Category Archives: Black & White & Other Colors

Dr. King & the FBI: Orgies & Commies & Wiretaps, Oh My!

It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.

And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.

One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. It  was dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.

This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline  JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)

The cover of the newly-released FBI paper on Dr. King, written in 1968.

It’s been widely shared enough to provoke a furious denunciation from a columnist for the Black-oriented site, “The Root.”  

It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.

Stanley Levison, 1912-1979, ex-Communist, later close advisor of Dr. King.

King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.

I saw a number of these billboards in the South in the 1960s.

No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.” 

In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide. 

A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.

The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”

The “punchline” of the FBI-written, anonymous “suicide letter.”

King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.

All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?

And a related question is, doesn’t  this behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?

I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.

First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.

Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.

Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.

Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.

I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.

SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.

The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour,  starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:

“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population that  is eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.

“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”

A “Colored school” in Lowndes County, Alabama, circa 1965.

Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:

“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”

By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.

Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.

There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.

One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.

With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.

She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.

I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.

But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She needed to see him. That, she said, was why she came.

Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–

But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.

And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.

But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:

A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.

Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.

I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.

And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.

As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.

I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.

“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.

She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.

That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.

But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)

But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?

To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.

I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.

At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)

And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)

James Bevel, left & Dr. King.

But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.

In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.

King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.

How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.

To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.

This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.

Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.

But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.

Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.

I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.

Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.

Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”

At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.

Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?

Do I need to breathe?

*    *    *

Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King that evening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.

Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.

The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”

Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse. 

Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:

“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter
Take warning from me
And don’t you go marching
With the N-A-A-C-P. 
For they’ll rock you and roll you
And shove you into bed.
And if they steal your nuclear secret

You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”

Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.

This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.

I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch.  The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.

Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.

He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.

In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.

I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act,  was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.

What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?

Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.

I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures;  Dr. King as a sinner makes sense.  And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.

For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.

That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?

Anyway, more disturbing to me personally than King’s philandering was the revelation that he plagiarized much of his graduate work and his doctoral dissertation, a serious intellectual infraction which is now well-established. Maybe that’s just me.

We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.

“Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom”

Been hearing & reading a lot lately about “cultural appropriation” & how awful & widespread it is.
I’ve been musing about this all week, while sitting in on rehearsals for “Pathway to Freedom,” out in the woods of Alamance County NC.
Here, at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, an interracial cast is preparing to perform the only ongoing play about the Underground Railroad. On July 13, “Pathway” will open its 23rd season. The cast has been working hard every day,

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom”

The “Pathway to Freedom” Starts Here (For Friends & Others) — on July 13

On June 27, 2017, Mark Sumner’s friends and family buried him in a quiet North Carolina cemetery.
But tonight, in a wooded grove some miles away, Keisha Little Eagle will resurrect Sumner. And she’ll do it by running away.

Mark Sumner was 93 when he died last week in Chapel Hill NC. In his long life he did many things: became an Eagle Scout; served in the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two; studied engineering in North Dakota; taught riflery for the NRA; and was a professor at several colleges. Continue reading The “Pathway to Freedom” Starts Here (For Friends & Others) — on July 13

Philadelphia YM’s Racial Turmoil Continues: Ambushed by URG

No wonder issues of race in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting are in a mess.

Spring ferns at Pendle Hill, in the calm before the . . .

I’d read and interviewed and blogged about this on March 23, 2017; but it was brought home to me directly in early June.

That’s a restrained way to put it.

More plainly, I was set upon, ambushed by two persons claiming to be part of the self-styled Philadelphia “Undoing Racism Group,” or URG, as they called it for short.

It began at Pendle Hill in early June, where I was visiting their Young Adult Friends conference, as a specimen Geezer Quaker, before  moving on to the Quaker History Roundtable later in the week. It came as a request to hear some “concerns” about my March blog post; I agreed.

It turned out, though, that the two URGers, a white male and female, wanted rather more than to “express concerns” about the post. In a session that stretched to three hours, they declared it was full of racist lies, had damaged their cause, and that it and I were thereby shown to be enablers, even pillars of racist white supremacy.

To set things right, they insisted I must retract the post, publicly apologize for both the text and its headline, and as a sign of real repentance, become a booster of their agenda.

I was unable to meet their demands. For one thing, there are no lies in the post; I stand behind it. For another, URG’s repeated rebuffs in PYM came well before it appeared, as did the turmoil and division that accompanied their efforts. The post may have echoed the questions of some others, for which I am not sorry; it was hardly their source. And I am not moved to become URG’s scapegoat. Continue reading Philadelphia YM’s Racial Turmoil Continues: Ambushed by URG

Breaking: Barber Goes National – Updated

Rev. Dr. William Barber to transition from North Carolina NAACP to join the leadership of the “New Poor People’s Campaign” [Update below.]

