Pauli Murray: Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Prophet

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Like many people who commented on the Pauli Murray Project page, I wonder how I got to this age without knowing about her.

And I only know about her because I came upon Patricia Bell-Scott’s book The Firebrand and the First Lady, at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home.

Pauli Murray had a hard row to hoe, but the scrappy, chronically underweight woman beat the odds and achieved her dreams of becoming a lawyer and then one of the very first women priests in the Episcopal Church of America, all the while fighting tenaciously for civil rights.

She was organizing sit-ins at Washington, DC, lunch counters years before SNCC existed. She wrote letters to just about everyone of authority in the white-dominated world about indignities visited upon African-Americans beginning in the 1930s.

Her first sight of Eleanor Roosevelt, called “ER” throughout the book, was at a Depression-era work camp for homeless women where Murray was resident. At the time, she refused to acknowledge ER, but wrote to her a few years later and thus a deep friendship began.

Murray fought her way into the “club” that included Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin. Thurman in particular she considered a mentor. She and Marshall often disagreed on ways and means of fighting for civil rights, but they respected and admired each other.

So why is Pauli Murray so little known? Well, she was black, she was a woman, and she was a lesbian. Hmmm, three strikes against her and still she persevered, all the while dealing with ill health and being the mainstay of her extended family.

So I invite you, if you do not know her, to get to know Pauli Murray better now. She herself published several books. The wonderful thing about Bell-Scott’s book is that diehard Eleanor Roosevelt admirers like me get to see another side of her all the while learning something new.

You can see Pauli Murray’s bibliography, extended biography and more at www.paulimurrayproject.org.

 

 

What Then Must We Do?

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That was the heart-breaking cry of the character Billy Kwan when he realized that Sukarno has betrayed the Indonesian people in “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

I haven’t written for a long time. I chose not to add my anger, my despair, my disbelief of the election results after seeing so much of the same thing on Facebook. I shut down. I’m still a bit shut down, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to shut down this blog.

It’s not that I don’t believe in a moral universe that bends toward justice anymore. It’s that I’m not sure I’m the right person to claim it anymore, for many reasons.

I’m confused about so many things.

Let me say outright that I do not support the President-Elect or, so far, any of his cabinet picks.  They appall me. The thought of white supremacy not just creeping, but being invited into the Oval Office is a nightmare. The thought of people who know nothing about foreign policy, about the plight of the poor, about compassion, about diversity, about public education, about the Constitution itself running this government seems to me like a harbinger of the end of times and the end of civilization as we know it.

And I’m cynical enough that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the elections were indeed rigged, but not in the favor of the Democratic candidate.

Equally confusing to me as how this was allowed to happen is the growing backlash from younger civil rights activists. I have been witnessing not only a turning away, but an actual uprising against the people such as John Lewis who sacrificed so much for the cause of equal rights.

I am personally witnessing it, and I don’t know how to respond.

I am beginning to relive, and again in a personal way, what I lived through in college as the Black Power movement rose. At that time, black women in my Washington, DC, college dormitory told me outright that they could not be friends with me because I was white.

It didn’t matter what my beliefs were, where my heart was, what my background was. I was white, and that was all that mattered.

For reasons I have no understanding of, I was born believing that I was one human being sharing this planet with billions of other human beings whose lives mattered as much as mine. I grew up during the MLK years with a burden of guilt about my white skin and tending to identify more with people of color than with white people.

Then I was told that my white skin was not welcome in the struggle.

And the worst thing was that I understood completely. I continue to understand, but it hurts and I’m tired of feeling the burden of white guilt.

I can’t help but continue to do what I do because I can’t help but continue to believe that we are all equal, that our world cries out for the acceptance, the embracing of diversity, and I don’t want to live in a world without that diversity.  I will continue to speak out and protest and do all those things, but I do not feel that I am any longer the person who should be writing about the moral universe.

So thank you to those who have read my scribblings of the past few years. May we all find the courage to work for justice and equality wherever we are, whoever we are. And now I’m going to go get over myself.

Everyone Belongs in the Kingdom

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My little garden in a little town in a little state is my refuge, my haven, my glimpse of the Kingdom.

It is in shade, yet there are flowering plants and lots of green foliage. I did a little work and nature did the rest. In the near distance are trees dappled in sunlight in the late afternoon and a glimpse of the churchyard next door.

Robins and catbirds and sparrows and swifts sit on the fence and call to the universe or fly and dart about. Honeybees cover the cimicifuga and they are more than welcome. Fat bumblebees fly up into the heart of the hosta blossoms. I sit with my coffee and my book and my mature, overweight cat lazes nearby.

A chipmunk runs across the paving stones from one clump of vegetation to another. A poodle pup named Rory charges up the path from next door, tail wagging, to greet me. Onyx flips her tail and eyes him warily. I give him a good patting and send him back to his owner.

