how we let Him in so that we can advance to full Easter life and bring His message out into a broken Good Friday world.

Leonard Cohen knew it. He said it in the refrain to his song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

We have many examples of people who were given what I believe was divine strength to use the cracks in their own worlds to bring light to the world. From Mamie Till-Mobley insisting that her son Emmett’s casket be opened so that people could see what Jim Crow really meant to Twelve-Step groups where people share their “experience, strength and hope” right up to Margery Stoneman Douglas students using their grief to spark a worldwide movement  to call a halt to the proliferation of military-style weapons that can murder 17 people in a few minutes.

From #BlackLives Matter to #MeToo to #NeverAgain, young people are making themselves vulnerable in the public square, risking insults, slurs and even death threats to shine a spotlight on the injustices of our society.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” said the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. She knew a lot about pain.

We’ll turn, though, to James’s letter for the last word. He says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”

In that fellowship with God is the sanctification of our own wounds that gives us the strength to bring Jesus’s light to others. So “forget your perfect offering”  and “ring the bells that still can ring.” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Amen.

The 21st Century Pieta

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On Good Friday, Christians around the world assume an attitude of mourning as they commemorate the steps to the cross that Jesus took.

When I say “assume,” I don’t mean they’re pretending. For millions of people, this day reminds them of the suffering of an innocent man who took on the world’s darkness and allowed himself to be sacrificed. The Roman-ruled world could not understand his message of a new compact between God and human beings.

As I follow the cross through my own little village in the rain later today, I shall be mourning other sacrifices as well: the sacrifices of the souls of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, of Stephon Clark, of Danny Ray Thomas, of Anthony Stephan House, of Draylen Mason.

Sacrificial lambs of a country that refuses to deal with racism, the NRA, white supremacy, police who refuse to consider less than lethal force when dealing with black men.

Sacrificial lambs of a society that espouses “right to life” but doesn’t blink when children’s lives and black lives are taken.

stephon clarkStephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cell phone when he was shot 20 times. At a Sacramento Council meeting, a protestor said that a grandmother’s backyard was “a sacred space.”

 

Danny Ray Thomas was for unknown reasons walking with his pants down and his hands in view when he was murdered by police. Two years ago, while he was in jail on a drug charge, his girlfriend drowned their two young children. His was already a life of unendurable pain.

anthony houseAnthony Stephan House was getting ready to go to work when he picked up a package on his porch that exploded and killed him. His young daughter was in the house.

 

draylen masonDraylen Mason was a high school senior and classical musician who had not yet heard that he was to receive a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to continue his studies when he too picked up a package on his porch.

The 17 children and staff of MSD were just going about their daily routine at school.

I was only 8 years old when I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Pieta” at the World’s Fair. It made me cry.

From now on when I think “Pieta,” I will see the mothers of all the children killed in massacres and the black men, women, and children killed by police who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

How long will we let our society continue to condemn them to death?

Ruby Bridges Through Her Eyes

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Having grown up in the area where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most famous works, I remember not only the actual photographs of the little girl, but also the iconic painting of the girl in the white dress flanked by four federal marshals.

The white dress, white socks and shoes emphasize the darkness of her skin. On the wall behind her is a racial epithet. Smashed tomatoes lie at the foot of the wall. You don’t see the marshals’ heads, but their fists are clenched as if ready for battle.

Friday I had the privilege of hearing the woman who grew out of that little girl speak. Ruby Bridges’ name is writ large in the history of civil rights. As she came onto the stage at Smith College, the crowd jumped to its feet with thunderous applause.

ruby nowMs. Bridges is a reluctant speaker. She never meant to spend the last 20 years of her life giving public addresses, she said. But this is what she has felt called to do. She uses no notes, just says what she believes God wants her to say. Her soft voice is mesmerizing as she speaks, reaches back into the memories of her six-year-old self in 1960, as she tells us what it was like through her eyes (the title of her memoir) in segregated New Orleans.

Though Brown vs. the Board of Education mandated the integration of public schools in 1954, it took years for segregated school systems to comply. When the NAACP knocked on doors in the New Orleans projects seeking children who were in the first grade, Ruby’s mother was enthusiastic about letting her daughter be used to integrate the schools. Mrs. Bridges had grown up in a sharecropping family in Louisiana and going to school was a rare occurrence; she regretted not having a chance to be educated.

Ruby’s father had a different point of view. He had served in the segregated Army of the Korean War. He might be on the front lines with white soldiers at one moment, but when they returned to base, he had to go to the “colored” barracks and the white soldiers to the white barracks. He did not want his daughter to experience the shame he had known.

Ruby’s mother overrode his wishes. Ruby was taken for all-day testing and passed. Since she hadn’t been told anything about what was happening, she got it into her head that she was going to skip from first grade directly to college.

Then came the first day of her new school. Creating a new ritual, neighbors came to her house to help get her dressed in her beautiful new clothes (though she hated the coat her mother made her wear). Four white men came to the door, put her and her mother into a car, and her journey began.

Seeing all the people lining the route to the school, hearing them shout, seeing them throwing things, seeing police on horses and motorcycles, Ruby thought she was in a Mardi Gras parade, even though it was November. The white men told her mother that when they got out of the car, the men would surround her and Ruby and they should not look around them. They entered the school and went to the principal’s office. And there they sat all day long as white parents entered the school, angrily pointed at Ruby, and then took their children home.

“College is easy!” Ms. Bridges said she thought when she went home that day. She ended up having school alone with a teacher, Mrs. Henry, all day every day for the rest of that school year. She loved Mrs. Henry and she learned a lot, but she was so lonely for the company of other children. She slowly came to understand what was happening and that she was alone in her class because of the color of her skin. She could hear the voices of other children when she hung up her coat in the cloakroom. She could smell food from the cafeteria but had to bring her own lunch because of threats made to poison her food.

Eventually, because she kept asking about the children’s voices, Mrs. Henry took her to the cloakroom, moved a cabinet that revealed a door, and took her to a room where white children were playing. She sat down next to a little boy who told her, “My mother said I can’t play with you because you’re a nigger.”

His words gave birth to what she now emphasizes when she speaks in public. “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” It is adults who have failed, she said, and brought us to where we are now, by “robbing children of their innocence.” Children aren’t born racists; they are taught to be racists. We must raise them a different way, encourage their dreams, and truly follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum to judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

There really is an “us” and a “them,” she said. “We all have a common enemy and it is evil.” Sometimes the evil looks just like us and is hard to recognize, she said as she talked about the murder of her oldest son, who was killed for trying to find out who had shot into his younger brother’s car.

Ms. Bridges noted at the beginning of her talk that she gets many letters from children telling her how brave she was when she took those historic steps into a white school. “I have to set the record straight,” she laughed, “I wasn’t brave at all because I didn’t really know what was going on.”

But it is bravery, and it is courage, to follow her faith and tell her story over and over again all these years later. Her insistence on inclusion at all points is sometimes not popular – as when a student seemed to seek her approve for the effort to get all-black housing at Smith and Ms. Bridges said she did not approve of black separatism – and her refusal to hate the little boy who said he couldn’t play with her show courage indeed.

I have cried over the picture of the beautiful smiling little girl who was in effect offered up to be the face of integration. Having seen her in person, and heard her words, I will just smile and celebrate her from now on.