Thursday, June 2, 2011

Vincent Harding on Barack Obama, Diane Nash and public renewal

As an activist with SCLC and a close friend of Martin Luther King, Vincent Harding was both a leading critic of the Vietnam war and of American militarism. He drafted King’s speech on Vietnam because they were close and because King was on the road 300 days a year, see here. Vincent also knew and has been engaged in inviting and recording the stories of many of the activists in the civil rights movement who worked with him, stayed with him and Rosemary, are part of his larger family (see the Veterans of Hope project and Vincent’s blog here). It is in the course of these interviews that Diane Nash told him the resonant story he recounts below. As his long letter about Barack Obama’s assassination of Bin Laden indicates, Vincent is attuned to the persistence and dangers of American militarism. Vincent had a very different, illuminating, and I think more profound reaction than mine to the assassination as well as to the further ones about the fate of the rule of law. See here, here and here. Vincent’s is a spiritual one, one which asks: what is the teaching to young people and thus the world involved in the execution? What does it promise for the future? This post will go more deeply into this difference, and attempt to give it a political voice (one about what we can do, regardless of what President Obama does).

My initial reaction to the assassination was about Obama doing a kind of rough justice to a mass murderer (though it was also cold-blooded murder of a man who then was not defending himself and could clearly have been abducted by the 79 navy seals and brought back for trial, a Mafia-like hit in despite of the rule of law). The killing was thus something unique in the current array of American wars (it differed, I argued, from the drones over Pakistan which kill large numbers of civilians, including children, doubtfully get anyone who is clearly either a criminal or an “enemy,” and lead to Pakistani crowds chanting “death to Obama...”). The elimination of Bin Laden also plays a role in increasing mass American pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan – given widespread disgust for the War, about 2/3 of the population now oppose it – and new possibilities of anti-war civil disobedience.

The killing is also part of Obama as a politician, demonstrating his lethality in the role of commander in chief (it does, unusually), and thus making a new position for himself in American politics. It contrasts with the feckless aggressions and tortures of Bush-Cheney administration in that it actually got the man who claimed responsibility for murdering the 3,000 people in the twin towers on September 11th (Americans of 83 nationalities) and is a big killer of, for example, Africans in Kenya, Arabs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Spaniards and others. Sarah Palin et al can now mock his full name Barack Hussein Obama and everyone will think: yes, the man who killed Bin Laden, and who are you?

But the threat to the rule of law is very important. Law is increasingly abolished in America through the reactionary two step of American politics. For instance, the Bush-Cheney administration initiated police state polices such as torture, and the Republican* and much of the Democratic leadership cries out even against trials in New York for terrorists. In Madrid, courts can try terrorists who blew up the Atocha Station through the rule of law. But America is afraid to. Bin Laden imagined turning American civilization inside out. He could not do this himself. But the cowardice of the Republicans and most Democrats (Obama tried to close Guantanamo and he and Attorney General Holder considered trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Manhattan) have increasingly made Bin Laden's repulsive hopes true, despite Obama's plunging his corpse in the deep blue sea.

In response to a letter from Marta Soler, I underlined the rule of law (that Bin Laden would have been better captured and tried), that the reactionary two step of American politics, attacking always from the Right, strengthens a crazed, self-defeating militarism and a casual abandonment of the rule of law. I added that the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader could be linked, if there were a large civil disobedient anti-war movement from below, to withdrawing American troops and mercenaries from Afghanistan (there are 7 secret Xe/Blackwater mercenaries in Afghanistan for every 3 soldiers in Obama's escalation) and Iraq and some diversion of resources to be used to put people to work, rebuild the United States.

This last point was to further the same kind of movement Vincent hopes for and has been a leader of (in speaking out at protests against the two Gulf Wars). But his responses come from a different place in two important ways. The first relies on an insight that is emphasized in King’s speech, April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church. King had gone to Watts for Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to urge nonviolence on the young people, in despair and anger, who were rebelling there. And they said to him, does the US government desist from violence in solving its problems? Is that what it does in Vietnam?

King did not hide behind his Nobel Prize, his status as a minister, his mission from President Johnson. Instead, he realized that he could not speak out against the violence of rebellions in Los Angeles or Detroit and for a nonviolent movement against racism and poverty unless he first spoke out against the war in Vietnam, against “my government, the most violent government in the world.” King helped lead a movement against the War, was isolated or eschewed by the government and killed a year later. The US government is still the greatest rogue nation, an aggressor in many, often undeclared wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps Libya, though the latter, as an intervention, may have prevented a massacre, see here), even as led by Barack Obama. (Johnson was a much more troubled figure than Obama, but had still called for the Civil Rights Bill and even, in a speech, echoed the cry of the civil rights movement: “We shall overcome.” He was both the imperial and genocidal president in Vietnam, and yet could be moved on civil rights by protest; he eventually, backhandedly, acknowledged the force of the anti-Vietnam war movement by not running for reelection).

