Baton Rouge needs love, creative nonviolence

By Robert Mann

Was John Lennon right when he and The Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love”? In light of recent events in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, prescribing an anodyne dose of love might seem woefully insufficient. Surely love, alone, cannot eradicate war, ignorance and hatred, can it?

Maybe in this nuclear age, it’s naive to argue that love is the most powerful force in the universe. But I know people of every faith (and many who profess no religion at all) who hold that love can conquer all. If you are a Christian, you likely believe that love conquered death itself. If so, couldn’t it overcome violence and hatred?

I am awed by the witness of those who have seen and endured some of the worst violence and torture and, yet, responded with love, not hate.

Gandhi, who would die from an assassin’s bullet in 1948, wrote in 1931, “Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders.”

Some thought him naive, but Gandhi’s steadfast commitment to creative non-violence (a form of love) helped India throw off the shackles of British colonialism.

One of Gandhi’s devoted students, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was a passionate evangelist for using love and creative nonviolence to transform the hearts and actions of his adversaries. “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself,” King said in 1967, “and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”

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Selma: MLK vs LBJ

Embed from Getty Images

By Robert Mann

Who was really responsible for the 1965 voting rights act? And who inspired the bloody 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which is portrayed in the new film “Selma“?

I haven’t yet seen the film, but some reviewers and former aides to President Lyndon Johnson are criticizing the filmmaker for portraying LBJ as a reluctant supporter of voting rights and the Selma march.

As CBS reported,

“A December 1964 meeting in the Oval Office is reenacted on the big screen: Martin Luther King, Jr. entreats the help of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to ensure voting rights for black Americans. ‘Mr. President,’ King says in the film, ‘in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders. . . we need your help.'”

Johnson, according to the movie’s account, responds with a condescending pat on the shoulder and a line that some historians and first-hand witnesses reject: “Dr. King, this thing’s just going to have to wait.”

Historians and some who worked for Johnson have attacked the film’s depiction of Johnson as fiction. As the New York Times reported,

The charge began on Dec. 22, three days before the movie’s release, when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote an article in Politico saying that the film was trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.” A few days later, Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former top domestic aide to Johnson, issued another salvo, in The Washington Post, accusing the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record.

The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film.

“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in an interview.

“But with the portrayal of L.B.J.,” she continued, “I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 3.12.44 PMAs the author of a 1996 political history of the civil rights movement (The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights), I devoted much ink to Johnson’s important role in the civil rights movement. It’s certainly not an either-or story. The civil rights laws weren’t all Johnson’s doing, although they would not have become law when they did without Johnson’s skillful leadership. They weren’t all King’s doing, or the marchers, although Johnson would have found it impossible to pass those laws without the pressure and public outrage that the movement and the marches generated.

Both had a role and each played those roles perfectly. At the time, both sides publicly acknowledged the important roles each played in the civil rights movement.

Here, for your edification, are the two chapters from my book which detail how  King and the movement worked with Johnson to apply pressure on Congress to pass the 1965 voting rights law:



We Are Demanding the Ballot

FOR YEARS SOUTHERN MEMBERS OF CONGRESS fought to defeat civil rights measures by arguing that such pernicious legislation would inevitably lead to violence and dangerous social upheaval in the former Confederate states. The balance between whites and blacks, they argued, was simply too delicate to alter suddenly with sweeping federal legislation.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved what many liberals had suspected: Such arguments were not based on legitimate concerns about maintaining peace and harmony; they were merely in­ sincere excuses for preserving the South’s brutal status quo in race relations. Those who had accepted the threadbare southern arguments against the bill must have been greatly surprised by southern reaction to the legislation’s passage. While Democrats suffered significant electoral losses in the South, the five southern states that Goldwater carried hardly qualified as the electoral disaster predicted by Russell and others. Furthermore, response to the dreaded public accommodations provisions was surprisingly benign: An extensive fifty-three-city survey conducted by the Community Relations Service found “widespread compliance” with the bill’s provisions. “What is most important,” Johnson said in reaction to the report, was that “it shows the law is being obeyed in those areas where some had predicted there would be massive disobedience.” In New Orleans two hundred business leaders – including the manager of the well-known Roosevelt Hotel – put their names on a newspaper advertisement urging compliance with the law. Elsewhere in New Orleans, blacks quietly and peacefully desegregated downtown movie theaters and dined at French Quarter restaurants for the first time. The Jackson, Mississippi, Chamber of Commerce called on its members to obey the law “pending tests of its constitutionality in court.” In Birmingham, where Mayor Albert Boutwell refused to use the city’s resources to enforce the act, blacks and whites ate together in several downtown restaurants; the city’s hotel and motel associations said they would obey the law. Holiday Inns of America told its 488 motels to observe the law. The South’s largest cafeteria chain, Morrison’s, announced it would do the same. Read more

Ted Cruz: Obamacare’s unlikely best friend

Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

By Robert Mann

As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz frog-marched the Republican-led House into a politically disastrous federal government shutdown, I found myself increasingly furious at his self-righteous audacity. Closing the government and threatening the full faith and credit of the United States over the fool’s errand of defunding Obamacare was an act of political sabotage and an affront to our democratic process.

