Category Archives: U.S. Culture

In Praise of Small Town Kansas

Council Grove KS has maintained a population of about 2,000.

Since moving to Kansas City six years ago, my identity as a city boy, an urbanite, has taken on new meaning.  We now live three hours from the small town of Neodesha, KS, where my partner spent twenty plus years before our marriage. I have gotten to know some of her long time friends and like all of them a lot.   They live in small towns of southeast Kansas like Chanute, Coffeyville, Yates Center, Fredonia and Climax and I have enjoyed thinking about what if anything makes them different from the big city residents like myself 

The observation that there is a greater appreciation of the value of community in small towns I accept as true but inadequate.  Spending a recent weekend on a Lake near the town of Emporia, KS yielded for me a better understanding of what community in a small town feels like.  And it was a pleasure to experience.  Almost all those present resided in a small town of the region.  Some still lived in the town of their birth, some nearby in the state college town of Emporia. 

The office of William Allen White’s Emporia Gazette in Emporia, a town of 25,000 in southeast KS. Over 6000 votes in Emporia’s Lyon County opposed the Republican sponsored attempt to make abortion unconstitutional in the State while 3600 supported the measure.

During the early decades of the 20th century, William Allen White’s opinion pieces in Emporia’s newspaper were read nation wide. He became famous as the voice of small town residents in the “heartland of America”,   People in the big cities, and the nation’s capital in particular, saw him as a kind of oracle, a modern day sage expounding on the enduring values of what made the U.S. a “great” nation.  The origin of those values he attributed to the community life that grows in small towns across the Midwestern United States.

The weekend festivities at the Lake began with a rousing jam session Friday night where the musicians joined around the lead guitars of Kenny and Jeff, both leaders of popular regional bands thirty or forty years ago.  Two or three newcomers to the “shrimp boil” weekend joined to sing or play some fiery rock-a-billy” and blues, including a few songs written by the musicians themselves.

The harmonica player in Jeff’s band and his wife, who now live on 40 acres of woods on the outskirts of Neodesha remain among Kate’s best friends.  Though not herself a musician, Kate has been a fan of the bands represented at the “Shrimp Boil” since moving to southeast Kansas.  Later in the weekend I was amused to learn that “Uncle Vance” who trucked the seafood up from the Alabama Gulf Coast had been an eager fan of hers forty years ago.

The Nace Brothers played Saturday night at the “Shrimp Boil”. The brothers, Jimmy and Dave on the left, grew up in Warrensburg, MO.

The fact no one needed a ticket to be present either for the jam night or Saturday, when one of Kansas City’s favorite rock-a-billy bands played, added to the joy, ambience and charm of the weekend.  Most of the Lake’s families who attended did bring a dish and all were displayed on a crammed L shaped table arrangement.  Uncle Vance supervised the preparation of a delicious gumbo soup made with the shrimp, mussels, crabs, scallops.  For me the melt in your mouth scallop was the eating highlight.

There seemed to be an instant community created at the “shrimp boil” by the seafood smorgasbord, the music that summoned us all to “let the good times roll” and the lifelong relationships renewed and restored by the gathering.  It had the feel of a family reunion which all present had looked forward to attending. People were at their best: not a despairing word, not an offensive gesture, not a cutting remark, no wrestling for the limelight.  William Allen White would have been proud.

I returned to Kansas City assured that human beings are social creatures who thrive in community.  We are made for life in communities.  Whether it be a community of musicians, a church congregation, a union local, a small town.  We are most productive, we are more creative and satisfied when we submerge our personal interests to participate in a group.  For many people in this heavily urbanized country, the small town they live in or were raised in is that “something bigger than ourselves” which transmits the values they seek to defend and represent.

Life in a small town encourages a panoply of values, sometimes conflicting and all seen at risk by some of the residents and former residents.  There is first the identity of belonging to a community created by geographic isolation.  Relationships with persons who hail from the same town endure often in spite of age, class and vocational differences.  One honors and elevates one’s own existence through reminiscencing about shared experience and the persons, alive and dead, whose lives continue to intersect with our own.  Each conversation with persons of the community, after a prolonged absence or not, reinforces our recognition of the sacred quality of relationships and our desire to preserve them against threats both perceived and real.