King was in conversation with the rest of the movement and with America, listened deeply, changed when he was called upon to change. In a beautiful elegy to Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero, Vincent traces poetically the fierce movement of King in the last years of his life, talking of the dangers of capitalism in a way that would have left behind some of his followers (Andrew Young suggests this in the tenth segment of “Eyes on the Prize,” perhaps referring to himself), to become a mass nonviolent. democratic socialist, and ending with his marching in support of the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis. “I am a man.” They carried those signs, and it is hard to have made a larger statement in history – as a man or woman – than the one Martin Luther King made. See my "I am a woman, I am a man, I am a citizen" here.

Second, King was a model of how one might try to heal up the world. He was not trying to assassinate enemies, but to create a new, more free and democratic regime, with greater voting power and economic rights for poor people and greater mutual recognition among human beings so that we would not have to continue the bloody struggle of lynching and resistance, that we could all live together, along with our differences, our histories, as equals. This is a noble idea and the Truth Commissions in South Africa and Desmond Tutu (No Future without Forgiveness) testify to its great force. King was teaching the young a different way (in life, and even in death, since he knew, as he said, that though he had been to the mountain top and seen the promised land, he would not get there with us…See here). What, Vincent asks forcefully, does Obama teach the children (particularly the young men railroaded into jail in the American police state – with its 25% of the world’s prisoners; one in three young black men born in 2001, one in six Chicanoes, one in 17 whites, can all expect to be in prison in their lifetimes, according to the Justice Department)? Is this teaching them to make a new world, according to his heroes Gandhi and King? Is Obama the politician using American violence but somehow trying to bend it toward a better world? Or is he teaching that to be a man one must be lethal (like Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, see here)?

Of course, Michael Corleone does not end up well.

Vincent reports that the assassination and the grotesque response to it outside the White House made him physically ill. He says the attack on an unarmed man reminded him of a lynching. I have learned from his response. But I also want to draw a difference here. I don’t think killing justly is the same as murdering innocents (Barack murders enough innocents by drone every day in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however). What is a visceral memory for Vincent (I saw the South mostly at a distance; he did not) is not the same for me. But the vision here still may not quite be right.

And yet as Vincent and King suggest, what Barack is doing in murdering Bin Laden does create a further link in the chain of violence (a possibly fatal one if there is another depression, not far from here, or another terror attack in the US). Obama’s timid moves on the Palestinians – real enough to bring down the self-destructive madness of Netanyahu and the Israel lobby’s agents in Congress – point out that he is seeking some better way. Here one might say, the attempted long view of a politician seems to clash with that of those of us who demand a better world more directly.

I think Vincent is right about the consequences here. The movements of Gandhi and especially King (and more broadly, the American civil rights movement in the twentieth century) create a new possibility. That possibility is to forge a new kind of spiritual unity in actual politics that creates great changes, an end to legal segregation and the forging of an America that makes an Obama, not only a first black President, but one who has a sense of the heritage of King and Gandhi. John Lewis has this vision more strikingly – see here – but he could not have become, in corporate American politics (underlining the stupidity and evil of American politics), President.

Vincent also tells the story of Diane Nash, a great figure in the Nashville movement, along with James Lawson, and the Freedom Rides (see here - she brought the forces of Nashville to prevent an horrific defeat at Birmingham and Anniston, when others, including Martin Luther King, were not ready to do so), facing, with her husband and co-worker James Bevel, what to do about the murder of the four children, by bombing, in the Birmingham church. At first, they wanted to hunt down the killers, and kill them. About the murder of children, one can feel (initially and perhaps much later) no other response.

As Americans, and particularly for Barack, I would hear the voices of Afghanis cry out against the murder of children. This weekend, the Times ran a picture of an Afghani father holding the body of his young son murdered by American bombing (a few weeks ago, nine little boys, gathering wood for their mothers on a hill side, were murdered by an American helicopter). Take in that grief and you will learn the meaning of the metaphor that he who takes up the sword – however lethally and partially effectively – will die by the sword…It is important to break the chain, not to forge another link, even if justified, in the terrible line.

