Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

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.





Looking for America — again …

“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/ They’ve all come to look for America … America …”

~ Paul Simon

But the place where I’m looking for America these days is not the New Jersey Turnpike.  Life here in Rockbridge County, VA is never dull. On the one hand, you have breathtaking views and a county seat of some 8,000 inhabitants of whom perhaps 25 are published authors.

There are two nationally known colleges –Washington & Lee University  and  Virginia Military Institute – both of which annually rank high in the ubiquitious US News & World Report liberal arts colleges ratings.

As Labor Day signals the start of a new school year,  tomorrow’s opening convocation speakers will be  Charles R Johnson at W&L, award-winning philosopher and scholar, whose novel  Middle Passage is being staged as a theater production in Chicago this fall; and at VMI, renowned foreign-policy observer and best-selling author Robert D. Kaplan.

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But scratch our polished surface and you’ll find a county where Trump-Pence lawn signs abound; where typically the town votes blue and the county votes red; and where both colors surface together pretty frequently in the form of the Confederate battle flag on T-shirts, trucks and alas, even flagpoles.

And that’s why I’m currently reading Hillbillly Elegy by J.D. Vance, recently interviewed on NPR’s” Fresh Air.”  I’ve said before how much of what’s happening in our country right now can be explained by the long-suppressed rage of  Angry White Men (another book touted on NPR). I cited Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War as the best explanation yet of why we’re in this mess: Why Donald Trump can incite riots at rallies; why we can’t rein in police departments run amok; why – fifty years after we thought we’d declared human rights as our nation’s civil rights — we are still struggling to leave a deeply stained past behind.

Yesterday in neighboring Buena Vista  — once the thriving industrial hub of our rural county, now the crossroads of Appalachia and post-industrial America – the Labor Day parade featured a near-life-sized figure of Donald Trump astride a rearing acrylic white stallion on a truck-drawn float. The parade’s slashes of red and blue  just served to underline in bold strokes  the deep divides in this deceptively pastoral county:  We have “from heres” and “come heres” ; multigenerational farm families who raise bees and know how to fix a tractor, and double-degree  academicians; mainstream Christians and fundamentalist evangelicals; people who support gay marriage and people who attend Tea Party gatherings. You name it, we have it: atheists, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews;  descendant of settlers from the 1700s and newly arrived Congolese refugees struggling with English … we are, in short, in this tiny community, a perfect microcosm of our strife-torn, battle-weary nation.

Pretty much the only thing we haven’t done here so far is start shooting each other – credit all of us for maintaining the frayed surface of civility, but it’s wearing thin. And that’s why I am reading Hillbilly Elegy. Because J.D. Vance explains how and why his “hill people” aren’t doing so well. How they left the destitution of eastern Kentucky to fan out across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, to Chicago and Detroit and beyond—to give their children a shot at the American Dream, and how that Dream turned its back on them. Why they are angry, and sick, and weary beyond telling.

Like Bageant, Vance acknowledges that the woes of impoverished  post-Appalachian whites are often self-inflicted. They cling to family even in dysfunction; they are too proud to ask for help;  they often blame everyone else for their failure; and – thanks to the post-World War II industrial boom — they are now spread all the way across this country. Their religion, what’s left of it, is and always was an angry, punitive Calvinist doctrine. They lack the community faith that has sustained black Americans through the worst adversity and the hope that propels arriving immigrants.

And that brings me to my plea:  Don’t judge, don’t excuse, but please read the background of what has brought us to this national divide, cynically manipulated by powerful interests. We know that the angry white  minority is just the lever those interests have long employed to keep the races, and more recently the entire nation, divided.

The crisis in this country IS a class war, and it has been in progress for a long time. It won’t be over unless and until everyone is included – whether we think they deserve it or not. And that means a national conversation that includes the out-of-work, down-and-out, gun-totin’ people of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia.

Read Hillbilly Elegy or Deer Hunting With Jesus.  Please.


Main Street and MLK

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Let me take you for a walk down Main Street.

There are four churches here on Main Street – the first is Manly Memorial Baptist, you see that one on the right, right up front. Manly is a local family name hereabouts and the Manly Mem. website will tell you this church community goes back to 1841 and is supporting work in the Ebola crisis today.

Right across the street from Manly Memorial is Buck’s Barber Shop in that little blue and white house. Main Street is a definite mix of architecture. You can’t see Manly’s dome in this photo, but it is impressive. The dome, I mean.

A ways down the street on the left is the United Methodist Church, where we had Girl Scout meetings in fifth grade and earned our Sewing badge. Across from there is the county administrative building – used to be a department store that when I was a little girl had separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored.” Next to that is the library, and just down the street on the right is Lexington Presbyterian Church, where T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson was an elder, even though he was still quite young, before the Civil War.

But the church whose steeple you can barely see, down near the foot of the Main Street hill, is the one I’m most interested in. It is the only church on Main Street founded by a black congregation, and it’s where we met on the night of Jan. 17 to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

And that birthday is the reason I took this picture from the viewpoint I did. I wanted you to see the flags. Maybe you can see that there are American flags and Virginia flags. There are no replicas of Confederate battle flags, and this was the subject of very heated debate a couple of years ago, when the Sons of Confederate Veterans went before City Council to request permission to hang replica flags on the city flag posts for Lee-Jackson Day, a Virginia state holiday that coincidentally falls on the Friday before MLK Day each year. It’s true that Lee-Jackson Day came first, but the Council said no. You can march carrying Confederate flags and wear Confederate grey. You can fly whatever flag you choose on your own property. But not on the city streets.

So the presence of the American and Virginia flags, which occupy every pole from the south end of town to the north and on across Veterans Bridge, are seen as a conscious statement of the city’s choice.

But the debate continues. Virginia Flaggers, as they are now known, picket periodically at the foot of the hill below Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried. This year’s Lee-Jackson Day parade began as usual at Jackson’s grave in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery at the south end of town and processed down Main Street to Lexington Presbyterian, where a memorial service was held. Civil War history lectures were advertised by the SCV on banners across Main Street , as were Martin Luther King celebrations, by Washington & Lee University, which had earlier removed Confederate flag replicas from the Lee Chapel, closed the chapel for renovations, and scheduled 10 days of events honoring King.

I went to the opening evening of the MLK celebration, a simple service that is held annually at First Baptist Church, that one at the foot of Main Street. A rock quintet known as the MLK Combo opened the evening with a stunning soul rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” The service consists of the reading, in sections, of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, interwoven with music by W&L’s three a cappella groups. It is moving beyond words. But the evening begins with the whole congregation/audience on its feet singing “We Shall Overcome.”

As we began to sing, an African-American woman across the aisle from me stepped into the aisle and held out her hand. I stepped into the aisle and took her hand in mine, then reached to my right and took my friend’s hand. Everyone around us and behind us joined hands, and we sang, “Deep in my heart, I do believe …”

And we sat down and listened as Dr. King’s words rolled out like a mighty river.

His dream still holds unfulfilled promise, and until his message is as present in the media and in our minds as are the scandals on college campuses or the gridlock in Congress, his work — and ours — is not done.

Meanwhile, I thank my neighbor for holding out her hand.