Saturday, February 28, 2009

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Zora Neale Hurston
1891 - 1960

Folklorist, Playwrite, Author
"Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place."

Friday, February 27, 2009

Understanding Hunger - First Hand

Sean Callebs at CNN is conducting a pretty interesting experiment: he's living off of food stamps for a month.

Of course we call them 'food stamps' out of habit, now is actually called the 'Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program', or SNAP. Callebs has to cheat a little, because he actually doesn't qualify for the SNAP program. He's is living off of the monthly allocation for a single person, which is $176.

Here are a few entries from his blog on the experience:

February 26
"For dinner, I made grilled chicken, rice, and green beans. Oh, I am almost out of milk, juice, and the little packets of knock-off Crystal Light that I have been using. I still have $16.10 left. I know I am going to have to buy more milk and perhaps a couple of other items to tide me over.
I will make it through the month. I actually feel pretty good about that. I know I have received a lot of email from people saying, $176 I started with was a lot of money for one person. But, I had to totally overhaul the way I have always eaten, and I will remind you the folks at the Department of Social Services here in Louisiana didn't think I would make it through the month."

February 25
"A lot of people have said if I want to experience the hardship I need to extend the experiment. Try living on food stamps for two months, or three months.

"There are so many things that have changed in the way I eat. I am constantly thinking about what I have left in the fridge and on the shelf. I think about how much money I have left. I think about ways of making my meals more diverse with the limited items I do have. In short, it just wears on you having to constantly worry there may not be enough, or it simply isn't what I want to eat. And mind you, I am just one person. I can't imagine how agonizing it must be for families to have to deal with this stress day in and day out worrying about how they are going to feed their children.

"Remember, here in Louisiana one in six receives some kind of assistance in the form of food stamps. And, 31-million people across the country do the same."

February 22
From an email

"From Tennessee, Julie is critical of the notion that food stamps are supposed to be a supplement. She says, "I read about food stamps supposed to be a 'supplemental' program and not the only way people buy food. That is a joke. People who truly need food stamps are using them as the ONLY means of food purchase (Unless they use food banks).""

It's very easy to be critical of poor people. To consider them drags on society and talk about what they 'should' do. That perception changes when you meet them, when you work with them as they try and pull themselves out of poverty, when you have relationships with them. Or as in Sean Callebs case, try and walk in their shoes.

That's getting a lot easier for some Texans. By the end of 2008, almost 3,000,000 people were participating in SNAP. A 25% increase over the previous year. What is interesting is that only about a third of those eligible for SNAP/food stamps, actually participate in the program, and only 56% of the working poor (families in which at least one person is employed), is a participant.
There are any number of reasons for this. Obviously the economy is an overwhelming factor. The country has had an increasing poverty rate for years, but the economic collapse of 2008, placed a number of people who never expected it in application lines.

But the fact that there aren't more people making application for SNAP, also has contributing factors. Texas' outsourcing the application process has produced inefficiencies in the administration of nearly all social services. Lack of outreach and education regarding who qualifies for the program is also at issue. Pride is probably also a cause. But the facts are, for all those receiving assistance there are a lot of people in Texas going hungry, unnecessarily.

The rest of us who go to bed at night on full stomachs, should think more about the fragile nature of our prosperity. Another respondent to Callebs blog is getting it: "Sue has been following the blog this month. She's someone who has never had to worry about food stamps, or where the next meal will come from, but like so many people, she is shopping a bit differently these days. She writes in: "Thank you for taking the time and energy to give the rest of us a bit more of an awareness of side of life most Americans can't even begin to comprehend. I have had lean times in my life, but never have I felt the crushing burden of not knowing whether I would eat today, or whether I would be able to find shelter for myself on a cold night.""


