Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Politics of Courage

This past weekend I attended the opening of Tim Kaine’s campaign office in Richmond. I first got to know Tim when he was a member of the city council. He subsequently became our mayor, then lieutenant governor, governor, and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Now he’s running to succeed Jim Webb in the US Senate.

Kaine opened his remarks to the highly partisan crowd by paying tribute to a Republican: his father-in-law, Linwood Holton, who served as governor from 1970-1974. Kaine said that Holton turned Virginia from a backward-looking to a forward-looking state.

Virginia had been dominated for decades by conservative, vehemently segregationist Democrats under the leadership of Harry Byrd, a governor and later US senator. Holton took a courageous stand for school integration in a state where a previous governor had led a campaign of Massive Resistance against mixing black and white children. When the courts ordered cross-town busing in an effort to enforce integration, he made front page news by placing his daughter, Ann, in the mostly African American public schools.

An increasingly conservative Republican party (which included former Democrats) shunned Holton. He was succeeded by Mills Godwin, who had earlier served as a Democratic governor but was re-elected as a Republican. 

As Holton, now 89, sat in the front row of the campaign rally, Tim Kaine called him “my personal hero.” It was a stirring reminder of what politics at its best can be.

Kaine said that when you see a proud party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, declare that its primary goal is to defeat President Obama (rather than restoring the economy or the job market) you know something needs to change. Of course, many Democrats demonized George W. Bush from the day he took office and he suffered ferocious attacks on his policies such as the invasion of Iraq.  When Democrats gained control of the House, some were over-eager to exact revenge for the Republican years. But the assault on Obama seems prompted less by what he has done by than who is. After all, as even some traditionally conservative commentators have noted, many of the accusations are simply irrational. Deeper emotions are at work.  

Just twenty-four hours before Kaine’s rally, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary in a stunning upset over Romney. While Gingrich’s undoubtedly superior debating skills scored him points, the result was also a sharp reminder of how North-South cultural and racial divides continue to infect national politics and often trump other considerations. Forty-four percent of (mostly white) evangelicals voted for the former House Speaker despite his philandering, his disciplining by the House for ethics accusations, his questionable lobbying practices, and his utter lack of Christian humility.

Gingrich tapped into a gut reaction in the electorate. His reference to a “food stamp president” is a perfect example of “dog-whistle politics” where coded language targets the prejudices of a specific audience. Ronald Reagan used the same tactic with his “welfare queen” references. Politicians often don’t believe their own rhetoric. But in their thirst for political power, Republicans may be in danger of unleashing emotions that they are unable to control.

Prior to Obama’s victory, no Democratic presidential candidate had won Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That year, after he signed the Civil Rights Act, he remarked to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, with the astuteness of a master politician, “We have lost the South for a generation.” Republicans won seven of the following ten presidential elections.

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” says that poor whites felt socially demoted during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. They did not experience greater job opportunities or receive college scholarships. They were the ones bused to integrated schools while wealthier whites escaped to private institutions or moved to outer suburbs. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities. (Challenging a racial caste system)

Joseph Montville has written and spoken extensively about the need to heal the North-South divide. In a recent email to me he comments: “Lyndon Johnson was saying that the civil rights laws kicked away the crutch of black degradation on which Southern white fragile self-esteem had been sustained. I am convinced that the passion for defeat of the first black president comes directly from the rage of perhaps 35 percent of the America’s population made up of very conservative whites in the South and other parts of red state America.”

He is also adamant that the North, in particular New England, needs to acknowledge its “moral indebtedness to the South for centuries of insult and contempt toward everything Southern” as well as its own complicity in profiting from slavery. 

Montville believes that this history is “a major impediment to serious study of political collaboration between liberal and conservative/Northern and Southern politicians and leaders of other social and economic sectors of the country."  In the context of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Montville recently moderated a panel of distinguished historians in Washington, DC, that explored how the unhealed wounds of history are playing into the political polarization. (Building a healthy democracy requires healing history's wounds)

As in Holton’s time when Virginia chose the path of progress, the country is at a fork in the road. Leaving Tim Kaine’s campaign headquarters, I kept thinking about his father in-in law. Where are the Linwood Holtons of today who will have the courage and foresight to call on “the better angels of our nature” and lead a great party away from a potentially dark and destructive path?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Undivided Lives, Undivided Communities

