Today I sent the following FAX to the U.S. Senators from North Carolina:
Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech denouncing the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City. I was honored to be present then. In the speech, Dr. King prophesied a future of continuing immoral American wars. That prophecy has alas come true, in spades.
In the Iraq War which was launched in 2003, one of the worst of its many horrors was the use of torture. I have protested that practice for more than ten years, calling for ACCOUNTABILITY for those who created, justified and/or carried out that program.
(During the early years of the Iraq war, I gave away hundreds of these bumperstickers.)
This week you have the chance to HOLD ACCOUNTABLE one of those who justified official torture: NEIL GORSUCH. As reported by your colleague Senator Dianne Feinstein, as a white House lawyer Gorsuch justified torture and advised on ways officials could evade accountability for it. (Details here: http://bit.ly/2nYHgUZ )
This is but one of many reasons to oppose his nomination to the Supreme Court. For me, and no doubt it would be for Dr. King, this shameful record is a major one. VOTE NO ON GORSUCH.
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.
This past week (so far) a bunch of big shoes have dropped, including:
— a huge war buildup;
— the sharks circling for the kill on health care; while
— even longtime peaceful immigrants living in fear;
— Muslims, even American-born ones, being harassed at the borders;
— clean air & water are gurgling down the tubes;
– more vote suppression is on the march, and
– I probably forgot several more —
But stop the presses–!!
The really big Quaker news is that the hardline evangelical caucus in North Carolina YM is upset (again) because they aren’t yet guaranteed “sufficient separation” from a handful of liberal meetings they’ve been trying to purge for more than two years. And so they’re pushing for yet another in the unending series of showdowns; it will come this Saturday, March 4, at the NCYM Representative body session.
Why? Because he’s having a public meeting. TWO, actually; one of them right here in Durham. And we didn’t even have to ask him!
Now, some fussbudgets might object that there’s nothing “heroic” about a Congressman meeting constituents. “Hey,” they grumble, “this is his JOB. It’s what he was elected to do: listen to us here, and work for us and for a better America in Washington.
Silly idealists. Especially this year. This month. This WEEK. It must be heroic, because so few of his colleagues are daring to do it.
(Has your Rep. been seen in public this week? Our two NC Senators have evidently fled the country. #notkidding.)
According to the Town Hall Project, Butterfield is the ONLY ONE of North Carolina’s 15 Members of Congress holding actual town hall meetings this go round. Maybe the others think it’s now illegal here, like trans-friendly bathrooms. With our current nutcase Legislature, it would be an easy mistake. (But you can bet they’re busy raising campaign money this week. You can take that to the bank.)
I hear that some of the few solons who ventured out have met with somewhat exuberant receptions. Well, we here in the NC First District can get excited too, but Rep. Butterfield will probably hear more applause than protests.
Far as I’m concerned he’s standing on the right side of most things that are important to me. I voted for him in November, and have no regrets. And he even knows how to tweet. Like this:
And that’s definitely not “fake news.”
The Durham session is tomorrow. And wouldn’t you know I messed around and made a commitment to go to another meeting, about some dismal Quaker breakup thing. So I can’t be there.
But I’m sure Rep. Butterfield won’t be lonely. And realizing I’d be away, I already shared some of my views with him. I did it by FAX; and it got through quick.
First I thanked him for holding the meeting, and for being on the progressive side. Then I talked about health care, and the plans to rip it up. And I ended with a request:
I want to tell you about what I would say if I could be [at the town hall]. It is about my grandson Calvin King, who is seven, and a NC resident. And it is about Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
Calvin looks healthy and lively in this photo, which he now is.
But if it weren’t for Medicaid and the ACA, he would not look this way. He has had to have two unexpected, serious surgeries to bring him to his present state of health.
Without Medicaid & the ACA, Calvin would not have been able to have these procedures. It’s that simple.
My understanding is that you support the ACA and oppose plans to repeal it. Thank you for that.
