Monthly Archives: August 2015

THE COOLEST MAN I KNEW

August 25, 2015. I somehow missed the news that Julian Bond had died. On Sunday, August 16th I paid my usual early morning homage to coffee and bagels by consuming both while scanning the Sunday edition of the New York Times. The front page story showed Julian Bond in 1966, the year before I was introduced to him at an occasion arranged for just that introduction. In those days–late 1966 days that is– I was the student writing editor of THE JOURNAL OF PUBLIC LAW, which was the name of Emory Law School’s scholarly biannual publication. THE JOURNAL was edited by students like me and sometimes those same students published brief comments called case notes. But the notes were never published in THE JOURNAL; any such student writing appeared instead in a special section of the Georgia Bar Association’s more frequently published periodical, which was also the sole format for Emory Law School student writing. This odd bifurcation of publication energies left no room for creative law students to publish the enthusiasms of their law studies. I was determined to change that.

I was one of several law school students who dreamed of publishing the scholarly writings of law school students in THE JOURNAL OF PUBLIC LAW. Two of these students, Ben Shapiro and Harry DeLung, Jr., were writing a comment on the illegality of the Georgia Legislature’s decision to deny Julian Bond the seat in the Georgia House to which the largely Black voters of his district had elected him. Julian had been one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That tiny fellowship of college students was generally regarded as the “radical” civil rights organization of that time. It had grown out of the bus boycott and lunch counter sit-in actions.

Julian Bond’s election to the Georgia House in 1966 had been made possible only by the combined effect of very recent Supreme Court decisions requiring that legislative seats be apportioned on the basis of the “one man/one vote” principle and federal enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislature was still largely dominated by the same men who had led the struggle against civil rights. They did not go quietly into the dust bin of history that Jim Crow had created and hatred had enlarged. They used the excuse that Julian had approved of draft dodgers to exclude him from taking his seat. Harry and Ben threw a small reception for Julian Bond and invited me to come. I suspected that the reason for the invitation was because they hoped Julian would have such a strong personal appeal for me that I would get behind their effort to get published. I already was hopeful that their work would be published, and I was willing to help. But they were certainly right if they believed that meeting Julian would add strength to my enthusiasm. Julian was urbane, charming, witty, engaging, and delightful. He was then what he has been ever since—the coolest man I knew.

Julian’s whole adult life was dedicated to doing what he could to help others who did not have his advantages. His Father was a well -known professor and his Mother very distinguished. He could have trained his good looks and brilliant mind to seek personal wealth and prominence. He didn’t. Instead he became the champion of the disenfranchised, the despised, and the destitute. He never forgot the values that he and John Lewis risked their lives to advance. He never stooped to show personal hatred if he ever felt it. Never gave up on peace and brotherhood and what John called ” the beloved community”. He tolerated those who preached doctrines of racial separation, whether Black or White, but he did not join them. Sometimes he saw and heard the sneers of people who believed his nonviolence was weak, and his focus on shared values too moderate. He kept the faith.

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY VOTING RIGHTS ACT

August 7, 2015. Yesterday came and went without fanfare. It was, nevertheless, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Otherwise known as the Voting Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson was the signing President and the driving political leader of the struggle to enact legislation effectively enfranchising millions of Southern Black folks. It was the most important accomplishment of his administration, which had many notable domestic achievements—no matter how tragically wrong it may have been in Southeast Asia policy. The Act culminated a century of repression of the most basic right of citizens in a democracy, and of course the same century of struggle to achieve it.

The effectiveness of the Act has been dramatically damaged by the outrageous judicial activism of five men whose rhetoric has often belied their perhaps unconscious racism and its accompanying willingness to use their power as Supreme Court Justices to prevent Blacks from achieving their rightful place in American society. The SHELBY COUNTY decision by that Court in 2013 ignored the Constitution and fifty years of congressional approval to strike down the key provision of the Act.

Yet the birthday has come. I am a little pensive but proud that in the long struggle for justice the moment of passage came, much good came from it, and its existence in our history gives hope for the success of the ongoing struggle. Happy Birthday Voting Rights Act!

BATTLE FLAG A SYMBOL OF WHAT?

All my life I have heard from time to time that the confederate battle flag is a beautiful symbol of Southern Heritage. This posting is my response to that.

The month of July, 2015 will be remembered in the history of South Carolina as the time when the Governor and Legislature of that State removed the confederate battle flag from the State Capitol building. Several weeks earlier a young white man sat as a guest in the most historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, lest you forgot, is the harbor city in which the State opened the Civil War by attacking a fort of the United States. After listening to a Bible study discussion for a while, he murdered all nine of the other participants. The same young man had used social media to announce murderous racial animosity and simultaneously to wave the confederate battle flag as a symbol of his views. He had coupled the flag with racial animosity so deep that it led to one of the most cold blooded instances of murderous hatred. In other words the flag had served as the symbol of the hatred and the murder. The linkage of the confederate battle flag with various causes is the essence of the continuing disputes about its uses in many venues other than the capitol of South Carolina. Many have asserted that the young man misused a precious symbol of service for an end to which it was never intended. You know, it’s the Southern Heritage thing.

Other confederate symbols have been affected by the Carolina killings and the State’s response. In Statesboro, Georgia a petition has asked that the marble confederate monument at the county courthouse be removed to a private site. An effort is underway in Tennessee to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the capitol building; Forrest was a Confederate general credited with starting the Ku Klux Klan. There has been serious talk of taking out the portion of the Mississippi State Flag which duplicates the confederate battle flag. Any requests to move the flag or other confederate monuments is invariably met with the Southern Heritage thing.

