Books to Educate and Outrage

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If you want to be outraged by something you read this year, you have far too large a choice of new books to accomplish this for you.

Both in nonfiction and novels, a lot of little-known and better-known American history has been revealed that will fuel your moral outrage. You will also meet, though, characters both real and imagined who will capture your heart and soul and help to focus your outrage and perhaps turn it into action. Continue reading

Charter Schools & Dark Money

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Charter schools were not on my radar until I heard a presentation by a consultant for the Massachusetts group Save Our Public Schools.

That group is pushing for a “no” vote on Massachusetts state ballot question #2, which seeks to lift a cap on the number of charter schools that can be created each year. A “yes” vote would allow up to 12 new charter schools every year. Continue reading

The Soundtrack of Resistance

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Using music as a form of resistance and healing has been very much on my mind lately, in both my professional and “civilian” lives.

As previously mentioned, I work for a performing arts organization. We started our home season this year with “The War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten. A 20th-century composer, Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the re-opening of Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been destroyed by Nazi bombs during World War II.

Britten chose to write an anti-war requiem, using both the traditional Mass for the Dead and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, one of the World War I cadre of artistic souls who died during that conflict.

We produced another requiem a few years ago, the “Defiant” Requiem created by conductor Murry Sidlin, which uses the Verdi Requiem to tell a multi-media story about Raphael Schaecter, a Czechoslovakian Jew who was imprisoned at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. Terezin was considered a “model” camp, and both Nazi bigwigs and Red Cross representatives visited regularly. The Jews from Prague’s artistic community were forced to entertain these visitors. One of the only pieces of music that they had was a score of the Verdi Requiem, and though they were Jews, they used the Catholic mass to sing their resistance to the Nazis. What they couldn’t say to the Nazis, said Schaecter, they would sing to them in the lyrics, especially the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), warning their tormentors of the judgment they would eventually face.

Schaecter, along with most of the inmates of Terezin, was himself eventually sent to Auschwitz and gassed.

These classical works seem a world away from genres such as the blues, soul music, gangsta rap, and South African rhythms of resistance, but the link is very clear: Music has long been a means for the powerless to air their grievances and also as a source of comfort. As Bob Marley sang, “One good thing about the music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Or, perhaps, the pain is transmuted. Kept inside, it festers; let out, it can transform.

Whether it’s Otis Redding asking “Ol’ Man Trouble” to leave him alone, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee singing “We Shall Overcome,” or N.W.A. singing “Fuck the Police,” music has been “the cuts that we bleed through,” as Common raps in “Glory,” the theme song to the movie “Selma.”

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, Ice Cube was interviewed about his movie “Straight Outta Compton.” The first question asked was, “In a trailer for ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the N.W.A. biopic that you co-produced, you say a lot of people don’t realize that your music was a form of nonviolent protest. Is that because the nonviolent part wasn’t very clear?”

“I think it’s very clear,” he replied. “We put our frustrations on a record, and we were creative. We didn’t make a Molotov cocktail, we didn’t loot no buildings or burn ‘em down or none of that. All we did was make music.”

While rap and blues, to me, sound silly coming out of the mouths of white people (except, perhaps, for Janis Joplin), there are also examples of white musicians using music as a means of resistance. I’m thinking particularly of Johnny Clegg, who is going to be in concert near enough for me to see him next spring for the first time in 24 years.

I first saw him in Boston when he and his band, Savuka (“We Shall Rise”), toured with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s victory lap after being released from prison, but I was very familiar with his music already.

English by birth, Clegg grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. An anthropologist by education, he embraced the cause of dismantling apartheid; artistic by nature, he chose music through which to do this.

I particularly think of Clegg in relation to Common’s rap about music being “the cuts that we [African-Americans] bleed through” when I hear Clegg’s song, “The Rolling Ocean.” For Clegg it is the South African’s smiles that they bleed through, that underline their amazing resilience to the forces that would keep them down:

“Women of salt and earth they tell the same story
They saw you walking wounded wearing rags of glory
And when you rejoiced they saw you smiling at your rejoicing
When you wept they saw you smiling at your weeping
When you smiled they saw you smiling at your smiling
And you said “That’s the way I’ve survived these years of dust and blood”

Bishop Rob Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta addresses this also in one of his weekly meditations: “God is: a song for the heart. A sound that bounces steps. A vibration that fans life. A consuming intoxication. A crowded dance floor. God is a melody to ride on.

