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.

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The Moral Universe – A Sermon for Bloody Sunday, March 8, 2015

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I take as my text Exodus: The Ten Commandments

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

“Heaven-rending words of the Spirit.” For Moses and the Israelites, God’s voice coming out of a thunderstorm saying, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER,” must indeed have been heaven-rending. Down through the millennia since that literally earth-shaking event, we have been reminded again and again, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” And the response of God’s people has been, of course we won’t murder, since you tell us not to. We believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Then Jesus came and turned the commandment upside down; “I give you a new commandment,” he told His disciples the night before His own murder, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And once again, for two thousand years followers of Jesus have said, of course we love one another because we believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Did we no longer murder? Did we, in fact, love one another, even as Jesus loves us? Or did we continue to murder, not only killing the physical bodies of others, but also killing the spiritual lives of those who didn’t fit into our society.

I hope that everyone knows that this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of African-Americans were savagely and with impunity beaten by law enforcement officials and their deputized racist thugs for trying to cross a bridge and walk to the state capital in Montgomery.

What irony that that bridge was named for a Confederate general who, during Reconstruction, became grand wizard of a Ku Klux Klan klavern.

Congressman John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, survivors of Bloody Sunday, were on that bridge yesterday with the President. Both were severely injured in 1965; the now 97-year-old Amelia Boynton left for dead until an unknown person carried her to safety and an aid station. Mr. Lewis, 25 years old at the time, was already a survivor of many beatings during efforts to integrate lunch counters and bus stations and then, on March 7, 1965, as a leader of the march, one of the first to be attacked, his skull was fractured.

Though set in the context of the struggle for voting rights for African Americans, the immediate motivation for the march was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old church deacon in Marion, Alabama, who was engaged in a peaceful protest when state troopers attacked. Jimmie and his mother and his grandfather ran in Mack’s Café, hoping to get out of the maelstrom. Two or three troopers stormed the café, threw Jimmie’s grandfather to the floor and started hitting his mother. Jimmie intervened. He was unarmed. He was shot. He died several days later.

Would that we were celebrating this weekend the end of such acts by those who call themselves Christians against people who do not fit into their idea of what society should be.

Would that the Voting Rights Act that came out of Bloody Sunday stood today in its original form instead of having every important nuance removed from it almost a year ago.

Would that Selma has not been reenacted again and again in the last 50 years, yet without liberating legislation arising out of it.

Would that people of faith really believed in the commandment, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and that white Christians really followed Jesus’ commandment to love one another even as Jesus loves us.

One hopes, no, I know that you don’t have to be a Christian to believe this is wrong. If we only believed this was wrong because we are Christians, we would be very weak Christians indeed. You don’t have to be a Christian to know right from wrong.

But, if we claim to be Christians, then we claim each and every day that we love one another. When we wake up and when we go to bed and every moment in between, we tacitly say that we believe that we should love one another; that we believe Jesus when He told us to heal, to feed, to cloth, to sustain, to nourish body and soul of all those whom society marginalizes.

Yet we have allowed the outrages of history to be committed in our Christian names. The first enslaved Africans were brought to this country in the early 17th century by white Christians. They were sold to white Christians. They were owned by white Christians. They were brutalized by white Christians. They tilled the soil of white Christian plantations and picked the cotton of white Christian fields. After Emancipation, they were tortured and lynched by white Christians, denied economic rights by white Christians, denied housing rights by white Christians and, ultimately, denied life by white Christians.

(At this point, I showed pictures of Jimmy Lee Jackson, George Stinney, Viola Liuzzo, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin.)

The details in the report that came out of Ferguson this week are not peculiar just to Ferguson. Ferguson is a microcosm of cities and towns North and South, East and West, where such abuses are happening.

Did you know that right here in Berkshire County, confederate flag decals are appearing on trucks? Someone is putting them on children’s lockers at Monument Mountain and in other schools in the county.

