Reflections in an Election Year
Once upon a time, a very, very, very long time ago, a young woman went to college on the West Coast. We’ll call her M. It was the fall of 1969. For the first few months of her freshman year, she continued to be a good, dutiful student who took education seriously. But since she had never before gone to school with boys or alcohol or marijuana, and since there was a perplexing and seemingly pointless war raging halfway around the world, and since in many places in this country African Americans were protesting the intolerable conditions in our own cities, and since many of her new college friends felt it was their job to fight against the system that kept all this pointless and intolerable injustice in place, it wasn’t long before she became more interested in boys and parties and justice than she was in classes.
A dear and still academically serious friend of M’s came out to her university to take a summer course. At the end of the course, the friend was invited to the home of a physicist named Baez and asked M to go with her. After the pizza and the wine and the cookies and the coffee, Dr. Baez announced that he had a surprise for everyone, and when the students looked up from where they were sitting, scattered about the book-lined living room, they saw his famous daughter, Joan, with her guitar. For the next hour or so, with the late summer air drifting through the windows, she played and sang, and they all sat slightly bewildered by their great good fortune, to be in the presence of an icon of the times, the Madonna of the sixties and seventies, the last performer on the first night of Woodstock, the pure-voiced standard-bearer of the peace movement.
After a couple of songs, Joan began taking requests, and eventually M asked her to sing her own favorite back then, a dreamy protest waltz that begins, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’ve ever had before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” They all sang along, and a lot of them wept openly, which was not so unusual in those days, when feelings and people ran high.
The students wept for a lot of reasons—because they were young and idealistic enough to believe that such a world might someday exist; because they had drunk a lot of wine and were sitting in a room with Joan Baez; and perhaps because the dream of non-violence was fading as fast as the evening light outside the windows. Over the previous seven years their country had lost its greatest non-violent leaders to violence. What the students did not yet understand was that the murder and suppression of those leaders had altered the course of the nation’s history, and that it would take a long, long time before a comparable spirit arose in the country again.
In June of 1963, seven years before that night in the Baez household, Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his carport by a Ku Klux Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith. Evers was the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi and played an important part in James Meredith becoming the first black student at Ole Miss. He had also conducted a public investigation into the 1955 beating and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till—an event often cited as one of the catalytic moments in the early days of the civil rights movement.
Evers was murdered the day after Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled as the first black students at the University of Alabama, a day on which President John F. Kennedy finally stepped up to the plate on the issue and made his famous speech calling for a Civil Rights Bill. “The time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise,” said Kennedy. “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” Kennedy had served as president for a little over two years. He was forty-six years old.
Five months later, he was assassinated while riding in a motorcade into downtown Dallas. The man arrested for the murder, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself murdered two days later, before Oswald could be interrogated and brought to trial. (The House Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976, concluded that Oswald had been one of the shooters, but that more people had probably been involved. In 1988, a Justice Department memo refuted the evidence for conspiracy, though debate continued. No one has ever definitively answered the questions of who the conspirators might be or why or how they acted, though speculations include a cohort of conservative forces outraged by the proposed Civil Rights Act and Kennedy’s plans to withdraw American forces from Viet Nam.)
In that same year, Malcolm X split with his mentor and friend the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for a number of reasons, one of which was a comment Malcolm had made upon hearing about Kennedy’s death. “The chickens have come home to roost,” he said. When asked to comment on that quote, Malcolm X said simply that violence begets violence and cited a list of other murders, including the murder of Medgar Evers. The main reason for the split, however, was that Malcolm had uncovered a number of sexual affairs Elijah Muhammad had conducted with followers over the years, and felt compelled to reveal the fact of these affairs to the congregation.