You can read my monthly column in the Dallas Morning News here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

We Can't Quit on Students Like This

When I was watching President Obama's joint session of Congress speech on Tuesday night, I couldn't place the little girl seated next to the First Lady. Of course, the world knows who she is and rightfully so. Fourteen year old Ty'Sheoma Bethea is the student from J.V. Martin Junior High School, who wrote to the President and to her Congressman to remember her 113 year old school next to a noisy railroad track. But she didn't just write about the tragic conditions of the school building. She expressed her ambitions and those of her classmates, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina, but also the world."
Her letter, after a visit by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, became a metaphor for the plight of poor students in inadequately funded schools and by extension, yet another metaphor for the plight of public education in our country.

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote about the school, which was also the subject of a documentary entitled Corridor of Shame.

By now, many of us know that J.V. Martin is located in Dillon, South Carolina. The school district in Dillon is among 36 school districts bringing suit against the state for its failure to live up to its obligation to minimally educate all of its students. Those districts participating in the suit are 88.4% minority (the state average is 48.1%). Seventy-five percent of those students score unsatisfactorily on state-wide achievement tests vs. 17.4 percent of the state's total student population.

Many who would like to see public education done away with, would suggest those schools along Carolina's I95 corridor are representative of the 'children who don't want to learn'. And yes it is true indeed, that there are Ph.D's, great politicians, statesmen and millionaires who had it just as tough. But at the risk of contradicting an earlier post - these are different times. Schools without modern equipment, or with buildings in horrible disrepair, without adequate light, heat or air conditioning and in impoverished areas are at critical disadvantage with children educated in wealthier schools in wealthier school districts. Argue all you wish that money isn't the total answer to public education. I would argue the more money the better - its just a matter of how you spend it. Parker noted in her column, by the way, that some of the rooms in the school were just above 50 degrees. When the documentary was filmed at the school the temperature was 18!

All of the above aside. The line from Ty' Sheoma's letter that I will remember; the line that will remind me that while adults squabble over standardized tests that will make money for other adults and get adults elected to public office because they promise voters continued standardized testing, is the line, 'We are not quitters.'

I hope the adults in charge of her education, and there peers throughout the country don't quit on them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Honest Conversation on Race vs. Monkey Business

Probably the most unfortunate thing about living in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet is that it doesn't give time for reflection. Immediate reporting and equally instantaneous opinion, via blogs and online news, means that the time to process is undermined by a barrage of images and reactions.

So Attorney General Eric Holder's controversial statement on race, in which he referred to our Americans as 'a nation of cowards' when it comes to a serious discussion on the issue, was merged with the New York Post's controversial cartoon of two police officers gunning down a chimp with the words, "Next time they'll have to get someone else to write their stimulus package."

Immediate reactions to Holder's comments, 'he was right'; 'he was wrong'; 'he was right, but he had no business as Attorney General making such a statement'. Reactions to the cartoon: 'another racist shot at African-Americans, proof that bigotry is alive and well'; or, 'people are out of their mind, its obviously a shot at Congress for authoring such a lame-brained stimulus bill'; or 'another assault on free speech. People ought not be so thin skinned. The media should say whatever they want.'

Maybe time wouldn't provide anymore clarity on these positions. But, considering that, I still think we need to sort through the volatility of both incidents.

The fact is the cartoon shows that we do indeed need a serious conversation on race. Who on earth would think of running something like this and not think that some people would be offended. Or did editors at the Post think that there was such euphoria over the election of a black president that black people would forget other cartoons and hate speech that referred to them as 'monkeys'? I was watching Monday Night Football when the late sportscaster Howard Cosell, excited by watching a long touchdown run by a Washington Redskin and said, 'Look at that little monkey go!' Most of us who remember Cosell's career, knew that however controversial Cosell was he was not racist, but he offended so many sensibilities, black and white, that he ultimately was booted of MNF. That wasn't 100 years ago.

We know the genesis was the shooting of Travis the chimp, the primate in Connecticut that went berserk and was shot by policemen. But considering race relations in this country, did the Sean Delonas have no other artistic perspective to share. Did he do that just because he could? I'm reminded of my favorite line from the movie 'Jurassic Park'. Jeff Goldblum chastises Sir Richard Attenborough, for exploiting his discovery of using DNA to reproduce dinosaurs. 'You were so caught up with the idea that you could do it that you never asked yourself whether you should.'

