Honoring Dr. King

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The current New Yorker magazine has a fascinating piece by Jelani Cobb describing the long torturous journey the Martin Luther King Day holiday took to get to today’s observance. Even as someone who lived through those times, it comes as a surprise now to realize just how long a journey it was.

In the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, thousands of shocked mourners from across the country congregated in that city to march downtown on the path that King had traveled. “The march served as a momentary validation of King’s work,” Cobb writes, but one of the marchers, U.S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan, “hoped to craft a more enduring one.” That same week, he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to make King’s birthday, January 15, a national holiday. The legislation languished in committee, Cobb writes.

Two months later, Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. “It was intended to serve as a wellspring for works of the type to which her husband had dedicated his life,” Cobb writes, “but it was quickly deployed in a secondary mission: to lobby for the holiday.” Mrs. King later described it as “a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing.”

Cobb continues: “In 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King had led, delivered to Congress a petition with three million signatures in support of the effort. In 1973, Harold Washington, an Illinois state representative who was later elected the first black mayor of Chicago, sponsored a bill that made his state the first to recognize the holiday. A handful of other states followed, but there was little momentum. Coretta Scott King kept up the pressure on elected officials, writing, speaking and testifying twice before congressional committees.”

In 1979, a House bill failed by five votes, despite President Jimmy Carter’s endorsement and the composition of a special song by Stevie Wonder. Finally, in 1983, Cobb writes, “a bill written by Jack Kemp, a Republican and Katie Hall, a Democrat, passed in the House. Jesse Helms, who had denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as ‘the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress,’ tried, unsuccessfully, to have the bill, which was sponsored by Edward Kennedy, sent back to committee. Undaunted, Helms moved to have King’s FBI files declassified so that the Senate might explore the specious claim that he was a Communist stooge. In a fit of anger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw a copy of Helms’s documents to the floor of the Senate, denouncing them as ‘filth.’ The bill passed by a vote of 78 to 22, and President Ronald Reagan, despite initial reluctance, signed it into law in November of 1983, declaring that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day would be celebrated every year on the third Monday of January.”

It had taken 15 years, and even then, it was not fully recognized in all the states until 1999 (New Hampshire was the last). And furthermore, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi insist on also celebrating on that day the birthday of Robert E. Lee.

I have visited the King Center in Atlanta twice. The second time was during the 1996 Olympics with our daughters. As they lingered over exhibits, I chatted with the lovely young African-American tour guide who expressed surprise when she learned it was my husband’s and my second visit. “We wanted our children to experience it,” I said. Her eyes filled with tears. “He’s our hero too, you know.” And we hugged.

king-with-crowd

How?

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How did the person many called the best qualified ever to run for president get defeated by the person many called the least qualified ever to run for president?

How did the candidate whose campaign was waged with class and integrity lose to one whose campaign was laced with insults and lies?

How did the FBI director get away unscathed with injecting – in violation of FBI rules – an ambiguous statement about an ongoing investigation just 11 days before Election Day only to amend it 48 hours before balloting with the equivalent of “never mind.”

And finally, how did the candidate with the most popular votes lose to the one with the fewest?

hillary-clintonI don’t know the answers to the first three questions, but I do know the answer to the last one: the Electoral College. According to the Los Angeles Times, in November 2012 Donald Trump himself tweeted, “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.” For once I agree with him. So did Hillary Clinton. In November 2000, according to The New York Times, the then newly elected senator from New York said, “I believe strongly that in a democracy we should respect the will of the people, and to me that means to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

The New York paper also noted the irony that “after months of railing against what he called a ‘rigged’ election, (Mr. Trump) has become the unlikely beneficiary of an electoral system that enables a candidate to win the race without winning over the most voters.”

We are the only country in the world with such a cockamamie system, yet another legacy of our history of slavery that continues to bedevil us. The LA Times explains that the system “is part of an agreement between states, including Southern states that had more slaves than free men who were eligible to vote.” Fearing that the more heavily populated Northern states would dominate those in the South, the framers of the Constitution came up with “a compromise that divided power based on counting the ‘whole number of free persons’ in the state as well as ‘three-fifth of all other persons.’”

