Chris Christie’s Pity Party

10 01 2014

Gov Chris Christie - downcast

By Roger Witherspoon

 

“I’m Stunned.”

“I’m Incredulous.”

“I’m a sad guy.”

“I’m humiliated.”

“What did I do wrong to have people think they could lie to me?”

 

With that Chris Christie – who prefers everyone to genuflect and call him THE GOVERNOR – stood alone on a podium and did something that was, to observers, stunning and incredulous.  He acted almost like a normal politician.

He answered questions without his trademark snarl. He answered repeated queries without telling reporters to shut up, change the subject, or resorting to crude name calling.  For once, he wasn’t a hulking schoolyard bully.  And he admitted that he had been wrong and his callous disregard for mounting evidence, his disdain for legitimate inquiries, and his derisive, mocking comments had not been warranted.

But what was most stunning about The Governor’s prayerful pity party was that he spent two hours expressing incredulity and remorse because his staff and political henchmen and women lied to him. He was not chagrinned that they lied to the people of New Jersey. He was not chagrinned that they played a mean-spirited, dangerous political prank on hundreds of thousands of people using the George Washington Bridge or living and working in Fort Lee. He was not chagrinned that they deliberately blocked firemen, police, and ambulances from serving people in need in Fort Lee. He was not chagrinned that they lied about possibly contributing to the death of a 91-year-old woman who did not get emergency medical attention as soon as possible.

No, that was not the priority.  Today was all about Chris Christie, The Governor. What mattered first and last with The Governor was that his chosen operatives and representatives, who acted and bullied in his name had, apparently, misled him.

The question he should have asked was this:

“What did I do wrong to have people think they could play with the lives of the citizens of New Jersey?”

If he had, just once, indicated that that was his primary concern, then maybe it would be possible to accept his oft-repeated apology to the people of New Jersey. The atmosphere which Christie created, and which his operatives thrived in, was a mean-spirited, spiteful, above-the-law, us vs. them, winner take all political hothouse in which the only thing that truly mattered was continually elevating the national stature of Chris Christie.

What was evident as one watched Christie’s televised tour de farce, was a desperate despot throwing one close friend after another overboard to keep his rickety political lifeboat afloat. There was his “stupid” and “deceitful” deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. Really? If she was that bad, how had she continued amassing ever higher titles with increasing amounts of authority as she sat a couple of feet from him on a daily basis?

And Bill Stepien, who ran his successful reelection campaign and who he named earlier this week to head the state Republican Party and serve as his point man at the National Republican Governors’ Conference, an organization intended to be Christie’s springboard to national office.  Stepien was suddenly “no longer trustworthy” according to the governor.  Really?

Christie would have us believe that in the space of five years two people who were his closest confidants, who helped twice put him in the governor’s office, and created the image and record that is enabling him to seriously consider running for President of the United States morphed into petty political tricksters without his knowing about it. They worked right next to Christie and felt it was fine to plan and implement a traffic jam that tied up most of the city of Fort Lee for four days. They worked right next to him and saw nothing wrong with blocking kids from their first days at school, or commuters from getting to work or emergency workers from getting to those in dire need.

And then there was David Wildstein, and Bill Baroni his top two appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Wildstein was usually referred to as the Governor’s longtime friend, dating back to their years in high school.

But there was Christie, sincerely declaring that “I barely knew David in high school…We ran in different circles.” To hear him tell it, they rarely spoke. But if their connection was that tenuous, why did he appoint Wildstein to a six-figure job with few specified duties other than to carry out the wishes of the Governor? So how did his classmate act in office?

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Kelly in an August 13 email to Wildstein.

“Got it.” Wildstein replied.

On September 9 Wildstein ordered Port Authority staff to close two lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge, causing the traffic backup that tied up the bridge and the town.

George Washington Bridge - NY Daily News

A cryptic message like that could not have been made in a vacuum. There must have been preliminary discussions about ways to cause havoc in Fort Lee to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Republican Christie’s reelection.  How could such a discussion and planning take place without Christie knowing about it?  Just what sort of tone did he set as governor?

Christie announced he was going to Fort Lee right after his press conference to personally apologize to Sokolich.  That move would have seemed a lot more sincere if he had first called Sokolich and asked if he could meet with him instead of just showing up and expecting the Mayor to drop everything and cater to Christie’s televised moment of simulated sincerity.

There is something unseemly about a man who claims to run an honest organization and demands unwavering loyalty from his well-rewarded staff and then deliberately trashes their reputations and publicly disgraces them in an effort to salvage his own wavering prestige. At least the mobsters he used to prosecute considered loyalty a two-way street.

From the comments in his two hour apologia, Christie wants people to believe he will be spending quite a bit of time in introspection, pondering how all this could have happened to him. He is “hurt” and “humiliated” by the actions of those around him. He is a victim of their deceit.

