“Now it is your turn to let freedom ring”

Today, as Congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis was laid to rest at a funeral service in Atlanta, Georgia, America saw another side of this country, the opposite side of Trump’s America.

The contrasts could not have been starker, and it renewed our hope that better days are ahead.

Here is Lewis’ op-ed article in the New York Times today, written just a day or so before his death on July 17. It’s a call to action to all Americans of good will.

“Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation”

By John Lewis

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”


 

 

 

The dark day in Duluth one hundred years ago…

Yesterday, June 15, 1920, was exactly one hundred years since three young African Americans were lynched and killed in the city of Duluth on the North Shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.

The decades around the turn of the 20th century in Minnesota were years of political upheaval and discontent, agrarian protest movements rising up against the power of the corporations and income inequalities, increased radicalism, and new political constellations. It was a time of Populism and Progressivism, of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Non-partisan League, of the most contentious, and scandalous, gubernatorial election in Minnesota history, of massive strikes by the miners on the Iron Range, of the election of a socialist mayor in Minneapolis, and, on top of that, abroad, the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism while America entered the Great War in Europe. It was also a time of violations of civil liberties, of political repression, which the U.S. Department of Justice called “the most serious interference with civil liberties” in the whole country, and a time when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) flourished in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota.

The dark years during World War I in Minnesota seemed to have no end when tragedy struck in Duluth. What happened then shook not only the state but the whole country. On that day, a mob of between 5,000 and 10,000 stormed the local jail and dragged three of six young African Americans from a touring circus, arrested for suspicion of having raped a young white woman, out on the street, beat them, and lynched them by hanging them from a Duluth lamp post, one by one.

Lynchings were not uncommon in America at the time. Between 1889 and 1918, over 3,200 people had been lynched across the nation, 218 of them in northern states and at least 20 of them in Minnesota, where, by 1920, the author Michael Fedo writes, “The intolerance, openly and tacitly approved by the Commission (of Public Safety) took forms of hatred toward Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.”  The doctor who examined the young woman stated that “I don’t think she was raped.” Still, seven black circus workers were indicted and one was convicted, serving more than four of a 30-year jail sentence, while 25 white men were indicted for rioting and twelve for murder. Three of the rioters were convicted and served less than two years in prison. No murder conviction was ever obtained.

Duluth had at the time a population of around 100,000, of whom 30 percent were foreign-born, many Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns, but only about 500 blacks. As soon as he heard about the lynchings, Governor Jospeh A.A. Burnquist, a Swedish American, dispatched two companies from the Minnesota National Guard to Duluth, and he launched an investigation about the inefficient response of the Duluth police. But Burnquist, who happened to be the chairman of the local St Paul chapter of the civil rights organization NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, never put his weight behind it and never launched an independent investigation about the tragedy. All indications were that the Governor wanted little to do with what had occurred.   Despite pleas from the NAACP after an investigation found the three lynched not guilty of the alleged rape, Burnquist never officially declared that the three young black men were innocent.

There were many with Scandinavian names involved in the lynching, on both sides, reflecting the large Scandinavian population in Duluth. Among the police, police sergeant Oscar Olson led the fight in trying to stop the mob from getting to his prisoners. Olson, who joined the Ku Klux Klan after the lynching, later became Duluth’s chief of police and was shot to death during World War II while trying to make an arrest. Others were patrolmen Jacob Nystrom and Victor Isaacson. In the mob were found 19-year-old Swedish-born, Carl Hammerberg, one of the three rioters convicted and sent to prison, and Leonard Hedman, a 23-year-old high school graduate and World War II veteran, who was said to have a bright future before the lynchings. Hedman was acquitted.

The lynchings in Duluth were hushed up. School text books did not mention them. For years, it was as if they had never happened, But photos were taken and postcards were made, and Bob Dylan, born in Duluth, shone light on the tragedy in his classic “Desolation Row” from 1965 with the opening lines:

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging,

They’re painting the passports brown,

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors,

The circus is in town.”

