Reflections on the March on Washington 50th Anniversary

My husband Bill and I were involved in a number of the many activities that took place commemorating the 1963 March on Washington.  What a blessing to be here in the District of Columbia to participate.  Here are some snapshots:

Most Moving

On Friday the 23rd, we attended an event presented by The Mamie Till Mobley Memorial & Trayvon Martin Foundations, and it was called “Civil Rights, Human Wrongs, and the Charge for Youth Leadership.” It featured a film by Keith Beauchamp, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which had been updated to include a bit about the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a panel discussion with Emmett Till’s family and the parents of Trayvon Martin.

I am aware of how awful the murder of Emmett Till was, but it wasn’t until I saw the film, which took us through the ensuing trial and release of the murderers, that it really hit home to me how horrendous life was for black people living in the South in those days.  I thank my parents for moving from their home in Mississippi to raise us up in relatively safer northern Illinois.  Even though I experienced segregation and some hate growing up, it was nothing like the deep south. I was also moved by the strength of Emmett Till’s mother, for without her willingness to display the body of her son so brutally beaten and butchered, the murder would have passed by unnoticed by most of the rest of this country.

I am absolutely moved by the grace and strength of Mr. and Mrs. Martin and their younger son as they share the case of Trayvon’s murder with the world.  They have taken up the mantle just like Emmett Till’s mother, and have helped to make it clear to this country that laws like the Stand Your Ground Laws and the Stop and Frisk laws are tools that are used to target and brutalize people of color, especially our young men.

Most Inspirational

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Bill and I had decided we could not handle being out in the sun and on our feet from 8 am to 4 pm at the Saturday March for Jobs and Justice, so we waited until about 11 am to go.  I wasn’t sure if many people would attend–I just hoped there would be enough people to make a statement.  But even at that late time, we found the subway packed with people of all ages and races still on the way. Having to stand in line to get out of the subway moved me to tears.

On our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we saw a stream of people leaving, even though the crowd coming in was much larger.  Bill stopped to ask one woman why they were leaving, and the older woman said she’d been there since 6:30 am.  I’m convinced that there were more people there that day than could be counted, because the crowds were coming and going like that all day long.

I heard Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped to organize the 1963 march, on a radio interview say that they had no idea how many people to expect when they planned that first march. Can you imagine how the organizers must have felt when they stood on the steps of the LIncoln Memorial and saw the great crowd of witnesses pouring in? The people have spoken!

Most Fun

On the way to the Lincoln Memorial in that first march, we found ourselves behind a group IMG_0174of United Auto Workers who were chanting and marching, so after a while we began to chant and march right along with them!  On the way back from the Lincoln Memorial, we were provided with some wonderfully jazzy music.  At one point, while waiting for the crowd to move forward, a white man in front of me began to kind of bounce, and another, older white man on the side started dancing, so I said “Let’s get it on” and started dancing, too, and so did a few of the other folks.  What fun!

Most thought-provoking

On Tuesday, we went to a panel discussion hosted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action entitled “Climate of Suspicion: The Criminalization of Race in America.” One of the panelists was Reverend Gil Caldwell, a good friend of Bill’s.  The discussion centered around the mass incarceration of people of color, so you know Bill and I were right at home.  Rev. Caldwell provided the necessary theological reflections for people of faith, Charles Thornton discussed his experience as a youth with no guidance, ending up in prison for 10 years for distributing an illegal drug before he was old enough to make a life for himself, and Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU, provided statistics and some information on actions.  This was an excellent panel, but what was most thought-provoking for me was our conversation with some of the other people there who were members of the MFSA.

We ate with a small group of them after the discussion before heading over to Asbury United Methodist church for a worship service.  We shared common concerns, with Gil helping to keep us focused on the larger moral, cultural and theological pictures.  One thought that came to me as we talked about greed being such a major cause of injustice is that maybe we ought to start being more intentional about teaching our children a better attitude towards money and materialism. Someone at that table suggested that the church is the place where that should happen.

I woke up the next morning, on the day of the commemorative march, with my mind on a phrase from our Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which had been sung several times throughout the various events):  “lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.” Has the Christian church in the U.S. become drunk with the wine of materialism and greed without realizing it?  Food for thought.

Most Uplifting

We attended the Interfaith Service at Shiloh Baptist on Thursday morning before heading out to the commemorative march.  I was so happy to be there in a church packed with people of different faiths, ages and races, hearing from the march leaders and  blessed with star performances by the Shiloh Baptist Choir, the Children of the Gospel Choir, the Voices of Freedom, Lydia and Latrice Pace (who rocked the house with their song “There’s a King in You”) and the fantastic Angella Christie, who praised God on the saxophone in her rendition of “Total Praise” (If you’ve never heard of her, you ought to check her out).