That commitment to preserving the community and the relationships rooted there means once a community member always a community member.  Unfortunate and at a disadvantage is the politican who cannot announce his or her candidacy in the community which nurtured them.  How distressing it is, though, whenever politicans twist and distort small town values to stoke fear and divisionRecent history of the U.S. proves there is nothing good, whether it be faith in a loving God, the values fostered by life in a small town, democratic ideals expressed in our founding documents, nothing good that cannot be used for the pursuit of self interest and power. Loyalty to a community’s way of life becomes easily transformed into opposition to the changes required by the climate crisis, opposition to acceptance of migrants fleeing from injustice and violence, or opposition to the truth of the nation’s oppression and cruelty. But rather than close this blog on a somber note, let’s consider some lines written for books or articles by the sage of Emporia, KS William Allen White.

Peace without justice is tyranny

“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others”

So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold — by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.

Any appeasement of tyranny is treason.

My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” (Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote)

Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily – certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn’t enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay.

If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.

Is Socialism No Longer a “Dirty Word” in the U.S.?

Indiana born Eugene V. Debs founded the Socialist Party of America in Indianpolis in 1901. Staunchly anti-WWI, Debs received over 900,000 votes for U.S. President in the 1912 election. Debs also led the organizing of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aiming to unite U.S. workers.

If a health care system which serves all residents and citizens

If free quality education for all children from pre school through university

If the public ownership of all natural resources essential for human life – water, power, and natural gas

If foremost priority in public expenditure is given to improved systems serving citizens and residents and not to securing the control of resources in other nations

If an economy driven by production for human consumption and use and not the production of weaponry

If international collaboration rather than competition in meeting global crises: climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and pandemics

If progress toward making one or more of these aims our reality requires adopting our own form of socialist rule in the U.S., then I am all for it.

The increasing U.S. rule by a corporate and financial elite supported by the knee-jerk charge that a policy is “socialism” serves to defend a flagrantly unjust and unsustainable status quo. Does making some dramatic changes in this country’s economic and political systems necessitate serious consideration of socialist solutions?  Yes, it does and yes it will. Evidence mounts that in European nations with some mix of socialist and capitalist economic policies the people are healthier and happier and increasingly more financially secure than here.  

Those nations also prove that adopting a form of socialism does not require authoritarian rule and loss of individual freedoms as most people in this nation seem to think.  The youth in this country are more aware than most adults that making socialism a “bugaboo”, as one commentator recently called it, serves only the small minority who gorge on profiting from the status quo.  It now appears more likely that the charge of “socialism” assigned universal health care and similar programs by conservatives and some liberals is now approaching its expiration date.  As  a hold over from the Cold War propaganda of the 50’s, increased allocations for an already bloated budget for defense (and the corporations subsidized by the defense budget) at the expense of increased budgeting for health care, education and public utilities has begun to lose force in shaping public opinion.  At the same time, we in this country remain under the sway of an extreme form of capitalist economics that subverts the aims of the majority who work more and die earlier year by year.

As we consider the consequences of ignoring and now in some states banning discussions of race and the history of white supremacy in classrooms, it would be helpful to look at how discussion of contemporary examples of socialist and capitalist economic strategies have also been largely ignored in our schools. That someone is now and has been able for many years to graduate from a U.S. secondary education with the conviction that only socialism leads to authoritarian rule is not by chance.  To ignore completely the history of capitalist Germany’s descent into barbarous, genocidal rule in the last century is to avoid by intention serious critique of our form of capitalism which now threatens the country’s survival as a democracy. That many of Germany’s leading corporations and members of the economic elite supported the Nazi regime is still kept secret from most of our students throughout their education. 

