Heaven in Hawaii

November 11, 2019

We were out of town most of last month and the trip back took three separate flights, all the hassle of traveling by plane, and more than 24 hours from leaving my wife’s cousin to walking into our front door. We’re still recovering from the time difference, the lack of sleep and the heat wave in heaven.

Yes, I’ve been to heaven and back and made interesting discoveries. First, some locals call it HaVaii – no W in the sound. In heaven, there are people from all over the world, down under and up top, east and west, all the continents and colors, many of whom speak six languages and everybody smiles. Yes it’s possible to pull a muscle even in heaven but when I fell two men rushed to help me – one had ancestors in Africa, the other in Europe – and both were lovely, wonderful men, determined to get me back on my feet.

Strange things happen in heaven. Mark Twain thought it very strange that human beings assume that everyone will play the harp in heaven though most wouldn’t be caught near one on earth. Perhaps equally strange, my wife got me into the ocean. I hadn’t done that in decades since our children were small. I had good memories of the Atlantic near West Palm but I forgot about the surf in Jones Beach and it played with me like I was a toy. When my wife tried to help me, it knocked us both down.  One more thing an aging reader and sitter like me has to relearn – how to face the ocean, stare it down and charge.

Life is so different in Hawaii from the constant patter from Washington about race, color, ancestry and who the heck is better than everybody else. Hawaii is proof that life can be lovely. Except that so many people, and worse, builders and hotel magnates, have made that discovery that they have changed the climate. One of our taxi drivers told us how lovely the climate was on the hill behind Honolulu. And my wife remembered it from a trip half a century ago – though we were clearly a couple by then we came home from Iran at different times and by different routes so I missed seeing Hawaii before there were clouds in heaven.

A photo of my wife was taken in D.C. with a frame that said “citizen of the world.” That is what peace means – that we are citizens of the world and recognize the same in others, treating others, all others, like we ourselves would like to be treated, the Golden Rule, or loving our neighbors as ourselves, another biblical formulation.

I’ve had that pleasure before – on the mall in Washington the day Martin Luther King told us about his dream, or in the offices of the NAACP or the legal services program, in the company of many of this area’s great folk singers, former Peace Corps Volunteers, or sometimes just on the streets of New York where people have learned to live and love together, and among other dear family, friends, colleagues and neighbors – I’ve been lucky enough to live and work largely in supportive environments. It’s a wonderful feeling, to see the love without having to watch your back. It spells peace in many languages, and heaven too.

Even heaven isn’t perfect. There are justified complaints about the way those with native Hawaiian ancestry have been dispossessed of some of what should be theirs but it’s still a joy to see the way people live and work together. On the way out, I had a chance to interview two African-American women who’ve been working there, one a military officer, and they confirmed the rewarding pleasures of living and working with people there.

There’s so much more to enjoy in the islands than beaches and breezes, luaus and leis. You’ll find great examples there of the spirit that made America great.

  • This commentary was broadcast on Nov. 5, 2019, on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

The Sacredness, and the Uniqueness, of Brotherly Love

July 17, 2018

The ethnic slaughter in so many parts of the world – Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, the “troubles” in Ireland, Ukraine, the blood shed at the separation of Pakistan and India – make the uniqueness of American anti-discrimination rules stand out both for their moral high ground and for their protection of human life.

They provided a way to live together in peace, even if getting there has been difficult. They provided a beacon, a light to the world, on living together. Conceived in part as a city on a hill; America was to light the world with our example. Indeed it has. That strong belief in the equality of mankind and the welcome to people from all across the globe has always been attractive.

The Enlightenment in Europe was largely about the idea of equality and learning to live with people despite differences in religion and diverse origins. America was founded on that Enlightenment ideal and, while never quite satisfying its own ideals, to an appreciable extent lived it. In the colonies, after the Revolution and until modern times, the U.S. has welcomed immigrants. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and other faiths were here from the Founding and helped build this country. It is an experiment both in peacefulness and in the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It has been a religious enterprise, a nation building enterprise, and an enterprise in foreign affairs for which this nation has been justly celebrated.

Until now.

Would Ireland, India and so many other places have escaped their rivers of blood had their colonial rulers sought to bring people together in fairness, and ruled from the moral high ground, rather than striving to divide that they might conquer? To imagine is to wish for them the brilliance of the American solution.

