Message of the Day: Human Rights, Disease, War, Economic Opportunity, Hunger, Population, Personal Growth
Seattle, June 2, 2020, I Can’t Breathe Protest, (c) 2020 Lisa Blume and Keith Blume
The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Nineteen.
The coronavirus pandemic is still getting worse worldwide. The economic devastation is the worst since the Great Depression. In a world of the largest population in history by far, the most interconnected in every way, every major threat is increasing exponentially, while the international system in place to have any chance of dealing with this, with all its faults as we’ve said time and again, is unravelling more than ever.
The pandemic was the tip of the spear. And the headline every day for months.
Until May 25.
That day, George Floyd, a 46-year old black man, was killed by a white police officer with three other accomplices in Minneapolis. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street, saying “I can’t breathe.”
Protests on a scale unlike anything seen since 1968–after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and then Robert F. Kennedy weeks later, seemingly destroying all hope at the time (much more on this below)–erupted in cities in every state in the US, and then in other places around the world. In the US, it became almost the only story.
The police officers above have all been charged with murder now.
Today is June 4.
It is an historic day in many respects, which we will cover here.
First, the memorial service in Minneapolis for George Floyd was held today.
Here’s the report from CBS News on the service by Justin Carissimo, Audrey McNamara and Jamie Yuccas, “George Floyd honored at Minneapolis memorial service: ‘He would stand up for injustice anywhere'”:
Family, friends and public officials gathered Thursday to honor the life of George Floyd, the 46-year-old father who died in police custody in Minneapolis last week. Floyd, known by those close to him as a “gentle giant,” was remembered as a loving father who made everyone feel welcome in his presence.
The memorial, the first of four scheduled services, took place at North Central University campus, located about two miles from where Floyd lost his life. His death has reignited a nationwide movement against the police killings of black Americans.
Mourners wore masks and bumped elbows, rather than hugging or shaking hands.
Floyd’s family shared their gratitude for the outpouring of love from the public and marveled at the movement triggered by Floyd’s death. “I wish he was in the presence, in the flesh, to see it, this great unity,” his brother said. “He would stand up for any injustice anywhere.”
His sister said the thing she will miss most about him are his hugs, “because he was this big sweet giant.”
Floyd will be laid to rest in his hometown of Houston on Tuesday
Speaking at the service, Reverend Al Sharpton said now is the time to “deal with accountability in the criminal justice system.”
Many people in the crowd held signs that said, “I can’t breathe.” Others wrote the phrase on their face masks. Floyd repeatedly told the arresting officers he couldn’t breathe in the minutes before his death.
Chauvin waswith an additional count of second-degree murder, on top of a third-degree murder charge. The three officers with him at the scene were also charged Wednesday with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
All four of the officers involved have been arrested and are in jail.
. . .
In the rest of the world, Covid-19 is still the main story–and it’s still the main story in the US in many ways, often interrelated with the story of the protests.
In fact, it seems clear, that the pandemic ripping the scab off the grotesque inequality that makes surviving period a question for even a majority of whites, with an outsized impact on blacks who make-up an outsized percentage of the dispossessed as an underpinning of institutional racism, converging with a particularly horrible killing to watch of another black man (and woman shortly before, covered below, and so on, throughout US history), shined a light that unleashed the whirlwind long needing reaping.
The writers here participated in one of the daily protests against systemic racism in criminal justice and economic social justice with thousands in the streets of Seattle the day before yesterday. We had already seen businesses that have been a regular part of our lives, all our lives, broken into, looted, with much of downtown and elsewhere boarded up. We saw the national guard in the streets looking no different than our soldiers in combat. Only a minute fraction of the protesters, or those exploiting the situation for various reasons, had been violent or broken windows and looted. Unfortunately, historically, this aspect of such protests is almost always attendant. And in some cases, part of the rage and strategy of protest.
Today, last year, we posted about the 100th anniversary of Congress passing suffrage for women in the US, June 4, 1919. The suffragists in the UK used violence as a strategy at times. Those in the US who had been by their side hatched a civil disobedience and protest strategy they knew would bring violence. They put their lives on the line. Some died. They got the vote.
One of the tragic divide and conquer strategies exploiting the exploited by the powerful was to pit racism against sexism, splitting allies when black men were constitutionally sanctioned to vote before women, in 1870. It may have been politically the only achievable order of things, although for black men, it soon became an empty gesture or a death sentence if voting was attempted for nearly a century. For women, the constitutional right to vote didn’t come until half a century later. Exploiting the exploited by divide and conquer strategies is time-dishonored, as we’ve often noted.
This brings us to a critical observation. Sexism still divides the world–in half. No matter what the racial, ethnic, or national background.
A black woman, Breonna Taylor was also killed by police in Louisville in March. Her name is heard at protests, but it’s a footnote. Alisha Haridasani Gupta’s article today in The New York Times could not be more important, or to the point:
Alisha Haridasani Gupta, In Her Words, June 4, 2020, The New York Times
Like George Floyd, she was also killed by the police, but her case remains largely disconnected from the broader narrative.
Last week, Andrea Ritchie, a researcher at Barnard Center for Research on Women, joined thousands of others across the U.S. to take part in a protest demanding justice for George Floyd. She proudly chanted his name outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“But I was shocked that I didn’t hear anyone say Breonna Taylor’sname at any point,” Ritchie said, referring to the black emergency medical technician in Louisville, Ky., who was killed by the police in March, just weeks before Floyd’s death. Officers burst into Taylor’s apartment while she was asleep during a late night drug investigation using a so-called “no-knock warrant.” Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who has said he was worried someone was breaking into the apartment, shot and wounded an officer. The officers have said that they then returned fire and shot Taylor at least eight times in her own home.
Her mother filed a lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police Department in late April and people in Louisville started taking to the streets demanding justice in May. None of the officers in her case have been arrested or fired, though the F.B.I. is currently investigating the case.
In an effort to resurface Taylor’s story on social media, users started using the hashtag #SayHerName last week.
But even that, Ritchie noted, has been turned into #SayHisName.
“All black lives matter,” she said, adding that this movement should be striving to address police brutality against black men and women and LGBTQ people, who also face violence by law enforcement.
“We’re not trying to compete with Floyd’s story, we’re trying to complete the story,” said Ritchie, who is also the author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.”
Senator Kamala Harris echoed that sentiment on Thursday. “We can’t forget about black women in our quest for justice,” she wrote on Twitter.
Things started to shift on Friday, on what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday. Protesters marched in her honor, some sang “Happy Birthday,” others brought balloons to protests or sent birthday cards to Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, demanding justice. The hashtag #BirthdayForBreonna was used widely on social media.
Still, Taylor’s case remains largely disconnected with the broader national conversation that’s happening around George Floyd — no celebrities have offered to pay for her funeral or taken out full-page ads in newspapers across the country dedicated to her and few brands have started campaigns in her name.
Perhaps it’s because there was no graphic video footage of the scene or because it all happened back in March at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But her exclusion, and that of other black women, is the latest iteration of a longstanding issue: Black women’s experiences of police brutality and their tireless contributions to mass social justice movements have almost always been left out of the picture, receiving far less media or political attention.
For years, black women have faced a double bind of racial and gender discrimination.
According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women remain underrepresented in the political system, black women are more likely to work jobs that lack crucial benefits and protections, more black women live in poverty than any other group, black women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence, and the gender barriers in access to health care are higher for black women than white women.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened all of those fissures. The unemployment rate for black women is now 16.4 percent compared with 15.5 percent for women overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving them in increasingly precarious positions.
When it comes to interactions with the police, the same racial biases that apply to black men apply to black women too, Ritchie said. Black women are more likely than white women to be pulled over in traffic stops, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. They are also more likely than white women to be incarcerated and currently make up the largest portion of women in local jails compared with other women of color. Black women also face brutal police violence, which frequently takes the form of sexual assault or harassment at the hands of officers, away from cameras and the public eye, Ritchie said. And, she added, alarmingly, it often occurs when officers are responding to calls for help from domestic violence or sexual assault.
It is in large part because of these layers of inequalities that black women have risen up to form the backbone of some of the largest civil rights movements in U.S. history — from abolition and suffrage to #MeToo.
“Some of our loudest voices against oppression have come from black women,” said Dr. Monique Morris, founder and board chair for the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. Young black girls too have been a big part of “the articulation of our democracy” — like 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a bus months before Rosa Parks did the same. In fact, it was 17-year-old Darnella Frazier who filmed Floyd’s killing in a video that has since sparked protests across the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement was also founded by three women — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — who were angered by the acquittal in 2013 of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“We did want to start a movement,” Cullors said. “Did we know we were going to be successful? No. But we worked hard, for years, making sure that people saw what was happening and how it was happening.”
Yet, movements tend to latch on to a singular ‘face’ or leader and, for many, that ideal image is predominantly still a straight man, Cullors said.
“It’s easier to be seduced by masculinity and the idea that we’re going to be saved by a black Christian male,” Cullors said, noting the appeal around Dr. Martin Luther King as an example. “That’s a problem. We don’t fully understand how racism and sexism and patriarchy and homophobia impact our community.”
Without that understanding, any proposed changes in police conduct or laws will be limited in scope and women’s concerns will continue to be overlooked, Ritchie said. For example, there currently isn’t any official data collection on police sexual misconduct, nationally or at the local level, Ritchie added, and changing that should be a part of the broader police reforms.
America needs an intersectional lens over what all black communities are experiencing and the strategies to address them, Dr. Morris said.
“We need to understand justice to be expansive,” she said.
. . .
Changes in policing are of course critical. But they are a symptom that won’t cure the disease without treating the core of the disease. Anymore than a fair housing act cured the disease after it passed in 1968 in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford the house and don’t wield the power that goes with economic social justice.
Someone fighting for that justice since the days of MLK and RFK is John Lewis. An excellent article on his response to the current situation and a new film about him appeared in Yahoo News today:
“It’s a difficult time that we’re going through in America,” Georgia congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis says in the early moments of Dawn Porter‘s insightful and inspiring upcoming documentary Good Trouble: John Lewis. “My greatest fear is that one day we’re going to wake up and our democracy is gone.”
It was 2018 when Rep. Lewis made those remarks, so you have to wonder how he felt waking up Tuesday morning, hours after police in riot gear used tear gas to remove peaceful protesters from President Donald Trump’s path to a photo-op at Washington, D.C.’s St. John’s Church and the commander-in-chief saying that he would deploy the U.S. military to American cities to battle civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police.
“Doesn’t that just land so differently now? I have to say, I’m not easily shocked. I was really shocked and stunned by that,” Porter, a former ABC News journalist whose other film credits include the docs Gideon’s Army (2013) and Trapped (2016), told Yahoo Entertainment in a phone interview this week. “I can certainly understand political difference. But this is beyond being Republican or Democrat. This is just human.”
As for her iconic 80-year-old film subject: “He is calm. He understands. He’s seen this before. And he has the benefit of knowing that we can come out of it but we have to be vigilant. We’ve all gotta do things a little bit differently.”
Born in Troy, Ala., in 1940, Lewis has come to personify peaceful protest perhaps more than any living American. In his battles against segregation and for voting rights, he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early-mid 1960s, became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961, spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, where his skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers who attacked protesters with tear gas and batons as they knelt to pray.
Lewis proudly says he was arrested 40 times in the ’60s — and five times since — in Good Trouble, which traces his life and legacy, from being inspired into activism by Rosa Parks to the three-plus decades he’s spent as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “He’s never waited for permission,” Porter says. “And he’s consistent in his method. He hasn’t lost his moral center, even if others lost theirs.”
As some of the protests set off by the murder of Floyd escalated into rioting and looting, Lewis wrote on Twitter Saturday, “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
“I can’t speak for him, but I am positive he understands the rage and fury so many people are feeling,” Porter says. “If you think about the confluence of events: We have black and brown communities being disproportionately being affected by this [coronavirus] disease. They are also more likely to have lost their jobs, to not have any income, or to be frontline workers with very low income but lots of exposure opportunities. So you have all of that, and you’re still getting murdered by the police? It’s just too much. So that all spills over.”
The documentary’s title Good Trouble stems from a phrase Lewis uses often and spells out in the film while addressing supporters at a Texas campaign rally for Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Ted Cruz from the Senate: “My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something! Do something! Get in trouble! Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Porter has no doubt that the civil unrest that’s followed Floyd’s killing, which came in short succession after the killings of Breonna Taylor by police and Ahmaud Arbery by civilians, qualifies as good trouble.