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The discussion between Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and his son, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III was absolutely wonderful!  The father passed the torch on to the son, symbolically climbing up stairs towards justice.  Those on the journey haven’t got to the top of the stairs, but the older ones have gone as high as they can climb. They must stop at their landing, having done much to break the bonds of racism and hatred, but now it is time for the younger leaders to move on up the stairs from that landing into the direction the stairs are leading today:  voting registration laws, stand your ground laws, mass incarceration of our youth, public school funding….you know the list.  You can see the whole of this wonderful service by clicking here.

Most Inspirational (part 2)

To our surprise again, the March on Thursday the 28th was just as packed as the first, even though the threat of rain pervaded the day. It was so packed that we decided not to wait the hours it would have taken to get through the security checkpoint.  We made our statement by attending for a while, then we went back home to watch our President’s Speech on TV. While he was inspiring, as usual, I had hoped he would provide some concrete plans or legislation that would help deal with the issues we’re facing.  But the more I thought about what he said, the more I got what he was saying.  He’s telling us that it’s up to us to make the difference that we need to make.  It’s up to the people to not only march, but to take the necessary action to make change happen, like Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders did in 1963.

We’ve spoken with our feet.  Now we need to speak through our email and internet presence, through our letters and phone calls to federal, state and local representatives, through our community activities and our continued engagement with each other. Now we must speak truth to move the “powers that be” to make this wonderful country live up to it’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Amen.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

It seems every time I start to write about ways we can all become involved, I have to struggle with what to say and where to direct you.  One reason is that I know that it’s much easier to talk about doing something than doing it. It’s easy to talk, much harder to “put your money where your mouth is.”  Sometimes the issues seem so big and we seem so small that we don’t know where to begin putting our figurative money, so we just keep on not doing. We find ourselves thinking “What can I do, I”m just one person?” and so we don’t try. 

It’s easy to write about what’s wrong with our society, much harder to take the time to become involved in making real change happen. It’s easier to give a few bucks to a homeless person than it is to demand that local authorities make low cost housing a priority.  It’s easier to go down to help with the food pantry’s weekly food distribution than it is to demand that government increase minimum wages so that people who work full time will not still be poor. It’s easier to be involved with an post-prison support program than it is to demand that the state provide more support for at-risk children when they are young in order to help keep them out of prison.

It seems to me like that’s what I’ve been doing with this blog–writing and talking, but not getting anything done.  The regular routines of life seem to demand my attention away from doing even this small thing. And this week is a prime example.  I’ve been busy with my son and his wife and children and their cousins who are all in town for just a little while longer (not long enough) , as well as preparing for a party I’m hosting for my good friend of 34 years (my, how time flies!), Deborah Clark, to celebrate her retirement and her birthday.  So now I’m a day late, and I feel like a dollar short, in getting this post out.  I apologize for that.

But I have been thinking mainly about one thing we can do that I believe can make a difference; one thing that I surely hope as many of you as are able will try your best to join me in doing.  I really hope you will find a way to attend the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

What better time to march on our nation’s capitol than now, when civil rights are again under assault?  What better time to honor the legacy of Dr. King than now, when the color of our children’s skin is still a determining factor in whether they can be shot and killed without punishment?  What better time to March on Washington than now, when we have our first Black President who is working so hard to help the poor and middle class with things like health care, job creation and funds for preschool, yet who must operate under such unprecedented assault by some members of Congress?

I can’t think of a better time than now for those of us who stand with our president and for civil rights and justice to gather in numbers in our nation’s capitol.  And numbers do matter.  Having large numbers of people attending can make this event historic. Having large numbers of people of all colors, all faiths, all walks of life who come here to march because they want this country to be even better than it is would make a important statement not only to those in our deadlocked Congress but to the world as well. Every one of you is needed for such a time as this!

So here’s some information to help you do this:   For the official sight for the anniversary March, click here, where you can register to attend. You will see that activities are planned for the week of August 21 through the 28th, the day of the commemorative march. Some of the many interesting activities taking place during that week include a “Global Freedom Festival” on the Mall (Between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building) during the week, a march for jobs and justice on Saturday the 24th, a praise and worship service on Wednesday the 21st, and other training conferences and roundtable discussions.  The groups leading these efforts are The King Center and The Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Freedom (National Council of Negro Women, SCLC, National Urban League, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, National Action Network, National Council of Churches, Children’s Defense Fund).

More information can be found on the website of the National Action Network (Rev. Al Sharpton’s organization), on this website created by the Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Laws, and another one here, as well.

For my family and friends who do not live in DC, we have a couple of extra beds here at the house–let us know if you want to stay with us–first come, first serve!.  For my friends who live in the DC area, please, please, please invite your friends and family to join you here!