But I would be renouncing my call as a Christian to neglect mention of some personal and social developments of our time that many U.S. Christians and others ignore.  First, on the personal level there is an even more precipitous decline in church attendance and membership in leading Western democracies, such as Germany, than in this nation.  At the same time, the China Christian Council of what we identify as “godless” Communist China has experienced growth that would be the envy of “mega-churches” in the U.S.  When restrictions were lifted in the early 1980’s by the Communist Party and Chinese state, the China Christian Council as the unified Protestant Church and the heir of the work of pre-1949 missionaries has been hard pressed to build enough churches and seminaries to keep up with the rising number of Christians in China.

On the social plane, is it not time for Christians who oppose universal health care in the world’s richest nation to reconsider their position in the light of Jesus’ example?  How can followers of the healer and advocate for the poor favor an economic system driven by one’s own interest over an economic and political system based on “from each according to his/her abilities to each according to their needs”.  It is now time to ensure that the mischaracterization of socialism as inherently or practically against faith in a higher power be ruled out of our public policy discussions.  To continue to equate socialism with either authoritarian or godless rule is to make an argument founded on lies and fear.  How many of the NATO members which have implemented social welfare policies many persons here characterize as socialist have banned religion or severely restricted public religious activity?

Bernie Sanders, now U.S. Senator, joined the Socialist Party while in college. His first elected position was Mayor of Burlington, Vermont which he won in 1981.

How do so many U.S. Christians justify the ethical principles of many members of our corporate/financial ruling elite?  Let me single out the example of our former Chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan whose ethics were shaped by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The system of thought condemns altruistic behavior and elevates self interest as the fundamental principle of a free society. Through his forties, Greenspan contributed articles to the Objectivist movement’s newsletter in the 60’s and remained close to Rand until her death.  As an upper class refugee from the deprivations of the early years of the Soviet Union, Rand developed a philosophy of life that extolled the extreme individualistic ethics of capitalism. Greenspan’s background as a devoted Rank acolyte did not hinder his rise to prominence in service of the U.S. economy, deregulation of the financial industries and free market trade policies.

That the influence of a declared socialist Senator from Vermont has risen significantly and that so many of our country’s youth now condemn the unfettered capitalist economy in the U.S. can be attributed to the crises that overwhelm our country today. Not having experienced the fear mongering of the Cold War they perceive lame anti-socialist policy arguments rooted in corporate domination of our political discourse as impeding the nation’s progress in eliminating fossil fuel production, the priority of spending for defense, criminal justice practices which divide white workers from workers of color, and fierce opposition to union and other organizing to make change.  Will we in the U.S. progress toward the implementation of a mixture of socialist and capitalist policies in our political economy?  Yes, we will, provided our rule by and for the people survives and defeats the current onslaught making voting for many persons harder in defense of a grotesquely unequal and unjust status quo.    

What Hawaii Had to Teach Us in Our Visit

The Yellow Billed Cardinal, so unlike the Northern Cardinal we are accustomed to, is comparable to the Java Sparrow, the Zebra Dove and the Saffron Finch in their colorful variations of familiar “mainland” birds.

During my second visit on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in the checkout line at the Malama Market in Honoka’a the cashier addressed me as “Uncle”.  It was not the first time a young person had honored me with this traditional Hawaiian sign of respect.  But as a reminder that wearing a face mask was still required in the grocery store, it made a deeper impression.  I retrieved a mask from my back pocket and put it on before removing the items from my basket. After I thanked the young woman for this gentle nudge, my gratitude grew. Like the colorful bird species, the abundant growth of mango, papaya and other tropical fruits and trees, this custom of calling an elder “auntie” or “uncle” had captured and filled me.

My delight had nothing to do with removing my identity as a “foreigner”.  I would always remain a “haole” in the land and culture of the native Hawaiian. It was like the customary welcoming to Hawaii  another kind of lei showing that the native traditions include the embrace of persons wherever they come from.  You cannot spend a day on the Island of Hawai’i without the recognition that you are not on the North American continent. And that you are and will forever be a “haole”.

