Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Democratic Vision in Obama's Selma Speech

  
    Obama has a larger and more democratic vision of politics than other mainstream (oligarchically-funded) politicians.  That was true in the organization of his 2008 campaign – the role of mass support, even including email commentary on some issues - though it was quickly dropped when he became President.  But that vision reappears, more sharply in his speech in Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

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         For there, John Lewis heroically led a march of ordinary people which was brutally attacked by Sheriff Jim Clark and the police. Listen to Lewis's remarks here.  

     Praising Lewis as his hero, Barack emphasized how ordinary, humble people, speaking out, change history from below.  This is the novel - for an American President - emphasis in the speech. Listen here; read here.

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        Obama hailed the American Revolution in the context of the Selma march, not mainly for producing future Presidents, but as a movement from below.  Selma was adjoined to Seneca Falls and the movement for women’s suffrage (Frederick Douglass spoke there) and abolition, the mutual interplay of those denied recognition – kept in silence and degradation - and asserting their dignity, their right, too, to equal liberty, their will.

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      As Hegel points out in Phenomenology of Spirit, slaveowners are not free.  Masters - parasites - can achieve no recognition in the eyes of those whose liberty they deny.  Owners and patriarchs are, thus, in fact, freed as human beings by these movements from below, which are deeply imbued with a patriotism of equal liberty (there is no other worthy patriotism which is often "the last refuge of a scoundrel").

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      In Obama’s speech, Amelia Boynton, C.T. Vivian and many others figured as people demanding their rights who “threw open the doors to others,” women and gays and lesbians (in Obama’s Presidency for example), and he hopes, latino immigrants.  See here.

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      Obama’s patriotism is that of the movements from below, for making “a more perfect union,”   fighting for the realization of the Bill of Rights for each of us, fighting for genuinely equal opportunity.

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      This view, of course, has sharp limitations.  Even a patriotism of equal liberty in an empire is self-undermining.  Thus, in “Breaking the Silence” on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King points to the soldiers, black and white, burning Vietnamese villages who could not live next to each other in East Chicago or Detroit.

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       For equal opportunity under capitalism quickly becomes unequal, enabling the rich, as is visible to the naked eye in the United States, to control the (corporate) politicians.  

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       While it is amazing that Barack is in the oval office, Black Lives Matter! and the huge prison system - 2.3 million in jail,  25% of the world’s prisoners - and Ferguson as well as the rest of the St. Louis suburbs – as the Justice Department report shows - are still radically unequal.

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     A capitalism unrestricted by organization from below flourishes on divisions between people, white and black, male and female, and so forth both to make profits and for its political survival.      Most whites today, even in what was once the middle class, are steadily losing ground. 

     That elite strategy is called divide and rule.  (See Michael Reich, Racial Inequalities: A Political-economic Analysis, Princeton, 1984)..

    And it will take serious multiracial movements from below to put a halt to these phenomena.

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    Obama also talked of the stigmatizing of the Selma marchers as “communists” "half-breeds" 'sexual degenerates" and the like. This is just anti-radical ideology (blaming protest on the "duping" of ordinary people who supposedly don't know their own interests by putatively immoral 'outside' agitators - a view advanced by and for slave-owners and capitalists, i.e. exploiters...).

     And then Barack asked pointedly: and yet, what could be more patriotic than what they did?

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      That view of patriotism is the same as Henry David Thoreau’s in "Civil Disobedience" – it is the capacity of each of us to say no to injustice, even when the powers-that-be and sometimes many others are for it.  It is to say, with Thoreau, that a constitution that purports to be the slave’s and mine - the American Constitution until it was cleaned up by the 13th Amendment - cannot be mine.   Instead, it must be resisted by civil disobedience – in Thoreau’s case, by individual refusal to pay taxes; in Selma, by mass nonviolent civil disobedience from below – and changed.

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       Obama also  praised the resourcefulness – beyond men, thank you - of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Here Barack implicitly distinguished himself from President Lyndon Johnson who staged a silly press conference to praise Governor Connelly of Texas (shot with President Kennedy nine months before) to get the television cameras away from Fannie Lou Hamer’s powerful testimony at the Democratic Convention of 1964.  See my “Thoughts about the greatness of Selma, black white unity, truth, King and the clamor of racist patriarchs" here; for more on Fannie Lou Hamer see here.