This is something we can do, now.  And by doing it, we’ll find our voice to speak truth to power in unity with others.  We’ll hopefully become energized to break away from our routines and sacrifice some of the time God has blessed us with to make a difference in this world.   Maybe we’ll find an organization or group to join and stay involved with after the march is over. This is one way each of us can put our money where our mouth is.

I hope you’ll try your best to come. If your first response is to say to yourself “but I can’t because….”, I hope you’ll think again.   But if you really can’t, there will always be other things you can do……

If you’d like to comment to this post, please click the little balloon at the top of the post and you will see the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these weekly posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know the love of God and therefore be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

The God of Hope

I woke up yesterday convinced that I should write about what some call the racial divide in our country.  I see it as more than a divide–more of a racial cleansing.  I was going to write about the confluence of the War on Drugs, which is sending so many of our black children to prison, the growing privatized prison industry gaining profit from from keeping more inmates than any other civilized country in this world, and using the inmates as slave labor to make even more profit.  I was going to write about  states reducing funding for public school systems, the “stand your ground laws” that allow someone to stalk and kill a black person and be deemed innocent upon claiming to be afraid, states stripping the right to vote from those who have prison records, states stripping away voting rights of people of color– and the Supreme Court clearing the way for that to happen.  I was going to talk about the effort of many states to purge themselves of Hispanic immigrants, the constant efforts to water down Affirmative Action, and how a majority in the House of Representatives want to do nothing more than to defeat any proposal from our first African American President, with the support of their constituents to do that.

These things, along with the Washington Post’s survey showing a deep racial, ideological and religious divide over the result of Trayvon Martin’s killer’s trial, all lead me to believe that there is a mindset held by a large percentage of the population in this country that must be similar to the mindset in Germany when the Nazis demonized and justified killing millions of Jewish people–and the German Christian church mostly going along with that. I believe that many of those who claim to be conservative will also claim to not be racists, but yet they support all those things that are killing off our people, which, to their way of thinking, is not their fault, but ours.  Is it a conscious and concerted effort led by some of the power brokers, like the Koch brothers, who put so much of their billions into defeating Obamacare,  pretty much anyone who’s running for office who is not a conservative, and anything that is designed to help the poor and raise the middle class? Probably so.

But I decided today that I’d rather write about the God of hope. The biblical record lets us know that when it seems like all is lost, that’s when the God of hope steps in:  Joseph redeeming his family after the brothers thought they had killed him; little David defeating the giant Goliath; Queen Esther  (of the “if I perish, I perish” fame) saving her people from slaughter,  and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, to name a few examples in the Old Testament. Plus of course, Jesus, who humbled himself to the point of being crucified, dead and buried before he arose and was exalted by God, and who now sits on the Throne, with all power given to him.

This God of Hope still exists, as evidenced through history in the American Revolution, the defeat of slavery through the American Civil War, the defeat of segregation through the Civil Rights effort and the defeat of Apartheid in South Africa, to name a few.  These examples tell us that larger, more powerful foes can be defeated and overcome by those who seem weaker and more vulnerable–those who, by the state of their being weak, know that they must not rely on their own power and strength, but on God.  As I heard Jacqueline Thompson, one of my favorite young female preachers say, “One plus God is enough!”

The thing is that the God of hope doesn’t work alone.  Our God works through people who are committed to do God’s will– those who are willing to tackle giants who want to slaughter their people, those who are willing to go before the kings, even though they know they may perish, those who are willing to stand up for righteousness and justice in the face of powerful foes, and those who are willing to die to save others.

God needs people like that.  God needs more people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who did not back down from challenging the Nazi regime.  He died an honorable death, the death of a person who really knows how to be a friend, according to Jesus:  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12)  Jesus is that kind of friend.  Jesus wants us to be friends like that for each other.

I trust in this God, therefore I have hope. I have hope in God and hope in so many wonderful people I know who are willing to stand up for what is right.  Just writing this brings back my joy that even this mean, crazy and mixed-up world can’t completely take away, and my peace, that this world just doesn’t get.

Next week, I plan to share information on some ways we can become involved.

If you’d like to comment to this post, please click the little balloon at the top of the post and you will see the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these weekly posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know the love of God and therefore be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

Mockery

I’m spending the week in Ocean Park, Maine, where I preached on Sunday and am leading a morning discussion this week. As the name indicates, Ocean Park is right on the ocean, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful beach we have on the East Coast.  There’s something about the place where the vast and fluid ocean meets, caresses, rhythmically slaps against the solid and steady earth that speaks to my spirit.  Especially in the early morning dawn.  I wanted to share with you a video I made of dawn over the beach at Ocean Park, so you can hear the sound of the waves and the birds, and through the whole scene, to hear God speaking.  But the file was too large to incorporate into this blog, and I don’t know another way to do it.  So I’m sharing this picture and asking you to use your imagination.

