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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

Everybody has been so worked up over the Duck Dynasty/Phil Robertson controversy (and, before that, Megyn Kelly’s “white Santa” drama) that it feels like we’ve misplaced our “peace on earth and good will toward men.” I really appreciate Jen Hatmaker’s wise and passionate words on the subject, but frankly I’d prefer not to add any more volume to the cacophony. Instead, I’ve come out of blogging hibernation to offer my reflections on something a little more fitting for the season. A couple days ago, I heard an engaging segment on NPR about sad Christmas songs.

“Bundled up in Christmas is hopefully a lot of joy and a lot of family and a lot of happiness, but that’s always going to be touched with an element of sadness,” said NPR’s Stephen Thompson, and I agree. Whether it’s Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” our favorite holiday tunes usually come with a dash of melancholy. It’s what I used to refer to during my teen years as a “happy sadness.”

Every Christmas I have at least one or two songs that wind up defining the holiday for me that year. The last couple of years, the tracks from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas comprised my go-to holiday playlist. But this year, I can’t seem to get away from the funky “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The tune has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past couple weeks.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I was a bit too young to witness James Brown in his original glory. My initial impressions of him were informed more by the mild spoofs of himself that he did in The Blues Brothers or Rocky IV. While those performances were genuine James Brown, they were more riffs on his former greatness than fresh manifestations of his true artistic brilliance. James Brown is remembered as “the Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Signature James Brown hits like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are not just great R&B songs; they’re among the greatest entries in the American songbook. It’s not hyperbole to say James Brown was one of the most influential artists in popular music. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine how any of today’s variations of pop music—rock, R&B, hip-hop—would exist in their fullness.

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was released in 1968 as part of Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album. When I first heard the song  a few years ago, I confess that I listened to it through the filter of the latter-day James Brown caricature. It’s the funky Godfather of Soul talking about Santa Claus going to the ghetto. That’s pure fun and silliness, right? Upon further listens, however, I was struck by how urgent the song is. Not only is it filled with an understated poignancy, at moments it virtually seethes with a biting desperation. This, after all, was 1968—the year that saw Brown moving from being one of America’s most popular entertainers to one of its most vocal activists.

Most notably, 1968 was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. All at once, the anger and hopelessness of black people boiled over in the form of riots across American cities. As the nation both figuratively and literally burned, James Brown was called upon to help bring peace to a tenuous situation. On April 5, 1968, the day after King’s murder, Brown had been scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. In the wake of the Memphis tragedy, however, the performance was initially canceled by Boston Garden management until Boston’s first African American city councilman, Tom Atkins, persuaded Boston mayor Kevin White that the James Brown concert should go on and be televised on local public television as a means of unifying the black community and directing its attention away from the despondency and rage that were hanging in the air. James Brown not only supplied a thrilling performance, he was credited with calming the city’s nerves and keeping Boston residents safely away from the troubled streets.

The full story is chronicled wonderfully in James Sullivan’s book The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America. Indeed, the Boston concert marked something of a turning point in Brown’s career. After that show, President Lyndon Johnson implored the singer to perform a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., to promote a message of nonviolence. And later in the year, Brown would release his groundbreaking hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which placed him squarely in the fray of the civil rights movement’s struggle for racial justice in America.

It’s against this backdrop that Brown recorded “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” And once you get past the initial funkiness of the track (check out the quick burst of “Jingle Bells” during the saxophone solo), it’s hard not to hear it as a type of subversive protest song.

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Hitch up your reindeer, uh!

And go straight to the ghetto

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Fill every stocking you find

The kids are gonna love you so, uh!

What’s most striking about the song to me is how Brown acts as the tour guide for Santa, the one man whom you’d suppose knew his way around all parts of the world. But in 1968, Brown understood that Santa Claus, and all he might represent in this context—the government? the church? white America?—needed instructions for navigating their way around the ghetto, a place that was presumably foreign to them.

Leave a toy for Johnny

Leave a doll for Mary

Leave something pretty for Donnie

And don’t forget about Gary

“Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” the singer goes on to say, at once offering himself up as the conduit for connecting with the hidden pain of the black community.

I confess, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is an odd candidate for the Christmas canon. It does not receive the acclaim of R&B holiday classics such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” or the Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night.”  It will never be sung by neighborhood carolers or during a church Christmas Eve service. But 45 years after the song’s release, in a 21st-century era that still boasts disturbing social and economic disparities between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and non-immigrant, it might do us well to take Soul Brother No. 1’s desperate plea to heart. Could it be that he’s calling us to pack up our sleighs and remember the contemporary “ghettos” in our midst?

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Illustration: “Change” by artist Charles Criner at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, Texas. (http://www.printingmuseum.org/crinerprint.php)

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.

Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.

This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.

But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?

Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?

 

Obama the Reconciler

What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.

The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.

That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.

Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.

One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:

Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.

There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.

Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.

 

Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided

It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.

But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.

And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.

When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.

 

Our Shrinking Humanity

The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.

Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together.  It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.

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A year ago I fancied myself moving the cause of racial reconciliation forward by suggesting that it was time that we phase out Black History Month. Remember that? Well, I return to you in 2011, humbled, chastened, and a little less hopeful than I was 12 months ago.

Here’s the thing: I still think genuine racial reconciliation would mean that we eventually move away from Black History Month as a remedy to cultural ignorance and the lingering effects of America’s racist past and that we’d fold its celebration into the everyday fabric of our national culture. Though I think this has been happening in our society to an extent, in my cognitive slowness it has become clear to me over the past several months that to retire Black History Month (or any other cultural awareness month) at this point would run the risk of wiping out any progress in cross-cultural understanding that we’ve managed over the past 85 years since Carter G. Woodson introduced the concept to the nation. (For some great trivia about the history of Black History Month, check out this article.)