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      Obama said:  

      "It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what's right and shake up the status quo."

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      Barack thus contrasted a profound view, a view celebrating the long movements - more than "occasional" - of protest of ordinary people from below with the cheap patriotism of the Republicans on behalf of hapless imperial wars (Rudolph Giulianai , John McCain) and hankering for segregated rural towns (Sarah Palin)

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      Selma, Obama said, is what people recalled when they rose up against apartheid in South Africa,  He thus linked the fight for a broadening recognition of people at home to the struggle internationally (one that as President of an Empire hungry for oil he is – most obviously, today, in Venezuela – pathetically on the wrong side of…).

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     These movements are rank and file movements of the oppressed, not government to government activities.  

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        That is the aspect missed or understated by those who praise mainly its different vision of patriotism from those who have criticized Obama, a parochial insight at best.  See, for instance, Jamelle Bouie’s nonetheless very good piece at Slate here.

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      But Obama’s speech and the march on Sunday of some 80,000 were also alive to the events of today.  As Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels  were murdered in Selma, so Michael Brown,  Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and  many others today. 

      As in Selma, so the protests in Ferguson (often stigmatized as violent, but mainly nonviolent – see Osagyefo Sekou here and  my initial comments on Barack’s speech, the killing of Jessica Hernandez and other police murders here).

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      Ordinary people marched and sat down - civil disobedience - in Selma for the right to vote.  Yet in contrast,  the Supreme “Court” has, as Obama said, stripped the Voting Rights Act of its enforcement provision (section 5) and some 20 Republican governors and state legislatures have disenfranchised blacks and chicanos as well as students and the elderly. See here.

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    As John Lewis was 25 when he led the original march and suffered a concussion and saw death, Obama spoke to 25 year olds today about taking up that banner of protest (Opal Tonnetti, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter was there - see the essay by Joe Jencks below).

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        Obama hailed an ideal police force that would serve the community, as some officers want to (that purpose would certainly would make for a more decent and less troubled force).  But of course, the police, turning their backs against Mayor DiBlasio for telling Dante, his son, to avoid the danger of being killed, to obey police with great care in New York showed, are currently fighting for their “right” to kill with impunity.

      Further, they  have never done what Obama imagines; they have always been an instrument of control of poor people, starting with slave hunting as Representative Joe Salazar said strikingly at a Denver hearing on January 31, continuing in the creation of the Chicago police force to put down movements of immigrant workers in the 19th century, culminating in Haymarket - see Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department here - and in general, toward black people in the era of Jim Crow and today throughout Missouri.

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       But Obama also spoke rightly to the demand from below that Black Lives Matter and all lives matter.  We all want the protection of laws against murder (it is, for example,  what the police and the juridical system do not enforce in terms of gang murders among blacks and Chicanos…; in addition, the police murders continue – see "Police Killings last year: US 459 Britain and Japan 0" here).

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       More importantly, he challenged the dark, mistaken thought that nothing has gotten better in this country since Selma.  Ask anyone who lived in Los Angeles or Selma or Chicago in the 1950s, he said, and they will tell you about the progress. Further, this line of thinking deprives John Lewis and those in Selma of their agency and responsibility.  By diminishing real gains which have been fought for and won by mass movements, this cynicism actually strengthens resignation and reaction.

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        Obama also challenged the silly view that because a black man can be in the Oval Office, America is “post-racial.”  The histrionic disrespect for Obama of the Republican party – the fantasy  stories about his political positions and lack of a birth certificate; the invitation to Netanyahu and the letter of 47 Senators  to Iran – are prize examples of racism.  

      As Obama said, we have but to look around us – Anthony Hill, a naked and unarmed  man and former Air Force officer, was shot down by a police officer in Chamblee, Georgia, another unarmed man in Aurora, Colorado and another in Madison, Wisconsin.  See Richard Faucet, "Police Killing of Unarmed Georgia Man Leaves Another Town in Disbelief," New York Timeshere.

    Do Black Lives Matter? (!!!!)

    In this context, Obama rightly suggested that the word "we" - what we can do together - is the most important word in the American experience.

