Video: Obama’s Selma Speech and the Poets

(30 minutes) President Obama delivers remarks from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Rumor has it that Obama wrote most of this speech himself. We glimpse the best of Obama and the best of the American story. (Read the transcript here.)

Who was Edmund Pettus? See here. Learn why this bridge in Selma is part of a long contest of wills in America.

The president quotes Langston Hughes, Emerson, and Walt Whitman, so I’ve included the sources for those quotes below:

“We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” From the 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes

“Not gold but only men can make / A people great and strong;/ Men who for truth and honor’s sake / Stand fast and suffer long.” From the poem “A Nation’s Strength” by William Ralph Emerson (not Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” From Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

South African Ambassador: Where’s the Climate Change Debate at Party Conventions?

This morning Amy Goodman conducted an excellent and informative interview with South African ambassador Ebrahim Rasool at the Democratic National Convention.

I traveled with Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool in 2011 on a civil rights tour of Alabama. He is a delightful and thoughtful man who spent time in a South African prison with Nelson Mandela. Rasool is a committed disciple of nonviolence, a member of the ANC, a Muslim, and currently South Africa’s ambassador to the United States.

Here’s an excerpt from Goodman’s interview regarding Obama and climate change:

AMY GOODMAN: We were just in Durban, South Africa, for the climate change conference. There is a group of donors to the Democratic Party that are now raising deep concerns that President Obama has not raised the issue of climate change in this convention through the various speakers. What about that? You’ve been observing this election, and you’ve been—you’ve been observing this convention, and you’ve been—of course, South Africa, just as the United States, is deeply affected by climate change.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that that’s precisely the reason why someone like myself, representing a country like South Africa, can’t give any party a blank check. I think that there are global issues which are being subsumed by certain narrow discussions within the U.S., namely the desire to elect a president, that there is not the requisite leadership to say we need to make sure that the world is a better place, that it is a world that is freer of carbons than before. And what is amazing is that Tampa was threatened by a hurricane, that there are floods, there are fires, there are droughts, there are enorm—heat waves through the United States, and yet the elephant in the room is not being addressed. And that’s the shortcoming of conventions. If this had been an ANC convention in South Africa, it would have been rough. It would have been a rough policy debate. It would have been a rough electoral contest. But we expect that the U.S. is different, but it can be substantially out of step with the world. And so, part of what my job is, while South Africa is the president of COP17, it is to bring greater awareness to the challenges of climate, to the global warming situation, and to be able to assist in ways in which the United States can begin to face up to that debate.

Read or watch the whole interview.

Eric Holder And The Targeted Killing of Americans

11 June 1963: Vivian Malone entering Foster Auditorium to register for classes at the University of Alabama. Vivian Malone, one of the first African Americans to attend the university, walks through a crowd that includes photographers, National Guard members, and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Recently, I listened to the 5 March 2012 speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in which he defend the targeted killing of U.S. citizens at the sole discretion of the president of the United States.

It sounded to me like the death knell of the great democratic experiment. If citizenship doesn’t convey the right to protection by the State balanced with just due legal process to address criminality, then citizenship really doesn’t mean much. And when one can be put on a “death squad list” without ever having a chance to be judged by a jury of one’s peers (not members of the NSA, CIA, etc), then The great Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the U.S. Bill of Rights–two cornerstones of modern, liberal, rights-based democracies–have been tossed in the shredder.

I believe Eric Holder is a “good man.” I think he understands the very real consequences of inhumane laws through the life story of his sister-in-law Vivian Malone Jones, who along with James Hood, stood a “the schoolhouse door” while Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked their entrance to the University of Alabama. Wallace was defending “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” The courageous stand by Jones and Hood led to the integration of the University of Alabama.

In Holder’s speech before Northwestern University’s law school yesterday he said, “Some have called such operations “assassinations.”   They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced.   Assassinations are unlawful killings.   Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.”