This incredible tone deafness in this area, could be avoided if in a serious conversation on race, we began to take seriously the sensibilities of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities when it comes to pubic speech and culture. There are some things that just aren't acceptable. And some things that just aren't funny.

The New Yorker magazine cover from last year, which depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as radical terrorists, actually obscured a rather revealing and interesting article on the then Democratic nominee for president. Had we just seen too many pictures of Obama smiling or both of them with their children for the editors to use one of them on the cover. It would have been perfectly acceptable to run a thoughtful or reflective pose by the former Senator, or a picture of the couple being affectionate with one another, and the caption, 'Too Good to Be True'. But for some reason shock value was more important than reason.

There are scores of caricatures that are no longer even vaguely referenced. Irish Americans were, at one time depicted as monkeys - we no longer do that. Jews were once depicted as rats, we no longer do that. Why evoke racially offensive memories with hurtful stereotypes?Unfathomably, our search for a 'color blind' society, has devolved into a lack of respect for history that is considered cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

At the same time, Eric Holder's comments reflect another challenge. Discussions on race are difficult on both sides. And if he meant that both blacks and whites (and others), can be cowardly when it comes to race he's right. One of the worst kinds of cowardice can be to blame every social pathology in black communities on racism. Certainly, we can trace issues of concentrated poverty, poorly equipped schools with inexperienced teachers and lack of access to capital, along with crumbling economic infrastructure on a systemic, institutional racism that exacerbates their impact. But there is a greater social infrastructure that we as black people can develop that can transcend even the most overt expressions of racism.

Without all of the opportunities we now enjoy, black America produced the heroes and 'she-roes', we now celebrate. They were scientists, clergy, politicians, poets, pundits, business leaders and activists. And they emerged during the harshest days of Jim Crow, a time when the color of your skin meant that you could be murdered with impunity and your murderers would be celebrated at worst, ignored by the justice system at best. If we credit Holder's comments with having some integrity, then a brave conversation on race calls for all participants to possess something much more substantive than thick skin - it requires tough mindedness.

Actually Rod Dreher, a columnist with the Dallas Morning News, exemplifies something of the need for this, on both sides of the racial divide. In a column regarding the Post cartoon, Dreher vents about the unreasonableness of those who saw bigotry in the cartoon, which, I supposed could be said to lead to a type of reverse bigotry by the objectors. But Rod speaks as one who thinks that we should be over this type of thing and that freedom of the press, disrespectfulness and just bad taste should be without vigorous objection and, yes, sometimes overreaction. There is no such thing as an innocent discussion of race to be had - not if that discussion is to be serious.

Dreher says, "The Delonas controversy erupted on the same day U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech describing America as a "nation of cowards" too afraid to have "frank conversations" about race. Is he insane? When people have their jobs and even their lives threatened for crossing invisible lines of racial sensitivity, you'd be crazy to take that risk.
"If Holder really wants to show bravery, he'll stand up for Sean Delonas, instead of contenting himself to chastise his countrymen for not running marathons across minefields."

I think he forgets that the risks taken in real conversation, not mindless, tasteless, insensitivity, are not nearly as great as those taken by others, white and black, who died so we could have an honest, brave interaction with one another. It trivializes their sacrifice to suggest that they crossed their minefields in order for us to be crude, boorish or thoughtless.

Personally, I would have rather Holder spoken of how he plans to make the United States Justice Department more just for all its citizens. But given how things played out, maybe his provocation was what we all needed. A conversation on race that is not cowardly, is a conversation that is not without consequences. There are things of which we are all guilty and things for which we should all feel shame. That cartoon is one of them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Dallas 'Interdependent' School District

At some point, in a tour of some new found friends from the east coast, I mentioned 'DISD'. I, do have a habit of using acronyms and phrases that I think are universally understood. It can be embarrassing when you find out they are not. As in this case.

What's 'DISD'? One of they 'tourists', a preacher from Virginia, asked. "Dallas Independent School District"? I replied, patiently. "Independent?", he asked. "Independent, from what?" As I fumbled through the an explanation, I realized it was something I had just taken for granted. Aren't all school districts 'independent'. Those of you who know better are probably laughing me to scorn. I don't blame you.