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      There were, however, three major mistakes in Barack’s speech.  It is true that some people are fighting for democracy from below in the Ukraine and that there are real possibilities for this.  But it is not true that US and Europe’s efforts to expand NATO right up to the borders of Russia and even to stimulate such movements (as opposed to letting them happen on their own)  could be expected to produce anything but war (and the threat of much larger, possibly nuclear war) and oppression.

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      Consider the Soviet Union planting nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 – a near miss for nuclear war as the Errol Morris' movie “Fog of War” about Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara shows vividly – and the fierce US reaction.  Why expect anything different today with continual, hostile expansion up to Russia's doorstep?

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     And why did Europe and the United States choose to isolate Russia rather than incorporate it in NATO?  Note Putin pulled Barack’s chestnuts out of the fire on his "red line" on chemical weapons in Syria.  That America working for an anti-Russia Ukraine is helpful or wise, even though there are parallels in the demonstrations from below to Selma, needs some further argument.

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      Second, Barack talked about Pioneers and settlers going into the West.  In a moment of Founding Amnesia, he omitted the genocide of indigenous people which is a part of the American "story."  Though he invoked Navajo Code Talkers in World War II as a gesture to include the tribes, this was, by far, the worst feature of the speech.

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       Third, Barack walked with W and Laura Bush across the Edmund Pettus (the Klansman) Bridge.  Diane Nash a great hero of this movement, was shown to the front row with them, but refused to walk.  Here is what she said:

        “After the event, there was a—like a march, and photographers. And I was all set to march with them. They had—they placed us—they had me in the front line. And then George Bush came out and got in the march. And I left. I decided I wasn’t marching anywhere with George Bush. The Selma movement stands for nonviolence and peace and democracy and fairness and voting rights, and George Bush stands for just the opposite. He stands for violence and war and stolen elections, and, for goodness sake, his administration had people tortured. I think this occasion was not appropriate for him to be here. I think for him to appear to be leading people involved in the nonviolent movement in this country, for photographs of that to go across the world would make it look as though we have sold out. I think that is an insult to people whose lives were taken—Reverend Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo. It’s an insult to me. And I think it’s an insult to everybody who really does believe in nonviolence.

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   Nash also underlined the centrality of the movement, not elected officials: 

     “I want to mention just a couple of things that I think might be of value as we continue the struggle now. And the first thing is, I think it would be a huge mistake for Americans to leave the future of this country in the hands of elected officials. Elected officials are not going to do what’s necessary in the interest of this country. It’s important—critical, in fact—that citizens take the interests of this country into our own hands, use nonviolence and make the necessary changes. I like to ask—suppose we had waited for elected officials to desegregate restaurants, lunch counters, public accommodations, buses, and to get the right to vote. I think 50 years later we would still be waiting. “

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     Tactically, Barack sought to underline Republican support for the Voting Rights Act, including Bush and invite a restoration of it (Bush’s handlers inventively disenfranchised/discouraged black votes in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio in 2004; the Republicans are largely the enemies of black and poor voters as well as the new Black Lives Matter movement, so this, too, is an issue). 

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    Obama has chosen, mistakenly to have no independent  criminal proceedings against the torturers.  This is pretty sad (it would have been possible, given repentance, at the end to pardon them).  This is an act which undercuts much of the good of what he did at Selma.

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       Nonetheless, it was because of Obama’s emphasis on the speaking out, the turmoil from below caused by the most oppressed to claim the American promise of equal rights, that this speech will live on as the most unusual and striking for a President that Barack has so far given.   

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        Joe Jencks, a wonderful folk singer, who has performances around the country, wrote movingly about being in Selma  and the role of Dorothy Paige Turner a teacher, through song in kindergarten and then later in the Black Theater Ensemble (Joe was the only white member)  revealing the truth to him about racism in making him who he is.   I include his words at the end because they show something deep – they were perhaps 80,000 different such stories among the marchers on Sunday – about what Selma and the fight from below against racism mean. 

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        Joe writes: 

      "Greetings from the road! Spring is happening in the south and creeping it's way north. I know that's hard to believe for those of you in New England and the upper Midwest " but it really is coming, have hope! I have seen it!

      Please find below an essay (In The Footsteps of Giants) about extraordinary recent events in Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, AL. 

