Tuesday, January 16, 2007

MLK, Obama

I had hoped to write something about MLK day yesterday but did not get around to it. But today's news of Barack Obama announcing his decision to run for President is historic and honors the legacy of MLK.

There have been other African Americans who ran for President: 1972 - Shirley Chisholm (first African American woman elected to Congress), Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and (I am sorry to have to mention this) Alan Keyes sometime in the 1990s. There may have been others.

Obama brings something different than those candidates. He has a transcendent quality which allows non-Blacks to view him as not just a Black candidate while at the same time he is not viewed by those in the Black community as abandoning his roots or heritage or the politics of the Black community. It is an intangible element, an element that Bobby Kennedy certainly had. That different constituents and communities are able to view him as representing the best of their particular values, and by embodying a spirit which is broad enough to attract disparate communities, he is seen as a uniter, and thereby, in him, they see hope.

I would say Jesse Jackson had a transcendent quality in his oratory; he could inspire and galvanize you right out of your seat. And if you listened to him, he preached a philosophy that sought to unite the poor and the middle class to fight against common enemies of greed, poverty, and economic hardship. That was the Rainbow Coalition. But he was never viewed seriously outside the Black community; he was viewed as too radical, too outside the mainstream. I don't think it was his involvement in the civil rights movement, but certain anti-Semitic comments which were alluded to him. In any event, I supported him.

I was too young to know much about Chisholm's campaign, and I am not even going to mention Mr. Keyes, and will refrain from using the moniker given to him by Borat out of respect for MLK.

But Obama is the real deal: community organizer, attorney, state senator, and Senator. He also carries the imprimatur of elite status which for better or for worse soundly establishes his mainstream acceptablity: graduate of Columbia Unversity and Harvard Law.
Some say that he is too inexperienced to serve as President. Of course, it was another Illinoisian who ran for President after two years in the Senate and a stretch in the state senate: Abraham Lincoln. Those are high standards to meet and it is not fair to raise such comparisons.

But what Obama brings is the ability to inspire people beyond the ordinary politics, beyond partisanship, and most importantly for me, still bring a progressive vision to people. I have always believed that a progressive politics is not just a liberal or conservative one but one that demonstrates that social justice, and economic opportunity, among other progressive values benefit the majority of poor and middle class people.

Another parallel characterstic is that while MLK and RFK both opposed the Vietnam War during their times, Obama is also steadfastly against our current war in Iraq. The progressive vision is that misplaced militarism is not consistent with a just and conscientious society. Such militarism deprives resources that can ease the suffering of many people, whether it is economic hardship and poverty, lack of health care, lack of housing, inadequate education, and the list goes on.
MLK said it best in his historic 1967 antiwar speech at Riverside Church:

"A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. S o I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

I dare not say that Obama is akin to MLK, and only time will tell if he can inspire the populace like RFK, but I am encouraged that his candidacy may push the country's politics in a new direction.

In honor of MLK, in the words of RFK, and in the hopes of a Obama candidacy that can inspire people the way those two leaders did before both were assassinated within two months of each other in 1968:
Indianapolis, Indiana - April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy
Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with
bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

(Interrupted by applause)
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Thank you very much.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Darryl Hunt Free!

Tonight I had the opportunity to see an excellent film which tells a tragic but ultimately triumphant tale: The Trials of Darryl Hunt. It is the true story of a man wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced for the murder and rape of a woman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The woman was white, Darryl Hunt is black.

The incident took place in 1984, and it wasn't until 2003 that Darryl Hunt was finally released from prison, after numerous trials, appeals, and hearings.

In 2004, even the U.S. Supreme Court denied Darryl Hunt a last chance to have a new trial. But where the legal system failed, faith and science working together brought Darryl's freedom. Faith, of course, because of the firm and unwavering belief of Darryl and his supporters that he was innocent and he was right, and that the truth would prevail. Science because it was the emergence of DNA testing technology which was able to finally exonerate Darryl.

Darryl's faith and commitment was so strong that after serving five years, in 1989, he was offered a plea deal before the start of his second trial that he would be released on time served if he pled to a lesser murder charge. Despite the fact that Darryl could walk out free, the fact that he would have to admit commiting a crime which he did not do was against his conscience and self-integrity.

There are so many stories of wrongfully convicted or imprisoned persons finding and gaining their freedom: Ruben Carter, Nelson Mandela, and so many others that we hear about. There are fictional tales too such as Shawshank Redemption or The Count of Monte Cristo.

