Three forces in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PHYM) are on a collision course, and unless there is a major new development they are due to meet head-on Saturday March 25, at the spring yearly meeting session.
On one track is the self-styled Undoing Racism Group (URG), which is determined to “hold accountable” the YM, its staff & structures in a drive to “decenter whiteness” & uproot what it sees as an entrenched culture of “white supremacy.”
On another track are those in the YM who are uneasy with the URG. Everyone insists they want to banish racism; but some question whether URG is the best vehicle for this work. Its assertive/aggressive style, some doubt the wisdom of its proposals, some are troubled by both.
This mix is volatile enough. Then on March 4, the third train hove into view in the form of the PYM General Secretary, Christie Duncan-Tessmer. She announced several staff changes, abolishing four job slots, and downgrading another. [Photo below: Christie Duncan-Tessmer, General Secretary, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.]
Job cuts are always hard. As Zach Dutton, PHYM Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life, put it on March 6, 2017:
Laying down the four coordinator positions that make up the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team allows us to create space for the expansion of the current set of programs we offer. I know that this seems counter-intuitive. It also hurts the Friends who work in these positions to lose their jobs. It hurts the communities they serve to lose relationships with their coordinators. This fact bears repeating and holding up. There is nothing about laying down the positions that isn’t painful and that doesn’t make life hard in the short term. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the coming transitions are as smooth and supportive as humanly possible.
When I wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King’s office in the late fall of 1964, seeking a job in the civil rights movement, I claimed to be a writer, and that’s what they hired me to do.
It turned out my claim was mostly about the future: I was working toward becoming a writer. But once on the staff, when confronted by my green rookie whiteness (yes: green whiteness was a thing; maybe still is), I was essentially struck dumb as a writer. I was overwhelmed by the weight of my utter ignorance about the South, the movement, about black and white — about myself.
(I am everlastingly grateful to Dr. King’s office manager, the late Randolph Blackwell, for indulging my failure, and not firing me; I think he could see I needed what Quakers call “seasoning” — a lot of it. And besides, I was only drawing $25 per week from the payroll, which was not much even then.)
For nearly a year, I was able to write only a few poems. (This period of internally-enforced silence is detailed in my memoir of that time –written 30-plus years later– Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.)
But then, late in 1965, after being part of the Selma voting rights campaign and its aftermath — after, as my veteran mentors in the movement explained, “paying my dues,” I finally began to recover a prose voice.
And by then, the seemingly sunny prospects for major progress toward racial justice were being increasingly clouded over by an external threat: the rapidly-escalating U. S. war in Vietnam.
And that’s what I was moved to write the first post-silence piece about: the problems posed by the war, not only to the country or the movement, but in particular to its putative leader, Dr. King. I finished the piece pretty quickly, then feeling bold, sent it off to a magazine — a real magazine, one I had reason to believe Dr. King read.
And they accepted it! The piece was published fifty-one years ago today: March 16, 1966.
It was a first for me in two important respects: my first article published in a “real” national magazine. And it was the first article I was ever paid for: the grand sum of $35. (In a box somewhere in the house, or the storage shed out back, I still have the stub of that check, in a frame; at least I hope I still have it.)
Because it was the first, I have often thought of that piece in March, as this date rolls past. And from time to time, I have searched it out and looked it over.
And it’s not so bad, for a debut article. Sure I was young and callow, and it shows. But maybe the piece was useful then. And maybe it’s worth looking at here. Much has changed since 1966. But much also seems to still be stuck, or even worse. Issues of progress toward racial justice are certainly still salient, and the draining of resources away from closing these gaps on behalf of an ever-greedy war machine are as timely as this morning’s headlines.
So as both a personal exercise, and a public offering, I have copied the full text here, interleaved with some current reflections.
The Christian Century – MARCH 16, 1966, pp 331-332
Dilemma for Dr. King
The Vietnam war is perhaps the greatest challenge of this Negro leader’s career and conceivably its culmination.
Charles E. Fager
(Mr. Fager, formerly on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is now on the faculty of Friends World Institute in East Norwich, New York.)
AS THE LEADER of the Negro struggle for equality, Martin Luther King is faced with the perils of success. His movement, it is now clear, is going to bring America’s Negroes into the mainstream of national life. The job will not be done “NOW!” or even within a generation, but the forces set in motion by five years of mass nonviolent effort are too far-reaching to be reversed. The nation’s “white power structure” has come to realize not only that integration can be accomplished without major upheavals in the present American socioeconomic system but also that it will in the long run serve to enrich that system.
