Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

jimcrow“Not since the Civil War has our country been more divided.”

That exaggerated claim appears occasionally in social media. It’s not true, of course, because we are not forming factional armies and going to war with one another. At least not yet.

But it is certainly true that the issues of the Civil War never went away. There are still Southerners who believe the war was fought over states’ rights, not slavery. And as Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative points out, slavery never really went away anyway. It just evolved. For millions of persons of color, equal justice and equal opportunity are empty words.

It seems to me that white racists who hid in the shadows during the Obama years have now erupted in the national soil like jimsonweed. They sense their natural tendencies to hate persons other than themselves will be sanctioned by followers of the current president, and that if they act on those hatreds they can count on the president’s approval.

They may be right. I think it’s patently obvious that the president is a racist, even if he has to try to hide it from the 60 percent of U.S. voters who are appalled by him.

But the odd thing about racism is that racists tend to think everyone shares their prejudices. They think their hate of the other is the most natural thing in the world.

American racism is certainly not restricted to the south but it takes on a special flavor there.

My own encounter with the Jim Crow south took place a half century ago. I had just returned to my native land after three years as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant in England. I stopped by South Carolina to see one of the chaplains I had worked for before reporting to my new assignment at McConnell Air Force Base, Kans.

The first thing the chaplain did was take me to Sunday services at a small white Southern Baptist Church near Sumter, S.C. The visit was memorable, at least for me, because the pastor – also white – kept punctuating his sermons with “wise words” from “an old n—– preacher.” He used an exaggerated Joel Chandler Harris accent to complete the effect.

Perhaps he was making the point that wise sayings are not racially exclusive, but I told the chaplain I was shocked to hear the ‘n’ word used from a pulpit.

“Aw, everyone uses it here, both colored people and white people,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

The next day, the chaplain and I decided to take a trip from Sumter to Charleston, where a mutual friend Bentwaters/Woodbridge was waiting to take us to lunch. We invited a staff sergeant friend of the chaplain’s to join us and hopped into a cavernous Chevy wagon for the three-hour drive to Charleston.

Even in February, the South Carolina countryside was beautiful and the chaplain and I began telling the sergeant diverting tales of our last assignment in rural England. After an hour, the car engine began to gasp and the chaplain pulled off the road.

“Out of gas,” he said. We were in the middle of nowhere, a long way between Sumter and Charleston.

“I have an old gas can in the back,” the chaplain said. “When was the last time we passed a gas station?”

“I think there was one back there,” the sergeant said, gesturing down the long road we had just traveled.

The chaplain got out of the car to retrieve the gas can and handed it to me. Military life simplifies many decisions, and the fact that both my companions outranked me made it obvious that I would volunteer to buy the gas.

“Wait here,” I said, stressing the irony. And I took the can to the side of the road and stuck out my thumb.

Even in bucolic South Carolina in the sixties, a hitchhiking stranger was suspicious and several speeding cars ignored my honest white face.

Finally, a beige Lincoln Continental pulled over. The driver was a large, middle-aged white man wearing a crisp blue blazer and a Stetson hat like Boss Hogg’s. The man was smoking a large cigar, “Where to, Son?” he asked, stifling a wheeze.

“Ran out of gas,” I said. “Can you take me to the nearest gas station?”

“Hop in,” he said. The man tossed his cigar out the window and pressed his dashboard lighter against another one.

“We see a lot of GIs in these parts,” he said, although I was in civilian clothes and had not mentioned I was an airman. I sat quietly as he reminisced between drags on his cigar and raspy wheezes about his own service in Texas during the Second World War.

“Never fired a goddamn shot,” he said.

As his anecdotes unfolded, I noticed a gas station ahead and was a little surprised when he passed it. Trying to keep the conversation going, I told him why I was in South Carolina and where I was headed. He nodded attentively and sped passed a second gas station on the right hand side. I rustled the gas can in my lap to remind him of my mission.

When we surged past a third gas station I pointed it out to him. The man coughed wetly. “Yeh,” he said. “Well, shit, Son, those is n—–r garages.”

Obviously, he intended the explanation to suffice. Soon he pulled into a gas station that had his approval and I jumped out.

I filled the can and went back to the road to stick out my thumb. Immediately, a battered pick-up pulled over and I jumped in. The driver was a black man wearing a cloth cap and overalls.

“Thanks for stopping, Sir,” I said. “My car is down the road a few miles.”

The man nodded and the transmission grated loudly as he put the truck in gear. He didn’t say much, but he smiled when we passed the first gas station that I had obviously spurned.

When we passed the second, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. When we passed the third, I feigned good humor and said, “Almost there.”

“Yes, Sir,” the driver drawled.

When we pulled up to the stranded car, the chaplain and sergeant were engaged in quiet conversation. They didn’t notice the driver of the truck who had delivered their gas to them.

“Let me give you something for your trouble,” I told the driver as I fumbled for my wallet.” “No, Sir,” the driver said, adding inscrutably, “Angels unawares. Angels unawares.” And the truck’s muffler popped loudly as he eased onto the highway.