Yes, the Kingdom, the harmony, the peace despite a busy major route just yards away. For 45 minutes a day most days I can come to my retreat and, ideally, shed the tensions of the work day.

It is more difficult to shed the tensions of the world. Even more difficult is that I am ever mindful of the fact that there is no haven, no blessed retreat, no Kingdom for so many people on this Earth, our island home spinning through a universe of wonders and horrors.

Is it neurosis or social conscience that never lets me forget how privileged my life has been? I have known loss and grief. My mother died when she was the age I’ll be in September, a short, violent battle with liver cancer that took her before we could even get our minds around what was happening to her. My beloved brother died when he was the age I am now, a long, drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer that left him a bag of bones loosely covered in flesh, and it was almost impossible to recognize the athletic, handsome, dignified youth and man he had been.

People, pets, jobs, relationships, the losses that are the normal stuff of most lives.

But no one I love has ever been executed because of the color of his skin. No one I love has so far been in the path of a terrorist. No child of mine has ever lived in a war zone or had to risk drowning to reach a shore of safety.

In the late 1980s, the African National Congress toured the world with a documentary called “Every Child is My Child.” Along with all the political and economic and humanitarian efforts to end the evil called apartheid, it galvanized people to look at the struggle in a new way.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that I have known as long as I can remember, that every person is my child, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father, and the Kingdom is not mine alone to enjoy. It won’t be the Kingdom until everyone can live without fear, in safety and peace, in the sure knowledge that when they wake up to a new day, they are not risking their lives by stepping outside their doors.

 

Yuri and Malcolm

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Truth really is stranger than fiction. Take the case of a Japanese-American woman and an African-American man.

May 19 was the birthdate of two people whose improbable lives crossed paths in the battle for civil rights.

Yuri Kochiyama was four years older than Malcolm X and lived 53 more years.

Born in California in 1921 and thus an American citizen, Mary Yuriko Nakahara and her family were imprisoned in Arkansas (“interned,”?? I think not) with the tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

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Yuri speaks at an anti-war demonstration in NYC

After marrying Bill Kochiyama after World War II, she moved to New York City where she shared the experiences of her black and Puerto Rican neighbors in housing projects. There aren’t too many more dots to connect to her civil rights activism. Her home became a gathering place for activists where it “felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, is quoted as saying in Yuri’s obituary.

 

She met Malcolm X, former small-time hoodlum and jailhouse convert to Islam, in 1963. She learned a radical activism from him and began focusing on black nationalism. The brief relationship ended with his assassination, at which she cradled his head while others tried to revive him with artificial respiration.

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Yuri, in glasses, holds the dying Malcolm X’s head

Yuri’s activism did not end with Malcolm X’s death. Shutting down the war in Vietnam, reparations for Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned and more inspired a new generation of activists and even a rap song by Blue Scholars. It can be found at this link: Blue Scholars sing “Yuri” live

Malcolm X was 39 when he was murdered; Yuri lived to be 93. Both used their life experiences, alone and together,  to try to set right the wrongs in a troubled country. Both were born on the same day. You just can’t make this stuff up.

 

 

American Pieta

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As we approach the commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, I can’t help but think of all the people betrayed by the forces of evil in this country that do not believe in the either the Constitution or the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. May the hope of resurrection and reunion bring some small measure of comfort to all the mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers and friends of the betrayed.

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The Beast is Loose

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I’m sure I’m not the only person who screams at the television, but Friday night I should have been heard from very far away.

To paraphrase the great Al Franken, Donald Trump is a lying liar, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC let him get away with it.

Fortunately, Rachel Maddow did not.

The beast is not Donald Trump in fact; he is the ringmaster. The beast is his voting bloc, and he has officially let it out of its cage to wreak its damage. For the umpteenth time in a row, protesters against Trump have been assaulted by his fans, verbally and physically. While he egged them on, he then told Matthews that the protesters were trouncing on his bloc’s first amendment rights.

In fact, Trump and his supporters have gone beyond the bounds of first amendment rights to the point of treason and insurrection.

Then he had to go and schedule a rally in downtown Chicago, an already racially troubled city, knowing full well that protesters would come out and a conflagration could ensue.

Yet he bragged to Matthews that he was the reasonable one who called off the rally, leaving Chicago police to deal with the mess.

And then he had the nerve to tweet later in the night that “an organized group of thugs” had disrupted his rally.

And yesterday Trump held two rallies in Ohio, including one in Cleveland, home of the family of Tamir Rice. The people of that city are already going to have to deal with the Republican Convention being held there summer. I envision another Chicago in 1968.