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It truly is peaceful and beautiful.  Just like God.

I felt the beauty of God’s creation like that most poignantly when I was in Ghana, high on a cliff looking out on the Atlantic, thousands of miles from here, from the other direction.  The view was wondrously beautiful. I was in a large castle-like building.  In the massive building was a torture chamber where slaves were chained, beaten, held in brutal captivity, then sent out in ships from the door in that place, which the slaves knew as “the door of no return.”

Can you imagine so much heart wrenching, evil horror taking place amid such beauty, the beauty that God created  for us out of God’s great love? I couldn’t help but cry at the thought of the agony my ancestors went through at the hands of horribly brutal people, many who claimed to believe in the God of creation.

I felt that same paradox here in Ocean Park Maine, as I was trying to deal with my broken heart over the injustice of the decision that set free as “innocent” the man who shot Trayvon Martin.  It still hurts.  And it was all done under the rubric of the legal system, which is designed by humans to implement justice. What a mockery. What a mockery of the God of justice.

I think those jurors, if they were being honest, would have come to a different conclusion without the 29 pages of jury instructions and the convoluted efforts of the defense to make what seems right into something much more complicated.  Without the complications of the law, they would have seen Trayvon as an innocent, unarmed young person, going on his way, minding his own business.  They would have seen Zimmerman as the aggressor, armed with a dangerous weapon, the one who disobeyed police orders not to follow. They would have recognized that if Zimmerman had not followed Trayvon, Trayvon would be alive.  They would have had enough common sense to understand that if Zimmerman had not gotten out of his vehicle and come up from behind close enough to Trayvon to make Trayvon feel threatened, there would have been no altercation.  The jury would have seen that Trayvon is dead, slaughtered at the hands of a man who went against the authorities, whether or not it was was Zimmerman’s initial intention to kill him, and whether or not Zimmerman may have feared for his own life. I thought they would at least have had the common sense to conclude that Zimmeran did in fact initiate the acts that resulted in him killing an innocent and unarmed man–manslaughter.

They were confused, at best. And I’m sure, as are most folks in this world who know anything about how this nation works, that if Trayvon had been white and Zimmerman black, Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately and thrown under the jail.  Isn’t that what happened in the case of the black woman in Florida who was sentenced to prison after trying to use the same law to justify her shooting into the air and not killing anybody? The jury had to be confused, unless they were bribed, because the decision doesn’t make any sense.  And I can’t rule bribery out, either, because there was money behind Zimmerman that I can’t figure out. Maybe some of you know more about the money that financed this man’s defense than I do.

My heart was crying when I talked to God at dawn that beautiful morning, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Crying over the injustice of it all.  Crying over such horror committed amid such beauty.  Crying over such evil that exists in the hearts of people, who wrap the evil up and try to hide it with good words like justice, law and order, patriotism, and yes, even sometimes Christianity.  I felt like I could see all the way across to Ghana, and realized that the horror has not really ended for us.

God’s justice will not be mocked.

As a Black woman, the result of this fiasco of a trial has taken me across a tipping point. This is the fourth slap in my face. The first slap I felt was from the efforts of state officials in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia,Texas and others to wrench away the votes of mostly Black and Hispanic people during the last two Presidential elections. Ouch!  The second was the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which has refueled those efforts to take away our votes. Ouch! The third is the continued effort by white people to do away with affirmative action, claiming that they, the ones with all of the power on their side, are being discriminated against by laws that were designed to help ameliorate the hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, and injustice that our people have faced and still face. Ouch! Four slaps ought to wake us up.  (I wish Clarence Thomas could feel these slaps. I’m convinced that he’s numbed by his own sense of self-accomplishment.  Maybe he doesn’t realize that it is his numbness (antagonism?) to his people that made him the right choice to be maneuvered into place by those who want that numbness in high places–or maybe he does realize that, I don’t know.)

So instead of hearing peace in the gentle, rhythmic slapping of the waves on the shore this week, I heard a call to action.  I heard God proclaiming that God will not be mocked, that God’s justice should flow down like a river and God’s righteousness should be like a mighty stream. Justice should not be tripped up by pages and pages of jury instructions or political shenanigans that try to make right seem wrong and wrong seem right.

It’s time to wake up and get busy.  It’s time to unite and stand up and fight back.  It’s time to renew our commitment to and membership in the NAACP.  It’s time to again march on Washington, this time united with people of all colors and faiths who know true justice when they see it.  It’s time to organize and participate in organizations that will speak, with the power of the people behind them, to those in  powerful positions. It’s time to change laws and lawmaking, time to shore up the voting rights act, time to reclaim the need for Affirmative Action more than ever.   Are you with me?

 

 

Why are so many people poor?

