Thursday, June 28, 2007

Truth & Reconciliation, Part I: Reconciling the Wounds of Lynching

--by Sara

Unitarians are so deeply concerned with racism that my aunt, who spent eight years on the church's national board, calls it "our version of Original Sin." That concern expressed itself in a number of venues over the five days of General Assembly. Three of the talks, given by civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill and author James Loewen, spotlighted several things that white liberals grappling with America's racist legacy would do well to understand better. (This post presents the points of Ifill's talk. My take on Loewen's two talks will follow.)

Ifill, who is a professor at the University of Maryland law school, has a new book out called "On The Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century." (The book was published by Beacon Press, the UUA's own publishing arm, which is how Ifill came to be at GA.)

The first thing whites need to know about the legacy of lynching, Ifill told us, is that Americans -- both black and white -- are still carrying deep scars, which are clinging to us through the generations. Working for many years on voting rights cases throughout the South, she noticed that people in the towns she visited had never really let go of these events. "Everywhere I worked, I heard from my clients about lynchings. Invariably, they'd tell me about some horrific act of racial terrorism that had happened in the past." The practice of lynching ended decades ago; but even today, Ifill found that the memories are still as fresh as if they'd happened yesterday.

The next thing Ifill noticed is that whites and blacks in a community talk about lynching differently -- and have very different memories of what happened in their towns so long ago. "When I spoke with my [African-American] clients, I deliberately used the word "memories" -- even though my clients often weren't even alive when these lynchings happened. Still, I discovered that they 'remembered' details of the lynchings in great detail. They'd heard the stories directly from their parents as tales of how to survive life in the towns they lived in." Ifill was struck that "memories" were invariably extremely vivid, recalled with such specificity -- where the bodies were found, how the corpses looked -- that even people born years after the event thought they'd been there themselves, even though they knew it wasn't possible.

White people in the same towns, on the other hand, usually had very vague memories, even if they or their parents had been witnesses to the lynching. " The difference was striking between the two communities," she marveled. Nobody knew anybody involved. Usually, the lynch mob comprised "people from the next county" or "over the state line" -- people not from around here. (The people from the next county would usually point the finger right back.) Even when photos were available -- and, as Dave has noted, photos were very often available -- nobody recognized anybody. "They closed ranks, and never opened them," explained Ifill. "The lynching was not really about their community, so there was nothing to talk about."

Ifill noted that she'd seen this same denial mechanism in action in the late 1990s, when she was in South Africa as part of the UN Truth & Reconciliation commissions holding hearings to catalog the crimes of apartheid. "I couldn't find anyone who'd supported the regime," she recalled. "Either they didn't remember, or they didn't know -- it was just all very vague. Whites were living in a fantasy that they didn't know." Still, the truth and reconciliation process in Africa involved a level of candor she hasn't yet seen in the US -- but she believes it is necessary if healing is to occur.

Third, Ifill stresses: the work of reconciling ourselves to this history isn't something the government can do for us. We need to do it for ourselves -- town by town, person by person. These were local crimes committed by specific individuals: diffusing the responsibility will not heal the wounds. "I don't think we can have a national conversation on race," she mused. "But we can have lots of local ones."

The healing, she insists, will happen one town at a time. "In any town you recall with some nostalgia, there's most likely some alternative story about your town you haven't heard." As an example, she cites Hope, Arkansas -- Bill Clinton's home town. "Hope was the lynching capital of the entire south. I wonder if Bill Clinton's mother knew that?" Ifill pointed out that the glowing stories of "A Town Called Hope" that accompanied the cultivation of Bill Clinton's personal legend never included this fact. "I have to wonder: when do we start talking about this?"

The title of Ifill's book reflects the odd fact that throughout the South, lynchings more often than not happened on the courthouse lawn. It wasn't unusual for victims to be brought from jails many miles away to the county seat for the occasion. According to Ifill, "This was a deliberate choice of venue -- a statement that 'we are in charge of justice; we decide who is guilty and not guilty.'" Lynchings, like all other forms of terrorism, are message crimes; the choice of venue sent a clear message to black communities across the south that the only justice that mattered was mob justice; and appeals to law would be fruitless. (One of the lynchings she describes in her book occurred in the front yard of the judge's house: another message sent, this time to the judiciary, about who was really in control.)

