Civil rights up close

The following is repeat post from three years ago. With the purposeful white washing of history to not inform students of the terrible acts committed in our country, we are masking greatly needed, but ugly lessons. These lessons are supposed to be ugly truths. That is why they are taught.

My wife and I visited the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC yesterday. Why Greensboro? It is built on the location of the first African-American sit-ins at the “whites only” Woolworth’s restaurant counter. The counter and chairs remain as they looked back in 1960 when they were sat in by the Greensboro Four: David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil.

The museum is excellent, but very sobering that such treatment could occur in a land that was supposedly free. And, as our Congress debates the rationale for reparations for slavery, what should be included in the debate is people suppressed, tortured, and/or killed during the Jim Crow period. Seeing and hearing the story of Emmett Till or the Birmingham church bombing which killed four young girls is breathtakingly sad and maddening.

I have written before about the horrific lynchings which often accompanied degradation of the poor soul’s body before and after his death. Death by hanging is a slow death and horrible things were done to the victim to make them feel worse as they died. What kind of evil can make men do that? Black men were lynched for looking at a white woman too long or at all. The great Billie Holiday captured the sadness in her song “Strange Fruit,” referencing strange fruit swinging in the trees.

The Jim Crow period rivals the horror of slavery for a key reason – these were acts committed on supposedly free people. But, their freedom was “contained” in a box of voter and economic suppression. So, Jim Crow was an orchestrated modus operandi to keep Black folks down. Whites who tried to help were also ostracized. And, what is also disturbing, too many ministers found bible verses and preached differentiation and segregation.

We must loudly condemn actions and words today by hate groups who say another group’s rights are subservient to theirs. Nazism, Apartheid, slavery and Jim Crow are part of the same demonization and hateful fabric. It is not supposed to work that way in our country. Our elected leaders are supposed to be our better angels. When they fail to lead in a manner closer to our ideals, we need to tell them so. Or, find better leaders.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night – a reprise

I wrote the following post six years ago after watching an old interview with Paul McCartney. Its lyrics and context still resonate today.

The title is from a line of The Beatles song “Blackbird” which is a tribute to the struggle for African-Americans for their civil rights. The song was sung by Paul McCartney with writing credits to both him and John Lennon, although McCartney was the lead.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Here is what McCartney said about the origin of the song in an interview in 2002.

“I’ve got a poetry book out called Blackbird Singing…..I was in Scotland playing on my guitar, and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it’s a bit more symbolic.”

I added McCartney’s quote as I wanted the clarity around what the song means. African-Americans are still fighting an uphill struggle for their civil rights. What has happened in Ferguson, Cleveland, New Jersey, Charleston, Charlotte and Baltimore is tragic, but evidence of the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. The lack of opportunity, the malaise, the maltreatment, the deterioration of the neighborhood, the lack of respect given to people of color in our country continues.

I have noted before that Warren Buffett has said he was born lucky. He was born a white male in America. All three components of that phrase are important – white, male and America. Yes, he worked hard, but he was afforded opportunities that African-Americans do not get.  Not only do many whites like me have a hard time knowing the challenges of being black, but we also do not fully realize the advantages of being white. As I wrote recently, as a white man, there are not too many places I cannot go no matter how I am dressed. But, there are far too many stories of how a black man can be dressed in his Sunday best, yet still be stopped by the police and think “be careful as this may be the last thing I do on earth.”

I would encourage three things. First, please do not look at those committing violence and rioting as indicative of the African-American community. The community knows this is not the path forward. Second, people who look like me need to do our best to understand the challenges we have in America for people of color, but also for all people in poverty. Third, as always, talk is cheap. These issues are complex and solutions have to address many underlying concerns. There are no sound byte answers as some politicians have espoused.

I mention this last point as we must address the wide disparity in American between the “haves” and “have-nots.” This is not just an African-American issue. It is an American issue, as most people on food stamps are white. Please re-read this previous sentence. Poverty exists in urban areas, in rural areas and even in the suburbs. We have to stop the “war on poor people” and make this a “war on poverty.”

We must invest in our infrastructure and deteriorated assets repurposing them. This will spawn jobs as well in places where it is needed. We must revise our minimum wage to be consistent with a living wage for one person, which varies, but is just over $10 an hour. We must invest in education at all levels. We must embrace the Affordable Care Act as it is helping so many people and fully implement it through Medicaid expansion in the remaining 20 odd states. For some politicians to say we have a poverty problem and be against the ACA is hypocritical and shortsighted, especially when it is working pretty well.

Remember McCartney’s words and lets help these folks with broken wings learn to fly. To do otherwise, goes against what our country is all about and any of the teachings found in religious texts.

A few good news stories which can change minds

It is apparent that the move to pull down the Confederate flag was spawned by the reaction to the killing of nine Black church members in Charleston. For family members of the deceased to look at the killer and forgive him may be one of the greatest acts of faith I have ever witnessed. And, I was not alone, as they showed what faith looks like to many. Their reaction and that of the citizens of Charleston, where the Civil War started, may have helped bury the Civil War lingering fight 150 years later. My fervent hope is they have created a dialogue that will continue to improve race relations and racial injustice in America.