“I think so, absolutely. A hundred percent,” she says. “Because you know what we can’t do? Say it’s someone else’s problem. That somebody else is gonna assure that our liberties remain protected. Because that’s not happening, we don’t have that luxury right now. So I do think this is good trouble.”
Lewis said as much during an interview with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle Kingon Thursday: “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. To see people from all over the world taking to the streets, to the roadways, to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to do what I call getting in trouble.”
As former President Barack Obama wrote in an essay Monday, the protests could ultimately mark a turning point when it comes to real change in the social justice system. “A lot is needed,” Porter says. “I completely agree with President Obama’s statement the other day where he said, ‘It’s not either politics or protest.’ You need both. We need people urging action in the streets, and then we need people taking action in the courts and in the legislatures. … We have to work for the society that we want.”
Lewis, who announced in late 2019 that he is fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer, is the rare figure who has worked in both worlds, and Good Trouble highlights his transition from outside agitator to the halls of power when he was elected to serve Georgia’s 5th District in 1986.
“I hope they’ll think of John Lewis in the present,” says Porter when asked what she hopes viewers take from the documentary. “And I hope they’ll understand how intentional and how large his contributions to American history and political discussion have been. And I hope that they will not allow his efforts to be in vain. We didn’t fight this hard for it to come apart this way.”
. . .
With racism in the US, and its barbaric primary origin in slavery, the answer to it after the Union won the Civil War was in hand. Providing economic social justice and real power–the only thing that would make other constitutional rights sustainable–along with a Union military presence as guarantee in the former rebel slave states as long as needed. This meant plantations split up into land for the former slaves. General Sherman began all the above in conjunction with local black leadership with President Lincoln’s blessing. However, an assassin’s bullet and one vote in the senate stopped it, which was the beginning of reversing the results of the Civil War. That story is here, at length, in an excerpt from our post, The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Fifteen on August 18, 2019:
After winning the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, that the US had: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
It couldn’t be kept as a nation in which nearly all voters were required to be white male landowners or taxpayers, disenfranchising the rest. Some of them knew it from the start and wanted better. But there was likely going to be no start without starting this way.
Dr. Samuel Johnson opposed the American Revolution. With all his faults, he wasn’t wrong when he said, “”How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it”, said Franklin.
It certainly couldn’t be kept with slavery.
So, 63 years later, The Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln walked the line between infamy and greatness until the Emancipation Proclamation.
He was willing to end the war and have the South back and keep the Union with slavery. He allowed slaves to be sent back to the Confederacy to their deaths because they were property legally. He did so in order to keep the option open of re-uniting the Union with slavery in tact. A Union general stopped this practice and used the rationale that property of a state in rebellion should be confiscated, a rationale Lincoln then accepted. Had Lincoln died or had the war been lost or settled before the Emancipation Proclamation, he would have gone down in history as monstrous. That’s often how thin the line is. Fortunately, he came to see, both strategically and morally, that the war could not be won without ending slavery.
Post-Civil War reconstruction policy was a war by other means that was won and lost by one vote in the first trial after impeachment of a president in US history at that point.
That too, is how thin the line often is.
No one knows for sure what Lincoln would have done had he lived. He won the Civil War by coming around to ending slavery as a political necessity. He is seen as the martyred hero he in the main deserves to be, simply by making the right choice at the key historic moment. His malice toward none and charity toward all sentiments in his last inaugural address had merit, but also could have foreshadowed another strategic blind spot in how the South–a system of brutal racist, classist power by a virtual dictatorship of plantation-owning oligarchs–was dealt with after the war. And most importantly, how equality was or was not brought to the former slaves.
Lincoln’s evolution on slavery, and his fighting hard and successfully for the 13thamendment to formally abolish it, were positive signs he would have ended up in the right place. As well as the fact that he was a Republican, and this new party was the radical force in politics and policy that made him and the end of slavery possible. He sometimes clashed with the most progressive elements of the party, but that was the core of the party, and in the end it was a critical element of what pushed him to the better angels of his nature.
His vice-president, Andrew Johnson, was another matter. A Democrat who Lincoln had brought on for the possibility of national unity, although like his fellow Democrats was pro-slavery, he drew the line at insurrection against the Union and supported the North against the South.
After Lincoln was assassinated and he was president, however, Johnson supported reinstituting the brutal power structures of the South with slavery in every way but name only. This was against the very core of what Republicans, who controlled Congress, stood for, and what for most in the North at that point, the war had been fought about.
The most important indicator that Lincoln would have continued to change history in reconstruction as he had in ending slavery was what he already had done as a first act of reconstruction as the war was ending–approving General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “40 Acres and a Mule” Special Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1864—one of the most radical actions in American history.
African-American slaves were the forced agricultural labor on plantations that slaves on Roman estates had been nearly two millennia before, and that occurred around the world before and since, in either actual slavery or virtual slavery, as hungry landless peasants who worked the land–sharecroppers as they would be called in the American south after the end of slavery. The planned reconstruction of Congress had at its heart the gutting of the barbaric, racist, classist, dictatorship of the oligarchy that had led to the war. And real equality for the former slaves. Which could only happen one way.
Break up the plantations and give ownership of the land to small black farmers.
The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule, by Henrry Louis Gates, Jr., an accompanying article to the PBS series he hosted, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, covers the historical moment well:
We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. It’s a staple of black history lessons, and it’s the name of Spike Lee’s film company. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time, proto-socialist in its implications. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves. What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.
It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.
What Exactly Was Promised?
We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.
Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves: ” … on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves … By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.”
Finally, section three specifies the allocation of land: ” … each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
With this Order, 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reports — would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually.
Who Came Up With the Idea?
Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.
Stanton, aware of the great historical significance of the meeting, presented Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous brother) a verbatim transcript of the discussion, which Beecher read to his congregation at New York’s Plymouth Church and which the New York Daily Tribune printed in full in its Feb. 13, 1865, edition. Stanton told Beecher that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: “What do you want for your own people” following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.
Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.
Their chosen leader and spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, aged 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, “when he purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver,” as the New York Daily Tribune reported. Rev. Frazier had been “in the ministry for thirty-five years,” and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.
And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” Rev. Frazier began his answer to the crucial third question, “is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” And when asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves,” without missing a beat, Brother Frazier (as the transcript calls him) replied that “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over … ” When polled individually around the table, all but one — James Lynch, 26, the man who had moved south from Baltimore — said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.
What Became of the Land That Was Promised?
The response to the Order was immediate. When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that “From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be,” reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, “the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.” Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the “black governor.” And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ ” By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”
And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, “returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.
. . .
Gates’ new PBS series, Reconstruction, covers many other aspects of the era as well. There were many atrocities and many accomplishments that have echoed forward to today. But nothing so central as the issue of land reform, and what might have been.
President Andrew Johnson’s rescinding of Sherman’s order–and Lincoln’s–was his first shot in a war against the beginning of Lincoln’s policy and the policy of the government controlled by the Republicans which had prosecuted the war for the Union and preserved it.
This clash between an accidental president and the party of the murdered president in power in Congress led to Johnson’s impeachment.
The vote for conviction was only one vote shy of the needed two-thirds.
Impeachment is by definition a political process. The constitution leaves it to Congress to decide what high crimes and misdemeanors means. The balance of power in which the elected representatives of the people decide whether a president is abusing power is exactly how it works. And the politics of abuse of power that led to the Civil War in effect won back what it had lost, by one vote.
It utterly changed history for the worse.
The vote of the senator who saved Johnson is surrounded with controversy. For good reasons, but that’s another story. Revisionist history was written as a result of the one-vote escape and the policies that followed. Even John Kennedy used the senator as one of his examples of a profile in courage. He was dead wrong. Another example of a political moment in a campaign to be president before he evolved into the president he became in the end.
It needs to be added that there is every reason to believe that the policy Lincoln had endorsed would have been extended to poor and disenfranchised whites as well as reconstruction and history moved forward. Divide and conquer no more.
Unfortunately, the best evidence of this was the Homestead Act that Lincoln had signed in 1862. For all of the positive economic development and social equity this provided for many whites moving west, it was at the expense of furthering the first great evil—stealing the land from, killing, starving and destroying Native Americans.
African Americans, Native American, all Americans, and all people by virtue of the reality of American historical influence, are still paying for all this.
. . .
The above post also tells the story of the end of the Roman Republic–a story with more than a bit of warning in it for our times. The same story of haves and have nots and slaves and virtual slaves. And how assassinations and a thin line separated progress from oppression.
And the story of the great good done that was said to be impossible, by the US at the end of World War Two, dismantling the fascist oligarchy in Japan, bringing land reform to break up a thousand year old feudal system, and a constitution with the right to vote and equal rights for women (more progressive than the US constitution, written by a 22-year old woman, Beate Sirota Gordon, in an extraordinary story) by a conservative egotistical general who saw the strategic necessity of radical progressive change. A general who then went on to be removed years later during the Korean War, appropriately, by a president asserting the need of civilian constitutional control over the military,
Today, ironically, military authorities are speaking out strongly, in opposition to actions and statements of a president as threatening the constutional oath to preserve the constitution and protect democracy as never before.
After President Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” (a quote of historic racist viciousness, along with others), needless to say, fuel was poured on the fire. More people have died, civilians and law enforcement. That’s not solely his fault, but his unprecedented behavior as a president in this situation, as with so many situations, has had horrific impact, in commission and omission. The whole world saw the unprovoked attacks on protesters in front of Lafayette Park and The White House, to create the most bizarre photo-op imaginable. No reason for further descriptions. If you’ve been on Pluto and just got back, read-up.
The reaction in the US and around the world to Trump has been overwhelmingly against such behavior.
This is not to say what the short-term or medium-term political fallout will be with any certainty.
We are in the culture of living dangerously and things change faster than the next tweet.
And history has seen this play before.
But there is no question that the arc of the universe will bend toward justice. As we keep saying–the only question is the price and whether humans will make it.
The family of George Floyd, others who have been killed by police, women mayors and other authorities, often of color themselves, and many other voices in support of the protests–begged for peaceful protest. In the main they then got it. And contributed to it by listening, lifting curfews, lightening the police presence–and by police chiefs saying that George Floyd was murdered, and taking a knee with protesters.
That may or may not continue at various times in various places for many reasons.
On our day at the protest, it was peaceful from start to finish. And powerful.
On our bodies and faces on the ground, thousands of us, for the same time that George Floyd was while dying, with our hands behind our backs in solidarity with his in handcuffs, as we said, “I can’t breathe.”
Everyone was taking a risk by being there. We are in a pandemic. Virtually everyone had a mask and it was outside. Social distancing was possible if you placed yourself as needed, which we did, first to prevent any transmission of what none of us know for sure we may have just picked up and may pass, and second to protect ourselves. But for most in such a gathering, this isn’t possible, by the nature of it.
Yet, as even many authorities have acknowledged, while emphasizing the pandemic and reminding everyone to be as careful as possible (and where to get healthcare and testing if needed), and that such crowds should not otherwise be gathering–this was something that had to happen.
The crowd was diverse, about evenly split between people of color, mainly blacks, and with slightly more whites. Mainly millennials, but cross-generational from gen Z in older teens to early twenties, to gen X, to boomers. Hope for the future.
With all the references to 1968 in this current moment, we will revisit it here with our posts on the 50th anniversaries of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
As we predicted last week, there has been a fair amount of coverage as the day came near and arrived, but virtually nothing compared to what should and would have happened in any normal universe.
And of course, most coverage, as we’ve been commenting on for many years along with a handful of others compared to the majority of commentary, avoids the core of what King stood for. Radical revolution to create a world in which there was equality for all, guaranteed by right and policy. An end to classism, racism, poverty, war. Basic needs and rights for all. No sentiment of equality, but a demand and a reality of equality by social contract, legal right, political and economic policy.
It would mean the entire world order turned on its head.
As we noted in the following excerpt from our post on 7.18.17:
“50 years ago, 1967, was the year the storm clouds gathered in a new way. And the storm began to break out in a new way. Then, 1968. And by the end of that year, nothing was ever the same again.