Ifill then turned to the particulars of her book, which details her research into two particular lynchings in her home state of Maryland -- the 1931 execution of 23-year-old Matthew Williams in Salisbury, MD; and the 1933 lynching of George Armwood on the Maryland shore. She notes that silence within and between the white and black communities is one of the central themes of her book -- and breaking that silence is the first and hardest step in creating reconciliation. " A curtain of silence fell between the two communities after these lynchings -- a curtain of fear and shame. And that's the part that has to be broached in the 21st century, because it continues to live on."

In both of the Maryland lynchings, Ifill noticed, nobody in either community ever talked about the lynchings after they occurred. Blacks would not speak of it openly, even among themselves; only the whispered warnings to their children perpetuated the community's horrific memories. On the other side of town, silence gave whites safety from prosecution, and insulated them from a difficult truth -- that a Christian, civil town could also be beastly and lawless. Newspapers would refuse to report on these events: residents in the Armwood case were simply advised by their local paper to "return to normal" as soon as possible.

The silence continued into the churches. In both black and white congregations, nothing would be said on Sunday. White clergy would not challenge the immorality of lynching; usually, ministers were adamant about not mentioning events at all, especially if their own members had been involved. (They were often in denial about their members' participation.) Black ministers similarly refused to talk about it: Ifill recalled one black minister whose only comment the Sunday after one of the Maryland lynchings was a short acknowledgement that "the community has suffered a strain."

And the strain lingers far more strongly than most people realize. "Trying to talk about these events takes a lot of courage," said Ifill. "We need to realize that "conversations about race" are not always public. They are inter-racial, intra-racial, private, and public. They need to happen within families, within churches, as well as in communities."

But, she cautioned, it's important not to underestimate the hostility that's provoked when people attempt to begin these conversations. She recalled a trip to the county museum while researching the Williams lynching. The curator told her that a well-loved local professor had made a presentation on the Williams lynching to the historical society about 10 years earlier. The curator had attended the meeting -- and recalled that it was very hostile. The idea that whites should be blamed or feel responsible for the lynching "just wasn't going to go over with this group," Ifill quotes the curator as saying. He stuck to the usual storyline: the lynching was the work of a few disgruntled whites, most of them from out of town. She later found the professor's account of the same meeting, which matched the curator's verbatim. The professor was shattered by the rejection of her story: she never really forgave or forgot the outrage she felt at that meeting.

What does reconciliation look like? Ifill offered many concrete ideas in her talk -- and includes many more in her book. For one thing, she says, we need to commemorate these events. "This history has largely been erased," she notes. "There are markers for all kinds of things in small towns -- but never for these events. Reparation is about repairing the harm -- and one way to do that is to acknowledge in the public space that these things happened." Other commemorations might include annual rememberance days, community scholarships, and special exhibits in local museums.

Ifill was emphatic that the reconciliation process is hard, and participants need to be gentle with each other. "Sharing the stories means pulling the scabs off. You need to provide psychological support to help people deal with what gets stirred up. It complicates the process, but it's part of it."

Most importantly, she says, we need to recognize the ways in which these experiences made our grandparents -- both white and black -- the way they are. "Many small-town Americans harbor experiences they've had to swallow and get on with. Truth and reconciliation is largely about putting down those burdens." The process goes more easily if we start by respecting and acknowledging the courage of people who went through these horrible events and survived. Sometimes it helps to have outside facilitators to start and guide the conversation -- people who can take the heat, help people work through the emotions, and then leave town when it's over. Ifill cites the Alliance for Truth & Reconciliation as one group that's helping facilitate this process for interested communities.

Ifill's experiences in South Africa also brought home to her how important it is to include local institutions in this process. Churches and businesses, cops and prisons, lawyers and judges, and doctors and hospitals all supported the infrastructure of apartheid; healing was not possible until these institutions examined their role, and began to actively find ways to restore the trust they'd lost with the country's black population. African-Americans are similarly wary of both public and private institutions; reconciliation must involve them, and encourage them to open new pathways to greater trust in the future.

It's probably not a coincidence that the last lynchings in the US occurred in the 1950s -- and that two generations have passed in silence, leaving the third one to begin the process of uncovering the truth and cleansing the wounds. This pattern is a familiar one to people who work with adult children of alcoholic or abusive families; and also those who have worked with families who were victimized by the Holocaust or the Japanese internments. The first generation survives, often in silence; to speak of these things is simply too painful to endure. The second generation is often aware of the terrible things that happened; but respects their elders' silence, even as they strive to reassert the "normal" life of the family.

