“Keep Alabama White”, Really?

On this Memorial Day weekend, rather than head off to Hilton Head Island as was the plan, Betty and I travelled due west from my home in Atlanta to the city of Birmingham, Alabama. I was privileged to be invited last week to a late afternoon lecture by Doug Jones, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. During Mr. Jones’ tenure, he led the prosecution team which successfully prosecuted the near 40 year-old cold case against two former KKK members who planted the bomb which killed four young girls attending services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. While the story of these murders is fairly well know even today (and painfully memorialized in Spike Lee’s film, 4 Little Girls), I was mesmerized by Mr. Jones for every minute of his ninety minute talk. Absolutely mesmerized. And thus our change of plans for at least part of the weekend.

Arriving at the church just three days after I had heard the story up close and personal was remarkable. Every bit as powerful an experience as I thought it might be. I had called in advance to make arrangements for a spot on the noon tour and we arrived just a few minutes late. Turns out not really late, as we forgot the time change as one crosses the Georgia/Alabama border. With almost an hour to pass before the tour began, we strolled through Kelly Ingram Park, the scene of so much of the civil rights battles — the water cannons, the vicious dogs — that took place in Birmingham.

The church bombing that occurred on September 15, 1963 was not an isolated event. There had been so many bombings that Birmingham had earned the ugly but appropriate nickname “Bombingham”. And during the months that led up to the murders, the heat had been turned up in the city. Led by the clergy and the SCLC, organized and peaceful protests including economic boycotts of white businesses that had refused to allow any semblance of integration had been met with vicious responses by both the KKK and the police. The center of much of the organized protests was the 16th Street Baptist Church. The fact that there was another bombing in Birmingham couldn’t have surprised anyone. The fact that a church was the location, even the 16th Street Church, could not have been shocking either. But the fact the four young girls were murdered in that bombing shocked the world.

One of the pictures we saw during our visit was of a group of angry white men, women, and children furiously protesting the integration of Birmingham schools. Unless you have seen these photos, you can’t imagine the hatred on these people’s faces. One woman was holding a sign that read: Keep Alabama White. There were uglier words on other signs, but for some reason, that one really struck me. At the time of the Civil War, almost half the population of Alabama was Black. In 1963, a full thirty percent of the state’s population was the same color. Keep Alabama White. Really?

 

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To pray or not to pray. Is that the question?

The Supreme Court is on a roll and not an especially good one in my opinion. (Note to reader: I hail from Philly, the home of really, really good rolls, so I know what I am taking about.) Yesterday, by a 5-4 vote, the Justices allowed Christian prayer at government meetings, saying that we have a tradition in this country of such prayers and that they are largely ceremonial. Well, I can’t argue with point number one, although I will note we have lots of traditions in this country that I wouldn’t brag about — race and gender bias being two that come to mind off the top of my head. As to the court’s second point, I both agree and disagree. I have lived in Atlanta for nine years now and almost every large and public meeting I attend opens with a prayer. That’s just part of life here and frankly, I have never been offended or bothered despite being of the Jewish faith. I am a Rotarian, for example, and we begin each weekly meeting with a prayer. In almost all of those prayers, the person offering words is careful to be inclusive and that’s a nice thing for sure, but even when they are not, it’s never been a big deal to me. One gets used to these things when growing up in a minority religion, or at least I have chosen to get used to them. On the other hand, overly Christian prayers are not, in my view, largely ceremonial. And when sponsored by my government, they are absolutely not ceremonial nor are they harmless.

Imagine for a minute a small town in somewhere USA where the majority of the citizens are Muslim. And the powers-to-be in this small town decide to open their monthly city hall meeting with a prayer to Allah. And imagine the Christians and Jews in the audience being asked to sit quietly by because the right to pray is both historical and ceremonial. Yeah, that would go over well. The truth is that to the majority, it feels ceremonial precisely because they are in the majority. To those in the minority, the exact group the separation of church and state was meant to protect, being required by our government to be subject to prayers to a God and faith in which they don’t believe will never just feel ceremonial. Never.

