A New Orleans Native Returns

August 31st, 2015

As we pass the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Sybil Haydel Morial is finally back in her house in New Orleans. She was evacuated to Baton Rouge along with several of her children, and would have come back years ago if a workman repairing the house she shared with New Orleans’ first black mayor (her late husband, Dutch) had not set it on fire, necessitating another rebuilding. Like so many people of color in New Orleans, she has found returning a challenge.

The time away, however, gave Mrs. Morial an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary arch of her life from childhood in the Jim Crow South to visits to the White House with three presidents and the events in between that made the latter possible. The results are a memoir, Witness to Change, which will be published on October 6 by John F. Blair in Winston-Salem.

The strength of the book, I think, is that the reader quickly identifies with the pain of the blind racial prejudice that kept New Orleans and most of the South in its thrall for a hundred years after the Civil War. We learn how it felt to be excluded from the best beach and playground, to ride to school at the back of a city bus, not to be allowed to try on clothing in a department store, and to sit upstairs at the same movie theater where your white friends sat below.

Even as a respected physician, Sybil’s father was helpless to protect his family and even to secure a hotel room for them when they traveled to Detroit to a medical meeting. We learn of the informal network of educated and prosperous black families who cared for each other when public accommodations were unavailable. Her mother, a teacher, ran an informal summer program for black and white children in their spacious yard, but when school started, they went their separate ways.

As a child, Sybil encountered a young Julian Bond, as a teen she went to the prom with Andrew Young and as a student at Boston University she listened to the sermons of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. She was in Boston when news of Brown v. Board of Education signaled the eventual end of segregated education and promised a brighter future for African Americans.

While back in New Orleans for summer vacation, Sybil encountered a young law student with large ambitions and an eagerness to include her in bringing about change. Catching his spirit, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter both Tulane and Loyola Universities. She went back to Boston to attend graduate school, and became the first African-American teacher hired by the Newton, Massachusetts, Public Schools. She might have had a successful career there, free of many of the South’s constraints, but instead she married Ernest "Dutch" Morial and they returned to New Orleans.

Her memoir recounts the heady days when both of them strove to make their mark in a rapidly changing city. While he practiced law and headed the NAACP before running for the legislature, she became a mother, taught school, organized friends to help African Americans register to vote, and eventually ran his political campaigns. The Morial family had five children by the time he ran for mayor. The oldest son, Marc, would eventually become mayor himself and head the Urban League. His siblings have distinguished themselves as well.

This life was not without its dangers—the threatening telephone calls around the time Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi; the stalking of the oldest daughter, Julie, at college, and more threats requiring the National Guard to occupy their home's grounds when Dutch refused to bow to a police strike at Mardi Gras—among them.

Eventually, Sybil established herself at Xavier University. When she realized that students there knew little about the civil rights movement in their hometown, she made a documentary about those events and persuaded the actor James Earl Jones to narrate. She also teamed with another faculty member to create a simulated slave ship for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition.

What makes the memoir so much more compelling than this summary is Sybil Morial’s recall of detail, her refusal to be diminished by events beyond her control and her joy in the world around her.

When I spoke with her recently, her house had been filled with children and grandchildren to commemorate the Katrina anniversary, and she was planning for a book party at the New Orleans Art Museum from whose grounds she and her sister and Andrew Young had once been banished with a racial epithet while riding their bicycles.

The book can be preordered from Amazon. It’s well worth your time, and it makes a great gift both for people who lived through this era and those who know nothing about it.

A New Orleans Native Returns

August 31st, 2015

As we pass the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Sybil Haydel Morial is finally back in her house in New Orleans. She was evacuated to Baton Rouge along with several of her children, and would have come back years ago if a workman repairing the house she shared with New Orleans’ first black mayor (her late husband, Dutch) had not set it on fire, necessitating another rebuilding. Like so many people of color in New Orleans, she has found returning a challenge.

