“I was a typical young Southerner, born and raised in LA—Lower Alabama.” Meet Bob Zellner.
I got to do just that, last October, when Bob and his activist wife Pamela joined my Common Power Team NC canvassing group. Over big plates of BBQ, I got to ask Bob questions about events I’d read about in his book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Like the time Bob was beaten badly on the steps of the town hall of McComb, Mississippi, in a march led by Black high school students. But in the New York Times article, they called Bob “the leader” of the march–because he was the only White guy there.
You could call Bob the White counterpart of Representative John Lewis; they grew up quite close to each other in Alabama, both poor, both country–but on either side of the color line. Which explains why Bob started life from a KKK-supporting family, before becoming the first White field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s.
Bob’s a folksy guy; like a lot of Southerners, he’s not into drama. Just tells it like it was–and is. His mission today, he says, and for the rest of his life, is to tell young people: “You can be White, and you can be a Civil Rights activist, and you can survive.”
Come to think–that’s a pretty good message right there. Reading Bob’s story, not to mention rubbing shoulders with him, reminded me how ordinary these extraordinary “ACTIVISTS” can be. Maybe a teensy bit braver than I am…
I hope you listen to Bob or check out his book. Pass it on!
I’m not going to spend time talking about why I’ve stepped away from this blog for the past year. I’d rather talk about what brought me back.
Since Sandy Hook, since Trayvon, since Charlottesville, since [fill in your own moment of “whatthefuckishappeningtous”], I’ve been looking for people and ideas and groups which provide myself with hope and purpose. Along with my family; some dear friends; some small-but-mighty organizations within my community; music; nature, and writing, I found Common Power, and its educational branch, The Institute for Common Power, both of which I have written about.
For the last three years, I’ve gone deeper into action to protect and extend democracy, mostly through phone-banking and donations, but also writing letters to elected officials, and, last October, canvassing in my home state, North Carolina.
Dr. Williams is a History professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and founder of their Racial Justice Initiative. It was his part of that 24 hours of teaching that got me back to Wing’s World. He talked about two “challengers,” starting with NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded live on TV in 1986 (which many of us remember all too well).
Dr. Williams reminded us how Ronald Reagan went on TV to tell American children the tragedy:
“We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way democracy is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”
His message: Ron DeSantis, anti-“woke” Republicans–are you LISTENING? Democracy means FACING UP TO BAD STUFF. Like, you know…U.S. History.
Dr. Williams closed by talking about Muhammad Ali, of whom actor/director Ed Begley Jr. said, “Ali’s secret was that he was always the challenger.”
And this historian/activist then looked at the camera and asked us listeners to find ways to continue to be the challenger. To do more than what we’ve been doing to help our country be its best self.
And I thought: okay. At the very least, something I can do is to expand Dr. Williams’ message.
So in the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the talks from that incredible 24 hours. I’ll be sharing, amplifying, extolling the messages I’m absorbing about how to help our country. And if just a few of you reading this decide to do the same, consider yourselves challengers too.
When it comes to the state of the world, be it locally, nationally or globally, everyone I know–and probably most I don’t–has felt like this a good deal of the past five and a half years:
Most folks I know–and even more I don’t–have also found sources of inspiration to get themselves up off the floor and stay positive, or at least productive. Staying within my immediate circle of control is my go-to: cooking a meal for someone; spending time with an elder or a child; sometimes just contributing money.
But for me, real hope takes larger-scale action, and I would like to share my personal “hope-workout” of the last few years: Common Power.
Originally named Common Purpose and founded by UW Communications professor David Domke, “CP”s goal is “to foster, support and amplify a democracy that is just and inclusive.”
Even better, in my book, is the way CP goes about their work. I was first introduced to their three-part mindset when I attended a standing-room-only (obviously pre-pandemic) meeting in Seattle back in…2018, I think. This image speaks for itself:
Since joining, most of my “work” has been calling elected officials or phone-banking in “red” or “purple” states, which, no, I do not love. (Who does?) But most of that calling hasn’t been about trying to convince people to vote a certain way. It’s simply been working with in-state, non-partisan organizations (like NC’s You Can Vote) to give folks information they need to register, or to get their ballot accepted, or find their polling place. Do we target traditionally sidelined or disadvantaged voters? Of course. That’s the point. And as a result, those folks we do reach are, often as not, more grateful than grouchy.
Besides providing me with an escape ladder from the Pits of Helplessness, CP has also become a source of inspiration, learning, and even joy.
Close to home, when I can, I attend AJ Musewe’s Lunch and Learn series midweek, where the delightful AJ explores themes like the history of redlining, or little-known democracy pioneers. (When I can’t attend live, I listen to them recorded.)
The monthly meetings (fully accessible now–no more trips to Seattle!) begin with music and good news, and always leave me pumped up about the next event, like…the inauguration of the newly-expanded Institute for Common Power, coming up June 4! That one’s in-person, so I don’t know if I can go, but maybe you can go, and personally mingle with some civil rights heroes, compatriots of the late Rep. John Lewis, who survived the campaigns of the 1960s.
CP enthusiasts are also encouraged to join state “Teams” to focus their energy on one of seven states where democracy is both imperiled but also salvageable. Of course I chose Team North Carolina. And while I’ve limited my participation to online and phone work so far, I intend to travel next fall with Team NC to my home state to do the most effective GOTV work of all: knocking on doors, connecting with people. I CAN’T WAIT.