All of my church life, I have been told that Lent is a time to resist temptation, as Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness. But what, I have to ask myself, does my not having potato chips for 40 days do for the good of the world? I was also told, in my early catechism, that every time I lied or did not obey my parents or fought with my siblings (these were the stock sins) that Jesus’ cross became heavier. I was never taught to think of myself as a part of history, about collective guilt and collective responsibility and being part of atonement and repentance for the sins of all mankind. Shouldn’t this be as important a part of Lent as giving up meat or not watching TV. Would it not be more worth our while to think of our collective roles in the oppression of a huge population of our country, to ask God for forgiveness for the collective sins of the white race, and to show true repentance by take an active part in righting the wrongs of history?

Implied with the commandment YOU SHALL NOT MURDER is the commandment to do what one can to prevent murder. Implicit with the commandment to love one another as Jesus love us is the commandment to fight against whatever denies that love to another. We cannot obey one commandment without obeying the other.

If we are Christians, then we simply MUST be part of the Beloved Community that early civil rights leaders envisioned. We MUST join hands with everyone who would work to undo the systemic, institutionalized racism that still exists in our country and walk where we have to again and again and again until we do, truly, show that we are Christians by our love.

I chose the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the song of the day because before Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics we know today, the hymn was an homage to John Brown. Frederick Douglass called John Brown the only white man he’d ever met who really saw no difference between himself and a black man. During the Civil War, African-American contrabands who sought the safely of Union regiments starting humming a song about John Brown. The lyrics were made up as they went along, but the melody and the sentiment spread like wildfire among the African-Americans and then to Union soldiers. “His truth” referred to John Brown’s truth that a nation that enslaved people was a nation without a soul. Julia Ward Howe transformed the informal homage into a hymn that captures the thunderstorm out of which God spoke to the Israelites. YOU SHALL NOT MURDER. Amen.

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 – “Selma”: Teach the Children Well

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Having had a week now to live with “Selma,” and having listened to the soundtrack several times, I have to say that it is the most important movie I have seen in a very long time.

To label a film “important” may seem similar to telling someone that their blind date has a nice personality, but I mean it most sincerely. It is good movie-making as well as chronicling an epic turning point in American history; it is timely, compelling, inspiring, and if I could afford it, I would pay for every middle school student in my state to see it.

As the newly elected treasurer of the Berkshire chapter, NAACP, I am very proud to say that we are helping to finance middle school students in the county to see this movie and have received commitments from two major cinemas to hold it over for two weeks to accomplish this.

I pray that every middle school in the nation is planning to find similar ways for students to see this movie and then follow it up with a Black History Month project on the Civil Rights movement in general.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay could not have predicted that our supposedly “post-racial” country would come apart at the seams in the summer of 2014; it can be assumed that her movie’s opening was meant to herald the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 2015. However, Selma’s painful events were echoed in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island in the just-past sorrowful year, and one can’t help but draw comparisons.

In fact, the song that is played at the end of the movie (which has been nominated for an Oscar) and must have been written late into the post-production work. “Glory,” written and performed by rapper Common and John Legend, refers to Ferguson and is a blend of rap and gospel music that is simply beautiful. It was one of only two awards I was excited about during the Golden Globes (the other was Michael Keaton winning for “Birdman.”)

For me, who’s watched many documentaries and read countless versions of Bloody Sunday in Selma, the biggest significance of the film is that it introduces the pantheon of heroes and heroines of the movement to young people who might otherwise never know anything more about the subject. I am including young African-Americans, who may be in desperate need of heroes and heroines right now. “Selma” should be a jumping off point to studying the entire period from 1960 to 1965 at least.

Anyone who wants to read more should get Taylor Branch’s second volume of his three-part series about the Martin Luther King Jr. year, specifically pages 552 through 600 of “Pillar of Fire.” It follows step by step the timeline and important details of the voting rights work in Selma once Dr. King became involved.

Congressman John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind, is also an important source from one of the last living survivors, and key players, in the Selma march and the movement in general. Much was happening in Alabama on voting rights long before Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference got involved, and Congressman Lewis was in on it from the beginning as a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Another important source is “Eyes on the Prize,” a 1980s 14-hour PBS series by documentarian Henry Hampton. The whole series is must-see viewing for anyone who thinks of themselves as culturally literate; the final instalment is just about Selma and will move you in many ways.