In all these cases, it typically falls to the third generation to break the silence, and begin the process of reconciliation. In the case of lynching, that third generation is us -- the current cohort of white and black Americans who are seeking to heal the wounds of long-ago terror that still create vast chasms between us, and limit our vision of what a shared America might look like. Our ability to create that America in the future depends, completely and utterly, on finding the courage to confront the past -- to open up our overwhelming load of shared baggage, examine its wretched contents with honesty and courage, and then agree on ways of putting these things in their proper historic place -- always remembered but never perpetuated -- so we can all move forward with a lighter load.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The hate also rises

I'm a little late remarking on this, but the threats against Leonard Pitts really raise some disturbing issues:
A white-supremacist Web site angered by a Leonard Pitts Jr. column alluding to the murder of a white couple posted The Miami Herald writer's home address and phone number -- leading to threats against the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner.

When Herald Managing Editor/News Dave Wilson asked to delete the address and phone number, site editor Bill White replied: "We have no intention of removing Mr. Pitts' personal information. Frankly, if some loony took the info and killed him, I wouldn't shed a tear. That also goes for your whole newsroom."

Elsewhere on the Roanoke, Va.-based site, the N-word was used to refer to Pitts, who's African-American. He won a Pulitzer for commentary in 2004. His column is syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

White's reply to Wilson was posted on, as was Wilson's e-mail message to White -- leading the Herald editor to also get some nasty responses from white supremacists. But Pitts has received most of the messages.

When reached today by E&P, Wilson said some of the messages were "thoughtful" but others were "very unsettling" in nature. "We did refer some of them to our legal representatives," added the Herald editor. "Our first concern is for Leonard, and we have been in close contact with him."

You may recall the case that sparked this brushfire: the right-wing brouhaha over a particularly heinous black-on-white crime for which no evidence of a bias crime is known to exist, though what we've seen in play is a classic far-right technique for muddying the public perception of what constitutes a hate crime. And Pitts had the matter pegged:
Pitts, in the early June column that set off, wrote about the brutal January murder of a white couple in Tennessee. A group of African Americans were charged with the crime. "(I)f the defendants in this case did what they are accused of doing, I'd be happy to see them rot under the jailhouse," wrote Pitts.

But Pitts also noted that the supremacists and conservative bloggers who pushed the murder case into the national spotlight were examples of white people who "put on the victim hat" and allege that black crime against whites is underreported.

"Black crime against whites is underreported? On what planet? Study after study and expert after expert tell a completely different story," wrote Pitts, who's syndicated by Tribune Media Services .

Pitts concluded: "I have four words for ... any other white Americans who feel themselves similarly victimized. Cry me a river."

The chief player in all this -- Bill White, the neo-Nazi former National Socialist Movement leader responsible for sparking the 2005 riots in Toledo -- has a real track record of fomenting hate and threats: he was one of the gleeful participants in the far right's celebration of the murderous assault against the family of the Illinois judge who put Matt Hale away.

He also is known for claiming that he has social connections to major right-wing media figures, particularly at the Washington Times, where he claims to be friends with Robert Stacy McCain and Fran Coombs (see more about them here and here). He once wrote the following in an Internet forum:
This is amusing. First, Stacy McCain is a pretty good friend of mine, Francis Coombs is a big fan of our website, and I've had lunch with his wife at an American Renaissance conference. Stacy, at least, is not anti-Jewish -- they all come from that weird part of the "far right" that buys into race theories but has a weird admiration for Semites. I once suggested to Mrs Coombs that the Washington Times should more virulently criticize the Zionist Entity, and she told me that several Jewish columnists -- Charles Krauthammer, Norman Podhoretz and AM Rosenthal, among others -- had threatened the Moonie organization if they ever took an anti-Zionist stance. Wes Pruden, who is in charge of the Times, however, is an extreme Zionist, and I have cussed him out violently for his extreme pro-Jewish views. People who know him tell me they can't understand his love of the Zionist state.

In any case, the SPLC has been trying to get these guys fired for years now. Stacy, in paticular, wrote a front-page story exposing how the SPLC made up the Y2K militia threat in order to con a multi-million contract out of the Clinton government, and has been on their shit list every since.

Anyways, read on, as the homosexual Jewish lobby rails against some of the few good folk still writing in an American newspaper:]


If they wanted to go after Stacy's FreeRepublic postings, they should have done it in a timely manner (this is all about a year and a half old) -- and just attacked him, since he's a little guy and the bigger guys at the Washington Times are political and not particular brave, and thus always willing to throw the little guy overboard if they think it will save their own asses.]

