Reunited

As I made my way up through Greensboro and Liz jettisoned from the event horizon that is Atlanta, I was looking forward to two things.

First, spending a little time with some wonderful folks along the way.  claudia.01jpg The Rev. Claudia Frost was someone I originally met when she first came up for the Mountain School for Congregational Leadership as a very advanced participant.  She was immediately identified as someone who should be on faculty which gave us a chance to work together. She is bright, funny, sincere and infinitely pastoral.  She now serves the Universalist Fellowship at Outlaws Bridge.  She is married to David Frost,133.png who works as an oral surgeon and serves on the Board of our UU School for the ministry at Meadville Lombard.    David is one of those people whose insight and intelligence is only overshadowed by his temperance, curiosity and openness.  Often times, when I’ve come across people who have had such strong vision and clarity and leadership, it is hard for those characteristics not to dominate or overwhelm conversations.  But both David and Claudia have the capacity to present themselves in an invitational and gracious way, making it a joy to spend time with them.

But seeing them after many years was only part of the reunion.  IMG_3294.JPG Seeing Blondie walk out of the car and saunter around the humid enviorons of Chapel Hill was very welcome.  There is very little that can describe the joy that a faithful, fuzzy, friend can instantly bring upon seeing her – especially when you know it required her to go through a maze of airport security, travelling overnight in a scary cargo compartment of a plane and then squeezing herself into the back section of our Fit for a drive through South and North Carolina.  Blondie – even though she is approaching 15 and has advanced cancer of almost everything (she’s getting to be quite lumpy) has not lost one iota of her countenance that eminates love and goodness and appreciation and joy.  With just minimal expressions, she can offer some of the most reliable feedback on the current attitude and approach to life.  She is part Corgie and part Chow and she has the power to tune into the emotions around her like no living thing I’ve ever seen.  I believe that if we had a little bit of the emotional attunement and resiliency of dogs, the world would be a much better place.

Changing the World One Lunch at a Time

a-and-t-four-1.jpg In the fall of 1959, four young men who were students at North Carolina A&T came together to challenge the systemic institution of racism known as segregation.  Returning from a Christmas Vacation trip to NYC, one of them – Joseph McNeil – was denied service at a Greyhound bus station in Greensboro and vowed to take action instead of just talk about the injustice.

On Feb 1, 1960 McNeil along with Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond (The Greensboro Four) entered the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., around 4:30 p.m.

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and purchased merchandise at several counters. They sat down at the store’s “whites only” lunch counter and ordered coffee, and were denied service, ignored and then asked to leave. They remained seated at the counter until the store closed early at 5 p.m.  1032310_wondertwins.jpg Upon exiting the store their picture was taken by a local newspaper photographer and it commenced a visual echo that travelled across the world (officials at the Vatican in Rome reported seeing the image of the four young men only a few days later.

After exiting Woolworths that evening, the four young men immediately returned to campus and recruited others for the cause.

On Feb 2, twenty-five men, including the four freshmen, and four women returned to the F.W. Woolworth store. The students sat from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. while white patrons heckled them. Undaunted, they sat with books and study materials to keep them busy. They were still refused service.

Reporters from both newspapers, a TV camera man and Greensboro police officers monitored the scene. Once the sit-ins hit the news, momentum picked up and students across the community embraced the movement. That night, students met with college officials and concerned citizens. They organized the Student Executive Committee for Justice to plan the continued demonstrations. This committee sent a letter to the president of F.W. Woolworth in New York requesting that his company “take a firm stand to eliminate discrimination”. Meanwhile, at its regular monthly meeting, the NAACP voted in unanimous support of the students’ efforts.

By Feb 3 more than 60 students, one-third of them female, returned to the Greensboro store and sat down at every available lunch counter seat. Students from Bennett College and Dudley High School increased the number of protesters, and many carpooled to and from the F.W. Woolworth store to sit-in shifts.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan, including the state’s official chaplain George Dorsett, were present. White patrons taunted the students as they studied. A statement issued from F.W. Woolworth’s national headquarters read that company policy was “to abide by local custom”.

By Feb 4 more than 300 students participate in the protests. Students from N.C. A&T, Bennett College and Dudley High School occupied every seat at the lunch counter. Three white supporters (Genie Seaman, Marilyn Lott and Ann Dearsley) from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG), joined the protest. As tensions grew, police kept the crowd in check. Waiting students then marched to the basement lunch counter at S.H. Kress & Co., the second store targeted by the Student Executive Committee, and the Greensboro sit-ins spread.

