Tag Archives: civil rights

John Lewis is my hero

 

And he has been for a long time. Today’s New Yorker article by David Remnick testifies to some of the reasons why.

The link above should take you to Remnick’s essay. Meanwhile:

John Lewis came to the military college in my small hometown here almost two years ago to accept a civil rights award. Many of us townsfolk went to Virginia Military Institute’s big sports arena to witness the event, so proud that even in this Southern mountain town, we have come a ways.

Not far enough yet, as Lewis himself has made clear. But on Saturday, about 700 people marched peacefully through our town in memory of Martin Luther King’s message to the nation, and in an expression of  community and inclusiveness. It was that, and more. The next evening — last night — several hundred of us were privileged to hear Diane Nash give the MLK Day address at our other college, Washington & Lee University.

There’s irony here — Robert E. Lee is buried on the W&L campus — but we want to get past that. Ms. Nash — who as a college sophomore decades ago was a chief organizer of the Freedom Rides — spoke about her life,  about Dr. King and her association with him, and about how the civil rights movement in her view was created and carried out by people who refused to accept oppression. She spoke of “agapic energy,” the energy that enables you to get past hating your opponent and to target the institutions and beliefs that keep oppression in place.

This was just one day after both  the CARE Initiative march honoring King and the by now customary showing of Confederate flags were captured by the New York Times in a video — https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/us/parades-lexington-virginia-martin-luther-king-jr-robert-e-lee.html. That didn’t faze Ms. Nash, who is entirely equal to facing down a flag and much more.  But for us who remain behind, it was a reminder that we’re not in that “place just right”  — not just yet.

And so, John Lewis. Once again this man who has walked so many miles for freedom and justice — who has walked with the wind and against it and has never faltered — once again this man, in the fullness of his years, is talking with his feet. He is not attending the inauguration of a man who has mocked the disabled, women, and people of all races other than his own.

Here’s an excerpt from Remnick, quoting Lewis:

Testifying at Sessions’s confirmation hearing, Lewis said, “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’s call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then.”

“We’ve made progress, but we are not there yet,” he continued. “There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. As the late A. Philip Randolph, who was the dean of the March on Washington, in 1963, often said, ‘Maybe our forefathers and our foremothers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.’ It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who’s going to stand up and speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who are being discriminated against.”

So we still have work to do.  And Ms. Nash has the recipe, which she shared last night with students, professors and townspeople: Investigate. Make your plan. Hit the streets. Keep at it.   And love your enemy, because the energy of love is the most powerful and the only reliable force we have going for us. Agapic energy. Onward.

 

 

 

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Jim Webb, Joe Bageant, Harper Lee, and the rest of us

Yeah, I really wish Jim Webb hadn’t dropped out of the race so fast.

I am living next door to the heart of Appalachia, 12 miles from where Jim Webb’s grandparents are buried.

So when Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Joe Bageant, Three Rivers Press, 2007) showed up in our local bookstore, I bought a copy.

You should too. It will explain a lot about why Donald Trump is shattering the GOP; why we have unfettered mass shootings nationwide; why our schools are failing, race is still an issue, and people are living in deteriorating double-wides.

Jim Webb understands all of that. So does Joe Bageant. It’s about class warfare and Calvinism. And so – oh, yeah – it also explains Ted Cruz and a bunch of other stuff. Read the book. Please.

Webb and Bageant both grew up on the edge of America. The poor white edge. Both transcended the world they were born to. Both understand that even that world, with its fingernail grip on the phantom of the American Dream, no longer exists.

And in a nutshell, folks, that’s our problem. That’s why our fellow citizens are flocking to Trump.

America is broken. And until we fix it, we are all screwed, as surely as the disenfranchised lower LOWER middle class men and women who used to work the night shift at Rubbermaid in Winchester, VA, like Joe Bageant’s family.

I don’t have a solution, and neither does Bageant – but at least he can give you a complete understanding of the problem. And if Jim Webb could have gained any traction, I thought he might have been able to help us solve it.

Here’s the thing: Up through the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, the poorest whites in America were kept in check by the belief that they were better than African Americans, and that if they just sucked it up long enough, they – the poor white class – would be allowed to rise into the middle class. And sometimes that happened. They knew that the implicit, complicit, immoral but handy race divide insured that THEY would never be at the bottom of the heap. So they had hope.

This is something that Harper Lee understood very well. In the wake of her death, her bifurcated take on Atticus Finch has been in the news again. His daughter Scout’s Uncle Jack, in Go Tell a Watchman, sums it up this way: “Up popped Tobacco Road … For years and years, all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin … he sits nursing his hangover of hatred … Look at the rest of the country. It’s long since gone by the South in its thinking. America’s a brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning the Industrial Revolution.”

That’s Ms. Lee’s take on the South of the 1960s. But what Bageant explains – and Jim Webb very well understands – is how in the wake of globalization, even that hope is gone. As it should be, all things considered – because it was ALWAYS a class war. It was always a class war. It was just disguised as a race war.

The real kicker, as Bageant explains, is that the poorest white class who were concentrated in one place and had been here the longest – in the American South and every place it has now reached to — are of Calvinist descent. THAT means that they believe – again, in a nutshell – that if they are not succeeding, it is because they have sinned.

Conversely, if they see someone succeeding – someone like Jerry Falwell or Donald Trump – they KNOW that he is living in God’s grace.