Still, most Minnesotans had never heard of the Duluth lynchings until 1979, when Michael Fedo’s book, They Was Just Niggers – quoting one in the mob — came out, and, particularly, when a new version of the book, The Lynchings in Duluth, was published in 2000. A wider discussion ensued. The unmarked graves of the three lynched African Americans in Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery were finally inscribed with the victims’ names, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.  In 2003, at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue in downtown Duluth where the lynching had taken place over 80 years earlier, a memorial was raised to the three young men.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, Paul H. Anderson, gave a speech at the dedication of the memorial. You know, he told me in an interview, they didn’t know what the three young men looked like, so they had three students from the local high school stand as models. It’s a nice memorial, quiet and serene. The inscription says, “An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”

The year after the Duluth lynchings, the Minnesota State Legislature passed an anti-lynching law, 41-0 in the Senate and 81-1 in the House. Today, in Duluth, the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, Inc. organizes days of remembrance every month of June, with the purpose of “fostering racial justice in our community through education, reconciliation and healing.”

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), long dormant, had by 1915 a new life and was by the 1920s flourishing in the Midwest, not the least in Minnesota, according to Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle’s 2013 book The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota, and particularly after the 1920 Duluth lynchings. By 1922, the KKK claimed that its Duluth chapter had 1,500 members and by the mid-20s, the Klan was reaching the height of its power. Not one county in Minnesota was untouched by Klan, which held its first state-wide konklave, or convention, in the town of Faribault in 1924 with around 2,500 participants, according to a Klan report cited by Hale. Organized by the Steele County KKK, Klan Park in the town of Owatonna was the scene of the next three konklaves. After the third one, the power of the Klan in the Midwest started to decline, partially because if internal scandals. In July 1930, only 500 people participated in a day-long KKK picnic in St Paul. Still, in 1947, a Klan member, Stafford King, challenged Luther W. Youngdahl for the Republican nomination as governor. He lost, but tried again, in 1952, running against C. Elmer Anderson in the Republican primary. Again, he lost.

Minnesota allowed Klan chapters to be incorporated in the state. The KKK drew from fraternal orders such as the Masons and Shriners, and part of its strategy was alliances with Protestant ministers, especially evangelicals, who believed that the Christian faith should guide political and social life and tried to inject religion into Minnesota’s public schools. In 1922, after reports that some members of the Minneapolis police force belonged to the Klan, the mayor forbade the city’s police officers from being members in the Klan, and in 1924, a hard-charging Scandinavian prosecutor in Minneapolis, who had taken on the Klan, ran for governor.  He was to become a legend in Minnesota politics. But it was not until 1997 that Minnesota Secretary of State, Joan Anderson Growe, dissolved all KKK charters and licenses together with all other unregistered non-profits, as authorized by Minnesota statute. Writes Dorsey Hatle, Minnesota was one of the last states in the Midwest to give up on the Ku Klux Klan.

An overdue debate about the Civil War and truth in history

After Charleston, South Carolina, there is a new, vigorous debate about the Civil War, the Confederacy, race relations, slavery, and, about truth in history. It is all very healthy, and all long overdue.

In today’s Washington Post, professor James W. Loewen has some very interesting thoughts about this, about how the Confederacy lost the war but won the history. It is time, he writes, to “de-confederatize” the United States and set history right. The war was about slavery, nothing else.

“Removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid,” Loewen writes.

Here is what I wrote in my recent book, Land of Dreams: A Reporter’s Journey from Sweden to America:

“In his book Sidor av Amerika, Swedish journalist Thorsten Jonsson, who was once the daily Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent in New York, wrote during a trip through the South in 1946 how difficult it was to like it there, because “so much of the old and beautiful contains so much that is unhealthy and unproductive”  — there is a “smell of oppression that seeps out from the daily relationships between whites and coloreds” …” a piece of gangrene in the body politic that must be removed.”

Today, the South has changed, of course, and the gangrene has healed. But I remember that even in the 1960’s, the South was a strange and frightening part of America, and not just for blacks. If you were a young, white student and drove a car with license plates from a northern state — be careful! Anything could happen.

My picture of the South, the eleven Southern States that fought for slavery in the great Civil War from 1861 to 1865, has long been influenced by the 60’s, when so much injustice and violence and death was part of everyday life in that part of America.  Still, today, I cannot completely get away from this picture when I travel through the South, because I am constantly reminded of the past. The South lost the Civil War and as a result, the slaves were freed but what followed were one hundred years of institutionalized discrimination and oppression.  Everywhere, monuments remind the visitor of the past, and the scenes of the major battles are holy ground. But they are all monuments to a lost cause.

