Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Martin Luther King Holiday

"How long, not long,
Because the arc of the moral universe is long,
But it bends toward justice.”
         Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1965

Because IUN was closed for Martin Luther King Day, I attended Valparaiso University’s “MLK Celebration: Hope, Action, Change.”  On the way I discovered that Lakeshore radio was running a recently discovered tape of a speech MLK delivered at London’s City Temple Hall on December 7 1964, notable for the extended remarks denouncing apartheid in South Africa.  On his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, King had spoken the day before at St Paul’s Cathedral, but the City Temple Hall lecture received less publicity.  Responding to critics who claimed that time will heal injustice and those (such as Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential campaign) who argued that I was impossible to legislate morality, King said in part: “While it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me.”

Keynote speaker was at the VU convocation was 35 year-old Ishmael Beah.  During Sierra Leone’s civil war his parents, grandmother, aunt, and brothers were killed, and Beah at age 13 was forced to become a child soldier.  He documented his horrendous experiences in a 2007 book “A Long Way Gone.”  Hopped up on drugs and wielding an AK-47, Ishmael, skilled at executing prisoners of war, rose to the rank of lieutenant.  In 1996 UNICEF workers took him to a rehabilitation center in Freetown, and a nurse helped him get off of drugs and begin a new life by encouraging his love of rap music.  Beah mentioned that Dr. King’s faith in humanity had inspired him as well as this quote: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”  Drawing a laugh at a luncheon afterwards was a woman who asked Beah if that was a wedding ring on his finger.  I spotted Heath Carter’s student Christina Crawley, Valparaiso civil rights pioneer Loie Reiner, and IUN counseling services director Barbara Dahl.

So many people showed up for the afternoon focus session featuring Richard Morrisroe that the event was moved to a larger area.  In 1965, when a 26 year-old Catholic priest, Morrisroe was shot in Hayneville, Alabama, by a deputy sheriff, Tom Coleman, who seconds before had fatally killed Episcopal priest Jonathan Daniels.  While most accounts of the shootings claim Daniels and Morrisroe were attempting to protect two young black students, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, who had been arrested with them and held in prison for six days, Morrisroe is convinced that Coleman meant to shoot them as a warning to other clergy to stay away from Alabama.  Morrisroe survived an 11-hour operation at the same hospital that had refused to admit African American Jimmie Lee Jackson, clubbed to death weeks earlier.  Morrisroe still vividly recalls being taken there in a hearse that contained Daniels’ corpse and staring out the window at mile after mile of pine trees.  Morrisroe remains hospitalized for six months and still walks with a limp.  I had met Morrisroe socially because both his wife and my son Dave worked together at East Chicago Central H.S.  I’ll never forget he and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) embracing at a 1979 event at IUN. 

I had just enough time to see the “Selma” prior to the History Book Club meeting.  The Hobart theater being packed from front row to back, I was fortunate to find a seat. I thought the film quite accurate and fair both toward President Johnson (unlike some LBJ apologists) and Black Power advocates Malcolm X and James Forman although SNCC founders Diane Nash and John Lewis were portrayed more sympathetically.  I cringed during scenes where racists killed Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb.  The speeches by David Oyelowa, playing King, were no substitute for the real thing, but how could they have been?  For some crazy reason director Ava DuVernay was unable to use the exact words King spoke in Selma nor Montgomery.  Timid Paramount feared being sued since the rights had been sold to DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie.  DuVernay cleverly intermixed actual black-and-white news footage (showing Harry Belafonte marching, for example) with in-color shots of the actors.  Oprah Winfrey deserves an Oscar for her portrayal of the heroic Annie Lee Cooper (who really did punch Sheriff Jim Clark in the jaw), and actor Andre Holland was a dead ringer for Andrew Young.

