How Long Does It Take To Walk Two Miles?
Wednesday, July 10, 2019
My Highway Home will broadcast ths week on the Folk Music Notebook: https://folkmusicnotebook.com
July 10th - 9:00 PM ET / 6:00 Pacific
July 11th - 2:00 AM ET / 11:00 PM July 10th Pacific
July 14th - 1:00 PM ET / 10:00 AM Pacific
How Long Does It Take To Walk Two Miles?
Copyright 2019, Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music
Revisiting a hopeful day...
In August 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. That march on Washington has come to be recognized as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, and in United States History. On the ripples of energy from that day, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were successfully legislated and became the law of the land in the US. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, such a poignant symbol, the organizers and leaders of a movement gave voice to their hopes, wishes, dreams, grievances, and truths. In the city that is the center of political power for the US, they came from every part of our nation to claim their fair share of access to the ideals put forth in our constitution.
“The march was initiated by A. Philip Randolph (international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO), who had planned a similar march in 1941. The threat of the earlier march had convinced President Roosevelt to establish the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and bar discriminatory hiring in the defense industry. The 1963 march was organized by Randolph, James Farmer (president of the Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Martin Luther King, Jr. (president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP), and Whitney Young (president of the National Urban League). Bayard Rustin, a civil rights veteran and organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel, administered the details of the march.” (Wikipedia)
To be sure, it was a coalition of Labor, Religious, Civic and Community leadership that were at the head of the event and the movement. And it was the many facets on that gemstone that gave it such luster. Please look up some of these names if you are unfamiliar with them. These organizations and individuals were every bit as pivotal to the Civil Rights movement as was Dr. King.
There are frequent comparisons of Dr. King to Mohandas Gandhi. I am read a book some years back called, Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (by Arthur Herman). It is an amazing book, examining without rose colored glasses, these two contemporaries, their families, cultures, strengths, weaknesses, similarities, differences and the place where they came to loggerheads, over the independence of India as a free and sovereign nation.
I learned for the first time that Gandhi was once a racist. He grew out of it. He learned that any meaningful liberation movement has to be a movement driven by solidarity between class and race. He learned that the principals of non-violence, derived from his religious traditions, were applicable to all castes, classes and races. But he did not start there. In his many years in South Africa, where he began his work in earnest as a liberation leader, he was not challenging racism categorically. He was specifically seeking liberation for Indians.
Coming from a very class driven society, Gandhi was not opposed to the segregation of society by race, religion and class per se, but he wanted the Indians to be in the same class as the whites. And it took him years to realize that the British and the Dutch saw anyone who was not white, as being black. There was no distinction for them except that. And in the years that Gandhi worked so hard to elevate the Indians, he was indifferent to the tribulations of black South Africans. But in South Africa he came to a realization: Class and Race must come together for a meaningful liberation movement. It was with that understanding that the famous liberation leader we know as the Mahatma Gandhi was came into full being. He was over 40 years old before this pivotal transformation took place. (Dr. King was only 39 when he was killed). And the liberation movement, which Gandhi helped to lead, took many years and many people to really manifest. Yes he was amazing! But again, it was a strong coalition of leaders from every segment of society that ultimately led to the desired liberation. And it is still ongoing. The aftermath of empire is still felt in India and South Africa. The work continues.
So on inauguration day 2009, when I saw President Obama standing on the steps of the Capitol Building about to give his inaugural speech, I thought to myself, this has been a long time in coming. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the Capitol building, 1.9 miles, 45 and-a-half years, and we are finally taking another major step forward in human liberation! I say human liberation not just liberation for people of color, because like the 1963 march, like the work of Gandhi, an ongoing Civil Rights movement that has to overcome racial and class divisions to succeed. And it still has a long way to go. But look at all that happened in that half-a-century? As the news cameras paned out to show some of the last living members of the Tuskegee Airmen, I saw tears falling down their cheeks. That was when I started to cry. These men knew that President Obama was standing on their shoulders, and they had never lifted so sweet a burden. You could see it on their faces.