Today we celebrate the life of a great American, a man who more than anyone embodied the vision of a nation striving to become better, a nation truer to its principles. At the time of his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an increasingly uncomfortable and troublesome figure to some authorities. His appeal for justice caused them to label him a rabble-rouser and a socialist. “Yet he loved America so much,” says Richard W. Wills, former senior pastor at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, who has written extensively on the civil rights leader, “that even at the height of Jim Crow segregation he claimed to be a citizen of a great society to which he pledged allegiance.”
He also claimed dual citizenship, Wills told a breakfast for community leaders in Richmond last week. He recognized a higher power that he served. “His passion for justice and for civil rights was grounded in that second citizenship.”

King frequently reminded his followers that the achievement of civil rights did not in itself represent the goal: “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

This month, Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities launched a metropolitan Richmond project, “Unpacking the 2010 Census: The New Realities of Race, Class and Jurisdiction.” Teams of facilitators will present a powerful new DVD using data aimed at provoking discussion about policy options to address poverty and structural inequity in the region (see my last blog on Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History). 

Healing a divided community requires us, as facilitators, to live authentic, undivided lives. The author and educator Parker Palmer writes, “If we are going to make the journey toward the undivided life, we need trustworthy relationships, tenacious communities of support.”

Parker facilitates what he calls “circles of trust,” designed to create safe spaces “where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives.” And he cautions, “The soul’s freedom ends where my agenda begins.”*

Richmond’s ongoing journey to wholeness over the past three decades builds on the actions of specific individuals who have had the courage and faith to open their hearts to allow God to heal their woundedness and to create a space of trust with those whom they most distrusted.

Audrey and Collie Burton, long-time civil rights activists, reached out to Howe Todd, a white senior city administrator. They invited Todd and his wife to their home. They traveled together to other cities. They had honest conversation. Such was the effect on Todd that the leader of a community organization remarked, “Whenever I went into a meeting with him, I felt that the cards were stacked, that the decisions were already made. Now he really listens to what I have to say.” The new relationship sent ripples across the city. 

A friend once asked, “Who are the six blacks and six whites who, if they had a Damascus Road experience, could transform Richmond?” His question illustrates a strategy for community mobilization which is not dependent on organizational capacity. Rather, it involves careful discernment to identify individuals through whose radical change the community might glimpse entirely new possibilities.

In “Unpacking the 2010 Census,” much crucial date will be shared. But beyond dissemination of data, we pray for transformed lives. Richmond – and the country – is crying out for leaders, who, in the words of Mari Fitzduff, the Northern Irish peacemaker, can “transcend the needs of their own group,” and who are willing to risk becoming “strangers in their own land.”

This calls for a ministry of accompaniment. As people of faith, we must accompany leaders who will have the courage to stand for fundamental and costly change; leaders who will live undivided lives and build the undivided American community for which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Truth-telling and Redeeming a City

Ben Campbell wastes no time in naming hard truths in his new book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. It opens in 1607 with Captain Christopher Newport arriving at the fall line of what is now the James River, Virginia. Planting a large cross in the ground he tells the representative of Chief Powhatan that it symbolizes the partnership between King James and the Algonquian leader. “It was not true. He lied,” writes Campbell. The cross asserted England’s sovereignty and ownership of the land. With this action Newport and his men “planted the seed of a great nation with unprecedented opportunity for all human beings; they also planted seeds of economic exploitation, racial discrimination, a hierarchical class system, and a heretical version of Christianity….”

Campbell tells Richmond’s story, but his book is a model for the kind of honest historical narrative needed in many communities. He makes an unflinching, detailed, and persuasive argument for acknowledging the origins and development of race and class systems that deeply influence the city today.  

English colonists in the Americas followed in the path of Portuguese and Spanish. They claimed divine warrant for their actions. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V authorized colonists to invade, subdue, and capture all goods and possessions of “pagans and enemies of Christ,” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” Cloaked in religious language, the Doctrine of Discovery gave Europeans automatic property rights over any land not already possessed by another European nation.  

While paying tribute to her remarkable force of character, Campbell deconstructs the “dominant American myth” of Pocahontas (Powhatan’s daughter) noting the irony that the painting of her baptism hangs in the state capitol, “the central shrine of a nation that specifically separates church and state.” Ninety percent of Pocahontas’s people were forced from their ancestral lands or killed under policies “that in modern international law would be considered genocide.”