Why are so many people poor?  That’s really the question that Andy Kessler has no clue about.  He’s an Op-Ed writer for the Wall Street Journal who recently wrote that people are poor because there are so many people helping them.  Here’s a quote from his article, posted by Scott Keyes on the ThinkProgress website.

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them? […]

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.

I was going to insert a direct link to the Wall Street Journal article, but, of course, you have to pay to get their news online. I didn’t want to pay, so I’m relying on the veracity of  the article’s interpretation by ThinkProgress. I chose to enter this discourse because I’d like to share some thoughts on why God created a world in which so many people are poor.

First, my response to Mr. Kessler’s article. I said in my April 12 post “In my opinion, it is nothing less than cruel–nothing less than cruel--to provide supportive services to those who are poor without also attempting to deal with the social systems that put and keep them in poverty.”  So in one sense, Kessler and I agree that helping the poor helps to keep the poor in place, but I never said that helping them was what causes them to be poor, or that we shouldn’t help them at all.  What I said was that we need to do much, much more than simply provide individual handouts and free food.

Kessler implies that creating jobs will send people to work, and voila!–no more poor people. Left unsaid is the understanding that those who create the jobs will also make lots more money. I think it is horribly naive, incredibly stupid or something worse to think that creating more jobs will make the poor go away. That’s the only solution the job makers can seem to come up with, I guess because creating jobs is what they do.

There’s nothing wrong with creating jobs.  Yes, we need plenty more living wage jobs for a healthy economy. But some people simply cannot work.  What are we to do with them, Mr. Kessler?  Ignore them? What are we to do with the those with mentally incapacities, mental illnesses, and those who are physically unable to work?  Blame them for not getting hired? Let them die on the streets?

Creating jobs is one way to help some poor people.  But if you really think that’s the only way to help poor people, then it is likely that you will also think that once the jobs are created it’s okay to blame those who don’t get jobs for not working, and wash your hands of them. How many times do we have to wreck our country with trickle down economics, giving free rides to the rich so that they can get richer and richer off the backs of the poor, before we get it? Every time we’ve tried that, the poverty rates have gone up, not down.  And the rich keep getting richer.

Those of us who believe in God must wrestle to understand why our world has so many people who need help in order to survive.  These are the poor that Jesus said we we will always have with us.  Some of them are poor because the strong have made this a difficult place for the weak to survive.  But some are poor because they don’t have the necessary physical or mental capacity to survive on their own. Maybe God uses poor people to offer opportunities for the rest of the world to become wiser and more loving. Maybe how we treat “the least” really is a measure of who we are as a society to God.

Aren’t we wiser people because we’ve had to struggle with how to cure so many different kinds of illnesses?  Isn’t the love in our hearts stirred up when we reach out to help people who experience great trauma and heartbreak? Aren’t we a better, more caring people because we created a system to help people who have physical handicaps? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could figure out how to cure mental illnesses, or at least better accommodate people with mental illnesses?  How wise and loving would we become if we could together reach out in all kinds of ways to help children born into broken and poor families?  Wouldn’t we feel good about ourselves, as a society, if we could pull together enough wisdom and pour out enough love to eliminate the continued impoverishment of those who are born poor?

We would be a better people, and we would feel better about ourselves as a people, if we simply helped people who need our help in as many ways as we can help them, even if that means we don’t get to keep so much for ourselves. Aren’t the real heroes and sheroes in our world those who’ve been willing to sacrifice some of their own privilege, comfort, peace, and even their own lives, so that others might survive?  Isn’t that what Jesus’ example teaches us?

Maybe that’s what God had in mind. Maybe God has given us poor people so that we might all become better people. Or not.

 

On Being Black American

When I was serving as National Organizer at Call to Renewal, an affiliate organization of Sojourners that was created to organize religious leaders around poverty and race issues, I wrote an article published in Sojourner’s magazine entitled “Because We Are Black.”  I had almost forgotten about it;  I ran across it while doing some research.  The article shares some of my thoughts on what it means to be Black in America, stemming from the tragic slaughtering of respected coach Ricky Byrdsong in a suburb of Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a racist on a rampage the weekend of July 4, 1999.

Here’s the link to the article: http://sojo.net/magazine/1999/09/simply-because-we-are-black. (I was Alice J. Burnette Davis then…I’m happily Alice Burnette Greene now.)

I’m sharing it with you on this weekend of July 4, 2013, because much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.  One of the questions I raised then has been answered:  Having a Black president is no longer a novel idea–and our President has an African name, to boot!  (I admit that I was one of those very many people who said “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime.”)