What nonsense.

Christie has spent the past four years reveling in the well-deserved reputation as a bully and street fighter, one who is quick with insults and penalties to anyone who challenges him – a politician,  a probing journalist, and frequently when convenient, a teacher.

The only victims in this sad political tale are the residents of New Jersey.

The only question Christie should be asking during this period of introspection is why someone like him deserves to retain the respected title of The Governor.

Gov  Christie -

 






The Dust Bowl: America’s Greatest Ecological Disaster

17 11 2012

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

          “A decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions ensued, with swarms of grasshoppers and hordes of rabbits descended on the fields. The land itself that they had counted on for their prosperity turned on them with a lethal vengeance.”

 

The scenes are stark. The understated narrator is grim. The music provides the mournful undercurrent of the lone violin, tuning up for a dance that never comes. The setting befits a world coming to an end.

This is “The Dust Bowl”, the latest in the string of gripping documentaries by now legendary film maker Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, his long-time co-producer, historian, and writer. The two-part, four-hour documentary begins airing on Public Broadcasting Stations Sunday night.

It is a subject that nearly everyone in America has heard of. But the details and the personal triumph and tragedy of that epoch are wholly unknown to many. It was premiered before a stunned group of about 500 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists last month, a fitting setting for what the film bills in its opening sequence as “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history. The heedless actions of thousands of farmers, encouraged by their government, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

And it is different from Burns’ previous documentaries such as “The Civil War” in one significant way: the tale is largely told by living survivors, instead of actors reading the letters of participants long since dead. In that regard, Burns and Duncan have crafted and brilliantly meshed together two companion features.

The first is the stark tale of the creation of the conditions that resulted in the environmental disaster that is the title of the documentary, and shows how close America came to creating a permanent Sahara Desert in what was its breadbasket.

The second, as the narrator intones, “Is a story of heroic perseverance, of a resilient people who somehow managed to endure of unimaginable hardship after another, to hold onto their lives, their land, and the ones they loved.”

And that perseverance occurred in “a place where children couldn’t go outside, where the air could kill you, where the dirt could blacken out the sky at midday.”

“We saw this cloud coming in. Black, black dirt. And I’ll never forget my grandmother. She said ‘you kids run and get together. The end of the world’s coming.’ It came like a black wall, choking the life out of everything in its path…”

–Pauline Robinson, Union, New Mexico

The Dust Bowl evolved from the utter destruction of the western prairies, flatlands running from Nebraska to Texas that were anchored by endless miles of prairie grasses.  Donald Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas who is quoted extensively in the film, said the grasses evolved over the millennial for the particular western environment. Their roots extended down to five feet or more, holding the soil in a region which rarely got 20 inches of rainfall annually and nourishing the vast herds of buffalo in a land with few trees.

In the latter part of the 19th century the buffalo were slaughtered to near extinction as part of a government program to kill off the main food supply of the Plains Indians and, as a result, destroy most of the regions Native Americans.

Then, early in the 20th century, Congress enlarged the Homestead Act, making it possible for Americans who previously had nothing – European immigrants to white southern sharecroppers – to own land and become relatively rich from the newly opened farmland anchored by the nexus of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Texas Panhandle. Curiously, Burns omits the fact that Blacks, who would have benefited as much as poor whites from homesteading, were not welcome in a region dominated by the KKK. Indeed, in October, 1921 the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black community of 10,000, was burned to the ground and hundreds of men, women, and children murdered by a white mob led by the KKK and local police.

The land was the incentive to aspiring farmers. Then, government experts told the new arrivals that removing the prairie grasses would allow more rain to penetrate the soil, making it more fertile. Further, the government said mechanization was the best way to farm.

As a result, instead of using the single, deep-furrowed plow, the new farmers used tractors with scores of blades which lightly cut through the topsoil in long rows. The film contains vintage footage showing hundreds of tractors in a horizontal conga line turning age old prairie grasslands into endless rows of wheat. The farmers were not oblivious to the environment: they were following pronouncements from government scientists that the soil was “indestructible…and cannot be used up.”

As Caroline Henderson would tell the film makers, “I saw the whole country transformed in a sunset glow. All the brown prairie turned to gold. I could feel once more the lure of this once lonely land.”

That transformation came to be known as “The Great Plow-Up” and, according to historian Worster, lay at the heart of the predictable calamity to follow.

“The Dust Bowl ranks among the top three or five environmental catastrophes in world history,” says Worster in the film. “But those catastrophes took place over hundreds and even thousands of years of deforestation. We created a world class environmental disaster in a matter of 40 or 50 years.”

With the outbreak of World War 1, the government encouraged farmers to plant more wheat in support of the war effort, and set minimum prices which, in turn, encouraged farmers to plow up more and more thousands of square miles of prairie and supplant them with row upon row of wheat.