Having returned to Kansas City, I am even more grateful for our friends who are natives of the “Big Island” and whose hospitality falls on us like the soft rain of the rainforest surrounding their birthplaces near Honoka’a.  I understand better the pride displayed by the son of our closest Hawaiian friend who as a three or four year old, though born in California, protested to my wife Kate, “I am not an American, am I Mom?  I’m Hawaiian.”   

The Hawaiian dictionary gives the synonyms of “foster” and “adopted” in its definition of the Hawaiian tradition of “hanai“.

I also now appreciate more our role as “hanai” or “adopted” grandparents of this child now preparing for college on the “mainland”.  When my wife introduced ourselves at a Sunday worship service in Honoka’a as Gabriel’s “hanai” grandparents, expressions of approval were quietly uttered by the congregation.  From now on, all our efforts to encourage and support the young man’s growth will be not just out of love for him but will also stem from the desire to honor the Hawaiian tradition and our identity as his “hanai” grandparents.

How sad and unfortunate that so many of our would be “leaders” in the mainland U.S. portray the nation’s increasing population of foreign born persons as a loss for the heirs of white settlers.  How could someone be persuaded to view immigrants as posing a threat when their contributions are so many and so obvious?  Against all the white supremacist theories and arguments we can all learn from and enjoy the embrace of other cultures in the history, language and customs of native Hawaiians. 

As an example, there is much more to the meaning of “aloha” than our “hello” and “good bye”.  After my recent visit, I now associate the Hawaiian language’s “aloha” with the Indian custom of greeting and leave taking with “namaste”.  My favored interpretation of that Hindu greeting and leave taking is “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”.

The Rivers of Soul Music

Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the 2021 documentary film release “Summer of Soul”

“I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”

As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.   

This year’s release of the music documentary Summer  of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.

Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders.  Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized.  Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest.  “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”.  A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart.  In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.

Featuring a staggering assembly of musical  styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like  she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day.  Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up.  That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.

An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar.  With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.

Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable.  Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler.  It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen.  Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.

As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton.  Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.

Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent.  That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965. 

A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s.  After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony.  When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us.  No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it.  Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.     

As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”.  One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band.  Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul.  The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension.  Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”.  The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.

Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted

The Netflix produced 2015 documentary on the career of Nina Simone gained many awards and an Oscar nomination.

most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”.  It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan. 

“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”

Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:

“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”

The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.

It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.”  You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.

Feeding the Wolf

Since the end of WW II the U.S. has been the world’s leading arms dealer

In a blog dedicated to “erasing borders” I want to address what force or forces serve to defend and strengthen national borders and border enforcement in the world.  Now is the time because increased migration of threatened people across borders, “free trade” agreements, new technologies, and more travel (among other factors) all call for easing traffic across borders. 

It is a confounding paradox for citizens of the U.S., especially for those born in the country with a single cultural identity, to delight in being surrounded by persons of other cultures while the politics and political economy of the country fosters suspicion and enmity of other nations and cultures.  How could it be that a nation whose ideal self image, the ideal we grew accustomed to celebrating in our lives and in the life of the nation, has been that of a country leading in welcoming immigrants, how could it be that the same nation remains deadlocked on immigration reform for 35 years and focuses on combatting one enemy overseas after another?

Any attempt at a satisfactory answer to this question must consider some indisputable facts too long ignored.  For anyone following the news casually, regardless of the news source in this country, we are aware of the U.S. emphasis on national defense and security.  From the Defense Department budget, to television ads selling insurance for veterans, to conversations with those whose loved one is serving in the military, to statistics on the U.S. military’s footprint in over 80 other countries, we know this country is exceptional in equating military might with power and security.

What we don’t know and seldom talk about in our public forums is the effects on our loftiest ideals of our emphasis on preparation for war and conflict.  What we also don’t think or talk about much in our civil dialog is the interaction between production of weaponry and the health of our economy.