A 50th anniversary has just passed that needs more attention.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at Riverside Church. The most important, most prophetic speech he ever gave.
One year to the day before he was killed.
It set the world on fire at the time. Rejected by many who had supported him. Then within a short time after he was killed, virtually universally praised as his penultimate call to accountability for every individual and for all humanity.
And then, for some time now, the most avoided speech he ever gave by many.
How is that possible?
Who does the US have national holidays for in their name?
Even Washington got morphed into President’s Day (Lincoln too as part of this, although he never had a federal holiday)–and how many now even know the origin of that?
Even Jesus, who has Christmas, isn’t the center in practice of the holiday of his birth in the US (and many other places.) The “Christ” in the holiday name would seem to be clear–but for separation of church and state reasons in the US, because the churches are less and less attended, and because the holiday was utterly taken over by consumerism driven by emotion-targeted advertising long ago, the name of the holiday is more an echo of its origin than not.
One person has a national holiday in the most powerful nation in the history of the world named after him.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
He didn’t necessarily deserve it more than some of his allies and contemporaries, not to mention those who came before. He treated women as sex objects at times at the further expense of his wife and family. He was sexist and homophobic with some of his closest allies who made the movement and made him possible in many ways. He also associated with the above at a level many didn’t at the time. And no one who was out front on the principles he was would have failed to move past the above limitations as the culture did after he died in no small part because of the principles he died for.
In any event, he’s got the holiday. The only one who does.
So how do we avoid the greatest call to accountability ever from the prophet we gave this unique position?
Because it was the holler of truth that went way past discomfort–it called (and calls) everyone to accountability with no veneer. We Americans especially. Although it was about his opposition to the Vietnam War, it wasn’t because he would never advocate fighting–he did against Hitler days before he died, as we’ve noted before. And his call for and acknowledgment of world revolution wasn’t naive. He hoped to avoid violence as much as possible by calling the greatest purveyors of it to account. But he understood just violence if unavoidable. Further he, and Alice Paul and Gandhi all knew well that non-violence was also a purposeful strategic provocation of violence as needed to achieve justice. It was all the unjust and unnecessary violence that King railed against in his Riverside speech opposing the Vietnam War. Especially what it did to children.
Riverside 1967 was an anti-war speech for all times. About a war and a time that was tearing America apart as nothing had since the Civil War. But it was about something much bigger. It was about the future of humanity, if there was to be one. Which if there was to be, must be free of racism and greed and exploitation and poverty and hunger–must mean equality for all. He had preached this for a long time. He had praised the democratic Scandinavian models for instance that provided all basic needs for all people. But he was going further now. Going global. A different globalism than the one he condemned that was in place even then.
Many have commented on the speech and its majesty. And on the hypocrisy of drowning out the real King and his increasingly angry and radical message, a further evolution of his showing the fullness of what love and justice really mean–as all truth-tellers like him have done. Many have called out the co-opting of the King brand to avoid the real message on the holiday. Of trying to focus on the dream speech (also avoiding its ultimate radical message) as a feel-good drug to misdirect from the very principles in the speeches. Because that would mean changing everything. Starting with our own lives.”
We went on to post the article on the 50th anniversary of the speech, by Benjamin Hedin, in The New Yorker: “Martin Luther King Jr’s Searing Anti-War Speech, Fifty Years Later”. As we said then; “There are no adequate superlatives of necessity to read it, again and again..”
Today, in The Guardian in London, Gary Younge writes the following in an indispensable article, “Martin Luther King: how a rebel leader was lost to history”:
On 15 January 1998, what would have been Martin Luther King’s 69th birthday, James Farmer was awarded the presidential medal of freedom in the White House’s East Room. “He has never sought the limelight,” said the then president, Bill Clinton. “And until today, I frankly think he’s never got the credit he deserves. His long overdue recognition has come to pass.”
Farmer, who ran the Congress of Racial Equality and led the Freedom Rides through the segregated south in 1961, was by that time blind, diabetic and a double amputee. He died the following year. When I spoke to him a few months after the ceremony, he said it was the best day of his life. “It was just like the old days. But this time, I felt like I was finally being vindicated; that the years of invisibility were over.”
And what, I asked, had rendered him invisible? Having a white wife, he said, had been an issue. But the main reason, he believed, was that the US had only enough room to remember one civil rights leader. “I was in the shadow of Martin Luther King,” he told me. “And that was quite a big shadow. It was King who made the ‘I have a dream’ speech. And King was assassinated – and that always enlarges a person’s image.”
In so doing they will wilfully and brazenly omit the fact that before his death in 1968, King was well on the way to becoming a pariah. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavourable opinion of him as a favourable one. Life magazine branded his anti-Vietnam war speech at the Riverside church, delivered exactly a year before his assassination, as “demagogic slander”, and “a script for Radio Hanoi”. Just a week before he was killed, he attended a demonstration in Memphis in support of striking garbage workers. The protest turned violent and police responded with batons and teargas, shooting a 16-year-old boy dead. The press and the political class rounded on King. The New York Times said the events were “a powerful embarrassment” to him. A column in the Dallas Morning News called King “the headline-hunting high priest of nonviolent violence” whose “road show” in Memphis was “like a torchbearer sprinting into a powder-house”. The Providence Sunday Journal called him “reckless and irresponsible”. He was back in Memphis supporting the strike when he was killed.
Half a century after King’s assassination, there is value in reflecting on that shadow. The angle at which King’s body of work caught the light after he was killed tells us a great deal about how a black radical preacher came to be so big and what else may be hidden in the darkness.
This week, the US will indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation, selectively misrepresenting King’s life and work, as if rebelling against the American establishment was, in fact, what the establishment has always encouraged. They will cite the “dream” speech as if it were his only one – and the line about wanting his children to be “judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character” as if it were the only line in it.
This was the last time King received national coverage when he was alive, and so he died a polarising and increasingly isolated figure. Just six days after his death, the Virginia congressman William Tuck blamed King for his own murder, telling the House of Representatives that King “fomented discord and strife between the races … He who sows the seed of sin shall reap and harvest a whirlwind of evil.”
But in the intervening decades, the mud slung at him has been cleaned off and his legacy shined to make him resemble a national treasure. In the two years before his death, he did not appear in the Top 10 of Gallup’s poll of most admired men of the year. In 1999, a Gallup poll of the most admired people of the century placed him second behind Mother Teresa. In 2011, King’s memorial was opened on the National Mall in Washington DC, with a 30ft statue sitting on four acres of prime historic real estate: 91% of Americans (including 89% of white people) approved. Even Donald Trump has thus far refrained from besmirching his legacy, hailing just a few months ago King’s “legacy of equality, justice and freedom”.
The process by which King went from ignominy to icon was not simply a matter of time and tide eroding ill feelings and painful memories. “History” does not objectively sift through radical leaders, pick out the best on their merits and then dedicate them faithfully to public memory. It commits itself to the task with great prejudice and fickle appreciation in a manner that tells us as much about historians and their times as the leaders themselves.
“The facts of history never come to us pure,” wrote EH Carr in his seminal essay The Historian and His Facts. “Since they do not and cannot exist in pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder … History means interpretation … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all.”
Today’s understanding of King is the result of a protracted struggle and strategic reckoning involving an ongoing national negotiation about how to understand the country’s racial narrative. White America did not make the journey towards formal equality willingly. A month before the March on Washington in 1963, 54% of white Americans thought the Kennedy administration “was pushing racial integration too fast”. A few months later, 59% of northern white Americans and 78% of southern white Americans disapproved “of actions Negroes have taken to obtain civil rights”. That same year, 78% of white southern parents and 33% of white northern parents objected to sending their children to a school in which half the students were black. According to Gallup, it was not until 1995 that a majority of white US citizens approved of marriage between black and white people.
To discount King would be to dismiss the most prominent and popular proponent of civil rights. That in turn would demand some other explanation as to how the US shed the stigma of segregation and imagined itself as a modern, nonracial democracy. For while the means by which codified segregation came to an end – mass marches, civil disobedience, grassroots activism – was not consensual, the country did reach a consensus that it had to end. But there was no plausible account for how they travelled from Rosa Parks to Barack Obama that does not have King front and centre, even if the gap between black and white unemployment is roughly the same now as it was in 1963, southern schools are resegregating and the wealth gap is widening.
So, white America came to embrace King in the same way that white South Africans came to embrace Nelson Mandela: grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace or guile. Because, by the time they realised their hatred of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which loving him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice.
“Our country has chosen the easier way to work with King,” the late Vincent Harding, who wrote a draft of King’s Riverside speech, told me. “They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him and he was connected to it.”
It has not been a straightforward journey for black America either. King was always popular with black Americans, though not always with black political leaders – younger activists mockingly referred to him as “de lawd” because he was so grand, while his contemporaries criticised him for parachuting in on conflicts to great media attention. But the victories for civil rights soon came up against the legacy of several centuries of oppression and the realities of capitalism. In short, what does racial equality look like in a country where economic inequality is deeply ingrained into the system – what is the value of being able to eat in a restaurant of your choice if you can’t afford what’s on the menu?
At a meeting in Chicago in 1965, King was shaken after he was booed by young black men in the crowd: “I went home that night with an ugly feeling, selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last 12 years,” he recalled. “Why should they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young men. For 12 years, I and others like me have held out radiant promises of progress, I had preached to them about my dream … I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”
So the King America has chosen to remember stands at Lincoln’s feet talking of a dream “deeply rooted in the American dream”. But by the long, hot summer of 1967, which saw riots in Newark, Cincinnati and Buffalo, and tanks rolling down the streets of Detroit, King had, in the midst of the cold war, moved on to questioning capitalism. “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society,” he said in August 1967. “There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy … when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question: ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question: ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question: ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’”
In 2002, when I first interviewed the late poet and author, Maya Angelou, about a volume of her memoir which covered the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, I asked what she thought they would be focusing on had they lived. My normally loquacious interviewee sat silent before shaking her head and releasing a long, helpless breath. “I can’t,” she said. “I can’t. So many things have happened since they were both assassinated. The world has changed so dramatically.”
Reputations forged in revolutionary periods can rarely be sustained through calmer times. In moments of social turmoil and sharpened conflict, the stage yields to the declarative, decisive, emphatic and bold; to those who can rally their own side and face down their tormentors. Revolutionary moments favour not just the single-minded but the reckless, which, in King’s case, meant a man who was prepared to wear his funeral clothes to work.
I once asked Jack O’Dell, one of King’s long-term aides, why King had delivered his speech about Vietnam when he knew it would ruin his relationship with the White House and cost the movement a lot of support and funds. “He had the Nobel prize,” said O’Dell, “and he didn’t know how long he was going to live. He wasn’t but 39, but he wasn’t going to live much longer, and that meant he didn’t have but maybe a few more speeches to give. So he had to say what he was going to say.”
But once the conditions that make those periods possible evolve, so do the leadership skills necessary for the new moment. Those who are most effective at the barricades aren’t necessarily best equipped for the boardroom, which is why the transition from guerilla to government is so fraught for so many movements. That evolution never stops.
So Jesse Jackson, who was with King in Memphis the day he died, reinvented himself as an electoral contender during the 80s, channelling the spirit of the civil rights movement into a broad-based coalition embracing unions, feminists, gay rights activists and environmentalists that posed a challenge to the Democratic party. But, 20 years later, he was heckled by black protesters against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. In her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, one of the Black Lives Matter founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, berates those “black pastors and then the first black president [who] preached [about personal responsibility] more than they preached a commitment to collective responsibility”.
And many turn the pages of history quicker than they can read, let alone understand them. John Lewis, the sole living speaker from the March on Washington in 1963, questioned Trump’s legitimacy given the alleged involvement of Russia in the election. Lewis, who was bludgeoned by bigots in Birmingham, Alabama in 1961 and by police in Selma in 1965, was criticised by Trump on Twitter in January last year for being “all talk, talk, talk – no action, no results”.
So in life, King’s one-time contemporaries struggle, as he did, with a white America that is dismissive and a black America that demands more than their movements can deliver. In death, the struggle is to ensure that King’s legacy isn’t eviscerated of all militancy so that it can be repurposed as one more illustration of the American establishment’s God-given ability to produce the antidote to it’s own poison.