“Paul told his friends, ‘Sing songs, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, make melody in your heart to the Lord.’ He told them to do this so they could confirm their identity, confront evil, share wisdom and gorge themselves on Spirit.

“With the low-grade grief that seems to hang over us like a storm cloud, maybe what we need now is fewer words and more music. . . What do we know? . . . It might sound silly to some, but every time the followers of Jesus have changed the world there was always a soundtrack.”

The Moral Universe – Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy

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With the near-miraculous release of Anthony Ray Hinton from death row on April 3, Bryan Stevenson’s name was in the news again. His Equal Justice Initiative was responsible for proving that Mr. Hinton, imprisoned for 30 years, was innocent.

Anthony Ray Hinton with Bryan Stevenson on April 3

Anthony Ray Hinton with Bryan Stevenson on April 3

I bought Mr. Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, shortly after it was released but I didn’t read it right away. I was facing the death of my beloved brother and couldn’t face a discussion of death row issues. Then I learned that Mr. Stevenson had recorded his memoir himself, so I decided to listen to it instead.

Though there is something on almost every one of the nine discs that brought tears, I am so humbled and grateful to Mr. Stevenson for the work that he has been doing for more than 30 years now. With a law degree from Harvard, the world could have been his oyster. Instead, the young African-American idealist who grew up in a poor, segregated rural area of Delaware headed back south to work on behalf of people wrongly or improperly prisoned. He interned for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Georgia and later founded EJI and based it in Montgomery, Alabama.

Walter McMillian on his release from prison

Walter McMillian on his release from prison

The memoir mainly recounts the story of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of a murder he did not commit, of someone he didn’t know, on the testimony of another person he didn’t know. Ralph Myers made up his testimony in order to get a lighter sentence for a different murder that he was involved in. He tried to recant his testimony, and for punishment by the state authorities was put into prison. He recanted his recantation, but years later when straight to Mr. Stevenson to tell the truth once and for all.

During the eight years that Mr. McMillian was in prison, Mr. Stevenson had many other, too many other cases that he outlines and updates as the book goes along. He gives us a heart-breaking glimpse into the lives of people on the outskirts of life who have no one to fight for them until Mr. Stevenson and EJI came along. Most, but not all, of them are African-Americans, unsurprisingly. Many of them are children who were tried and convicted as adults and given life sentences or, as Mr. Stevenson calls them, death in prison sentences. Many of them are also developmentally disabled and, while guilty of the crime they were convicted are, are dumped without ceremony and without any accommodations for their disabilities.

Bryan Stevenson giving a TED talk

Bryan Stevenson giving a TED talk

One of the tales he tells is of a mentally challenged man who has been in prison since his early teens. His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where he needs a wheelchair. When Mr. Stevenson first comes to visit him, the man is in a cage where, the guard says, all those charged with murder have to be. Mr. Stevenson demands that he be taken out of the wheelchair for the consultation, but the guards can’t get him out of the cage because it is so small and the wheelchair takes up so much room.

Mr. Stevenson himself has faced discrimination when visiting prisons to see clients; guards don’t believe or acknowledge that he is a lawyer. One guard insisted on strip-searching him every time Mr. Stevenson went to see his client.

While Mr. Stevenson and EJI do manage, with thousands of hours of appeals and investigation and documentation, to free many innocents or improperly imprisoned people, there are also many cases that cannot be won because of the roadblocks put up by a judicial system that is biased and won’t cooperate. He talks of being at executions and the toll it takes on him.

Why does he do it? Why does he risk his own life, the lives of his colleagues (EJI gets regular bomb threats), his health and his personal life to help the defenseless?

It is his brokenness that seeks the brokenness in others and makes him not only sympathize with them, but truly empathize. He becomes personally close to the people he’s trying to help. He and Mr. McMillian continue their friendship long after the latter has been exonerated and released from death row. The children Mr. Stevenson writes about could be his own children.

The notion of the wounded healer goes back to Jesus at least. But for all that, Mr. Stevenson sound like a young man, rather than the 56-year-old he is. His enthusiasm, his passion for what he does, rings out in his voice. To see pictures of him escorting Mr. Hinton out of prison, you’d barely guess the psychic pain his chosen work puts upon him.

Most telling of all, even the men he couldn’t save thank him with all their hearts for caring about them.