But the idea, that school districts in Texas, operating as independent government bodies, is something I've always taken as a matter of course. But, over the past year or so, what we have really seen, is something that those of us who just 'assumed' the independent nature of public education, have often suspected: they appear to be independent of accountability.

After the $84 million financial debacle last year, inadequately funded inner city schools. A reputation for education that has families, black and white, running for the nearest (or farthest), suburbs one wonders how much longer DISD will earn the right to remain 'independent'.

Just how do we fix this mess anyway? A new superintendent? That idea seems to have gone out the window. A new school board - uh, please...they just voted add an extra year onto their term of office. Without much public outcry, and without much in the way of legal opinion as to whether or not such an action is lawful.

Meanwhile, our children are not being educated. And more and more adults whom we trust, are trying to syphon dollars from campuses and classrooms.

Everyone of us can point to exceptional students and great teachers. But neither grow on trees. Education is not just for 'exceptional' students, nor is the teaching profession just for stars. Every advancement we can think of, in arts, science, the economy, education, religion and government, depends upon developing life long learners out of those young boys and girls in our cities classrooms today.

So what do we do?

More and more people are talking about two rather creative proposals. One proposal is to break up this large unwieldy 'independent' district into several school districts. They would be smaller, more manageable and more accountable to the communities in which they are located. Each one could be more innovative in their approach to education. I not only have some affinity for that idea, I think there are circumstances under which it could work. But only if tax revenue could be shared equally among all districts. However, even then, the income disparity between communities would still result in rich school districts and poor school districts. And while I like this idea in a romantic, best of all possible worlds scenario, it doesn't seem to be working all that well in a state like, say California.

There is another conversation that is starting. Have Mayor of the city, run the school district as well. Again, another interesting idea. The Mayor could appoint or hire the superintendent, the councilpersons can appoint the school board. It has some merit because cities have a large stake in whether or not public education is successful. It impacts the ability to attract business and it affects housing patterns.

On the other hand, we are adding quite a bit on the plate of elected representatives who we sometimes suspect are inadequate to perform their current duties. Are we willing to pay them more? If not, aren't we relegating the pool of city council candidates to a pool of citizens who can 'afford' to run for and hold elective office?

No plan is perfect. All systems and configurations of those systems are vulnerable to corruption, abuse and mismanagement. But it is clear that we need to do something, because the current system isn't working. And its no longer acceptable to brush away Dallas' education problems by saying its a national problem. At some point, we should want to be the exception rather than prove the rule.

What's really great is that people across the city are thinking. They are thinking, debating and asking difficult questions. Not enough of them, but some are beginning to think and deliberate. They are thinking creatively and passionately about a deep problem. And maybe the one thing we should take away from this, whatever system emerges or even if we manage to fix the current one, is that the 'I' in 'DISD', should really stand for 'Interdependent'.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Unemployed Texans Should Be Grateful!

One wonders what governors throughout the country who say they don't want the federal money made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or stimulus package) are thinking. Well Texas has one of those governors.

Facing a budget shortfall of anywhere between $3-$10 billion, Governor Rick Perry is taking a proud stand and picking and choosing his way through the stimulus package. Perry, who earlier simply called stimulus package a bad bill, is now shedding some of the bluff and bluster in order to get highways and bridges fixed. But, in order to show this deficit loving-spend happy-Democratic President and Democratic Majority Congress just who's who and what's what, he is contemplating rejecting increased unemployment benefits for those Texans who have lost their jobs! That'll show 'em Gov! After all that at the end of e year when those increased benefits run out, Texas would be on the hook to continue to pay people who have lost their jobs, (many through no fault of their own ) a whole extra $25 a week, then where would we be!

The Texas unemployment rate, which hit an all time low of 4.1% in March of last year, hit 6% by December 2008. That is significantly, as well as significantly below the nations 7.2% unemployment figure.