The time away, however, gave Mrs. Morial an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary arch of her life from childhood in the Jim Crow South to visits to the White House with three presidents and the events in between that made the latter possible. The results are a memoir, Witness to Change which will be published on October 6 by John F. Blair in Winston-Salem.

The strength of the book, I think, is that the reader quickly identifies with the pain of the blind racial prejudice that kept New Orleans and most of the South in its thrall for a hundred years after the Civil War. We learn how it felt like to be excluded from the best beach and playground, to ride to school at the back of a city bus, not to be allowed to try on clothing in a department store, and to sit upstairs at the same movie theater where your white friends sat below.

Even as a respected physician, Sybil’s father was helpless to protect his family and even to secure a hotel room for them when they traveled to Detroit to a medical meeting. We learn of the informal network of educated and prosperous black families who cared for each other when public accommodations were unavailable. Her mother, a teacher, ran an informal summer program for black and white children in their spacious yard, but when school started, they went their separate ways.

As a child, Sybil encountered a young Julian Bond, as a teen she went to the prom with Andrew Young and as a student at Boston University she listened to the sermons of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. She was in Boston when news of Brown v. Board of Education signaled the eventual end of segregated education and promised a brighter future for African Americans.

While back in New Orleans for summer vacation, she encountered a young law student with large ambitions and an eagerness to include her in bringing about change. Catching his spirit, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter both Tulane and Loyola Universities. She went back to Boston to attend graduate school, and became the first African-American teacher hired by the Newton, Massachusetts, Public Schools. Sybil Haydel might have had a successful career there, free of many of the South’s constraints, but instead she married Dutch Morial and they returned to New Orleans.

Her memoir recounts the heady days when both of them strove to make their mark in a rapidly changing city. While he practiced law and headed the NAACP before running for the legislature, she became a mother, taught school, organized friends to help African Americans register to vote, and eventually ran his political campaigns. The Morial family had five children by the time he ran for mayor. The oldest son, Marc, would eventually become mayor himself and head the Urban League. His siblings have distinguished themselves as well.

This life was not without its dangers—the threatening telephone calls around the time Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi; the stalking of the oldest daughter, Julie, at college, and more threats requiring the National Guard to occupy the grounds when Dutch refused to bow to a police strike at Mardi Gras—among them.

Eventually, Sybil established herself at Xavier University. When she realized that students there knew little about the civil rights movement in their hometown, she made a documentary about those events and persuaded the actor James Earl Jones to narrate. She also teamed with another faculty member to create a simulated slave ship for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition.

What makes the memoir so much more compelling than this summary is Sybil Morial’s recall of detail, her refusal to be diminished by events beyond her control and her joy in the world around her.

When I spoke with her recently, her house had been filled with children and grandchildren to commemorate the Katrina anniversary, and she was planning for a book party at the New Orleans Art Museum from whose grounds she and her sister and Andrew Young had once been chased away while riding their bicycles.

The book can be preordered from Amazon. It’s well worth your time, and it makes a great gift for people who lived through this era or who know nothing about it.

Earth, Freedom and Fossil Fuels

April 22nd, 2013

Tim DeChristopher is a free man. Somehow, putting an exclamation point after that sentence seems redundant. Because DeChristopher has always been free. It’s just that the federal government locked him up for two years because as an act of conscience he bid $1.8 million for oil and gas leases on public lands. He didn’t have the money, and it was felonious to say that he did.

Yesterday, he was released from the half-way house in Salt Lake City where he has served the last few months of his sentence. Before that he was in prison, where he was disciplined for sending an email with a stint in a restrictive housing (SHU). An economics major in college, DeChristopher knew he was challenging not only the federal government but the oil and gas industry’s power over it and our entire economy. They’ve made a movie about him, Bidder 70, and he’ll make his first public appearance at its release today, Earth Day. His plans call for enrollment in Harvard Divinity School, after which he plans to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Peaceful Uprising, the environmental organization he helped found, is thriving.