What an odious character, I thought. And yet, after surveying the wreckage of the Tea Party-dominated, Cruz-led GOP, I’ve reconsidered. I now see Captain Ted and his merry band of Kamikazes in a different light. After contemplating poll numbers showing Americans overwhelmingly disgusted with congressional Republicans, I find myself thankful for his “leadership.”

It turns out that Cruz is to Obamacare what Eugene “Bull” Connor was to the civil rights movement – its unlikely best friend.

Connor, of course, was the brutal Birmingham police commissioner who terrorized civil rights marchers in the spring of 1963 with fire hoses and German Shepherds. He jailed Martin Luther King and thousands of marchers, many of them teenagers.

Had Connor ignored the marchers, Birmingham would have been a footnote in the civil rights movement. Instead, the repulsive images of police officers attacking protesters with fire hoses and vicious dogs propelled Birmingham onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. Afterwards, public opinion pivoted sharply in support of civil rights legislation.

Connor’s monumental stupidity was instrumental in helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – so much so that even President John F. Kennedy defended him in a meeting of civil rights leaders in August 1963.

“I don’t think you should all be totally harsh on Bull Connor,” Kennedy told King and his colleagues in an Oval Office meeting. “After all, he has done more for civil rights than almost anybody else.”

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When will we really start living Martin Luther King’s dream?

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

By Robert Mann

My daughter wouldn’t stop talking about a new friend at her elementary school, so my wife and the child’s mother arranged a play date at our house. I’ll never forget the moment when my daughter’s friend appeared and I realized that she had not mentioned something that would’ve never gone unspoken during my childhood.

Her friend, you see, is black.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of the day when his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” my daughter was doing just that. It’s not that she didn’t see her friend’s race. It’s that it mattered so little that she thought it unnecessary to mention it. She’s living Dr. King’s dream. She chooses friends based on character, not skin color.

After reminding my now-teenage daughter about this the other day, I began reflecting on my own upbringing in southeast Texas in the 1960s. My parents were not politically liberal, but on matters of race they were as tolerant as anyone I knew.

I will never forget the sight of my mother scolding our minister one Sunday morning after he had embarrassed a black woman who visited our church. Before his sermon, the minister told the congregation that she was among us only because her car had broken down. The implicit message was, “Don’t worry, she won’t be back.”

Nor will I will forget the lightning that crashed around us as my father – a lay preacher, who would later become a full-time minister – drove the family to Thursday night Bible study at his church in Beaumont, Texas, on April 4, 1968. My dad’s congregation was a small black church that had lost its preacher. My father volunteered to serve them. As we made our way to church that evening, my parents learned on the car radio that King had been shot in Memphis. Concerned about unrest in the church’s neighborhood, dad turned the car around.

While my parents were not politically liberal – and even supported George Wallace for president in 1968 — I cannot remember a time either of them spoke disparagingly about black people. In fact, in our home, the N-word was the worst kind of profanity.

As enlightened as my childhood was on race, however, I now realize that something profound was missing. Throughout elementary school, I had no black friends, as there were no black children who attended my all-white public school. It wasn’t that my parents or I rejected the possibility of blacks as friends; it was that segregated society mostly rejected that possibility for me.

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MSNBC: Behind the Scenes at the 1963 March on Washington

Up with Kornacki shot 1

By Robert Mann

MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” devoted much of Sunday morning’s show to an interesting discussion of the 1963 “March on Washington.” The 50th anniversary of the march and the immortal speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. is Wednesday, Aug. 28.

As the author of two books about the civil rights movement, I was delighted to join the show’s first panel, along with former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert; former aide to Robert Kennedy, Jack Rosenthal; and Walter Fields, executive editor of NorthStar News.

If you’d like to learn something about history of the march, you can watch the first 40 minutes of the show at the links below. It’s broken into three parts:

First segment

Second segment

Third segment


The 1963 March on Washington: Celebrate King, but don’t forget John Lewis

English: This is a picture of SNCC leader John...
SNCC leader John Lewis (left) and Jim Zwerg after being beaten during the Freedom Rides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Robert Mann

The sound of speeches and music wafted across the National Mall in Washington on the balmy afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963. A crowd of several hundred thousand flooded the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, all there for the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

But even as the program began and the speakers began addressing the crowd, conflict erupted inside a guardhouse under the massive seat of Lincoln’s statue. Surrounding 23-year-old John Lewis – son of an Alabama sharecropper and the new president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC) – were the giants of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins.