In 1964, Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which contributed to a continuing revision of his beliefs and his rhetoric. Before the trip, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., had been portrayed by the dominant culture as leaders at opposite ends of the civil rights spectrum. In this version, King preached and marched and prayed for non-violent, faith-filled activism and integration, while Malcolm X taught the rejection of white culture and a vision of violent separation, not segregation. His arguments helped build the foundations for the Black Power and Black Pride movements. During his trip to the Middle East, he was struck by the lack of racial divisions among Sunni Muslims. Upon his return from Mecca, Malcolm X expanded his vision: ever a realist, he claimed, “I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don’t believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn’t want brotherhood with me.” He continued to emphasize the importance of Black self-determination and self-defense.
Less than a year later, on Feb 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. The three men charged with the murder turned out to be members of the Nation of Islam and followers of Elijah Muhammad. (Over the years, serious doubt was cast upon the guilt of at least two of the men charged, and questions persist regarding the involvement of the FBI.) It was estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 people viewed the body. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent a telegram to Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, which opened with the following lines: “I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” He closed by writing, “Always consider me a friend and if I can do anything to ease the heavy load that you are forced to carry at this time, please feel free to call on me.”
Three years later, on February 1, 1968, two African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee were crushed due to a mechanical malfunction of the compactor at the rear of a truck. The incident occurred during a heavy rainstorm, and Black workers were not allowed inside the cab, so they may have been seeking shelter from the storm. This, combined with a raft of discriminatory practices, provoked Black sanitation workers across the city to go on strike and insist that their union be recognized.
The protests and negotiations lasted into the spring. Twice in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the city—first, to urge the sanitation workers to go on a citywide strike and, later, to lead a march in support of the workers’ demands. On April 3, King returned. That night he gave a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, in which he claimed that if God came to him and asked him when he would like to live, he would bypass the time of Moses and the flight from Egypt, the glory of Rome and Greece, the periods of Lincoln and Roosevelt. “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy’…Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…And wherever they are assembled today, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’ ”
He was murdered the following evening, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
That same night, Robert Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, was scheduled to give a speech in an underserved black neighborhood in Indianapolis, as part of his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for President. The city’s chief of police told him not to go, and as his car entered the neighborhood, the police escort abandoned him and his colleagues. Having learned that the audience members did not yet know about King’s death, Robert Kennedy broke the news, speaking extemporaneously of the greatness of King’s life and message, of the loss of his own brother and of his own rage and bitterness when it happened. He pleaded with the crowd not to act on that rage, but to honor the memory of King’s dream of non-violence. He closed by quoting a passage from his favorite poem, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Though riots erupted in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Chicago and Kansas City during the days following King’s death, Indianapolis remained peaceful, due in large part to well-organized black community leaders, and perhaps in some small part to Robert Kennedy’s heart-felt speech.
Two months later, RFK won the California state primary to clinch the nomination. After his victory was announced, Kennedy addressed a crowd of supporters in a ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As he was leaving to visit another celebration, he was shot three times, once in the head, by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian and rabid anti-Zionist. Robert Kennedy died after extensive surgery, twenty-six hours later.
In Washington D.C. that night, thousands were gathered for the Poor People’s Campaign, a protest organized by Marian Wright Edelman, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Dr. King, during the months prior to his assassination. The protesters had erected an encampment, called “Resurrection City,” and were sleeping there in the pouring rain when they received the news of Robert Kennedy’s death. In honor of their efforts and of the candidate’s support for civil rights, his hearse was later driven through Resurrection City, and many residents joined a group in singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the Lincoln Memorial.
The following November, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest presidential elections in history. By the summer of 1970, when M sat on the floor of the Baez home and sang, “And the people in the streets below were dancing round and round, with swords and guns and uniforms all scattered on the ground,” the United States and South Vietnamese forces had bombed and invaded Cambodia, bombed and invaded Laos, and resumed the bombing of North Vietnam. Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party had been murdered while sleeping in his bed, in a raid carried out by a Cook County tactical unit in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale had been indicted on charges connected to the murder of a fellow Black Panther member.