We’ve run a jagged course since the first Earth Day in 1970. For a while, it seemed that the United States was determined to break its dependence on fossil fuels and clean up Earth’s atmosphere. We passed legislation to curb toxic emissions into our air and water. We bought smaller cars. We learned to recycle materials like plastics that depend on oil as a base. We harnessed energy from the sun and wind to create electricity. We pushed back our thermostats and bought more efficient light bulbs.

Many of us have changed our habits. Some of us concentrate on what we eat—little or no animal products and organic produce. Others drive more efficient cars, take public transportation, ride bicycles or walk more. Still others focus on building more energy efficient structures in which to live and do business. We may teach our children to respect the Earth. I know individuals who do all these things, and I myself do some of them. I believe they are an important part of modern spiritual practice. But our economy and our nation’s government keep steamrollering past us, and that’s a paradigm DeChristopher is trying to change.

In 1980, we elected a president who was once a spokesman for General Electric. Rather than attack the environmental movement, he scoffed at it and dismissed it as alarmist. He took down the solar panels his predecessor had erected on the White House roof. He gave the green light to larger and larger vehicles. And his administration began to dismantle the regulations that had been placed on manufacturing and business as unnecessary and even harmful to the economy.

I wish I could say that the Democrat we elected in 1992 set things straight, but that is not the case. Instead, we hoped that a burst in technological innovation would get us out of our predicament. His vice president took the planet’s precariousness far more seriously, but he was defeated when he ran for the presidency, and his efforts as a private citizen have met with mixed success.

It seems unnecessary to recount the disgraceful record dominated by oil and gas interests of the administration that followed except to say that we still do not know what the vice president who called industry officials to the White House agreed to. But the public paradigm suddenly shifted from intention to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels to reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Yesterday, driving across a vast and haunting landscape that includes both Ute and Navajo reservations, I turned on the radio to hear an address given by Japanese Canadian scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki. Suzuki is interested in how whole societies can ignore the advice of half the living Nobel prizewinners to take drastic steps to stop climate change. He’s particularly appalled by Alberta’s decision to extract oil from its tar sands. And yet, he asked doomsayers who maintain it’s too late to save the human race to shut up. He’s hopeful that it’s not.

Right now we stand on the cusp of decisions that could further tilt Earth’s carbon dioxide balance toward toxic human levels. Our State Department still weighs approval of the Keystone Pipeline that will take dirty oil from Alberta across a vast swath of our nation to the sea. You can still register your comments here http://act.350.org/letter/kxl-sprint-day-4/?akid=3007.883890.S9-Axv&rd=1&t=1

In some states, the process known as fracking is being used to extract natural gas from below the surface that also shelters our ground water. Yet the chemicals used for this process have never been revealed and governments that permit fracking have not even required them to be listed. New York State is still considering fracking, and you can call Governor Andrew Cuomo at 518-474-8390 or 212-681-4580.

Maybe you’re not as brave as Tim DeChristopher. I know I’m not, but I am grateful for his sacrifice, and believe that private conservation is now too incremental to arrest climate change. I hope you’ll find a way to take a public stand.

Multiple Obscenities

April 13th, 2013

Few politicians are as irrepressible as Anthony Weiner, so I wasn’t shocked to learn via the New York Times online that he’s again considering running for mayor of New York. The whole interview is due in print in Sunday’s magazine, but the news was in cyberspace as befits a former congressman who lost it electronically with an eponymous Tweet.

The interview reveals the anguish of his newly pregnant wife, Huma Abedin, when she learned he’d been sending photos of an underwear-cloaked body part she didn’t agree to share with “followers.” No doubt she found it obscene. As it turned out, she was a guest at Buckingham Palace along with her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when the news broke. She’d just written a note to her husband acknowledging the wondrously privileged life they were leading. My immediate thought was that Abedin’s life was a bit cushier at the moment that her hubby’s, home alone as a U.S. representative of an outer borough. Maybe he needed some attention.

The impetus to run for mayor now seems to be partly a result of a deadline on getting $1.6 million in public funds to match $4.3 million in unspent campaign funds in Weiner’s account, and I was disappointed he didn’t explain why he was running, except to repair his damaged reputation.