That evening, student leaders, college administrators and representatives from F.W. Woolworth and Kress stores held talks. The stores refused to integrate as long as other downtown facilities remained segregated. Students insisted the F.W. Woolworth and Kress retail stores would remain targets, and the meeting ended without resolution.

By Feb 5, tensions mounted when 50 white males were seated at the Woolworth counter. Sit-in participants, including white students from area colleges, filled the dozen or so remaining seats. Police removed two white youth from the store for swearing and yelling. By 3 p.m., more than 300 people were present. Members of both races were escorted from the premises. Three whites were arrested and the store closed at 5:30 pm.

Store representatives, students and college officials met once again that evening. F.W. Woolworth personnel took issue with the students limiting their protests to two stores and asked college administrators to end the sit-ins. Administrators plainly stated they could not control the private activities of students. Some administrators recommended store officials consider temporarily closing the counters. The meeting adjourned after two hours of debate.

Early on the morning of Feb 6, more than 1,400 N.C. A&T students met in Harrison Auditorium, including student and football player, Jesse Jackson.45jesse_jackson_wiki_slide.jpg After voting to continue the protest, many headed to the F.W. Woolworth store. They filled every seat as the store opened. A large number of counter protesters showed up as well. By noon, more than 1,000 people packed the store.

At 1 p.m., a caller warned a bomb was set to explode at 1:30 p.m. The crowd moved to the Kress store, which immediately closed. Arrests were made outside both stores. The F.W. Woolworth store was cleared and closed as the the manager announced the temporary closing of the lunch counter in the interest of public safety.

That evening at N.C. A&T, a mass rally of 1,600 students voted to suspend demonstrations for two weeks. Dean William Gamble proclaimed this would give the stores time “to set policies regarding food service for Negro students”.

By Feb 8, students in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Durham, N.C., held sit-ins to demonstrate their solidarity with Greensboro students. Sit-in protests quickly followed in North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and High Point. The movement also gained momentum and spread to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and even F.W. Woolworth stores in New York City.

By the end of February, the sit-in movement had spread to more than 30 cities in eight states.

By the end of March 1960 the sit-in Movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states.

By April, with the students vowing to continue the protests, both the F.W. Woolworth and Kress stores officially closed their lunch counters.

Speaking at Bennett College, NAACP legal council Thurgood Marshall urged attendees not to compromise. The protests strengthened after an economic boycott of the two stores was organized by local leaders.

Easter weekend, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a meeting of sit-in students from all over the nation at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Leader Ella Baker encouraged students to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) to organize the effort.

By June, protests expanded to Meyers and Walgreens.

By the end of July, F.W. Woolworth employees Charles Bess, Mattie Long, Susie Morrison and Jamie Robinson are the first African-Americans to eat at the lunch counter. The headline of The Greensboro Record read “Lunch Counters Integrated Here”.

By August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins at “whites only” lunch counters inspired subsequent kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, wade-ins at segregated beaches, read-ins at segregated libraries, play-ins at segregated parks and watch-ins at segregated movies.

America was never the same.

160514706_03e0ec2829.jpg The Museum in Greensboro, NC is built around the old F.W. Woolworth building.  The building was slated for razing in 2007.  With loud cries of injustice, this was resisted and after significant organization and fundraising, the property was purchased and a museum constructed to preserve the history.  images.jpg It was designed and structured by the same company which built the Civil Rights Museum constructed around the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

I highly encourage anyone who is anywhere near the area to go through the museum.  You will see our country – and hear its history – with a completely new understanding and attention to details.