Histories of California’s economy all point to the manufacture of aircraft as leading the way in the State’s growth.  Its long Pacific sea shore has seen the rise of some of the largest and most important military bases during and following WW II.  When a few bases were closed in the 90’s, and major aircraft production sites shut down, there was deep concern about what would replace them in the  economies of the local communities and  the State as a whole. Today the strength of California’s economy should assure us that a transition from an economy relying on defense expenditures can benefit a state’s population             

Following the “Great War”, as many in the U.S. now term WW II, the late Prof. Seymour Melman devoted his research and writing to bringing to light the potential boost of the national economy with a conversion from defense production to production of “things that make for peace”.  Despite his sterling credentials as a Columbia PhD in economics and his teaching at the same university until 2003,  there has been little support for Melman’s views except among left wing intellectuals and peace organizations.  He continues to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” in the political and economic discussion in this country.

Missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin are displayed during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, October 13, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet Melman’s case for such a conversion of the U.S. economy is more relevant today than ever.  In a 1990 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Melman noted “there’s no mystery in the shabby railroads, the broken bridges, the unpaved streets, the wrecked buildings, the absence of adequate housing, the aging character of the industrial equipment.”  There is today more decline in U.S. manufacture of goods used by or benefiting individual consumers.  With 46 per cent of U.S. production equipment devoted to manufacture of weaponry in the mid-1980’s, Melman urged us to consider the impact on employment in manufacturing, on industrial research and development, on worker productivity and on wages among other measures of a healthy economy.

In highlighting the economic effects of this country’s production of goods individuals do not consume, Melman’s views also raise questions about the effect of arms production and sales on U.S. policies as a superpower.  How do arms sales abroad, we accounted for 37 % of the world total sales in 2020, affect our foreign policy? What about the influence of the arms industries (the Lockheeds, Raytheons, General Dynamics, etc.) on the military establishment strategies and our perpetual wars? What are the costs to the nation’s ideals and self image of selling vastly more weaponry than any other nation in the world? Finally and most urgently in our time, how does our focus on defense and arms production handicap our capacity to lead in renewable energy production and innovation?

While controversy rages in our politics over what to do about the climate crisis worldwide, the response to a global pandemic, and how to move toward a healthy multi-racial society there is little conflict in our politics on defense and security issues.  Consensus of the two parties on expanding our military and waging war for international conflict resolution seems guaranteed.

A few years ago a Cherokee Indian fable was widely shared.  A wise grandfather advises his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is characterized by anger and fear and the other wolf is accepting and loving.   The two wolves fight within each of us.  So the grandson asks which wolf finally wins and the grandfather replies, “The one you feed will win”.  Despite its lofty ideals and grand achievement in the past, does anyone doubt which wolf the U.S. continues to feed today? What will be the consequences for the nation if the wrong wolf wins the battle within us?  What will be the consequences for the world?

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Division Street in Every U.S. Town

At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white 

Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas.  The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison.  A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..

There are signs of a Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North.  The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to these signs of racial separation and conflict.  Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.

When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street.  Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications.  I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school.  In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed.   As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors. 

By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American.  Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place suddenly and quickly.  I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city.   My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the school’s first black junior prom queen.

Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body.  At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school.  For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.

In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South.  In response to Republican legislation in a majority of states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote .  Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.

Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down.   Inoffensive Republican gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the party’s political strategy for the next elections.  There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this year in the Congress.  African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But how many white U.S. citizens now celebrate the Juneteenth holiday?

The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of a leading shoe retailer. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women and I knew most saw King as a martyred leader.  The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give anyone paid time off to watch and was promptly fired.  How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth?  It became a national holiday in 1983 but did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.

 

A Powerful Tool to Uncover and Uproot the Origins of White Supremacy

“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television”  Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”.  The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO.  The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.

Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States.  President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.”  The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.

The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present.  The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective.  “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer.  In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment.  “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings.  What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.

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In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil.  The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862.  Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor  continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.  

This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege.  Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history.  Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power.  An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education  that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.

There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S.   “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated.  “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone.  In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place.  “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”

Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition.  In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed.  Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.

Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries.  An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”.   While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film.  Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.