As is typical from Burns, the photography is stunning with a deft intermingling of modern scenes of the region with historical footage.  Then, there are the people.

 

          Duncan, in an interview, said that “Ken taped appeals that appeared on public television stations in Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. The appeals said if you or your family have photographs and stories you’d like to tell, please contact this station.  The stations then passed the contact names onto us.”

They also went to local historical societies, nursing homes, senior citizens’ centers and held discussions about the Dust Bowl period, and found people who lived through it or knew others who had.

“We also had fliers like the old military recruiting fliers. But these said ‘Ken Burns Wants You and Your Stories about the Dust Bowl.’ And people responded.”

The sight of a roiling wall of dirt 10,000 feet high is stunning enough. These were not simple storms, either. There were the small, localized storms, like land-based water spouts. Then there were the slow lingering ones, which basically created a haze over an entire region. And then there were the monsters that turned day to night and could literally last for weeks.

But what brings that picture to life are the people who were there.

There are women like Caroline Henderson, who would eventually own a square mile of land and a two-story home with an indoor bathroom, describing the “almost level prairie, the marvelous glory of its sunrise and its sunsets, the brilliancy of its starlit sky at night…”

Henderson started her homestead in a one-room shack with her two cats that she called “her castle,” and in an era when there wasn’t much electricity.  She later added a windmill to bring up water for her flocks of chickens and turkeys and made additional money by writing about the western plains for the Atlantic Monthly.

The farmers thought they were separate from the rest of the country and immune from its problems. The stock market crash of October 1929 triggered a depression, but it was the best year ever for wheat farmers.

But by 1931, the commodities market crashed and the government asked farmers to reduce the amount of wheat they would plant, to help keep supply down and prices up. Instead, farmers stripped more land and grew more wheat, resulting in a bumper crop in 1932. It was a crop no one could afford to buy.

The farmers had a myopic way of thinking. Clarence Beck, who farmed in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, during the period, said “You kept thinking that tomorrow things would change. So you kept doing what you had been doing. That tomorrow there would be some things that we could do that would be a little better than the way they are.  You couldn’t live without hoping that things would change for the better.”

It was a common refrain. Wayne Lewis, of Beaver County, Oklahoma, added “We always had hope that next year was going to be better, and even this year was going to be better. We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different; you just tried it harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”

And they plowed up more grassland. And they planted more wheat. And the dust storms grew.

 

Henderson would recall “of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect. How can we feel that our work has any dignity or importance when the world places so low a value on the product of our toil?”

“It was a time when the most diligent of mothers was unable to stop the dirt from killing their children. It was a place where children couldn’t go outside, where the air could kill you, where the dirt could blacken out the sky in midday.”

Among the haunting images in “The Dust Bowl” are those of children, wrapped from head to toe in rags to keep the sand from scouring them as they headed off to school. And sand makes it hard for adults to breathe, and for children to live.

Robert ‘Boots’ McCoy or Texas County, Oklahoma, recalled that when the first major dust storm came, “it scared us to death. We didn’t know what to think. We was at home and Dad was gone…

“When it hit in the middle of the day it was just like midnight, with no stars. It scared the heck out of us. Mother was praying and we stayed pretty close to Ma.”

His Mother was praying because she was pregnant with twins, who were delivered during the midst of the storm. “They couldn’t breathe, though, and died that same day,” recalled McCoy. “A neighbor went to the store and got some number 12 shoe boxes and we got some cotton and put the boys in those shoeboxes and that’s how they were buried.”

And then, there were the Coen brothers, Floyd and Dale, from southwestern Kansas. They sat side by side, talking calmly into the camera about what it was like before and after the storms came.

“When times were good,” recalled Dale, “it was so lush that we would sleep outside under the stars.”

But then the storms came, said Floyd, “and you felt like it was going to crush you.” And he talked about the bed they shared with their little sister Rena, age two, who had more and more troubled breathing in the ever-present dust. They watched as she gasped more and more for air and then, at two and a half, she died.

And they were silent for a minute. And Floyd cried.

“It was an incredible and heartbreaking story,” said Duncan. “And it’s amazing how they – now in their late 80s and 90s – told the story as if it happened the day before. That’s how raw and vivid the memory was for them.”

It is a raw and vivid and extraordinarily well executed documentary that makes viewers marvel at the overpowering strength of nature unleashed, the arrogance and folly of crafting policies designed to tame the environment rather than live with it, and the resilience of those live through such a preventable disaster and rebuild their lives.

Much of the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy resulted from years of over development in low-lying areas without provisions for inevitable floods, and political posturing that ignores ongoing climate change.  For nearly a decade, the region has had studies showing that rising sea levels would result in Category 1 hurricanes having the destructive impact of a Category 4 hurricane because they were starting from a higher sea level and the winds would cover a bigger area. A 2004 report from NASA and the Columbia University Earth Institute even predicted flooding of the subways and tunnels from what would become regular, rather than once-in-a-lifetime storms (  http://rogerwitherspoon.com/pdfs/enviro/risingwater.pdf  ) .

