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As we face another attempt to roll back our freedoms we would do well to recall the commitment and courage of those we honor this month for their contributions to America. They held up a mirror to America and asked, as Hamer did when she appeared before the Atlantic City Democratic convention, “Is this America?” Is this what we stand for?

Those who worked to distribute the Freedom ballot, sat in at lunch counters, faced Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses, marched over that bridge in Selma and tirelessly registered voters and started freedom schools faced  brutal opposition and put themselves, their families, friends and even their churches at risk even by daring to show the faintest support for civil rights.

Not long after she began registering voters the owner of the farm she was sharecropping told her she better quit her civil rights work or suffer the consequences.  She found out those consequences soon enough when she was beaten in a Mississippi jail so badly that it left her with life-long disabilities.  Those who beat her have never been brought to justice.

While Hamer and Dr. King and others have found their way into the history books, we forget that at its heart the Movement was a movement that above all came from the grassroots efforts of thousands of people who put their lives on the line.  There is no better example of that than a now-forgotten moment in our history that is known as the Grenada Movement.  It is another one of those events few people have ever heard of, but everyone should know about. To understand its importance a little background is necessary.

Grenada County was one of the dark hearts of the old Confederacy. During Reconstruction, four African American men were lynched there on one day. By the 1960s, the county had become a symbol of Southern intransigence, a place where both sides knew what was at stake. It was here and other places like it that the true nature of African American grievances was on full display along with the effort by local people to deal with a long and festering list of outrages that today seem to come from another world.

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

In 1956, in response to the Brown Decision, the Mississippi legislature approved the creation of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission “to do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the federal government or any branch, department or agency thereof.”

Commission records lay under a tombstone of secrecy and protection until a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union opened them for the public. Although the records appeared sanitized, what emerged was shocking enough—ghosts whose wails tell a sordid story. The handwritten records from one county show payments to informers ranging from $25 up to almost $100, with $40 not being uncommon. Check marks march down the page, marking African American informers, sometimes several for the same family.

The Sovereignty Commission recorded over a thousand entries on Dr. King. They range from newspaper clippings to the memos of agents the Commission had infiltrating organizations, churches, and communities. They testify to the almost paranoid fear the racists had for the power of Dr. King as well as the extent the Sovereignty Commission penetrated into every area of life in Mississippi.

America still has yet to properly confront this dark side of its history when a state government ran the equivalent of a secret police force every bit as evil as those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Only by understanding this atmosphere can we truly appreciate the vision and courage of those brought this country to a time when a black man could become President.

It was in Grenada that the full extent of the Sovereignty Commission’s activities are on display. Many Commission records have been sanitized since a court settlement ordered their release, but perhaps because Grenada is not so well known, enough damaging materials remain to show the true nature of the Mississippi  response to the Civil Rights Movement.

What follows is not easy to read because it records the attempts by the state of Mississippi to the Civil Rights Movement. But this is why we have events like Black History Month.

The Significance of Grenada

The Grenada County Freedom Movement (GCFM) represented one of those local uprisings that testify to the determination and bravery of hundreds of African Americans who fought against the Sovereignty Commission and its secret police force. It was significant because what began as a voter registration drive expanded to include the entire system of segregation.

The movement and the demands it made were entirely driven by local people and their concerns. Even today as schools across the country revisit events like Freedom Summer, there is a tendency to view the civil rights movement as driven by outside leaders and organizations. That was far from the case and Grenada is a great example.

Although organizers from outside the local community played a role, at times contributing resources, the movement is Grenada County came from the feeling of many local African Americans that they were fed up with life under Jim Crow and determined to change things.

When Fannie Lou Hamer first began organizing voters in Mississippi  someone asked her why she joined the movement. She answered:

The only thing they [white people] could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.

Bruce Hartford, an organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference described the significance of Grenada in an oral history interview:

Grenada hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity, there was no big law that came out of it, but the Grenada movement was very heavy. The Grenada movement probably lasted longer, in terms of the upswelling of people’s mass activity, than any of the other mass movements. Longer than Birmingham, longer than Selma, Albany, St. Augustine, Natchez. I mean lasting longer in terms of how long people kept mass direct-action going.

Perhaps the most notorious event of the Grenada Movement occurred in 1966 when a Klan mob with clubs, ax handles and chains ambushed elementary school children who were walking through town to enroll in a school that had been ordered to desegregate. In probably the best historical account of Grenada, In Search of Another Country author Joseph Crespino notes one observer termed them:

The most vilest, displays of hideous prejudice, hatred and sheer bestiality ever produced in this nation’s history of racial strife. (p. 137)

But the television cameras were not there, so Grenada did not capture the public imagination in the way other televised scenes of brutality galvanized the nation.  Still Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson was worried enough that Grenada would attract the cameras that he called in state troopers to quiet the mobs, which only outraged the Klan.