However, I wish I had heard your voice on this more often, and more vocally. And I wish you would lobby your colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to, borrowing the words of a famous populist, “Raise Less Corn and More Hell!” about this issue (and many others, but I’ll stick to ACA/Medicaid here.)
Pardon my language, & I meant no disrespect. But this is not something I feel calm & polite about.
We in your district need to HEAR YOUR VOICE on this issue, more often, and louder.
You’re on the right side. You’re doing your best. Let all of us – and those on the other side – hear it, every day, on this issue.
This is not an academic or “political” issue.
Lives hang in the balance. Lives in MY family & thousands more in this District.
Thank you and keep up the good work!
Charles Fager Durham NC First District NC
A North Carolina Member of Congress who actually wants to listen to constituents, in public. Right now, there’s only one.
After issuing a Holocaust Memorial message that didn’t mention its Jewish victims; and after very awkward comments about the Congressional Black Caucus at a marathon news conference last week, the president seems to have discovered these concerns; but not all are convinced. Here’s the latest:
President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced the recent rise in bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country, saying the anti-Semitism and racism that is troubling America must be addressed.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible. And it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” Trump told NBC News in an exclusive interview, after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Federal authorities have been investigating a wave of phoned-in bomb threats at least 10 Jewish community centers, including in Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Texas and New York. No one was injured, and the threats appeared to be hoaxes, the Jewish Community Center Association of North America told NBC News on Monday.
“I think it’s terrible,” Trump said of the threats. “I think it’s horrible. Whether it’s anti-Semitism or racism or any — anything you wanna think about having to do with the divide. Anti-Semitism is, likewise, it’s just terrible.”
He added, “You don’t know where it’s coming from, but I hope they catch the people.”
The director of the Anne Frank Center rebuked President Donald Trump’s statement denouncing a spate of anti-Semitic crimes, calling it a ‘Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism.’
“The president’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own administration,” Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, said on Tuesday in a statement.
“His statement today is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the public record,” Goldstein said. “Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”
“Simply put, dismissing this issue as a political distraction or partisan concern does not change the fact that there has been a surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. Trump’s repeated failure to denounce anti-Semitism has consequences, emboldening bigots.
So it is honestly mind-boggling why Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or deride the concerns of the Jewish community. It is shocking to us that in this day and age, the president will not acknowledge — much less condemn — the rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. The issue of anti-Semitism is not a political one. But it is potentially lethal.
With the president’s leadership, it can get better. With his neglect or instigation, it can get worse.
In light of the rise of hate, there is a simple question that Trump should answer, not only for American Jews but to assuage Americans of all faiths — what will his administration do about the surge of anti-Semitism? What concrete steps will the White House take?”
Anti-semitism and racism. Very serious charges against a national administration. Looks like they’re not going away, despite the statement on Monday. And saying “it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” isn’t the same as actually doing something to make it stop.
Racism and anti-semitism. They’re like the ghosts at his fancy table at Mar-a-Lago, and around the desk in the Oval Office.
According to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Sa’ed Atshan, the Palestinian Quaker professor of peace studies whose February 10 speech at Friends Central School (FCS) was canceled last month, is a Jew-hater in a class with –well, you know, the guy who had the pencil mustache:
“. . . if Palestinian speaker Sa’ed Atshan supports Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – an international movement designed to delegitimize, weaken and ultimately destroy the Jewish State of Israel – then students at Friends’ Central School would be exposed to vicious, hateful lies with little hope that the same teachers who invited Atshan would offer students the actual facts about Israel, Palestinian-Arabs, and the Middle East that would set the record straight.”
Feldman is Director of the ZOA’s greater Philadelphia office.
And the college office of the ZOA has already devoted whole webpages to denouncing Atshan. A sample:
“Sa’ed Atshan is a leading activist in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, which spreads lies about Jews and Israel and seeks to destroy the only Jewish state.”