From Piacenza to Alabama – Amazon Workers Unite

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union on the eve of strikes at 15 Italian Amazon warehouses: “In Italy, Germany, Spain and in Bessemer, Alabama, and elsewhere, Amazon workers are demanding conditions that respect their dignity as human beings and jobs that do not put their safety at risk.” 

Amazon employees are joining internationally to oppose the mega corporation’s squeezing of its workers for huge gains in profits and stock price.  While the loss of the Alabama vote to form a union disappointed, the company is facing a swelling tide of indignation over the heartless treatment of its workers.  One of them who helped lead the organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse pointed to the international impact of their movement.  58 year old Perry Connelly told In These Times that the organizing team realized that if a union could be formed in the most anti-union region of the U.S. “we’ll be making a huge difference not only in Alabama, but globally”.

Coinciding with the end of voting in Alabama, workers went on strike at six Amazon warehouses in Germany on the Monday of Easter week.  The German strike was planned with the traditional Easter buying surge as well as the customary Polish workers’ holiday in mind. This prevented the company from relying on its Polish Amazon warehouses to fill the season’s orders.  A worker at one of the German Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the company’s term for its warehouses, led in organizing Amazon Workers International (AWI) that has enlisted workers at 175 Amazon facilities worldwide. 

Another German Amazon worker described coordinated international strikes as Amazon’s “biggest fear”. He went on to summarize the importance of the Alabama struggle to form a union, “If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” he said and further emphasized, “If one fulfilment center falls, everything will go.”  His assessment is supported by the magnitude and variety of Amazon tactics to defeat the union in Alabama.

The company initially counted 1500 workers as the warehouse labor force but at the National Labor Relations Board hearing two months later (after the U.S. presidential election) submitted 5,800 as the total.  The union organizers had no trouble garnering the threshold of 30% of the work force’s signatures to hold the election, but they could not counter the intimidation tactics that led many card-signing workers to vote no.

Constant surveillance and inhumane pressures to produce on ten hour shifts have led Amazon workers internationally to declare, “We are not robots”.

The company had Bessemer change the location of traffic lights to force organizers to contact workers directly in front of the warehouse entrance.  A postal service mailbox was installed in the facility parking lot and employees were encouraged to use it for their election ballots.  Outspoken union supporters were removed from and/or not allowed in the mandatory anti-union one hour “training sessions” the company repeatedly held in the pre-election period.  A few days after its defeat, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  Not included in the list of charges is the fact that Amazon hired a consultant with the Center for Independent Employees to advise on how to defeat the union.  The Center receives substantial funding from the ultra-conservative billionaire Charles Koch and its President also heads RWP Labor which declares its mission is to maintain union-free workplaces across the U.S.

Amazon’s intimidation of individual employees and threats to cut pay and benefits, if not close the warehouse, are standard tactics in U.S. companies’ response to union organizing.  Widespread media coverage of the Alabama vote along with support by the Biden administration have helped call attention to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass the House bill to Protect the Right to Organize or PRO Act.  Nearly all the anti-union practices deployed by Amazon during the Bessemer campaign would be illegal under the PRO legislation. 

In his summary of how U.S. labor law currently favors companies in their defeat of union organizing one union official drew a comparison. “Imagine the 2020 elections but only [former President Donald] Trump was allowed to talk to voters” Ryan Kekeris told journalist Rebekah Entralgo. “Biden had to stay in Canada and shout over the border, and Trump and his supporters had unfettered access to corral U.S. voters into a room, forbid you from leaving, and tell you that you had to vote for Trump,” Kekeris continued. He concluded by noting, “Now imagine that under the eyes of the law this is considered completely fair and legal. That is how U.S. labor law works right now.”

Senate passage of the PRO Act appears unlikely but the U.S. Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may well call for another vote in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse.  And the Alabama workers’ dramatic and bold example has fired organizing at warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California.  Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign stated following the announcement of the defeat in Alabama, “This is just the first round.”  He emphasized that “Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote”.  The North Carolina-based leader praised the Alabama workers as having “set a fresh trend in the South”.