When President Obama was elected I felt for the first time like I could stand with pride  and sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and really mean it.  That didn’t last too long. Yes, I understood completely the feeling shared so honestly by our First Lady when then Senator Obama received the Democratic nomination.  But her honesty about being proud to be an American for the first time was repeatedly attacked, quite viciously.  Those early attacks on her should have helped us to understand that while this country had met a great milestone, many Americans, especially those who claim to be the most patriotic, have little understanding of what it means to be Black in America.  And I believe they don’t really want to understand because it would burst their delusional belief that this is the greatest country in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the United States is a great country, and the Democracy created here is to be applauded.  But African Americans know that this country has not lived up to the high morality of its beautifully crafted Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it....

All of the hateful shenanigans, the polarized and obstructive political maneuverings, the right-wing angst and the hate mongering that has surrounded President Obama — in his own country-–  help us to understand that we are still Blacks in a country that many (most?) think of as White.  And in order to keep it that way, they are still trying to strip away our right to be counted among the “governed,” by diluting our voting power.  To be Black in America, we must recognize that racism is still real and quite alive here. Putting a Black man in a white house hasn’t changed the need for us to identify ourselves as African Americans rather than simply Americans.

Here’s the article I wrote in1999.  Please read it and let me know what you think by clicking the little balloon at the top of this post to post your comments:

Over the July 4 weekend, Benjamin Smith went on a violent, vicious killing rampage that targeted minorities. He drove around Illinois and Indiana, killing a black man and an Asian American and wounding eight others, including several Jews. As I talk to other African Americans about this tragedy, we verbalize some basic, deeply felt understandings that are a part of our reality simply because we are black and in America. These basic truths are understood as a result of our more than 400 years of being black in America. No other group in America shares the legacy of racial hatred that is so deeply felt in our souls.

One truth that African Americans understand is that color is always there. And it is always a factor, particularly when we interact with unfamiliar people. But even with persons we know well, race is always a factor. Consciously or not, we evaluate others’ racial views by their actions toward us. Did that sales clerk really overlook me? Was that negative remark by my new boss based on her bias? Can this person deal with the fact that I’m his supervisor? Events like Benjamin Smith’s racist rampage and the growth of the racist World Church of the Creator let us know that what is often seen as our paranoia or “oversensitivity” is in reality a natural and necessary defense mechanism.

A second truth that grounds African Americans is that we are strangers in our own land. We are born here, yet we are the “other.” We are the “minority,” and the “majority” rules. We must continually highlight ourselves and celebrate our worthiness because our value as a people is constantly challenged by our position on the margin of this society. Some of us deny America as our cultural heritage and adopt African culture and styles. Others try very hard to “melt” into the all-American lifestyle. Either reaction has as its roots a continual sense of discomfort—a feeling of not quite being at home in our homeland. Dare we move into a small town in North Dakota? Can we really be accepted as leaders of major corporations based on merit alone? How long will it be before the thought of a black president is not a novel idea?

This feeling of being the “other” is not so much fear of the other race, like a white person may feel walking through a black neighborhood. It is more a constant, discomforting knowledge that maybe we should feel fear. We can never really know what to expect. Coach Ricky Byrdsong was shot in his own neighborhood, where he should have been able to feel safe. We are always aware that the hateful racist act may come from anyone at any time and in any place, just because we are black.

A third truth is that because color is always a factor, and because our “otherness” is always felt, we are brought together in ways that others will not understand. Our color and our otherness serve to unite us at a very basic level across economic, religious, and social differences. There is a connection between a black high-powered attorney and the black woman who cleans his office that they both understand on some level, whether they are open about it or not. Those of us who are Christians feel this connection as a part of our Christian walk. We understand that Christ is on our side, the side of the marginalized, and he gives us strength to stand up for justice and righteousness for our people and for others who are in the margins as well.

When vicious acts like Benjamin Smith’s bring racism into the public arena for discussion, African Americans are reminded that we are neither paranoid nor oversensitive about our place in this country. Our antennae must be up for racism, whether it is the subtle racism in the workplace that is so hard to define or the blatant, violent, and evil act that kills us simply because we are black.

Seeing Hope in the Voting Rights Act Setback

This week I was going to turn to a message of hope. I was going to let you know about some of the hopeful things I’ve seen recently on the school-to-prison-drug war pipeline issue.  I was going to share about recently meeting a few elderly people who were marching in boycott outside of a local Wells Fargo bank, because Wells Fargo is a major financier ($100 million of stock) of GEO group, one of the private prison owners in North Carolina, where many D.C. Prisoners and immigration detainees are sent. Check out the website: www.wellsfargoboycott.com. I was going to share about a the recent debut of a new film produced by the South Jersey Theater Ensemble, titled “Don’t Throw Me Away” (in which my husband Bill plays  a role).  It’s about the trend in New Jersey, just like in so many other states, to spend more on prisons and less on supporting our kids in schools.  (More information about this great little film, later). I was going to let you know that the American Baptist denomination invited Michelle Alexander, the author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book sharing the concern for the mass incarceration of our children, to be a speaker at their biennial gathering, so this concern could be shared with thousands of American Baptists.

