Saturday, August 31, 2013

They're Rockin in Pittsburgh

They're for real.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are rocking PNC Park, winning two in a row over St. Louis to regain sole possession of first place.  They're at worst mathematically certain to have their first winning season since they opened that park.  At best--well, the Bucs could be going all the way, all the way, all the way this year.

This past week they added three veteran players including two power hitters who were already having good years.  And these guys couldn't wait to get to Pittsburgh--the most recent acquisition, Justin Morneau, rushed to join the club for tonight's game, just hours after he was acquired.  In his first game for the Pirates, former Met Joe Buck hit a home run in a victory.  Catcher Marlon Byrd contributed to Saturday's victory with a key hit.

So it's not just that veteran talent was added--it's guys who are excited to suddenly be on a real contender so close to the playoffs.  And even though they were acquired partly for the stretch run, it's the depth needed for playoffs teams that made this a buoyant move.

For Pittsburgh fans it's a great time and a needed distraction, for the Steelers show signs of being not very good this year, and even posting their first losing season in awhile.  Winning the NL Central is going to be tough for the Pirates, though.  It may well come down to the end of season series in St. Louis.  Though they've pretty much owned the Cards this year (10-5), they aren't the greatest road team.  Still, they're likely to make the playoffs anyway--and that's magic time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Altered State: My March on Washington 1963

I was 17 when I participated in what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I was a student at a Catholic high school, and heard my own beliefs expressed by President Kennedy in his television address that June: “We are confronted primarily by a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

In the weekly newspaper for the Greensburg, Pennsylvania diocese, the Catholic Accent, I read about an organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that was inviting people to go to the March. I contacted the priest who was named and he talked to my parents. He must have been convincing because I got permission to go.

But I got my first indication of just how small this group was going to be when I attended a meeting, and it was two priests and me. A photographer from the Accent snapped our picture as I pretended to paint the already completed banner we would carry.

As it turned out we were the only three people from the diocese to march under that banner. We would meet many other people from the Pittsburgh area, organized by religious groups of various denominations as well as by labor unions and civil rights groups.

Many traveled to the March from all over the country by bus, and a few by plane, including celebrities from Hollywood and legendary entertainer and activist Josephine Baker from Paris. I boarded a special train from Pittsburgh, one of the twenty or so originating from various places that were added to take people to the March. Recently reviewing video from that day posted on YouTube, I was amazed to see a few frames of my 17 year-old self arriving at Washington’s Union Station (at about the 11:32, 11:33 marks), walking towards the camera and trying to look appropriately serious, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie.

I also looked alert. Vigilance to the possibility of violence was universal that day. From police commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, to the murder of Medgar Evers outside his home in Mississippi, it had been a brutal summer in the South. It’s been estimated that over 14,000 demonstrators across the South (including high school students) were arrested during those months, with at least one death.

When I got home I wrote (in the Catholic Accent) of the “dedicated and dignified fervor” around me at the march. But high spirits were also part of that day’s rhythm. From Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial there was always singing. For me it started even earlier, when I restlessly explored the train, wandering through one quiet car after another until I suddenly pushed open a heavy door to a car literally packed to the rafters with young people. Some were perched in the luggage racks. Several at the far end of the car were playing guitars, and everyone was singing.

The march itself was like one long song. It is more powerful in my memory than the hours of speeches at the reflecting pool. Looking into the faces of the people nearest me, and all of us looking around, my feelings became a reflection of what we felt in common.

We were astonished by our numbers, by the fact of us all there, of the reality that was completely new. The overwhelming mood was wonder. It was a sustained altered state, a living dream.

We had a sense of unanticipated numbers on the march, but the dimensions of the day weren’t clear until we got to the reflecting pool. So many people (since settled at 250,000, the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that date) and yet the transfixing feeling of peace—I don’t think anyone had foreseen this.

I saw the joy and wonder and the tears as black people of different ages and from different parts of the country saw each other there. I was also aware that in this context they could see a young white face undistorted by hate or contempt.

We’d marched and sung together, but even as an audience for the program at the Lincoln Memorial, the interactions didn’t stop-- interactions that in the mid-1960s were still rare.

Now we stood in line together at portable water fountains and toilets. We bunched and sprawled on the grass together, sweating under the same steamy sun, both drowsy and responsive to the inspiring words and music coming through the not always comprehensible fuzz of the sound system. We felt careful courtesy becoming a release into a common regard. We looked at each other.