America has brought peoples together for centuries. Public schools were conceived to bring together rich and poor, and they were soon called to bring together boys and girls. The military and large businesses made it their mission to bring people together across ethnic, religious and language boundaries that they might have unified armies and a unified workforce. Businesses created Americanization programs from which immigrants emerged proud Americans. Teddy Roosevelt told America that nothing brings men together like the military tent. Even racial prejudices have been receding in the face of integration – this nation has been celebrating African-Americans in music and the arts from the beginning of the twentieth century if not before, in sports especially since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodger lineup in 1947, and in many other areas since as having colleagues, bosses, employees, neighbors, friends and even spouses from different communities of race, religion and ethnic identity has become much more common. This march toward realizing the promise of equality has been going on for two hundred fifty years. Much of America has been shaped by that march, by its progress, by its moral growth.

Nothing has been more American than reaching out – in private groups and NGOs that have provided services abroad, and in government groups like the Peace Corps, US AID, Volunteers in Service to America, programs to acculturate immigrants here, provide the tools to leave poverty behind, and bring people from all cultures together in our schools and businesses.

Nothing has been so attractive to the world, as the fact that people everywhere could see themselves in us. It is a great heritage, a bulwark against all the beasts of the world; we must not forsake it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 17, 2018.

 


Brotherhood

April 25, 2017

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement we used “brotherhood” to express our quest for more than tolerance, but for closeness as one human family. I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for that feeling, so I continue to use it but in a gender-neutral way – we are all family, cousins, a part of one community. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Given the waves of hate crimes since the election, I’ve been thinking about brotherhood. This country is built on brotherhood, on sloughing off the ethnic, religious and physical prejudices our ancestors all brought from their old countries. By now those prejudices seem irrelevant. Many of us intermarried and were welcomed in new families. A friend told me that Bahai do it intentionally to bring people into the faith, though he was truly smitten and has a loving marriage. Most of us just happen to fall in love and old prejudices seem quaint and silly.

But brotherhood matters. Many of us watched the shredding of Yugoslavia. An exchange student from Belgrade was living with us, beside herself with grief and anger at the destruction of her country. Some had predicted Yugoslavia would explode once Marshal Tito died. But many intermarried, traveled among Yugoslavia’s regions, and young people, like our visitor, thought of themselves as Yugoslavs. But it came apart, viciously, in a blood bath of what was called “ethnic cleansing.”

Americans like to think America is and will always be ingenious, hardworking, neighborly and welcoming; that’s us – we’re the best. But many of us understand that virtues have to be nurtured, not assumed.

Early in the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt predicted “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft brought people together who had lived geographically, religiously, ethnically or racially segregated lives. As men returned from war, they introduced each other to sisters and friends, integrating families and communities. But the political strains of war in Vietnam ended the draft. Ben Downing recently urged national service on this station but we have nothing that compares with the reach and impact of the draft.

Racial segregation was made much worse by federal officials who required banks to redline cities and suburbs against loans to African-Americans no matter how strong their financial status. That left segregated school districts. Many of us still try to make our schools “great agents of democratization.” But racially homogenous student bodies make integration difficult or meaningless, and courts have made it worse.

Sports and entertainment still reflect integration. I once told Jackie Robinson’s widow how much it meant to grow up rooting for her husband. Black faces have been on national television as long as I can remember. My mother screamed with joy when William Warfield came out on stage and announced he would sing Old Man River. And I’ll never forget the sound of Marion Anderson’s voice when I heard her live. I’ve only caught glimpses of Oprah Winfrey but bless her influence. Familiarity, like minority newscasters and public officials, helps to diffuse prejudice and fear.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League rely on litigation to put racist groups out of business and catalogue hate groups, warning us about their activities and sharing strategies to extend the warm pull of brotherhood.

Other groups try to bring people together, to meet and appreciate each other, like the Interfaith Alliance, individual churches, temples and Muslim Community Centers, who invite people to meetings and festivals. We’ve often broken bread in the Muslim community.

But nothing matches what the draft and schools once did for so many of us. We need better ways to advance peace, justice and brotherhood.

— Most of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 25, 2017.


Professor Paul Murray’s class on the civil rights movement

May 9, 2016

Paul Murray went South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. For many years he has taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at Sienna College and taken high school and college students on trips to see places made famous by the struggle for freedom and equality.

Professor Murray, Paul to many of us, is retiring soon. This year’s class on the Civil Rights Movement has been his last. For the last session, he held a discussion of whether the Civil Rights Movement had succeeded or failed. Just three students thought it had been a success. Paul asked why. Students brought up discriminatory policing, the impact of putting so many Blacks in prison for behavior that would not get whites prosecuted let alone incarcerated, and the extent to which Blacks still go to schools segregated by zoning and other boundaries, understaffed with fellow students who mirror their own economic backgrounds and skin color.