If we scroll forward one week after the Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, members of the KKK marched on the capitol grounds to protest the removal of the flag. If you have ever been to Columbia, it is one of the hottest cities I have ever been in. On yet another hot day, a member of the KKK became ill with heat exhaustion and needed help. The symbolic irony is a Black officer came to the aid of this member and helped him to care. He noted he was only doing his job, but his efforts created a justifiable YouTube sensation.

In a related issue, several Black and multi-racial churches have been burned and vandalized in the past few months. These have occurred primarily in the South, but some have occurred in the northern states and up through Canada, as well. What has gotten less notice is several Islamic mosques have donated money to some of these churches to rebuild or repair the vandalism. This outpouring of help is inspirational and should get more notoriety than it does. These vandals were not Muslims, but that mattered not. The Muslim worshippers wanted to help other churchgoers.

Finally, I have written about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This orchestra has pulled young musicians from across the Middle East and Spain. The greater story is the young adults are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Protestant and from other faiths. They cross the bridges which divide us to play together. We can affect young minds in a positive way and they can teach us in return, if we let them.

My hope is these actions can help change more minds around our country and in the world. Because, beneath the surface, we are all the same. Imperfect.

 

 

Strange Fruit – why that flag means what it does to many

I applaud the state of South Carolina for making a long overdue, but nonetheless courageous decision to take down the Confederate battle flag. What many fail to realize its heritage has two meanings, neither good. It was the initial symbol of rebellion that wanted to keep the right to slavery and not be dictated by people in Washington. Do not let people try to rewrite history using the terms we southerners liked to call it “the War of Northern Aggression.” That was propaganda then and remains propaganda today.

Yet, it also carries the meaning of Jim Crow, a period which allowed the reinforced condemnation and control of Blacks in the south, in spite of their rights on paper. This condemnation included the purposeful killing, often by hanging, of Blacks who were deemed guilty of contrived crimes or because they tried to exercise their paper rights in practice. I would ask you to watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Mississippi Burning” to get a sense of what Jim Crow was all about.

Or, we could heed the words of Billie Holiday, who sang the impactful song “Strange Fruit.”

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Songwriters
WIGGINS, DWAYNE P./PEARL, MAURICE/ALLAN, LEWIS

If you want to listen to the words, please go to the attached link. http://www.metrolyrics.com/strange-fruit-lyrics-billie-holiday.html

Taking down the battle flag is a great, symbolic step, but it has to be more than that. We need to treat everyone like we want to be treated. Jesus made no caveats with his words as to who should not be so treated. Neither should we, especially with our history that includes “a strange and bitter crop” of people who did not come close to such treatment. This is also why we should not whitewash history, as we should never allow such treatment again on our soil.

 

The best of religion – creating community conversations around differences

Last night, my wife and I attended one of a series of “talks” around improving racial relations. It is a weekly chat sponsored by a multi-faith group based in our city. In essence, it is facilitated small group and large group discussions on breaking down barriers and listening to others who do not look like you do. It was well done and very meaningful.

To hear stories about small and large examples of racism is very important. To hear about how assumptions can be made and, if not corrected, can be become more concrete in the eyes of the beholder. Children learn lessons whether you want them to or not, even when you try to do the right thing. So, it is imperative to have open conversations about treating people like you want to be treated and listening to comments, so that they can be reinforced or amended.

Yet, it is we adults that need to do better. A few themes we discussed include:

– do not indict a group for the actions of a few;

– recognize that small sleights can be hurtful, as well;

– try to walk in another person’s shoes; understand that a white person has more liberty to go anywhere, while a black man, even when dressed-up, has restricted access;

– shine a light on hateful speech or behavior; tolerance must be viewed toward a greater good, so it is OK to be less tolerant of those who use words to demean and diminish;

– speak up and speak out to people who share your skin color who are indicting others who are different; a white person’s voice will be listened to when admonishing the behavior of fellow white people;

– be the change you want to see and see people for whom they are; and

– recognize that racial injustice is also the result of a larger poverty issue, which affects people of all colors.

There are many more lessons that were conveyed during the session, but one of my takeaways is this is religion at its finest. Welcoming, including and helping. Let me end with one more tidbit on how religion can help provide solutions and create a welcoming dialogue. The Kindness Blog is a compilation of good news stories from around the world. People need to read this blog to balance the many negative stories that we are bombarded with. Their latest post, which can be linked to below, is evidence of the best of religion.

Jesus said it so well in his Golden Rule. Treat others like you want to be treated. If we do this, we are way ahead in the game. So, welcome, include and help.

http://kindnessblog.com/2015/07/07/walked-past-a-church-yesterday-had-this-poster-on-the-door/