In a letter to President Obama, Governor Perry said that Texas gives more money to the federal government than it receives. But one of the reasons that is true is because Texas leaves more money on the table when it comes to federal money than nearly any other state. Over the past 10 years, for instance, Texas has failed to take advantage of nearly $1 billion in SCHIP (State Childrens Health Insurance Program) funding. That money doesn't just evaporate into the ether; it is used by other states. In 2003, because Texas failed enroll at least 75% of those eligible for food stamps, it lost more than 800 million federal dollars. With these being part of the reason for Texas' returning more money than it receives to Washington, it seems odd that we should boast about it!

Now, Texas has another bragging right: "the nation's broken economy isn't hurting us as much as some other parts of the country. We see no reason to put another $25 in the pockets of 6% the workers who helped make our economy so strong."

And how should those, unemployed workers feel about our Governor's largess? "...people living in Texas are a heckuva lot better than the vast majority of the other ones..."

Gee, thanks Governor! We all feel alot better now.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Does it Take to Get the Respect of A Citizen?

I'll confess that I'm a little sore still from the rebuff of the city council's vote that awarded still another liquor related business in a section of the city over saturated with liquor related businesses.

I'm probably equally irritated by the fact that there are people who covet the anonymity of blogs to vent racism, hatred, xenophobia, resentment and paranoia against minorities and the poor. These are the people who dare not speak personally with the people for whom they have such antipathy, but find it easier to voice their venom protected by the thick techno-curtain of the blogesphere.

But I'm also concerned about the state of local politics. This past week, Central Dallas Ministries had yet another vote go against us. A vote to support our plans to turn a near vacant hotel into high quality homes for the poor and currently homeless, was denied by the council's housing committee.

When linked with the political disregard with which some of our elected officials hold unjustly formerly incarcerated citizens and I am beginning to wonder just who are the people we categorize as 'citizens'?

If you own property, how much does that property have to be worth, in order for your citizenship to matter?

If you have a business, does business ownership trump all other expectations that poor neighborhoods and communities have from government, therefore relegating them to a discounted type of 'citizenship'?

When we say 'community', who are we talking about? Are we talking about only those who have the social 'space' to meet and deliberate and publicly ask arcane questions in polite, appropriate ways?

What if 40-50 poor, unemployed, currently homeless people had come to City Hall voicing their support of a project that they considered to be in their interests? Would they be considered a 'community' or a mob?

Does it matter that they will most likely be in Dallas much longer than those who opposed the project?

Why is it always better for government to spend money to help those who have money make more money, while money spent to stabilize poor neighborhoods, homes and schools, find better jobs, or obtain more education are considered 'give-a-ways'.

Why are veterans, and others who have have worked and yet gone through some misfortune or personal disaster, leaving them homeless considered 'unworthy' to receive support via the benefits they've accrued through their service to their country or their more productive working years? And why do those who are one missed paycheck from financial disaster, if not homelessness, mouth the interests of those with money, and who receive much more 'welfare', than the poor?

And how do we think that it is fair, in anyway, to unjustly take away a man's liberty for decades, release him penniless and homeless and then say that it is politically untenable to support their just compensation?

What kind of politicians justify their support and perpetuation of these ironies? And how do we justify our support of them?

Those of us who work with the poor, the homeless and those whose communities suffering neglect, blight, and decades of intentional and strategic disinvestment, are not blind to these ironies. And believe it or not we know and understand the political process not only as it should be, but as it currently operates. The fact that we chose to try to engage politics in the way it should be done, doesn't mean we're unmindful of the way it currently operates.

We are bewildered, however, that more people don't recognize those ironies and work with us to expose them. Until that happens, politicians will continue to talk themselves into thinking that they are doing the right thing. And those comfortable in voicing their thinly veiled antipathy, toward those with whom we work, will continue to give credence and support to those who find it more convenient to hide behind the blogesphere to spew their nonsense.

That is, until some of them join the numbers of those we serve.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Letter from a Birmingham Jail - Part III

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly.