[We take a brief interlude here from Younge’s piece today to an excerpt from our own post on the above on 2.10.2018:
“The Super Bowl itself is an archetypal modern example of the gladiatorial using and destroying of humans by humans for mass human entertainment from projected individual and tribal aggression to extraordinary performance to emotional manipulation (well, then there’s the Olympics–sexually abusing and in every other way using and abusing children and adults in service of the same, as we, Bryant Gumbel on “Real Sports” and many others have been expressing for some time–but at least this year the peace fakery may possibly have some real impact). In a hopeful sign, the pro-football audience is waning (although still huge) and parents increasingly refuse to send their boys to the slaughter of the farm leagues. Boys who are abused physically and psychologically by the process and are taught violence and power are a requirement of self-worth (the whole culture teaches these things), while girls are taught to enable this and seek power by being sex objects on the sidelines (the culture teaches this too, and that women seeking power should emulate the above, exemplified by adult women increasingly screaming for blood on the field as loudly as anyone).
So, what follows is a Rorschach test of your basic sense of awareness and conscience. And a wakeup call of a scream through the ages.
One of the hallmarks of the Super Bowl is that it’s also the Super Bowl of advertising–that medium generally used to feed every most base impulse we have to consume.
So, we’re watching, live, as monitoring media and culture is a critical part of our work, which public service advertising has also been a critical part of.
The image is of a Dodge Ram truck. The voiceover sounds so familiar. But its instantly brain-exploding and you don’t at first know why.
NO! That is NOT the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.!
NO! that is NOT his famous “The Drum Major Instinct” speech of exactly 50 years before to the day!
NOT at the start of this 50th anniversary year of that year of years in the US and around the world–Vietnam (this is the 50th anniversary of the second week of the Tet Offensive) and Civil Rights and King and Kennedy and on and on–1968.”
We then referred to, among other commentaries, Younge’s excellent article then, “Big business is hijacking our radical past. We must stop it”. Now back to today’s commentary.]:
The insult to King’s memory could not have been more absolute. In another part of the sermon Ram used, King literally tells the congregation not to be fooled into spending more money than necessary on cars by sharp advertisers. “These gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion,” he says, “have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying … In order to make your neighbours envious, you must drive this type of car … And before you know it you’re just buying that stuff.” In a week that will see almost every stratum of American society – the society that voted for Trump – mourn King’s passing and hail his contributions, this may well be the most important message of all.
This article includes material excerpted from Gary Younge’s book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream
Linked are many other articles, such as Michael K Honey’s, “Martin Luther King’s forgotten legacy? His fight for economic justice”:
“King early on described himself as a “profound advocate of the social gospel” who decried a capitalist system that put profits and property rights ahead of basic human rights. Beyond his dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income.”
And Cornel West’s, “Martin Luther King Jr was a radical. We must not sterilize his legacy”:
“The major threat of Martin Luther King Jr to us is a spiritual and moral one. King’s courageous and compassionate example shatters the dominant neoliberal soul-craft of smartness, money and bombs. His grand fight against poverty, militarism, materialism and racism undercuts the superficial lip service and pretentious posturing of so-called progressives as well as the candid contempt and proud prejudices of genuine reactionaries. King was neither perfect nor pure in his prophetic witness – but he was the real thing in sharp contrast to the market-driven semblances and simulacra of our day.”
And video of King’s last public appearance the night before he died, the last part of his last speech that displays a kind of proof of God–in the sense that believers to atheists alike can understand. A sick man rousted from his bed to speak to those who waited to hear him–and whose body, heart and mind converge in all the power a human can muster to evoke or create the eternal: ” ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’: an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s final speech”.
There are no more words after seeing this, fifty years ago last night. The last night Martin Luther King, Jr. was on this earth with us.
. . .
Tomorrow, June 4, is the 50thanniversary of the day Robert Kennedy won the California primary in the 1968 presidential campaign and was most likely headed for the White House.
The real-politic reasons given for why he may not have, (meaning may not have been nominated, it is clear he would have won against Richard Nixon or anyone in the general election), were not themselves realistic in the real-politic context of 1968. The voter support across the spectrum for Kennedy was unequaled, and the Democratic Party machine aspect of the system was one Kennedy was deeply connected with since he successfully ran his brother’s campaign in 1960. It was the entry of Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 campaign against President Johnson that forced LBJ out of the race in only two weeks. This is unprecedented in US history. Bobby was a force of nature, with a 1968 hurricane at his back. Try to imagine stopping that–now you really would have had a revolution. Political machines are made of people who want to win. Even an unpopular Vice-President Humphrey came within an inch of beating Nixon. Kennedy had proven he had the winning coalition over Nixon, Wallace and whoever. See The Bobby Kennedy Pathway. A factually irrefutable (therefore all the more painful) revisiting of what could have been–and potential pathway for the future. But more on all that another time.
Robert Kennedy was the last best hope of the nation that Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”
He was shot just after midnight on June 5, after delivering his victory speech in Los Angeles. He hung on, and the hopes of the nation and the world in many ways hung on, for another excruciating 24 hours. He died early on June 6.
There are no words, perhaps more than ever there are no words, for what this did to the US, to the world and to history. The consequences since have been and are clear, in the US and around the world. We will pursue this further in future posts.
One of the principals of Planet Earth Foundation and World Campaign, a coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Area Students for Kennedy, had just arrived back home in Seattle.
The journey covered in the time from leaving for college in San Francisco at the end of the summer of love in 1967 to returning in 1968 was not one that could be measured in time. The oldest child, who turned 19 on the same day Bobby announced he was running for president (and promptly headed for Market Street Kennedy headquarters to volunteer, subsequently coordinating Kennedy’s speech at the University of San Francisco and accompanying him on stage), returning to a well-heeled right-wing Republican household at that point that did not recognize him in many ways. It was a journey that many of this generation took that year. The required short-haired straight-laced look was gone. Far more important was a radical change in consciousness in becoming a political activist who would soon refuse military induction as a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War, a nearly certain fast-track to a long prison sentence then (a story told before and which will be revisited in more detail in the future.) He took to heart Kennedy’s rejection of a system that allowed affluent students to escape the draft and his time-honored conviction that if conscience required refusal the consequence should be accepted. Perhaps the moniker given him by his fellow students and campaign workers, which the salutations in all the yearbook comments started with—“LSB” or “Little Soul Brother”—his given name forgotten, described most simply, and truly, the measure of the spiritual, social, political and personal transformation. The affluent white boy was now a cultural hybrid, part of the counter-cultural change of the times.
He arrived back at the time of his parents’ 20th wedding anniversary. The writers of this post walked recently on the evening of their 70th in the park next to the place their wedding reception was held, looking across Lake Union at the orange pink hues of the last of sunset against the backdrop of the Aurora Bridge and the majestic Olympic Mountains on the coast. We pondered how during the time since those early post-war years and the start of the boomer generation, the US and the world have gone through unimaginable changes, for better and for worse. And that the return home fifty years ago on the eve of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was the beginning of an inter-generational journey that would reveal challenges for the next fifty years unimagined then. Again, a journey taken by many.
On the night of June 4, in front of the TV in the den of the family home, late, everyone asleep, crying with unsurpassed joy. Bobby Kennedy was going to be president. All would be well.
Then as the date turned to June 5, as the coverage had just ended, suddenly, back on the air.
Robert Kennedy has been shot.
“Jesus Christ!”–a primal scream. It woke his father who joined him. A start of a long night’s journey into day, and long day’s journey into night, political, personal, darkness, to light, darkness, to light, darkness, to …
The future is with the children, always. Which begins with how they are treated. That mantra will be revisited and expanded on always, of course.
But as the children are becoming and become young adults, they become referred to as youth. And 1968 was a youth-led revolution world-wide.
No one understood this better than Bobby Kennedy.
The phenomena of 1968 had two basic strands, the lines from which can be drawn from then to subsequent events to this moment.
One was signified by the end of the summer of love which devolved into drug addiction and child abuse. Or in May of ’68 in Paris in which some intellectuals on a pedestal could become a small cohort advocating for legal child sex abuse, the ultimate expression of liberation as insanity, who abused children, were sometimes punished, but only later, and more and more today, are being exposed for the disgrace to the human race they were. As we have swung to the other end of the political pendulum today, it is again, gratefully, this same issue that has proven to be the ultimate boundary that holds (Alabama, December 12, 2017, for example), and indeed the global movement in every quarter to end this abuse has increasingly been at the center of seeing children’s nurturing and protection as the core issue in human advancement and sustainability. The above of course are the worst examples, which most adults don’t do and would fight to stop. But a cohort of destructive impulses that have afflicted US and global culture and most adults in other ways–narcissism, consumerism, addiction of every kind, greed, nihilism and focus on whatever makes “me” feel good at the moment regardless of consequence—the larger consequence being the lack of basic needs and rights for so many—have been passed on at new levels of generational lows since 1968.
Conversely, the positive strand of 1968 was and is the activism ever since for social justice, the unselfish, sacrificing, caring for others, striving to create a better world through the efforts to end racism, sexism, homophobia, unjust war, environmental destruction and the class divide, all of which gets better, then worse, then better, then worse, which has been the haunting of humanity and the clarion call for change through history. In the US, young people and students were in the forefront of giving their lives in the civil rights movement and leading the anti-war movement. Around the world in 1968, students and others gave their lives in places ranging from Czechoslovakia to Mexico for basic human rights. The moment of 1968 was in many ways the moment in which the division and rupture could have been part of a great breakthrough in the US, which was by far the richest and most powerful nation on earth, that had an underlying social cohesiveness and prosperity that made that breakthrough out of the unfinished business of inequality more possible. Which by definition would have changed the world. Unless the leaders most willing and able to lead to this next step were all killed.
Progress through the momentum was still made for a while in various ways, still made until today. But not the same as what could have been. Much less what has been lost. And in some ways the uniquely dangerous place we are today in the political and social landscape. And what we face as a species and on this planet in so many ways now that has and will, at best, make the unnecessary pain and risk to life on earth so much worse before we get, hopefully still, to that newer world.
We have arrived at a point where, among other things, last Friday the unemployment rate in the US came in at the lowest since before the 2008 financial crisis–in fact it’s only been this low twice in the last 50 years, in 2000 and–in 1968. But we’re not talking about jobs now that provide at least a middle-class standard of living and security for the vast majority of people. In fact, as a study released by United Way showed the day before the jobs report, nearly half of US families can’t afford basics like rent and food. The global inequality of how many people or companies control how much wealth compared to the rest of the people of the world is unsurpassed in known history. And all the ills and perils that flow from this.
So back to Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president, and its end, in 1968, and the events leading up to it.
It is impossible to explain how Martin Luther King, Jr., could have given what many consider his most powerful speech at Riverside Church exactly one year to the day before he was killed.
And it is impossible to explain how Bobby Kennedy could have given what many consider his most powerful speech at the University of Cape Town exactly two years to the day before he died.
Except that bigger things are at play, however you choose to explain them.
Bobby Kennedy at Cape Town on June 6, 1966 was a revelation. He gave a speech to the world that is still a laser of truth straight to our hearts and minds today. More than ever.
First, to understand that Bobby Kennedy was in a singular league of political celebrity and esteem in the world at that point is critical to understanding what he offered.
First, yes, JFK appointing his brother Attorney General was as nepotism as nepotism can be–utterly brilliant nepotism. JFK needed Bobby and the world may not have survived without this duo, and certainly became a vastly better place, with the two working hand in hand.
Bobby was the virtual co-president with and heir apparent to his slain brother, President John F. Kennedy. JFK, after early mistakes (and some ongoing), was for good reason (avoiding nuclear war, the nuclear test ban treaty, increased hunger programs in the US and internationally, addressing the nation on and enforcing civil rights, civil rights bills and the origins of the war on poverty started by him and passed after his death) by the time he was assassinated in 1963 (and especially after), the most popular and revered person on the planet. Everywhere on earth, from palaces to shacks, especially among the huge majority of the population that was poor and powerless, his picture was on the wall. His policies were at least as much to the credit of Bobby. As Attorney General, he coordinated threatening the segregationist south with federal troops for only the second time since the end of reconstruction in 1877 (he and JFK ended up doing so twice, in Mississippi in 1962 and Alabama in 1963, after President Eisenhower had first done so in Arkansas 1957) to enforce the constitution in court-ordered integration of schools. Among other small matters, his secret meeting with the Soviet ambassador at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis saved the world from nuclear annihilation.