In Washington, DC, on the border between the North and the South, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s old home is visible on the hill above Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River in the State of Virginia. Here, one is constantly reminded of how far south Washington actually is, and how close one is to the bloody history of the Civil War. The trip from Frederick, Maryland through Leesburg and Culpepper in Virginia down to Monticello is called the “Journey through Hallowed Ground.” It is a journey through this country’s most historic part, where nine Presidents had their homes. History is often more alive in America than in Europe – perhaps because the history of the United States is so much briefer than Europe’s…

The American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was a war with many names, depending on whether one was for the Union or sympathized with the eleven States in the South, known as the Confederacy. Names like the War Between the States, the War against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothers’ War. But whatever the name, it was a war for the preservation of slavery in the South, and it was bloody. During nearly four years of fighting, from Fort Sumter in South Carolina to Appomattox, Virginia, over three million soldiers fought and 620,000 of them were killed. Not far from my home in Maryland, at Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of them all took place — 23,000 soldiers on both sides died.

The free black population in the North consisted of only one percent of the total population, but in the final stages of the war 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, or ten percent of its forces. Their victory was the slaves’ victory, and America’s victory, even if the war cost President Abraham Lincoln his life and even if the Blacks in the South had to wait another 100 years for their true emancipation.

When the North’s commander Ulysses S. Grant met his counterpart from the South, General Robert E. Lee, at his surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Grant wrote the following memorable words about the South’s cause:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

And so it was … one of the worst reasons, ever, to go to war.”

Yes, it was a remarkable week for Obama — and now on to gun control!

It was a remarkable week for President Obama, as the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes so eloquently: “What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace.”

Indeed, it was a remarkable week for America, capped by Obama’s eulogy over the victims at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a must to see and to listen to, for all American. So go ahead!

Now, let’s now hope the Confederate flag really does come down from the South Carolina State House, and everywhere else where it might fly. And let’s hope the discussion about the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage is over. Because it is done. Finished. Let’s move on!

Sadly, however, most Republicans, including the “clown bus” of presidential candidates, seem reluctant to do so, holding on to something that has passed them by. That doesn’t seem to be a  winning strategy, and it is disappointing.

And let’s hope the Democrats, going against their own President on the Asian trade bill, will come to their senses. I come from a country ruled by Social Democracy for decades and where everyone belongs to a union. Still, it is a country that firmly believes in international trade, in an open world, in the globalization that we are all experiencing. There is no going back here either, so how could Nancy Pelosi and the great majority of the other Democrats go so wrong? It is not a winning strategy for America, and it is, also, disappointing.

Remnick’s article talks about Obama’s “resolve.” He is still the President for another year and half, so let’s hope he uses that remaining time to move forward on gun control. The curse of guns in this country must come to an end. Let’s hope.

It’s not only high time — it’s long overdue

It’s not only high time — it’s long overdue that the Confederate battle flag comes down outside the State House in South Carolina.

In 1993, when the battle flag came down from the top of the State House in Montgomery, Alabama, put there by the old segregationist governor, George Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama had, finally, joined the Union.

Let’s hope the members of the State Legislature also look to the future and vote to take it down. But, let’s hope even more than that, as Sally Jenkins writes in her column in today’s Washington Post, that a new debate commences in the United States, where America stops romanticizing and stops teaching fiction, and, instead, starts teaching American history and starts telling the truth that “the Confederacy was treason in defense of a still deeper crime against humanity — slavery.”

In 1865, at Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the Northern commander’s words are worth remembering:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

One of the worst reasons, ever…

We are reminded again: Torture is torture. Period.

The U.S. Senate’s torture report is out, and that was a good day for America. But it underlined  once again that America “lost its way”during those dark years after 9/11, as Eric Lichtau wrote in his book Bush’s Law – The Remaking of American Justice.

“This is not how Americans should behave. Ever,” says today’s main editorial in the Washington Post.

So, to talk about whether these “enhanced interrogation techniques” worked or not is completely irrelevant.

“Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked,'”  the Post adds. Exactly.

“Only fools” discuss whether illegal actions “work,” wrote Slate Magazine’s legal commentator Dahlia Lithwick some time ago. Exactly, again.

But, as Lithwick also wrote, they “got away with it:” Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and his staff member Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed video tapes of the torture sessions.

Now, what? Probably nothing, unfortunately.

Congress, controlled by the Republicans after the new year, will not touch this. And President Obama, who started out so well and in his first weeks as president in 2009 shut down CIA’s secret prisons, prohibited the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and he promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, also said no to all investigations, no prosecutions and no indictments, no truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa after apartheid, no to a commission report like the one after 9/11. Nothing.