The fact that nothing was done about it is all too familiar. “The Dust Bowl” revealed there was a series of droughts followed by dust storms in 1951 and 1952. These weren’t as severe as the earlier storms because about half the farmers had changed their methods. They were planting windbreaks and prairie grass between discreet wheat fields instead of planting nothing but wheat as far as the eye could see.  But those who didn’t mend their ways, or didn’t believe the cycle of drought and wind could come again, saw they farms blow away.

“After the ‘50s,” said Duncan, “there is an additional wrinkle. The technology was developed that allows the whole region, from Nebraska to Texas, to dip into the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate their land. That encouraged many farmers to cultivate corn, which requires more water than does what.

“There are a lot of concerns that they will deplete the Ogallala, and that water is not from last year’s rainfall, but from glaciers that retreated 10,000 years ago. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”





Good Night, Kids: Good Night, Gill

9 06 2011


 

“Was there a touch of spring

in the air?

And did she have a pink dress on?

Wasn’t your first love

A very precious time?

 

            It was predictable that the accolades to the late poet and singer, Gill Scott-Heron, focused on his political commentary and searing insight to the tenor of America’s transitional era of 1960-80. His “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the partial meltdown at the Fermi nuclear power plant was as valid then as it was prescient, 12 nuclear meltdowns later, in this year of Fukushima Daiichi.

But there were two Gill Scott-Herons: the social commentator, and the romantic poet.

And for a single father raising two young girls, the overlooked romantic was an integral part of their upbringing. One of the advantages of being a poet is that no one criticizes you for lacking a singing voice. And to two young girls, the raspy, earnest, off-key, note-breaking Scott-Heron was just another Dad, but one who had a backup band. Which meant he was the perfect musician for me to join in the nightly ritual of singing them to sleep.

His ballad, “A Precious Time,” from his Winter in America album was all about the wonder of first love. But Brie, my youngest, and Kir, four years her senior, were too young to know that.  But they did have pretty pink dresses they pulled out for Easter, in a spring ritual that accompanied the blossoming of the dogwood and cherry trees.


“And when she smiled

Her shy smile

Could you almost

Touch the warm?”

 

            A closing line which would inevitably prompt a “you like our smiles and dresses, don’t you Daddy?”

“Yes Dear. You have pretty smiles.  Now close your eyes.”

Scott-Heron had a ballad for all occasions; something to fit the stories of Blacks in America as told by me or their elders. Their Great Grandfather, Walker Smith – or GG-Pop – gave them several books on  Black Cowboys and regaled them with tales of how his grandfather, the first Walker Smith, wielded a rifle and sword, rode with the Pennsylvania Cavalry, and pretty much won the Battle of Gettysburg single handedly. So when Gill’s gunpowder-rough voice intoned:

“Brother Man run to Nebraska

After the Civil War was through…

Rootin’ tootin’ Wild West shootin’ up Brothers!

Though his-story don’t teach us none…”

 

they would pipe up from the covers about GG-Pop’s cowboy books and how much they liked riding horses. And if it was a scorcher in August, or the holiday season after Thanksgiving, they wanted to hear me and Gill in a duet on “Winter in America” which, to adults, dealt with the Republican push-back against civil rights but to the kids brought cheerful images of snowy days and family gatherings at Christmas.

And the concerts always ended the same way, with two melodies that signified all was well: “A Lovely Day,” and “Your Daddy Loves You.” The first one said look to the bright side for all would be well, regardless of what happened during the day:

“On a clear spring morning

There’s not a cloud in the sky

…when I see that old sun shining

Makes me think that I can make it through

Yes. And all I really want to say

Is that the problems come and go

But the sunshine seems to stay.

Just look around. I think we found

A lovely day. 

          And the latter, with its refrain: “Your Daddy loves you. Your Daddy loves his girls,” simply meant all was right in the world and Daddy would fix whatever was broken. For years, if they woke up in the middle of the night shaking from a terrible nightmare, a brief concert of just those two songs would chase the looming monsters away. “A Lovely Day” would erase the shakes, and they would be asleep by the end of “Your Daddy Loves You.”

          The nightly concerts faded away as they became “big girls.” But growing up does not eliminate nightmares – especially the real ones.  At age 15 Brie needed cancer surgery – a prospect that would scare an adult and terrified a 10th grader. Kir, then a college freshman, missed coming home for the surgery because she was in intensive care in a California hospital, where doctors tried to reduce the swelling of her brain stem from meningitis. Brie cried that she wouldn’t live to graduate from New Jersey’s Teaneck High School. Kir cried over the phone that the pain was unbearable and she wouldn’t live to see tomorrow.