When Mr. Stevenson was a teen-ager, his grandfather was murdered by young men intent on stealing a black and white TV. You might think he would have dedicated his lives to victims. But to his way of thinking, the people he defends are victims themselves.

I wrote recently about the urgent need to do away with the death penalty. It is clear that statistics about the use of the death penalty in the US compared with other nations and statistics about the number of innocent people who have been executed or on death row, or the statistics about mentally challenged or brain-damaged people who have been executed, are not having an effect on our society.

While listening to Mr. Stevenson’s book, it came to me that anyone who supports the death penalty should have to witness some executions. Then they should spend a lot of time reflecting on their own brokenness so they can learn to empathize with the brokenness in others.

“God forgive them, they know not what they do,” Jesus said on the cross of his crucifiers. I believe that states that sanction the death penalty know exactly what they’re doing and do it anyway. God may forgive them; I can’t.

The Moral Universe – Carrying MLK’s Cross

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Perhaps it is appropriate that the commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. comes on Holy Saturday this year.

We know that Dr. King was a real human being, with faults that have been sometimes too eagerly made public. But that he was a martyr in the cause of civil rights, no one can deny.

There was a time when I couldn’t stand to listen to old fogies say, “I remember where I was when. . .” Now I’m that old fogy. On April 4, 1968, I was 15 years old. We had an early dinner, and my parents took me to the neighboring town for the second night of a talent show that I was in. Ordinarily, we would have been at home with the television news on, but this night we had to forego that ritual.

My “talent” was playing the piano, which I didn’t do extraordinarily well. While I had taken piano lessons, I had never studied long pieces, a whole sonata, for example. So I had made up a medley of “Für Elise” by Beethoven and “Lara’s Song” from “Dr. Zhivago.” Despite my lack of exceptional talent, another mother tried to have me disqualified because her daughter was playing “Für  Elise” (correctly, as it turned out).

My parents went out to the car after my turn came, but I hung out for a while. A thunderstorm had begun, and when I finally ran out to the car and jumped in, soaking wet, I at first thought the tears running down my mother’s face were a reflection of the rain on the windowsill. Then my father told me, in a solemn voice, “Martin Luther King’s been assassinated.”

By 1968, it had been about five years since television stations had started to take the civil rights movement seriously and broadcasting both the horrific (Freedom Riders buses being burned) and the triumphant (March on Washington) aspects of the movement. I had seen African-Americans being cannoned with water on the nightly news or being menaced by barely restrained dogs.

In my youthful liberality, I just couldn’t understand why black people were hated so much. I had yet to learn about the complexities of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, in both of which I myself have been complicit. It seemed very clear-cut to me when I was 15. I would sometimes pretend, while sitting in a hot bath, that I was speaking to the United Nations on behalf of all African-Americans and make the case that we were all equal and, foreshadowing Rodney King, why couldn’t we all get along?

In later years, I would feel embarrassment upon remembering this, until I learned that Stokely Carmichael and other founders of the Black Power movement, also went to the UN, believing that the racism in the US made of African-Americans another country that needed the UN’s protection.

mlkOn the program for this year’s inter-church Good Friday program is this quote from Dr. King: “Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil; a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

Oh Dr. King! Oh Medger Evers! Oh James Chaney! Oh Malcolm X! Oh Jimmy Lee Jackson! Oh Viola Liuzzi! Oh all the martyrs of the movement, would that 47 years ago this country had had the will to keep alive the ideals that you embodied; had had the will to protect the legislation that came out of each painful moment of your work; had truly believed that racism could be overcome; had understood that that creative force working to pull down the evil cannot do it without our participation because where there is free will, there will always be evil. If we do not align our wills to God, we cannot possibly reach the bright tomorrow.

My heart broke recently (it’s been breaking a lot lately) as I listened to an audio version of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography. His last chapter detailed the strides that had been made and his optimism for the future. I had come to feel as if I knew him intimately after listening to this very personal memoir, and I wanted to weep thinking of what he would make of our world today.

Barbara Harris, the first African-American woman Episcopal bishop, used to exhort us to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. Despair over the death of Dr. King and his dream is not an option. We must resurrect his dream on a daily basis. We must meet Jesus at the tomb every day and say, “Yes, Lord, we believe and we will spread your word and work unceasingly to bring your kingdom here on earth.” Let us not betray the martyrs, but fulfill the work that they started.