That Ms. DuVernay was not nominated as Best Director and David Oyelowo not nominated as Best Actor is an indictment of the white male majority of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. “Selma” was nominated as “Best Picture,” but seems like somewhat of an appeasement nomination. Every piece of the movie comes together to present not only one of the saddest days of our history but also a glorious day when the Voting Acts Right was signed.

Roy Reed

Roy Reed

I’m going to address in another blog some of the history that had to be conflated to make a two-hour movie. But a special, personal note that I have to insert: A New York Times reporter named Roy Reed is portrayed in the movie by actor John Lavelle. Mr. Reed’s actual reportage is used to narrate the Bloody Sunday stampede of Sheriff Clark’s posse toward the marchers on March 7, 1965. Mr. Reed is the father of a dear friend and I have met him on a few occasions, but at a time when I was not well acquainted with his history. His reporting helped people in the North to understand the travesty of racism in Alabama and also helped to bring people flocking to Selma to try the march again.

So having met Congressman Lewis in August, I now have two touchstones to Selma, living history that, I hope, will keep me committed to this effort.

The Moral Universe – “Right” is the Operative Word in Voting Rights

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It will be 50 years in March since President Johnson announced that he would be sending a Voting Rights Act to Congress. The date of March 15, 1965, is particularly significant as the date on which he told the nation this news.

Just over a week earlier, a group of black Selma, Alabama, residents and a mixture of civil rights groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery in protest of weeks of brutality from Sheriff Jim Clark and his fascistic goons. John Lewis and Hosea Williams were leading the march, which was met by Clark and state troopers. They received the first beatings of many that were delivered that day. Despite years of beatings, Lewis was for the first time hospitalized with a fractured skull.

lbjOutrage tore through the country, and sympathizers demonstrated in other major cities. President Johnson had been hesitant to move on voting rights, but he couldn’t avoid the issue any longer.

Some say the address he gave on March 15 was the finest speech he’d ever written.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.

Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes….

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.

We must now act in obedience to that oath.

To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their home communities—who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections—the answer is simple. Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

You can view a video of LBJ giving this speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxEauRq1WxQ

In less than two weeks, thousands of voters in states that a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act was meant for may not be allowed to vote. The overwhelming majority of them will be minorities.

Ian Millhiser elucidates beautifully the problem with the SCOTUS decision to reinstate Texas’ draconian voter ID in an article on “Think Progress”; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed up all night to write a dissent to the decision. I won’t try to interpret for you Mr. Millhiser’s argument; it can be read here: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/10/18/3581589/the-dangerous-legal-rule-behind-the-supreme-courts-voter-id-order/

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Ian Millhiser

Mr. Millhiser’s main point is that “Voter ID laws are voter suppression laws.” They are Jim Crow at its worst. President Johnson himself warned that there would be people seeking to use “ingenious” means of skirting around the law. But when members of the Supreme Court itself use such means to skirt laws that are at the very foundation of Constitutional rights, something is very, very wrong.

This is not just a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats. This is a matter of racists being allowed to control the destiny of millions of Americans. This is not just Jim Crow at its worst, it is also pre-1865 in intent.

I am white. I first voted in 1974, for George McGovern. I always vote in town, state, and national elections, so I have been to the polls many, many times. I have never once been asked to show ID at a polling place. The worst thing that ever happened to me at a polling place was when a local gossip who was a poll worker yelled personal information about me across the room. That hurt me at the time, but I would rather it happen to me a million times before fellow Americans, fellow human beings, were denied their right to vote.

In the words of a beloved fictional activist, Billy Kwan, “What then must we do?”

We must protest. We must have the Voter Rights Act reinstated in full with Section Five restored. We must call and write our congressmen; start petitions online, do whatever our particular talents are to make this right.

I pray for all of those people voting in the coming days, that all will cast their vote safely. I pray that there will be poll monitors in Texas and Alabama and Mississippi. I pray that, amidst all the other pressing issues facing us today, we will rise up and demand justice. Pass this blog on; share it with your friends; form a group; be heard.

President Johnson ended his 1965 speech, “We shall overcome,” echoing the civil rights movement’s anthem. I say, we must overcome or the soul of this nation will die.