Obscenity is not limited to things sexual in my book or the dictionary, which offers a definition of “offensive to moral principles, repugnant.” And far more appalling obscenities have occurred in politics for which no one seems even slightly embarrassed.

In New York City, there were the chilling actions by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the NYPD to close down last year’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Zuccotti Park. Part of the crackdown involved confiscation of a library that OWS has assembled, and much of which was destroyed. Finally, in federal district court, the city has agreed that it violated the demonstrators’ rights to the First Amendment (free speech), Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) and Fourteenth Amendment (due process). Repugnant, no? The fine of $47,000 and payment of the protestors’ legal fees of $186,350 won’t cause much pain at City Hall, but I’d like to hear from Weiner and other mayoral candidates how they feel about the Constitution on the ground in the city.

Thank goodness, books were involved, because the settlement said nothing about the treatment of physical people. Back in 2004 when the Republicans held their convention in the city, some 1,800 individuals were rounded up under orders from Mayor Bloomberg and Chief Ray Kelly while most of them were attempting to comply with swiftly changing police orders. A federal judged called the arrests “guilt by association” and illegal. But not until 2012. Justice delayed, justice denied, again.

There’s that other pesky issue of perennial stop and frisk, especially of people with dark complexions. In 2011, 87% of more than 684,000 stops were of blacks and Latinos. Some 780 weapons were uncovered, but the number is only slightly higher than 2003 when 604 guns were found in 160,841 stops, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Interestingly, white people searched were more likely to be carrying weapons, the NYCLU said. "The bottom line is the police department is required to judge people based on what they're doing. If what they're doing is perfectly legal and not suspicious of criminal activity then why on earth is the Police Department subjecting them to be thrown up against the wall?" asked Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director. Indecent, wouldn’t you say?

At least one Democratic candidate, Sal Albanese, is on record as supporting the stops. Another, John Liu, has called for abolishing them outright, and candidates Bill De Blasio and Christine Quinn have called for reform of the program. (Republican Joe Lhota is a staunch defender of stop and frisk.) What would Weiner do?

Some might say the field is already overcrowded, but I’m intrigued by the possibility of a Weiner run. As congressman, he was progressive and a staunch defender of Israel, but Abedin is a Muslim. As a couple, they would stand as a reproach to all those Republicans who have been fueling anti-Muslim sentiments since 9/11.

New York City has been transformed since Bloomberg took office shortly after the attacks in 2001. Tourists, who once avoided it, teem in its streets and generously contribute to its financial well being. The city is cleaner and “greener, “and the Second Avenue subway is finally under construction. Wall Street is roaring, intermittently, although it seems clear that many of the problems that brought the economy to its knees in 2008 are still unsolved. Marriage between partners of the same sex is cool, thanks to some very generous Republican donors in Albany. And Bloomberg has restored civility to public discourse, something that had eroded seriously.

But some disturbing trends have accompanied the Bloomberg years: It’s clear that the corporatization of our public schools that began under Guiliani is nothing like the success its supporters claim. The demonizing of teachers in New York as elsewhere undermines education and the respect of the very people we hope to educate. A growing and undeniable gap in wealth is crowding out the middle class and punishing the poor. Bloomberg’s support of the demolition of Occupy Wall Street made it clear how little he cares about reform. He also stood idly by while Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper became part of a risky and doomed attempt to extract premium higher rents from what had for years been a bastion of affordability. The number of people in city homeless shelters, just over 25,000 per night when he took office, almost doubled to 48,694 by last October.

How much of any of these issues will be addressed during the campaign, but my hope is that we’ll have the temerity to confront some of these troubling trends. Not to do so would be, dare I say, obscene. And you can Tweet that.

Much as I'd like to hear your response to this post, I've had to turn off the comments section entirely because a couple of robots have found a way in. Progwoman's large and dedicated staff has been working for weeks to delete thousands of pieces of spam. So I'll hope you understand.