The Kairos Center [an organization created by Union Theological Seminary inNew York City] is excited to announce that the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II will be transitioning out of his role as the president of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP in June, in order to join the growing leadership of the New Poor People’s Campaign. [The New PPC is a project of the Kairos Center.] The North Carolina NAACP announced the news in a press release this morning . . .

“Rev. Barber will focus attention on the new Poor People’s Campaign co-led by the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, where Rev. Barber is a distinguished professor of public theology. Throughout 2017 and early 2018 he will lead trainings and organize alongside moral leaders, including poor black, brown and white communities.

The forthcoming report, ‘The Souls of Poor Folk,’ co-developed by the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Rev. Dr. Barber, and noted economists, historians and public policy experts, will explore why issues of poverty have changed or remained the same since the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68.

In early 2018, moral activists will lead 40 days of simultaneous direct action and civil disobedience in state capitols, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Congress.

‘Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a radical ‘revolution of values’ inviting a divided nation to stand against the evils of militarism, racism, and economic injustice. In the spirit of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68, we are calling for a national moral revival and for fusion coalitions in every state to come together and advance a moral agenda,’ said the Rev. Dr. Barber.

‘There is a need for moral analysis, articulation of a moral agenda, and moral activism that fuses the critique of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and national morality in a way that enables organizing among black, brown, and white people, especially in regions where great efforts have been made to keep them from forming alliances and standing together to change the political and social calculus ,’ he said.”

The story has already broken in several mainstream media sources, including ABC News and the Winston-Salem Chronicle. ABC reports [And this blog].

“Barber also leads a nonprofit called Repairers of the Breach and said that group, along with the Kairos Center, Union Theological Seminary and others will lead a movement that will concentrate on 25 states and the nation’s capital where voter suppression, poverty and other problems are prevalent. The groups plan major actions next summer, which would mark the 50th anniversary of the start of King’s campaign in 1968.”

UPDATE:

Late on May 11, Barber sent out a letter. Here are excerpts:

I write with gratitude for each of you who have entrusted me to serve in leadership and with appreciation for the broad coalition of black, white, and brown; Christian, Muslim, Jewish and those who believe in a moral arc of the universe; young and old; gay and straight; Republican, Democrat, and unaffiliated who have joined our work over the past 12 years.

I am writing to let you know that I am stepping down from leadership of the NC NAACP in order to accept an invitation from moral leaders across the nation to serve and help lead a new Poor People’s Campaign & National Call for A Moral Revival. I feel this is a deeply spiritual call in this moment, so I’m stepping down but not stepping away from our work together in this movement.

When I first ran for State Conference President on the platform of moving “From Banquets to Battle,” my family, church and I committed to this work. In our first eight years together we were able to build a people’s coalition with strength to push reluctant Democrats to raise the minimum wage, win same day registration and voting, push back against re-segregation of schools in one of our largest districts, and free innocent black men from prison.

As a result of the work we were able to do together in that time, a foundation was laid for “Moral Mondays,” which emerged in the spring of 2013. Through sustained moral fusion organizing, with a race and class critique rooted in our deepest moral values, we pushed back against extremism for four long years to see the defeat of an extremist Republican governor, the election of more progressive members to the state Supreme Court, and the overturning of the monster voter suppression law that targeted African-Americans, according to a federal court, “with almost surgical precision.”

Our work is not over here in North Carolina. But, as you know, extremism is at work in other states and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government, much as it did here four years ago. This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic racism, poverty, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.

This is why in this moment I am entrusting the NC NAACP to other strong leaders who can continue its work; I am not stepping away from the NAACP or from you, my NC NAACP Moral Movement family. I will continue to pastor Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro [NC], to support the NAACP’s work here in North Carolina and to serve on the national board of the NAACP. As we expand our moral fusion coalition model to over 20 other states as well as the nation’s Capitol, I am committed, as ever, to moving forward together, not one step back. . . .

Visit www.breachrepairers.org and learn more about how you can be involved in the Poor People Campaign’s National Call for a Moral Revival.

Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance

When Friends pulled the rope on the bell atop Spring Friends Meeting, the ringing convened the Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation on March 25. And its session began with cheers & applause.

Pull the rope, ring the bell for victory over the AHCA, and to call for continued resistance.

That’s because there was a major success to celebrate: the abrupt, inglorious end of the so-called “American Health Care Act” the day before. Continue reading Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance

The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017

The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017
Spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp NC
(For Directions, click here)

The Consultation Schedule:
Continue reading The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017

A Quaker Race Riot In Philadelphia?

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.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has had to absorb many in recent years; Continue reading A Quaker Race Riot In Philadelphia?

“Dilemma for Dr. King” – A 51st Anniversary Review

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.)

Selma, 1965. Hosea Williams, John Lewis & Andrew Young in front, I’m in the back, at right.

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, left, with Dr. King.

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 Post was 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. 

Charlotte Lewis: A Fine African American Artist

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”

“Children of Humanity” – a mural by Charlotte Lewis, in 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