Mike Huckabee’s full reaction to Barack Obama’s Tuesday Speech, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan. Huckabee wins my Easter Decency Award.
“We’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names; being told you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie; you have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant; you can’t sit out there with everyone else, there’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office; here’s where you sit on the bus .. . And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder, and resentment, and you have to just say, “I probably would, too. I probably would, too. And in fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.”
I’m one of those people who grew up in privilege. My childhood was a succession of encounters with Black persons. There was Ophelia from Harlem who cleaned our apartment. There were Clemmie and Ermadine. Students at Tuskeegee who came up for the summers and “took care of us” in the country. There was Viola. There was Patsy, Ophelia’s daughter, who baby sat. I remember talking into the night.
Trinity School and Trinity-Pawling where I went for a year, had no Black students. There was a Carl Marazzi and a Dick Steinborn and a Bob Lenzner and a Dicky Paul and a Bill Rewalt, but no Black student. It was the ’40s.
When I got to Exeter, my closest neighbor was Black. This was 1951. His name is Bob Storey. He is retired now. A lawyer from Cleveland who has a second home in Paris. Bob’s wife sits on the board of a geriatric hospital at Western Reserve which was originally established by a Benjamin Rose in the 19th Century. He was a successful Englishman who returned to England after making a fortune. Childless, his estate was given to support white women in straitened circumstances. The permutations of philanthropy.
At Exeter, Mike McCrary had records of Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger. I had come to the awareness that Andrew Sullivan apparently came to. His blog says “no party or clique”. My remark then, and since, was that I had access to cliques. In, but not of.
There were cynics and responsible sorts at Exeter. I shuttled between and among. I had no religion. Racism was not a word I had ever heard.
When I was 17, I drove down to Virginia to Farmville, a bastion of segregation not far from Richmond. I ferreted out information on the problem. I am not sure why. I was interested I guess.
At Williams, there were some Black students, a handful. I never knew them. I did not get into a fraternity. Then I did.
In my sophomore year I was strongly alienated from the college and beginning for the first time to apply myself to studies. I ended up gravitating toward the interests of my roommates Phil McKean and Don Morse — Christian student stuff. I went farther. I ended up becoming consciously Christian. I ended up working at a place called Camp Rabbit Hollow in Winchester, NH.
There I met Beth Turner. She was from Chicago. She was Black. She wrote me a note that said she was falling in love with me. We got together. She was engaged. I had never felt freer than I did during that period. Something had happened to me in relation to my Christian faith, before coming to the camp. A liberating communion.
Everything that happened while I was at Rabbit Hollow was like floating on a different plane. Beth was a student at Grinnell.
The person behind the camp was the Rev. James Robinson — one of the great Americans of the 20th century.
When I got back to Williams, Beth and I corresponded. I am sure we skirted around the issue of continuing our relationship. But I felt I was too young to get married and I knew she was marriage-bound. We would remain friends, with little real communication, until her death.
The same year, it was now 1958, my fraternity refused to consider a West Indian. I protested. The head of the fraternity, now a history Professor at the college, told me if I felt that way I should leave. So I did. When I resigned it set off a small movement and was eventually part of the history of the abolition of fraternities at Williams.
I moved in with Bill Coffin who was the college chaplain. Some fraternity guys shot out the front window of the house. Coffin jokingly said, If you want Rose, he lives in the back.
Quite alienated from any thought of going into business or law, I ended up choosing to go to theological school and ended up at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I did not like it academically. It reminded me of a high school that I had never attended. My main contact with Black persons was with kids. There was Boyd Canton at Rabbit Hollow. My all time favorite. And kids from the children’s ward at the N. Y. State Psychiatric Institute where I worked as an attendant.
When I finished Union, I was married. We had our first child, Diana. John Collins urged me to join the Student Interracial Ministry. I did.
We went to Nashville and I was the assistant minister at the First Baptist Church (now Capitol Hill).
The minister was Kelly Miller Smith. Kelly was also head of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. I spent the summer working at the church and picketing H.G. Hill with folk like John Lewis, Diane Nash and others who became luminaries of the civil rights movement. Joe Carter from Brooklyn and I integrated the Holiday Inn after sitting in the restaurant for an hour or so.