Likely to be of even greater concern to Amazon in the long run is the progress made among labor organizers in creating ties with workers in the U.S. and internationally.  There are currently an estimated 1,538 Amazon facilities in the world: 290 in Europe, 294 in India and 887 in North America.  When workers went on strike at 15 of the company’s warehouses in Italy, some carried banners that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama – One Big Union”. A Dutch Amazon worker involved in the international organization Make Amazon Pay told The Intercept last year, “Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition”. Concluding his case for support of its work force uniting across borders, he noted, “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”

Every Single Other

U.S. urban street scene. (Photo by Amel Disdarevic)

The title “Every Single Other” comes from a kind of mantra we recite at the end of worship at Peace Christian Church which my partner and I, both retired ordained Christian ministers, attend. The congregation is affiliated with two theologically progressive denominations in the United States, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s spirit is in them – living and breathing God. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” Ro 8:5-6 (The Message Peterson translation)

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was on his customary shopping rounds in Louisville, waiting on a busy downtown street for the traffic light to change.  The sidewalks were crowded with people and suddenly Merton experienced what he described as an epiphany. He saw each person as he imagined God saw them.  All of them in search of meaning and joy.  All in need of love.  He wrote in his Confessions of a Guilty Bystander “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” Merton’s “epiphany” helped guide him for the rest of his life.

A former member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, Michael Harrington, wrote the small book that helped guide the policies and programs of the Kennedy and Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty.  The Other America detailed with current statistics the suffering of the poor from hunger, illnesses, violence and broken families.  It helped lay the groundwork for the civil and human rights legislation that moved the nation closer to its founding vision of “liberty and justice for all”.  It helped lay the groundwork for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and expanded aid for persons injured at work.  

I’ve thought about that book while watching and supporting the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign over the last two and a half years.  The Campaign now is active in organizing and partnering with other groups in calls for a living wage, for union representation of workers, for Medicare for All, for giving voice to the demands of low wage workers and the unemployed.  The Campaign highlights current conditions of 140 million poor and low income persons in the U.S. Since the 60’s little has been done legislatively to improve housing, health care, and wage security for the “other America”.  Many view state and federal policies after 1980 as constituting a “war on the poor” in contrast to the progress of the War on Poverty towards a more just society.

Years after his epiphany on the Louisville street corner, Merton wrote a sentence that for me beautifully captures the struggle we all, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, those with and without faith in a loving Creator, face in loving “every single other”.  It returns to me again and again as a prayer to leave behind “obsession with the self” and be freed to lead a more “spacious life”. Merton wrote, “If today I hear God’s voice, may I not reject a softer, more compassionate heart.”  With the spirit of this prayer in mind, I wrote a poem/prayer shortly before the U.S. presidential election that imagines the hardening of heart we must overcome to help bring about a government “of, by and for the people” (Lincoln’s description of our political system).  The poem tries to direct our attention to those rendered voiceless and to some of the characteristics of a heart that has hardened.

Election Time in the Super Power

Hear our prayer, O Lord –

         Of the silenced, unseen, unheard,

         Of the devalued and degraded,

         Of those known by their labels,

         Of all considered disposable when they

             are considered at all.

Let our cries come to You, O Lord –

By those who confuse ambition with conviction,

By neighbors who cede power

     to one who boasts of his own.

By all brought up to doubt and never trust,

  By all who seek to preserve their

           dignity with falsehood,

Hear our prayer, O Lord  –

For us whose ‘we’ keeps shrinking,

       For the others known by their fangs,

       For those who must prepare for a future in peril,         

For us all whose freedom comes at a cost.

Call It Courage

david-batzka-summer-1964

David Batzka (r.) with a co-volunteer during Freedom Summer 1964 in Clarksdale, Mississippi

For some people in the U.S. it is cause for anxiety and even fear, but we all seem to agree on one fact about the pandemic.  This nation will not return to what was “normal” before the world virus crossed our borders.  For many of us the “normal” set the stage for the division and social conflict that have attended our virus response.  Rather than solidarity and mutual support joined by radically different people as during recent hurricane recoveries, in the pandemic response we’ve experienced highly visible signs of disagreement, resistance to mask wearing being the most common.