Those who opposed change had found an effective method to set the country back on their own course—murder and intimidation. If you wipe out a generation of leaders, there is no one left to lead. Also, people in their right minds might well think twice about speaking out against racial, military and economic wrongs, if death is a likely outcome.
It is always a mistake to locate history solely in the words and deeds of a few. There would have been no civil rights movement or anti-war movement were it not for the millions of Americans who listened to those leaders and believed that they themselves, ordinary citizens, could alter the course of history. These women and men and workers and students continued the struggles begun in the 1950’s, struggles for peace, struggles for non-violence, struggles for human rights for Mexican-Americans and women and gay and lesbian citizens and immigrants. The call for change did not die, but its message often seemed lost amid the static roar of greed and violence that filled the next forty years, until new leaders again stirred the conscience of the nation.
Through a simple twist of fate, fourteen years after she sat on the floor listening to Joan Baez, M ended up returning to that same university to teach. From time to time, she would see students headed to the library to do their homework and study, and feel a twinge of regret for all the things she had not learned when she’d had the chance. Though, on reflection, she was also coming to understand that life is a series of trade-offs, that nothing is free, and that to have lived through a time when she and her friends had honestly believed they could change the world was a gift of its own—different, however, from finishing the pre-med major she had started all those years ago, something she never did.
During those fourteen years, the country had re-elected Richard Nixon, only to see him driven from the White House for crimes committed during his second campaign. He remains the first and only President to be forced to resign from office. The Watergate Scandal and Senate hearings set the tone for the ensuing three decades—grim skepticism on the part of voters, overt cynicism on the part of politicians, and a growing understanding that ethical obligations no longer applied to public servants, or any people in any positions of power, especially those in positions of financial power.
In 1984, M had her first child, a daughter, whom she and her husband named, let’s say, K. In that same year, incumbent US President Ronald Reagan defeated the Democratic contender, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, and the country saw eight more years of Republican leadership. During that period, earning a living and learning how to be a decent mother took up a lot of M’s time and energy. It’s one thing to be nineteen and racing the riot cops in a country crying for change; it’s another to muster political conviction in a nation that appears silently satisfied with the status quo, especially when you have two babies and a mortgage. Still, even then, a few vestiges of those earlier years remained: every night M sat in the rocking chair and sang to K, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever had before…” The song floated up and out the open windows of their family’s apartment on a tree-lined street just up the hill from Haight-Ashbury, where nothing much was happening anymore.
Twenty-two years later, M’s daughter, K, graduated from college and spent the requisite first few months agonizing over the meaning of her life. She took a job that didn’t answer the meaning question, and then, urged on by family and friends, left that job and her hometown and her home and became a field organizer for the primary campaign of Barak Obama. For her first assignment, K was sent to northwestern Pennsylvania, where the campaign office received regular bomb threats, posters were torn down and local volunteers didn’t want to be seen fraternizing with Obama workers—all of which made it tough to drum up converts.
By then the country seemed to have forgotten altogether the combination of impassioned pragmatism and determined idealism that had inspired the eloquence of the leaders and followers of the 1950’s and 60’s. Indeed, eloquence had become a political liability, evidence of a quality and level of thought that had begun to seem oddly suspect to millions of voters, a kind of reflection that smacked of elitism, though some of the most eloquent leaders of our history were self-educated women and men from humble backgrounds.
K also met many memorable and courageous folks in Pennsylvania, who offered her housing, food, good cheer, and, most importantly, a sense that the times might in fact be changing. The cynicism of the past three decades—fed by a tawdry Presidential sex scandal and, later, a stream of Presidential linguistic inanities that became fodder for late-night comedy—seemed to be on the wane. Instead, K and her young colleagues tapped into a growing public conviction that surely we could do better than this—better than a war declared for manufactured reasons and perpetrated (at least in part) for financial gain, better than the largest gap between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy in recorded history.