Hartford remembered the atmosphere:

Grenada became so intense at times that when SCLC field staff who had led demonstrations in places like St. Augustine — which was also very heavy — came to Grenada, they were taken aback. One guy — I won’t call his name — the first demonstration he was assigned to lead in Grenada he saw the mob and he turned us around.

What made Grenada especially volatile was the strong presence of the Klan. References to the Klan have largely been purged from the Sovereignty Commission records that remain, so any suggestion of connection between the two is only conjecture.  But in Grenada the interests of the Commission and the Klan were the same and there is little question one reinforced the other.

Dr. King’s Role

Hartford described Dr. King’s role in the movement:

Dr. King gave a speech and the people in Grenada had told him, “We’re ready to move. Are you gonna stay and move with us?” And he said, “No, we have to finish this Meredith March, but as soon as it’s over, we will come back.”

And King did come back, precipitating a major crisis for Mississippi. The Governor worried what the cameras might catch this time so he twisted the arms of local officials to be on their best behavior while King was in town.  So America never saw the real Grenada and some wondered what all the fuss was about.

As Crespino puts it, as soon as King left town, the Sovereignty Commission went to work. Excerpts from a letter by agent Erle Johnston, jr. detail the strategies the Commission employed.

We have attempted, by direct contact and through infiltration, to determine whether the native negroes are in any mood to disregard Dr. Martin Luther King and any of his aides.

The letter goes on to report how the Commission prepared a radio address for the mayor (remember this is America and here is a secret police force writing speeches for the local mayor, speeches which I am sure he was in no position to refuse). Johnston also notes the Commission purchased 3,000 “Think Grenada First!” buttons at a cost of $114.

Now if you were a white person in Grenada and knew the source of those buttons–which I am sure was communicated to everyone–wouldn’t you think it was your patriotic duty to wear one? If you had any sympathy for the aims of the Grenada Movement or wanted to mediate the crisis what would have been your chances

The Demands

Meanwhile the Grenada Movement had grown to encompass a wide set of aims. Between July and September 1966, the Movement will issue a list of demands that amount to one of the most comprehensive indictments of segregation made by a local community. On July 9, it issued 51 demands titled “Full First Class Citizenship for Every Negro Citizen of Granada County.

 

Items on the list called for an end to discrimination in hotels, hospitals, theaters and public schools. Others demanded “Negro registrars”  and “adequate police protection.”

In August and September the Grenada Movement would enhance this list. The August 6th list focused on law enforcement abuses directed at Movement members.  In September the Movement detailed specific practices in the Court system,  employment, elections, health care and welfare

Sovereignty Commission Intimidation

Faced with this level of opposition, the Sovereignty Commission expanded its intimidation. Crespino highlights the transcript of one phone conversation that did escape attempts to sanitize  Sovereignty Commission records. In it agent Tom Scarbrough notes that SCLC leaders arrested in Grenada were taken to the notorious Parchman Prison farm where they were beaten by State Highway Patrol officers who took off their badges and uniforms.  Scarbrough wrote of Robert Johnson:

It is said they can’t let him out of Parchman because he’s so beaten up he couldn’t get up to get out.

But the Sovereignty Commission did not stop there. It secretly met with Roy Wilkins to try to convince him to organize an alternative to the SCLC presence in Grenada. It actively worked to stop efforts by local African Americans and the SCLC to start a local grocery store. and it intimidated local African American officials including Willie T. Allen, who was principal of the segregated public school (a tactic similar to that used in Yazoo and other cities, since Allen was a local official).

I advised Allen that he and other Negroes in Grenada County should get busy and put the brakes on Dr. King and his movement.

Imagine for a moment what must have been going through Allen’s mind. A man identifying himself as an agent of the government of Mississippi has asked you to “put the brakes on Dr. King.” The agent did not need to threaten, for in a police state where people like Michael Schwerner disappeared and others like Fannie Lou Hamer were beaten and harassed no threats were needed. Instead, the agent merely let Allen fill in the blanks with his own nightmares. The “put the brakes on” phrase is especially eerie, given that Dr. King only had less than eighteen months left to live.

Dr. King’s Role

Agent Scarbrough also reported on a speech by Dr. King:

Dr. King spoke to a large group of negroes at the New Hope Negro Church. He complimented them highly in carrying out his demands on the city of Grenada, and in the course of his talk pledged that Grenada would be further invaded until their demands were met.

