Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Last Passion

The Last Passion of the Democratic Party


In June of 1964, three civil rights workers -- one black and two Jewish white young men -- didn't have any naive notions that Philadelphia, Mississippi, practiced brotherly love as allegedly did its Pennsylvania counterpart. On the 21st of that month, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman -- all in their early 20s -- traveled to the "Mississippi Philadelphia" to investigate the burning of a black church by the revived Ku Klux Klan.

In a conspiracy between the local sheriff and the Klan, the three were arrested on a trumped up charge, and released after local law enforcement notified a mob of white males as to which road the three would be riding out of town on. As Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman approached an intersection, they were dragged from their car and brutally murdered. Ironically, this past June, "Forty-one years to the day after three civil rights workers were ambushed and killed by a Ku Klux Klan mob, a jury found former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen guilty on three counts of manslaughter."

The murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman in a summer that was a racial tinderbox for America, along with the bombing of a church that killed young black girls, set the civil rights movement aflame. As a result of the segregationist, anti-democracy actions of self-styled saviors of the white Christian southern lifestyle, America was about to finally fully emancipate itself. The vision of a democracy that belonged to every citizen of the United states -- regardless of race, creed or color -- was to belatedly become law as Lyndon Johnson, a gnarly, old school Texan Southern Democrat -- who somehow had truly been touched by the injustice of racism -- embraced a new guarantee of equality for every American.

It was, perhaps, the last time that the Democratic Party leadership stood passionately behind an issue that was integral to the preservation of the goals and grandeur of our revolutionary heritage -- and to the promise of our Constitution and democracy. Some southern Democrats dragged their feet, as did some northern lunch bucket mayors, but the party as a whole put its soul and its conviction behind the notion that all Americans are created equal and each one is entitled to one vote, to a quality education, and to equal opportunity.

For Democrats, it was a tense, but proud period. They had the law, the Constitution, and righteousness on their side. The hymn, "We Shall Overcome," became the rallying song for a generation that was motivated by the notion that America's greatness resided in the legal and equal rights it bestowed on all its citizens, not just the self-appointed few.

To those who say that the movement against the Vietnam War equally evidenced the last great passionate success of the Democrats, remember that the War was escalated by a Democratic President (the same Lyndon Johnson) -- and that many Democrats jumped to Nixon because Hubert Humphrey started talking about peace in the closing days of the 1968 campaign. The Vietnam War caused a split among the Democrats in a way that the Iraq War has now (at least among Democratic elected officials; the mainstream Democrats stand pretty solidly opposed to the Baghdad fiasco). It's worth remembering that Nixon trounced an eminently wise World War II hero, George McGovern, largely because McGovern was a peace candidate.

And so that brings us back to the historical significance of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in representing the last great passion of the Democrats. It seems that since the civil rights movement, the Democrats have been playing a defensive game of politics, letting the Republicans define the terms of the debate. Yet, ironically, it is the success of the civil rights movement that proves passion, commitment, and hard work can achieve goals and preserve democracy. The Democrats won the civil rights battle because they fought -- and died -- for what they believed in. They didn't wait to read the latest polls.

Conviction can move mountains; it can make the dreams of a Martin Luther King Jr. come true; it can change the attitudes of millions of Americans and appeal to their higher sense of fairness and decency. But if you don't have conviction, you can't have passion -- and if you don't have passion, you're just sitting in the shadow of those who do. Unfortunately, this means that the right wing's passion marginalizes most of the Democrats in Congress into insignificant timid back benchers.

Through a sadly ironic series of circumstances, the editor of found himself in the middle of the dusty town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in August of this summer. The small city apparently hadn't changed much since the early '60s. Three young white women in a coffee shop all appeared perplexed when we asked them where Railroad Avenue was. (In fact, one claimed not to even notice it as she held a map with the town's few streets just inches from her face.) None of them said that they knew, even though you could drive through the entire town while blinking.