We listened to Dr. Martin Luther King together, quoting an American hymn—“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” We heard his American litany reach its crescendo: “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!...Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!”

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring... from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

He spoke of a dream that he saw reflected in the water in front of him.

The official intent of the March was to support passage of the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy sent to Congress a few days after his June speech. Immediately afterwards I recall commentary in the press calling it a failure because that bill was stalled in Congress (it would pass in early 1964.) Today the march is better remembered than the political reason for it.

Race has still not been erased as deep separation, nor has full racial justice been achieved. But fifty years after that day, my memories aren’t of politics or even history. They are physical. They are of a future glimpsed by being lived.

copyright 2013 William Kowinski

Monday, August 26, 2013

Racism Unchained

On Saturday there was a march in Washington (see photo above) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  I've written a reminiscence of that day in 1963 from the point of view of a 17 year old participant, which has been published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (I lived in western Pennsylvania at the time.) It will also appear in this week's Arcata Eye (which is where I live now.)  I will post that piece here on the actual anniversary day, which is Wednesday.

Today I note the flood of racist activity that seemed aimed at a kind of crescendo as the anniversary approaches.  I have no idea if it's related, even psychologically, and I don't intend it as an evaluation of the March's legacy, which I still believe remains positive.

But it seems pretty clearly related to the fact that the first African American to serve as President of the United States is in the White House.  I think it was about a decade ago that Thomas Franks wrote about the secret racism that remained in the supposedly post-racial society--never overt, expressed in neutral-sounding code words, or even by adopting the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement against the people that movement was chiefly about.  But these days even that discretion has been discarded. Racism is not so secret anymore.

There was the anti-Obama demonstration in Arizona as he was speaking there in support of an economically viable middle class.  Singing "ba ba black sheep" and carrying racist signs, calling the President "47% Negro," it seemed in part a direct response to Obama speaking about race in connection with the Trayvon Martin case.  Demonstrators insisted that by speaking about race, Obama was creating racial divide.  Apparently he couldn't keep the secret.  The Governor of Maine was quoted as saying the thought behind this out loud: that Obama hates white people. He later denied saying it.

At about the same time, racial slurs were painted on a statue of Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American major league baseball player, thus paving the way for...President Obama, I guess.  A rodeo clown  in an Obama mask as the victim to be gored by a bull was just part of a display at the Missouri State Fair that led one (white) observer to react. "They mentioned the president's name, I don't know, 100 times. It was sickening," Beam said. "It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you'd see on TV."

The rabid right and its most powerful media instruments used their own twisted logic to accuse President Obama of a double standard for not defending the white victim of assault by alleged perpetrators who are black, as he had spoken about Trayvon Martin--despite the obvious differences in the case, such as the fact that the alleged perpetrators were arrested and jailed.  It got so bad that the rabid right muttered darkly about the addition of yet another black dog to the White House--but no white dog at all.

The frenzied hatred leads to predictable craziness, as when more Republican citizens of Louisiana blame Obama for the poor response to hurricane Katrina than blame Bush, despite the evident fact that Bush was in office but Obama was not. Or the reflexive hatred of Obamacare changes to approval of its provisions if the name isn't attached to it.

Given that extreme charges of a similarly crazed tone were often aimed at FDR, as well as JFK and RFK (though some of the hate against them was related to support for racial justice), race is probably not the whole Obama psychosis story.  But it is clearly a big part of it.  Big enough for no less than the Majority Leader of the Senate Harry Reid to bring it out in the open.  Of GOPers even in Congress he said  "It's been obvious that they're doing everything they can to make him fail," Reid said. "And I hope, I hope -- and I say this seriously -- I hope that's based on substance and not the fact that he's African-American."  

Much of this was on the minds of speakers at the anniversary march on Saturday, as was the political beneficiary of overt racism, the naked attempt to restrict voting rights in the states--the most substantive and most open challenge to those rights since the Voting Rights act almost 50 years ago.  This is why this resurgent racism is more than a scary psychological response, or melancholy evidence of the depth of racism in America.  Racism is being used to weaken and discredit the presidency of Barack Obama (which is of course not to say that anyone who opposes his policies or even believes he's not a good president is racist.)  Racism is also being used to deny Americans their votes.

  All of this shows what a powerful and incendiary tool racism remains, with those who harbor it and those who cynically employ it, or both.  The Republican party in particular is further discrediting itself and demeaning America by employing it.  But it is perhaps a measure of that party's desperation as well as its resurgent hatred that it is so obvious.