As Thomas Merton reminded us in Raids On the Unspeakable,

“It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missile, and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will he suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot.”

Richard Rohr also explores this issue of the “good man’s” capacity for unspeakable evil in his book Things Hidden. Rohr writes:

“The ego is that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important. It is very self-protective by its very nature. It must eliminate the negative to succeed. (Jesus would call it the “actor” in Matthew 23, usually translated from the Greek as “hypocrite”.)

The shadow is that part of the self that we don’t want to see, that we’re afraid of and we don’t want others to see either. If our “actor” is well-defended and in denial, the shadow is always hated and projected elsewhere (we tend to hate our own faults in OTHER people!). One point here is crucial: The shadow self is not of itself evil; it just allows you to do evil without recognizing it as evil! That is why Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. He does not hate sinners at all, but only people who pretend they are not sinners!

Jesus’ phrase for the denied shadow is “the plank in your own eye,” which you invariably see as the “splinter in your brother’s eye.” Jesus’ advice is absolutely perfect. “Take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5).”

The American body politic has long denied the “plank in our own eye.” And so we inexorably become more and more like those we deplore. The rarefied air of the White House and Justice Department is a super-food for the ego and slowly strangles self-reflection, self-doubt, or anything that might lead to embracing one’s shadow side. And, truth be told, even if one did find space to embrace the shadow, the system is so deeply entrenched that it would brook no opposition.–Rose Marie Berger

Today 2 Alabama State Senators Join Immigration Law Protest

Two Alabama state senators, Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, and Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, joined an immigration law protest on Thursday, May 3, 2012, outside the doors of the Senate chamber in Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The six Christian protesters from Alabama Rising were detained by police. A few of them were from Micah’s House community in Birmingham.

Send a “thank you” note to Sen. Singleton [bsingle164 (at) yahoo (dot) com]  and Sen. Ross [Quinton.ross (at) alsenate (dot) gov] for joining in and raising a stink for not being arrested along with the others.

To read more, check out Immigration law protesters detained outside Alabama Senate.

Minnie Bruce Pratt: When I Say ‘Steal,’ Who Do You Think Of?

Photo by Leslie Feinberg

I became familiar with the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt when I was in high school and read “Motionless On The Dark Side Of The Light,” in the No More Masks: An Anthology of 20th Century American Women Poets.

Pratt was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1946. She graduated from Bibb County High School when it was under segregation, and entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a year after George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” in an attempt to stop desegregation.

She says that she received her real education “into the great liberation struggles of the 20th century through grass-roots organizing with women in the army-base town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and through teaching at historically Black universities.” Since coming into women’s liberation, and coming out as a lesbian in 1975 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Pratt has been active in organizing that intersects women’s and gender issues, LGBT issues, anti-racism work, and critiques of empire. Currently, she is a professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where she also serves as faculty for a developing Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender Studies Program.

I came across a lecture she gave in 2004 and wanted to share an excerpt here. The first time I read it, I was struck by the oddness of it pushing up against the gospel readings from Matthew 6 and Luke 12. It has the whiff of Advent about it.

“Every week Miz Nell Weaver had us memorize a Bible verse, one for each letter of the alphabet. This was in the fourth grade, Centreville, Alabama, 1956. One by one, on Fridays, our name would be called and we would go into the only privacy there was, the cloakroom at the back of the classroom, and there in the narrow space jumbled with coats and book bags, we would stand in front of her and open our mouths and recite. “I” was In the beginning, of course. And “L” was Lay not up treasure on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal. Lay up treasure in heaven, where moth and rust doth not corrupt and thieves do not break through and steal. (Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.)

Who did I think was stealing? What was the endangered treasure, that which would rot away and be lost? Why was I being taught that any security I might ever have would be after I was dead?

Continue reading “Minnie Bruce Pratt: When I Say ‘Steal,’ Who Do You Think Of?”

Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman

This summer I spent a week in Charleston, SC, vacationing and learning about the civil rights movement in the Low Country. While visiting the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, I picked up Katherine Mellen Charron’s biography Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima P. Clark. Charron does an exceptional job covering the Southern women’s movement of the civil rights struggle — especially as it relates to the activist educators, club leaders, and “race women” — those women who laid the groundwork for upstarts like the students in SNCC. (I keep shaking my head in admiration and amazement that Mrs. Clark joined the NAACP in 1919!)

Ruby N. Sales

One of those SNCC upstarts was Ruby Nell Sales, a veteran organizer/activist rooted in the Southern civil rights struggle and founder of the SpiritHouse Project. (I’ve had the honor of working with Ruby a few times and interviewed her for Sojourners magazine in 2002.)

Ruby wrote a piece this weekend honoring her teacher, Mrs. Armstrong. Ruby’s portrait highlights the strength, humanity, and deep-seated wisdom of Mrs. Armstrong and thousands of women like her who were the backbone of the most significant social change movement this country has ever seen. So while white supremacists like Glenn Beck are parading around shouting about how important they are, Ruby reminds us that “the Glenn Becks come and go.” It’s the Mrs. Clarks, Mrs. Armstrongs, and, I’ll add, the Ms. Sales who abide. Here’s Ruby’s article, which was posted today:

From the early days of my childhood, race women inhabited my life. I knew them like I knew the lifelines in my hands. Race women raised me in the church, community, school and on the playground. In many ways, they were my other mamas and I was their “omanish” child whom they loved even as they shook their heads at my fast mouth and unorthodox ways.

Everywhere I went as a young person there was a race woman beckoning me to “come here” or “speak louder. “ They sat in the deaconess corners or on front porches or presided over classrooms, honor societies, cheering squads, Majestic Ladies, Tri-Hi- Y and Sunday school classes. They taught me how to carry myself well and dignified. Even when I grew up and left them to go my way, they continued to exist in and with me. I heard their voices like a steady drumbeat that helped establish the rhythm of my life.

Mrs. Armstrong was an unapologetic race woman who loved her students across our differences. We called her “big red” behind her back. Everyone in Columbus knew that “you did not mess with Marian’s children.” At Carver High school, she was a force. She took students in her home room class whom the world dismissed as thugs and problems. They both loved and feared her. When she spoke, they listened because they knew that she would knock door doors to give them a chance in life. Many of her male students were actually too old to be in school. But, that did not stop her. She changed their ages and dared anyone to question her. They repaid her with a fierce loyalty and a high school diploma. Her determination to educate her students and advance their lives was the defining aspect of her life as a teacher and race woman. Continue reading “Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman”

Video: ‘The Gulf Appears to be Bleeding’

Thanks to Sue Sturgis over at the Institute for Southern Studies for posting  the story of John Wathen and his heart-breaking video of  the oil spill destroying our southern coast as a result of BP criminal negligence.

The Institute for Southern Studies was founded in 1970 by veterans of the civil rights movement and has established a national reputation as an essential resource for grassroots activists, community leaders, scholars, policy makers and others working to bring lasting social and economic change to the region. Sue Sturgis writes:

Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen of Alabama and volunteer pilot Tom Hutchings of SouthWings flew over the Gulf of Mexico on Friday to get a look at the massive oil slick spreading from the site of the BP disaster.

At nine miles out, they began to smell the oil. At 11 miles, they saw a visible sheen on the water. And at mile 87 off the Alabama coast, they reached ground zero of the disaster — what Wathen described as a “red mass of floating goo” as far as the eye can see.

“The Gulf appears to be bleeding,” he said.

“For the first time in my environmental career, I find myself using the word ‘hopeless,'” Wathen continued. “We can’t stop this. There’s no way to prevent this from hitting our shorelines.”

Wathen and Hutchings had no trouble finding their way back to land: “All we had to do was follow the red,” Wathens said. “There was a perfect line of it leading from the rig to the shoreline.”