It was for this reason that Diane Nash and James Bevel came to themselves. They realized that their place – who they were and are – was to forge the nonviolent movement in Selma, to make a South in which the bombing of 12 year old girls could not happen again...

Nash’s story, told to Vincent when she came to give her interview at the Veterans of Hope, is as important in the seriousness of nonviolence as a political movement as her confrontation and conversation with Mayor West in Nashville, her leadership in the second wave of freedom rides. See here. For the reaction of violence - justified violence against the killers either in Birmingham or for 9/11 or against the US army for its many crimes in Afghanistan or Vietnam or against Israel for the murders of children in Gaza in 2008 (some 300 children; Hamas murdered one 7 year old Israeli child...) - is the first and fiercest reaction. But one needs to come to oneself, to heal the world, not to make it blind and, today, destroy it.

In Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber draws a powerful distinction, one which runs through this issue, between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of intention. The ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik) is the “long and slow boring of hard boards” which is characteristic of modern democratic politics, uses sometimes the means of violence. It is also the politics of imperial war (Weber was a German imperialist, a realist in great power politics against the then more powerful England). The ethic of intention (Gesinningsethik) is that of following one’s conscience (Jesus, he suggests) and turning the other cheek. Weber prefers the politician’s ethic.

On Weber’s view, as I show in ch. 12 of Democratic Individuality, there are no genuine or well-formulated ethics, however. He does not think that the killing even of large numbers of innocent human beings is wrong (he has a rather badly argued notion, offered in one sentence no less, that because states pursue different aims, there is nothing in common in the rule of decent states, even to preserve the lives of their citizens…).

But take his idea of responsibility. Let us imagine a "responsible" slave ship conductor who kills but half the cargo in the Middle Passage (the usual rate was about two-thirds). Would we say of such a person that they are morally responsible? Or take the danger to the world of American militarism, making endless wars, including Obama's new war in Libya (along with undeclared wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps also covertly Iran). Combined with global warming, there is a good chance that America will destroy the world (create conditions in which over the next century, human life becomes endangered on this planet). Obama knows enough to want to change these things, to escape this course, to be ethically responsible. But he also wants to be reelected President (of the Empire)…

In the latter context, killing Bin Laden was a great coup. But it is hardly sufficient. It would be far better to limit American militarism and devote resources to employing people (as Krugman and especially Bob Herbert have pressed, so far futiley, in the New York Times, Krugman even self-critically three days ago on "Learned Helplessness" here and here). But the Republicans have become, on medical care for the elderly and collective bargaining so obviously a reactionary party (they were always an authoritarian, imperial, anti-working class party, but this is an extreme) that they may make Obama electable despite depression-level unemployment. May…

Some of us who have been educated on Weber and his political science and sociological successors may not hear a novel, nonviolent alternative sharply (Weber emphasizes that a state centrally monopolizes the legitimate means of violence; pre-Gandhi, his very definition makes nonviolence something apolitical, outside politics). But what King and Gandhi and Mandela and Tutu did – and Egypt and Madison and the indignados in Spain, and the nonviolent movement of the Palestinians now make clear –is to offer to the world a new movement, one that combines, morally speaking, responsibility and intention: to act now to create the possibility of a genuinely better world, one of reconciliation and hope. That is a hopeful possibility for politics for our time, one that does not lead to self-destruction (Weberian "responsibility" today). It is that alternative that Vincent speaks to.

In working on Emancipation and Independence on the centrality of the struggle against bondage in the American Revolution (forthcoming, Chicago 2012), I have developed a keen sense of the loss of families, seized in Africa or sold away from each other in the United States. There is a special sense of the elders, of the ancestors who stay with one spiritually, among black people which often is more intense than among others (though I come from an assimilating Jewish family, I also have a sense of the voices of the long past, and have learned spiritually from brothers like Vincent). There is such a place of healing now also in the Palestinian nonviolent movement, and the attempt to call forth in Israel the many who seek a new and civilized life, not one of occupation, atrocity and violence.

Vincent writes as an uncle, father, older brother, person moved by Barack, and as a leader of the civil rights and the anti-war movements; his would be a spiritual voice for Obama to listen to. I have learned from Vincent’s words, and I hope you will too.


I was attending a conference on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, a conference focused on the education of black children, when I heard in my hotel room the first raucous news from CNN announcing the murder of Osama bin Laden; then came the words and images of the celebrations that followed. I become almost physically ill; and after attempting to express my distress to my deeply empathetic companion, I began to write these words:

Dear Martin, we hear you, again, wisely, lovingly warning us that the triumph of militarism leads surely to the defeat of humanism and democracy, to the loss of soul.