Bobby was the next great hope. At the Democratic Convention in 1964 where JFK would have been re-nominated by acclaim for a certain second term, it was Bobby standing in his place as the convention came unhinged and could not be stopped by the standing and cheering and crying that went on seemingly forever. Not even Bobby could stop them, so he could begin his speech. Participants observed that there was a chance, had Bobby chosen to make himself available for nomination, the convention would have stampeded to him (although politically and personally, Bobby never would have considered it at that point), even after LBJ had passed him by days earlier for the vice-president spot. Unsurprisingly, given that Kennedy never wanted JFK to have LBJ as vice-president. And it was in part his fear that his entry into the 1968 campaign would be seen as a personal issue that delayed his entry in 1968, as he and LBJ had no fondness for one another, exacerbated by RFK supporting the Great Society programs and civil rights legislation started by his brother, but opposing the war that was tearing the country apart. One of Bobby’s most impressive traits was to admit mistakes and change. He and his brother had supported the war, and they were wrong, he said. The tragedy of LBJ was that his domestic programs could have made him one of the great presidents, but for the massive escalation of the war–a but for of historic consequence.
But all this was a future unforeseen in 1964. An unelected LBJ president for only months needed to legitimize himself in the election. With the platform of carrying on the martyred JFK’s programs against a right-wing extremist, he was in good shape. It was Bobby, still Attorney General, who many would have preferred in The White House he feared more.
So, at the convention in 1964–the JFK turned LBJ convention by a bullet–the real presence awaited was Robert Kennedy, coming to honor his brother in a special presentation.
As it was, we have on film for all time, the most raw, sensitive, broken hearted young man appearing to gaze at the stars himself, with more than misty eyes, as he concludes about his brother:
“When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet. ‘When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars. And He shall make the face of Heaven so fine, that the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
He left the stage and reportedly headed outside the convention hall to cry, alone. The whole world cried with him.
Two years later he was president-in-waiting. It was assumed he would succeed LBJ in 1972. He would only have been 47 years old. When he was running JFK’s campaign, he was 34. Attorney General at 35. US senator at 38.
In Cape Town on June 6, 1966, he was 40 years old.
He was the only person in the world of his stature, indeed because his stature was quite literally unique, who the apartheid government could not refuse entry to give what they knew at its heart would be a speech against all they stood for.
Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the speech, Public Radio International described it in “RFK’s ‘Ripple of Hope’ speech still touches the world, 50 years later”:
“Today marks the 50th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s ‘Ripple of Hope’ speech. Delivered at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966, during the height of apartheid; most believe RFK’s ‘Ripple of Hope’ address was the greatest speech of his life.
The fact that the trip to South Africa even took place could be considered a minor miracle. The senator’s invitation to speak came from South Africa’s Union of Students. The architect of apartheid — Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd — was the nation’s prime minister, and Nelson Mandela remained in prison on Robben Island. The South African authorities made it clear they would not offer Senator Kennedy any security, many State Department officials were convinced his trip was ill-conceived and doomed to fail.
In his speech, Robert Kennedy spoke for those who were not free to speak. His gave hope to anti-apartheid student activists who had felt alone in their quest for racial equality, and he showed them how their efforts were connected to other civil rights movements underway around the world.
A snippet of his speech gives an idea of its uplift: ‘It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’
Another segment: ‘We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.’
Margaret Marshall, then an anti-apartheid student activist and later to become the chief justice of the top court in Massachusetts, was in the audience that day.
“It made such an impact on me,” Marshall recalls. “I know it made an impact on others and I have essentially carried that message for the rest of my life — if we each just do one small thing when we are faced with evil or oppression or discrimination or inequality. You don’t have to assume that you will be able to change the entire world. It was remarkable, it was breathtaking.”
The message Kennedy sent then remains relevant today.”
Here’s a longer segment from the speech:
“In a few hours, the plane that brought me to this country crossed over oceans and countries which have been a crucible of human history. In minutes we traced the migration of men over thousands of years; seconds, the briefest glimpse, and we passed battlefields on which millions of men once struggled and died. We could see no national boundaries, no vast gulfs or high walls dividing people from people; only nature and the works of man-homes and factories and farms-everywhere reflecting man’s common effort to enrich his life. Everywhere new technology and communications bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of difference which is at the root of injustice and hate and war. Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ended at river shore, his common humanity enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin. It is your job, the task of the young people of this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.
Each nation has different obstacles and different goals, shaped by the vagaries of history and of experience. Yet as I talk to young people around the world I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future. There is discrimination in New York, the racial inequality of apartheid in South Africa, and serfdom in the mountains of Peru. People starve in the streets of India, a former Prime Minister is summarily executed in the Congo, intellectuals go to jail in Russia, and thousands are slaughtered in Indonesia; wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere in the world. These are differing evils; but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfections of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, the defectiveness of our sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows; they mark the limit of our ability to use knowledge for the well-being of our fellow human beings throughout the world. And therefore, they call upon common qualities of conscience and indignation, a shared determination to wipe away the unnecessary sufferings of our fellow human beings at home and around the world.
It is these qualities which make of youth today the only true international community. More than this I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build. It would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress-not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would be proud to have built.
Just to the north of here are lands of challenge and opportunity-rich in natural resources, land and minerals and people. Yet they are also lands confronted by the greatest odds-overwhelming ignorance, internal tensions and strife, and great obstacles of climate and geography. Many of these nations, as colonies, were oppressed and exploited. Yet they have not estranged themselves from the broad traditions of the West; they are hoping and gambling their progress and stability on the chance that we will meet our responsibilities to help them overcome their poverty. …
If we would lead outside our borders, if we would help those who need our assistance, if we would meet our responsibilities to mankind, we must first, all of us, demolish the borders which history has erected between men within our own nations-barriers of race and religion, social class and ignorance.
Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.
This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in, and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia, in Europe and in the United States, it is young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.
“There is,” said an Italian philosopher, “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation, and the road is strewn with many dangers.
First, is the danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills-against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s greatest movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.
“Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in isolated villages and city slums in dozens of countries. Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Twenty two years later, as noted before, when one of the writers of this post was coordinating the Campaign To End Hunger in Seattle, another was in Cape Town meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the 22nd anniversary of RFK’s speech approached. Mandela was still in prison. But the ripples were about to sweep down the walls of oppression.
Kennedy was a person of his times and ahead of his times. He would soon be seen at Native American reservations talking about the plight of indigenous peoples who had been all but destroyed by the very “discovery” he noted as an example in his 1966 speech. The most anti-political act imaginable at the time. Changing and growing at a speed matching the speed the times did—and do—call for. The classic sexism in his language, the lack of reference to LGBT issues or any lack of inclusiveness at the moment, would have been gone in another instant.
By the time he announced he was running, in 1968, he embodied the winds of change. The writer here who worked on his campaign recalls arguments with fellow students who supported Eugene McCarthy, who had been first to run as the anti-war candidate. The response then and now was that someone whose universe appeared restricted to affluent whites and who was wryly poetic was not what the times called for. He couldn’t win. Bobby could have and would have. He was ruthless, the rap went. In being staff for a few months for Joe McCarthy in his twenties, pressured by his father, in a context of opposing Stalinist communism, then switching after being disgusted by McCarthy’s tactics, to being counsel for the Democratic committee writing the report that led to McCarthy’s destruction, yes. In being a political pro who got his brother elected president in the most high-stakes context there was and is, yes. In wiretapping Martin Luther King attempting to protect both his brother and King under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover, yes. In going after organized crime with a vengeance, yes. In protecting and then increasingly reading the riot-act to his brother for his at best sexually addictive behavior, yes. In protecting black students as part of taking down American apartheid in the south, yes. Good, in addition to being the most popular man on the planet in many ways, who was changing with transparency faster than could be adequately described, who was inspiring needed change everywhere, who was the epitome of the best aspects of a bleeding heart liberal increasingly, who like FDR, was a traitor to his class turned tribune of the underclass, he knew how to play hardball when needed to get things done.
Like FDR, he was pragmatic idealist, not an ideologue. Bobby wasn’t an orthodox liberal in some ways, and some of his ideas may well not have worked. Like FDR, he would have tried whatever did work–moving fast to meet the basic needs and rights of people and the nation and the world, creating real equality, in keeping with the authenticity of who he was.
Here is the post from World Campaign ten years ago, on the 40thanniversary of Kennedy’s speech at the University of San Francisco during the 1968 campaign shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 19, 2008:
“Forty years ago today, on April 19, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, spoke at the University of San Francisco, two weeks after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. The speech was coordinated at USF by Keith Blume, co-founder of World Campaign. The speech was billed as a major address on poverty, minorities and economic opportunity. Kennedy was interrupted by a handful of anti-war demonstrators who wanted immediate unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy said he disagreed. He strongly supported ending the war, but in a way that met social needs at the root of the war, such a land reform, and that brought all parties to the table for negotiations. The vast majority of the overflow crowd at USF agreed with Kennedy, and when he asked if anyone wanted to hear the speech he came to give, the overwhelming response was yes. In his prepared remarks released just before the event, Kennedy said that violence in America in response to racial and economic injustice was not the answer. This would bring ‘death, not life’, Kennedy said. ‘So it has already proven across the face of America. It must and will be met with the full force of the law. But that is just the beginning, for grievance and despair cannot be banished or suppressed by force. Rather, our first task is to build a community of purpose. Now ask if there is work to be done; for the answer is that the inventory is infinite. We need new housing and new schools, new public facilities and public services…we must ensure that these projects provide jobs for all, especially the residents of the poverty areas in which they are to be undertaken.’ Kennedy concluded by saying that when all Americans regardless of identity or background could say, ‘I share in a great creative enterprise in the life of this nation, then America’s promise of equality will be truly fulfilled’.”
One of the best pieces written about Bobby recently was by Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic four weeks ago: “What If Robert F. Kennedy Had Become President?”
The most important thing about the article is that Gilbert wrote it. She’s a millennial woman, London-born, DC-based journalist, a highly intelligent and perceptive observer of culture and politics in her articles in The Atlantic (agree with her or not—we usually do), a feminist, of a generation far removed from 1968 and Bobby Kennedy.
Her article focuses on the new Netflix documentary series on Kennedy. Here’s some excerpts:
“The most surprising thing about Bobby Kennedy for President, a new four-part documentary that debuted Friday on Netflix, is how every frame of archival footage of Robert Kennedy seems to feature a hundred people trying to touch him. As he tours different neighborhoods in New York, a sea of hands reaches out to make contact. During one drive through a campaign stop, a newscast reports, ‘he was touched, trapped, and at one point torn from his car.’ …
It’s an odd, Beatlemania-esque phenomenon to be sparked by someone who in interviews is more awkward, stilted, and even nasal than you might imagine. But that strangeness is unpacked by the filmmaker Dawn Porter in Bobby Kennedy for President, which sells itself as a docuseries about Kennedy’s 1968 campaign but is really about his significance within politics. Kennedy, through Porter’s interviews and wealth of archival footage, comes across as both mesmerizing and clunky. He’s ferociously ambitious but deeply empathetic. He’s the runt of his dazzling family, but also someone predestined for greatness: In a voiceover from the very first scene a broadcaster states that “no American in this century has ever been so likely to be president as Robert Francis Kennedy.” The question you’re constantly mulling while watching is how different America might be if his supposed destiny had been allowed to play out.
Porter interviews former Kennedy aides and activists in his orbit, who recall his trips to rural communities assailed by poverty. Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, describes initially thinking that Kennedy was only making these visits to get some positive press coverage. But she was startled by his focus. “Robert Kennedy was not who I thought he would be,” Edelman says. “He was listening, and he was learning.”
What’s apparent throughout the film is how many of the problems Kennedy spoke up about during the 1960s continue to divide America today. In 1968, the year of Kennedy’s presidential run and assassination, the country seemed riven by violence. January saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and subsequent protests raging at home. At the end of that month, the journalist Pete Hamill wrote a letter to Kennedy imploring him to run for president, which Hamill reads from in the series. “I don’t think we can afford five summers of blood,” Hamill had written. “If you won, the country might be saved.” In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Porter includes archival footage of Kennedy breaking the news to a largely black crowd in Indiana, and quoting Aeschylus. What the country needs most now, he tells them, isn’t more division and hatred, but “love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.” …
The best moments in the film are the handful of scenes that offer some impression of Kennedy as a person rather than as a figurehead, or a scion. In one, he puts his young daughter on the phone with the deputy attorney general during a call about desegregation in Alabama. In another, he defends the reputation of his family dog, Freckles, whose name has been unexpectedly besmirched by one of Kennedy’s rivals. On his first day in the Senate in 1965, Kennedy spies his brother Ted and grins broadly, practically skipping over to say hello.