Our best friend besides Kelly and Alice and Will Campbell and his family. was C. T. Vivian who used to come around and we would talk deep into the night. Jim Lawson would come in from Memphis to teach us nonviolence.
I mention this only to express my own surprise — the term racist never emerged all this time.
Back in Chicago, I worked and got to know folk like Dick Gregory and Jim Flagg. With Renewal Magazine, which I founded and edited, I did what I could to support the civil rights movement.
In 1966 I spent the better part of a year in Geneva at the World Council of Churches where I did work on international development and what people now call liberation theology. Down the hall was my friend Beth Kipligat who has played a major role in church and government in Kenya.
I suppose my shell of naivete — I would prefer to call it something else but I have no word for it (Beth’s word when she wrote her note was “color blind”) — was broken when Oscar McCloud, a Black colleague from seminary and later the Presbyterian Church, suggested that we call a session at a Consultation on Church Union meeting in Atlanta in 1968.
At our rump meeting, I proposed reparations as a means of inducing Protestant denominations to get rid of their assets and unite and also to support Black development. I was summarily told by the next speaker, Mance Jackson, that I should not be stating an agenda for Blacks. I have a holographic mind and that was all it took to show me the future.
We had entered a time of ideological hardening in which the notion of beloved community that had been at least considered in Nashville was replaced by Black Power and a ton of posturing all around. When I asked Oscar what had happened, he brushed it off.
Well, I had my agenda and I followed it, even as — a week later — Jim Forman announced and championed the Black Manifesto which turned the reparations issue to a direct confrontation with churches. Ironically the only major contribution to the Black Economic Development Conference came from the Massachusetts UCC under the direction of Avery Post. I was asked to help him facilitate the gift.
Incredible, when I look back. Incredible too that Union Theological Seminary managed to hold a recent meeting on reparations with nothing on the program to suggest this chapter in American church history had ever occurred.
After 1969, we were deep into an era of posturing and rhetoric and balkanization. I watched people like Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus sidle ever more to the right. I watched the Democratic Party learn to feed at a common trough with the Republicans.
The friendships I made with Blacks were with artists like Ron Fair, a novelist, and — for a brief and significant time — with science fiction author Samuel R. (Chip) Delany — and singer Bev Rolher. A few islands of normality in the balkanized wasteland of our common broken dreams. I became a house husband and wrote more books.
Yes, I had cried before my family when Martin was shot. And after corresponding with Bob Kennedy to urge him to run in 1966, and discussing it with him by mail from Geneva, the only communication I got in 1968 was a telegram inviting me to his funeral. I did not go.
I did not go to the March on Washington. Or Woodstock for that matter. I have never been into such “history”.
I need not continue. Suffice to say that now the gates have reopened.
The problem Barack addressed on Tuesday is still with us.
When I was in Boston in the 90s I was a member of Charles Stith’s Methodist Church — predominately Black. I could not even induce Jim Crawford, the minister at Old South Church, a Union Seminary classmate, to get his congregation to join ours around the reflecting pool after church some Sunday to sing Jacob’s Ladder.
That is how bad things were and are.
Beth died too young.
She had become a foreign service officer after mothering some wonderful kids, marrying, divorcing and then marrying an Ethiopian American who died, leaving her a widow in the 80s.
I saw her then, at a time when I was divorced. She was about to enter the Foreign Service. I was earning a bit writing for a family friend. We might have gotten together again but I think she did not want to deal with the disruption of her life that would have occurred. And I have no idea what would have happened.
When I learned of her death, I tried to find and contact her kids. I finally did find one online and sent an email. There was no reply. I have no idea if it ever got to its destination.
Oddly, there is nothing more important to me than the sense of unity of people. And I do mean unity of Black and white. I do not see my life as a poster life for anything. I have been fortunate to have run across Jim Robinson, John School Merchant and Emmet Turner — and Beth and Don Benedict and Garry Oniki and Ken Vallis.
Finally everyone I regard as noble and good blends together. My snobby mother may have had a point when she solved the race problem with the flourishing notion that we would eventually all breed ourselves gray.
Life goes on. I will be 72 in May.
I think Barack should appoint Huckabee our Ambassador to the Court of St. James — or maybe France.
I hope Beth is somewhere watching. She is from Barack’s neighborhood and so too is my Jewish atheist wife who is the most saintly person I know.
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