So, why am I repenting and backtracking from my position of a year ago? Well, to put it bluntly, I get the feeling that certain folks have identified our nation’s “inconvenient” parts of history as key hurdles to advancing their own political and ideological agendas, so as a result they’ve decided (whether intentionally or subconsciously) to erase, ignore, or conveniently forget that history.

What am I talking about? Well, last month I blogged about that other Arizona law, the one that targets ethnic studies programs in schools. Proponents of this new law have labeled ethnic awareness programs as “propagandizing and brainwashing” students and stoking resentment against white people. In other words, teaching young Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans about the history of their people in this country runs the risk of stirring up too many unpleasant moments from the past. Better to just not talk about it and focus on those things that the majority culture deems legitimate American history. I apologize if my cynicism is creeping through here, but the point is, the Arizona case is an extreme example of the fear and suspicion that a non-white perspective on history elicits from some white people (another example might be the white vs. black interpretations of the infamous Jermiah Wright sermon).

Then there are the instances of prominent white pundits and polticians playing loose with the basic facts of American history. Glenn Beck’s desire to out Martin Luther King Jr. as a Tea Party sympathizer and “reclaim the civil rights movement” as some sort of conservative political phenomenon was eloquently rebutted by columnist Leonard Pitts. And Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s suggestion during a speech in January that the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery left even some conservatives scratching their heads. And who can forget Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s romanticized memories of the civil rights era during his youth in the Deep South? Then there was that odd bit of political theater with the incoming, Republican-led Congress’ public reading of the U.S. Constitution in January that seemed to be the GOP’s symbolic way of reminding America that they are the true keepers of the Constitution as it was written. However, as columnist Clarence Page pointed out, their decision to leave out certain passages could lead one to wonder how committed to the original document they really are. He wrote:

Making good on a campaign promise, the Republican-dominated 112th House of Representatives opened with a reading of the Constitution. But the leaders copped out of reading some of the most thought-provoking parts.

They decided to read only the Constitution-as-amended. That means they left out parts of which we in today’s America are not so proud — like the clause in Article I that declared slaves would be counted for purposes of reapportionment as only three-fifths of a person.

Seems like a reasonable detail to include if one is determined to stay as true as possible to the Founders’ original intent. But I digress. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we need to hold on to all of this history for purposes of harboring grudges or waving it before white Americans as proof of their enduring racism. While some activists make a good living off of that, I think that’s just as bad as attempting to revise or forget the history that doesn’t line up with the way we think America ought to be viewed. No, the more important reason that we should continue to practice racial and ethnic awareness with all intentionality is that it keeps us accountable.  If we’re honest with it, it will guard us against repeating those previous sins and misdeeds against our brothers and sisters, and perhaps help us, as Dr. King said, “to rise up and live out the full meaning of our nation’s creed: that all men are created equal.” 

Perhaps the most compelling reason for remembering and rehearsing the difficult aspects of our history is because that’s the stuff—the failures and contradictions, along with the courage and compassion—that makes us truly American.     

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” said James Baldwin in his brilliant 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers.” Until we grasp more fully what he meant, I think we’ll continue to need an annual reminder.

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The new Life.com features a collection of never-before-published photos of the events in the hours immediately following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Here’s an AP story about the photos.

At my Facebook page, where I posted a link to the gallery, my friend Vinita Hampton Wright made the observation, “How ordinary the setting of such a pivotal event.” And I agree. I was especially fascinated by the image of King’s SCLC colleagues gathered in the small motel room after his death. It reminded me of the mood in the house when, as a little boy, I accompanied my parents to the home of a family friend who had just passed away. You can feel the awful silence, that sense of feeling lost but having no other choice but to carry on.

Tomorrow marks the forty-first anniversary of Dr. King’s death.

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Tonight, exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, Barack Obama will officially accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Quite heady stuff, given our nation’s bumpy history on the race-relations front. In commemoration, here are a few of the thought-provoking articles and reports I’ve encountered over the past week.

  • Does King+45=Obama? Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page connects the historic March on Washington to Barack Obama’s historic campaign and reflects on what it teaches Americans about themselves. 
  • Dr. King Goes to Washington. NPR’s Steve Innskeep interviews MLK biographer Taylor Branch and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins about that fateful day in which King flipped the script and declared, “I have a dream!”
  • From Washington to Denver. In this New York Times report by Michael Powell, veterans of the 1963 March on Washington who are in Denver this week for the Democratic convention reflect on the trials of the past and the hopes of the future.
  • Will Obama’s Rise Endanger Civil Rights? New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns surveys the ambivalent mood among some in the African American community regarding Barack Obama’s success. Awhile back, I posted about “Why White Supremacists Like Obama,” but this article examines what might be considered the opposite: Why some black civil rights leaders are dubious about an Obama presidency.
  • ObamaKids. Finally, in this essay from New York magazine, scholar and author John McWhorter speculates about how an Obama presidency could transform race relations in America simply through the symbolic signals it sends. He writes, “[I]f Obama becomes president, there will be a shift in the conception of race in this country that neither side in the culture wars can control. It’s all about youth. Think about it. If Obama is elected to two terms, an entire generation of 10-year-olds will come of age having been barely aware of anyone other than a black man in the White House.”

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