Reflections: How language has changed! The universal “he” leaps accusingly out at me; that was still standard discourse then. Also “Negro”: yet it was a respectful term at the time. Dr. King used it all his life. But what is almost embarrassing is the presumptive tone of optimism: “we” (the movement) had won; all over but the shouting.
I wish. But this was not merely my personal conceit. The 1960s civil rights movement had just reached its high-water mark in Selma: the new Voting Rights Act was registering black voters by the tens of thousands across the South; both President Lyndon Johnson and a progressive Congress seemed on board.
Sure it would take time to mop up the remaining pockets of resistance. But that year the movement had hit what looked like a home run, rounded third, and was striding confidently toward home plate. And Dr. King, who came to Selma with a Nobel Peace Prize fresh in his pocket, appeared to be at the apex of his prestige and influence. Those were the days! And how soon they passed . . . .
With victory on the horizon, the Negro leadership with Dr. King as its symbol seems uncertain about what to do next. There is a strong temptation to dig in, to consolidate and expand the gains already made; in short, to begin playing the political game for an ever larger piece of the nation- al pie, as did the labor movement at the end of its rise. Such a feeling is natural. “Freedom Now!” translated into more specific terms means for most Negroes simply: “We want in!” Into the economy, into the political circuses, into all the currents and eddies of the American mainstream. This is why the Muslims and Black Nationalists failed to catch on with the Negro masses: they preached revolution and prepared for an Armageddon which would destroy the white world. But the average Negro doesn’t want to destroy anything; he wants to spread it around. He isn’t basically opposed to “the system”; he just doesn’t like being at its bottom.
Of course, Muslims and black nationalism, beginning with the cry of “Black Power,” were hardly fading, but about to become a major fixture of the news and the black community. Ah well; more that I and other white liberals never guessed about the future, though by mid-1967 my first book , White Reflections On Black Power, undertook to grapple with its first wave.
The way is not so clear for Dr. King, primarily because during his entire career his whole stance has been not merely an economic one but more basically a moral one. He opposed segregation not simply because it was economically debilitating but because it was evil and unchristian. Perhaps such a focus on ethical matters was but part of a strategy, a necessity if the conscience of the non-southern white community was to be stirred and drawn into the struggle. If so, it now stands revealed as a two-edged sword, because many of the moral issues which Dr. King and the movement have raised in the restricted context of the segregated south have national and international contexts and implications as well. With the entry of the civil rights movement into the level of full national participation, the leaders are no longer just confronting the nation with its regional sins but are themselves confronted as full-fledged citizens and moral spokesmen with the issues of overall national policy.
I think I was right about the moral foundation for the movement here. But economics did not go away. Dr King returned to focus on it in his last year, with the plans for what became his last effort, the Poor Peoples Campaign. I wrote about that in my book Uncertain Resurrection; but it’s another story.
The most unsettling context for these issues is, of course, the war in Vietnam. Negro leaders, even up to last spring in Selma, frequently told draft-age males in their audiences that they had no business fighting for anything abroad until things were straightened out at home. Now, faced with the realities of tripled draft calls and Negro bodies being shipped home from southeast Asia, many are wishing they had kept their mouths shut. When some worker in Mississippi (who apparently hadn’t got the word) seriously suggested that Negroes refuse the draft, the resulting flap reverberated all the way to Harlem and back. The traditional Uncle Tom leadership hastily scrambled aboard the Johnson escalator; the militants, and Dr. King as the most successful and ethically articulate of them all, were thrown into a public quandary.
Dr. King is not known as a man of vacillation, yet his statements on the war seem curiously circumspect, almost tame. His staff is said to be deeply, even bitterly divided over strategy regarding a response to the war. Some have reportedly urged him to begin immediately an all-out effort to challenge the surrounding smokescreen of official doubletalk. Others are convinced that such a course is suicide; they contend that Dr. King and his organization would be Red-baited into bankruptcy and oblivion even within the Negro community. The few mild protests he has made are said already to have cut substantially into the donations coming into his Atlanta office. Given the permanently precarious finances of civil rights organizations, this makes further ventures even more risky.
Here I get to the point and the piece begins to hit its stride: In fact, Dr. King was being very circumspect in comments about the Vietnam war in those months. But I had also heard him, at a closed staff retreat in late 1965, say that eventually he would have to face up to the war, and take whatever criticism a more public stance provoked. “Eventually” still seemed to be far off when I wrote this piece — and when it was published.