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Where have we gone from there?

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Ray was a segregationist who had volunteered for the campaign of George Wallace (who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and ran four times for President) and had dreams of emigrating to Ian Smith’s white-minority regime in Rhodesia.

I’ve been asked to participate next month on a panel sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that King helped to found. He went on to serve SCLC as its first president. Among the subjects of the discussion is the last book of King’s that was published before his death, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. While I had read excerpts before, I had never taken to time to read the book cover to cover. Shame on me. After completing it, I have to add shame on us.

While our country has certainly made progress in the last fifty years in the arena of civil rights and equal opportunity, there’s just too much that is familiar today to stand up and be all that proud of. As King wrote then, the absence of brutality is not the presence of justice. He continued: the majority of Americans consider themselves committed to the idea of justice for all, regardless of race, creed, or color. And they believed then (as they certainly do now) that America is a country that is essentially hospitable to fair play and equal opportunity. We are also inclined to engage in what he calls the fantasy of self-deception. We want so ardently to believe that certain things are true, that we decide they have to be true when reality loudly tells us otherwise.

King, in 1967, takes an inventory of equality and justice that includes access to decent housing, medical care, and education. He looks at educational attainment and college attendance and completion, employment rates and family income. He examines the issues of residential and educational segregation. Not surprisingly, back in the 60’s, on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the equality scorecard is miserable on every count. What’s utterly depressing is how little has changed a half a century later. Whether that is all that surprising depends, I imagine, on how deep our fantasy of self-deception is.

In Chapter 3, King begins to play the role of historian for us, recounting how deeply entrenched the roots of racism lie in America. And while he is very careful to note that not all of white America is racist by any means and to point out how much progress has been made on that front, he is also relentless about insisting we face our history. Slavery was a national institution on whose back the economic ascendency of this country was founded. Our Founding Fathers were, of course, deeply committed to the institution. And as we all know, God became the white man’s partner in crime in perpetuating this evil. Being a Black person in America, at the time of his writing and today, I would assert, means being scarred by the history of slavery and the history of intentional family disintegration that we engineered to go along with it. African families were first destroyed across the ocean and then again while crossing the ocean. They were divided on the auction block, by the abolition of the institution of marriage for slaves, and by rampant sexual abuse by slave masters. America is a country of immigrants, for sure, where people from other lands have come and met with varying degrees of success, but none were brought here in chains, burdened by the stigma of color, facing a vicious and calculated plan to destroy family life.

In the face of all this history, we insist now more than ever that that we live in a post-racial country. The schools our children attend are as segregated as they were at the time of King’s death. At the university level, we have seen a massive de-funding of public education over the last thirty years, with access to minority students to a quality education becoming more and more restricted. New voter ID laws are proliferating. It sure looks like to me that despite the symbolic majesty of such things as the election of our first African American President, we are heading backwards in so many ways. Like I said, shame on us.

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Is there another Southern narrative?

I was born in New York City, raised in Delaware, and spent the majority of my adult life in eastern Pennsylvania. I’ve only lived in the South for a decade, and in Atlanta at that. This past week, among the news from my home state, was the new vanity license plate adorned with the Confederate battle flag. This raised the scorn of many across the country and the support of others, particularly across the deep South. After all, the pro-flag narrative argued, shouldn’t the South be allowed to celebrate its heritage, part of which is, undeniably, the Civil War? I happen to fall on the scorn side of this debate, because celebrating the secession of the South in support of the institution of slavery is not among the things of which I would be all that proud. I understand there were many causes of the war and have, in fact, taught a semester-long course at my university examining those varied causes. But under any reading of history, preserving slavery was at the top of the list for the South to go to war.

My purpose here is not to replay that debate. Instead, I wonder whether there is not another southern narrative to which we can all proudly lay claim. Even though I am a transplant to the South, I love living here. So what does makes me appreciate life here (besides the weather and the best airport in the world)?