The Moral Universe – More About Selma

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I’m assuming most people who are interested have now seen “Selma,” and I don’t think this will have any spoilers if you haven’t.

Any movie about a historical event must of necessity conflate events in order to fit into a certain amount of time. “Selma” is no exception; the following is not meant to be criticism, but some background on the history that wasn’t shown.

Bernard Lafayette after a Freedom Ride beating

Bernard Lafayette after a Freedom Ride beating

Most important, to me, is that Bernard Lafayette is not even a minor character. Lafayette was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC [called Snick]) who, in 1963, established in Selma and its environs voting clinics where African-Americans were taught what they needed to know to register voters. Lafayette’s nickname was “Little Gandhi” because of his dedication to the nonviolent ideal. He and his fellow field workers faced a lot of threats, up to and including death, doing what they did, but they did it quietly and without fanfare.

So there was a major effort to register voters in Selma long before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. King set their sights on it. I revere Dr. King, don’t get me wrong, but there was a long-standing feeling on the part of SNCC that it started the work that got them beaten and killed and then the SCLC rode in as if a project was its idea alone. True, there was a need for the high-profile Dr. King in order to get television news stations to pay attention, but it was SNCC that integrated lunch counters and SNCC members who risked their lives as Freedom Riders and SNCC that had organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi the year before Selma, when three workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

When Lafayette left Selma, he left the voting clinics in the capable hands of Amelia Boynton, a black businesswoman. She is portrayed in the movie by Lorraine Toussaint and only speaks in a scene that is probably invented with Coretta Scott King. In fact she had been on the front lines for some time as well. (You may have noted that she was honored during the State of the Union address this week.) In one of the marches to the courthouse, a photographer got a picture that has become iconic of her being hustled along the sidewalk by Sheriff Clark. At the Bloody Sunday march, she was beaten so severely that she was left for dead; in the movie, John Lewis rescues her. He did not actually do that, suffering as he was from a fractured skull. He and Hosea Williams were the first to feel the posse’s batons. An unknown person rescued Mrs. Boynton, and thanks to that person, she has now reached the age of 107.

The antagonism between SNCC and SCLC is addressed in one short scene that makes SNCC chairman John Lewis and executive director James Forman look like sullen kids. In the scene, SCLC leaders such as Dr. King, Andrew Young, and Hosea Williams confront Lewis (remarkable look-alike Stephan James) and James Forman to try to talk it out. In real life, Lewis revered (and still does) Dr. King and made a painful decision to go along with the SCLC’s plans for a march from Selma to Montgomery; this cost him the respect of colleagues in SNCC because many were fed up with the nonviolent approach and in fact were founding the Black Panther right about the same time.

James Forman and Dr. King

James Forman and Dr. King

Forman did not join the Black Panther movement, but he was fed up with what he saw as the SCLC’s grandstanding. It would have been a nice touch, I think, had the actor who played Forman been dressed in the SNCC field uniform of bibbed overalls and white shirt. He was rarely seen out of those clothes. Bob Moses had started dressing that way when he was the first SNCC field worker to go into dangerous territory to try to register black voters; the feeling was that rural blacks who were poor would be afraid to talk to someone dressed in a suit and tie, which was the uniform for integrating lunch counters and bus stations.

Jimmy Lee Jackson died several days after he was shot twice by a state trooper in a diner while trying to protect his mother. It is unclear whether he was involved in the protests at all, but his death is what pushed James Bevel of the SCLC to suggest the march.

Bevel, played by Common, had been at Fisk University with John Lewis, where SNCC was created but had not been involved in the early days, preferring to enjoy the good life of dating pretty girls in his spare time. The most beautiful girl in the world, Diane Nash, joined SNCC and it may be that her influence brought Bevel in. After the couple married, they worked for the SCLC rather than SNCC. They were married at the time that the movie covers, though the movie suggests that they didn’t know each other well. In fact, the marriage was not going well, and they would eventually divorce.

I mentioned last week the important role played by New York Times reporter Roy Reed in bringing the eyes of the world to Selma. A piece of movie trivia: Reed is in the film as a sort of Greek chorus/moral compass of all that is going on, shown at various times on the phone relaying stories to the NYT.

Martin Sheen in "Gandhi"

Martin Sheen in “Gandhi”

Martin Sheen played a very similar role in “Gandhi,” though his character was a composite of reporters. But he is shown in the same circumstances, on telephones letting the rest of the world know that Gandhi’s nonviolent followers were being beaten by the Raj.