          A day after the surgery, Brie was in bed and Kir came home on a medical flight.  As I prepared to leave their room, Kir said softly:

“Daddy, would you sing to us?”

So I got out the records, and began the familiar duet of Gill and Me till they were resting comfortably and I could ease out the door.

A decade later, Kir is married and raising a family in Virginia while Brie is one of many civilian engineers working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. It’s after 10 P.M. on a Friday night this past February, and my wife and I are at a reception for Jeff Johnson, a sculptor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., whose latest show opened to critical acclaim. My cell phone rang. It was from Brie, and she did not sound good.

I found a quiet corner in Johnson’s wood working studio and asked what the problem was.

“We’re in Code Black,” Brie said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s when we have to grab our Kevlar and run for the bunker and wait till the Marines say it’s all clear.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“A bomb went off under my window. They were shooting at us with AK-47s as we ran. The bullets were hitting the walls and ground around us. Do you have time to chat?”

She had gone to Afghanistan just before Christmas and this was an ongoing nightmare she had no control over. So I sat on the floor and we talked about stuff: Kir’s pregnancy, my writing, the antics of her three cats now ensconced in my library till she returns.  Then, from an underground bunker a half a  world away:

“Daddy, will you sing to me?”

So I sat on floor, amidst the sawdust, leaned against the sturdy legs of Johnson’s workbench and, going without the aid of Scott-Heron’s raspy voice and tight music to keep me somewhere near tune, sang “A Lovely Day” followed by “Your Daddy Loves You.”

Brie was silent for a moment.

Then: “Thank you Daddy. Enjoy the party.”

And with that, she was gone.

 





Hooks, Baker, the GOP And the Road Not Taken

16 04 2010

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            It’s hard to make pancakes with your right arm broken and useless in a sling.

            It was 90 degrees and humid in Miami Beach, even though it was just 7:30 in the morning. Frances Hooks was struggling to fix breakfast in the kitchen of their hotel suite during the NAACP annual convention. Breakfast was the only quiet time Ben Hooks would have that day for a protracted interview; but he didn’t cook and a one-armed Frances was having a hard time.

            So we changed roles: I cooked breakfast, Frances manned the tape recorder and Ben Hooks set the table and talked about the changing role of Blacks in national politics. Blacks needed to be represented in both political parties, he said, though that would work only if both parties really wanted black support.

            “We’re at a crossroads,” he mused. “There is a slight chance that the Republican Party can really offer something to black folks. If Howard Baker wins the nomination, that’s something I could work for. If Reagan wins, it’s an opportunity lost.”

            Hooks was prepared to take a leave of absence from the helm of the NAACP and actively campaign for the Senator, a long time political ally who had become a family friend. In those years, the NAACP chapters provided the manpower for most civil rights campaigns, and Hooks said he would try to mobilize those ground troops for a Republican presidential campaign.

            It would really shake things up, he said, if Blacks had a real say in the workings and platforms of both major political parties. The implications for the future could not be calculated. Under Richard Nixon, the Republican Party had launched its southern strategy, opposing affirmative action, civil rights and labor-oriented legislation, and progressive programs in general. It was, in Hooks’ view, a genteel version of the racist politics of the past.

            If Baker won, he said, there was a chance for progress with both parties making the political and economic enfranchisement of Blacks a priority.

            But Baker was a long shot. He was a star of the progressive “Rockefeller Wing” who was battling the telegenic Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination in an increasingly conservative, anti-black, southern-oriented GOP.  Hooks knew Baker from his early days as one of the few black attorneys in western Tennessee, back in the days when black lawyers walked into the court house via the back door along with the rest of the “coloreds.”

            “We weren’t entirely on different sides of the fence,” recalled Baker. “Ben was initially a Republican during the Eisenhower era.” Hooks switched parties during the administration of Frank G. Clement, one of the few southern governors to back desegregation.  It was a time when many blacks were Republican, a legacy of the Party of Lincoln which had begun to crumble with the administrations of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.

            Baker was challenging Clements for a U.S. Senate seat, and “I was reaching out to get the support of Blacks in the Memphis region, which was unusual for a Republican in those days. I went to see if we could find common ground. He clearly was important to both parties.”

            Hooks had become the state’s first Black criminal court judge, and Baker said “he was a man of stature, courage and determination.”

            “I cannot over estimate the importance of Frances. She was a powerful ally for him and had insights she shared with him about the importance of two-party competition. Frances openly supported me in both of the early election races.”

            It was a two way relationship between the civil rights leader and the young Tennessee Senator. “He had a great impact on my views,” recalled Baker. “He encouraged me to support the open housing bill and I did. Later, they were looking for a commissioner for the FCC. I did not know they would consider a Black, but I recommended him and I can’t tell why Nixon chose him. But he did.”