[You can read the cached version of this missive here.]

Rob Redding has been diligent in following up on this aspect of the threats. In addition to reporting on the connection, he obtained a clarification of sorts from McCain:
McCain, who has been linked to a pro-slavery group in the past, admits to knowing White.

"I first encountered Bill White who was, at that time, head of something called the Utopian Anarchist Party. He later, I believe, changed the name of his group to the Libertarian Socialist Party," McCain wrote in an emailed response. "In the past few years, Bill has associated himself with neo-Nazism. I have no explanation for this bizarre turn, except as a continuation of his tendency toward radicalism.

"The 'link' you assert is non-existent, and is irrelevant to anything happening in 2007" to Pitts, McCain wrote in an another emailed response. "That kind of thing is completely wrong. Opinion journalism should be provocative, and provocative opinions will necessarily generate strong disagreement, but disagreeing with someone's opinion should not lead to death threats, slurs, etc."

This is actually true as far as it goes. I first encountered White in the 1990s when he was indeed involved in various kinds of anarchism and libertarianism, though even then he clearly operated on the fringe and was a dangerously unstable character. McCain's judgment then was evidently as impaired as it is now.

More to the point, you'll note that nowhere does McCain indicate that he no longer considers White fit company -- he just makes clear that he himself disagrees with White, which is a small comfort, I suppose.

What's much harder to explain, exactly, is why White hasn't been charged with making threats against Pitts. It is difficult to read White's words and not comprehend them as an exhortation to violence and a threat against Pitts.

This is not a free-speech issue. Threats and intimidation are crimes in every state, and a crime by its nature is not a form of protected speech. I'm not certain why authorities haven't taken White's threats seriously, but their inaction, unfortunately, speaks volumes. If this were George Will being threatened by a Nation of Islam figure, you know you'd have seen the perp walk already.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Dreams Train: Beyond the station

I guess I knew that the Dreams Across America experience was likely to be grueling, but I evidently underestimated the effect it would have on my 50-year-old body; I've spent the past couple of days, since arriving home from D.C., mostly resting and reconnecting with my family. Sorry for the absence, but it gave me some time to reflect on my experience and offer some closing thoughts.

It was, as you perhaps can tell from the posts I wrote along the way, an amazing human experience, most of all because it gave me a chance to meet and get to know a little about a genuinely inspiring collection of people from all walks of life. There were, however, a few disquieting moments toward the end of it all that, I believe, may give us some clues as to why we are still spinning our wheels somewhat in working toward sensible and effective immigration reform -- and also point our way to a solution.

We arrived in D.C. on Monday afternoon at around 2:30 and spent the next hour or so participating in the "Dreams" rally outside Union Station in the plaza in front of it. It might have been an unremarkable rally, if you've seen these things before, but for the presence of an 11-year-old girl, an American citizen who showed off her athletic medals, who described to the crowd her living nightmare after ICE agents descended on her home, with her parents narrowly escaping arrest -- but now the family is in chaos because the mother and father are in forced hiding.

This was a story that really resonated with those I had been hearing from those aboard the train: stories of a broken immigration system almost designed to break families apart and create a whole subclass of workers forced to live in terror that they might be ripped away from their loved ones at whim of that broken system.

And it seemed to be a current running through the speeches and marches that followed. The next day, after a breakfast at the station, the Dreamers all piled onto school buses to head up a march from the Metropolitan AMC Church in Washington down to the White House. Out in front of the church, organizers had prepared a phalanx of child strollers with signs pleading not to break up families [above]. One of the lead banners demanded: "Stop Breaking Families Apart!"

The size of the march was impressive; it appeared to have attracted somewhere between two and three thousand people. It wound in a continuous mass down 16th Street; when we reached Lafayette Park, I could see marchers nearly all the way back to where we started.

It was a remarkably diverse crowd, as had been the demographics of those aboard the Dreams Train. There were Latinos, Caucasians, African Americans, Asians, Indians -- you name it, they were in the march. And the spirit of cross-ethnic cooperation was both remarkable and quite visible.

When it reached the White House, much of the crowd dispersed around the lawn in front (park police wouldn't allow the marchers onto the sidewalk or driveway in front). Once most of the marchers had gathered around, the speeches began anew.

It should have been at this point, perhaps, that the Dreamers' achievement should have been celebrated, and their message made clear: We're all in this together, and we need to resolve this in a way that unites us all. But that message, it seemed, was being drowned out in chants and speeches.