Richmond’s racial history is discussed more freely these days, but Campbell believes that “class is, if anything, even more foundational, seldom acknowledged, and more insidious in its impact.” In the early years, most new arrivals in Virginia – white and black – were in servitude or bondage. By 1662, the small white elite, fearing that indentured whites would make common cause with Africans, began to develop legal structures for racialized slavery.

As a churchman himself, Campbell is always interested in where the church stood on these matters. Significantly, conversion did not mean freedom for Africans. Christianity became a description of white ethnic origin. The 1705 Comprehensive Slave Code specified Christians as White and slaves as Negroes. 

A ray of hope appeared with the spiritual movements of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s followed by the Great Revival that became a source of democratic energy. Evangelical Christianity was “a decidedly multiracial affair.” But by the last decade of the eighteenth century most evangelicals had accepted the status quo insofar as slavery was concerned and the established churches became increasingly outspoken in their paternalistic justification of the institution. 

New waves of immigration brought Scots-Irish and German settlers, famers and artisans. Though poor, they formed a vital buffer between the aristocracy and the enslaved population. Racial privilege muted their class consciousness. The 1791 revolution in Saint Dominique, a nearly successful slave revolt in Richmond in 1800, and Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 just seventy-five miles southeast of Richmond scared the governing class. 

By now Richmond was the leading interstate slave market in the country and consequently the third wealthiest city in America. In 1857 alone, the business of supplying slaves to cotton plantations in the south generated $100 million in present-day dollars. The brutalizing impact on Richmond was noted by Charles Dickens who was struck by “the darkness – not of the skin, but of the mind – that meets the stranger’s eye.” 

Some of Campbell’s most powerful writing focuses on the post-Civil War and Emancipation years: a brief period of black political empowerment followed by decades of exclusion and segregation. In 1867 blacks comprised one third of the Republican majority in the General Assembly and a majority of Richmond’s registered voters – a situation not to be repeated for almost a century. But beginning in the early 1870s, explicit, openly restrictive policies to exclude blacks and to suppress the vote at local and state level reduced registered African American voters by 99 percent. After 1896 no blacks served on the city council until after World War II and by the late 1890s none were left in statewide office. 

Campbell describes in detail the policies employed by white leaders to isolate the African American community, leading to concentrated poverty and contributing to urban sprawl. “The city pursued a plan that destroyed or invaded every black neighborhood” in the name of urban renewal. In the 1950s an interstate highway – twice rejected by referendum but rammed through the General Assembly – bisected the Jackson Ward community. The city’s Master Plan destroyed 4,700 units of housing and replaced then with 1,736 units of public housing. Five public housing projects were built within a mile of each other.

As black political power grew in Richmond following the civil rights movement, the General Assembly was busy changing annexation laws to protect majority white counties from increasingly black cities across the state in “panicked attempts to replace legalized segregation with a new jurisdictionally established separation of race and class.” By the early seventies, Richmond found itself with “its boundaries drawn by the General Assembly, its tax base restricted, its charter subject to state approval…” Even after court-ordered busing, Campbell says the “de facto segregation of schools” continued to be the most powerful element keeping the jurisdictions of metropolitan Richmond separate from one another.” As a result, there is “no effective public vehicle for the collaborative nurture of the metropolitan area’s children.” 

Campbell's book is an urgent call to action. The final section, which includes numerous graphs illustrating the disparities in the region, serves as an essential toolkit for advocates. He closes with specific and radical proposals that are sure to provoke strong responses and, hopefully, serious consideration. Structural changes, not just cooperation, are needed. Calling for some form of metropolitan “federalism" and consolidation of major services he writes, “A single elected leadership is essential to a dynamic metropolitan city.”

Richmond’s Unhealed History is a sobering read but it is not without hope and vision. Campbell references some major initiatives begun in 1993 to publicly acknowledge the city’s history. In his focus on truth-telling he may seem to underestimate the significance of these developments in which he himself has been a vital player. But he ultimately has faith in the spiritual potential of the city, believing that a “genuine citizenship that serves the common wealth” is the most realistic and moral aspiration for Richmond.