Aftermath — Part 2
Amelia Boynton was my landlady in Selma, Alabama. She was also a prominent local civil fights activist, one of the handful of Black Selmians who had managed to badger her way onto the voting rolls despite segregation.
When she was knocked out cold on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge during the “Bloody Sunday attack on March 7 1965, she was 54 years old, and had been a working advocate for thirty years. When the Voting Rights Act was signed in August, she was about to turn 55.
Mrs. Boynton lived for 48 more years. That was long enough to see a Black mayor elected in Selma, a Black woman sent to Congress from its district, and a Black man sitting in the White House oval office.
But she also lived long enough to note that the poverty rate in Selma and the Alabama Black Belt was still as high in 2015, 50 years after the Bridge was first crossed. She also saw the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, with the 2013 Shelby County decision. She was then102.
Two years later, she joined the Obamas, Congressman John Lewis (who had also been knocked out during the 1965 attack) and many others to cross the Pettus Bridge on the march’s 50th anniversary. And that time, like the Act itself, she was on her last legs. Mrs. Boynton died that August, a few days after her 104th birthday.
Mrs. Boynton was one of many pillars of the struggle for voting equality. Yet the arc of her life is uniquely emblematic of it, tracing its rise to a summit of achievement, followed by a backslide which is sinking ever closer to where she started out.
Its course marks my first reflection on the 2022 midterm aftermath: what we’re facing now, on many fronts, will take a long time to repair. Voting rights demolition started well before this election, and more is all but certain to come. Regaining its upward momentum will likely take a long time.
Long-term: This observation should be a truism, a platitude. But in my experience, it isn’t. Americans, and too many liberal Quakers (including me) have assimilated to a culture of ever-shortening attention spans. Along with fast food, fast cars, fast internet, a fast track and fast weight loss, we expect a fast lane to social change and justice.
Sometimes big change does happen “fast’: after 65 long years of formal Black disfranchisement, it was a mere five months (the blink of an eye in Congressional time) from “Bloody Sunday” til Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act.
But that was likely a once-in-a-lifetime cataclysm. Much more often, it takes longer. A lot longer.
This is a bipartisan truth, which the right seems to have learned and applied better: the movement to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act took 48 years. The crusade against Roe vs. Wade lasted 49; neither took their “eyes off the prize.” (How long will it take to topple Obergefell and same sex marriage?)
Looking further back, I see the smiling visage of my personal Quaker hero, Lucretia Mott: bringing encouragement she worked to end slavery for more than 50 years, and for black equality thereafter. And she “inherited” that imperative from her parents’ generation. However imperfectly, it’s fair to say Quakers labored and agitated on this matter for a century.
Lucretia also worked for women’s equality almost as long, though women did not win the vote til four decades after her death in 1880.
Such long-term labor, planning, or even attention, is increasingly rare today; for too many of us, a “long term” view barely extends beyond the next election — and have you noticed? These days, election season never ends. Yet how many of our Quaker institutions know how to transmit this long term Quaker work ethic to our children? (Hint: not many.)
I have no magic potion for reawakening the capacity for Quakers to think up and put together long-term work. Nevertheless, I maintain it’s the starting point for moving from hand-wringing irrelevance to faithful witness and actual influence,
And I think I’ve found a few clues. I’ll share some of them next time.
For now, here’s a teaser: during the civil rights years, freedom songs helped me and so many others hang on. And one, which I recall joining while in jail, sums up a lot. No one knows who “wrote” it; the movement did. It’s called “A Constant Struggle.” Here’s the refrain; verses varied:
“They say that freedom, is a constant struggle.
They say that freedom, is a constant struggle.
Yes, They say that freedom, is a constant struggle. . .
Oh Lord, we’ve been struggling so long
That we must be free,
We must be free . . . .”
Watch it here, performed by Barara Dane & the Chambers Brothers
So, William Penn has been canceled and erased, wiped away in the Great Dismantling:
In 2016, a long-running Penn lecture series in Philadelphia was redubbed the “Seeking Faithfulness” lectures.
Then, in late 2020, a Washington DC Quaker hostel and conference center, founded as William Penn House in the late 1960s, was scrubbed and rechristened “Friends Place.”
In April of 2021, across the pond, Friends House in London, which has twenty or so rooms named for various Friends, deleted Penn’s name from the list; I’ve not seen if the space has been renamed.
[Update: it has been renamed for Benjamin Lay, the very dramatic early slavery protester, who was disowned for his disruptive actions.]
In the abstract, I have no problem with renaming (or no-naming) Quaker facilities; our buildings are not sanctified, but functional; memories and attitudes about the dead evolve, and even reverse.
One instructive case is the Quaker burial ground on Nantucket island off the Massachusetts coast. Thousands of Friends are interred in it, with no name markers at all, except for a few headstones placed later by some renegades, described as “heretics” by earlier worthies.
That was the Nantucket way: however different while alive, in personality, position, wealth or poverty, all those Friends ultimately testified to equality in the anonymity of their graves. So it goes.
But not always.
I find I can’t go along with erasing Penn. It’s not “principle” in this case, but practice: his figure keeps popping up in my mind.
He popped up again for me over the last weekend in July: the 30th was the 304th anniversary of Penn’s death in 1718. I don’t know if anyone else noticed that “anniversary”; I did. Continue reading It’s William Penn’s Birthday. I’ll celebrate it, even if others won’t.
. . . And both an inspiration & challenge to Quakers & other people of faith.
Thank you to the Times for implicitly acknowledging this. And to Obama for commuting her prison sentence.
It is not possible to work in intelligence and not imagine disclosing the many secrets you bear.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea first crossed my mind. Maybe it was in 2008, when I was learning to be an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army and was exposed to sensitive information for the first time. Or maybe the germ of the idea was planted when I was stationed at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. I was tasked with transporting a cache of classified hard drives in a large box in the summer heat, and I began to imagine what might happen if I screwed it up and left the box unattended. If someone managed to get ahold of a stray hard drive, what ripple effects might it cause?
I knew the official version of why these secrets had to be kept secret. We were protecting sources. We were protecting troop movements. We were protecting national security. Those things made sense. But it also seemed, to me, that we were protecting ourselves.
While I felt that my job was important, and I took my obligations seriously, a part of me always wondered: If we were acting ethically, why were we keeping so many secrets?
The months I spent in Iraq in 2009changed the way I understood the world. Every night, I woke up in the desert at 9 p.m. and walked from my tiny trailer to the Saddam Hussein-era basketball court that the military had converted into an intelligence operations center.