The Call to Go Home… Again

6a010535b567e7970b0120a5997d05970c-500wi.jpg “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”   - Thomas WolfeYou Can’t Go Home Again

There are a few places that you come across in life that impact you in surprising and powerful ways.  Sometimes it’s beauty.  Sometimes a special quiet or stillness.  Sometimes the keynote is laughter – or the unique ways in which different sources of laughter blend together so effortlessly.  Sometimes it is the inescapable realization that the constellation of values provides a nearly identical match to the ethical framework you meticulously aligned over years of thoughtful and heartfelt experience.  Sometimes, it is simply the place you feel safe to be who you are.  So safe, in fact, you have the courage to embark on the becoming more aligned with that next evolutionary notch that is even more you.

mountain.jpg The Mountain is such a place for me.  And for a lot of other folks too.  It is a UU retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where NC, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia come together.  It is a cluster of structures atop Scaley Mountain with short, old, gnarl-twisted trees allow the wind to sweep through them and emit a holy sound.  It is a cluster of communities like the Southeast Ministers who gather there, and the Mountain School for Congregational Leadership whose staff I was on for six years or my Atlanta Congregation that held an annual retreat there.  It is a cluster of stories that mix losses, hopes, tender lessons, support, understanding, experience, commitment, purpose, community and a ready resilience.

I grew up in such a place in Southern California.  It was called DeBenneville Pines.  And I know there are others.  In fact, I hear the echos of common phrases about these places – and places like our churches – when they touch us in a particularly profound way.  ”I never knew a place like this existed…’ or ‘I’ve been looking for this place all my life…’

Mountain-Shot.jpg The Mountain has experienced some tumultuous transition in the last few years.  About the time I left to go to California it began experiencing some contention.  Trust and leadership became issues.  Hurts began to surface and be named.  Anxiety and tension became felt and created an orbit of hesitancy among those whose constellations mirrored the Mountain.  All UU retreat centers – and churches – experience times like this.  Rarely, in my experience, do they come about from neglect or apathy.  Rather, they come from an over-extension of effort and control.  Such places call people to care too much (and there IS such thing) rather than not care enough.  Such places are born from souls woven together in special ways and when a particularly intense or urgent care impedes or overrides individual connection or investment, then the energy that once felt holy simply becomes hot.

Mirror Lake dock for canoe, Highlands, NC 2580.jpg I think the tendency to become so urgent and contentious about such places is because they matter so much.  Because they are so rare and unreplaceable.  The loss is too great to bear.  And yet they sometimes require more of us than we, in our current evolutionary state, know how to offer.  I guess that is what elevates them to such an important level in our lives – they expect and compel us to become more of who we are called to be.

In the last year or so, The Mountain has been in a transition.  There is a palpable sense of resiliency and resurrection at work.  Stories are being shared and heard and honored 1Festival shot.jpg (While I was there I had the privilege to meet and hear David Novak who is a professional storyteller from Asheville, NC – who is incredible – his rendition of ‘The House that Jack Built’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘The Cookie-Girl’ were fun and poweful and profound – and one of the best parts was watching the 5 year old boy sitting in front of me listening and laughing at the stories and becoming observably more and more affectionate with his father as the stories went on).  Perspectives when they are being integrated allow for an understanding and warmth that cut through conflict..

I had the chance on this trip to spend three days at the Mountain and renew and cultivate that understanding and warmth.  And as is almost always the case when I’m there, I spent it with people who had a remarkable capacity to listen and share and participate on a level of human being-ness that comforts, inspires, restores and co-creates a new response.

1Jim.jpg Jim McKinley (nearly 20 years in Hendersonville, NC) and Roy Reynolds (Interim Minister most recently in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania)IMG_3285.jpg were my company.  They gave me both grounding and vision that felt like an exquisite stretching.  We shared and cared and laughed and prayed.  And most importantly, they helped make a special place more special.  And by that, i guess I mean they helped make my place on this planet an experience which prompts me toward saying, “Amen.”

Wonder Twin Powers ACTIVATE

There are a few laws in the universe that have, by sheer reliable repetition and experimental evidence, become exalted in the minds of general civilization to rise to the level of unquestionable: The revolution of the earth around the sun, the tragic downward spiral of the cubs toward the end of the regular season and the power of twin-ness in Liz and Becky.

032310_wondertwins.jpgBecky and Liz are identical twins

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which means they have forged a special sequential path through history whereby they have observed so many of the same things, processed these observations together so many ways that they have mentally, emotionally, spiritually ordered their world next to one another.  An unquestionable empathy and even telepathy exists (even all those things where they will catch a cold at the same time on the other side of the country).  Liz sometimes tries to practice telepathy with me but I am untrained and rather uncooperative.  But I have learned enough watching them together to not question how and why they understand and process things.  And certainly I have come to understand their need for time together.