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Letter from a Birmingham Jail - Part II

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Letter from a Birmingham Jail - Part I

From a solitary cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these words in response to white clergymen who accused him in the local newspaper of fomenting violence and social unrest through his non-violent protest.

In the margins of newspapers and sheets of toilet paper he wrote this apologetic in defense of Civil Rights Movement and its tactics in what has been called our nation's second Civil War.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail, looms large in the history of our nation as one of the greatest treatises on the race relations, civil protest and the struggle to be free.

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants--for example, to remove the stores' humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

Originally entitled the 'The Negro National Anthem' (also referred to as 'The Black National Anthem', or simply by its title), was presented first in 1900 in celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Its author, James Weldon Johnson is one of America's most higly regarded and beloved authors and poets. This song inspires hope and faith in a future of freedom and opportunity, without denying the dark oppression that has characterized the African-American's history in this country. As one leader has said, this song, 'speaks of black people in American, when America didn't have faith in black people.'

For all the controversy regarding Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction at Barack Obama's inauguration - there was little comment about how he opened the prayer: 'God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou Who hast by Thy Might, led us into the Light, Keep us forever in the path we pray.' It is a stanza from this song, one which many a preacher (myself included) has opened many a public prayer. It speaks to an enduring faith in the power of the Almight to lead us to a future of opportunity and justice.

We're not there yet. But we are so much nearer than we were when this song was written more than 100 years ago.

Below are the words, and below that a powerful rendition for those who have never heard it.


James Weldon Johnson
June 17, 1871 - June 26, 1938

'Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy mightLed us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our GOD,
True to our native land!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Starting the Week with Grace - Amazing!

Preachers are famous for 'borrowing', but at least this time let me give attribution for this post!
Thanks to my buddy Shawn Williams for sharing this first.

I first came across Wintley Phipps in the early to mid-eighties when he sang for prominent televangelists. What a voice! But its interesting that his life is about much more than many Gospel singers whose main motivation appears to becoming 'crossover' artists.

What he does here is so inspirational. I thought I'd pass it along. I think it may be a wonderful way for many of us to start our week!

For the most part, 'Amazing Grace' is sung the same way in black churches today. Now I know why...thanks again Shawn!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Honorable Rev. Walter Fauntroy Retirement: Another Sign of an Era's Passing

While nearly all of the nation looked forward with great anticipation to Barack Obama's swearing in as our the U.S.'s first black president, another event went unnoticed to the general public. It too, noted the passing of an era.

Walter E. Fauntroy, long time Civil Rights leader, aide to Martin Luther King, Jr, and one of the principal organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, retired from New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington D.C. Fauntroy was also a U.S. delegate to the House of Representatives from the District of Columbia.

That's noteworthy because for 52 years there was at least one African-American minister seated in the House of Representatives. Fauntroy followed Adam Clayton Powell after his death in 1971.

Black politics is becoming more independent of the Black Pulpit. But black politicians shouldn't forget those who made their ascendancy possible. African-American preachers and pastors ran for local, state and national offices when others couldn't or wouldn't. What is sad about Fauntroy's retirement, is that not one black elected official attended. Granted he retired the Sunday before Obama's inauguration, but Walter Fauntroy is no inconsequential figure in American history.

Fauntroy, as a lieutenant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C), worked tirelessly with King, Joseph Lowery, Wyatt T. Walker and others, for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, without which the election of Obama would have been impossible; he served 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus (at a time when they could have held their meetings in a phone booth!); Fauntroy crafted home rule legislation for the District of Columbia and while today, we are fast making the word 'bi-partisanship' a cliche', Walter Fauntroy worked with HUD Secretary Jack Kemp to craft policy that would help public housing residents manage and own their own homes. Walter Fauntroy worked to get Martin Luther King's birthday to become a national holiday and to end apartheid in South Africa.

Fauntroy, in his role as politician, preacher and pastor was among those who helped pave the way for the Michael Steeles, Corey Bookers, Duval Patricks, and Artur Davis' - and yes - the Barack Obama's.