     In addition, there are several upcoming Joe Jencks solo concerts starting tonight with a house concert at Slow Lane Music Hall near Ithaca, NY. Then off to the Dreaming Tree Coffee House in Frenchtown/ Baptistown, NJ,  Walkabout Clearwater Coffee House in White Plaines, NY (with guest Natalia Zuckerman), then off to Maryland and finally guest lecturing and performing at Penn State in Reading, PA.

      Hope to see you soon at a concert hall near you!

In Gratitude & Song

-Joe

3-12-15"

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"In The Footsteps of Giants

Speaking of hope, it has been an extraordinary week. We were just in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery and the City of St. Jude. There were people from all over the world present for the 50th Anniversary and commemoration of the historic 1965 crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. On March 7th, 1965 a young (now Congressman) John Lewis led a march that was headed toward Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act. He was the first across the bridge, and was the first to be beaten and bludgeoned by the law enforcement officers waiting on the other side. It took three attempts for the determined masses to make it all the way to Montgomery, but on March 25th, the peaceful assembly, now more than 25,000 in number, finally arrived in the Alabama state capitol, and showed a nation what democracy looks like. 

I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I saw footage of the Civil Rights movement in black and white reels and news clips. It seemed like ancient history to me. As did the first walk on the moon, for that matter. I grew up being told that the Civil Rights Movement was a thing of the past, and that the battle had been won, that equality had come to the land. It was a real shock when I began to realize growing up, that this was not true. I owe much of my awareness to one woman, Dorothy Paige Turner. 

Dorothy was my kindergarten and 1st grade music teacher. She was and remains one of the most courageous women I have ever known. She taught all of us kids at Garrison Elementary School songs from the Civil Rights Movement. And we sang those songs like we believed. We sang those songs and drank in their lyrics of hope, freedom, fairness, justice, and transformation as if it were our birthright to do so. Dorothy took a diverse group of students and helped us see our similarities before anyone had taught us to see our differences. And I know she changed my life forever. 

Later when I was a freshman in high school, Dorothy asked me to be in a new theater company she had founded called The Black Theater Ensemble. I was the only Caucasian member of the company. And that too was a gift. Dorothy continued where she had left off when I was a child and began again to teach my teenage self  about the history of racism in this country, about the history of slavery, abolition, human rights, and the work of liberation and Civil Rights. She put me in some of the hardest situations I had ever been in, and stood by me all the way as she forged me into a more aware and awake person.

The thing is, Racism doesn't end in the abstract. Racism doesn't end as a result of intellectual constructs and mass rallies, public awareness campaigns, or the quoting of horrifying statistics. Racism ends because we get to know another person, and become friends with that person, we start to love that person and feel as if they are a part of our tribe, and then all-of-a-sudden the injustice we see hurting them, hurts us too! And we find we cannot stand idly by and watch our friends endure injustice and hatred. 

Whether we are Black, White, Latino/Latina, Asian, Indigenous, Indian, Mixed Race/other, we are all franchised into some system of racism. And the system that we are handed, is not our fault. But what we do with it, that IS our responsibility. And what Dorothy Paige Turner did in my life was to work for transformation of that system, one child at a time, one song at a time, one heart at a time. Dorothy taught us to see the character of the person first and anything else second. And she invited me into a performing ensemble that forever changed my life. 

This past week, Kim & Reggie Harris, Brother Sun (myself, Pat & Greg), and many others were part of a Unitarian Universalist contingent present to witness and be a part of the commemorative events in Alabama. Starting with a conference called Marching in The Arc of Justice and concluding with our time in Selma and Montgomery, we had the extraordinary privilege of hearing stories and sharing in song and fellowship with numerous veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

But I might not have crossed the bridge in Selma this week if it weren't for Dorothy's work 35 or 40 years ago. I might never have been attracted to the music that now resides at the center of my life had it not been for the courage of a young black music teacher from Arkansas who came north and carried the hope and the love and the courage of the Civil Rights movement with her. So as I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge still (disturbingly) named after a Grand Dragon of the KKK, I carried Dorothy with me, and all of the members of the Black Theater Ensemble. I remembered playing a slave auctioneer and a slave master in those ensemble productions. I remembered crying after rehearsals at how unconscionable it was that these things actually happened. I remembered members of the ensemble surrounding me with love, assuring me that they understood I was only fulfilling a role I had been asked to play, for the sake of a piece of teaching-theater. And I recommitted myself on Sunday to doing what I can do in my life to challenge Racism in all of its forms. 