I was going to share a recent article by Ariana Huffington in the Huffington Post that highlights a new film “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” which castigates the War on Drugs. Here’s a tidbit to encourage you to read the article, which also highlights the history of the Huffington Post challenging the war on drugs: “That’s why it’s so important that we all lend our voices to a conversation that can reach Washington and finally overwhelm the entrenched forces that keep this disastrous war — a war not on drugs but on our people — going year after devastating year.”

That quote captures what I was ready to focus on, the need to organize so that we can move from conversation to action in order to make this thing right. From these and other initiatives that I’ve shared with you (See my March 14 Post: A Must See, the March 21 post:  A Stellar Model for Action, websites like The Sentencing Project and books like Michelle Alexander’s, mentioned above), I believe that God is sending prophetic voices to speak truth that needs to be heard in powerful places, and I think that the time is ripe to make change happen.

But I now have to step back.

All of us who seek justice for our children have been pushed back 40 years, to the time when our government enacted one of the most important pieces of legislation to help our people live free, survive and try to thrive in this land where our ancestors were brought as slaves.  The Supreme Court of the United States knocked down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the section that required states (and some counties) with a history of voting rights violations, mostly in the south, to get approval from the Federal government before they made any changes to how elections were run.  This provision is what gave substance to our demand for civil rights, and it worked well.  But the Supremes decided that the states in the South no longer had a problem with race and voting, and sent the Voting Rights Act back to Congress to rework the provision to adjust to modern times. Click here for a good article about what the Supreme Court did with the Voting Rights Act.

The failure is also in the Congress, which had been warned in an earlier opinion that continuing to rely on 40-year old data to justify the monitoring of those states was not going to last forever.  But can we expect any more from this Congress?  Can we expect them to do what would be the right thing, to evaluate the purposes behind all of the recent gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws that states are enacting in order to restructure Section 5 to make it work for the time we live in now? That doesn’t seem to be likely, at all.

You see, we need to have people in Congress and in the our state legislative bodies who will represent our views on things like the War on Drugs.  If those who create the voting rules work it out so that we no longer have a representative voice, the only thing left for us to do is to go back to the streets, boycott, March on Washington, etc.  Which is what worked 40 years ago.  (I guess that’s why so many of us really empathized with the recent Occupy Movement.) So now we face a more basic problem–we must protect our ability to  attack problems in the political arena. Now we have to step back and focus on what’s most important.  Makes you wanna holler!  Makes me wanna cry. But we have to do it.

And there is always hope.  God sometimes sends us into difficult situations to move us into the new vision that God has for us.  Just this morning I found an article by Christine Pelosi entitled “We Have No Civil Rights without Voting Rights,” which makes the connection between the importance of the Voting Rights Act, the filibuster by Texas Senator Wendy Davis and the LGBT win on DOMA.  The more people understand the importance of what has happened with the Voting Rights Act, the sooner we’ll be able to make sure that this crucial law is rejuvenated, so that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were not under the provision of the Act, as well as states like Texas and of course, Florida, don’t get away with recent restrictive voting laws designed to keep their favored party–and policies– in control. We must push Congress to do what is right.

As I once heard a preacher say, “A setback is just a setup for a comeback.” With hope, all things are possible. And with faith and hard work we can make this happen, just like we elected President Obama for a 2nd term.

 

 

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Puzzling

I like it when puzzle pieces come together.  I’m one of those people who will sit up through the night trying to get the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to gather in completion.  When the pieces come together, the picture becomes clear, and being able to see the puzzle’s hidden picture provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Steven Hawkins, the  executive vice president and chief program officer of the NAACP (who just yesterday was announced as having been selected to become the next executive director of Amnesty International) wrote a December 2010 article for an online magazine, The American Prospect entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  [Just in case you need to know, you can click on the green print to reach to the sites mentioned.] Mr. Hawkins provided some important information in that article to support some of the things I’ve been saying (or rather ranting about) in this blog about the importance of providing more financial support to educate the poorest of our children.

He provides information to document that most states are increasing spending for prisons and decreasing spending for schools. His premise is stated here: “Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, expanding from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people in just three decades. … We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers, and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. Indeed, confinement costs have claimed an increasing share of state and local government spending. This trend has starved essential social programs — most notably education.” He reports:  “In 33 of 50 states, corrections-related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece into which it fits is the connection between the increased spending for prisons and the failure of schools in poorer neighborhoods:  “NAACP research shows that …the lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.” He then predicts: “When future budget years arrive… and states and counties try to balance their books without the assistance of the federal stimulus, young people will experience more of the same: school closings, teacher layoffs, diminished after-school programs, and rising tuition at colleges and universities. All of this will happen while prison spending grows.”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, in the recent reports of battles over school closings in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago? Isn’t that the picture we’re seeing as we look at skyrocketing costs of higher education? Dr. Hawkins concludes from putting these pieces of the puzzle together:  “If states were to properly invest in reopening schools, keeping quality teachers, maintaining sensible classroom sizes, and sustaining the affordability of higher education, it’s quite possible — particularly for economic crimes like low-level drug dealing — we would not need to imprison so many people and could stop sinking our valuable taxpayer dollars into an investment that has demonstrated scant return.”