Was he wishing it would all go away? It hasn’t. The prison in Guantanamo Bay is still open and now the torture debate is back with a vengeance.

It was a “horrible decision” by Obama to close the books on this chapter of of our history, writes the New York Times today, describing the whole report as a “portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.” And, it “raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these crimes.”

Exactly, yet again.

Pete Seeger was — “Forever Young”

Pete Seeger, dead at 94, sings Bob Dylan’s beautiful “Forever Young.”

His full life by Jon Pareles in New York Times, and, by the way, Pete Seeger, you won, as David Corn writes in Mother Jones.

A man to be admired and missed.

 

“Fruitvale Station” — don’t miss this film!

I saw the movie “Fruitvale Station” tonight, about the tragic fate of Oscar Grant, shot down by a policeman for nothing at a BART Station in Oakland, California on New Year January 1, 2009.

The new film, a debut by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler, has been lauded by the critics after having won the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year. It’s easy to draw a parallel between Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan — “Wallace” to every fan of “The Wire” — and Trayvon Martin, both young black men, almost boys, and both killed for no reason by white men.

It’s a superb and sad drama that happens to be a true story about America. Don’t miss it!

It’s high time to close Guantanamo Bay

The terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open, in spite of what president Obama has declared and in spite of the many demands to close it.

As recently as last week, President Obama said that he continues to believe that Guantanamo should be closed.

“I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive.  It is inefficient.  It hurts us in terms of our international standing.  It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts.  It is a recruitment tool for extremists… And I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.  And it’s not sustainable.”  

Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School, is an expert on the Guantanamo prison. In an interview with me for my book America — Land of Dreams she said that Obama might have succeeded in closing Guantanamo immediately after he won the election in 2008, but he didn’t act fast enough, and he failed. And because Guantanamo is still open, we still have a system of “indefinite detention” and that, for me, she said, is “unacceptable.”

An article by Greenberg in the Washington Post last Sunday, called “Five Myths about Guantanamo Bay,” lays out the situation at Guantanamo today for the remaining 166 prisoners, of whom 100 are hunger-striking. Four of them have been hospitalized and 23 are force-fed.  Read it!

It’s high time to close Guantanamo.

Enough, Mr. President!

Yes, our hearts are broken, as President Obama said the other day about the senseless mass murder of 28 people in Newtown, Connecticut.

The sentiments of his emotional statement were surely shared by many, many, across the nation. But, for many, including me, his words were not enough. We wanted to hear something more  — indignation, anger, impatience, in addition to the sorrow, over what America’s gun culture is doing to this country, that too many people have died for no reason at all, and that something must be done about it – finally, now!

But we did not hear this from the President, who gave no indication that he is now prepared to break his four-year-long silence on guns and gun control — during his entire first term. His one sentence that “we are going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” was far too general and vague for many, like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, maybe the nation’s leading gun control proponent:

“We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership. Not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”

David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor:

“Obama told the nation that he reacted to the shootings in Newtown “as a parent,” and that is understandable, but what we need most is for him to act as a President, liberated at last from the constraints of elections and their dirty compromises—a President who dares to change the national debate and the legislative agenda on guns.“

In the days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the voices of “enough” are heard more and more. Mass shootings and mass killings are now part of everyday life in America. The magazine Mother Jones reports that there have been 62 such mass murders in the last 30 years. We know them: Columbine, Oak Creek, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg, and now Newtown. This year, alone, almost one hundred people have died in this madness.

Still, little has happened. Not even the near death of Congress woman Gabby Giffords resulted in any political action. On the contrary, it easier than ever to buy a gun, including assault weapons, as the ban between 1994 and 2004 on those weapons was lifted in 2004. And you can now carry concealed weapons in schools and bars, on trains and in the National Parks.

Could the 28 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut be a tipping point? It remains to be seen, if Sandy Hook can “break the usual cycle of universal shock fading into political reality,” reported  the AP.

Sadly, more and more people see the battle for increased gun control as unwinnable. The gun lobby seems just too strong, and the American people do not seem support more gun control. According to Gallup, fewer Americans now favor stricter gun laws, from 78 percent in 1990, to 44 percent in 2010.

Still, the deaths at Sandy Hook of 20 school children between six and seven years old seem to have struck a chord among Americans. And how could it not? So if not now, when? Enough.