At Gino’s Ken Anderson led a discussion about Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 Second Inaugural Address, delivered as the Civil War was ending and just a month before John Wilkes Booth assassinated him.  Less than eight minutes long, the speech ends with the famous “Malice toward none . . . charity for all” quote where Lincoln asks countrymen to “strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”  I sat next to Brian and Connie Barnes.  When we discussed Lincoln’s religious beliefs, Brian believed it closest to Unitarianism.  He also related that following the Inaugural Address police tried to bar black spokesman Frederick Douglass and a woman companion from attending a White House reception.  He rushed by them and then they tried to trick him by pretending to take him inside.  Douglass later related what happened next:

  We followed their lead, and soon found ourselves walking some planks out of a window, which had been arranged as a temporary passage for the exit of visitors. We halted so soon as we saw the trick, and I said to the officers: ‘You have deceived me. I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln.’ At this moment a gentleman who was passing in, recognized me, and I said to him: ‘Be so kind as to say to Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.’ It was not long before Mrs. Dorsey and I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never witnessed before. Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and homelike beauty, recognizing me, even before I reached him he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’”
Ken Anderson brought up the fact that there is some debate over whether when Lincoln died Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages,” as most histories claim, or “Now he belongs to the angels.”  Booth’s last words, after a soldier shot him and rendered him paralyzed, was “Useless.  Useless.”

Robert Blaszkiewicz’s CD mix of his favorite 2014 songs contains 10 by groups I’d heard of (including Beck, Spoon, Robyn Hitchcock, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and Parquet Courts) and 8 new to me, including Chicago power pop band Twin Peaks and The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia group whose “Lost in a Dream” is Robert’s choice for top album of the year.  My favorite cuts include “Summer Noon” by Jeff and Spencer Tweedy and “Jackson” by Cymbals Eat Guitars.  Robert’s mom turned him on to the band Future Islands and he thought of me when he first heard Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji.”  In “Ben’s My Friend,” there’s a line about a middle-age guy at a concert where “everybody there was 20 years younger than me.”  I know the feeling, and I imagine Robert has been in that situation, or soon will.  My list would have included songs by Weezer, Mavis Staples, and Benjamin Booker.

Toni and I saw “Birdman” and were not disappointed once we got used to its fantasy quality.  A washed up actor who once played a superhero attempts a comeback on the stage.  As Toni said afterwards, it had a Woody Allen feel and strong female characters.  A note on the dressing room mirror of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), perhaps a Susan Sontag quote knocking Broadway critics, reads, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

With the Chicago Bears hiring John Fox as their new coach, the Chicago Tribune ran a feature that mentioned Fritz Pollard, the first African-American NFL head coach.  A Chicagoan who starred at Lane Tech, he was a star halfback at Brown University and the first black named to Walter Camp’s All-America team.  He played for the Akron Pros prior to being player-coach for the Hammond Pros in 1923 and 1924.  After the 1926 season the NFL purged all nine black players, including Pollard, were purged from the NFL.  Pollard’s son Fritz won a bronze medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Not until 1989 was there another black NFL head coach, Art Shell of the Oakland Raiders In 2005 Pollard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In 2007 Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts became the first black coach to win the Superbowl.

On the elevator I asked a young woman if she had some interesting classes.  She said it was her final semester, and all but one of them were on-line offerings.  I wonder, will she have any memorable learning moments from them?  When I think back to insights I gained as an undergraduate at Bucknell, I associate them with certain professors, such as the political scientist who explained that countries, the United States included, typically act according to what is in their self-interest; or the historian who argued that without a countervailing power, big business interests would control America.

I watched an energized President Obama deliver his penultimate State of the Union Address to enthusiastic Democrats and Republicans who generally looked as if they’d rather be elsewhere.  Son Dave commented: “Would it kill John Boehner to smile?”  Lorraine Shearer wrote: “He always looks like he has a poopy diaper on.”  Conservative Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas skipped the event altogether, Scalia calling it “a childish spectacle.”  Even though modern presidents would be wise to emulate the brevity of Lincoln’s public addresses, I believe it’s an important symbol of an ideal, bipartisanship, worth honoring.

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