Now I happen to have come by my own appreciation of Southern Heritage through substantial experience. I have never in 73 years spent more than a summer vacation anywhere North of the Mason-Dixon line, and only two summers at that—both of them over a half century back. My early life was full of symbols that resonated with the confederacy and its values. I was born across the street from the old capitol in Milledgeville, Georgia. There the leading politicians of the State had led Georgia to secede from the Union after the election of Lincoln in 1860. Much of my high school education came in that building, and I graduated with my class in the room in which the Georgia legislature proclaimed that Georgia was no longer a part of the United States and was a member of the Confederate States of America. The school was a high school and junior college, a military school which was attended only by white males. No black or female students were allowed, although the taxes of the State of Georgia and the local municipal government were used to support the school. An additional source of revenue was tuition from the families of students from out of town. The tuition and boarding fees were high enough to exclude those prospective students who were not affluent, and most affluent students were from old Southern family stock. Our uniforms were confederate gray and of course our sentimentalities generally reflected the values and attitudes of the Old South. My paternal father and grandfather graduated from the same school and its largest new building now bears one of my family names. To complete the picture my great grandfather and his father were killed fighting for the confederacy. If anybody alive today has a stronger background in the symbols of the Old South, I haven’t met them yet.?

So how do I feel about the removal of the battle flag from the capitol of South Carolina? I rejoice in the decency and compassion that gesture represents. That flag represents the historic effort to create a new nation from states torn from the Union by secession. “The Cause” of the confederate sympathizers was the success of that new nation. But why secede and why fight the most destructive war ever fought on American soil to defend that nation? To borrow a phrase from Lincoln, what impelled us to the conflict?

Defenders of flying the confederate battle flag often argue that the great war of the 1860s, whatever name one gives to it, was not fought to preserve slavery. Such arguments start by proving that in 1860 Lincoln did not favor abolishing slavery by force, nor did he start the war over abolishing slavery. But such arguments are disingenuous and misleading. Lincoln did not start the war to end slavery or any other reason. Lincoln did not start the war. The leadership of the Southern secessionists started the war by leading certain Southern states to secede from the union, and then by attacking that fort in Charleston harbor. And they sought to secede and create the confederacy as a separate nation because they were convinced that Lincoln’s election would mean the U.S. government would not enforce the fugitive slave act, would encourage new states to abolish slavery and would support the movement among the northern states to exercise their “state’s rights” to encourage slaves to flee to them for freedom. These fears all come down to a single passionate motive for the creation of the confederacy—the preservation of slavery by any means necessary. That is what that war was all about. And anyone who has studied history honestly knows that. That confederate battle flag is a symbol of the unsuccessful effort to preserve the most inhumane system of slavery in the Western world since ancient times. That slavery was based on the lie that black people are inferior to white people. And that lie is at the heart of the Southern Heritage for which that flag became the symbol. The war was fought to avoid the consequences of facing that lie.

But proponents of keeping the flag and other confederate symbols on public property argue that these are not just civil war symbols, but also represent Southern Heritage in other ways. How true. Sadly how true that. When the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that many states had been denying black citizens the equal protection of the laws by forcibly segregating them in public schools, out came the confederate flags as symbols of defiance again. And again the intended victims of that defiance were black children. Was not the confederate flag a symbol of hatred then? Perhaps not always. Sometimes it was a symbol of contempt, a sentiment that reserves hatred for supposedly more important targets. Again that flag was used as the symbol of defiance of the federal government. And again the justification was based on race and nothing but race. Southerners did not monopolize either the confederate flag or the cause of resistance to desegregation; the losing segregationists in the famous Supreme Court case was the school board of Topeka, Kansas.

But massive resistance in the 50s was not the end of the confederate flag as a symbol of contempt for black people. There was more Southern heritage to come in the 1960s as black folks and their allies marched and demonstrated for the right to eat in public places, to be employed and to use public transportation without discrimination, and the right to vote as citizens of the United States and the several Southern states. These demonstrations were frequently met by violence and hatred from white citizens and law enforcement personnel as well.

When the civil rights struggle reached its climax in Montgomery Alabama in 1965, the confederate flag was there again to express Southern Heritage. Michael Harrington tells the story of the role of that flag in that moment in the most pungent of narratives: “We stood in front of the capitol and everywhere Confederate flags were flying. And so the crowd defiantly sang ‘the Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the national anthem suddenly became a hymn of militant hope that the nation could become one.” Southern Heritage again.

Since the Selma to Montgomery March the confederate flag has often been displayed on military and memorial occasions in which some Southerners certainly were more focused on remembering soldiers than hating anybody. But there have been many others who coupled such occasions with feelings that were less than friendly to blacks and liberals and anybody else who might disapprove of a white folks only concern, and the joining of that concern to defiance of a black president or candidate, to affirmative action to correct racial injustice, or any other alternative focus. Now this summer comes this hideous violence in a Southern church towards Southern Christians who happened to be black. And once again the flag stood for what it has never stopped standing for—the very wrong directions of more than one hundred and fifty years of Southern Heritage.

Bill Shipp once wrote from a lifetime of experience that in the South there has always been single issue politics, and that issue has been race. The summer was horrendous. But out of the forgiveness of the families of the slain came the hope for a new Southern Heritage. The Heritage I have always believed us capable of developing from the honest examination of our past. That Heritage has no place for the confederate flag or any other symbol of division and oppression and war and hatred. We need the heritage of those values given to us by the young Rabbi so many of us profess to worship. Even earlier the people from whom he came gave us a heritage based upon the love of God and neighbor and “the stranger among us”, whoever that might be. I pray we may choose that heritage in the spirit of the men and women who suffered and died to give it to us.