             Baker lost the 1980 GOP nomination to Reagan, who went on to open his official presidential run with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi – a clear statement that racists were welcome. Baker later became Reagan’s chief of staff, and while the personal friendship remained, the break between blacks and the Republican Party intensified. The hostility was open when Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bork was a federalist who opposed the Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.  Reagan, who was scheduled to speak before the NAACP, asked Baker to go in his stead.

            “I called Ben and said I need your help,” he recalled Friday. “I have to give the president’s speech, and I need some guidance. He called me back and said ‘would you settle for silence?’ I said I’d settle for silence in a New York minute. So Ben introduced me and the whole place went totally silent. No applause, no nothing.”

            But that was better than open hostility and rudeness. There was respect, if not agreement.

            Flash forward to today, a time when the Republican Party has become the repository of racist opposition to any proposal from an administration led by a Black man. The coalition of southern attorneys generals jointly suing the federal government to block enforcement of the national health law is a replay of the 1954 conclave called by then Alabama Attorney General John Patterson. Its purpose was to find ways to legally delay or “nullify” implementation of desegregation. The Alabama legislature then led a parade of states passing laws to nullify federal civil rights laws. Patterson would ride the celebrity from those anti civil rights efforts into the state house, beating George Wallace to become governor.

            The open discussion of a second secession of southern states by Texas governor Rick Perry and others shows how far down the racist road the Republican Party has traveled.

            According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said “there is no question there has been a resurgence of the radical right. A major driver is the role of ostensibly mainstream commentators and politicians who push completely false ideas.  Sarah Palin alleging Obama is trying to murder our grandparents. Michelle Bachman says FEMA is secretly building political reeducation camps for American children to reeducate them into good little communists. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa claiming criminally illegal aliens drunkenly run over and kill 25 native  Americans a day. It’s all completely false – it’s not even remotely close to the truth.

            “Tom Tancredo gave this speech in February attacking Obama as a fascist and saying the wrong Americans are allowed to vote and we should bring back literacy tests. To say that in the context of the first black president is patently racist.”

            The steady rise in the number of hate groups, without a negative word from GOP officials, is a far cry from the party a young Howard Baker tried to lead.

            “It’s amazing to me,” said Potok, “that Republicans can sit there and allow people to talk about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants as the result of a straight-ahead, majority democratic vote. There were no coups, no Bolshevik elections. Nobody was forced to vote at gunpoint. So what are they talking about? Take our country back from what – from democracy?”

            It didn’t have to be this rancid.

            There was a point where these frinds — Ben Hooks, the civil rights leader, and Howard Baker, the southern politician – saw a chance to bring the nation together; to end centuries of rancor and racism. The country would have been a better place had they succeeded.





Bread, Roses, Racism and Song

5 02 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

            In the nation’s coffee houses where live folk music reigns and homage is paid to old fashioned liberalism and the heydays of the union and civil rights movements, the last thing one would expect to encounter is a tribute to racism.

            But there is a century-old union song called Bread and Roses, which is making comeback rounds and raising eyebrows as some white liberals insist on ignoring history and giving new meaning to old lyrics rather than change some of the words – a common practice in folk music.  The song, by James Oppenheim, grew out of the strike by women textile workers in 1912, who carried signs declaring “We Want Bread and Roses Too!”

            Oppenheim extolled the rise of women as an integral part of “the rising of the race.” And at that point in time, America was hard at work ensuring white supremacy in virtually every aspect of daily life.

     

      Reggie Harris (  http://www.kimandreggie.com/   ), one of the few prominent Blacks on the folk circuit, paused backstage during a break in a coffee house concert in White Plains, New York, and said there was no justification for signing the original lyrics any more.

            “Hell no,” he said. “You can’t divorce the lyrics from its history.”

            Proponents follow the lead of white music Daniel Patrick Welch, who declared in a 2006 review that in using the phrase ‘the rising of the race’ “Oppenheim obviously means species; yet in perhaps a moment of weakness, others have changed it to ‘the rising of us all’ which of course, necessitates changing the rhyme. Why? As is all too apparent in current struggles, the uplifting of women is the key to uplifting the entire human race.”

            He is, of course, entitled to his revisionist view. But it never ceases to amaze me how quickly supposedly progressive whites will adopt and defend indefensible attitudes in an attempt to wish away this nation’s racist, vicious, and violent past. Whites who would not dream of assigning a “modern meaning” to Mein Kampf have no trouble reassigning meaning to mass murder when the victims are black.

            Let me walk you through the world of 1912.

            To do that, you have to go back to 1896 when the US Supreme Court adopted a 7-2 decision in a case titled Plessy v Ferguson.  That decision augured in the beginning of the Jim Crow era, a time when all major societal institutions – including the labor and women’s movements – reflected and supported the suppression of Blacks.