Why didn't they "know"? Well, we can only speculate. But the answer may be in the response an auto repair shop owner told the BuzzFlash editor's wife when she subsequently asked where Railroad Avenue was. "Why would you want to go there?" he asked her. "That just leads to the black section of town. There is a feed lot up there though. Are you looking for the feed lot?"

Actually, we were looking for the Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church. According to a pamphlet put together by Neshoba County (in which Philadelphia, MS, is located), "When the civil rights workers first came to Philadelphia, Mt. Nebo was the only church that would allow C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) to hold mass meetings to register people to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a memorial service at Mt. Nebo two years after the slayings [of the three civil rights workers]." In front of the modest church is a tombstone memorial to Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. The church was within walking distance of Railroad Avenue.

We had stopped in Philadelphia, after dropping our son off at college in New Orleans, a week before Katrina hit. He left within five days with his roommates. The poor, mostly black, weren't so lucky. The Busheviks and FEMA were merely carrying on the spirit of Philadelphia, MS (circa 1964) -- -- swirled together with a giant dose of incompetence -- when they abandoned the Crescent City for four days.

And local bigots, like the Gretna police who wouldn't let blacks walk across the Mississippi River bridge to safety, reminded us that the Southern Strategy that has been the underpinning of the Republican Party since Nixon was elected is, ironically, largely a reaction to the implementation of the voting and civil rights acts in the '60s. The white Christian males never forgave or forgot the outrage of patriotic Americans over vile acts like the murders that took place on Highway 19 South, as Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner sought safety. Remember the code word of "States Rights"? After all, it was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign -- and he wasn't there to memorialize the civil rights workers.

Maybe it began with Rosa Parks. Maybe it began when the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn't let Marian Anderson sing in their Washington, D.C., Hall in the first part of the last century. Maybe it began when Lincoln ended the hideous practice of one person owning the life of another. Maybe it became a thunderstorm of righteousness when Martin Luther King Jr. preached Biblical, stirring words of emancipation, freedom, and equality.

The Democratic Party knew that the time had come to choose the fork in the road that led to justice -- and they embraced it, fought for it, died for it, and didn't let up until they had achieved their goal.

It was the last great passion of the Democratic Party. America is a better nation for it.

Maybe the Democrats are like the Jews who wandered for 40 years in the desert with Moses before arriving at the Promised Land. Maybe, someday, the Democratic leadership will re-find their passion and their conviction.

In the meantime, we wait -- and it's terribly, terribly painful.

Democracy is the greatest experiment in government, a gift to all who are privileged to be Americans, and it faces a dire threat.

It saddens me to think that after all this country has been through to ensure what we as a people believe to be certain inalienable rights guaranteed by our Constitution has been marginalized by Nixon's southern strategy that simply says, "You're bigots, we're bigots. Vote Republican." The black brothers who served with me shoulder to shoulder under fire in Vietnam are considered less than human by nearly half the country. What have we become? The bigoted Republicans who unconsciously beleive in white supremacy live in constant fear, and thus are more inclined to hide behind the flag rather than defend it. They appeal to the worst fears and lowest instincts of the weak and ignorant. They understand the weak and ignorant vote counts the same as the enlightened vote. Maybe Neitzsche was right. Democracy puts power into the hands of those unable to understand what that power entails. The great dumbing down has been encouraged and exploited by the Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves who have made great fortunes and weilded great influence as to how we live our lives. Nixon's "Law and Order" was code for we'll  keep minorities in their place. Reagan's "traditional values" was code for bringing back slavery, not only for minorities, but everyone who has to work to put food on the table. Anyone who continues to support the current Administration is either rich, stupid or hateful. George Bush is the poster boy for something deeply wrong with this nation. When a lying scumbag and war profiteer who ducked his military obligation is seen as some kind of hero by so many, something is really wrong.
Where have all the flowers gone? When will they ever learn?


Post a Comment

<< Home