And Martin Sheen plays a pivotal role in “Selma” as Judge Johnson, who had to approve a permit for the march to take place. While the real Judge Johnson was no fan of integration, he was a fair jurist and granted the permit.

I also recommended last week three sources of information (I know there’s a lot more out there) about the history of Bloody Sunday: Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, John Lewis’s Walking with the Wind and March the most excellent PBS series by Henry Hampton, “Eyes on the Prize.” Since last week, the imminent release of March 2, Lewis’ second graphic novel about the civil rights movement, was announced. I think we can’t know too much about the history of the movement; even with what we do know, tragic history has repeated itself. That loop has to be broken.

The Moral Universe – What Happened at Port Chicago was not Mutiny

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It seems impossible to start a new post without referring to current events. It is more important than ever, I believe, that white people understand the twisted history of the African-American experience in the United States. While many of the tragedies have led to civil rights legislation, the cumulative effect of this history has left scars on millions of our fellow citizens.

My friend Don told me about the Port Chicago incident last Labor Day weekend, and the subject has been on my “write about” list since. It was the release of Steve Sheinkin’s book on CD for young adults that finally spurred me to get down to business.

Port Chicago bookcoverThe Port Chicago 50 is a short and concise history of the explosion and the mutiny trial of 50 African-American sailors, a perfect read or listen for young people and adults as well. Read by Dominic Hoffman, it would make a good project for Black History Month. (Even though it is American history, I doubt you’ll ever find it in a regular history textbook.)

During World War II, thousands of African-American men were ready, willing and eager to sign up for military service. Joe Small went with a friend to a recruitment center to enlist in the Army. It was late in the day and the white officer was in a hurry to close the office. He signed Joe’s friend up for the Army and Joe for the Navy. He did not tell Joe that the Navy was segregated and that black men could only serve as mess workers and would never actually go to sea.

Joe was assigned to Port Chicago, at the time an isolated Naval Magazine outside of San Francisco. There he was assigned, along with other black servicemen, to load live ammunition and bombs onto ships. Joe was a born leader, and the other men looked up to him and often sought his advice; he became the foreman of his group. None of them was happy that the white officers often bet each other as to whose group could load the ammunition fastest. The sailors had had no training in loading live ammunition at all, and an offer by a San Francisco teamsters’ group to come instruct them was turned down by the Navy.

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The remains of the SS Quinault Victory. The SS E.A. Bryan was completely disintegrated by the blast.

On July 17, 1944, around 10 pm, during a loading session, a bomb went off, killing most every sailor nearby and even civilians in the town of Port Chicago while also rattling windows in San Francisco. The SSEA Bryan, carrying 4,600 tons of ammunition already, and the SS Quinault Victory, carrying 430 tons of bombs, were blown sky-high. The blast sent up a 30-foot wall of water. Of the 320 killed, 202 were black enlisted men. Of the 390 injured, 233 were black enlisted men. (These facts come from the American Merchant Marine at War website, www.usmm.org.)

After the blast, the black sailors were ordered back to work. On the parade ground, Joe and his group of 250 men stood still. One officer after another came out to harangue them, and 200 of the men eventually went back to work. Fifty men were detained in a barracks while the Navy tried to figure out what to do with them.

joe smallThe detained men held a meeting at which Joe was the unofficial chair. They decided to continue to refuse the load ammunition, saying that they were scared to do so because nothing about the operation had changed and another explosion could happen at any time.

The 50 were court-martialed on charges of mutiny. In fact, the military definition of mutiny was based on not just refusing orders, but actually attempting to take over the authorities and establish the mutineers’ own authority. The fact that the men had held a meeting indicated conspiracy, said the prosecutor, Lieut. Cmdr. Joseph Coakley, despite the fact that the men all volunteered to serve in active duty or any other duty than loading live ammunition.

Lieut. Gerald Veltmann’s defense of the 50 failed and they were all sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, appealed the verdict, but it was upheld.

Attempts were made over the years to exonerate and/or pardon the black sailors over the years. In 1999, President Clinton did pardon Freddie Meeks, 80 years old at the time. Mr. Meeks, one of the last surviving members of the 50, was grateful. However, a pardon is not the same as having the conviction overturned, and there are still activists who would like to see this happen.

The Navy was desegregated in 1945.