That is a real query, not one to which I already have a clearly articulated answer. I admit from the start that I don’t have the answer, but let me begin the conversation in a personal way, informed by my own experience. That experience of the South is primarily based upon life in Atlanta, but also stretches to the coast of Georgia where a second home sits, and plenty of travel across both urban and rural cities and counties inside and outside Georgia. When I consider why I have found living in the South so appealing and how I’ve come to appreciate the roots deeply tied to the southern heritage, two stories come to mind.

On one of my first official visits to a prominent foundation in town; my companion was the Board Chairwoman of our university. On the way up on the elevator, she reminded me very firmly what she expected of me. This was not Philadelphia or New York, where after an obligatory five minutes of making nice we would dive right into business. We would likely be given no more than an hour, but it was expected that we would spend at least half of that time off agenda, just talking. My partner clearly anticipated that I would get down to business at the first opening and, of course, she was right. That was exactly my plan. I recall the ride back down the elevator like it was yesterday. I started to whine the minute the doors shut. "Belle, we spent close to 75 minutes with him and we never, ever got to business". "Yes, Larry," she conceded, "and it was a perfect meeting." Within that story lies buried one of the things I have come to cherish about life here. It’s all about relationships. Not necessarily deeply intimate relationships, but real nonetheless. Most especially, a commitment to building those relationships is valued. I have sent far more hand-written thank-you notes in my time here than I did in all my years before I arrived (by a factor of 10,000). Good manners matter down here and at the age of fifty, I had to begin to learn how to become well-mannered.

The idea that life in the South is slower than up north is a myth, at least for those folks I know. I have never worked harder or longer. But work, I think, is defined a bit differently here. I have a breakfast meeting at seven-thirty almost every morning. I think the GAM (that would be the Grits Association of America) is behind the three eggs/side of waffles/ bowl of grits everyday breakfast conspiracy. Eating and work seem to go hand-in-hand down here. I also have a dinner event virtually every night where my new favorite food, shrimp and grits, is often on the menu. The grits conspiracy apparently extends into the evening. But the problem of overeating aside, breaking bread together is part of the way relationships are forged here.

I could tell more stories and I invite you to share some of your own, but allow me to move to the bigger question I have posed: is their a southern narrative other than one which lays proud claim to the Civil War? I think the answer here lies in a nostalgia for a simpler life, a life less corrupted by the influences of modernity. It lies in a deep attachment to family and to community, and to the values of community. That’s why, I believe, relationships matter as much as they do. That’s why sharing a meal, as one once did with one’s family, matters. It has to do with a yearning for a life that while no longer slower, still makes allowance for the attributes of a slower life. Those ideas emanate from the our collective southern heritage, whether one’s ancestors fought for the South or were victims of the prevailing southern culture. What do you think?

I invite readers to share their thoughts on this subject.

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There’s nothing remotely funny about the Duck Dynasty patriarch

The controversy over Phil Robertson’s racist and homophobic comments is the stuff made for Entertainment Tonight and the 24 hour cable news networks. The twittersphere (really?) has apparently gone wild or whatever such spheres do when a billion people tweet about something. Sarah Palin has weighed in, of course. How can A and E possibly take away his First Amendment Rights for just expressing his opinion? Palin has never been a student of the Constitution, but I’ll leave that for another day. At first blush, I will have to admit the whole controversy seemed a bit stupid, as silly and stupid as the premise of the hit show itself I guess.

I just left the movie theatre after having sat through an agonizing few hours watching “12 Years As A Slave”. I almost had to walk out half way through as witnessing the horror of slavery portrayed on the big screen is utterly devastating. And then juxtaposing this experience next to Robertson’s comments suggesting African-Americans were better off before the civil rights movement has made me feel ill. Sick to my stomach ill.