I have read analyses of the majority of Trump supporters, endorsed by Trump himself, that they are people who are angry at the government, they are making less than they did before President Obama took office, and they feel their rights are being taken away.

Which is all bollocks. If anything to do with wages is true, it has more to do with the states they live in and the corrupt Republican governors who have bankrupted their states.

Rights? Which rights have been taken away? Can they not vote? Can they not bear arms? Can they not walk down a street without fear of being murdered by a policeman? Can they not go about their lives without being called rapists and thugs?

The right they need to exercise, and can, is the right to mental health therapy to figure out where that anger comes from and how to learn to get along with their fellow human beings.

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in Style

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I have gone to commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for years and years, but until Sunday, I hadn’t experienced an actual celebration of Dr. King.

For the first time at one of these events, I was the minority in the room, and it felt good.

I should have put it together earlier, but I didn’t. When my friend Maggie of the NAACP announced the 30th annual event at her church, the Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield, MA, something should have rung a bell, but it didn’t.

When I stepped into the building housing the 170-year-old congregation, however, the light bulb went off. This was the church that had been served in the 1800s by Samuel Harrison, who later became the chaplain to the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, the African-American regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. I’ve written about Samuel Harrison in this blog; it was largely because of his efforts that African-American soldiers in the Civil War finally received the same pay as white soldiers.

That the church should still be largely an African-American parish wasn’t something that had occurred to me. Whether it should have or not, I don’t know. I do know that there is nothing wrong with white people commemorating Dr. King’s birthday and legacy; indeed, it should be encouraged. His larger message was to all people, as he himself said, and should ultimately have benefited all people, black, white, Jew, and Gentile.

Yet there has been something missing for me at the mostly white commemorations I’ve been at; a certain authenticity lacking in our white liberal do-gooding group. It has seemed, some years, as if the African-Americans present were tokens rather than the people most directly affected by the civil rights movement past and present.

From the moment the guest choir of the Macedonian Baptist Church of Albany, NY, processed in singing and dancing, I knew I was where I wanted to be. The program took on its own life as the expected emcee had not been able to make it and Maggie took over at the last minute. A tall, graceful woman who retains the voice of her Southern childhood, Maggie called for song when she felt like hearing songs and speakers when she felt like hearing speakers. She called twice for the choir to sing, and they had everyone on their feet, arms raised in exultation, and the Spirit reached right into us. A man did an impromptu dance up and down the aisle, and we smiled at his jubilation.

There were serious moments as well. One of the speakers, a young man who works with youth, called upon not only restraint and justice on the part of police across the country, but also on African-American youth to take pride in themselves and pull up their pants. This elicited many cries of “Amen” from the elders. A group of youngsters called Kids 4 Harmony played classical music on violins; the children study two hours four afternoons a week to perfect their talent and are provided the opportunity to participate in student orchestras and musical competitions around the state.

After the offering was taken, Maggie remembered we hadn’t yet sung “Lift Every Voice,’’ and she jumped up to remind us. Without prompting, we all reached for the hands of the people nearest us and without missing a beat began the African-American anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamund Johnson.

The main speaker was a former pastor at Second Congregational, the Reverend Leonard Comithier, who now serves the Macedonian Baptist Church. He began by yelling out, “I’m not a speaker!” Voices responded, “Preach it!” And boy, did he. Adhering to the theme of “Reawaken the Dream,” he preached from 1 Kings Chapter 13, the story of King Jeroboam pointing to a prophet and calling for his arrest. The prophet had challenged the king’s evil reign and sacrifices at the altar of God. As the king pointed, “the hand that he stretched out against him [the prophet] withered so that he could not draw it back to himself.” This is what happens, Pastor Comithier said, when you speak truth to power as Dr. King did.

“Where are the prophets now?” he asked. We can only reawaken the dream when we all begin speaking truth to power and refuting the hateful rhetoric that abounds in our national life, particularly coming from Presidential candidates. When we demand justice, when we demand equal rights, when we give ourselves to the will of God as Dr. King did, even unto death.

As the “Amens” died down after Pastor Comithier’s preaching, Maggie, again touched by the Spirit, called on a woman she knew to sing “Precious Lord,” Dr. King’s favorite hymn. And oh my goodness, what a perfect way to end. Her voice reverberated throughout the large sanctuary as bodies swayed back and forth.

I was still swaying as I went out into the freezing cold night to make the hour-long drive home. I had a lot of food for thought on my way along the route that I could almost drive blindfolded. It had actually felt good to be a minority in that celebration, though I was treated as a full participant. I know I can never know in my gut the depth of pain and desire and frustration of those who have been oppressed by white people. But I do feel I know a little bit more now about how to counter it, how to speak truth to white privilege and power, and, yes, how to celebrate.