This paragraph reeks with the prejudices held by many segregationists at the time–and by some Americans still. Note how the memo paints a picture of the Grenada Movement as fed by “outsiders” and King himself as a dictator who told people what to do. Most of all, note the none-too-subtle characterization of local African Americans as passive followers. Contrast this with the picture painted by Bruce Hartford.

This paragraph in an obscure memo written by a Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission member in 1966 testifies to the impact that Dr. King had on not only Grenada but America. It also testifies to an image of Dr. King that unfortunately still persists.

As with many great historical figures, there are many Dr. Kings that coexist uneasily in the American mind, some acknowledged and some hidden, but still powerful. There is, of course, the Dr. King celebrated on the holiday named after him–the inspirational leader of The Speech. There is Dr. King, the political leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other events. There is Dr. King the tactician of nonviolence. There is also the Dr. King of agent Scarbrough’s memo and Johnston’s letter.

To the Scarbroughs and Johnstons of the world, Dr. King was little more than a demagogue who gave orders and expected them to be carried out. Johnston’s memo also speaks of “King and his movement.” Few people today would openly admit to this view, so it has been replaced by another more insidious picture which views the Civil Rights Movement in the traditional image of leaders and followers. Contrary to Scarbrough’s memo, the picture that emerges from the Sovereignty Commission records is of what can only be termed a collaborative movement.

The Grassroots and the Power of Nonviolence

In a moving passage, Harford described the power of the nonviolence and the collective effort by people at the center of the Grenada Movement:

I saw us do non-violent things in Grenada that to this day are just unbelievable to me. There were times we had this march of two or three hundred people circling the square, and surrounding us were a mob of 500 Klansmen. But some of the time — not always — we could literally hold them off by the quality of our singing. We could create a psychic wall that they could not breach, even though they wanted to. And on those times when they did attack, our non-violent response minimized their injuries to us.

A demagogue cannot conduct a nonviolent movement. Nonviolent movements are not “his” movements, because when you are lying on the ground being beaten like the Klan beat Hartford you do not endure that beating for a “his.” Nonviolence by its very nature transcends the easy categories we have for leaders and the sometimes simplistic ways we view leadership.

The too-sugary image we have of the Civil Rights Movement also omits the give-and-take, and, yes, the disagreements, that were part of the struggle for Civil Rights. Fannie Lou Hamer, for example, deeply resented what she felt were the class and gender prejudices of many Civil Rights leaders.

 

The Results

The Grenada Movement involved an estimated 700 people at its height. Events came to a head on September 12 when 250 African American students attempted to enroll in the local school and were driven away by a mob of whites armed with pipes, chains, clubs, ax handles and whatever else their sick minds could pull out of their garages. When the students tried to disburse, the whites pursued them, beating anyone they could catch. It showed what people were willing to do when the television cameras were not present.

Over the next few days the mob roamed the streets looking for victims. In the most despicable incident someone with a submachine gun killed a civil rights lawyer and a Justice Department official. Finally a federal judge ordered the government do something to protect the students. The FBI did what Mississippi would not, arresting thirteen mob leaders.

The Movement continued through the fall. Bruce Hartford wrote:

Over the following weeks and months, there are few demonstrations but the Grenada County Freedom Movement digs in for the long haul — organizing, mounting legal defense for those arrested, and continuing voter registration and political organization. Harassment of the Negro students in the white schools continues, but at a lower and more subtle level. By the end of the school year additional Negro students had been forced out, but Grenada still had more Negroes attending formerly white schools than any other rural Mississippi county.

Of course, there was a reason for that. Grenada marked another ignominious tactic that still persists in the South: instead of fighting desegregation, whites left the public schools for private schools.

In 2004 Dianna Freelon-Foster, who helped to integrate Grenada High School during the Grenada Movement was elected as the first female and African American mayor of Grenada.

Today a website for the Mississippi Civil Rights Project celebrates the contributions of the Grenada Movement. It changed a community, a state and a nation forever. All of those involved taught us that with each generation, each community, and, yes, each election we must continue to fight for true equality, for a true level playing field.

 

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TJ | 19th Jan, 2018

The Tax Cut Bargain

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We need a focus on process not product.

As I write this from a waiting room at the Mayo Clinic preparing to undergo more tests Congress is negotiating to avoid shutting down the government. As usual, the Democrats have it all wrong. It is as if they still do not know how to be an opposition party or what are their core values. They tried me too in the form of the Clinton New Democrats, a philosophy the advocated collaborating with business, particularly the big banks that have the major contributors to Bill and Hillary Clintons’ success. Now that the Clintons are hopefully receding into the background, the Democratic Party seems adrift.