The irony, of course, is that it brings them to follow, vote for, and believe in the very class that is exploiting them. They believe what they hear from those who’ve succeeded at their expense. The class war that might have led them to unionize, or at least protest – and to get to know people of other races who are fighting the same injustices – that war has virtually been lost.

By now it is all probably completely unconscious and subliminal. But it is THERE. And it explains a lot: Fox News. Donald Trump. Even mass shootings. The despair and anger that have no viable outlet.

Bageant explains how, in his hometown, the local people of means manipulate exhausted Rubbermaid workers by their superior knowledge of who and what you should be voting for – and also by covert intimidation. Those few exhausted workers who still DO have jobs are getting less pay and fewer benefits than of old. And their jobs could go abroad most any time.

The rest of the populace is working two or three jobs without any benefits or job security, and they are way too exhausted to think through what their “betters” are telling them.

It doesn’t fool Bageant. Or Webb. And it will continue to haunt us until someone actually figures out a viable, practical way to make America whole again. Clinton? Sanders? It’s a tall order.

Where is that FDR guy when you need him?

Selma and Beyond; Honoring John Lewis

Fifty years since Selma, since the Edmund Pettus Bridge, thoughts of all that we all have been through are news. They’re also in our hearts and minds as we see the film SELMA, as we read the newspapers, perhaps as we catch a sound bite of President Obama speaking on that bridge.

So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats on Wednesday in Virginia Military Institute’s Cameron Hall to witness an award being given to Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman, and so much more. A man who in his own words has walked with the wind. Son of sharecroppers. Civil rights leader on that fateful Bloody Sunday on the bridge, and for all the years since. We expected eloquence. He gave us that and a whole lot more – humor, inspiration, and a challenge not to forget who we are and what this country’s promise has always been.

He said:

  • When he was a child, and he’d see the signs of segregation everywhere – “White” – “Colored” on the signage and in the faces and the body language of everyone around him – he’d ask his parents, “WHY?” They’d tell him, Don’t make waves. Don’t ask questions. Be a good boy and stay out of trouble.
  • But sometimes you have to make trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Martin Luther King, he said, made good trouble. Necessary trouble. So did young Jonathan Myrick Daniels, VMI graduate, seminary student, civil rights activist. Daniels was the reason John Lewis was with us that day. More on that shortly. But John Lewis also said,
  • “I thought I would die on that bridge that day” as the billy club came down and the horses surged forward. “I thought I saw death that day. I thought I saw death.”
  • What we did – what he and King and Daniels and so many others did in those tumultuous, too often fatal years, yet years of hope and progress, what THEY did “saved the soul of America.”

John Lewis was there to receive the Jonathan M. Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award from VMI. It is only the fourth time it has been given in almost 20 years. Earlier recipients were Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, and international humanitarian Dr. Paul Hebert.

Jonathan Daniels was working in civil rights in Alabama, outside of Selma, when he gave his life to take the gunshot intended for a 17-year-old African American, one of his fellow protesters. Ruby Sales went on to attend theological seminary, work as a social activist, and found SpiritHouse in Washington, DC.

John Lewis also reminded us that we must not say we haven’t made progress. Those signs, those “White” and “Colored” signs, he said, will not be seen again except in museums. Books. Films. And the young men and women of VMI who sat listening, he said, must carry it on.

If anyone can say this now, in spite of Ferguson, in spite of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, in spite of all we see around us, it is John Lewis.

We hear you, Congressman Lewis. This country was founded on great promise with a subtext fabric of some lies. Can we now unveil them, confront them, lay them to rest? And do we start making the necessary trouble?

The Silent Bricks…. of Lexington

I’ll preface this by saying that in all the years I lived away from here, there was probably never a day I didn’t think at some point of the brick sidewalks of my hometown. They are not just any bricks, physically or symbolically. They’re from the 19th century. They were cast and baked here. We all recognize their patterns, because they are in our souls. They are part of what called me back to this town in the mountains of Virginia.

My friend Beverly Tucker describes them more eloquently than I could have imagined. In doing so she speaks not only of the bricks in our village’s historically wealthy streets but also of those up in what was the African American quarter of town, on Diamond Hill. Here’s what she has to say:

Strolling through the village one is struck by the uniqueness of the pathways and walks. The walks are paved with bricks specifically designed for Lexington, Virginia (otherwise known to us as “ the village”) and are appropriately referred to as the “Lexington bricks.” They are subtle in appearance, dignified in their silence, a dignity earned through the most difficult measures. If one should be inclined to notice the symbolism that links Lexington’s African American community to those pathways, the metaphor presents itself obviously.

The brick walks have been present there in their role of quiet support… as leaders… as followers… deeply grooved… only to be worn so smooth that their original form often fades to tiny rises and falls apparent only to the touch. They have been relocated, walked on, written on, spat on, broken, cracked, bought and sold.

In perfect response and form, they remain strong and true to purpose. They have felt the heel marks of history, slept under the snow, baked in the sun, enjoyed the spattering of afternoon thunderstorms, been kissed by the sugar maple, blown over by the wind, and still they look up and remain unmoved from their strength.

The bond is greater for its historical journey to the final experience and safety on the hill called Diamond…. and they will be bound for as long as they last no matter the triumph or defeat that makes its way to their place. They have been fired to face adversity and endure. That strength and endurance is firmly stacked for us to make our way from here to there. Look down to see their provenance. Look up to see their prophecy. The silence can now be heard…………..