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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remembering Days of Daisies and Death

On the Fortieth Anniversary Of a Memphis Killing

What is the color of nostalgia? I'm old enough to remember a past through a classically clouded sepia haze, but I'm also young enough to see the past through a shower of pop art daisies.

Remembering the times when daisies were on everything from black-light posters to bell-bottoms to that spot of smooth skin between Goldie Hawn's belly button and bikini line (sock-it-to-me), it sounds like a time of love - of innocence and joyful self expression. In some ways, it was.

"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say."

But mixed into that psychedelic rainstorm and brainstorm is the bloody shadow of cut roses that are doomed before they ever open their petals to the world.

"Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards— that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school."

It may be that we bundle roses into bouquets, when they've only just started to smell and barely to flower, to indicate that there is a greater beauty in our relationships and in our lives that awaits joyful discovery even as the fragrant petals await their time to smile.

"I'd like somebody to mention that day that
Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life
serving others.

"I'd like for somebody to say that day that
Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody."

But when cut roses fall onto the coffins of the dead, it means something else. It represents the unfulfilled potential of a life abridged, an abrupt end to discovery's trajectory.

"I want you to say that day that I tried to be
right on the war question.

"I want you to be able to say that day that I
did try to feed the hungry.

"And I want you to be able to say that day
that I did try in my life to clothe those who
were naked."

It is these dying roses that fall like hailstones through the bright mist of a 1968 daisy shower. They are the shrapnel in the flower power explosion. Anyone who remembers that April day remembers the scars it left on our hopes, the holes it tore in our dreams: disbelief; distrust; and a toxic infection that - by the end of June - turned most activists into apathetic cynics.

"I want you to say on that day that I did try
in my life to visit those who were in prison.

"I want you to say that I tried to love and
serve humanity."

But I don't mean to categorize April 4, 1968 as just another element in the concept we call "The Sixties," or even to lump it into the multi faceted maelstrom of that one, tragic year. I want to call that day what it was - it was the day the drum major died.

"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major,
say that I was a drum major for justice.
Say that I was a drum major for peace.
I was a drum major for righteousness.
And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
I won't have any money to leave behind.
I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life
to leave behind. But I just want to leave a
committed life behind."

From Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Drum Major Instinct" speech,
delivered February 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia

The child I was then is only a small part of the man I am now. Remembering that day, in the carpool, when Mrs. Pazol told us that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, I wonder how much I really understood of the man. Indeed, I am lucky that I live in a city that considers itself not only his birthplace but also the guardian of his legacy. When Atlanta finally allowed itself to breathe, the years that followed had a momentum that was unstoppable. Achievement and equal opportunity have been growing here since then, despite the rednecks in their white sheets.

But no one thinks the words "We Shall Overcome" are passe, ready to be retired. Even if Senator Obama captures the Presidency, that ends nothing. The past month of "their church vs. our church," "their pastor vs. our pastor" shows that not only is there still a feeling of disconnectedness in the African American community, but there is also a white racist behind every tree ready to spring a backlash onto the conversation.

Senator Obama's ascendancy, however high it goes, is good for the country. It's good for "White" America and it's good for "Black" America. Even the disturbing overtones in the public debate in March are good because we can see how much farther we actually have to go to see equality from every racial perspective, which is one of the main points of Sen. Obama's speech on race.

One thing is clear: in a country where our Founding Fathers were proud to declare e pluribus unum - out of many, one - there can never be equality without generosity; there can never be freedom without a voice; there can never be unity without understanding;
there can never be an "us" as long as there is a "them."

When the time finally comes to stop singing "We Shall Overcome," no one will remember why we even sang it to begin with. Until then, we all must sing it, because if not for keeping our eyes on that distant time, we would be forever still, lying in our own blood on the cold, concrete balcony of a Memphis motel.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Riders of the New Crusade

Liberty by the Sword:
Quest and Empire in an Age of Fear

"To McCain, a commitment to universalism
American expansionism. Indeed,
to McCain it is precisely commitment to
this imperial vision that makes American
patriotism superior to other brands of
nationalism. Our own patriotism would
become compromised by stinginess and
selfishness were we to show more restraint
in world affairs."

(Matthew Yglesias, on, February 25, 2008)

"Our pioneer ethos, inspired our belief in ourselves
as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to
suffer hardship and risk danger to protect
the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity."

(from a John McCain speech at USC in 2002, extolling the virtues of Teddy Roosevelt's brand of patriotism)

"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."
(from Leviticus 25:10, inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia)

sits high in his saddle, the reins of his mount coiled around the gloved hand in his lap. In his other hand he holds a bell-shaped lamp, given to him by the priests of Columbia. His red mantle is piped in white stars that bob on a wave of blue like gulls on the ocean. The early morning January sun glints of his gold helmet with a light so bright, it is as if God himself were winking at those gathered around.