The most indelible minute of Bobby Kennedy for President, though, doesn’t feature Kennedy at all. Instead it’s when Lewis [U.S. Rep. John Lewis], the civil-rights icon who once served as a campaign aide for Kennedy, breaks down while describing the pain of losing his friend. “I think I cried all the way from … L.A. to Atlanta,” Lewis says, pausing to regain control. “I kept saying to myself, what is happening in America? To lose Martin Luther King, and two months later … it was too much.” If Kennedy remains at something of a distance in the film, his influence on others is impossible to ignore. The final line in the series is Kennedy quoting Tennyson. “Come my friends,” he intones. “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
It’s noteworthy that an African American woman made this film. Dawn Porter was only two when Kennedy died. She became more and more connected to the importance of Kennedy in her community, and to history, as she got older. Half the people alive today were born after that time, she’s noted. Her film is an effort at bringing that time back to life for those who weren’t there. She succeeds marvelously in doing so. Just the graphics and music in the opening alone are a work of art that take you to the heart of the man and the times. You have to see the scenes with thousands of people grabbing at Kennedy. Everywhere he went, endless seas of people, white, black, brown, all reaching for him.
Two days ago, Maggie Astor wrote in The New York Times, “How Robert Kennedy’s Assassination Changed American Politics”:
“Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president in the grand Senate Caucus Room on March 16, 1968, declaring that the United States, mired in war and riven by racism, ought to “stand for hope instead of despair.”
Eighty-one days later, he celebrated victory in California’s Democratic primary with an ebullient speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and walked off the stage into a pantry, where he was assassinated in front of news cameras and screaming supporters.
In a year that seemed determined to shake Americans’ confidence in the foundations of their society, Kennedy’s death at 1:44 a.m. Pacific time on June 6, 25 hours after he was shot, was one of the biggest inflection points. Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets not only demolished the hope for a savior candidate who would unite a party so fractured that its incumbent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to seek re-election. Coming just two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they also fueled a general sense — not entirely unfamiliar today — that the nation had gone mad; that the normal rules and constants of politics could no longer be counted on.
Fifty years is ample time for romanticized narratives to develop, and so they have. Kennedy’s rougher edges have often been sanded, and the volatility of the 1968 campaign has been glossed over, creating an alternative history in which electoral victory was inevitable and his promises certain to be kept, if only he had left the ballroom by a different door.
Certainly, there is no denying that history would have been different if Kennedy had survived to win in November, and especially if he had managed to fulfill a campaign pledge to quickly wind down the Vietnam War.
“If he gets to be president, then there’s no Nixon,” said Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school who worked as a legislative assistant to Kennedy. “I know this as much as anybody could know, because he was gone, but he had every intention of ending the war right away.”
“And of course then there’s no Watergate,” he added.
This is the rosiest version of what could have been: plausible, but unprovable. Perhaps the better question is not what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated — inherently speculative — but what did happen because he was.
His death had a powerful and immediate effect on the American political psyche, intensified by its proximity to King’s. Why, many people asked, should they continue to pursue change peacefully, through the ballot box and nonviolent protest, when two of the biggest evangelists of that approach had been gunned down?
Over the course of five years, starting with the killing of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, assassins had “robbed the country of three of its most prominent and promising leaders, leaders who represented change,” said Ross Baker, a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University. “I think the most immediate reaction was despair and a sense that perhaps the democratic experiment was in the process of failing.”
The despair was particularly acute among African-Americans, many of whom had put their faith in Kennedy after losing King.
“On the part of African-Americans, there was a sense that if any white politician was in their corner, it was Robert Kennedy,” Dr. Baker said.
In fact, in the hours after King’s assassination, it was Kennedy who broke the news to a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis and, speaking emotionally and without notes, had urged them not to turn to violence in response.
In the days that followed, riots erupted in Washington, in Chicago, in Detroit and Baltimore — but not in Indianapolis.
Nearly half a century later, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who marched with King and campaigned with Kennedy, sobbed in an interview for Dawn Porter’s documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President” as he recalled the loss that followed.
“I think I cried all the way from L.A. to Atlanta,” Mr. Lewis said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘What is happening in America?’ To lose Martin Luther King Jr. and two months later Bobby.” He apologized, burying his face in his hand. “It was too much.”
Spring turned to summer, and a seething nation boiled over. In July, the police and black snipers engaged in a firefight in Cleveland. In August, fearing unrest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the government deployed National Guard troops with license to “shoot to kill.”
As the party nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an emblem of the status quo, for president, chaos reigned outside the convention center. In the streets of Chicago, the police and National Guard battled protesters with tear gas and clubs.
Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America,” said a direct line could be drawn between Kennedy’s assassination and the social breakdown of August 1968. “What happened at the Democratic convention, which was terribly wounding for years to come — I can’t believe there would have been that kind of protest and that kind of violence if Kennedy had been the presumptive or actual nominee,” he said.
As one segment of a disillusioned populace turned to violence, another retreated from politics altogether.
Kennedy’s death “really did persuade many people to seek private solutions, to retreat, to achieve a kind of personal redemption, and that had a very, very long-lasting effect on American life,” Dr. Baker said, pointing to the Back to the Land movement and cult phenomena like Jonestown. “People just turned away from the public square and said that any kind of national reconciliation and progress was hopeless through the political process.”
Voter turnout in 1968 was only slightly lower than in previous elections: 60.7 percent of the voting-age population that year, compared with 61.4 percent in 1964 and 62.8 percent in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. But moving forward, it fell off a cliff, into the mid- and low 50s, and didn’t rebound for decades.
When Mr. Clarke was promoting his book in 2008, he said, he spoke with many readers who told him that Kennedy’s death “still haunted them.”
“I heard again and again that they felt the loss of Bobby Kennedy more keenly even than the loss of John F. Kennedy,” Mr. Clarke said. “That they felt the country would have been even more different had Robert Kennedy been president than if John F. Kennedy had lived.”
This morning, on one of the few remaining iconic television programs in America, Sunday Morning on CBS, the cover story was “Remembering 1968: Robert F. Kennedy and a generation’s loss”:
“The events of that one-of-a-kind year 1968 cast a shadow to this day, not least the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week. Our Cover Story is reported by Jim Axelrod:
When Robert F. Kennedy stepped from the stage at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, his walk through the kitchen moments later would become the violent bookend to one of the most turbulent stretches in American history.
Just three months earlier, Kennedy had announced he would take on the sitting president from his own party. “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulty of challenging an incumbent president, but these are not ordinary times,” he said.
A short while later, with anti-Viet Nam War sentiment spiking, President Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the race. And just four days after that, Kennedy announced to a shocked crowd in Indianapolis that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis.
Finally, a few minutes after midnight of June 5, 1968, America faced the murder of yet another Kennedy.
Journalist Pete Hamill, who helped subdue Robert Kennedy’s assassin, says the wound America suffered that night has yet to heal.
“It’s a story of what might have been,” he said. “Not about what happened, but what we lost when it happened.”
“What did we lose?” asked Axelrod.
“I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair.”
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, says her father gave people hope and lifted them up. She says people found that hope in the questions her father was asking: “We have this great wealth, $800 billion a year. We have all of this military power. And yet, how do we use it? What do we do with it?”
“‘How do we make moral choices? How do we help our fellow human being?’” Townsend said. “That is the most meaningful thing you can do.”
And it was their faith in the answers he offered that helped him build a coalition that’s implausible, if not impossible, to imagine today. “He could speak to white working class men and women because they trusted him that he would fight for them, and he also fought for African-Americans,” said Townsend. “If you talked to those who met him, you never sensed that he felt he was better than you. He was with you.”
The story of Bobby Kennedy, as his loyalists tell it, is a tale of transformation, from hard-charging law-and-order young attorney hunting Communists on Joe McCarthy’s staff in the early 1950s, to social justice warrior by the late sixties.
“He was not just a speaker; he would listen to what people were saying, after the great wound of his brother’s assassination,” said Hamill. “And he understood, I think, that part of him, although he came from the Irish, part of him was Jewish, part of him is Latino.
“For somebody that’s famous as he was, he was living his life, not performing it.”
A young senator from New York, he used his bold-faced name, fame and political capital to focus on the forgotten … as when, in April 1967, he visited Mississippi to see the rural side of poverty.
When asked how his trip to the Delta came about, Marian Wright Edelman laughed, “By a miracle.” Edelman, a young lawyer working with the poor in Mississippi, was right there with Kennedy, and knew his power with the people he was meeting.
“In most shacks, you would see Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy’s pictures,” she said.
But Edelman says she was not prepared to like him, because – as attorney general – Kennedy had authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
Still, there Kennedy was, in Mississippi, putting poverty on the map.
“He was just shocked” by what he saw, said Peter Edelman, a Kennedy aide, who would meet Marian on that trip, and later marry her. “You see children with swelling bellies, with running sores, and he said to me, ‘I’ve been in third- and fourth-world countries and I haven’t seen anything as terrible as this.’”
Marian said, “I watched him interact with children. And the thing that I grew to like most about him and to see that he was really absorbing it, was his touch. He would rub a child’s cheek, and that meant a lot me.”
[Full disclosure: As noted before, Lisa Blume, co-founder of World Campaign, co-principal of Planet Earth Foundation and executive producer of nationwide public service campaigns for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program as part of The Campaign To End Hunger, consulted with Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund years ago on issues of child welfare and rights. Peter Edelman, became president of the National Center for Youth Law, which joined the principals as an amicus curiae in a personal case on behalf of the best interest of sexually abused children heard by the Washington Supreme Court and won unanimously with the precedent-makng decision written by the chief justice.]
A little more than a year after that trip, Bobby Kennedy was gone.
Pete Hamill is still haunted. So taken by RFK’s potential, he had written him, begging him to get into the race, thinking Bobby Kennedy uniquely positioned to address the divisions in America:
“Dear Bob, I had wanted to write you a long letter… The fight that you might make would be the fight of honor,” he wrote. “If you won, the country might be saved.”
Kennedy would campaign with that letter in his jacket pocket.
Reading that letter now, Hamill says, “I regret the part I had in making, if I did, in making him make the choice [to run]. Because of a young dope with a pistol.”
“You do think about that part of it?” asked Axelrod.
“Did he ever express his own fear that he, too, might be assassinated?”
“You think it was in there, he just didn’t talk about it?”
“I think it was in there,” Hamill replied. “Because when I saw him that night, there was a kind of look on his face that was, I knew this was gonna happen.”
Decades later, “how” Bobby Kennedy died is still raising questions. Last week, two of his children called for a new investigation into whether there was a second gunman.
Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 am on June 6, 1968. He was 42 years old. But what’s being marked this week is the meaning of his life.
Fifty years ago Robert Kennedy was eulogized by his brother, Ted, who quoted a theme of RFK’s campaign: “Some men see things as they are and say, Why? I dream things that never were and say, Why not?”
A train carried his body from New York City to the nation’s capital. Crowds lined the train tracks, and waved, and cried.
“That train ride was supposed to be three hours, and instead it turned almost seven hours,” said Townsend. “Two million people came out. African Americans in Baltimore singing the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Nobody organized this; it was spontaneous.
“What did he have that touched so many people? His love, his courage, and his ability to relate.”
There are plenty of people in this country who find the story of the Kennedys an exercise in grand-scale mythmaking.
But this Sunday morning, there are many others marking, and mourning, the night half a century ago when what may have been the brightest spark of political hope in their lifetimes was extinguished.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said. “It’s hard to know exactly what heals. There’s pain that lasts for 50 years. It’s enormous sadness, enormous sense of loss. I’m not a believer that time heals all wounds, at all; I think the wounds stay for a long time.”
The writer here who had worked for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign struggled in a coma-like state to get to his job as a construction worker for the summer in the days following the assassination. The job was a characteristic favor exchanged by next door neighbors of the upper-class of the time, an upper-class very different, however, than the aristocracy that bestrides Seattle and the globe today. That’s an important follow-up to come, as promised.