At present Dr. King seems to be trying to walk a tortuous middle path: opposing the war as a matter of form but doing so as quietly as possible. Speaking to a support rally for unseated Georgia representative-elect Julian Bond, a SNCC staffer, King concentrated on the issue of free speech, not the SNCC statement opposing the war which brought on the legislative move. Perhaps Dr. King is biding his time, hoping to get his campaign against northern slums off the ground before tackling the broader issues of the war. There is something to be said for this as a matter of tactics.
Julian Bond, (1940-2015, educated in part at the Quaker George School in Pennsylvania), still young but a veteran civil rights activist, was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed. But in January 1966, the Georgia House refused to seat him because he had endorsed a public anti-Vietnam War statement. Some months later the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered that he be seated, and he served in the Georgia legislature for twenty years.
It is also possible, however, that Dr. King simply doesn’t yet know what to do. Challenging the war would mean an open break with the administration and the loss of all the perquisites of membership in the “great consensus.” In any case it seems unlikely that he can continue to be quiet in the face of continuing escalation of the fighting without seriously compromising his acknowledged role as a man of principle.
Though going through motions of support, the nation is clearly uneasy about the war. This self-conscious, almost guilty attitude is new in the national consciousness, and Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns can take much credit for its development. As the administration’s facade of “national honor” in Vietnam continues to be punctured by the responsible press, the underlying contradictions and moral evasions of our policy are brought home ever more forcefully to much of the informed public. Each new lapse of credibility, each new revelation of official immorality cries out the louder for rebuke and makes more critical the need for authentic moral challenge to the war.
Among all our truly national figures Dr. King is one of the few who are undeniably men of conscience.
Even now, I stand by that statement, while acknowledging that Dr. King had his flaws and sins: he plagiarized much of his doctoral dissertation; he was serially unfaithful to his wife. On the matters of racial justice and war, he was indeed moved by conscience, lived bravely, and paid for his witness with his life.
If there is to be any significant national reassessment of the Vietnam war and the policies it exemplifies, he could do more than anyone else to bring this about and his implicit acquiescence in the war would do the most to prevent any such reassessment. He cannot escape these facts. No one thrust as Dr. King has been onto the stage of world attention and conflict can ever again find a refuge in the sectional or minority cause from which he sprang. When he accepted the Nobel peace prize he baptized all races into his congregation and confirmed the world as the battleground for his gospel of nonviolence and reconciliation. He is no longer and probably never again can be a spokesman for just an American Negro minority. Simply because of his position in the world limelight, he cannot avoid confrontation with the ethical implications of national and international events.
Other voices, much more influential, were delivering similar messages to Dr. King. And he was listening. At the end of 1966, he went on a month-long private retreat. At an airport enroute, he picked up a magazine which had on its cover the unforgettable photo of a young Vietnamese girl (Kim Phuc, who survived horrible burns and scarring and now lives in Canada) running down a road, her back seared with burning napalm from U.S. bombers. The image reportedly shook him (as it shook many others, including me.) When King returned from his retreat, at the beginning of 1967, he was ready to take on the war with the full blast of his eloquence.
This is why as the Johnson administration talks of escalating the war beyond 450,000 men, of bombing Hanoi-Haiphong and even of confronting China on the Asian mainland the virtual silence of the unchallenged spokesman of American conscience becomes ever louder and more painful to those who have followed him thus far. The war in Vietnam is perhaps the gravest challenge of Dr. King’s career and conceivably its culmination. Who among us today could blame him if, faced with this dilemma, he agonizes over his course of action? No one, surely; but Martin Luther King, Jr., is not only answerable to us of today: he must walk with history as well. And if in his agony he should fail to act, it must be asked: can history forgive him?
Dr. King not only made peace with history — he made history when he took on the Vietnam War. His finest address on the war, “Beyond Vietnam,” given at the Riverside Church in New York City, was initially blasted by white Establishment voices (and some more cautious black ones). The Washington Postwas typical, declaring that he had thereby “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
I was among the several thousand packed into the Riverside Church to hear this address — delivered April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, and it fulfilled every aspiration expressed in my article. And despite the initial cascade of criticism, Dr. King’s witness, reinforced by that of others, and events in the war, turned much of this Establishment in his direction within a couple of years.
Dr. King did not live to see his sacrificial witness bear fruit. I did, and its personal impact has has never diminished. All of which makes this article, and this personal anniversary #51, more important than simply marking the first toehold in public print. Despite its youthful limitations, it discerned themes and concerns that continue to this day, and seem (alas) undiminished in their urgency.