The issue here is not the First Amendment nor is it really whether A and E was right in suspending Robertson. For God’s sake, even Cracker Barrel has pulled their advertising dollars. No, the real issue is that far too many people in this country of ours honestly believe the exact thing Robertson gave voice to. Just look at the petitions circulating demanding his re-instatement. We do not live in a post-racial America. Race still matters in ways that ought to appall all Americans, but it doesn’t. We want to believe we have come further than we have and that, in my opinion, is horribly wrongheaded and dangerous.

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These 32 People Are Spending Their Lives In Prison For Nonviolent Crimes

Despite what we hear about prison and sentencing reform, remember millions of our citizens are languishing behind bars for needlessly long periods of time and when they are released, if they are released, we make it impossible for them to re-renter.

These 32 People Are Spending Their Lives In Prison For Nonviolent Crimes

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/13/life-without-parole_n_

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They say you can’t go home again

Nearly a decade ago, I left Swarthmore for the second time. I was a student at the college until the spring of 1975 and returned in 1990 to serve as a senior administrator for the next 15 years. In the summer of 2005, I moved to Atlanta to begin my tenure as President of Oglethorpe University, a small liberal arts college founded almost three decades before Swarthmore. I came back to town this weekend for my decennial soccer/birthday party but that’s another story.

I spent a few hours this afternoon walking on Swarthmore’s campus, stopping in on places so very familiar, both from my time as a young man and from my days as a professional. One word kept running though my mind as I wandered across the broad lawns and stunning architecture. Precious. Swarthmore is a precious place. And I mean precious in all the good ways one typically associates with that word as well as some less positive ones.

My education at Swarthmore was extraordinary. It was there that I began my life of learning which continues to this day. I also developed my ethic of hard work at the college, and for that, I hold the Honors Program responsible. Each week we would be given several books to read for each course with another half dozen to tackle if we so chose and I tried my best to read every damn one of them. This went on for two years. Since that time, there’s never been a task that has felt impossible no matter how significant the challenge. My time as a student was precious, absolutely precious. I also had an extraordinary professional experience at the college and I credit my time there for any success I have had since. I like to think I had some positive impact on Swarthmore. I know I am proud of the physical changes to the campus that happened under my leadership. They have worn very well.

I’ve stayed in touch with many at the college and have read the press coverage of recent events. There’s a different feel to the campus these days. I don’t know near enough to assign responsibility and I’m certain any version of the story is complex. I am not writing to exonerate the actions or inactions of the administration, past or present. I can accept for the purpose of my letter that missteps were made. But let me return to the word precious.

Everyone who attends or works at Swarthmore is in some way privileged as a result. I don’t think I really understood that until I left the second time to lead a resource challenged institution. I consider it a tremendous privilege to work at Oglethorpe and to be a student there as well. With privilege comes responsibility. I tell our students that every day. But the privilege at Swarthmore is a horse of a different color. Truly it is.

From my seat, I think there are some at the college who don’t appear to appreciate the privilege they have. Trustee meetings disrupted. Personal attacks have become commonplace. A sense that what’s happening on this little, isolated campus is the most important thing in the world. That’s part of the preciousness I don’t admire. I do appreciate the inclination toward activism that attracts students to Swarthmore and that the college helps nurture. Those have always been important characteristics of Swatties and of the institution. Activism has the potential to strengthen a community, which is what it most often has done at Swarthmore. But, activism can also be used to break down community. My feeling is that right now, it is doing more of the latter.

The Swarthmore I know has valued its sense of community, even when divided by issues of race, gender or politics. In the end, despite significant differences and different people leading the institution, Swarthmore has been a community where healthy and civil discourse ruled. That doesn’t appear to be the case so much anymore. I think with all the privilege that being part of the Swarthmore community brings also comes a responsibility to that community. Not a blind allegiance, for sure, but a thoughtful and careful loyalty to the community that has characterized Swarthmore. I know it’s hard for an 18 year old, newly arrived, to understand that kind of loyalty and commitment. But that’s always been the case. Somehow, though, the leaders of the college, student and adult alike, have in the past found a way to convey the real value of the Swarthmore community. I don’t know what’s happened to change that but it’s sad to see.

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