Friday, October 14, 2011

“Power Without Love Is Reckless And Abusive”

Memories have a way of reweaving themselves so until recently all I recalled about standing on a roof-top balcony in the foothills of Altadena, California on the evening of April 4, 1968 was watching as nearby South Pasadena was set ablaze below in both anger and anguish over the cold-blooded murder a few hours earlier of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Having essential tremor in both hands, it has always been nearly impossible for me to keep a journal so my memories are often refreshed by scraps of mementos I’ve kept. I was reminded of one recently when my daughter and only child, a single-mom-healthcare lawyer, shared a poignant quote about power and love from a speech King delivered seven months prior to his death:

“…one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites - polar opposites so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.

…What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

Deepening my memory of the night King was assassinated is an autobiographical sketch among my scraps that I penned just 48 months after that night as required by one of several senior college theses. It documents an epiphany I had on that rooftop.

Still just 19 years old at the time, the cheers and taunts I had heard on the still-segregated streets that day brought about an apostasy as I watched the flames that night, a self-imposed excommunication from my ultra-conservative-Republican and seemingly racist upbringing in the upper Intermountain West as well as eventual alienation from my religious heritage.

Two decades removed from that rooftop epiphany, when I arrived in North Carolina to help jump-start the organization purposed to tell Durham’s story, I hadn’t yet heard the C.P. Ellis part of that story which was documented a few years later, first in a 1992 book about race by Studs Terkel and then in the 1996 The Best of Enemies by Osha Gray Davidson before Ellis passed away in 2005.

During my first business road trip through North Carolina, I was annoyed by Raleigh-centric-directions to Pinehurst that took me me far out of my way rather than the much more direct route south from Durham; and I was startled as I passed Sanford, North Carolina to see an official state highway sign welcoming me to the home of the head of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK.)The Best of Enemies

Just a decade before my arrival in Durham, C.P. Ellis had undergone a conversion of beliefs while head of the KKK here and turned in his keys to the local Klavern. Americans love conversion narratives and Mr. Ellis’s transformation from head of the KKK to working with Ann Atwater, an African-American activist to desegregate schools here is emblematic of many that are part of the remarkable Durham story.

A year after I arrived in Durham, the ultra-conservative United States Senator Jesse Helms, who had been a dedicated Raleigh pro-segregationist ran for re-election against Harvey Gantt, the African-American architect and former Mayor of Charlotte.

Two decades ago, from the vantage point of an already progressive and diverse Durham, it seemed that most North Carolinians hoped Helms had mellowed from the days of his nightly racist rants on a Raleigh TV station on a segment called “Viewpoint.” During one broadcast he called the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”

Asked later to explain, Senator Helms provided insight into how some people seem to construe the Constitutional provision granting equal rights as a “zero-sum” proposition. He justified his opposition with the view that the law was somehow taking rights from one group and giving them to another.

However, as the 1990 campaign demonstrated, Helms had not mellowed. When the race drew even closer during the final weeks, Helms launched the infamous and misleading “Hands” campaign ad overtly playing on the same fears he had more overtly used to help fuel KKK membership in the State during the 1960s including 112 chapters and approximately 9,000 members according to reformed former Exalted Cyclops C.P. Ellis.

I was reminded of Helms efforts to encourage homophobia when recently our Republican-dominated legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the “primary-election” ballot for next spring, probably hoping the lower turnout will ensure denial of the right to civil unions for same-sex couples.

Reflecting the humiliation so many North Carolinians feel about this proposed amendment, I’m reminded of a clipping among my mementos. It is an op-ed published by acclaimed-author Allan Gurganus the morning after the racially-charged “Hands” ads had helped Helms defeat Gantt in 1990.

As a metaphor for the election, Gurganus uses the story of North Carolina’s famed Siamese-twins, P.T. Barnum stars, Chang and Eng Bunker:

“One twin, Eng, was by nature temperate and
Christian and chess-loving; the other, Chang, proved
iII-tempered, raving, something of a self-destructive

The mild twin daily endured the selfishness
and tantrums of a grouchy brother affixed to him by
a band of flesh and a mutual liver. This liver, after
decades of drunkard's abuse, became diseased. One
night, aged 63, Chang, the hard-living brother, died;
a doctor was summoned to finally separate the twins.

Before he arrived, Eng, the generous and thoughtful
survivor, opened his eyes, was told what had
happened, and died of fright. His independent heart
stopped because he found himself attached to a
corpse who had, via stubborn selfish vices, a life of
un-charity, committed suicide.

Now, imagine that the good brother constituted
only 35 percent of the total body weight of these fused
twins. In their annexed prime, imagine how he felt to
wake daily, to look directly at the person so nearby,
the death-loving 65 percent he knew would kill him,
against his will. Chang, violent and suspicious, was
greedily dying of pure hatefulness, of fear, and
without quite knowing why himself.

Chang hated what he called "outsiders"; but his own gentle
brother, as attached to him as anyone can ever be
attached, was he an outsider, too?

That's how I feel this morning. The phone keeps
ringing; the notes will soon arrive. Friends know I've
let myself hope I might bring my large, violent,
life-loathing brother to his senses. I hoped to save
both him, and incidentally, save me, save us. - I
have failed. Our state has.

I wake before my brother does and I look over at
him, snoring so close beside me, and I say, "Why?
Why? Why do you hate our life so much? What is it
you're so afraid of?"

As voters assess the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex civil unions, hopefully they will consider the following words of Dr. King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King:313571_2490277015695_1215829102_33023763_466662985_n

• “I believe all Americans who believe in freedom, tolerance and human rights have a responsibility to oppose bigotry and prejudice based on sexual orientation.

• I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’

• I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.

• Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.

• Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”

1 comment:

jayzenner said...

People used to joke that the only thing wrong with Atlanta was that it was surrounded by Georgia. That's sort of the way I felt about Durham and North Carolina when I read about the state legislature's proposed constitutional amendment. I hate to think that Durham might be an island of tolerance in a sea of bigotry.I'd like to believe we've become a little more enlightened as a state since Jesse Helm's defeat of Harvey Gantt. You'd think the legislature would have more important things to do than stoke the dying coals of intolerance at a time like this.