    In the Ferris State University presentation of “What Was Jim Crow?” from their Museum of Racist Memorabilia, http://www.ferris.edu/JIMCROW/what.htm ;  “The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: Whites were superior to Blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would produce a mongrel race that would destroy America; treating Blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy….” 

    It was illegal for Blacks and Whites to shake hands or eat together

  • Blacks were not allowed to show public affection towards one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended Whites.
  • Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks.
  • White motorists had the right of way at all intersections at all times.
  • Oklahoma prohibited Blacks and Whites from boating together. Separate parks were common, Whites only beaches were the norm.

    These prohibitions were codified in hundreds of state laws ranging from the petty – Georgia banned Whites and Blacks from playing checkers together – to  the criminal, in which a Black man who looked  a White woman in the eye was guilty of “eyeball rape” and subject to immediate lynching.

    These laws and practices disenfranchising American citizens were useless unless enforced by violence.  Lynchings were not antiseptic affairs involving a rope, a tree, and nightriders.

    They were public events, often billed in the local newspapers as “picnics – short  for pick a nigger – since  in a perversion of Christ and Barabbas, the police would grab three black men at random and keep them in jail. The public had till the week end to place bets on who would last the longest under torture. That would be the victim and the others would be let go.

    These were family affairs where women participated in torture and maiming, often using equipment designed to geld bulls to rip off the privates of the Black man. If he had a pregnant wife who protested, there were cases where they tied her up also, cut open her stomach with knives and tossed the fetus to white children to kick around like a soccer ball till they kicked it into the fire. In that way, white kids learned at an early age they had nothing to fear from Blacks since they ruled their lives from birth to death.

    In 1910, the Union movement was taking off, fighting the robber barons and seeking a stronger voice for American factory workers. Blacks were not included. The Unions did not see civil rights for Blacks as a common cause, but as a low cost competition. Besides, they enjoyed White privilege. So unions adamantly fought against hiring blacks or allowing companies to use Black suppliers.

In 1910 Dallas had a city wide party inaugurating a new courthouse complex — which still, stands, though it is now a court annex.; The decision was made, however, that the celebration would not  be complete without a nigger hanging from a scaffold in front of the building. So the county sheriff and deputies went to a prominent black-owned business, had a shoot out, arrested the owner, and hung him at the conclusion of the ceremonies. Hundreds of white men and women posed for postcard photos under the swinging legs. Not to be outdone, downstate Houston had its “twin nigger” bridge, since it usually hung blacks in pairs – preferably married couples or a Black man and his son.

            The north was no different, though the racism was de facto, rather than de jure. Some of you may be lawyers or had parents who were. My Dad took the bar exam five times before becoming a lawyer; and not because he couldn’t grasp legal concepts. But until 1965, when the practice was changed in the face of threatened legal action from lawyers affiliated with Howard University, only the top two Blacks who passed the New York State Bar exam would be “admitted” to the bar. The third time Dad took the test he “failed” with a score of 92. What did you lawyer friends or relatives score on the exam?

            I went to the University of Michigan in 1966, and spent the first year under death threat from the student chapter of the KKK. Yes there were recognized student chapters of that group and the Nazis, and you had to pass a confederate battle flag and swastika to get into the Markley Hall dorm. I was 17 when I went to college, and have been crippled ever since as a result of their physical attempt on my life.

     And it took decades for the union movement to grudgingly change. As late as 1978, the New York Newspaper Guild threatened to strike the NY Daily News because management agreed to meet with a committee headed by Bob Herbert about the separate and unequal pay scale for black and white reporters. The NY Times had a three part system approved by the guild: separate rates for whites and blacks, and white males with beats received NYT stock while their white female counterparts with beats did not. The union movement was instrumental in enshrining Jim Crow in the workplace and in everyday American life.

    This national hatred and violence had its genesis in the period at the end of reconstruction in 1896 through 1930 – by which time the laws were in place, the practices were enshrined, the KKK was at its zenith and lynching, murder, rape, torture, degradation and inequality were the law of the land.

    The period in which Bread and Roses was written was in the midst of this national movement for white supremacy. The term “rising of the race” was its clarion call. 

    Anyone who looks back 100 years  and tries to put a polite, 2010 veneer on an era of hatred and claim that it represented an all-embracing spirit of humanity is delusional at best.

    The lyrics are racist. Singing them today coldly, deliberately, endorses that racism and hatred.





Power, Energy, and Black America

2 01 2010

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            In a sense, it could fairly be said to have begun with patent number 252,386, issued January 17, 1882 to a young Black inventor named Lewis Howard Latimer.

            Latimer, the only inventor to work with both of America’s icons of modern technological development – Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell – patented the carbon filament which made the electric light bulb possible. By bringing high intensity light to the factory floor, Latimer revolutionized the world’s candle-lit manufacturing sector, turning production into round the clock operations. Latimer would go on to develop the process for manufacturing vacuum-packed light bulbs and the procedure for stepping up voltage, thus making it possible to  light Broadway and then the cities of London and Toronto.