"Oh," gasps the crowd at this regal sight. "So majestic," exclaims an awed onlooker. "So brave," adds another. "So holy," affirms a third, and they all nod in agreement. "Yes, holy. Yes."

"We are born with responsibilities to the country that has protected our God-given rights, and the opportunities they afford us," says McCain to those attending the spectacle, while waving freedom's lamp for all to see. "I owe my country every opportunity I have ever had. America has given my life the sense that I am part of something greater than myself. We're the world's leader. So stand up with me, my friends. Stand up and fight for America -- the last, best hope of mankind!*"

Turning his horse to the noblemen seated in the gallery, he adds, "I want to thank those of you who have generously financed this campaign through the indulgences you purchased form Pope George the W. You will surely be rewarded in this world 'with lower taxes and less regulation*', enormous profits and golden parachutes."

Cheers erupt from the well-heeled noblemen and gentlewomen seated just below Pope George,who is shuffling his golden shoes in a dance of exultation. Their enthusiasm is so great that even those who stand across the pitch, ankle deep in muck, with collars of blue, even those who mourn the bravery of young blood, cannot help but shout with excited glee.

Turning back to the noblemen, McCain the Grey says, "We're not a country that prefers nostalgia to optimism. We don't hide from history. We make history.*" He then turns his horse and rides to the city gate, waving his lamp of Liberty all the way.

The children of the blue collars chase after him, their hearts filled with optimism, their pumping fists filled with the promise of destined glory. They howl and shout, "Make way for McCain! Make way for McCain!" They follow him out of the city, and for the next hundred years they fall, their blood turning deep, sandy hoofprints into pools of red mud.

change awaits its turn. Obama the Good watches as clouds of enraged dust swirl and settle on stone streets and hapless shoulders of ragged men, women and children. In this corner of the town, the sun is obscured by flies as hungry as the people they feed on.

Obama turns to a sea of expectant faces. Bright, haunted eyes look to him - eyes of innocence opening to a well of experience, and reaching into the bottom of a heart where stone walls once awash with endless hope long ago dried up and shrank away to pebbles holding only small puddles of despair. They long to have their hearts refilled. They long for a time beyond cynicism and defeatism.

As if in response to McCain's exhortations, he says, "It's the same course that offers the same, tired answers to workers without health care, and families without homes, and children who go to bed hungry in the richest nation on Earth.

"Americans know that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our children, that we need to spend more time with them and teach them well. But we also believe that there is a larger responsibility that we have to one another as Americans.**"

In his own heart, Obama is in despair. He has renounced a revered teacher, something he shouldn't have had to do. But in order for his campaign for a hopeful city to continue, he knows he must turn aside anger and fear. "We believe that we rise or fall as one nation, as one people, that we are our brother's keeper, that we are our sister's keeper.

"I will not allow us to be distracted by the same politics that seeks to divide us with false charges and meaningless labels. In this campaign, we will not stand for the politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon.**"

Even now, while McCain is off bludgeoning the world with Liberty in the name of patriotism, his minions run with axes high toward the valley to try to keep Obama and his hopeful hoard from climbing up. But as they get to the edge of the valley, they here these words coming from Obama:

"I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

"It means taking full responsibility for own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.^"

The enraged crowd's weapons withdraw at his words and they begin to quiet. "Is this man not also a patriot?" they wonder.

"What we know -- what we have seen ," continues Obama, "is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

"At this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.^"

And now, for the first time, Obama the Great looks around at those who had come to quash him and his beliefs and sees they are actually listening. They call to him, "You talk of unity? What about our jobs? What about our children? What about what we believe? Unless we feel safe, what good is it to talk of fixing ourselves? We like the idea of a fight, of forcing a fix on those who aren't like us, better than giving our taxes to you to for your huddled masses. "

"It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children," returns Obama, "but it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger, and as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.^"


In the end, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land" is not an edict to take liberty to the world by violent means. It is a reminder that we are free, that we must remain free. Our proclamation comes in our actions, in the values of respect, tolerance and a healthy generosity to our fellow human beings. We act and therefor we live free. No one ever got closer to freedom at the business end of a bayonet, and no one ever got closer to God from behind the butt of a rifle.

* words from Sen. John McCain's victory speech in Texas, after clinching the Republican nomination, March 4, 2008.

** words from Sen. Barack Obama's speech in Texas that same night.

^ words from Sen. Barack Obama's speech addressing racism and the Rev. Wright controversy, March 18, 2008.