Here’s the video from that trip, which is also posted to Wathen’s blog dedicated to documenting the disaster:

ISS – ‘The Gulf appears to be bleeding’ (video).

Nonviolent Resistance and Gandhi’s Psychological Jiu-Jitsu

Last night I was reading reflections sent from Shelley Douglass at Mary’s House in Birmingham, Alabama. Shelley and Jim Douglass are  long-time Catholic Workers, authors, activists, and practitioners of radical hospitality. In her note, Shelley mentioned a new book on Gandhi that she’s really enjoying. It’s called Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi (Mohandas’ grandson). Here’s a description:

This monumental biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century, written by his grandson, is the first to give a complete and balanced account of Mahatma Gandhi’s remarkable life, the development of his beliefs and his political campaigns, and his complex relations with his family. Written with unprecedented insight and access to family archives, it reveals a life of contrasts and contradictions: the westernized Inner Temple lawyer who wore the clothes of India’s poorest and who spun cotton by hand, the apostle of nonviolence who urged Indians to enlist in the First World War, the champion of Indian independence who never hated the British. It tells of Gandhi’s campaigns against racial discrimination in South Africa and untouchability in India, tracks the momentous battle for India’s freedom, explores the evolution of Gandhi’s strategies of non-violent resistance, and examines relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, a question that attracted Gandhi’s passionate attention and one that persists around the world today. Published to rave reviews in India in 2007, this riveting book gives North American readers the true Gandhi, the man as well as the legend, for the first time.

Then today I came across Tom Hasting’s blog on nonviolence. I appreciate Tom’s emphasis on applied nonviolence and on highlighting those who are teaching nonviolence in the U.S. today. Tom also mentions Gandhi, along with social philosoper Richard Gregg, and Helen and Scott Nearing, the early “back to the land” pacifists in this post:

Richard Gregg was inspired to visit and learn from Gandhi in India in the 1920s. Gregg was a social philosopher who really began to translate Gandhian nonviolence into practical, explicable social organizing and conflict management models. He thought about the psychological aspects, calling what Gandhi did ‘psychological jiu-jitsu’, that is, using the power of the oppressor against himself, allowing the hatred and violence to expend themselves with far less harm than if those tactics (the oppressor’s strength) would have been countered with similar but asymmetrically weaker hatred and violence. Gregg really influenced the western analysis of why Gandhian nonviolence might work.

Gregg’s 1934 germinal work, The Power of Nonviolence, is still a classic, and the second edition, in 1960, included a foreword by the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Gregg also integrated the swadeshi philosophy in his own life, moving to a farm with Helen and Scott Nearing, who were quite influential in the nascent self-reliance movement in the US. Gregg coined the term voluntary simplicity and staked out an early claim toward our slowly developing notions connecting war to resource conflict to consumerism to ecological care to urban dependency to injustice. We are still learning this basic system of interlocking causes and effects.

Due to the fact that our God is one of hilarious surprises, you just never know when something new will pop up. Read more of Tom’s post here.

‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy

ruby-salesIn 2002, I interviewed civil rights leader Ruby Sales for Sojourners magazine (see Long Train Runnin’.) Ruby is one of my heroes in the faith. She’s a courageous, funny, generous, fiercely committed sister in the struggle for justice. She now directs the SpiritHouse Project in Columbus, Georgia.

I was very touched by her reflection on the life of Ted Kennedy, set in the historical context of the fight for justice. She asks: What is it about a White upper class senator’s life that touches me as a Southern Black woman who grew up during segregation and economic exploitation …? Read her answer below. Ruby Sales is My Kinda Christian.