I'd had an interesting encounter just as the crowd approached Lafayette Park. I was climbing up the back of a delivery truck that had crates of bottled water on board in (as it turned out, vain) hope of finding a decent vantage point to photograph the whole march. An elderly African-American man was below me off to my left a little, and he was watching the march.

As I hopped down off the truck next to him, the marchers broke out in a chant: "Si se puede! Si se puede!" The old man looked at me and said, "Si se puede? Who they talking to?" And he stalked off in apparent disgust.

I thought: "Well, there's one person they just lost." Not that movements like this need to appeal to everyone, but I couldn't help wonder, as I listened to the speakers carry on about their own agendas, how many more there were like him.

It's kind of a political reality that coalitions like the one that brought together the Dreams Train will be somewhat fractious -- in this case, ranging from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the unions to immigration-reform groups -- and that when push comes to shove, the more powerful factions will take over. It was clear, in D.C. at least, that the unions were running the show, and in the process were shutting out some of the very elements of the coalition that had made the Dreamers' achievement remarkable. They also, in the process, managed to turn the Dreamers themselves almost into props.

Seeing this reminded me of one of the undercurrents that rode aboard the Dreams Train itself: Shortly after we first boarded in Los Angeles, the Dreamers began settling into their seats on board the train and forming their own social groups, as is normal in such situations. And unsurprisingly, many of the Latinos formed their own group, while non-Latinos tended to interact more with each other; this is probably only natural, since many of the Latinos spoke mostly Spanish, and some no English at all.

But over the course of the trip, I really saw these artificial barriers break down, especially as we ate and slept together and found ways to pass the time together. Sometimes translators helped break the language barriers; sometimes merely sharing a meal or watching the scenery together would work. By the time we reached D.C., it seemed that among most of the Dreamers, there was a mutual respect and camaraderie that can only come through being pushed and tested.

If there was an abiding lesson in all that we endured, it was this: The American Dream itself rests on a just, equitable, effective, and realistic immigration policy that reflects the best of our values -- family, hard work, human decency -- and enables us to share them. And that this isn't something we can achieve by promoting our own narrow interests; it's something we can only achieve by coming together, recognizing our mutual interests and needs, and building something from them that benefits us all. Not just Latinos, not just immigrants, but all Americans.

Yet all this seemed to be drowned by what followed the next few days. Symbolic of the outcome, I think, was what happened to the Dreamers the day they arrived in D.C. Instead of being transported immediately to their hotel accommodations (out in the suburbs) after the rally at the station, organizers inexplicably kept them around Union Station for the next six hours. They finally got to depart for their hotels around 8:30 -- dog tired, needing showers (Washington was a steam bath outside that day), and ready for some real rest, the kind you can't get on a rollicking train.

I'd left by cab around 5 p.m. so I could get some work done, so I at least was able to get cleaned up and refreshed in a reasonable time. If I'd been forced to wait until 9:30 p.m. (the time most of them got to their rooms) I'd have been furious.

It was, frankly, an awful way to treat a group of people who'd just made a tremendously difficult journey on their behalf. There was a feeling, at least among some of them, that they were just being used as props.

And when, after the Tuesday march, all of the Dreamers were left out of meetings with congressional leaders that followed, I can't help but figure that some of those feelings just hardened.

It's all small potatoes, really, but it's emblematic of the larger problems at play in terms of an effective approach to immigration reform. So far, most progressives are content to criticize right-wing policy, but the hard work of coming together for a just and humane solution is being evaded. We're ceding the field to a fairly narrow spectrum of powerful players.

I'm observing all this, of course, not with the intent of raining on the Dreamers' parade, but to point out that what they actually achieved hasn't been properly understood by even their own handlers. Going forward, it's clear that obtaining real immigration reform is going to require a broad-based effort that is inclusive, a real grass-roots movement drawing together Americans from all walks of life, instead of a product of power politics and the pursuit of our narrow self-interests.

The Dreamers demonstrated that it could be done, at least on a small scale. With their example in hand, we need to find a way to make it happen on a national scale.

It would be sad, after all, if everything the Dreamers worked to achieve were frittered away by the politics of the moment.

[A closing note of thanks: I'm really grateful for having had the chance to make as many friends on the train as I did; most of them are people whose names you'll find in my posts. A special thanks to the media crew I worked with on the train: Arthur Rhodes, Shaun Kadlec, and Visperd Mada-Doust. And a big big thanks to Rick Jacobs, who was the guy who made it happen.]