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They even are joined in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily assume – like their dogs – Atom and Blondie – who were reunited Tuesday (Aug 7) after 5 years apart.

Becky lives in Atlanta in a very cute apartment very close to little five points.  She is a computer technician (both software and hardware) for NAMI Georgia as well as very talented writer, social critic and unofficial alarm monitor for town crier for reprehensible or coercive behavior emerging from the den of the religious right.  She is also a very gracious hostess and loving wife-in-law.

On Sunday we got together with RobinIMG_4077.JPG – Becky and Liz’s younger sister – and her boyfriend, Jeff.  George

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- a dear family friend and a fabulous human being – joined in

 

 

as did BriannaIMG_4074.JPG , her boyfriend Capo,

 

 

 

IMG_4071.JPG as well as Meg and Stu IMG_4065.JPG (Robin’s step children).

 

It was a very nice time.  I’d arranged to meet some friends up at The Mountain so I missed seeing Connor and going swimming with everyone.  A great deal of thanks goes to Becky who hosted us and helped make everything happen!! IMG_4073.JPG

The Home of a Revolution

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“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”   Che Guavara:

There is a home I know which often appears like more of a war zone than what we think of as a middle class family home with parents and teenagers.  And every time I go there I am reminded why.  Because it is a war zone.

I don’t mean the screaming, which is not uncommon.  Or the way the phone rings off the hook.  Or the way there is usually news coming in from some front and a tactical strategy team assembled to deploy a response.  Or even how a seeming army of folks are prone to storm through at any given moment.

I’m talking about how anyone who has fought for their own soul in a world determined to strip it from them would recognize a demarcation zone when they see one.  And the resource being fought for is love… and the wholeness one feels when they live every day without a doubt what it is, where they can find it and all they’ve done to preserve it.

IMG_4046.JPGToniann and Dominic Read live in the suburbs of Alpharetta, GA on a tiny cul de sac called Birch Rill Drive with 14 year old Jesse and 18 year old Zoe.

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Like any home with teenagers, they all live awash in drama with emotions often casting shadows of ominous proportions. But as much as such powerful feelings and loud expressions leave us prone to overwhelm, these dramas are welcome…even encouraged.  The irony is that instead of feeling unsafe, the rooms of that home feel like some of the safest space in the world.

MCYAllHands.jpg In a world that is, in a moments notice, ready to revoke your right and ability to register feelings, this is a place that recognizes that they are the very source and sanctuary of our humanness.  To grow up without surrendering your humanity in today’s culture – especially as a person of color – requires that you be a revolutionary.  And it requires, sometimes, that your world look like a war zone.  And that you are always willing to stand on the front lines.  Because that’s where the love is.

The Power of Paperclips

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Whitwell, TN is a most unlikely place to build a Holocaust memorial, much less one that would get the attention of the president, that would become the subject of a book, become an award winning documentary and become an international cause.

Yet here is one of those moments where the goodness of the human soul shines through the prejudice and meanness that that litters our world and, for a brief moment, blinds us with hope.  IMG_3988.JPG A group of eighth-graders and their teachers studying history came upon the topic of the holocaust.  One child offered the innocent admission that she couldn’t imagine ‘six million.’  She had never seen a million of anything – much less six.

Joseph Stalin once fashioned a quote from the horror of his life that has often made me stop and think.  He said, “A single death is a tragedy… a million deaths is a statistic.”  In Whitwell, TN a group of eighth graders wanted to understand the real tragedy that had been eclipsed by statistics.   So, while they read the diary of Anne Frank, they decided to gather together six million of something to help make the number real.   Through Internet studies, the students discovered that Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian, designed the paperclip, and the Norwegians wore them on their lapels during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi occupation. IMG_3989.JPG

This is remarkable because, for one thing, Whitwell, a town of 1,600 tucked away in a Tennessee Valley just west of the Smokeys, has no Jews.

In fact, Whitwell does not offer much opportunity to practice racial or religious tolerance of any kind. “Our community is white, Christian and very fundamentalist,” says Linda Hooper, principal of the middle school, which at the time had 425 students enrolled, including six blacks, one Hispanic, zero Asians, zero Catholics and zero Jews.

Whitwell is a town of two traffic lights, 10 churches and a collection of fast-food joints sprinkled along the main drag. It was a thriving coal town until 1962, when the last mine closed.