A Generational Narrative by a Black Woman on the Life and Legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy–by Ruby Nell Sales

This morning I awakened to the sound of news reporters telling the world that Ted Kennedy died just as the night turned into morning.  As I heard Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice booming from the television the words “For those whose cares have been our concern… The Hope Still Lives, The Dream Shall Never Die…” when he lost his bid for president in 1980 – my eyes filled with tears that carried with them the hopes and dreams of a generation and community of people of all colors who imagined a new day in America and worked hard to achieve it.   As I thought about this man who lived a life committed to “making a better world,” it touched the grief and celebration that run throughout the lives of my generation who rode and still rides a long train towards justice. In many ways, his life reflects the hills and valleys of our lives… our “victories and our defeats.”

my-kinda-christian-logo

This morning in a very special way, I remembered my young brothers and sisters in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and local communities throughout the South who worked unrelentingly to advance democracy during the heat and violence of White supremacy without thinking of money or benefits. We lived and worked from freedom houses that lacked hot water, inside bathrooms and sturdy foundations to protect us from the violence and terror of White night riders. Most of us were young.  We were idealistic.   We were Black, White and Brown. We were determined.  Despite generations of America’s broken promises of democracy, we still passionately believed in the dreams of our mothers and fathers: that America was large enough for everyone regardless of race, sex, class, color or creed.

Believing this, we put our youth on the line to make real their dream.   We were wounded at the core of our young selves under the weight of White lies, White racism and White violence.  America’s bad faith, violence and oppression fractured us into tiny unclaimed bits which lay on the road from Mississippi to Alabama to Washington to New York to Los Angeles.  Yet, like Ted Kennedy, many of us did not die or lose our will to struggle. We kept on believing, working, and struggling despite hearts that were broken by White men who killed our relatives and murdered our friends.  I admit that sometimes we did not always carry our grief well or wisely.  However unlike the Trumpet blowers of White Supremacy and injustice, we harmed ourselves more often than we did others.  Unlike them, love rather than hate stirred our passions and ignited our imaginations.  Even as we watched right wing communities vigorously and intentionally roll back the gains of the Southern Freedom /Civil Rights Movement, like Senator Edward Kennedy, we “kept the faith” and found it over and over again despite the hopeless despair that the right wing communities spread throughout America like a dirty blanket. Because their language and ideals lacked hope, moral authority and meaning, they stole our freedom language. They called death squads in Nicaragua freedom fighters. Even in the midst of this grand theft, we knew like Senator Edward Kennedy that they might steal our language and images, but they could not kill this dream that still burns in us. Continue reading “‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy”

“JFK and the Unspeakable” by Jim Douglass

shelleyjimdouglass1I’ve been honored to know Jim Douglass and Shelley Douglass since their days at the Ground Zero community in Poulsbo, Washington. Now they live in Birmingham, Alabama. Shelley leads their mission at Mary’s House, in the spirit of the Catholic Worker. Jim continues to be one of the foremost Catholic writers, thinkers, theologians, and practitioners of Christian nonviolence.

In Jim’s groundbreaking 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Mattersjfk-unspeakable, he  probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic President, and explores why we need to understand our history if we are going to fully understand what is at stake with Barack Obama. Here’s a little bit of what I wrote after visiting with Jim last December:

Kennedy showcased his new vision in June 1963 during a speech at American University in Washington, D.C., by preaching on the absolute necessity for nations to choose peace. “What kind of peace do I mean?” asked Kennedy. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … .”

It was this speech, Douglass says, that prompted the Unspeakable—in the form of people within the U.S. intelligence and military structure—to act.

FAST-FORWARD TO Jan. 28, 2008, when Ted and Caroline Kennedy stood on the stage at American University to endorse Barack Obama for president. President Kennedy’s 1963 speech formed the historical backdrop. The Kennedys, I think, were sending a message: Barack Obama can pick up the banner for peace dropped by John Kennedy in death.

You can read my whole column about my visit with Jim here–and look for a review of JFK and the Unspeakable by Ed Snyder in the March 2009 issue of Sojourners.