Sitting astride a steel beam on the new building in Seattle that at the time was the tallest west of the Mississippi, in a scene reminiscent of the depression era photos of workers on such buildings in New York, the extraordinary view, available only during the time of this construction, seemed spiritually empty, a landscape of death.
The veteran workers—the classic image of the working class—who sat next to him, knew he had worked on Kennedy’s campaign. They would vote for Nixon, or Wallace, or Humphrey.
But they all said, to a man—“I would have voted for Bobby.”
The landscape grew brighter and more empty, simultaneously.
As Bobby’s daughter, Kathleen, said, some wounds may never heal.
But the lessons are the one thing that the universe requires.
To quote once again, Bobby Kennedy on the night Martin Luther King, Jr, was killed:
“My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus, and 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,
through the awful grace of God.”
Words for each and every one of us.
Avoiding necessary pain causes unnecessary pain. It can only be avoided so long. The only question is, what price are we willing to pay, and to make others pay?
Remembering Bobby Kennedy’s face when he touched a suffering child should answer that.
. . .
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, an NPR podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. She has an excellent, perceptive and important bookend piece on the comparison between 1968 and 2020, with numerous fascinating and instructive links:
Karen Grigsby Bates, Opinion, NPR
As the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis began to mount over the past several days, my inbox and Facebook page began to fill with observations from my contemporaries. Many of them said variations of the same thing:
This is just like 1968.
By that they meant the chaos, the feeling that society was on the edge of something important, but that we were going to have to go through some stuff before we got there. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in April and barely two months later, Robert Kennedy suffered the same fate while in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. The national political conventions that year saw street protests that look pretty familiar now. Especially at the Democratic convention, where police and protesters slugged it out in the streets. (Then, as now, the police were outnumbered, but they made up for that by being armed with batons, tear gas and, of course, guns.)
The miracle of modern television brought the convention carnage right into our living rooms. I saw CBS reporter Dan Rather get punched by convention security on-camera,as Walter Cronkite sputtered in disbelief.
Republican candidate Richard Nixon would take advantage of the upheaval to insist that his would be a law and order presidency. You want to protest in the streets? he asked (in so many words). Then you should be prepared to be physically disciplined and arrested. His Law and Order platform was an attractive message to many (mostly white) Americans, who elected him. Nixon, to me, felt like the authoritarian head of house who didn’t want his wife to wear pants, didn’t want his kids to talk back and expected dinner on the table — or at least a pre-prandial drink ready — when he walked through the door in the evening.
The kids didn’t listen, though. They were fed up with the Vietnam war, a years-long conflict that had become a meat grinder for poor kids and gave winking exemptions to rich and middle-class college students — including ones who would go on to lead the nation. They were outraged, too, that law and order was visited upon certain citizens, while other, paler ones got protected and served. So the disobedient youngsters stayed in the streets.
My own high school, in New Haven, CT, exploded in a race riot that became national news, and made us part of a Ford Foundation study on urban high schools in crisis.
Basically, 1968 felt like one long riot. I’d never seen anything like it — but I was only a high school junior. I didn’t have a lot to compare it to.
It was a year unlike any most of the adults in my life had seen, either — and they’d been through a Depression, two wars (WWII and Korea) and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare.
Having lived through 1968, watching as the mostly peaceful protests during the day gave way to violent fury at night, the current protest-riot cycle seemed familiar enough at first glance. Cops in riot gear, flaming storefronts, a confetti of broken glass on the sidewalks? Been there, done that.
But there are some critical differences this time around. Videos from cell phones — something most of us hadn’t even dreamed of in 1968; we were still dropping dimes into phones in booths! — document abuse of power. Those images zip around the world in seconds. And because these videos exist, it becomes much harder for the official version of clashes like the ones we saw over the weekend to become the only version. Now we have a virtual Rashomon of views to ponder: Whose truth? Which truth?
And in 1968, the American economy was still humming along. Most people had jobs, and some landmark civil rights legislation had been passed only a few years earlier. There was income inequality, but not on the staggering level we’re experiencing now. This time, thanks to COVID-19 and the economic collapse that has followed, a whole lot of people aren’t working. Many are sick, or have been sick, or expect to get sick. The U.S. has passed the sad milestone of more than 100,000 dead from the coronavirus.
And disproportionate numbers of black people have been stricken by the disease. The community’s mordant motto might be: “If the police don’t get you in these streets, that ‘rona might. Be safe y’all!”
If only we could obey. But it’s not that simple.
The fact that black people are coming out knowing the risk indicates how critical these protests are. (It will be weeks before we even know how big a risk folks were taking — how much they might suffer for having given up their isolation.)
Government is different this time around, too. In 1968 we had a president, Lyndon Johnson, whose competence wasn’t widely questioned, and a cabinet that seemed intent on making American society great. (This is not to say everyone approved of LBJ’s policies. Conservatives hated his Great Society initiatives; liberals hated his insistence on remaining in Vietnam. But few thought he lacked the intelligence to run the country.)
Today we have what’s more broadly thought of as a kakistocracy, where opportunists preside over the American decline while protecting their personal fortunes.
There was plenty of racial tension in 1968, but it was often couched in language more civil than the language we routinely hear from the current Commander-in-Chief. LBJ infamously used the N-word in private conversation — but he signed laws that enfranchised black Americans. Call us whatever, but let us vote. Now, we have a president who dismisses entire swaths of the African continent and the Caribbean as “shithole countries,” and wonders why we’d ever spend money on improving them. He wants his immigrants to come from Norway or France. He has done his best to dismantle the laws and protections that have made black Americans equal under law.
And the police this time around? They’ve gone from being police to being paramilitary machines, thanks to an infusion of money from the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of rolling around in cruisers, many ride in armored SUVs. The old department-issue handguns and shotguns have been augmented with assault rifles, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets and pepper balls. Not your grandfather’s riot gear. And according to a 2018 study, these things are employed with far more frequency in black and brown neighborhoods.
In 1968, in Connecticut where I grew up, and dozens of other states, the neighborhoods that went up in flames were largely black and often working class or poor. Watts. Harlem. DC’s 14th Street corridor. Chicago’s South Side. Tony neighborhoods were spared, even as pundits wondered, aloud and on the Op Ed pages, “Why would they burn down their own neighborhoods? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Indeed, this time around the program was changed up. The hoods remain intact, for the most part, but areas in a lot of cities that had never contemplated hood conditions have suddenly found themselves under siege. “Folks are looting in Santa Monica,” writer Lawrence Ross posted on Facebook. “Just amazed and fascinated at the strategic Gen Z-ness of this looting. It’s like they asked themselves, “Why ARE we looting and burning our own neighborhoods? Let’s go somewhere in YOUR hood. Thanks for the suggestion!” (It should be noted here that while much of the media has been intently focused on the looting that occurred in many cities, the majority of protesters were peaceful non-looters.)
And while the White House is ringed outside with National Guard protectors as inside the president tweet-rages, there is change, and maybe hope, lurking somewhere nearby. The officer who killed George Floyd has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The officers that watched and did not intervene have been charged with aiding and abetting him. Police departments around the nation have expressed their revulsion that Floyd’s death occurred at all — in stark contrast to reactions that have come after other, similar tragedies.
So if we look back at 1968, maybe there is a glimmer for now — a bright spot that doesn’t come from a burning building. From that one chaotic year, a new class of American leaders emerged: people like John Lewis, who was forged in the heat of the civil rights movement, and who would go on to forcefully advocate for civil rights as a member of Congress. John Kerry, who unlike many of his privileged peers, served in a war he would later declare unjust, and spent a lifetime in public service representing U.S. service men and women, working through diplomacy to avoid conflict when possible. Jesse Jackson, whose insistence that America remember equal justice had not been realized for all, and whose presidential candidacy mobilized millions of new voters. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose advocacy for poor children at the state and federal levels made children’s welfare more visible, and whose presidential candidacy may have inspired a new generation of girls to lead.
1968 was the catalyst for those things to happen. And perhaps that will happen again this time, after the ashes have cooled: new people with new visions who will step into the current leadership void.
. . .
The US story is at its roots a story of inequality. In this case with racism at the tip of the spear, but just as in sexism and other inequalities, class, which is to say the issues of economic equality, of the guarantee or lack of it of basic needs and a decent life, the inequality of haves and the have-nots, the ultimate sources of abuse of power, are at the core.
Blacks still deserve the plantations being split up and given to them, in today’s terms in some form. But it won’t be more than a short-term diversion unless everyone is finally given equality in a system of economic equality.
As we pointed out long ago, all conflict and division and hatred of the “other” comes from fear of not having enough, perpetuated by the corruption of those who gain far more than needed at the expense of everyone (The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Five). Rich is fine with a system of a floor and ceiling, democratic socialism and democratic capitalism combined as shorthand, or social democracy, or whatever you want to call basic needs and rights and a good life guaranteed or all and more for those who want to be entrepreneurs, but after a certain number of millions, the rest goes back in the public pot, which keeps even the rich without conscience rich because they don’t end up in a reign of terror and they have everyone else actually capable en masse of buying what they’re selling.
We’ve mentioned before that it’s easy to demonize the ultra-rich, a handful of whom have more money than most of the world. Our city being a center of this. It’s of course a dam ready to break unlike any in history. But speaking of water, expecting those for whom profit is the object of their existence to not pursue this like water running downhill is nonsensical. Their actions may be incomprehensibly irrational in terms of ultimate self-interest (the story of humanity from individuals to empires–change often requires crashing and burning), but it’s the job of public policy to reform, regulate and deliver basic equality.
You know the fear of the worm turning is immense when the sea of white male faces that make up most of the commentators on CNBC reflecting the Wall Street and corporate power centers that the cable station caters to, are generally falling all over each other to see who can say the word “equality” the most. Same with racism, and so on.
It’s the new branding necessity. And for those with money, power and celebrity, regardless of gender or race, you can be sure these are the new branding necessities to speak up about and contribute to. Sometimes usefully. Often as another weapon of mass distraction. Are you ready to give up your money and power–at least most of it–which still leaves you far better off than most? Do you really mean what you say in action–are you putting it all on the line to create economic equality, real democracy, sharing of power?
America after the Great Depression got a common good mentality which served the individual and eventually created the most prosperous nation for the majority of people in history, headed in the direction of including the excluded by racism, sexism, homophobia and entrenched white poverty. Then the people leading the way were killed and subsequent events led to policy changes with implications for inequality unrecognized by many for some time as forty years of a new regime under Republicans and Democrats turned the meaning of being American upside-down.
In the US, unemployment claims are now over 4o million in just months. Early this morning (west coast time, June 5, as we finish this post), employment statistics surprised and jobs were up over 2 million (black unemployment, however, was worse)–people going back to jobs lost. But for the vast majority of whites and everyone, this was not a pretty picture. It’s still a small number of the total–official unemployment dropped to about 13.5% from 14.5%–higher than anytime after the 2008 debacle–which is almost certainly underestimated because of the pandemic.
If the above holds or improves, economists generally described this as the hoped for point of stimulus, and another reason why it needs to continue. And what’s really happening won’t be clear for a long time. More and more returning to their jobs won’t matter much in the long-term unless it’s everybody, and wages improve, and funds for rent and morgtages for the majority are provided and the pandemic gets far better than it it is now, much less a second wave comes–just for starters. The worst economic crisis since World War Two has caused huge systemic damage, and revealed the rest. Yet as of this writing, the emergency funds for unemployment that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t enact fast enough when they were terrified the economy would plunge instantly into an unrecoverable abyss, will expire at the end of July. The house Democrats, along with Republican Peter King of New York, passed an extension until at least the end of the year (along with other things, such as more stimulus payments to people under a certain income level and critically needed aid for states and cities, upon which basic services, health care, police, firefighters and so on depend), although a handful of Democrats (ranging in position from the bill does too much to too little) and all other Republicans voted against, with the Republican-led senate resisting so far. (A small group of house Republicans and Democrats have expressed deficit concerns–after increasing it–but many economists and policy experts would argue this is not a long-term concern given the way monetary policy works, when the need to help people and create stimulus exists.)