A Baptist seminary graduate and ardent believer in nonviolent protest, Lewis would be one of 10 major speakers that afternoon. His original text had startled organizers with its threat to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

The Catholic archbishop who would deliver the invocation refused to pray until Lewis removed these offending words: “‘Patience’ is a dirty and nasty word.” Lewis had done that the night before. But now his compatriots demanded more changes.

One of the 13 original Freedom Riders in 1960 who desegregated bus routes from Washington to New Orleans, Lewis’ courage was well known. He didn’t surrender easily. During his bus rides, he’d been arrested by Southern policemen and beaten bloody by racist mobs (he would again be brutally assaulted during a historic march at Selma, Ala., in 1965.) Eventually, on this day, he softened his speech more.

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Recruiting black conservatives: ‘Runaway Slave’ vs ‘Django Unchained’

By Tom Swain

Django Unchained
Django Unchained (Photo credit: Sam_Carpenter1974)

By now, it’s likely too late to register for the second day of @large, billed as “a conference for a new majority.” You could go to and find out about it. Tickets, if you can still get one, are $79.

According to the website, this was “a one and a half day conference for black conservatives interested in engaging in the political process. The conference was to be held May 30-31, 2013, at Crowne Plaza in Baton Rouge, La. The goal of this conference was to inspire, motivate, and encourage black conservatives to get involved in politics and build a constituency within their communities.”

The itinerary for the event included “prominent, conservative black speakers, workshops and discussions on various campaign disciplines such as fundraising and messaging, networking, and a showing of Rev. C.L. Bryant’s documentary “Runaway Slave.” Reverend Bryant is the headliner for the event.”

I found out about @large on The Hayride, which bills itself as “Louisiana’s premier conservative political commentary site.” (Where else can you read about a brazen attempt by party leaders “at a regular meeting of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee” “to completely replace the current LAGOP bylaws with a newer version”?!?)

Hayride founder and publisher Scott McKay was one of the organizers of the @large event.

It is interesting that McKay was associated with @large. While a self-described “staunch conservative,” McKay has expressed a few opinions in The Hayride that might not seem, well, dare I say it, “black conservative.”

Consider his criticism of Michele Obama’s choice of shoes:

. . . but if our First Lady thinks these ugly-ass Chuck Taylor knockoffs are worth $540, there is an even more severe dearth of economic understanding in this administration than even I thought.

Seriously, enough already about the Michelle Obama-as-style-maven crap. She ain’t Evita Peron and she definitely ain’t Jackie O. Let the woman alone. I don’t have much use for her and her racist thesis at Princeton and her disdain for America up until the point where it decided maybe she could have something more than a 300K-a-year cush PR gig at a hospital in Chicago, but I’m happy to let that sleeping dog lie until America finally wakes up and runs her husband’s fascisti out of the White House.

(Incidentally, you can use the link he provided to see whether her thesis is racist. It does avoid run-on sentences.)

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Robert Kennedy on Martin Luther King: a life “dedicated to love and to justice”

Martin Luther King assassination image
Martin Luther King assassination image (Photo credit: Mr. Littlehand)

By Robert Mann

In the early evening of April 4, 1968 — 45 years ago tonight — Sen. Robert Kennedy came to Indianapolis for a campaign rally.

The New York senator was in town to speak to the mostly black audience on behalf of his own presidential ambitions. Instead, he would shoulder the grim task of informing the stunned crowd of the murder, earlier that day, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kennedy had a rare eloquence, the kind that is sorely today missing in American politics. That eloquence was never more appropriate and needed than on that early spring day in Indiana.

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Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings and speeches that would be appropriate to read on this holiday marking his birth. Many people will read King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Others might reflect on King’s last speech, in 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

I’m fairly partial to one of King’s lesser-know speeches in which he announced his opposition to the Vietnam War, “A Time to Break Silence,” delivered in 1967 at New York’s Riverside Church.

But nothing helps me understand King better than his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” released to the city’s clergy on April 16, 1963.  In this remarkable letter, written by King on the margins of newspapers smuggled out of the jail, the civil rights leader explains the urgency of his cause.

It’s a powerful and timeless testament to the power of non-violent protest and courageous dissent.  If you’re looking to remind yourself why we celebrate this day in King’s honor, spend a few minutes reading this remarkable and eloquent letter.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

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Guns, Jesus and Gandhi: Why arming ourselves to the teeth won’t make us safer

The capture of Christ (detail)
The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If St. Peter were alive today, would he be a member of the NRA?

Probably not, but at one point in his life, the former fisherman wasn’t afraid to use his weapon in defense of a friend.

It’s a fascinating side story to the Passion of Christ, found in the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Judas, as you may recall, leads a group of soldiers and religious officials to Jesus. As the officials are about to seize Jesus, the Peter springs into action.

According to John’s account: “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’ Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.”

To that account, the gospel of Matthew adds this detail about Jesus’ response to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

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