The CNN anchor (was it brother Don Lemon?) calls this time of the killing as “the president’s finest night.” Oh, beloved Barack, are the brutalized crowds mocking you when they gather in front of the White House and chant, “USA, yes we can”? Have “we”—you and us—now created a more just and compassionate nation, a more perfect union? Have “we”—you and us—contributed to the building of a new world that takes us beyond the ancient, bloody goals of retribution, of killing for killing, of destroying our enemies?

My beloved younger brother/son, what are you teaching the nation, this very needy nation? I feel something deeply tragic in all of this. I am terribly saddened to hear that the keepers of conventional wisdom are praising you for your “gutsy decision” to return evil for evil. What are we teaching our children, my dear son? What is the lesson for all the young men of the black and brown street communities? Could it be that our first president of color shows us how to deal with our enemies, demonstrates what it means to have “guts”? Will you now glory in this “victory”? (And what are the lessons here concerning what “victory” really means and how it is achieved?) And where do you think Jesus was? Where do you think Gandhi was? Where do you think Fannie Lou and Martin were when you went forward, locking arms—and steps—with your/our “intelligence community,” not even suggesting, as you sometimes sadly do, that some evils are necessary? But instead, apparently rejoicing and accepting praise for your “gutsy” decision to render an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a death for many deaths.

What is the message to the young boys, dear brother? Could those millions of young men (and increasing number of their sisters) in our schools, in our homes, in our prisons possibly think that OUR president really believes that you’re a punk if you don’t destroy your enemies—by any means necessary? Dear Brother Commander-chief, we now need you much more to be Teacher-in-chief. We need you to teach the children that vigilante action is not the pathway to humane, democratic development as a nation, or as individual citizens. Now that you have proven (to somebody) that you are capable of being Commander, we need you, the children and the adults need you, to offer guidance in the creation of a more perfect union. We need you to break out of the damaging, conventional lock-step to find and teach another way

Somehow, my son, strange as it may seem, the “elite” Seals’ breaking into the bin Laden family quarters (with your permission) to perpetuate the ultimate invasive acts of retributive “justice” reminds me too much of all the terroristic lynch mobs we have known in our past. Where is the change? Where is the hope? Did your beautiful daughters ask you about bin Laden and the cheering crowds? What did you tell them? What did the teachers at their Quaker-based school teach them? Is all this part of the face of the democracy that their grandparents—including the gutsy Stanley Ann Durham—dreamed for them, for you, for us? Our brother, Martin, used to say, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leads nowhere other than to a blind and toothless generation.” Is there nothing better for Malia and Sasha, for the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for the children of Chicago—for the children and grandchildren of bin Laden?

(A few days after that outpouring of questions, concerns and cries of the heart I knew that I needed to speak again from my heart to our president, my adopted son [who was born almost exactly 30 years after me—another Leo]. I remembered that it was not long after his inauguration that I had made a public promise to him that I would, whenever possible, try to accompany him through all the treacherous paths that I knew were ahead of him and us. [See my Hope and History, second edition, 2009, pp. 200-201.] So I felt I could not, as uncle, father and elder brother simply leave him with the questions. This final segment emerged out of my attempt to walk with him in integrity and hope.)

Dear brother, son, and beloved teacher-in-chief,

When you decide to explore another narrative, another set of lessons that may help you to open our nation—especially our young people—to the transformative, humanizing possibilities that sometimes exist within the tragedy of terrorism, please consider this: If you and the family were able to look at the excellent documentary film “Freedom Riders,” that appeared on PBS this week, you saw that magnificent, courageous and unsung hero of the Freedom Movement, Diane Nash, a native of your adopted hometown, Chicago.

I’ve know Diane since those powerful years in the 1960’s when my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were deeply immersed in the life of the southern movement. As I thought of your own calling to be teacher-in-chief at this time I remembered especially the weeks that Rose and I spent with Diane and her late husband, Jim Bevel, during the dangerous, challenging times of the 1963 Birmingham (AL) Movement. As you know, my son, those were days when children the age of your daughters played such a vital and courageous role in breaking open Birmingham and the nation to a new beginning of creative democratic possibilities beyond the destructive paths of white supremacy. Not surprisingly, it was vivid memories of those days in Birmingham (appropriately known as “Bombingham” by the African-American community) that rushed back into me when I heard of your “justice” raid on the bin Laden family quarters. I remembered especially the deadly terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church just a few weeks after the March on Washington. By that time both the Hardings and the Bevels had left Birmingham, but we knew that the 16th Street church had been the primary rallying place for the victorious forces of the Movement, and we remembered the insistent, enthusiastic presence of the children and young people among us and the great enthusiasm with which they had marched out of that building to face the police and the dogs, the high powered fire hoses and the jails awaiting them.