“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’ll be free at last!”
Yes it took us nearly half a century as a society to walk those 2 miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol steps, but we did it!
What you mean “we” white man?
Well, I mean WE did it. Dr. King, a student of the trials and tribulations of India and South Africa, a student of their struggles for racial and class equality, was standing on Gandhi’s shoulders. Dr. King started out working for the liberation of Blacks. But as he invested in the liberation movement, he came to an understanding that it was about all people of color, and then he came to understand that it was about class too. Dr. King understood that impoverished white people were struggling under the same load. He came to understand that racism was at times a tool of classism, and that if we wanted to dismantle racism, it needed to be done in conjunction with addressing classism. The two were partners in a crime against humanity, and the movement needed to address the larger issues in order to achieve its goals.
There had always been white people involved in the movement, and Jews, and Latinos /Latinas, and people of all stripes. But between 1963 and 1965, the Civil Rights movement gained huge inter-racial support. And from 1965 to 1968 when Dr. King was killed, the cross-cultural efforts were tremendous. King was trying to launch a major coalition movement to address poverty, unilaterally! And in the wake of his death, millions upon millions were baptized by that fire of conviction, tragedy, and purpose.
I hold a visual image in my mind of a young Jesse Jackson, on the evening of April 4th, 1968. He is kneeling on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His friend, mentor, spiritual leader, and brother in struggle has just been assassinated. The news media have all gone away. The police are gone. The body of his companion was removed hours before. And still, there is a pool of blood on the balcony. The blood of a martyr… The blood of a friend! And Jesse Jackson kneels down in prayer beside this pool of blood, and he places his hands, palms down in that blood. And he lifts those hands out and places them on his chest. He is wearing a white shirt at the time. And he puts those bloody hands on that shirt, on his chest, over his heart.
Jackson takes the blood of his friend on his own hands, and on his own chest. In a way, he indicts himself in this act. For all of us carry some of the shame and burden of responsibility when so terrible a thing has happened. And Rev. Jackson in his grief took on the blood of his teacher. Not unlike the Apostles taking on the blood of Jesus, a tradition preserved in the celebration of the Eucharist. But Jackson literally took the blood of his martyred friend, and placed it on himself. Placed it on ALL OF US! And indicted all of us in the process. The blood of Dr. King was on us all, for every generation.
But the great lesson of Gandhi is transformation. And so it is possible to transform the blood of that indictment, the echoing cries of that martyred man, from the convicted into conviction! YES WE CAN!
And in the half century that it took our society to traverse those two miles between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol steps, that is what we did. We have transformed a society. We changed a nation. And it is time to do so again. YES WE CAN.
I saw people carrying signs on inauguration day 2009 that proclaim, “Yes We Did.” And while I appreciated the sentiment, I think it missed the mark. Yes, we elected and installed a new government, peacefully. Yes, the head of that new government was a man who claims a by-racial heritage. But I think it is important to remember that amidst all the talk of the fact that President Obama is Black, he is just as much White. Gandhi discovered that for many people, if you are not white, you are black. So perhaps many people still see Obama as a “Black” President. But I saw, and still see him as MY President. I see myself in him. I see all of us in him. I see the child of HUMANITY as a whole, finally mature enough to move forward, leading his people… all of them, one step closer to the Promised Land.
I mean, what if Moses had started flying a sign saying “Yes We Did!” after the Jews finally escaped Egypt? They wandered in the desert for 40 years as it was. How many more years would they have wandered if they had not again picked up the slogan, “YES WE CAN?”
In my travels of late, I have heard many people say, “Well, I voted for him. But he let us down.”
Huh? Have you been listening? Have you been paying attention? It’s YOUR job not to let you down. The 1963 march did not happen because one person made it happen. And President Obama did not make it to the White House, because one person decided it should happen. Yes he had the potential to be a visionary leader. But he could not have accomplished anything without the support of the people!
YES, We Can. Yes we CAN. Yes WE Can!