The paper goes on to state, “Thanks to this infamous deal, the Southern states were bolstered and given more seats in the House of Representatives as well as more ‘electors’ who selected the president…The Civil War ended slavery and the three-fifths deal, but the electoral system survived as the method for choosing the president, in part because the Constitution is very hard to change…”

There may be another way, however. A petition making the internet rounds describes The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), an agreement among several states and the District of Columbia to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It doesn’t kick in until states and territories whose electoral votes reach a combined total of 270 signed on. So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia with a combined electoral vote total of 165 have joined this effort.

In the meantime, what do we do? Take comfort in the graciousness of Mrs. Clinton’s concession speech? In the equally gracious way President Obama welcomed to the White House the man who demeaned and tried de-legitimizing for more than eight years? Take pride in showing the world the way a democracy does it?

Or, perhaps, take heart in David Brooks’ laugh-inducing conclusion to today’s column: “After all, the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think.”

Photos: bbc.com, biography.com

Happy Birthday, Uncle Walter!

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The person once voted “the most trusted man in America” would be 100 years old today. If he were still alive, what would the universally respected journalist Walter Cronkite have to say about the insanity of the current presidential campaign?  It’s almost over and yet, one fears the insanity will continue no matter the outcome. If Hillary Clinton wins, the thrill of electing the first woman president will be soured by Republicans’ vows to block her nominations and policy proposals just as they have for our beleaguered current president whose election was also thrilling. And if her opponent wins? It is impossible to contemplate.

You can get an idea of what Cronkite would think today by checking out how Google is celebrating the birthday. www.poynter.org/2016/todays-google-doodle-celebrates-walter-cronkites-100th-birthday/437626/

As a respite from the campaign’s ugliness, I re-read It Can’t Happen Here the 1935 book by Sinclair Lewis, a harrowing account of how otherwise perfectly nice men and women can be lulled by complacency into believing outrageous lies and finding comfort in what they perceive as someone who will be a strong leader and protect them. Even though I was barely alive then, the book made me realize how Nazi Germany happened.

Now I’m re-reading Edge of Eternity, the third book in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. It follows five intertwined families’ lives in Europe and the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. I did live through those times, and yes, they were tumultuous, but we got through them.

Will we get through the next era? After an election that has seen, as Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times, “almost all our political norms get destroyed,” can we put things back together? They’re now threatening impeachment before the woman has even taken the oath of office. “Can anything be done to limit the damage?” Krugman asks and answers, “It would help if the media finally learned its lesson and stopped treating Republican scandal-mongering as genuine news.

“And,” he adds, “it would also help if Democrats won the Senate, so that at least some governing could get done.”

Four more days.

Halloween Hiatus

lotte-lying-downOur Great Dane Lotte loved Halloween. Even before the doorbell rang, the sounds of children running toward our house would propel her toward the door where she would sit and wait. “Oooh, that’s the house with the big dog!” the children would exclaim. I’d open the door and tiny hands would reach inside to pat Lotte’s giant head and scratch her long ears before reaching into the candy basket I extended to them. And then they’d race on to the next house and Lotte would flop down on a space on the floor until the next group approached.

I’m not doing Halloween this year because Lotte died six months ago, and I just don’t have it in me to explain mortality to little children reveling in their sugar-induced excitement. I’ll turn the lights off and hide out. (Lotte’s demise is explained in the final chapter of Great Dane in the Morning on this website.)

Rather than people hiding behind the curtains in the dark, a new method for advertising whether or not you’re dispensing candy has been offered this year by someone on our neighborhood’s online Nextdoor social network. They’ve put up a map of the neighborhood showing which homes are planning to participate. I picture kids and their parents, smart phones glowing in the dark, making their way from house to house. I’ll still be hiding, however, just in case not everyone gets the message.