But it wasn’t until years after the bombing, after both Rosemarie and Jim had gone on their way beyond this life that Diane told me the story of the way she and Bevel had initially responded to the horrific news of the terrorist bombing and the death of the four Sunday School girls. I pass the story on to you with loving concern and unvanquished hope.

Diane said that she and Bevel were visiting with another freedom-worker in another state when word of the bombing and the deaths reached them. Those were two of the most creative, courageous and committed practitioners of non-violent struggle in the Freedom Movement, and I still remember the deep expression of pain that covered Diane’s face and filled her voice as she told me of their immediate response to the news. It almost literally knocked them off center, and they first began talking and making plans to return to Alabama and give themselves totally to the task of discovering who had committed this atrocious crime and track them down to personally make sure that they would never live to do such an act again. They were determined
to seek retributive “justice.”

Then, as they talked and planned, Diane said it was as if they suddenly came to themselves and remembered who they were and what their work really was. Gradually they realized that they were in danger of being sucked into the very terror that they despised. They heard Gandhi and Jesus. They heard Fannie Lou Hamer, Jim Lawson (their powerful teacher) and Martin King. They heard the wisdom in their own hearts and knew that the best way for them to be faithful to the teachers, to their comrades, to their movement, to those four young girls, and to themselves, was to take the fire burning within them and re-direct it to an even more fierce determination to return to Alabama. Only this time they knew that they should go to Selma where the courageous black citizens of that deeply racist city were currently working with the indomitable friends and co-workers of Diane and Jim in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Working together across generations, SNCC and the Selma folks were challenging all the legal and illegal, all the internal and external barriers to black participation in the right to vote. Risking their lives to challenge white supremacy, the Selma voter registration movement was eager to have young veterans like Diane and Jim join them (Eventually of course Dr. King would also come to stand with the local forces).

As they wrestled to formulate their best response to the Birmingham terror, Diane remembered, she and Jim finally decided that the response to white terrorism that would be most fully in keeping with their own deepest convictions would be to work tirelessly in Selma and elsewhere to help place the power of the vote so fully and firmly in the hands of the black citizens of Alabama that they could create a new reality, a new setting in which such terror would never find a place again.

Of course, you realize, my teacher-in-chief, that the powerful voting rights campaign that led eventually to the iconic nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery (developed largely out of the organizing genius of Jim Bevel) and then to the historic national Voting Rights Act of 1965, provides much teaching material: In a sense, it could be said that when Diane and Jim chose not to enter the trap of “an eye for an eye” they became free to help open up vast new creative and democratic possibilities for a people , a state, a nation and a world. In a deep sense, dear brother, they opened the way for you.

I think it’s your turn now. Break free, walk free, my son. I’m sure that not only the ancestors (like your momma) and old men like me, will accompany you. Diane (still very much alive) and the girls from 16th Street Baptist Church—and Sasha and Malia—are very likely available as well.

If you start teaching free, walking free, my son, you’ll be amazed at who will walk with you and where the road may lead. Perhaps walking, learning, teaching together we’ll even find a creative, life-giving and democratic way to remember the coming 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001. Perhaps it can even be an anniversary without drones and their “Hell-fire” missiles.

Our children need that, don’t they, dear teacher-in-chief? Shall we walk?

Vincent Harding

PS to all: As you can see, this set of rambling thoughts began as a brief calling out to my brother, Martin King, and then morphed into a long, too-long letter to my nephew/son/beloved president Barack. But in some ultimate sense it’s really a message, a cri de coeur to anyone who will receive it. So, if you feel moved to respond in words (or without words) I will be glad to hear from you. VH

*I should except, however, Rand Paul who has questioned the unconstitutiotnality of Obama’s war in Libya and the tyranny of the Patriot Act and its extension – the licensing of the FBI to pursue suspects in the US without even the easy-to-get FISA warrants – never denied - from the Carter period. Paul was mocked as a gadfly in a particularly silly New York Times front page story Saturday, one which again reveals the so-called reporting in the Times often to be, in the terms of journalism, editorial opinion and political propaganda (untrue as well as partisan claims about politics).

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