It is a spiritual statement. Not just a political one. It is a state of being. It is a way of thinking. And the work is still in front of us today. Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow is unknowable. The work is present time and real. YES WE CAN speaks to that truth. The work is in the present moment. People of every color, race, nationality and creed have joined in the process of human liberation. And in January 2009, we inaugurated a man of the people to the highest office in the land. But, Obama was and is not a saint. He is not a miracle worker. He was and is an organizer. And the best leadership this world has seen in any age, in any time or place, in any movement, is a good organizer.
And he is STILL asking all of us… ALL OF US, to follow that lead. President Obama continues to invite all of us to be organizers. In our families, in our houses of worship, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our towns, in our workplaces, in our circle of friends, we still need to learn how organize.
Disease, poverty, environmental degradation, all of these matters will take a toll on all of us. Racism is again on the rise. But we have the power, the intelligence, the creativity and the ability to take on the problems we face as a society, and as a planet. And it is not up to a President to make those changes. And no president has the right to take away our inalienable rights.
Step by step the longest march, can be won, can be won
Many stone can form an arch, singly none, singly none
And by union what we will, can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn the mill, singly none, singly none
These lines, originally from the preamble to the constitution of the American Miners Union (circa 1850) still resonate in my soul! It is the same spirit as Yes We Can. These lines invite us to recognize that as great as a person may be, on their own, they are nobody. Only in community, in conjunction, in cooperation, in coalition, are we able to really make a difference. And we have, and we did, and we will.
I was on tour in Texas in January 2009. And I watched most of the proceedings of January 20th, 2009 on a huge flat screen TV at a friend’s house. And then we were all invited over to a neighbor’s house for a big barbeque. Texas Barbeque. Amazing. Ribs, brisket, chicken, beans, potato salad, yummmmmmmm! (My respects to the vegetarians among you.)
But what was amazing to me, as if to cap off this significant day, was that we were in the home of a family of color. White and Black and mixed race, all of us having dinner together. Our host made his living doing a variety of odd jobs, including my friend’s yard-work. He was their handyman. And yet on that auspicious day, he invited all of us over for dinner. He invited all of us over as his guests. And shared with us one of his truest passions, a good smoky barbeque. But he invited us to share even more, in the communion of the moment. He wanted to honor the day by recognizing that he was a man who was free to be friends with anyone he likes, and gather in public or private with those friends. I speculate that he wanted to celebrate with edible generosity, the fact that even though he took care of their lawn, that it was a job. Not a class. And on that day, in this nation, he was perfectly welcome to be peers and equals with his whole community.
And it was damn fine barbeque. In fact, it was the best I have ever had. And as I looked down at a BBQ sauce stain on my own shirt, on my chest, and I looked around at people who were even still, tentatively reaching across class and race barriers. I thought again of Rev. Jesse Jackson. I thought of the blood on his hands and his chest. And I thought of the miracle in which I was participating. Maybe it was not a water-into-wine biblical sort of miracle, but it was no less impressive to me. I was participating in a world transformed. And the stain, the indictment itself had been for a time transformed into genuine community and fellowship. And barbeque sauce.
I hoped in that moment, that MLK and Gandhi and X, and children killed in church bombings, and activist murdered on their way to a march, and countless numbers lynched and tormented and abused over the ages and continents, simply for the color of their skin, were looking down on us and smiling. From Bombay to Durban and London, from D.C. to Selma to Austin, transformation is possible. And to each one of us falls the sacred and solemn and beautiful duty to carry that transformation forward one more step. Ours is not to finish the task, but to make sure we do our part. And on the 20th of January, 2009, as more people gathered in Washington D.C. than ever before in our nation’s history, I saw the United States of America take one more marvelous and long awaited step forward. We installed a man of the people, of all the people. A child of our nation, come of age and ready to lead us. I saw nothing short of a miracle. And I will tell generations hence, I remember when…
So, how long does it take to walk two miles? It takes half a century. But what an amazing two miles! And we absolutely have the power to carry that spirit forward in the coming months and years. Si Se Puede!