Indeed, to read these ZOA screeds, one would expect to find Atshan saying things like the following, which appeared in the Comments section of the Harvard Political Review in March 2013, while Atshan was a grad student there:
“The real issue is not The [Harvard student paper the] Crimson’s anti-Palestinian prejudice but the overrepresentation of Jews at The Crimson, in the Harvard student body and on the faculty.
We have to face the facts that . . .
Unqualified Jews are taking places from qualified white non-Jews, African Americans, and Asian Americans throughout the US academic system.”
Only, Atshan didn’t say that. A guy named Jonathan Affleck did. (Affleck said lots more like it. And he has a Facebook page that’s exclusively devoted to anti-Jewish fulminations, including a defense of the Nazi “Final Solution.”)
But Sa’ed Atshan did writeabout this. His Comment on Affleck’s statements was, in full:
“The Anti-Semitic comments of “Jonathan Affleck” here are morally reprehensible. As part of the Palestinian solidarity community at Harvard none of us would ever condone such racism. This is absolutely unacceptable (quotas against Jewish students, etc.). With “friends” like Affleck, we definitely do not need enemies. The struggle for Palestinian human rights is a just one based on universal values of equality and the fundamental dignity of all human beings…. and our movement should not be associated with Affleck and the like. NO ONE has authorized him to speak on our behalf.”
This exchange occurred before Atshan returned to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, as a professor, and long before the flap about a speech at Friends Central blew up. But it’s an intriguing and revealing item just the same. It’s a reminder that apples aren’t oranges.
And speaking of the FCS flap, that pot has continued to bubble since our last posts (here, here and here). Two FCS teachers, who protested the cancellation, have been suspended; their fate is still uncertain. There has been continuing media coverage. Op-eds and letters have made impassioned defenses of Atshan, as well as criticism. A petition signed by more than 400 FCS alumni, parents and other Friends has gone to FCS officials. Numerous private approaches have been made.
And yesterday, February 20, media reports surfaced that on Sunday, Atshan, who has maintained public silence amid the controversy, met with FCS head Craig Sellers to begin negotiations about resolving the controversy.
Mark Schwartz, a lawyer and friend of Atshan, said Sellers apologized to the professor and extended an invitation to speak at the school. He said Atshan maintained he was not comfortable accepting the offer unless two teachers who had been suspended over student protests that followed the cancellation were allowed to return to their jobs.
Atshan “has a strong conviction that the teachers should be back,” Schwartz said. “The reason he met with this guy, I’m sure, he was hoping this would get resolved.”
Friends’ Central spokeswoman Lisa D’Orazio gave a different account of what transpired. She said Sellers did not invite Atshan to give a talk but is “keeping the lines of communication open.”
A recently formed task force will look at all future programming, including speakers, at the school. “He’s still on the table,” D’Orazio said of Atshan.
That’s an unfortunate statement: “He’s still on the table.” The operating table? The autopsy table? Better try again.
In a letter Monday to Friends’ Central families, Philip Scott, clerk of the [FCS] board of trustees, said of the controversy: “Outside groups have tried to falsely paint this as a free speech issue. I want to be clear, this is not a free speech issue. It is about the school taking the time and effort to formulate and present intellectual, respectful, and comprehensive programs for its students.”
Well, I want to be clear too: I don’t believe Scott’s “not a free speech” meme for a minute.
One has to maintain a determined sense of isolation not to know that groups like the ZOA are working overtime to keep discussion of BDS and just about anything else that diverges from strong support of current Israeli government polices out of college and other educational spaces. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. And when they succeed, free speech takes a hit.
As it has at Friends Central School. This IS a “free speech issue.”
I hope Sellers and Scott can persuade those who forced the cancellation and suspensions to back off. Otherwise, this travesty can only further damage the school’s already battered reputation.
In a welcome letter on the FCS website, school head Sellers grandly proclaims that for FCS:
Our Vision: To awaken courage and intellect — and peacefully transform the world.
Nice words. But to get clear about that “vision” again, those in charge need to clean their glasses and see that they have screwed up bigtime here, both as carriers of Quaker traditions, and as educators.
They’ve got the intellect to fix this. What about the courage?
The Philadelphia Daily News is out today with a searing editorial about the ongoing flap involving Friends Central School, a cancelled speech about Middle East issues by a professor of Palestinian heritage, and the suspension of two teachers who supported his appearance.
The headline is biting:
DN editorial: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker
“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.
Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.
Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”
We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”
Ouch. That hurts. It’s the kind of report that makes Quakers of all stripes cringe.
Back in the day, “integrity” was a key linchpin of the “Quaker way.” Maybe some of it was myth, magnified in the telling (there have definitely been some Quaker scoundrels; Richard Nixon?), but overall, the Society of Friends gained a kind of fame that money can’t buy, for being stubborn about the truth.
In practical ways, like Quaker shopkeepers setting fixed prices, rather than cheating uninformed customers.
In even comical ways, like carefully hedging their speech to be strictly factual (which this anecdote may not entirely be):
Once, it is said, Herbert Hoover (the Quaker president who wasn’t a crook) was riding across the prairie on a train, when another passenger spied some skinny-looking sheep in a nearby field.
“Looks like those sheep have all just been sheared,” said the passenger.
Hoover eyed them warily, paused, and then replied, “Yes, it does — at least on this side.”
Those were also the days when going bankrupt was not just a misfortune, but an infraction that would get a Friend “disowned.” That’s because it marred the Quaker “Reputation of Truth,” one item of which was that Friends always paid their debts.
Well, the Friends’ “Reputation of Truth” is pretty tattered in the eyes of this editorialist:
“The Quakers have always embraced free speech and espoused many unpopular causes. They opposed slavery and war at a time when you could get shot over those beliefs. William Penn went to jail in England because he would not give up his beliefs.
It would sadden Penn to see a school founded on his principles cowering in the corner, afraid to let students hear another viewpoint.”
They’ve got a point there. Who remembers Philadelphia 1838, when Quakers and other early abolitionists erected their own building, Pennsylvania Hall, because other groups wouldn’t let them speak or hold meetings? It opened in May, for a meeting of antislavery women: and was burned down the next night. The fires were set while Quaker Angelina Grimke was speaking.
Did this arson and attempted murder silence the women, or their movement? No.
But that’s not all. The editorial goes on:
“[Sa’ed] Atshan [the Swarthmore College professor whose talk was squashed] hasn’t spoken publicly about the controversy, but let’s assume that he is fervently pro-Palestinian, does favor economic sanctions against Israel and that he expressed those views before a group of high school students. So what? Would the students rush out of the room waving PLO flags? Would he convert them into rabid anti-Zionists? We think not.
Consider such a speech either food for thought or a foolish viewpoint, but it hardly represents a danger to the minds of these students. Being a student means being exposed to conflicting facts, theories and beliefs. It’s called learning.”
Yes it is. And here’s hoping the FCS leadership finishes this lesson in a hurry and fixes this mess, before their reputation, that of Friends Central School, and that of Quakers at large, suffer more harmful, unnecessary hits.
As is often the case in Quaker controversies, the officials blame “a fundamental breakdown in process,” adding “We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue.”
In a departure from what has been earlier reported, the statement says “To be clear, our intention has always been to pause – not cancel – any speaker engagement on this topic.”
This “pause” was needed, the statement says, because “We felt it was important that more facts and input from community members be gathered to develop a thoughtful, respectful, and intellectual approach.”
However, “During this period of pause, two teachers were given explicit directives, which they ignored. As a result of their actions and their expressed intentions, these teachers have been placed on paid leave while we continue a more thorough review.”
[Note: I am not aware of any public comments by the two suspended teachers. And with their jobs hanging in the balance, they are likely being advised to keep quiet.]
The FCS Board held a called meeting yesterday to address this situation. And as Quaker bodies do in the face of almost all emergencies, they formed a committee, here called a “Task Force” tasked “to determine how we move forward.” Pledging to be “proactive,” further updates are promised. The rest of the statement is a set of broad generalities, concluding with:
“Our challenges reflect the world we live in. This moment presents an opportunity to demonstrate what defines Friends’ Central as a Quaker school.”
Full text of the statement:
Important Message from the Head of School and Clerk of the Board Posted 02/14/2017 02:59PM Dear Friends,
As Head of School and Board Clerk, we write to you today with an update on recent events within the Friends’ Central community involving students’ learning about the Middle East, campus speakers, and our path forward. While many have expressed concern, we believe this is an opportunity to live our Mission and emerge a stronger community.
We understand these are delicate issues and want to assure you that the physical and emotional safety of our community is our first priority.
There was a fundamental breakdown in process. We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue. To be clear, our intention has always been to pause – not cancel – any speaker engagement on this topic. We felt it was important that more facts and input from community members be gathered to develop a thoughtful, respectful, and intellectual approach. During this period of pause, two teachers were given explicit directives, which they ignored. As a result of their actions and their expressed intentions, these teachers have been placed on paid leave while we continue a more thorough review.
Members of our community have reached out to share their views, while offering suggestions on how to proceed. To those individuals, we have heard you and we will invite participation shortly. At last night’s called meeting, the Board of Trustees began forming a Task Force to determine how we move forward. To lead this effort, Board members and current parents Fariha Khan and Elizabeth Cohen ’83 will serve as Clerks. The Task Force will broadly engage our community – including students, parents, faculty, administration, and alumni/ae – and bring together a wide variety of viewpoints. Our goal is to move toward and embrace the challenges of intellectual discourse with respect and empathy.
We commit to communicating more proactively. In the days and weeks ahead, you will receive more information about our Task Force and opportunities available to participate. Some may still have concerns and issues you would like to address directly with the School. Craig is available to meet with any member of our community who would like time to discuss these issues in further detail. This is a priority, and Craig is available in the coming days.
Our challenges reflect the world we live in. This moment presents an opportunity to demonstrate what defines Friends’ Central as a Quaker school. We must come together on how we teach our children, to ensure they meet challenges from a place of knowledge and constructive engagement.
Wynnewood (Philadelphia) PA, February 13, 2017: “Two Friends’ Central School teachers who supervised a club that invited a Palestinian speaker to the Wynnewood campus — an appearance the school canceled after some parents and students complained — were placed on administrative leave Monday morning.
English teacher Ariel Eure, 25, and history teacher Layla Helwa, 26, were called to an off-campus meeting with Craig Sellers, the head of school, and a human resources manager, and informed they were suspended indefinitely, said Mark D. Schwartz, a lawyer and former parent at the school who is representing the women.
Schwartz said that he tried to attend the 7:30 a.m. meeting at the Llanerch Diner in Upper Darby, but that school officials turned him away. The teachers were told they were being suspended for disobeying a supervisor and for having a “single-minded approach to a complicated issue for the community,” he said.
“This was done in a non-Quaker fashion,” Schwartz said. “It was more like storm trooper fashion.”
Late Monday afternoon, the administration released a statement: “As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations for all members of our community – especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds. There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace, and integrity. As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted.”
The controversy has stirred passions at the school and shone a light on a thorny issue for many Quaker schools: While the American Friends Service Committee supports putting economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories, many students at Quaker schools are Jewish.
Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore College professor and a Quaker, had been invited to speak Friday by the school’s Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, which formed last April. After parents complained about Atshan’s ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punitive measures against Israel, the school rescinded the invitation.
About 65 students walked out of a weekly Meeting for Sharing on Wednesday to protest the cancellation, while others stood and read a statement. Eure and Helwa walked out with the students. . . .”