Only 40 miles up the road is Dayton, where the red-brick Rhea County Courthouse made history during the 1925 Scopes trial, the “monkey trial,” in which teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law that made it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation” and to teach Darwinian evolutionary theory instead

The Ku Klux Klan was founded only 100 miles west, in Pulaski, Tenn.

When they undertook the project they had no idea how many lives had felt hope die during the holocaust.  By the time they would finish they would know the recipe for how to help hope be born in the lives of many more than six million people.

IMG_4026.JPG After more than a little concern and consternation from parents and townsfolk got passed their own hesitation, it was announced the class would try to collect 6 million paper clips.   The school’s computer expert set up a Web page asking for donations of clips, one or two, or however many people wanted to send.  A few weeks later, the first letter arrived. One Lisa Sparks from Tyler, Tex., sent a handful. Then a letter landed from Colorado. . . .

By the end of the school year, the group had assembled 100,000 clips.  They began to think it would take a long time.  But unexpected help came later that year when two German journalists living in Washington, DC, stumbled across the Whitwell website. Peter Schroeder, 59, and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, 58, wrote a book called, “I’m Dying of Hunger,” a book about a camp survivor who devised imaginary dinners to survive.  They called the school, interviewed teachers and students by telephone, then wrote several articles for the nine newspapers they work for in Germany and Austria.

Whitwell and the Schroeders were hit with a blizzard of paper clips from the two countries. The couple soon had 46,000, filling several large plastic containers. The thing to do, they decided, was to drive them to Whitwell, 12 hours away. They received a hero’s welcome. The entire school showed up.

None of the eighth-graders had ever met anyone from outside the United States, let alone anyone from Germany, the country of the Holocaust perpetrators. At the end of the four-day visit, the students told their principal, “They are really quite normal.”

In a short time, the blizzard of clips became an avalanche.  Whitwell eighth-graders travelled to Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum. They went home carrying 24,000 more paper clips.  Airport security had trouble understanding why a bunch of teenagers and their teachers were transporting boxes and boxes of paper clips to Tennessee.

A year later, the Holocaust project permeated the school. The after-school group is the favorite extracurricular activity – so much so, students had to compete in an essay contest for the 20 to 25 spots. They’ve become used to being interviewed by local television and national radio. Foreign countries are no longer mysterious, with hundreds of letters bearing witness to them.

An Atlanta synagogue donated 1 million paper clips.  Occasionally a check for a few dollars arrives. The money goes toward buying supplies to help count and catalogue the paperclips.  Both teachers involved won awards and their $3,000 in prize money also went toward supplies, and helping students pay for what has become an annual trip to Washington and the Holocaust Museum.

The students file all letters, all scraps of paper, even the stamps, in large white ring binders. When we visited, there were over 150 binders filled with letters.  IMG_4011.JPG There were binders from survivors, descendents, celebrities, public officials – even ‘hate mail’ from those who denied the holocaust ever happened.

The project was covered on TV shoes like 20-20 and 60 minutes.  The project discovered that more than 11 million people perished in the holocaust – 5 million others besides Jews including political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities.

The project collected over 11 million paperclips.  Many of them are housed in an authentic German cattle car that was used to transport prisoners to concentration camps. IMG_4010.JPG

I read about this project shortly after it first began.  Whitwell was less than two hours away from where I lived in Alpharetta, GA.  I have preached on it several times and I never manage to avoid tears.  And every time it comes to mind  I can never avoid been flooded with inspiration, awe and hope.

A paper clip has new meaning to me now. Its much more than something that holds paper together.  It holds more important things together.

 

The Hermitage of Music City

images (6).jpg Nashville, named after Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash in 1779, is the second most populated city in Tennessee.  It was the first state capitol with Confederate affiliation to fall to the Union forces during the civil war and it was the home to ‘Old Hickory,’

 

images (7).jpgAndrew Jackson.  Andrew Jackson is an interesting – some might say controversial – political figure.  He exercised more presidential vetos than all his predecessors combined.  He redefined and built the Democratic political party to be the precursor of what we know today (and which carried Southern loyalties along the lines of ‘yellow dog democrats’ as in, ‘I’d vote democrat even if the candi
date they ran was an ol’ yellow dog’).  Jackson was also the only president who ever left office taking the economy from red to black.  And he was also the President in Chief character behind the unforgivable cruelty associated with the ‘trail of tears’ – the killing and deportation of many of my Cherokee ancestors from their homeland.  ’Money talks…        bull-&@%# walks’ might first have been coined by describing how he operates.  Jackson got 15,000 Cherokees to walk by reducing them below human status to bull-&@%#.  He reminds me to take a close account of what we do that holds people together and what we do that drives people apart.