 

Case in point are the current budget negotiations. As it stands the Democrats are negotiating to extend what they see as essential programs. Hopefully they will extract a promise to extend these programs well into the future. I am a strong advocate of all those programs, but it seems to me this is a moment to focus on process, not product.

 

What I mean by that is now is the time to put in place fundamental structural reforms that will help heal Congress. Judging by the polls most Americans feel Congress is broken. Ir is characterized by an ethos of intransigence where rabid ideological partisans of both sides are making it impossible to get anything done. These ideologues, particularly on what I term the Rabid Right, do not care what happens to the common good, since they define success in terms of an all-or-nothing attitude. If they can’t win, they will topple the Capitol Dome rather than agree to a compromise.

 

In addition, the Republican majority has pushed its power far beyond previous boundaries. They held up a Supreme Court nominee, in violation of two hundred years of precedent, in order to put their own choice on the bench. They have twisted venerable Senate rules that once gave the minority some role in legislation to shutting them out completely. President Trump’s recent meeting with Congressional representatives included five Republicans and one, lone Democrat. The House and Senate minority leaders have been reduced to negotiating in the press.

 

This is not the way democracy is supposed to work, nor is it the way the Founders designed our government. In the famous Federalist #10. James Madison identified the major threat to the American experiment as what he called faction. What he meant by that was excess partisanship. The essence of democracy is compromise, but by refusing to compromise, Republicans threaten to turn our democracy into Woodrow Wilson’s greatest fear, oligarchy. That is government controlled by a single group at the expense of others.

 

The prospect of a showdown is a prime opportunity to put in place procedures and processes that will prevent our country from becoming an oligarchy. By focusing on process, the Democratic Party can take the high road rather than be seen as threatening to shut down our government for their partisan causes. By doing so they only mimic their Republican counterparts. Making the focus reform of the process would put them on the moral high ground. They will be seen as defending the future of our country rather than narrow interests.

 

If they fail to take advantage of this rare opportunity, the Democratic Party will only add the the mess, rather than cleaning it up. The choice is theirs.

 

 

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TJ | 22nd Dec, 2017

A Tax Cut Christmas Carol

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Were the Ghost of Christmas Present to mysteriously appear in our bedrooms Christmas Eve, what sights would it show us? If the spirit truly wanted us see what the Republican Counterrevolution has done to our society it would take us to the one place where sooner or later the real victims of the recent tax cut will end up – a large urban public hospital, perhaps in Washington, D.C. The notion that tax cuts for the rich and corporations will make all our lives better is no more absurd than in the waiting room of an inner city public hospital emergency room.

In a Dickensian way the spirit would use the moment to remind us the tax bill that has the President and his allies gloating was accomplished by cutting insurance from some of the most vulnerable while the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) received only temporary funding. The spirit might also slyly note in accordance with CDC policy everything pertaining to what we might learn is based “on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

Christmas Eve in the ER

Usually located in parts of town that the affluent do not regularly visit unless they have to, the emergency room is often the last refuge of those who have already endured lives most of us cannot imagine. Some will never leave this place except in a hearse.

The ER is nothing like the television ERs with photogenic actors, fancy sets and soap opera scripts. The only similarity between reality and fantasy is that your first impression is of chaos. That impression is not softened by the uniformed police officer standing outside one cubicle or the traffic that flows up and down the corridor like a rush-hour freeway, even on Christmas Eve.

In the face of death what is alive here is hope. Sometimes hope is all the dedicated people who work here have to offer and on this evening they seem more determined than ever to make that gift. The eyes of patients have that strange mixture of fear and uncertainty that comes only to those who know the string has played out and now they may come face to face with the great unknown. A few patients have a look of anger and resignation after being kicked so many times that they are not sure what they will do the next time it happens.

The Ghost of Christmas Present points out patients holding sick babies who cry incessantly or sit there coughing with some malady that has gone on too long and now makes each painful hack sound like a death rattle. Others hold bandaged limbs, white clotted with dark red. Behind drawn curtains lie the hard cases who already have crossed over to that place where they have become a passive receptacle for enough tubes and wires to qualify them as cyborgs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted a study of these patients in New York City found:

There were large differences in patients’ health outcomes depending on which provider they typically used.

Patients who receive their care in hospital outpatient departments or hospital satellite clinics have much worse outcomes than patients obtaining care in private physicians’ offices or other settings.

Low-income patients frequently use emergency rooms for conditions that do not require immediate treatment or for conditions that could be treated in a primary care setting.