The work of "the Civil Rights generation" must continue with us, and with our children and grandchildren. It was not a bloodless revolution, but the blood only ever seemed to flow in one direction. And as we now address the injustices of our contemporary society, I think we have a great deal to learn from our forbearers. "Black and white together" as the song says, along with Latino/Latina, Asian, Indigenous, Indian, Mixed Race and all other identities, we MUST overcome. We must overcome the callousness of a society that allows any of its children to be seen as disposable. We must overcome the indifference that allows people to see others as less than fully human. We must overcome the hatred that allows unarmed people of color to be shot and killed, with no punishments handed down to the perpetrators of those heinous acts. 

We are all a part of a system that was handed to us, but that is not the measure of who we are. What we DO with that system is. And over the past week I saw tens of thousands of people committed to changing that system. It was one of the most hopeful things I have ever experienced in my life. Many of you saw coverage on the news, but I am here to tell you, whatever you saw could not capture the sheer awe inspired by seeing so many people show up and be counted among those who will work for positive change. 

In addition to the AMAZING experience of crossing the bridge in Selma along with something like 70 thousand people, My wife Lynn and I had the unbelievable joy of spending nearly an hour and a half in private conversation with the wise and fiery Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, as we talked about the past, present, and future of civil rights globally. We spoke of Gandhi, Dr. King, James Lawson, and other agents of transformation, and Dr. Vivian shared with us in great detail about the day he was beaten and arrested. The day he told Sherriff Jim Clark, "Sherriff, you can turn your back on me, but you can't turn your back on FREEDOM!"

We got to hear the wickedly intelligent Rev. William Barber preach in his charismatic and passionate style. And listen to the ideas of a young activist named Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Rev. Mark Morrison Reed spoke eloquently and in concrete terms about how we can make positive change one loving relationship at a time. And the Reverends Hope & Janice Johnson, Gordon Gibson, and several others guided us through the week and were the creativity and passion behind an extraordinary gathering of activated UUs and allies from all over the US and Canada. 

After several days of seminars and workshops, worship services and concerts in Birmingham where we sang with our dear friends Kim & Reggie Harris every day, we traveled to the historic City of St. Jude (Montgomery) where on March 24th, 1965 the marchers camped out the night before they headed to the capitol in support of the Voting Rights Act. And where a historic concert was held in support of the movement featuring: Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, & Mary, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, and others. We sang the hymns and songs of the movement there, and then traveled to Selma to march with thousands upon thousands. 

I have listened to and conversed with Bernice Johnson Reagon (The Freedom Singers, Sweet Honey In The Rock) about the movement. I have heard Betty Mae Fikes, Jimmy Collier, and others sing those songs. I have been a student of the Civil Rights movement my whole life thanks to Dorothy Paige Turner. But to walk in the footsteps of giants and feel their beckon call, to hear the echoes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's voice still reverberate in the streets of Selma and Montgomery, I was awe-struck. It was both joyful and solemn. It was a celebration of what has been accomplished as we in our seventh year as a nation with a president of mixed race ancestry. And it was a sobering acknowledgement that we have so far yet to go as another young, unarmed, black man was killed Saturday night in Madison, WI. And now two police officers have ben shot in Ferguson, MO. How do WE turn this around? How do we love our way through this?

Dr. King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Opal Tometi said, "Justice is not an inevitability. We must work for it."

Both statements are true. 

So how do we make a difference? How do we work for change in a system that seems so far beyond our influence? How do we move through guilt, hopelessness, frustration, and into effectiveness? We cannot make progress on this or any other difficult issue by using anger as our fuel. We must LOVE. The Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King, and so many others have spoken this truth again and again. I would phrase it this way:

Anger may be the spark that lights the fire, but the fuel of change must be LOVE. 

One relationship at a time, may we take risks, make mistakes, and fail forward. May we learn from yesterday and today, and apply that knowledge toward a better tomorrow. And may we learn better how to love one another, every day. 

In Solidarity and Song,

-Joe Jencks

3-12-15"

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