I told the chaplain and the sergeant what had happened, but they soon lost interest in my account and changed the subject.

It was my first encounter with the Jim Crow south, and it stayed on my mind all my life.

And I wonder: has life in the American south changed in fifty years?

Or have old times there never been forgotten?

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Very Sincerely Typed, Eleanor Roosevelt

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July 6, 2019. Martha, Will, Beny, and I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential library in Hyde Park, N.Y. this weekend.

The artifact I wanted most to see again was Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal typewriter, now protected in a Plexiglas case to protect it from dust, temperature, and curious fingers.

The first time I saw her typewriter, about twenty years ago, it was mounted unobtrusively on a four-foot high wooden pedestal. Visitors to library could have touched it if they wished, and I did. If no one was looking, you could have slipped a piece of paper into the roller and started typing. I didn’t.

It is an ordinary looking Smith (Corona still hiding in the logo) typewriter of the style my father, a typing teacher, might have admired and collected. It looked a lot like the old typewriter Dad allowed me to use in my room in Morrisville, and I used it to type scores of letters to political notables in the early 1960s. Mostly I wanted to elicit a return letter from them, or an autographed picture, or some sage advice about making a career out of politics.

Most of these notables handed letters like mine to their office typists for boilerplate replies. I’m quite sure the only correspondent who typed her own responses was Eleanor Roosevelt. Thus, meeting her Smith (Corona) became as close to actually meeting her as I could manage.

ERCartoonI would have been in my teens when I wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt and I had only the vaguest idea who she really was. I knew she had been the wife of the 32nd President of the United States and that she was a prominent New York Democrat who supported (reluctantly, as it turned out) my idol, John F. Kennedy. If I had gauged her true greatness, I might not have dared send my typed missives to her. I didn’t fully realize her prominence in the Civil and Human Rights movements, or her prestige in international affairs. I didn’t understand that a lot of people regarded her as the greatest woman of the 20th century. I mailed typed letters to her with no sense of the awe I should have felt that she might hold my crude epistles in her hand.

I addressed my envelopes to Hyde Park, N.Y., but she evidently received them in her apartment at 55 East 74th Street in Manhattan. And it was there that she slipped her stationery between the rollers of the Smith Corona and typed replies.

I wrote to her at least four times and she always wrote back. Her replies were thoughtful and direct responses to the questions I asked: Could she advise me as to whether politics was a good profession? Did she favor lowering the voting age to 21? Should I seek an appointment to become a Congressional page?

Several months before she died, I decided to interview her for Smoke Signals, the mimeographed student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School high school in Morrisville, N.Y.

Banging away on my own Smith Corona, I sent her seven questions.

Within days, she sent back seven carefully typed answers on two light-bond sheets of paper, once editing with her pen and once inserting a word with the typewriter.

I printed the answers in the student newspaper, using a manual typewriter to cut the mimeograph master. I don’t recall that the interview made a big impact on the student readers, most of who were stalwart Republicans and didn’t fully appreciate whom Eleanor Roosevelt was.

Naturally, I sent copies to the great lady. And, naturally, she wrote back to express her appreciation.

Eleanor Roosevelt died November 7, 1962. I wonder how many admirers and school children wrote to her as her health declined. How many hundreds of scrapbooks and attics contain her modest responses, “Very Sincerely Yours, Eleanor Roosevelt”?

For me, the typewritten letters she sent to me are valuable beyond price.

And the fact that she took time in her old age to read and respond to the letters of 15-year-olds leaves little question that what historians have said about her is true:

She was a woman of the people.

Below:

1: My first letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, offering advice about entering politics as a profession and advocating lowering the voting age to 18.

2. The second letter, encouraging my pursuit of an appointment to become a Congressional page (a quest quickly abandoned when I realized candidates had to have passing grades in high school mathematics).

3. The third letter, thanking me for sending copies of our high school newspaper, Smoke Signals, which included my interview with her.

4., 5.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s personally typed responses to my interview questions.

ERtypedcorrespondence

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Stalin loved a good parade.

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#NeverAgainIsNow

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“Anything You Can Imagine is Real.” Picasso

picassoMy mother imagined great things for all five of her children and her support knew no bounds. In high school my younger sibs showed great promise for careers in architecture, medicine, health care, and engineering. My only talent was cartooning and I spent hours copying drawings from Superman and Lone Ranger comic books. Mom chose to think of these scratchings as art. We visited an art museum once and she stared critically at a painting by Pablo Picasso. Mom looked at me and declared loudly, “You can do better than that!”

Sometimes Mom personified Picasso’s own adage, “Todo lo que puedas imiginar es real” – anything you can imagine is real. I thought of her loving but vast overestimation of my art recently when I cartooned a fake Picasso to illustrate a blog about how God’s messages are sometimes hard to read.

Needless to say, I am no Picasso. But both Picasso and Mom believed that even the most unattainable aspirations are never silly.  And anything you can imagine may take on a reality no one else can see.