Andrew Jackson also built the Hermitage – an antebellum southern manor and namesake of where Jason Shelton and I love to play golf.flash04.jpg

One of my great privileges as a minister is to have had the chance to work closely with Jason Shelton.  jason-shelton.png Bold – some might say brash at times – he’s one of the few people I’ve met whose imagination, creativity and skill match his vision and allow the raising of people to his high expectations.  I’ve learned a lot about music, worship, ministry and life in general in his company.  And we’ve had the great pleasure of watching many a golf ball fly into the horizon (often out of bounds) or disappear into a picturesque body of water.


Staying with he and Mary for a night was wonderful… but, honestly, it was a span of hours dominated by the spirited personalities of his girls, Amanda and Samantha.   IMG_3977.JPGIMG_3978.JPG I look forward to our next time together – in October when he visits Columbia, MD

Land of the Delta Blues

Memphis_skyline_from_the_air.jpg Memphis was founded in 1819 and because it lays on the banks of the Mississippi River, it was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River.   Memphis developed as a transportation center in the 19th century because of its flood-free location, on the major throughway of the Mississippi.

The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of slaves.   Memphis became a major slave market- one of the major reasons why it became the major east-west railway between Charleston and the Midwest. slavery-300x227.jpg

Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, and Memphis briefly became a Confederate stronghold.  However, Union  gunboats recaptured the city in the naval on June 6, 1862, remained under Union control for the duration of the war and became a Union supply base throughout the war.

In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis. The worst outbreak, in 1878, reduced the population by nearly 75% as many people died or fled the city permanently.

Toward the 1950s, Memphis grew into the world’s largest  cotton market and the world’s largest hardwood lumber market as well as the world’s largest mule market.IMG_3856.JPG

During the 1960s, the city was at the center of civil rights issues, notably a sanitation workers strike.

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The Lorraine Motel became a world wide landmark when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on its balcony on April 4, 1968. Just the night before he offered his prophetic speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple when he announced, “… I have seen the promised land… I may not get there with you

but I know that we as a people will get to the promised land… “

IMG_3841.JPG Today there is a civil rights museum constructed around the Lorraine Motel.  The Museum is built in two parts.  The first part presents a circular maze of exhibits chrnoicalling the milestones of civil rights from the formation of the Constitution all the way to the night MLK was shot.  The exhibits culminate by showing the perfectly preserved rooms where King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy stayed the night King was shot.

The museum continues in a second building across the street and starts at the perfectly preserved room where the presumed shooter, James Earl Ray, fired the shots that took King’s life.  It shows the car that Ray drove and the evidence found in the car as well as all the information that has led many people to make assertions of a conspiracy and even FBI involvement.  It is an extraordinarily well conceived and powerfully constructed museums ever built.

Memphis is also well known for its cultural contributions to the identity of American music. Many renowned musicians grew up in and around Memphis and moved from the Mississippi Delta including Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Isaac Hayes, Al Green and – of course – Elvis Presley. IMG_3788.JPG

Visiting Graceland – a site that attracts far more tourists than the Civil Rights Museum – is like pulling the cover back on a piece of American iconography.  For all his hip-swiveling larger than life persona, it is hard to argue the immense impact Elvis had on a wide variety of musical styles – from gospel, to country, to balladeering to Rock and Roll.

IMG_3791.JPG Elvis helped to shape and shift what became popular and profitable in American culture.  His larger than life image (and some would say, ego) could not be contained in any simple mold and he broke through every conceivable barrier making it possible for those following to do things they could never have dreamed of.

IMG_3804.JPGThat Graceland tends to focus more on his antics and indulgent tastes in cars, clothes and furniture is a disservice to his great contribution.  But then again, sensible people rarely make history.

Looking Back at the Little Rock Nine

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One of the most profound impressions made on me regarding the advancement of social relationships and the contribution to human potential in my lifetime happened just a few years before I was born.  In 1957, nine students from Little Rock, AR made a significant investment in the social collateral that I am still spending today.  And they did so by paying a very high price themselves.