When we lived in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, crowds of trick-or-treaters would come for hours, and we tried to maintain good humor about it even into the late night when older kids came, some without even a pretense of having a costume. So one year, when friends suggested we join them in dinner out on Halloween, we were tempted. “We go after 8 o’clock,” they said, “after all the cute little kids with their cute costumes have gone home to bed. Then we turn out the lights and leave.” I was skeptical. “Don’t you worry about your windows getting soaped or toilet paper being draped in your shrubbery?” I asked. “That’s what happens on Mischief Night, the night before,” they reminded me. “We’ve never had a problem.” So we tried it once and then it became a tradition: Turn off the lights, escape to a restaurant.

But I won’t be going out this year, just staying inside as far from the front door as I can in hopes of not hearing, “Oooh, that’s the house with the big dog!”

Just too sad.

Et Tu, Print Publishers?

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One more dagger to the heart of journalism: The Newspaper Association of America has decided to eliminate the word “newspaper” from its official title. Henceforth, it will be called the News Media Alliance. Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times cited Sept. 7, 2016 as “the day the American newspaper as we’ve known it moved out of intensive care and into the palliative wing on its way to the Great Beyond.”

The reasons for the name change for an organization that has been in existence since 1887 are many, Rutenberg writes. The obvious reason, he notes, is the continuing drop in the number of newspapers, meaning fewer potential members. Membership “has fallen to about 2,000 from roughly 2,700 in 2008, executives there say.”

A bigger issue, the group’s chief executive told Rutenberg, “was that the word ‘newspaper’ has become meaningless in reference to many of the group’s members, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and Dow Jones. They may have newspapers, but they get large percentages of their readers online. Actually, you can’t even refer exclusively to ‘readers’ these days when so many millions are ‘viewers’ of online news video.”

journalists-creedOh, the pain of it! Walter Williams must be spinning in his grave. He founded the first  ̶  IN THE WORLD  ̶  school of journalism at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. He traveled the world extolling the principle that journalism is a profession requiring serious university study and accompanying respect. As outlined in Wikipedia, other colleges and universities began to emulate Missouri’s invention, and “Williams became increasingly concerned they would not adhere to the same high journalistic standards being taught at ‘Mizzou.’ So in 1941 he created the Journalist’s Creed, a statement of professional guidelines often evoked as the definitive code of ethics for journalists. It is posted in bronze at the National Press Club in Washington DC.”

It’s also in a frame on the wall of my office. Reading it in light of the current situation can make you cry. Or, in a week when Facebook can’t discern between child pornography and an award-winning depiction of the horrors of napalm bombing, just shake your head at how far we have strayed from Williams’ vision. The Creed begins:

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public, that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”  It goes on to endorse “clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness” as fundamental to good journalism, and that “a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.” It says that “suppression of the news for any consideration other than the welfare of society is indefensible.” And, in a time before we women forced ourselves into the profession, “that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Different times indeed.

So here’s a question for you: With the proliferation of online-only publications like Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Politico, Jezabel and The Daily Beast, can it still be called “journalism” when there’s not actually a journal involved? Just asking.

Good for You, Gretchen Carlson!

gretchen carlson 1That’s a headline I had been planning to write for most of this month, but the crush of daily life kept me from it. And then, day by day the story kept growing until today we learn that the sexual harassment suit filed by the former Fox News anchor against the odious Roger Ailes has led to his departure as the head of that conservative cable news network.

I don’t remember Carlson as a presence on CBS, and I certainly never saw her on Fox because I make it a point of personal pride to absolutely never watch that channel. Oh wait, I did tune in once during the most recent presidential primaries to watch a Republican debate. But I left before it ended, turned off by the sycophantic questions and reactions of the moderators.

(I suppose conservatives have a similar attitude toward my news channel of choice, the liberal MSNBC (“The Place for Politics”) and that’s just how it is in our nation’s bifurcated political climate. Even among friends, it’s much more pleasant to discuss politics with those you agree with.)