            Like most of the contributions of Blacks to the development of the modern, technological society, the innovative work in the complex energy infrastructure has been, and remains, largely unknown. That is one reason why many Black Americans feel they have no stake in the current debate over the nation’s future energy policy or the environmental and economic implications of different energy technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

            In the view of Frank Stewart, energy and the environment are the most important issues facing the African American community of today and tomorrow. These fields hold the keys to economic development, education, and job opportunity and, in the end, survival.

            “The underlying reason for the civil rights movement of the 60s was to give everybody the best chance for the best future they could possibly have,” said Stewart, President and Chief Operating Officer of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (www.AABE.org ). “It all becomes moot if the economics don’t work. What we are looking at now is as much a human and civil rights issue as anything we went through in the 60s.

            “And highlighting the role minorities play in these areas is important. It tells young people that they can have a viable, exciting, rewarding career and you are not a nerd just because you are interested in math and science.”

            Stewart has a longer perspective than most. A physicist and psychologist by training, he moved into the public policy arena in 1971, as Assistant Secretary for Education and civil Rights in the US Department of Education. In 1975 Hazel O’Leary, then with the Federal Energy Administration, asked him to move to the Department of energy to head their new Office of State Energy and Policy Programs – a special directorate charged with helping the states and territories develop balanced energy portfolios and programs to provide energy services to their citizens. This was just after the first of the “energy shocks” resulting from the Arab oil embargo, which focused American attention on our energy mix. He was to stay in government for 30 years, moving in 1994 to run DOE’s renewable energy research programs out of Colorado.

            “If ever there was a time where we are looking at the potential for major change and enormous business opportunities – more so than at the time of the development of transistors in the 40s; more so than the advent of television in the 50s; more so than the time of cell phones – than it is the current period of energy,” said Stewart.

            “We are looking at a time where there is a world-wide panoply of industries all going through changes, and the entrepreneur with his eyes forward and head on straight can really take off.

            “The needs in terms of energy and the environment could arguable be considered more important and more difficult than Kennedy’s 1960 charge to put a man on the moon. The current drive involves the whole world, not just the US. It involves not just the technological tinker toys which are fun and exciting, but literally involves the survival of the planet.  It is not just looking at the mechanics of flight and the survival of man in those conditions, but looking at issues of much, much greater breadth and much, much greater complexity.

            “There are enormous impacts that these issues have for the Black community.”

            It is more important than ever for Black Americans to get involved in the energy debate, he said. Up to 70 percent of African American households earn less than $50,000 annually, and spend 25% or more of their income on energy – a higher percentage than they pay for health care or education.

            And, as always, Blacks have been involved in setting energy policy, providing pivotal R&D and, on the ground, running the companies powering the nation’s homes and industries.

            The widely touted “nuclear renaissance” can’t take placed without going through the desk of Victor McCree of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who is evaluating the plans for the next generation of commercial nuclear reactors; and the nation’s position as the world’s primary super power would be hollow without Dr. Kevin Greenaugh, who designs and maintains the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

            The debate on climate change could not take place without the work of Dr. Warren Washington, Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research who, for the past 30 years, has pioneered development of global climate models which underlie all computerized atmospheric research.

            Washington, (http://www.ncar.ucar.edu/  )  an adviser to President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus on climate issues, said “we have to watch for the impact of climate mitigation measures on minority communities.

            “If you look at coal plants in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, for example, they are most likely to have been sited in Black communities. If you are looking to capture their pollutants, or do a better job scrubbing their exhausts, we have to watch what happens to those compounds to make sure they are not further contaminating the water and areas around them.

            “If the projects are not handled properly they could have a disproportionately negative impact on the surrounding Black communities.”

            And on the ground, if there is a flood or nuclear accident, it is up to Roxanne Lamb of the US Geological Survey, ( rhlamb@usgs.gov) to provide the data showing all terrestrial systems which are likely to be affected, and the disparate government agencies which need to be mobilized to deal with some aspect of the calamity.

            Then, there are people like George Williams, Senior Vice President for Nuclear Operations at ComEd, (  http://www.exeloncorp.com/ ), Thomas Graham, President of PEPCO  ( http://www.pepco.com/home/ ) ; and Darryl Stokes, Vice President of Baltimore Gas & Electric,  (  http://www.bge.com/portal/site/bge/ )running companies bringing electricity to nearly 2 million homes; or Ralph Cleveland, Vice President of Atlanta Gas Light ( RCleve@AGLresources.com  ),  and Sherri Winslow, Vice President of Entergy New Orleans, (  swinslo@entergy.com ), providing natural gas through good times and through hurricane flood waters.

            These are but a few of the Black Americans who, in this era of change, have their hands on the power affecting us all.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: