Category Archives: Black & White & Other Colors

Dr. King on White People & Racism

This red-baiting billboard popped up beside many highways in the South during the civil rights years.

This seldom-cited passage is from “The Three Evils of Society,” Dr. King’s speech to the National Conference on New Politics, in Chicago, August 31, 1967. It is highly relevant to much current discussion about work for racial justice and equity. Continue reading Dr. King on White People & Racism

Guest Post: A Call for “Felony Murder” Charges for Capitol Invasion Deaths

Mark Schwartz is a civil rights attorney and a friend of this blog. He was the attorney for two women teachers at Friends Central School, who were fired in 2017 after inviting a Palestinian-Quaker pacifist professor from Swarthmore College to speak at the school — a case reported on in depth here.

Now Schwartz has issued an open letter to the federal attorney for Washington DC, in the matter of potential charges in the wake of the U.S. Capitol invasion of January 6.

The letter is below, as I believe his recommendations are timely and should be part of the discussion of legal responses to the insurrection. Continue reading Guest Post: A Call for “Felony Murder” Charges for Capitol Invasion Deaths

Hopping’ John & Good Luck: I’m Having some–How About You??

These cans are set out on the table where I’ll eat my New Year’s breakfast. That’s so I won’t forget: opening them is for later in the day.

I’ve become seriously superstitious about the tradition of eating this concoction on this day, because many in these parts consider it a harbinger of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.

I’m not sure I can say I “believe” this Hoppin’ John legend. But whatever, I’ve been careful to make this dish on the past several January Firsts — and I’m still here to write about it, so I figure it doesn’t hurt. Besides, if there’s any year I expect to need some more good luck, it’s surely for the one that follows 2020. (That plus a vaccine shot or two; which is not in the cards for me yet.)

Where did this odd New Year’s notion come from? The short answer seems to be, nobody knows. Hence, various versions have grown and spread. Continue reading Hopping’ John & Good Luck: I’m Having some–How About You??

Cheer Up, Fer Pity Sake!

Reading this morning’s comments from my Facebook friends, you’d think the election was a landslide win for the other guy: so much gloom, doom, depression & lament.

To which I feel obliged to reply sternly:

Friends — GET A GRIP.

Sure, I didn’t get everything I wanted from the election results; not even close.

But there was one thing, one BIG goal that was reached — or is about to be.

What’s that? It’s summed up in a poster that was attached to a podium from which Obama preached us the word a week or so ago; and some other places before that.

It’s this:  Behind all the hoopla and hype, we’ve been in a dead-serious battle that goes way beyond politics. What  battle? (See below.)

“Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on!”

I first saw such a motto in the office of Dr. King, in 1964 when I signed up as a rookie civil rights worker. I was then secular-minded and anti-religious, but I soon figured out that Dr. King and his crew, with all their shortcomings, were dead-serious about it.

And before too long, I realized that they were also dead-right. There is such a thing as “the soul of the nation” (but don’t go all metaphysical and ask me to define it).  And that soul was and is poisoned and imperiled by racism (and poverty and war and other evils Dr. King preached about).

But they believed it could be saved, or redeemed. And they knew something else that took me a long time to get: that “saving” this soul wasn’t a one-and-done thing. America had been saved before, and would likely need to be saved again.

Like now, for instance.

Sam Cooke

I  wasn’t sure what they were talking about, though soon, in the unforgettable song:“A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke, I started  to get the beginning of a clue.  White readers, listen to it; and if you still don’t get it, listen again.

“Soul” music, brought it home with more potency than any philosophy book I’d tried to read in college. With that and the movement, I ended up a peacenik Quaker. (Your mileage may vary.)

Dr. King and the crew are almost all gone now. And their “battle,” while it won some big skirmishes, was far from a total success. In fact, we’ve just come through another big round of the struggle. And it isn’t over.

So when this motto reappeared last spring, I resonated to it at once: there was more than an election underway in the USA in 2020, and one candidate knew it. Despite not being a great orator, he closed in on the essence.

And speaking of closing in, that’s  what’s happening this morning. Like the headline says, the soul candidate is closing in. He could even cross the electoral college finish line today. (Or tomorrow.)

T: WHAT?!?!?! J: I said, “Time to go, Dude.”

Which also means, that the door is closing on the other guy, the Nemesis who has trashed so much, and corrupted so much.

Mr T, have you met my idol, Letitia James? Her middle initials are A. G. NY, and I hear she is A. eager to meet YOU, and B. she gives great lessons in gnashing of teeth.

Oh yeah, there will be plenty of desperate bombast and last-ditch bullsh*t before he’s escorted out of the oval office and off the grounds into 14th Street’s “outer darkness,” where much “much weeping and gnashing of teeth” awaits. I confess, that aftermath will be fun to watch.

But before that, when his rival crosses the finish line, maybe today, I don’t want to hear any more moaning and groaning. Take a break, and give yourself some credit.

For at least fifteen minutes.

In fact, if you can read the signs of the times with even a little insight, that will be a time to celebrate. Do something that pleases and nourishes you.

I know I’m going to.

Hmmm. Celebrate. How will I do it?

If I was a drinker, I’d get drunk.

If I was a doper, I’d get stoned.

If there wasn’t a pandemic, maybe I’d party.

But as I’m old and boring, not to mention sleep-deprived after the longest freekin Tuesday of my nearly 80 years, I’m more likely to take a nap.

But mind you, it will be a VICTORY nap. One from which I can expect to wake up and find that the Orange menace is still on the way out.

Or if I get really wild and crazy, I might even write a poem. A VICTORY poem.

In fact, I feel one coming on right now. So stand back, and stand by:

To 270: A Concise Ode on the Rescue of the Soul of the Nation

Battered,
tattered,
nearly shattered.

But it’s still here,
While the Superspreader’s
Scattered.

And THAT my friends
Is what really mattered.

 

Thank, you, thank you.

Have a great day.

 

Another Quiet Day at Spring Friends Meeting (not really)

If you drove west on the Chapel Hill-Greensboro Road through Snow Camp, North Carolina on Sunday, November 1, 2020, at about eleven AM, you would have passed a white chapel-looking building on your left. A few cars were parked outside, on the grass under the big old trees, which are shedding their wrinkled brown leaves after a hot green summer.

That was Spring Friends Meeting. From the outside, it looked quiet, secluded, and almost deserted. Easy to miss amid the wooded stretches and dairy farms of southern Alamance county.

But inside, it was none of those. Yes, just a handful of Quakers, or Friends, were sitting, widely-spaced and mostly masked, on its long benches. And they weren’t loud. But a lot was going on.

Pepper spray and guns will do that: liven up what’s meant to be a mostly silent meeting. As will being in national headlines. Continue reading Another Quiet Day at Spring Friends Meeting (not really)

Michael Cohen Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist

Note: I have not read Woodward’s book. This post refers to it based on news reports, including excerpts of the taped interviews that Woodward conducted for it.

One of Cohen’s observations in his book Disloyal about Trump & his early political maneuvers was corroborated by today’s reports of Trump’s taped conversations with Bob Woodward:

Cohen: In those early manifestations of Trump’s aspirations, he revealed an uncanny knack for channeling the fears and resentments of the age . . . .

Just one example was Trump’s call in 1989 for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of black kids convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in Manhattan’s famous park.

The fact that the kids were exonerated years later, when it was proven beyond doubt that they were not guilty, didn’t prompt Trump to back down or admit a mistake; he’d understood instinctively that the racial anxiety and resentments then gripping New York City would provide a potent symbol that he hoped to ride to power.

That was always Trump’s way, learned at the feet of Roy Cohn, his first attack-dog attorney: Never apologize, and never admit to error or weakness. Never. Ever. Not even in the time of Coronavirus, as the world would discover.

Continue reading Michael Cohen Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist

Karmic Collision IV: Like a (Kidney) Stone

< one >

Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:

One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me;  I  wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or

Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.

Let’s  review: from the outside, in those years I was earning more money than ever; I had job security, good health insurance, and a burgeoning retirement savings plan. Continue reading Karmic Collision IV: Like a (Kidney) Stone

Karmic Collision III: Living My Double Life

Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.

I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?

Richard Wright, author of “Native Son” and other works.

I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.

Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.

But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.

On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”

Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.

But the post office was also an early target of organized efforts to win more and better-paying jobs for Black Americans. And the relatively higher pay and job security attracted many who were blatantly overqualified. Continue reading Karmic Collision III: Living My Double Life

Karmic Collision-II: Lab Rats and the Road Not Taken

[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]

<one>

A mailhandler watching the stream go by.

For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.

This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.

Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.

I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.

<two>

How did this come about? Who knew?

I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.

That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.

Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.

You’re gonna do what? To US??

For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:

1-800-LAB-RATS.

I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages.

The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation. [2021 Update: the company still exists; lab rats are still dying for our sins.]

Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.

I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.

A U-cart.

By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me. [Update: I hear that the FBIS has since disappeared into some bureaucratic slot in the spy world; but one hopes the agencies are still paying some attention to the rest of the world.]

One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.

In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.

As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–

— But first, some explanation.

<four>

A B-36 nuclear bomber. My father commanded one of these in the 1950s.

My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot.  He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded  into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.

In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.

Not my alma mater.

And I almost did.

Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.

But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)

If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.

But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.

How many of us get a chance to do that?

<five>

I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.

The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.

My old mailhandlers apron. It once bore the union logo, but I wore it out, and kept the apron as a memento.

I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.

Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.

The retired  could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.

Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”

Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”

And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.