Gradually Paul got the students to drill deeper –hadn’t some things changed for the better, where and for whom? Elementary schools changed less than colleges and universities. Housing patterns are more segregated after the emergence of white suburbs and wealth is still very skewed. For one student, her very existence depended on the Civil Rights Movement when the Supreme Court held states could no longer ban intermarriage of whites and Blacks.

My wife commented that the world is different from what it was when she grew up in the South or even when we moved into Albany in 1979. African-Americans do many things they couldn’t then. Out shopping and dining years ago we’d just see African-Americans working as busboys and janitors. Now we see them as waiters, hosts, and salespeople. We work alongside African-American professionals, lawyers, businessmen and faculty. And when we came to Albany the city was still geographically and politically divided by faith and national origin in a way that has long since passed.

Another woman commented that being white is actually a step forward for many whites in the room, who grew up knowing that our own groups were discriminated against. Somehow all those ethnic and religious differences no longer separated good, helpful, valuable people from anyone else, and we’re all much richer for it.

The Civil Rights Movement made a difference to all of us, Black and white. A law professor years ago wrote a book about the African-American contribution to the First Amendment.[1] Much of the improvement in Americans’ sense of brotherhood was also forged in the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t count on it. We had an integrated federal bureaucracy for half a century after the Civil War until President Woodrow Wilson drove Blacks out of the civil service. We had integrated restaurants and theaters in the South before the Klan terrorized southern Blacks, taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions that what happens in the South is no business of Congress and federal prosecutors.[2] The Supreme Court in our own time has called a halt to integration, repeating its 19th century backsliding. The schools and criminal justice system are still failing Blacks.

I don’t know how long it will take. Visitors to Paul’s class had spent their lives working for justice and we all have to keep working for it. I want to believe that our work and social relationships will gradually drive racial justice in the same way they drove the integration of ethnic groups and the gay rights movement. It’s been harder and slower regarding race but we will get there, thanks to people like Professor Murray.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2016.

[1] Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First amendment (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966).

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The strange career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, Commemorative ed., c2002) (1955).


Dr. King’s Message of Love

January 20, 2015

Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. We are still much too far from a post-racial society. For the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we think of Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Rehnquist Court did its best to chip away, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which the Roberts Court is doing its best to tear up. There was another victory that I’d like to talk about, just a few years after Martin Luther King shared his dream at the Lincoln Memorial.

It often seems like a postscript to Dr. King’s legacy but was actually at its very core. When the NAACP planned its attack on school segregation, they started with graduate schools, racking up a string of victories so that any other decision in Brown would have flatly violated the teaching of a whole group of recent precedents abandoning separation in law school, medical school, graduate school in one state after another. But until Brown they didn’t touch grade school. They had concluded that grade school would be the most inflammatory and most difficult because of southern fear of what they called miscegenation, marriage between whites and Blacks. There was a sense in which worrying about marriage of kids in elementary school rather than adults in graduate school seemed backwards. But they understood the fear and went with it.

Fear of intermarriage was a very big deal with reason. Sociologists have been finding that one of the main ways Americans have been putting stereotypes and prejudices behind them has been intermarriage, not just Blacks and whites, but Jews and Christians, whites and Asians, different white ethnic groups, and now the marriage of gay or lesbian children of straight families, all of us to some degree have been marrying out of our ancestral groups, introducing our families and producing children who celebrate all sides of their heritage. Marriage and intermarriage matter.

Rabbis don’t like Jews to intermarry – they’re afraid to lose another Jew to the assimilated culture. When Jeanette and I married, it was hard to find a rabbi who’d marry us. There are a lot of mixed families in our Temple, creating the loving, open community we love.

In the 1950s Mildred Delores Jeter grew up down the road from Richard Loving in rural Virginia. Richard was a white bricklayer; Mildred a young Black girl. In that part of the state, Blacks and whites often socialized, but didn’t marry. Mildred and Richard weren’t thinking of Dr. King or making a racial statement. They just fell in love, married and wanted to raise a family together. For that they were arrested, jailed, convicted and kicked out of Virginia. They were together until, tragically, Richard was killed in a traffic accident nearly twenty years later.

The year Martin Luther King shared his great dream with us, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their inability to visit family and friends in Virginia. Kennedy sent them to the ACLU whose lawyers brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 the Warren Court gave us the historic decision of Loving v. Virginia, one of its great decisions, establishing the right to marry, and marry without discrimination.

That part of the Civil Rights Movement seems resilient and lasting – we keep meeting, befriending and learning to love each other. The world changes, though slowly. It has always seemed appropriate to me that they were Mildred and Richard Loving. Dr. King’s was a message of love; love needs to run this world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 20, 2014.


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