When the news broke that the recently fired Carlson was suing Ailes for sexual harassment, I took notice and thought, “Women everywhere must be quietly cheering her action.” And I read more about her. Aside from the fact that the newspaper photos showed her to be drop-dead gorgeous to look at, I read that she was no slouch when it came to brains and talent: a degree (with honors) from Stanford, study abroad at Oxford, a violin prodigy as a child in her native Minnesota, and, in fact, the first classical violinist to compete – and win – the Miss America title. And then a career in television, first at stations in Texas, Ohio and Virginia, then in New York with CBS and finally Fox, where she co-hosted the morning program “Fox & Friends with Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmead.

roger ailesIn one of the first articles about the lawsuit, The New York Times related how she was moved after 11 years to an afternoon time slot and subsequently let go because of poor ratings among the critical 18-35 age group (you know, all those people at home watching TV during those hours). Coincidentally (or not) the meeting at which she was told her contract would not be renewed took place two days after she announced on the air that it was her 50th birthday. The paper quoted her: “I know, normally folks on TV wouldn’t readily admit their age, but since there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well own it and be happy.”

Carlson’s lawsuit prompted an internal investigation that has encouraged revelations by many women employees, past and present, of harassment at the channel that ran the gamut from denigrating comments to outright propositions. One former employee said Ailes told her, “If you want to play with the boys you have to lay with the boys.” And Carlson said that Ailes told her they both might have benefitted if she had gone to bed with him.

An atmosphere that mandated that women anchors always wear skirts on air so their legs show under the desk extended to an overall diminishing of women in general and employees in particular. Carlson claims that her co-host Doocy had an ongoing habit of treating her disrespectfully and when she complained to Ailes he brushed it off.

And now Aisles has to leave the network he created. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.

Photos: cbn.com, nbcnews.com

R.I.P. Mohammed Ali

young mohammed aliAs someone who probably never in her life watched more than a few seconds of a professional prizefight, I found myself reading a great deal about Mohammed Ali who died earlier this month at 74. And I marveled as I mused about the transformation, not of the former Cassius Clay who was pretty much true to himself throughout his life, but of the American public that he dragged along into acceptance – sometimes grudgingly – of individuals’ differences and their right to pursue them. In the process, he moved from the self-described Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) fighter to a goodwill ambassador beloved by people around the world.

As a young man, he was brash and mouthy – and as Richard Hoffer writes in the sports illustrated coverJune 13 issue of Sports Illustrated, “promoted himself unabashedly” –  but as he said himself in a 1964 article re-printed in the magazine, “I said I am the greatest…If I didn’t say it, there was nobody going to say it for me. And pretty soon other people were saying I’m the greatest, and I said, “Didn’t I tell you so in the first place?”

(Sort of reminds you of someone currently on today’s scene, doesn’t it?  But Mohammed Ali was way more principled.)

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I remember holding my breath with most of the world as Ali, by then silenced and debilitated by Parkinsons, made his torturous climb up the stairs with the torch in trembling hands to light the flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. “The disease,” Hoffer writes, “even if it was a predictable result of so much punishment in the ring, was a cruel coda to a career built on the beautification of an ugly sport.”

And that is why I agree with George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times who writes, “There’s no question that repeated blows to the head can damage the brain. It’s why football, hockey and baseball players wear helmets. So do amateur boxers, but not pros. In other sports, head injuries occur by accident. In boxing, it’s the whole purpose.”

So I am not a fan. And it has nothing to do with the one and only fistfight of my own life.

It was probably fifth grade: there was a threat, a challenge, boys and girls egging us on until a time and place for a confrontation was set. Then the ringside enablers formed a circle around the two of us. She was small and wiry and had older brothers; I was skinny and gangly and took ballet lessons. Punches were thrown and her nose got broken. I guess it was the sight of blood that caused everyone to scatter. Her mother must have called my father (I sure wasn’t going to volunteer the information to him) and soon we were all seated on the girl’s front porch: the two combatants, her mother, my father. And we talked and apologized. And then my father took the two of us out for ice cream.

I used to say he was probably scared he was going to get sued, not that the times were as litigious back then. But in truth he was probably terrified, a young widower raising two children alone and wondering what horror he was going to deal with now. Perhaps, to his mind, there were other horrors along the way, but at least I never had another fistfight. And I continue to this day to be embarrassed about it.

Photos:  history.com, si.com, wsbtv.com