It may appear that after a while, you may feel that you have heard this story many times, and the tale of the wrongfully imprisoned would not affect you.

But I can tell you that this story, as I am sure all of these similar stories, will leave you heartbroken and thrilled no matter how many times you have heard a story such as this.

The combination of racism, corruption, negligence, and criminal conduct by the police and District Attorney's office created a personal hell for Darryl which through his faith he was able to survive.

There seems to be something about someone who is wrongfully imprisoned and seeks his freedom which seems to talk to me, and many folks I would think. Maybe because such a person evokes sympathy and is an example of injustice clearly defined. Maybe it is because we see an innocent person suffer unnecessarily, and we identify with him especially if he is also good and decent. Or maybe it is because we ourselves find ourselves in circumstances that we cannot necessarily control or change, circumstances that we think may be limiting, restricting, or even imprisoning, and we don't see how we will emerge from it. And we see the story of someone like Darryl Hunt, and how he maintained his faith while acting to win his freedom, and we are inspired and humbled that we too should persevere and have faith.

In the film, Darryl's strongest advocate, Larry Little, who had organized the Black Panther Party in North Carolina in his earlier days, says the struggle is akin to man trying to move a mountain with a shovel. It is an impossible task, but to not make the effort in light of the circumstances would drive you crazy. So you fight, not knowing if you will win, but so you can have your sanity, your dignity, your sense of meaning in this world. That is all.

I remember reading the Alice Walker book, Possessing the Secret of Joy, many years ago after I got out of college. It is a book dealing with genital mutilation in Africa, and at the end of the book, when the protagonist faces the firing squad, the message is laid out before her in a banner unfurled which reads, RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY!.

Well, I think I have spoiled enough plots and endings for one post. I want to encourage people to learn about different organizations fighting for wrongfully convicted persons. Some of them are listed at the film's website. These include:

North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence
The Innocence Project
Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama
Truth in Justice
The Center on Wrongful Convictions
The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice
Southern Center for Human Rights


Another dimension to the issues surrounding prisons deal with how certain counties and districts use prison populations in their census to qualify for funding, social services, political representation via redistricting, and many other resources while the prisoners themselves see no fruits from this practice. In fact, prisoners cannot even vote. One cannot think of the Constitution's original sin of acceding to slavery in exchange of counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person for census enumeration, thus allowing slaveholding states to benefit from the slave population both in their labor and their physical presence, while providing them no rights or liberties.

An excellent website and group addressing this is Prisoners of the Census.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Godfather's Revolution

Just some addtional reflections on James Brown and his legacy. I was listening to the Underground Railroad, an exceptional hip hop show on WBAI - 99.5 FM on Saturday nights from midnight to 2 A.M with Jay Smooth.

He was comenting on the significance of JB. An interesting point that he made was that yes, many recognize him for the innovative sound and music he introduced, and some recognize him as a pioneer of hip-hop by providing so many of the foundational beats which were sampled and the basis of many a hip hop track.

But, according to Jay Smooth, his influence went a dimenstion further. Prior to his sound, the focus of American music was the melody with the rhythm or percussion being the background. What JB did was place the rhythm or percussion in the foreground and made that the focus relegating the melody to the background. As a result came the explosive and electric sound that we identify JB with, and which so many afterwards adopted.

This departure went one step further: in making the rhythm or percussion the foreground, he did not limit the rhythmic sound to just that of the drum. Instead, every instrument from horn, guitar, organ, piano, and even the voice became a percussive instrument. The beat was elemental in every expression of sound. Thus, we hear the horns and other instruments in the now familiar herky-jerky, stop-and-go sound.

The fact that the voice could be used as a percussive instrument was revolutionary in American popular music. Of course, that tradition existed for ages in the African and African American music and oral tradition.

However, its use by JB laid the foundation of rap itself, which became a musical genre completely centered on the fact that the voice is a percussive instrment, the rhythm, the beat itself.

Understanding that dimension of JB's influence allows one to see that it is no wonder that so many hip-hop and rap artists looked to JB's music for their elemental beats. Hip-hop and rap was a part of an innovation that JB had himself introduced in American popular music, and which embodied age-old African and African American practice: the power and prominence of the beat, the rhythm.

This was the revolution which the Godfather wrought.