A Ticking Time Bomb

On this Christmas Eve in the ER there sits a ticking time bomb far deadlier than the 9/11 attack, unnoticed by anyone for the threat she represents. On the outside she does not seem all that different from the others, perhaps even a little better dressed than most, outwardly appearing neither as ill nor injured.

Staff conduct the initial triage workup, recording vague signs of discomfort and a slight fever and erratic heart rate. Unknown to them what looks like a bad cold or the flu is something none of them expect–and these people have seen a lot. Inside her body microbes so tiny they must be identified by a high-powered microscope are doing their mysterious, deadly work, multiplying at a furious pace, insinuating themselves into every organ as they cruise the veins and arteries without attracting the attention of any enforcement agent.

It may be the next Dengue Fever, the next Ebola, but whatever it is it will be something no current drug will stop. And our hopes and the hopes of all civilization that we will never have a repeat of the 1918 influenza epidemic ride on people who already have lost too much sleep and seen too much suffering. To catch those microbes, those treating this patient require the one thing besides money that is in short supply–time. They will need time to assess that patient, time to ponder what they find, time to seek out other opinions, and time to do the right tests and get the right samples to the right technician in the right lab–all this on Christmas Eve.

Connections & Questions

Here all the connections and questions of the last half century come to a head. Some might maintain the above scenario could not happen in the vaunted American health care system, but the system is not as vaunted as we believe, for economic injustice means some receive health care no better than they would in a third world backwater. States trying to pinch pennies have cut the benefits of the working poor, so the victims of this social triage cut back on primary care that might catch illnesses early.

We all know how hard it is even for the middle class to afford expensive prescription drugs that might knock out a deadly infection. We, too, have wrestled with the bureaucracy of our wonderful private insurers, where executives fresh out of business school make medical decisions based on charts spewed out by a computer. Knowing the true cost for a procedure requires a degree in fine-print reading.

Meanwhile ER staff are overworked, underpaid and understaffed due to cuts that have driven many public inner city hospitals to the brink of bankruptcy. The rich do not come to these places except in extreme circumstances where a few minutes might mean the difference between life and death. As for the poor, they get shaken down with all the skill of a back-alley mugger. The research that might have identified the threat of this still unknown disease also has been the subject of cuts and blatantly political decisions made with a Bible not a medical textbook.

A Systemic Impact

As for the patients, the tax cut will have a systemic impact. Lack of adequate funding for education–especially in inner city schools–means the patients may have little of the knowledge they need to understand or communicate what ails them (translators are another group that has suffered cutbacks). Reductions in college loan deductions mean fewer students can afford the long, costly road they must follow to become a physician or the even more expensive path to certification in a specialty. Meanwhile ideological rigidity has infected every aspect of the system.

The lack of media fairness probably means what little knowledge many patients have comes from commercials. In the era of Fake News and Faux News some no longer trust what they hear after years of false scares and biased reports. And if the event really occurred, it would become entangled in partisan rhetoric that causes people to deny the threat as they have with global warming. Just recall the coverage of smoking or obesity and you already have the templates.

Voting rights may not seem to impact an inner city ER, but they represent an often overlooked problem. Redistricting aided by cluster research already has diminished the clout of urban legislators who now fight for hospital funds with the suburban mediplexes that have become the direct counterparts of mega schools and upscale malls.

In a section titled “Congress Favors the Organized,” the American Political Science Association report “Inequality and American Democracy” observes that Congressional pork now feeds relatively narrow factions:

Members of Congress have directed government funds coming into their districts to specific geographic areas that vote at higher rates and provide their greatest support.

We all know who those are. Moreover, since many in the underclass no longer vote, have become cynical about the results or are deliberately prevented from voting, the desperate voices crying for help with those most basic of needs–their health and nutrition–have little impact. At a national level we need only see what drug and insurance companies have done to health care and prescription drug reform.

The Veils of Death

The most frightening part of this scenario is that one partner in the GOP Counterrevolution might actually welcome it. As any reader of the Left Behind series knows, plagues and pestilence appear as prominent features of the Last Days. They do not mark the failure of a system or a tilting of the playing field or even an inexplicable disaster, but instead signal that time when true believers shall be saved while the rest of us will be consigned to eternal damnation.

The deaths that might result from the ER scenario are at this point imaginary, but the spiritual death that is already occurring as the playing field continues to tilt is not. The Raucous Right that has so deftly inflamed this Era of Bad Feelings, likes to think anger represents a vote of confidence in their agenda. But even they must know they are riding a tiger and everyone knows tigers do not like to be ridden. In America, something wild and uncontrollable has been let loose, and no one knows where the New Year will take us.

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