Apropos of Dr. King’s birthday, and looking toward Black History Month, an email came In Monday telling me the New Yorker magazine had posted on its website an article from the April 10, 1965 issue called, “Letter from Selma,” about the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
And I was mentioned in it.
Sure enough; it’s the only time I have appeared in the magazine.
I barely remember what was in that “Letter,” though I can still see the writer, Renata Adler, appearing by the edge of U.S. Highway 80.
I do recall how strikingly out of place she seemed, on its rough and rocky shoulder, crowded with disheveled marchers, and lined with armed troops eyeing the nearby scrub forests for snipers.
Adler looked as if she had been plucked from a stroll on Fifth Avenue and teleported to Alabama, in a colorful and almost slinky sheath dress, with a broad voguish hat bending under the stray breezes, notebook in hand.
We talked for just a few minutes. It’s a good article. Only time my name ever appeared in the New Yorker, as far as I know.
I think you can read it for free.
And there’s more: on Jan. 18 I was asked to speak to the good people of Life’s Journey UCC Church in Burlington NC, and tell them the title story from my memoir, “Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.”
Of course, I didn’t get to go to Burl-Ing ton, which is about 40 miles west of Durham. Instead, I ZOOMed in from home in Durham; that’s This American (Pandemic) Life, 2021.
and explain how for a long time after that year in Selma, it had a happy ending. But then, in 2013, that ending was erased, and the story of fighting for voting resumed.
Only this time, the wear and tear of age had me on the sidelines, but still connected, reminding the young that this continuing story is now theirs too, and it was their turn, not yet to tell it but to write the decisive next chapters with their lives.
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.)
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.
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.)
Which also means, that the door is closing on the other guy, the Nemesis who has trashed so much, and corrupted so much.
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.
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.
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?
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.
[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.]
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.
The point, to reiterate, was that lots of academic & private polling research, plus my own movement experience, confirms the idea that nonviolent protests move public opinion in a progressive direction, while violent demonstrations nudge it toward the reactionary right, often with tragic and lasting outcomes.
I didn’t expect to have corroboration so soon. But by sundown there was a raft of it, starting with a brand new Reuters/Ipsos poll with all the data one might need.
First, the new poll. The big number in it was the trend in public support for the latest round of protests. Here’s the summary:
The poll follows a series of late-night clashes between protesters and federal police in Portland, Oregon, where demonstrators have held nightly anti-racism rallies. Trump sent federal police into the city despite the mayor’s objections to deal with what he called “anarchists and agitators,” and he has sent others to Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque.
According to the poll, 52% of American adults say they are sympathetic to those who are still gathering to protest the police treatment of minorities, especially African Americans,about 12 percentage points lower than a similar poll that ran in mid-June.[Emphasis added.]
Twelve per cent. That’s a big drop. And 52 percent is perilously close (within any reasonable margin for error) to tipping over into majority public dislike of the protests.
And there’s another drop to take note of: The percentage of those who are unhappy with Trump’s response to the recent protests has dropped from 58 per cent to 54. Ipsos puts this another way:
. . . [A] majority of Americans remain unhappy with the way [Trump] has responded. The poll showed 54% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, which is only a slight improvement from a similar poll that ran in mid-June when 58% disapproved.
Another way to slice it is that Trump appears to be reclaiming some Republicans whose support he was losing as the early rounds of protests crested. There the increase Ipsos found, is substantial:
The rise in support comes primarily from Republicans who have backed the president in greater numbers as the protests rage across the country: 78% said they approved of Trump’s response to the demonstrations in the latest poll, up from 67% in mid-June. Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats say they do not like the way Trump is dealing with the protests, and that has not changed over since June.
It’s not time to panic. But what’s important here is the trend, and it’s in the direction of Trump’s strategy: paint the protests as domestic terrorism, fan the flames of hysteria, turn up the media echo chamber volume to full blast, and build the image as the savior of [racist white] suburbia.
Trump: it’s ridiculous, they [Biden & Democrats] want to abolish, and really hurt the suburbs, because under their plan, they will, under a plan that’s very much agreed to by them, they want to make it worse, they don’t mind if low income housing is built in a neighborhood, in a beautiful suburb of Iowa, but a beautiful suburb anywhere in the country, they want low, and this has been going on for years, Obama made it much worse, and now they want Cory Booker to run that program, Cory Booker of New Jersey to run that program, and make it many times worse than it is right now. People have gone to the suburbs, they want the beautiful homes, they don’t have to have a low income housing development built in their community, which is going to reduce, which has reduced the prices of their homes, and also increased crime substantially. [Emphasis added.]