Also for the first time in history, the two serious contenders for the Democratic nomination were a white woman, Hilary Clinton, and an African-American man, Barack Obama. Both rallied staunch, even rabid, supporters across generations, genders, color-lines, religions, and even political affiliations, which by that time had all but replaced most other forms of identification. The primary lasted into June, with Clinton conceding only five months before the general election.
Near the end of Clinton’s concession speech, she invoked a shared sense of changing times: “Think of the suffragists who gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848 and those who kept fighting until women could cast their votes. Think of the abolitionists who struggled and died to see the end of slavery. Think of the civil rights heroes and foot-soldiers who marched, protested and risked their lives to bring about the end to segregation and Jim Crow…Because of them, and because of you, children today will grow up taking for granted that an African American or a woman can, yes, become President of the United States.” Which is exactly what happened.
During Obama’s presidential race, K served as field manager for Alexandria, Virginia, an upscale urban community just across the river from D.C., about as far away from upstate Pennsylvania as you can get politically and economically. In northern Virginia, support for Obama started strong and grew stronger daily, urged along by the literally round-the-clock effort of K and a cohort of twenty-somethings who spent a good percentage of their considerable energies organizing rallies and fund-raisers and phone-banks and house parties and door-to-doors and meet-and-greets and every other form of political event known to humanity.
In the last four weeks of the campaign, these young people slept three or four hours a night. They lived on pizza and did laundry at 4 a.m. K called home only when she was driving in her car-office and using her cell phone, which was in direct contravention of family rules, but according to K the only time she could possibly ever call, so the force of history overrode family rules and M relented and talked with her.
For the second time in M’s life, history became more than an abstract noun. It became a palpable and audible presence. Once again, just as they had in her own youth, events took on a syntax of meaning that translated as an articulated demand for a push beyond the known. Medgar Evers’s call to investigate the slaying of Emmett Till led to the Freedom Summer and on to the integration of Ole Miss and the University of Alabama and on to the speech in which JFK asked our nation at last to fulfill its promise and on to the signing of the Civil Rights Bill and on to the Poor People’s Campaign—and the events of the Presidential race of 2008 revealed that though the collective cry for change had, over the intervening years, become muted to a whisper, it had not been permanently silenced.
Throughout the evening of November 4, 2008, K called M and her family to get voting results. Those twenty-somethings didn’t have time to watch the returns in the early hours—they were too busy knocking on doors and shuttling last-minute voters to the polls. More than anything, they all wanted Obama to win; next in line, they all wanted Virginia to go Democratic, as a testimony to and reward for the work they had done for the past two years. And then for the first time in over forty years, Virginia swung to the left and helped to elect the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.
In his address to the 250,000 people in Grant Park on that cold November night, and to the millions, perhaps billions, more who watched on television and listened on radios around the world, President-Elect Obama said: “If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where anything is possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer…It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” At that last line, the crowd roared, and across the country, Americans wept with the conviction that our collective nature did indeed include better angels.
The following day was a strange one for K and all the dedicated folks whose lives had consisted of nothing but the campaign for months and, in some cases, years. Exhausted, rumpled, and sick of pizza, K and her crew began to dismantle the café storefront in Alexandria that had been donated to the campaign for use as office space. While K was outside taking down signs, a group of musicians walked by, carrying guitar and fiddle and mandolin cases. When the musicians saw K and her colleagues, they stopped and then a woman walked up to K and embraced her, saying, “Oh, you little sweetie, you look so tired. I remember that feeling.”
When K stepped back, she saw that the woman was Joan Baez, who, along with her band, came into the office and took out their instruments and played music for the disoriented Obama workers, many of whom, including K, wept, not because the dream of change was dying faster than they could grasp it, but because they were so tired and so happy and so deeply confused as to how they had ended up electing the first African-American president in the history of our nation and then listening to an old white woman sing folk songs.
At some point, K requested the song that began, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’ve ever had before.” And then she called her mother, M, and held up her cell phone, so that they could listen to the words together.