Rev. Fauntroy, far from being bitter about being overlooked by those who travel a road he helped pave, says that in retirement he will be, "...touring the nation with many other pioneers of the civil rights movement at historically black colleges and universities, holding 'pass the torch' ceremonies and symposiums."

That spirit is another reason why Walter E. Fauntroy, should never be forgotten!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Gwendolyn Brooks
1917 - 2000

Poet, Pulitzer Prize Winner
"Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies. And be it gash or gold it will not come Again in this identical guise."

Friday, February 13, 2009

NAACP's 100 Anniversary

The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth is also the 100th anniversary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples).

Some wonder whether or not organizations such as NAACP are necessary. It depends on whether or not the impact of bigotry, prejudice and institutionalized racism represent problems already solved. Events in Jasper, Tulia and Paris, Texas tell us that's not true. Violence against minorities after the election of the first black President tell us that's not true. The need for more work within our communities in education, unemployment, politics, business and justice tell us that its not true.

The NAACP, through the work of stalwart leadership from, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ben Hooks, Merlie Evers deserves to be remembered. And now the history to be forged by new national president Ben Jealous, continues a vital legacy in the American experience for another century. From the fight for ant-lynching laws, to Brown v. Board of Education, to fights that have liberated the ambitions of colored peoples in suites, boardrooms, court rooms and the streets the NAACPs victories are the capstone of the fight for freedom in our country.

Happy 100th Anniversary NAACP

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Growing Appreciation for Lincoln

It's no secret that I have an intense sense of pride as an American and as an African-American in Barack Obama's ascendancy to the office of President. But one of the things that startled me was the way he spoke of Abraham Lincoln.

I would imagine most people think that American blacks would have a profound sense of gratitude for the 16th President whose signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, most of what I read growing up, and even as an adult, left me with a profound ambivalence regarding 'Honest Abe'.

Lincoln seemed to me, to be ambivalent regarding the plight of slaves and that has always left me a little cold. Also the idea that Lincoln, while apparently against slavery, did not consider black people equal to whites, has always troubled me.

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Those words, spoken during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, have been a stumbling block in the estimation of African-American historians and contemporaries of Lincoln. Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr, says in his book, "Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream", regarding Lincoln's legacy as The Great Emancipator, 'No other American story is so enduring. No other American story is so comforting. No other American story is so false.' Frederick Douglass viewed Lincoln early on as a 'genuine representative of American prejudice.' and also referred to him as 'preeminently the white man's President'.

Barack Obama's admiration for Lincoln caused me to reexamine my early estimates of him. But it wasn't the first time, that my analysis of the one called 'the greatest of all American presidents' was challenged.

I was in a seminar with Ronald White, author of a book called "Lincoln's Greatest Speech", a study of Lincoln's second inaugural address. While I chafed at White's assertion, at one point that there was a type of 'moral ambiguity' regarding slavery (looking back, I'm almost certain he didn't mean it the way I took it - but I challenged him on it anyway), I was at first struck by the beauty of the speech. Reading it more often, I was overwhelmed by its moral authority. It is not just a political speech, this is a man who has delved deep to place in context the suffering of his nation and his own suffering as well. It is profoundly public and personal.

I remember the first time I saw that speech inscribed on the wall of his memorial and again, it took on fresh meaning.

Lincoln stripped away the pretext of the Civil War. It was not about 'economics' as some revisionists have tried to assert: "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it."

At the same time, he saw deeper spiritual significance and paradox in the War's execution: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.""

No wonder, when afterwards in the White House, when Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass what he thought of his speech, Douglass replied, "It was a sacred effort."

I looked at the Gettysburg Address and in its sensitive brevity. I saw someone whose heart was unalterably moved by what his country was experiencing, " a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

We refer to politicians, as 'tone deaf' when they are unmindful of the mood and suffering of their constituencies. I don't get the impression that Lincoln was 'tone deaf'.

Lincoln's attitude towards blacks changed when he allowed African-Americans to fight in the Union Army (at Frederick Douglass' constant public prodding). He saw their bravery and also saw that the tide began to turn as these soldiers put their lives on the line with their white fellow soldiers. Lincoln respected them and their patriotism.