Decision Time for the Environment

February 27th, 2013

Pity the poor president, the February 17 New York Times headline suggested. He must choose between alienating environmentalists or alienating Canada, one of the nation’s chief allies, when he decides whether or not to allow the Keystone Pipeline to pass through the United States on its way to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The decision on the $7 billion project is being weighed by the State Department and not the Environmental Protection Agency, which does not bode well for environmental interests. Compounded with the resignation of EPA chief Lisa Jackson, a pipeline opponent, it might seem like a done deal.

But environmentalists did not walk away. The Sierra Club, granddaddy of all environmentalist groups, broke its 120 year ban on civil disobedience. About 40,000 Americans protested the pipeline in Washington on February 17, and four dozen high-profile environmentalists were arrested. Known in the environmentalist community for its propensity to compromise, the Sierra Club’s decision towards action signals an important political turn.

And although newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry has reassured the Canadians that Washington will make up its mind promptly, no decision has been announced. That the president even mentioned climate change as a danger in his State of the Union Address was seen by some as hopeful.

Sierra Club President Michael Brune characterized the dilemma this way: “Whatever damage the President’s decision (to approve the pipeline) would do to the environmental movement pales in comparison to what it would do to his legacy.”

I wish he’d said “damage to the Earth,” rather than tangle himself up in Obama’s legacy. That assumes that decades or centuries from now people will be able look back upon our neglect of our home, the Earth, and wonder why we did not act with more conviction. Let’s hope history will remember that Obama took decisive measures on this and other matters in which he might take executive action, but the judgment will be shared, I think.

What if this is not just another Washington contest between competing interests? What if the Keystone Pipeline is just a huge piece of the machinery that could help render our planet uninhabitable? What if the tar sands that are being fracked to fill that pipeline are leaving behind poison that will damage their native soil and the water beneath it? What if attempts to get last drops at the bottom of the bottle of an addictive substance is going to put the planet on the path to irreversible toxicity? In New York state, the government has at least demanded further investigation of fracking practices proposed to yield gas from the earth’s crust. But that decision as well is still not taken.

In a piece called “The Five Stages of Environmental Grief” Richard Schiffman suggests that the human predicament is much like that of well-heeled passengers on the Titanic. They felt the jolt when the ship hit an iceberg but they brushed off their concerns and went back to the dance floor. The ship, says Schiffman, is still afloat, but there’s a huge gash below the water line. It’s not just the fact of global warming but the diminishing of rain forests, the heating up and acidification of the oceans, the reduction in arable land due to erosion and desertification, the loss of habitat to various species and their subsequent extinction.

The ship, Schiffman insists, is sinking and there’s lots we must do.

In Washington, there’s always the temptation to buy off ones opponents while rationalizing that direct confrontation could lead to absolute defeat. Anyone who expected an about face from the Bush-Cheney regime has been sorely disappointed by events of the last two years. It’s our job to press the urgency of issues around climate change.

Since Earth Day 1970, the League of Conservation Voters has kept close tabs on Congress, from the most progressive members to the obdurate head-in-the-sanders with its scorecard. This year, the League expressed thanks to the White House and the Senate for at least making sure that established environmental legislation was supported. (A bill mocked as the War on Lungs that would have gutted the Clean Air Act and another dubbed Oil Above All that would have supported more drilling at all costs were defeated.)

But the League was scathing about the House of Representatives.

“Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the last session of the 112th Congress is that it’s over,” says the preface to the League’s new scorecard. Nevertheless, House members in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were singled out for praise. And those in Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Montana North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming were ranked worst of the worst.

One bright note was the League’s observation that many newly elected Members of Congress support positive environmental legislation. To see how your representative and your senators stack up, check out the League’s scorecard, and so you know whom to praise and whom to pressure.

I’m not feeling sorry for any of our elected officials. They asked for these jobs, and if the decisions have become tougher, it makes them more, not less, important. But it’s our duty to pay attention to what’s up for a vote and support them when they take difficult positions. Unless you prefer “Nearer My God to Thee.”