Is the picture of this puzzle becoming clearer for you now?  I hope so.  In order to help those who need it the most, children from poor and low-income families (i.e., “the least of these” according to Jesus in Matthew 25), we must provide them with strong education, beginning with pre-school, and affordable higher education.  Yet, instead of doing that, they’re closing down the schools in the neighborhoods where most of the least of these live and, through the sequestration, cutting back on services to help them.  We see the picture of that puzzle described by Mr. Hawkins coming together, right now.

So the question for us Christians is who will help the least of these? The least of these are those who need a hand up so they can make it in today’s system, but the political climate instead approaches them with a fist.  The least of these are children who are able to do better if they are helped, but those who have the ability to help them continue to engage in practices that instead make them fodder for the prison system. If we do nothing, we are the ones who help keep together this puzzle that shows a clear disregard for serving the least of these, who, in case you didn’t read the passage, are Jesus.

 

Faith’s X-Ray Vision

Wouldn’t you like to have x-ray vision like Superman?  I mean, you could see through things to find stuff that you lost, and you could avoid people you didn’t want to see without opening your door.  Of course, you would need to be like Superman and not use your super power for any kind of nefarious purpose.  Yeah, right.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give us that capability.  On the other hand, if we all had x-ray vision, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it?

As powerful as Superman’s x-ray vision is, it is not as powerful as God’s vision.  Superman can see through things–God sees into the heart.  When the prophet Samuel was assigned to choose among Jesse’s sons who would be the next King of Israel, Samuel assumed the choice would be Eliab, the handsomest, eldest, and the tallest of the boys.  He would not have chosen David, the youngest and smallest, if God had not whispered in his ear:  “I don’t see mortals the way you see them–I look at their hearts and not on their outward appearance.” (See 1 Samuel 16:1-13)

God’s ability to see into our hearts is even more compelling than Dr. King’s admonition that we are to measure people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  God sees even beyond the character we show to the world.  God sees through to our hearts, with the authority that only God holds, as the one who knows us completely, and who knows who we were intended to be.

And God wants those of us who believe to see the world through God’s eyes.  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world, and that means we need to see things as God sees them so we can properly represent God in the world. (See 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)  Whew!  That’s a pretty tall order.  If our job is to try to see the world around us as God sees it, we have to learn how to see beyond the physical appearance of things. We need to see into the hearts of people and into the hearts of the situations that we face. We have to understand God, somewhat, in order to do that, don’t you think?  And it takes faith. That’s what we are to use, a kind of x-ray vision that comes through faith in God.

When we look at others through faith’s x-ray vision, we don’t see color, race, nationalities, cultures…all those divisions that the world creates among God’s people.  We instead see the beloved children of God, a beautiful rainbow of diversity designed according to God’s amazing creativity. When we look through faith’s x-ray vision, we no longer see different religions, just children who’re struggling in their own different ways and cultures to understand God.

When we understand that all of this earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, we  no longer see people coming from Mexico as illegal aliens or people trying to take away our jobs.  We instead see a people who are trying to make a living for themselves, and we see that there is plenty of land between these two countries with more than enough resources for all of us.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is  a better way to allocate the resources so that all can do well– and we understand that we need to help others see that.

Through faith, we no longer see children who are brutal gang members and who learn evil as fodder for our prison systems, but we see them instead as children who have themselves been brutalized by poverty and strife and abuse, with no one to help them through it.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is a way to reach them with the love of God, and we know that if we work at reconciling them to their true natures, we can save them.

Through faith, instead of seeing people with different political agendas as enemies or opponents against whom we must fight because they don’t want the same things we want, we see a people who have different views, some of which may be legitimate.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we take the first step to reconcile, to mend fences and begin real conversations to work for what is best for all.

Through faith, instead of seeing people who are poor as people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, people who are dependent on others and who drain our resources, we see poverty as the problem to address, and not the people.  We see a broken system that protects the haves who want to hang onto what they have and who think they need more than they do. As Ambassadors for Christ,  we know it is our job to help the world understand how to better share the abundantly plentiful natural resources that God has given to all of us.

With faith’s x-ray vision, maybe we can become more like Superman! Or better yet, more like God.