The failure to indict

Along with many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night awaiting the decision of the grand jury in the killing of Michael Brown. When the announcement was made earlier in the day that the decision would be released hours later rather than immediately, I suspected the result would be no indictment. When the state’s attorney took the podium well after eight p.m. and launched into a prolonged speech, I was certain this was where we were headed.

I’ve been a conscientious consumer of the news around this killing for months now and that’s continued into this morning. One of the claims we make at colleges like Oglethorpe University where I serve as President and Swarthmore College, my alma mater, is that we educate students to sift through all the noise around events like these and make independent, informed judgements about the truth. It turns out that’s awful hard to do, I think, especially in cases as inflamed as this one and with consequences so monumental as they are here.

This morning, here’s the best I can do with my own informed and independent judgement. The decision to seek a grand jury indictment in this case, a decision which was a choice of the prosecutor, played a large role in the outcome. More than that, though, the decision about how the case was presented to the grand jury was largely determinative of the result. In my experience, in most cases that are brought before a grand jury, the prosecutor comes in with a plan and an outcome she desires. That’s the nature of the grand jury system. Exculpatory witnesses are rarely presented. It’s at the trial itself where the jurors hear all sides of the case, not in the grand jury room. The room belongs to the prosecutor and the prosecutor alone. It appears that this was not the case with this grand jury — the prosecutor painted himself almost as a neutral bystander in the process.

When the prosecutor concluded his speech last night, I was left with this impression. After a review of all the evidence in the case, he didn’t believe an indictment was appropriate and he used the grand jury process as a cover for that decision. Now, not being privy to all the evidence, I can’t say for certain whether I think his conclusion was legally incorrect. It’s possible the evidence supported this conclusion. I do believe, however, that our justice system in America is biased against citizens of color from start to finish. There’s lots of history and evidence to support that conclusion. The history of incarceration in America is one place to start that examination, but I’ll leave that broader subject for another day. What I will say today is that I found last night’s defense of the verdict to be suspect and that troubles me greatly. The verdict is consistent with the narrative that justice is still really hard to come by in this country for black Americans, even in 2014, and that ought to be of great concern to all Americans.

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Fighting a war in the age of 24 hours news

Before this week, I’m certain very few of us have ever heard the name of the small town in northern Syria called Kobani. For the past week or so, the ISIS siege of Kobani is all the news can seem to talk about. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one Ebola case diagnosed in America (actually in Texas to be accurate) has consumed the talking heads morning, day, and night. And now with the sentencing of Joe Guidice of “Housewives” fame to jail, both Kobani and Ebola may very well disappear off the screen very soon. But back to Kobani.

I am pretty certain, or at least really hopeful, that our President and his national security team are not watching Fox News and CNN in order to determine their next move in the war against ISIS. Not that these news stations are not fine institutions, but I wouldn’t trust either of them to advise me if it was raining outside let alone when, where, and how we ought to proceed in a war. But my lack of faith doesn’t seem to have slowed either of them down. Not one bit. Yesterday, they were mesmerized by the video of five or six ISIS warriors (at least they look to me like they might possibly be men who belong to ISIS) just two kilometers from the Kobani’s border and asking why in the world have we not killed these people yet . Is it really possible our drone operators were not watching the news carefully enough? These guys were out there for all to see and film. Was the President, perhaps, playing a round of golf and missed all this?

I hate the idea that we are once again fighting a war that seems destined to be a miserable failure. I don’t have any ideas about great alternatives and generally trust those who know far more than I do to at least try to do the right thing. Among the right things to do, I’d include ignoring the advice of our most famous news networks. They haven’t won a war in a very long time, not even the ratings war.

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A florist and a butcher

I was listening this weekend to NPR’s show On the Media and heard this wonderful broadcast about the dying art of newspaper obituaries. The guest was Jim Sheeler, former obit writer for the Rocky Mountain News, which itself became a former newspaper in 2009. Sheeler is a great story teller and always considered the obituaries he wrote as an opportunity to tell a story. And given that everyone’s life is almost always a tale of complexity and contradiction, if one takes the time to listen to friends and family share their stories about a loved one who has passed on, there is much to tell. Sheeler often discovered his next opportunity by reading the blurbs released by funeral homes about the deaths of less than famous people. As in “she was a florist and a butcher.” I would have loved to know that story.

Of course, this all made my think about my own obituary, hopefully to be written years from now by people who mostly looked kindly upon my life. But that life, at least so far, has been both complicated and contradictory. Maybe it will get less so, but I kind of doubt it. Those complexities exist across all areas of what’s most important to me: family, friends, and work. I participated in the end of a first marriage, leaving all the damage of such an event in our wake. I’m almost 20 years into my second marriage and I certainly couldn’t claim to have been an easy partner. Well, I suppose I have tried to claim that, but my wife really has never fully bought into that idea. She does say I have been a very good and interesting one, which she claims is better than easy. Back at ya. I’ve raised three children from birth and a fourth from marriage. I can say without one bit of hesitation that each one is a beautiful young adult. One of my great comforts of my life today is the pride I feel for each of my four children and the sense I have that they will all be just fine from here on out. I do wish, though, my relationship with each was closer and that’s a place of real sadness for me. I’d have to say the same for my three siblings, whom I love dearly. And while my parents have both passed, I was a good son from start to finish. Not as good as they were parents, but that’s an impossible bar, so I don’t have any regrets there.

By and large, I think I have been a good friend to my very small group of best male friends as well as to the many social friends I have met over the years. The best thing I can say is that I show up and I have always believed that matters a lot. And my three best friends have been in that category for a very long time. I love that. While at times I regret not having more close friends, I also recognize I barely do enough to sustain those that I have.

I think in many ways my life is defined by my work. I think my wife would say that and probably my kids as well. And while many people might say what a shame that is, I don’t feel that way. At least not now. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to do work that matters to people and I am mostly proud of how I have managed all that. And my work has always been about people and the relationships that I have formed at work have been a source of great satisfaction, many lasting beyond the time when the formal work relationship ends.

So that’s my life in a nutshell, the first 60 years of it anyway. I was a good son. I have tried to be a good father, brother, and husband. I show up, I hang in there, I work hard, and I try to take care of others the best I can. Come to think of it, just like my father did for 94 years.

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“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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