Brown v. The Board of Education (Topeka, KS) determined that ‘separate but equal’ was simply veiled racism and oppression against blacks.  After several years, it was determined that hemming., hawing and outright defiance needed prompting and plans were made for nine students in Little Rock, AR to integrate into a previously all white school with ‘all deliberate speed.’  But when they prepared to show up for the first day of school, they were blocked by the governor, Orval Faubus.  In fact, successful integration took three attempts and the US National Guard to insure peaceful process.

But the nine children: Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941), suffered severe emotional, psychological and even physical assaults during their time at school.   

“Mostly what I think about when I think back is how sad for somebody (to go through that) when they’re 15,” Beals told a reporter in 1997, a few days before the 40th anniversary of Central High’s integration. “Because when you’re 15 you want to be loved and accepted, and I just wasn’t ready for the kind of response I would get coming to school.”

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Those nine young women and men were taunted, shunned, bullied, teased, swore at, spit on and openly hated.  And their own self acceptance and clarity of their own internal compass of value pointed the way.

 

 

There are certain moments in history where we are led by those with youth and innocence. They have a defiance toward unfairness and despite their short tenure on this planet they succeed where others often fail.  Their success, some would say, comes because they have not fully learned the world is crazy and cannot fully fathom the self-loathing necessary for a single species to turn so destructively in on itself.  These pure and powerful youth simply follow an undeniable and revolutionary instinct of love.

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I am in awe of their vision and sacrifice and it prods me on toward the extra effort required to recognize and stand up for the love that is precariously standing in harms way.  The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  It bends because people like these nine take hold of it and pull it in the right direction.

Conway – Halfway – Civil Rights Way – Travelling Wrong Way

Compared to the 11 plus hours the day before, it was a huge relief to only have 3 hours to cross the state line into Arkansas.  The Razorback state had heretofore eluded me in my 49 years of travelling the highways and byways of Americana.  I’d met a few very fine people who laid claim to the land of the Ozarks and have a soft spot in my heart (matched by a certain amount of disappointment) for people like the Clintons and places like Walmart.  So it was good to pull off on exit 125 and visit the fine city of Conway.

map_of_conway_ar.jpgConway is approximately the ‘halfway’ point on route, but was not exactly the standout city from west to east that everyone takes great care to make sure they see. It came to our attention because it is within 20 minutes of Little Rock and has the cheapest motels.

Driving into Conway, what stands out is the number of fast food franchises and corporate interests doing business in the city.  In the commercial district of the town, there is very little personal/individual investment.  Travelling along the main streets has me wondering not only about where has all the money of the town gone, but where has the soul of the town gone?  Where has the creative imagination and personal relationship and connection gone?

This has been a concern of mine as I have passed through small and big towns alike.  We no longer have ‘Main Street’ interests as much as ‘Wall Street’ interests.  Much of the money – as well as social collateral – in towns like Conway are being slowly siphoned offimages.jpg images (4).jpg images (3).jpg images (2).jpg into impersonal and delocalized accounts.  images (1).jpg We ate at Chilis, gassed up at BP, saw a movie at Cinemark, lunched at Subway and slept at a Super 8.

Of course, as is the case every time I point out something fishy, there are three fingers pointing back and me. images (5).jpg  I funded each one of these corporate interests – primarily because they were ‘cheap.’  It seems clear that our towns will continue to look more and more like Conway as long as price becomes the primary motive for choosing where we do business.  When we are willing to pay  more, we can restore the personal connection and touch we’re looking for.  We’re going to have to buy back America to make that happen.

We booked a tee time at what we thought was a local golf place in Little Rock.  We booked it on Golfnow and it came up when we put ‘Little Rock’ in the location fiinder.  We paid for it on line and then discovered that it was a 2 hour drive along windy rural roads.  What made it even harder was it turned out to be 2 hours in the wrong direction – we had to backtrack all the way back to Conway before heading off to our next stop: Memphis.

But there is one redeeming observation: we did eventually find out way out of corporate American and into ‘Bill’s BBQ, and Rusty’s Place and Clinton Corners – locally owned enterprises that revealed a local pride.  For my money, that drive proved well worthwhile.