Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.
Flashbacks: an article in the August 17 (2019) Washington Post, about a donnybrook developing around the vacationing Supreme Court, is giving me flashbacks:
It seems like a century ago —
October 4, 2018. The first day of hearings on the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. Everybody was waiting for the predicted bombshell sexual assault testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
But that morning I got my timing mixed up and tuned in early, well before the featured fireworks began. As red-robed Handmaids circled outside, my ears were filled with the platitudes and boilerplate of opening statements by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On August 2, federal judge Petrese B. Tucker issued a decision on a motion to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit filed in July 2018 by two former teachers at Philadelphia’s Friends Central School (FCS).
The teachers, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, were suspended in February 2017, and fired in May, after they scheduled a talk at FCS by Sa’ad Atshan, a Palestinian Quaker professor at nearby Swarthmore College. School officials canceled Atshan’s talk.
Tucker’s decision dismissed some of the charges made in the lawsuit, but said others were credible and litigation on them could go forward.
The fired teachers’ lawsuit made six accusations. It named school officials and board members as defendants.
Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.
Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:
“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.
But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse. The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”
Here’s a report written in 1977 (on a typewriter; imagine!), just after the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in late June 1977. The gathering included all the branches, and it was when the issue of LG Friends (BT&Qs weren’t listed yet) burst onto the national Quaker agenda, where it has stayed ever since.
I wasn’t there to cover the event. As a rookie attending his first ever national Quaker event, I wanted more to socialize than do journalistic work. I had saved up to pay the fees and busfare, to avoid work-related distractions.
I should have known better.
1977 was the year for articles on gay rights controversies: Miami-Dade County, Florida adopted a pioneering gay rights ordinance, which sparked a widely reported repeal crusade led by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.
None of this was on the official agenda at Wichita when I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the gymnasium at Friends University, where we low-budget attenders did our best to sleep. (That’s also where I got kicked in the head a couple times in the dark, presumably by accident.)
One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.
It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.
Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”
In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.
As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.
That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.
But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.
I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.
Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.
As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.
History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.
The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.
New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.
Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.
Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.
There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.
But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”
From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.
This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.
That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.
I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.
I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)
From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.
I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.
But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .
The Southern Baptists, you ask me, buried the lead (or lede if you’re old school) about their 2019 national convention as deep as possible:
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Birmingham, Alabama last week was driven by recent, sensational news reports of hundreds of unaddressed sexual abuse cases involving SBC pastors and other church staff. There were impassioned speeches, apologies to recovering victims, fancy big-screen graphics, fervent pledges and new programs, etc.
This year, with the U.S. Catholic bishops meeting on a similar topic in Washington the same week, and major media buzzing like dragonflies around both events, it’s a thing.
For seventeen years, I lived in the Washington DC area; in fact, inside the Beltway by a few miles.
Some misinformed persons think this area is glamorous. I didn’t much care for it. Congress and all that didn’t impress me: they were necessary, but burdensome, pretentious, and viewed up close, mostly boring. Likewise for the weather: winters were cold. And summers were particularly tough: long, hot, heavy, humid.
In the early years, my access to air conditioning was spotty; many nights were sweaty and oppressive, with box fans rattling ineffectually by open windows.
Worse, in 1985 I delivered mail from my car on a long rural route, from winter to fall. I don’t recall much of those bookend seasons. But in between, there were six-day work weeks, pushing through the midday highs, as waves of engine heat radiated punishingly across the front seat of my weathered Chevy wagon. Open windows were part of the deal, neutralizing an already tepid a/c.
That seemingly endless summer deepened the dread of those months, and cemented my hatred of the most visible harbinger of their arrival: stands of orange daylilies.
If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.
Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?
Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.
Not yet, deo gratias.
(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)
So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.
The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.
Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.
This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.
Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.
Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.
But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.