Best of all, for my teacherly soul, CP’s emphasis on next-generation leadership means that my NC fieldwork will be directed by leaders younger than my own kids. They’ve all been through CP’s Action Academy–a completely rad organization in itself; maybe you’d like to contribute, or recommend a youth to attend?–and I also CANNOT WAIT TO WORK WITH THEM.
Can you hear that hope-muscle working? Does your own hope need a workout? I invite you to check out Common Power.
…the demise of The Chicago Defender’s print editions represented a painful passage for many people who grew up in Chicago and for those with memories of its influence far beyond this city. Of its many significant effects over many years, The Defender told of economic success in the North, and was seen as a catalyst in the migration of hundreds of thousands of black Americans from the South.
The article goes on to say,
The Defender delivered news of monumental events — the funeral of Emmett Till, the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the election of Barack Obama — but also of everyday life for black Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.
“We never saw ourselves listed other places in weddings, funerals, debutantes, so this became a real frame of reference for activities,” Mr. Jackson said. “My career would not be what it is today if not for The Defender.”
Images courtesy of New York Times and Chicago Defender
I won’t say “R.I.P.” because the Defender will continue–and, I hope, thrive–in its digital form. But the article caught my attention because the news hits in a moment when I, like many White liberals, am scrutinizing what it means to be a part of white supremacist society that benefits me even while I criticize it.
One thing it has meant, over the years, is a comforting sense of “Yep, I’m America,” while minorities, no matter how much I support their rights, remain just that: minorities. Not fully people with their own lenses, lenses which might cast me in a view I’d rather not face up to.
Part poetry, part essay, part lament, part witness, filled with art and filled especially with pointed pain, this small book skewers any notion of White righteousness with passages like this one:
Someone in the audience asks the man promoting is new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect–context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.” (p. 48)
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry. (p. 18)
Reading Citizen is painful. That’s why I’m doing it. I know The Chicago Defender was not written for me. That’s why I need it to exist. If I think about this a little longer, I’ll probably end up subscribing.
Yes. I think I will. Because if I’m okay with my lens being the only lens offered to Americans, aren’t I complicit in pushing everyone else out of the frame?
Hunter’s article points out many features of poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.
But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:
The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.
“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.
Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.
Quick: Turn to someone near you and tell them who Edward Snowden is and why he matters to Americans.
If you’re like the folks Comedy Central’s John Oliver interviewed on the streets of Manhattan, you will either a) draw a blank or b) confuse Snowden with Julian Assange, the “Wikileaks Guy.”
Hopefully you’re not like those folks. But if you suspect you might be, watch this breathtaking interview conducted in Moscow with what Oliver calls “America’s most famous patriot and/or traitor.” When I say breathtaking, I mean that literally: breathtakingly bold, breathtakingly honest. Oliver asks Snowden the questions most of us would want to ask.
But in so doing, he also turns the camera on us, in effect asking Americans, “Why don’t you care more about the real effects of the Patriot Act? Why don’t you care more that your government has been proven to have the capacity to spy on you?”
A quick warning, before you watch this episode from Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”: if you’re offended by casual profanity and excessive references to male body parts–don’t. This ain’t the New York Times, remember–it’s Comedy Central.
But in my opinion, it still deserves a Peabody Award.
So, you watched? Is John Oliver brilliant or what? Tell me what you think.
I realize that no one’s going to make me Pope anytime soon. (My not being Catholic is only one of the many reasons.) But WERE that ever to happen, down the road, and were I ever to come under pressure, as I am sure a future pope will, to declare Nelson Mandela a saint, my answer would be a thoughtful No.
Not because he doesn’t qualify. Sacrificing his entire life to the cause of justice, including 27 years suffered in prison; knitting together a country on the verge of bloody explosion; living as a constant symbol of hope, love, and reconciliation–those are indeed saintly qualities. Performing a miracle? How about getting Black South Africans to cheer for the all-White Springbok rugby team? That beats walking on water any day.
I would also not beatify President Mandela merely because he himself protested that people should not call him a saint. Humility is, of course, one of those saintly qualities.
I would not declare Saint Nelson because to do so would be to distance him from the rest of us, to make his example, for future generations, less “relatable”*…and less effective.
*one of those words with which this former English teacher maintains a hate-love relationship: can’t stand its overuse, but haven’t found an equally effective synonym
(orig. image courtesy blackpast.org)
Saints suffer, of course. But the word “saint” implies–to this non-Catholic, at least–a certain inherent holiness, a kind of built-in insurance against ultimate suffering. “Well, jeez, he’s a saint,” my brain says. “Of course he sacrificed; he knew he was going to end up at God’s right hand, didn’t he?” And I don’t think my brain is all that different from other people’s brains.
What made Mandela great is the same thing that made Jesus great. But it’s also the same thing that makes cancer patients great, or anyone who gets up each day to face enormous burdens of pain or responsibility but does so with the pure energy of love and generosity toward others.
Human perseverance. Not the grit-your-teeth-and-suffer-through-it kind. The kind which makes it seem as though your burdens weigh nothing at all, because you’re constantly offering to carry the burdens of others.
I know some of those people personally. I might think of them, briefly, as saints, or even call them that, jokingly. But inside I know that what I love and admire them for is the fact that they are very, very, very human–they are flawed just like me!–and yet they STILL act so nobly.
Nelson Mandela was flawed. Nelson Mandela still managed to be an icon for all of us. It helps me to think of humans as having that potential even in the face of other humans’ evil. His very human-ness is what we need to hang onto, as we look for ways to apply his approach to other ugly parts of the world.
How about you? Do you know any human “saints”? Do you think the title of “saint” distances a person from the rest of us? Or does it bring him/her closer as a role model?