Tomorrow I’ll be posting a Quaker tale for Valentine’s Day, our version of Romeo & Juliet. There are several original illustrations in the story, by an African American artist who deserves much more recognition than she has received.
After much searching on the net, I was able to ferret out enough data for this tribute, to the late Charlotte Lewis.
Note: Much of this material was copied and adapted from a webpage that can no longer be found.
From “Women City Builders: Honoring Women’s Civic Contributions to Portland, Oregon”
Charlotte Lewis (1934-1999)
An artist, activist, teacher and tireless community worker, Charlotte LaVerne Graves Lewis was born on May 1, 1934 in Prescott, Arizona to Lillian and Charles Graves. In 1937, the family moved to Portland, where Charlotte grew up, showing artistic and academic precocity at an early age. After graduating from the Portland Art Museum School in 1955, she pursued a career as a graphic designer, then lived in San Francisco and Philadelphia for several years before returning permanently to Portland. Continue reading Charlotte Lewis: A Fine African American Artist→
In light of recent events, permit me to share a photograph or two.
Selma, Alabama, March 1965. I stood on the church steps behind John Lewis, Hosea Williams & Andrew Young.
Then John & Hosea marched over the Pettus Bridge & were beaten & teargassed; John got his head busted, was almost killed. I got off easy.
John Lewis got up from his hospital bed and helped win voting rights for millions of Americans. He’s still fighting for those voting rights, which those who scoff & tweet are busy undermining.
And on that day, when hundreds including John & Hosea walked their talk through Selma, across the Pettus Bridge into the teeth of hate, where was the fool with the little hands who now says John Lewis was “all talk”?
He has said he was avoiding the draft & STDs. Is there any reason to doubt him?
Next Monday will be devoted to the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was my good fortune to work under Dr. King in the great voting rights campaign he led with others in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Besides being historic for America, that experience was formative for me. It led me to jail, to a repudiation of war, and even to Quakers.
Monday evening at Pendle Hill, starting at 7:30 PM, as part of this remembrance, I’ll be talking about that experience, and you’re invited. Details are here, and it’s free.
In December 1964, I joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. Shortly thereafter I was sent by SCLC to Selma, Alabama, where I worked in the Voting Rights Movement organized by Dr. King and SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Continue reading For MLK Day: Stories from Selma, January 16→
Went to see this movie at the Tuesday bargain matinee. The film was the surprise box office winner for films that opened last weekend.
My goal for it was twofold:
1. Pig out on popcorn (no added “butter,” free refill); and
2. Be distracted from the fearful foolishness outside.
I’m aware that there are some black sophisticates who sneer at producer/writer/actor Tyler Perry & his famed drag character Madea as retrograde & politically incorrect.
Personally, I’m in awe of both: Perry is no puppet of white moviemakers: he built an empire by creating a strong, original character who combines many of the paradoxes of the culture and makes them tolerable through broad comedy. And he gathered his following from the ground up with black audiences. Many of Perry’s films seem clumsily assembled, yet Madea outshines them and survives.
“Boo!” involves the standard Perry ingredients: sassy but vulnerable youth; elders who are hilariously obnoxious, often off-color, pot-smoking (mostly legal this time) & foul-mouthed. The plot is far-fetched & mainly irrelevant, with a dollop of throwback piety to reassure the nervous churchgoers tittering in the back.
Never mind the story; it rolls along. The point is, I came out two hours later, still chuckling. And not til the car radio went on did I realize I hadn’t thought about the damn election & all that, not even for a second, for more than two hours:
That’s worth five stars & a bushel of rotten tomatoes. Money’s worth, totally.
The New York Times Magazine has a very striking & powerful profile of Larycia Hawkins, the former tenured professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. She was abruptly fired last year after publicly wearing a hijab “in solidarity” with Muslims facing Islamophobia.
For the record, she wasn’t converting to Islam, but this gesture of “solidarity,” especially by an articulate black woman intellectual was way too much for both Wheaton’s white male rulers & its mostly white constituency.
Let’s Salute the Flag & Stand for the Anthem — Oh, Wait!
This flag was flying over the Manzanar relocation camp in the high desert of California in 1942. Manzanar, as well as nine other camps were packed with more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, who were taken from their homes shortly after the U.S. entered World War Two against Japan & Germany. Most lost everything they had owned.
Manzanar is now a National Historic Park. And it’s one that Quakers have a lot invested in, though not many of us know that.