So what’s the explanation? An ideological explanation such as benefits will in some cases keep people from returning to work (benefits that still aren’t enough for most people to live on but may be more than slave pay for jobs for some, although with the loss of health care from jobs as well, the net negative is crushing for most) only works if the politics are analyzed to work (Y sounds good or bad to X voters in the short term to get to Z). But this is also part of a last resistance to the reality that the politics of the last 40 years is about to end with demographic and generational changes among other things (whether now or in the historically near future), and the whole world is going to change or end.
Basic needs will be guaranteed, through among other things a combination of guaranteed good paying jobs and equivalent income for those for whom such jobs do not exist or who cannot work or provide other services for the community (there are many options, but even some conservative economists and corporare leaders support a basic annual income.)
As PBS’s Frontline has documented on numerous occasions, two Wall Street political parties helped lead to Trump, who used rage to just give Wall Street more.
The Democrats used to be the working class party and even the Republicans expanded the social programs begun by FDR. In fact, after LBJ, a racist Southerner who as president got religion, dramatically expanded basic needs programs for everyone, and proposed the most important civil rights laws since ending slavery and the constitutional amendments that supported this–what party delivered the critical votes to pass it? Republicans.
So what happened?
Well, we’ve been covering this extensively in posts for years.
But let’s look at the situation through the lens of the moment.
How many people understand why the greatest economic crash, and stock market crash, since the Great Depression, has led to–the stock market within weeks of the crash starting the climb back to the dizzying heights it was at before the crash?
Mainly, its either a head scratcher, or it’s believing through short-term muscle memory (meaning that 2008 is already out of mind) that the market means everything’s coming up roses soon (which even if so–well, 2008), or that through whatever witchcraft, the rich of course just get richer.
There’s only one reason why. The US federal reserve poured more money by far than at any time in history into saving the stock markets and financial system. Trillions more than any stimulus bills (which also favored corporations more than normal people, but the average American at least got more than usual in the unemployment payment boost). Specifically, the “Fed” did something unthinkable even in 2008. It told the market and corporations and financial institutions that it would cover all their debt if need be–to infinity.
This was announced on March 23 by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. On March 24 the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at its highest point gain in history and highest percentage gain since 1933. It hasn’t looked back since as we write. The average stock is worth about 25 times estimated future earnings. Sound rational? It’s not, of course, except that stocks are now basically guaranteed by the Fed, and there’s no other logical place to go for people with money to make money.
But Powell also made clear that even this would not be sustainable. That’s obvious. At some point earnings are just magical thinking (already there) if consumers don’t have good incomes and can spend. Otherwise, at some point the Fed is just guaranteeing a fantasy. If he had the power, Powell made clear he would make direct payments to individuals, telling Congress they needed to do more of what they started.
It’s worth reminding at this point that only about half of Americans own any stock–but that too is a delusionary statistic. Well over 80% of the market is owned by the top 10% in wealth–and–the top 1% of wealthy Americans own over half of the market. Its of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, more and more.
This all began in some ways in 1987 with Reagan’s appointment of Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve Chairman. Greenspan was a devotee of Ayn Rand, the novelist and avatar of libertarian free markets–or dog-eat-dog individualism. But after the 1987 one day biggest stock market crash of all times in 1987, Greenspan started what has never stopped–he bailed out the stock market with huge amounts of money. No more “free market” capitalism. The market was now increasingly rigged for who would do the eating and who would be eaten. Part of this process was to abandon all regulation. One result was the increasing market for unregulated derivatives. The simple way to define this as a metaphor as it got out of control was that if you had a dollar you could lend it as if it was a million, and then the borrower could do the same, and so on.
Or here’s the actual definition, more or less:
In finance, a derivative is a contract that derives its value from the performance of an underlying entity. … Some of the more common derivatives include forwards, futures, options, swaps, and variations of these such as synthetic collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps.
To understand this, and the unique risk to the destruction of the financial system at any point, like lightening striking out of nowhere, see The Warning–on PBS Frontline in 2009 on what led up to the financial crisis in 2008–and will lead to worse unless everything changes.
Let’s rephrase the “see” this Frontline episode . You must see it.
Again, The Warning. Stream at the link.
The “star” of the program, Brooksley Born, was chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) from 1996-1999. She was a friend of Hillary Clinton. Hillary suggested her for attorney general. Bill apparently didn’t like her. So she got the CFTC position, which put her in the unforeseen position of making history–by opposing the Clinton, Greenspan and company continuation and expansion of the Reagan-era undoing of all the post-Depression regulation by FDR and all Democratic and Republican successors until then.
Born attempted to regulate derivatives in 1998. She lost her job for it. And goes down in the hall of fame for integrity.
Alan Greenspan reportedly told Born there was no fraud, only the market. She warned him then of the collapse of the global financial system because of fraud in derivatives. It almost happened in 1998. It happened, for a moment, in 2008. And she’s warned, it will happen again and worse.
Greenspan admitted before Congress after the 2008 crash that his no regulation approach had been all wrong. Admission was obvious. A sense of penitence was probably a hoped for antidote to punishment. Essentially, no one was punished by the justice department under Obama, reportedly the first time this had happened after such financial malfeasance leading to the 2008 crisis. We, and as already noted, Frontline, have covered at length what the political consequence has been. We’ve also noted with empathy the uniquely challenging line Obama understandably perceived he had to walk as the first African-American president. Some regulation reform did happen. But it was never at the same level it had been before being dismantled over the years.
The notional value of derivatives in 2008 was about $596 to $668 trillion. Today it’s about $558.5 to $640 trillion.
We’re no experts but this was the best we could come up with in research. The notional value is probably about ten times the market value. Which is another way of describing the risk.
And if nothing changes, nothing changes.
This would be a good time to gulp.
. . .
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic rages on, and the ongoing horror of inequality in the rest of the world, which is the story the rest of the world remains mainly focused on.
From The New York Times today, Declan Walsh reports, in “Coronavirus Rips Into Regions Previously Spared”:
Globally, known cases of the virus are growing faster than ever with more than 100,000 new ones a day. The surge is concentrated in densely populated, low- and middle-income countries across the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and South Asia.
Let’s emphasize this:
Globally, known cases of the virus are growing faster than ever…
The pandemic continues to make sick and kill, more than ever, increasingly the majority of the world’s population now, the most miserable among us, suffering from every abuse and pandemic already, but who most never pay any attention to anyway, outside the people and nations afflicted themselves.
We’ve covered the above for years as part of our reason for being, but we’ll focus for now on two recent posts that deal with these issues extensively.
A Criminal Underworld of Child Abuse on March 5 and The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Eighteen on March 29.
The latter covers many inter-related pandemics and issues.
The former, obviously, is on child abuse, the worst pandemic in history–you know, the thing that happens to half the kids on earth–the number one issue for any adult of conscience, or any adult who cares about the sustainability of the species.
Of course, why listen to the World Health Organization, (which identified the above along with the CDC and many others) that the US was instrumental in founding and that has had more impact on saving more millions of lives from disease and public health threats (including US lives) than…who? (Tragic pun acknowledged.)
WHO apparently wasn’t tough enough on China at the start–when Trump told us China and his dictator pal were the greatest ever and had the whole coronavirus thing handled, but then without explanation went 180 and blamed China (and WHO) for everything as we approached a hundred thousand deaths in the US.
So the US quit WHO.
Which it needs even if it doesn’t care about killing the rest of the world, to help with containing Covid-19, vaccine, other diseases, you know–survival.
Never mind, let the Chinese fill the void after 75 years of US leadership since World War Two. They’re probably better at rigged socialist corporate capitalist dictatorship.
Today, June 4, was also the historic and infamous day in 1989 that the Chinese communist dictatorship that has become even more anti-human rights to this day, ended the historic democracy protests in Tiananmen square where over a million demonstrators had gathered, and massacred probably thousands–no official accounts allowed in dictatorships. Democracy was spreading world wide at that critical moment, and had the Chinese democractic activists succeeded, who were gaining support around the country, the positive global impact could have been immeasurable. Now, countless Muslims are put in concentration camps by the Chinese. Human rights leaders receiving global honors can’t leave, are in jail, or worse. And perhaps the longest-running protests in the world, for democracy in Hong Kong, are being threatened in Tiananmen Square fashion. If so, at an incalculabe cost not only to China, but to global stability.
But again according to Trump, his buddy Chinese dictator Xi Jinping was the greatest and had Covid-19 handled beautifully, until, per the above, suddenly China was the cause of the whole problem. Was China transparent? Of course not–which everyone knew from the start. But probably forced by international eyes and past experience to be better than previously. Nonetheless, Trump’s problems, and others who didn’t listen to medical science, would have been their own–if not for the cost to the rest of us. And cooperation with China and the world (and maybe continuing to lead for the sake of self-interest and democracy and “keeping America great”) for medical and economic survival and avoiding conflict have never been more important.
But Trump at least had the solution for Americans.
Inject disinfectant. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket.
As we’ve said before, there’s nothing partisan about these remarks. There has been no other time since the founding of the republic in hundreds of years when someone could say anything like this, once with the stakes with the whole world seeing and hearing instantly, much less repeatedly and still be sitting in the same chair. The cabinet and Congress, both parties, would have risen up as one in an instant, saved the nation and the world from this disordered behavior, and then gotten help for the individual.
But as we’ve also said before, we’ve arrived at this point for many reasons after many years, the responsibility of many politicians and leaders and media and culture that we all have degrees of responsibility for.
. . .
Lastly, tomorrow is World Environment Day.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that.
As we’ve noted often, the Amazon is referred to as the lungs of the world. It’s been getting decimated for a long time–now at greater speed. Destruction of foliage and indigenous peoples as promised by the crypto-fascist president of Brazil, the largest nation in Latin America and one of the largest on earth. Now he wants to leave WHO too, following his daddy’s example. Just as, guess what–Brazil becomes number three in Covid-19 deaths in the world and counting (after the US at number one by far still, and then the UK). And as we write (as always, a tweet away from changing any second), even Donald Trump is distancing himself from Jair Bolsonaro.
We warned about Bolsonaro and of what has happened in Brazil in our post, The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Ten, on October 8, 2018, which examines the relationship between the first great sin of genocide by whites in the Americas, mainly at the hands of pandemic—the link to the enslavement of Africans, and the relationship between disease, the environment, human rights and–everything. The Amazon may be transformed from perhaps the single largest global carbon sink to a global carbon source.
IQAir reported last September, before the Covid-19 Pandemic:
The Earth’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, is responsible for creating 20% of the planets’ Oxygen – hence its label as “the Earth’s Lungs.” It is a vital and fragile ecosystem with such size and density, that its ‘carbon store’ plays a significant role in slowing the rate of global warming.
In addition to being home to several million species of plants and animals (roughly 10% of World’s known biodiversity), it’s also home to more than a million indigenous people, whose traditions and livelihood are also under attack with the environmental destruction.
As of Tuesday, 20 August 2019, the number of forest fires in the Amazon reached 74,155, a record high, since Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) began keeping records in 2013. In comparison, last year (2018) observed slightly more than 40,000 fires for the same time frame.
The INPE estimates that more than 1½ soccer fields of Amazon rainforest are destroyed every minute of every day.
In addition to the physical destruction, the resulting smoke of the current fires is so thick it can be seen from space. The AirVisual Earth map, which uses satellite data to estimate PM2.5 concentration in locations without ground-based air quality monitoring stations, reveals half of Brazil is breathing unhealthy air pollution, while neighboring countries including Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay have also been affected.
Whilst wildfires are not uncommon during the dry season, many are deliberately started by farmers who seek to quickly and easily clear their land after a harvest – while others are started to illegally deforest land for cattle ranching.
Some blame this year’s abnormal surge in wildfires on Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. His actions, which include weakening environmental regulations, encouraging deforestation, exploring the Amazon’s economic potential, and drastically cutting the budget for Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency – are likely to have long-lasting, negative effects on the Amazon.
The World Wildlife Fund and a number of Environmental activists have urged Bolsonaro and the current administration to reverse current positions and protect the Amazon. If the rainforest reaches its point of no return, it will become a barren savannah which will no longer be able to support its plants and wildlife. Should this happen, the Amazon may begin emitting carbon, rather than be a key source of the planets oxygen – and as a result, further drive global climate change.
. . .
Sooner than we think, we may all be saying:
“I can’t breathe.”
. . .
To be continued.
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