Aside from the toxic, inhumane immigration policies and grotesque economic inequality that have plagued the country and represent the “normal” we lived with prior to this crisis, we all have suffered for years from a lack of courage on the part of our political leaders and representatives. This lack of courage is manifest in the sycophantic response to an inept and self centered chief executive but also in our failure to address what in our system has enabled, even called for, the rampant greed and selfishness.

While veteran spokespersons for President Trump’s Republican party have all failed to counter the administration’s blunders, with the tepid exception of Mitt Romney, the opposition Democrats have little grounds for boasting.  A majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate approved President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, including Sen. Hilary Clinton.  The 2016 Democratic Party candidate for President seemed to take her election for granted, with a campaign notably lacking in proposals for substantive change.  Notably lacking were programs to deal with the rising economic inequality and stagnant working and middle class wages relative to the gains by the wealthy.

It will take courage on the part of citizens and politicians for substantive change to a more humane “normal”.  We all feel discomfort and even fear when the levees break, the waters rise, homes are lost and health imperiled.  Like those launching their rowboats for rescue operations in a flood or the one who enters the burning house, courage will be demanded for a robust pandemic recovery and the repair of our democracy.  So during the social distancing and isolation I’ve been led to think again about a person who helped me deal with change in my own life.

The costly and courageous witness against the Vietnam War of David Batzka has been a profile in courage for me for over fifty years.  David was a seminary student in New York City with a coveted 4-D deferment from his draft board.  It was a safe bet that so long as he stayed in seminary and proceeded to become a minister he would never lose his deferment. But David informed his Indiana draft board that he refused his classification and opposed their right to draft anyone to fight the unjust, immoral War. In a demonstration on the steps of the Indiana State Capitol building, the neatly groomed seminarian burned his draft card.

As a result, David’s home church in Indiana rejected sponsoring him for ordination as a pastor.  Only the stalwart support of his denomination’s Church and Society office kept him from being arrested and sent to prison.  Although he was eventually approved for ordination, in spite of his home church’s opposition, David never served as a church’s pastor.

His resistance to the Vietnam draft was not the first time he had demonstrated great courage. Prior to graduation from college, David’s courage and his faith had been tested by involvement in the struggle for Black civil rights.  Between his junior and senior years, he spent 6 weeks registering African-Americans to vote.  Before he left home that summer of 1964 two white civil rights volunteers had disappeared in the same State of Mississippi. Before their maimed bodies were found, David was quoted in The Indianapolis Star, “I’m more determined to go ahead.  This proves something must be done.”  Asked what motivated him, he replied, “Christians should be involved in civil rights work.”

David remained steadfast in his faith as a Christian.  His resistance of the draft and subsequent organizing helped lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to take an anti-War position at its national conventions.  Invited to speak on the War at churches he always wore the attire and short hair customary for a minister in that time.  “His somewhat formal appearance disarmed lots of people” his wife Vickie Batzka wrote about David’s public speaking.

David Batzka laid the path for my own opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent resistance of the draft. As a white American male today, contemplating my response to the multiple crises plaguing my community and nation, David’s work for love and justice represents a primary resource.  In my July 4 Independence Day celebration, as I thought about the change required for our post-pandemic “normal” to be a better world for all, I wrote the following poem.  It’s my belated tribute to David, who died after a surgery in 2002, and his place in the life of someone who never met him.

Call it Courage

July 4, 2020

We know truth by the cost

To ourselves

Or to those we love

Without knowing what

The real price will be.

 

Life’s heroes weave our days

The thread always

We call it courage

Binds up the love

Splendid in a dreamed time.

 

They did not choose;

Their truth

Gripped then chose them:

To cherish life,

Its dignity, its sanctity in crisis.

 

Of this comes change and its cost

Known more now

Than its outcome so opaque:

Always more love,

More life, more courage, more thanks