 

 

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This Savior Loves YOU

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God Bless America. No, really.

magatrumpAs Independence Day approaches, our hearts and minds turn to holy writ.

At least, it sounds like holy writ.

Immigrant Irving Berlin writ it as a fervent prayer, and Kate Smith belted it out:

God Bless America, Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night with a light from above.

From the mountains to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

If you remember the Kate Smith you probably also remember John Cameron Swayze. I remember each with fondness and was a fan of both Swayze’s NBC Camel News Caravan (1949 to 1956) and the CBS Kate Smith Hour (1950 to 1954). I remember she read charming stories to children. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced her to King George VI of England, saying, “Miss Smith is America.”

As it turns out, that was all too true.

Recently both the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers stopped playing Kate Smith’s recording of God Bless America at games when it was revealed she also belted out this cringe-worthy ditty in 1931:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.

It seems that God Bless America and Someone had to pick the cotton form an apt metaphor of where our nation finds itself in the 243rd year of its independence.

Founded by white men who either owned slaves or co-depended with slave owners, our forebears pursued a virulently racist agenda climaxing with a bloody civil war that was supposed to free the slaves. But as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, points out, slavery never completely disappeared in America. “The greatest evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimate slavery,” Stevenson says. “Because we never dealt with that evil, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved.”

There was a naïve temptation in 2008 to think the election of Barack Obama signaled a post-racial epoch in American history.

In actuality, American racism lurked beneath the surface during the Obama years and often gurgled through the sewer grate as African Americans continued to die openly in confrontations with white cops, or die mysteriously in dark prisons. “Black Lives Matter,” a movement aimed at protesting the systematic lack of justice for persons of color, was dismissed as dangerous militancy. White persons who tell you they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies would whisper among themselves that Michelle Obama looked like monkey. White GOP politicians in Congress, anxious lest the black President appear to be an effective leader, coalesced to block Obama’s programs and nominations. Donald Trump, then a shady self-promoter and quirky television personality (described by the New York Daily News as a clown), said he had proof Obama was born in Kenya and was constitutionally ineligible to be president.

If American racism hadn’t been lurking so breathlessly in the sewers for the eight years of Obama’s presidency, it wouldn’t have burst forth like projectile diarrhea to support Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign – a slogan to declare his intention to rescue America from the Obama years.

Trump’s Electoral College victory was not due entirely to racism, of course, and had there been no Electoral College he would have lost the election by 2.8 million votes.

But a racist and xenophobic bloc in the U.S., undergirded by an intransigent syndicate of Republican reactionaries in Congress, backed Trump’s bigoted policies. Even before he was inaugurated, Trump declared a ban on the immigration of persons from Muslim countries. He began to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to discourage immigrants and asylum-seekers from crossing the border. He established a blanket policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and, when challenged, lied, and said Obama started it. He is now detaining thousands of brown people in centers that can only be described as concentration camps, many of which do not provide  basic necessities of survival such as toothbrushes, soap, and blankets. When Nazis and Ku Klux Klan white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, he described some of them “as very fine people.” And he literally wraps himself in the American flag, embracing Old Glory with an orgiastic smirk.

Future generations will undoubtedly look back on the Trump years as a fleeting clown show, a political aberration. His racism is just part of his unhinged personality but so far his base – estimated at 30 to 40 percent of voters in polls – continues to embrace him as doltishly as he embraces the flag. It is enough for them that he promises to protect then from encroaching black and brown people and Muslims and they are willing to overlook the fact that 22 women have accused him of sexual assault, that he is a chronic and perhaps pathological liar, that he doesn’t pay his creditors, that he hides his tax returns behind a web of secrecy. Just how much longer his base will believe his claims that these realities are “fake news” remains to be seen.

Perhaps one of the reasons his base adores Trump is that they mistook the Obamas’ view of America as unpatriotic. Michelle Obama, in an unguarded moment during the 2008 campaign, said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” President Obama sought to acknowledge the injustices persons of color face in the U.S. and, in statements that alarmed the Trump base, called for increased controls on gun ownership. But, obviously, the thing about the Obamas that seemed most un-American to Trump’s base was the content of their character and the color of their skin.

Fired by a patriotic zeal that is fueled by an international surge toward xenophobic Nationalism, his base seems willing to allow Trump unlimited license so long as he maintains America’s historic bigotry. So long as he “Makes America Great Again.”

As Independence Day 2019 approaches, I think I will be celebrating not what America has been historically, or what it is now, but what it could be if all of us live up to the American ideals of justice for all.

Love of one’s country is an honorable thing, especially when one loves it enough to see its flaws and want to correct them. This is the right of all Americans.

And love of one’s country is enhanced when it includes an understanding that citizens of other nations are entitled to a patriotic fervor based on their own quest for freedom, opportunity, and justice.

So, thank you, Mr. Berlin, for the stirring strains of God bless America.

But as we celebrate our nation’s untidy birth, let us also stand and sing the more inclusive hymn written by Lloyd Stone in 1934 and supplemented by Georgia Harkness in 1864:

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

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