As one analyst said, this effusion turns his racist dog whistles into train whistles. I would add, foghorns.
The Iowa rant, if typically rambling, was not at all incoherent: it aims to reassemble and harden the racist suburban base Trump plundered in 2016. And I hate to say it, but the poll suggests he’s making some headway with that. And do I think protesters need to take this into account? You bet.
One other meaningful tidbit from this busy day; The Minneapolis police department said they’re closing in on a suspect who was the “umbrella Man” who broke windows in protests there on May 27, clearly “lighting the match” of fiery protests later. The New York Times has an affidavit police filed for a search warrant:
“Erika Christensen, an arson investigator with the Minneapolis police, wrote in the affidavit that the vandalism ‘created an atmosphere of hostility and tension’ two days after Mr. Floyd’s death. It unleashed a chain reaction of arson and looting in the Twin Cities, she wrote, after protests had been relatively peaceful.
‘In a short time after the front windows are broken out in The AutoZone, looting started, the affidavit said, noting that the AutoZone store burned down later that day. ‘This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city.’”
They allege that the suspect is associated with white supremacy groups and racist prison gangs. The Washington Post had a video clip of the suspect, showing other protesters pleading with him to stop, unsuccessfully.
Unless the Minneapolis cops are completely wrong, this disclosure cements the case that Umbrella Man was no more than a provocateur, who fully achieved his goal of undermining peaceful protests and touching off violence.
And if that happened in Minneapolis, my sense is that it has happened elsewhere. The conclusion that strict nonviolent tactics is the best defense against such subversion is plain.
Is help on the way? There’s an outfit in DC called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and it has published the title & an abstract of a new monograph which addresses this head on: “Agents Provocateurs, Violent Flanks, and Nonviolent Movements: A Historical and Strategic Perspective.” The abstract sounds totally on point:
“When the adversary of a civil resistance movement sends infiltrators to join the movement, what do these covert operators do, and what impact do they have? Furthermore, how can civil resistance organizers respond creatively and strategically?”
Yes how? In Minneapolis, the video shows two other protesters appealing to Umbrella Man to stop breaking windows. He ignored them, kept swinging the sledgehammer, then walked away. Peaceful protesters need help on this.
Unfortunately only the paper’s title & abstract are online; the actual paper is “forthcoming.” Better get the lead out, folks: it’s burn-the-midnight-courthouse—err, oil time.
Nevertheless. Most of the protests have been peaceful, and many have been quite imaginative. Such creativity is an important tactical resource. (Looking at you, Wall of Moms.)
Yesterday I published what I thought was a mildly-worded post stating my preference for not renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
In saying that, I was following what I believed was the stated view of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose passing is being marked across the country this week — just as I had actually marched behind him across the Pettus Bridge on the historic march to Montgomery in 1965.
But to judge by some of the comments the post evoked, saying this was tantamount to admitting that I had really been an undercover Ku Klux Klansman & hardcore white supremacist back then and all along.
Unless, many said, I demanded that the bridge be renamed for Lewis, right now, I was unmasking myself as a stone racist and a supporter of every evil up to and including the Nazi holocaust.
Good grief. Shaking my head, I asked, almost in despair: “WWJD”??
[NOTE: See also this UPDATE to this post, here.}
I feel torn about renaming the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. On the one hand, Pettus was all those odious things: traitor, KKK leader, etc., etc.
On the other hand, John Lewis & many others shed their blood under that sign, and seared its letters onto the conscience of the world. They made it a sacred place of pilgrimage on the long road to justice.
History is like that: sometimes ironic, paradoxical— thank God.
So I say leave it be, as a sign that sometimes much unexpected good can come out of much unrequited evil.
Whenever I imagine how Pettus would react to the Bridge’s renown among those who rolled back the slavery & oppression he upheld, it brings a smile that’s rare in these haunted days.
I know the decision will be made by others, mostly younger. But I still carry my memories of standing with Lewis and others when the “Bloody Sunday” March was announced, then crossing the Pettus bridge behind Lewis, more than once. (I was lucky; the clubs & gas were in abeyance for these treks; but the armed federal troops guarding us were very real.)
It’s something to study & debate peaceably. There are many other places & memorials that could be named for John Lewis. Yet things change. I’ll accept the verdict. There are bigger fish to fry.