And while I have not fully turned the corner in my evaluation of him, the thing that I admire about him most; the thing that his presidency has taught me to look for in any president, is the peculiar capacity to shape the office by being shaped by it. That has been seen in very few presidents. I believe it was the case with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, I think it was true with Truman and Eisenhower, it was beginning to be seen in Kennedy and to some degree with Reagan. But that list is not very long and the country suffers enormously when it doesn't happen at all.

Lincoln's respect and gratitude for black Americans was so great that in his brief remarks in a window at the White House, after the Confederacy surrendered, he spoke of giving blacks the right to vote. In the crowd to whom he spoke, was a 27 year old actor named John Wilkes Boothe. Boothe determined tha it would be the last speech Lincoln ever made.

It was.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where Do We Get the Money to Help Exonerees?

Martin Luther King, Jr. critics and detractors increased as he spoke less of desegregation and integration and more about economic justice. "It didn't cost one dime for America to desegregate lunch counters and transportation", he said. He was absolutely right. In fact, not only did it not cost, it paid. Desegregation and integration greatly expanded America's consumer base. Most of this country will gladly support strides toward justice which don't cost anything. It's much easier to gain public support for resolutions than it is for costly legislation to correct injustices.

It the same with case of exonerees. Timothy Cole's posthumous exoneration cost the state a court hearing. But were he alive, we would be talking about tens of thousands of dollars. That's what the Innocence Project of Texas is looking for in its work in the Texas Legislature.

More specifically, among the things they are asking for:

  • An increase in compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 per year of incarceration
  • They are asking that this money be placed in an annuity to ensure continued income
  • They are asking legislators to support Senate Bill 115/House Bill 498, 788 which is the creation of an Innocence Commission to identify additional practices that need to be changed and a process by which the state can find and free the other innocent people, especially those for whom there is no DNA evidence still available to test.
Obviously, the sticking point for some legislators is the idea of increased compensation for exonerees. The question that almost any politician would ask and which I was asked on at least two occasions was, "Where will the money come from?"

I nearly always bristle at the question, because my gut reaction is, "I'm not the one who asked to run for office, that was you! Isn't it your job to find the money?" And that's true, unless the issue is not of interest to a politician.

To be sure, $80,000 per year of incarceration, is a lot of money. Especially when you realize that there are 20 exonerees in Dallas alone.

Yet according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, there are approximately 156,000 inmates in the Texas penal system. Tax payers pay a little over $18,000 per year, per inmate (the national average is over $24,000 a year). In 2008, 1200 prison beds were added at a cost of $60,000 per bed.

Repeatedly jailed, or hospitalized prisoners, or those who are repeatedly admitted to detoxification centers cost the state about $55,000 a year. In a report published in January 1999, the Criminal Justice Policy Council projected that by 2008 the state would spend between $53-56 million in health care costs on more than 10,000 inmates 55 years or older.

Had these men not been exonerated these dollars (or some parts of them, because most of these men are in there early to mid 50's), would have been spent on them as prisoners.

How would the state pay increased compensation for these men? Why not let the aforementioned dollars follow these men after their exoneration? That way this is not a new pot of money and had they stayed in prison it wouldn't necessarily represent an increase because we don't close prisons because they are overcrowded.

Where would the money come from?

It's strange that no one asked where the money came from to inadequately investigate the crimes;

  • no one asked where the money came from for the trials which wrongly convicted them;
  • no one asked where the money came from to house and feed them, or provide health care (of whatever quality) during their incarceration, many for two or nearly three decades;
  • no one asks where the money comes from to arrest, try and convict the actual perpetrators of the crimes for which these men are wrongly convicted and incarcerated;
  • no one asks where the money comes from as we pay the cost for the crimes committed when these perpetrators are not caught;
When society makes a mistake of such consequence as convicting the wrong man or woman, we all pay a great price, monetarily and in ways that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

The money is there. Just like its always there to do the things that politicians consider to be important. Its a question of whether or not we consider the lives of these men worth what it will cost.