Saturday, August 31, 2013

A. Philip Randolph at the 1963 March on Washington

I missed this in my earlier post rounding up commentary on the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom, but that's fine, because it's good enough that it deserves a post all its own.

For those of you who don't know, it was Randolph who first proposed a march on Washington, in 1941, which he called off when FDR, in a concession, integrated workers in war-related industries.  He was the titular head of the 1963 march (although the real organization was done by his right-hand man, Bayard Rustin, also an amazing and marvelous figure).  Here's a bit of what Randolph said about the meaning of the March for Jobs and Freedom:
And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white? And so we have taken our struggle into the streets as the labor movement took its struggle into the streets, as Jesus Christ led the multitude through the streets of Judaea. The plain and simple fact is that until we went into the streets the federal government was indifferent to our demands. It was not until the streets and jails of Birmingham were filled that Congress began to think about civil rights legislation. It was not until thousands demonstrated in the South that lunch counters and other public accommodations were integrated.

We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education, all forms of education. We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits—for we are the worst victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.
Note that Randolph emphasises (as did the majority of the contemporary commentary which I saw) the connection between the civil rights and economic rights demanded in the very title of the March.  And provides, if one were needed, yet another refutation of conservative attempts to embrace the March as a narrow and fulfilled struggle.  (But then, "we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations".)

The entire speech can be found here.  It's via Digby, who adds her own commentary here.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney (1939 - 2013)

As anyone who has been online today has probably already heard, the Irish poet (and Nobel laureate) Seamus Heaney died today.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I knew Heaney, but he was to more more than simply a name signed to incredible verse (although he was that too).  His daughter spent a year at my high school -- she was a year or two below me -- and during that year he came to speak at my school.  I remember asking him a question during the Q&A; what he answered wasn't quite what I meant to ask, but it was sort of thrilling anyway.

Then, in college, I went to Harvard, where he was teaching, and I took his course on Modern British and Irish poetry.  It was a great class, and I remember a great deal of the poetry we read in it.  (We did a day on Heaney himself of course -- we couldn't not; a guest lecturer, professor Helen Vendler, came in and gave the lecture on that day.)  I also remember bits and pieces of things he said in class.  (From the first day, winding up talking about the class: "Tough grading -- nothing for nothing.")  He wasn't a perfect teacher -- he had the bad habit of quoting poems he almost, but didn't quite, know from memory, when we all had the texts open in front of us: the mistakes grated.  But he was a good one, and I learned a lot.

A number of years later I saw him on Mass Ave, across from Harvard yard.  I introduced myself as a former student.  In memory, he pretended to recognize me, but I quite doubt he did (I certainly wouldn't have, in his place.  Maybe he was better with faces than I.)  He had won the Nobel prize, and I asked if he was still teaching.  Some, he said; but he limited things so that he didn't have to grade papers any more.  (He hadn't graded them in the class I had with him; like nearly every Harvard lecture class, they were graded by TAs.)

And then we said goodbye.

The poem of his that I didn't know, that I've seen most quoted today which I like best, is actually from his translation/adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (quoted variously here and here).  Here are the lines being quoted:
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
This passage seems to have been separately published under the title "Doubletake", but I'm not quite sure about that; it's definitely from The Cure of Troy (pp. 77-78, spoken by the Chorus).

Now I guess I need to track down the whole thing.

RIP, Professor Heaney.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

50th Anniversary of March on Washington Link Round-Up

I'm teaching my seminar on "America in the Sixties" again this semester -- but, sadly, we just began and won't get to the March this week.  Pity  (I did skip ahead and talk about it a bit yesterday -- I couldn't resist -- although I don't know if it was useful or just confusing.)

Some reading about today's anniversary:

• In my seminar, we read the speech of John Lewis as delivered -- it was considered too radical by other March organizers and, with a personal appeal from A. Philip Randolph narrowly avoiding a walkout by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced "snick"), Lewis rewrote it to tone it down.  It's on the web, though; you can read it here.  (Lewis, by the way, just published the first volume of a graphic-novel autobiography; I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but flipping through it it looks fabulous.  (They got a great artist, it seems -- thankfully, and crucially.))

Some recent media-provided historical context on the March:

Rick Perlstein, "The March on Washington in Historical Context"  Perlstein talks mostly about the fears people -- not just conservatives, but mainstream liberals (and whites generally) had about the march beforehand.

Harold Meyerson, "The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington"  Meyerson reviews some background about the march too often forgotten today

•, William P. Jones, "How Black Unionists Organized the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom"  Similar in theme to the previous link; an excerpt from a just-released book on the topic.

• Speaking of whom, both Jones and another historian with a timely book out about the March (in the latter case, I believe, specifically on King's speech) were guests on the amazing radio show Democracy Now! last week.  (Link to a transcript.)

• Relatedly, Democracy Now! has a good round-up of march-relevant interviews and materials from their show.

Garance Franke-Ruta at The Atlantic has some good photographs of the March by Leonard Freed (which I'd never seen before).

Dave Zirin notes some differences between the original 1963 March and this past weekend's commemorative anniversary march.

An interview with one of the co-authors of a new book on the Freedom Budget, an ambitious policy plan (never seriously considered) which arose out of the March coalition.  The connecting hook:
Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech cannot be comprehended unless we understand it as the culmination of a March for Jobs and Freedom, linking economic justice with racial justice. From his college days in the late 1940s until his death in 1968, King was deeply committed to overcoming poverty and economic exploitation no less than to overcoming racism. He came to see the struggles to overcome economic and racial oppression as inseparable.
Read the rest.

• And Digby puts up some really stunningly good clips from MSNBC (!) about King's legacy and its depoliticization in American memory.  Is Up with Chris Hayes always this good?  I may need to actually watch it.

• I hadn't realized, until Angus Johnston pointed it out this morning, that William Zantzinger (op. cit.) was sentenced on the day of the March.  (Nor that his sentence was deferred until after the tobacco harvest.)  Bury the rag deep in your face.

The official program from the March is online here.

• Did you know that the "dream"section of MLK's famous speech was improvised?  If not, the story's retold in the Times today.

Joseph Stiglitz on a common theme, touched in many of these links, about the forgotten "jobs" part of the March for Jobs and Freedom:
Like so many looking back over the past 50 years, I cannot but be struck by the gap between our aspirations then and what we have accomplished. True, one “glass ceiling” has been shattered: we have an African-American president. But Dr. King realized that the struggle for social justice had to be conceived broadly: it was a battle not just against racial segregation and discrimination, but for greater economic equality and justice for all Americans. It was not for nothing that the march’s organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, had called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In so many respects, progress in race relations has been eroded, and even reversed, by the growing economic divides afflicting the entire country.
Read the rest.

...and that's what I've seen so far.  I'll add more later if I see more.  (Update: Yup.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Poem of the Day: Langston Hughes, Song for Billie Holiday

Song for Billie Holiday

What can purge my heart
        Of the song
        And the sadness?
What can purge my heart
        But the song
        Of the sadness?
What can purge my heart
        Of the sadness
        Of the song?

Do not speak of sorrow
With dust in her hair,
Or bits of dust in eyes
A chance wind blows there.
The sorrow that I speak of
Is dusted with despair.

Voice of muted trumpet,
 Cold brass in warm air.
Bitter television blurred
By sound that shimmers–

-- Langston Hughes