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"My Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Voices of the Civil Rights Experience" by Juan Williams

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Shopping for Mental Health, the Washington Rally and What the Civil Rights Movement Has To Teach Us
My Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Voices of the Civil Rights Experience
by Juan Williams, AARP, 2004.

I recently ordered some merchandise from LL Bean. The first item was an alarm clock without a radio attached. This is a radical departure for me; since high school, I have used a clock radio to get me up and moving every morning. I've belatedly realized that getting unceremoniously catapulted from dreamland into the real world, complete with up-to-the-minute, invariably bad news is not good for my mental health. Instead, I am now the proud owner of a clock that coaxes me awake with a gently flashing light. It is so much more humane, I'm sorry I didn't think of this sooner. Bad news catches up with you, whether you want it to or not. I certainly don't have to hurry it along. I much prefer to extend the aftereffects of my good night's sleep for as long as humanly possible.

I found myself lingering over the catalog description of a mattress pad, also American-made, that featured magic memory foam developed by NASA. Just what they needed this technology for in outer space is beyond me, but the truth is that my newly upgraded bed - with its soft flannel sheets, down comforter and now an extra two inches of space-age cushioning -makes my sleeping hours almost unbearably fabulous.

As you might have gathered, everything was purchased for the express purpose of reducing stress and making it easier to relax when I am home and not doing my political work. It may sound as if I am hunkering down into that bunker mentality. But, since I long ago realized that this is surely more a marathon than a sprint, I acknowledge the need to pace myself. So, anything that I can do to keep me from burnout I view as a wise, long-term investment.

On another, related front, I am trying hard not to read so much heavy material. That Confessions by an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins almost did me in. I had nightmares for days and couldn't get it out of my mind during my waking hours. I even planned to do a follow-up including some of material that I hadn't managed to insert in the original article. Sorry; I just can't revisit that dark, dark place. You'll have to read it for yourself to see what I've left out. Right now, I've moved on to listening to Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? and besides for having to turn it down or off when the material is inappropriate for sensitive teenage ears, it is fun and very funny. What a change! It's wonderful to laugh out loud again. I'd almost forgotten how. Perkins didn't give me so much as a giggle. Also, it's nice hearing the voice of a person that I regularly follow in the New York Times.

My two very most favorite places to hang out are bookstores and public libraries. A few weeks ago, while stocking up on 'benign' material (that wouldn't send me off on another tirade), I stumbled across a book sale. A two-fer: a book sale, in a library! How could I resist? I came away with Williams's volume (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, a few others as well. For, who has the superhuman willpower to buy just one used book at a time? Certainly not I.) And there it sat while two op-ed pieces rattled around inside my head, fighting their way out. Mission finally accomplished, I began reading My Soul Looks Back in Wonder to is that I have a variation of the Midas touch. Everything I come across, however far afield from the issue of voting integrity - whether it's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man or Williams' book on the civil rights movement – reaches out to me so that I see vivid connections and relevance and feel compelled to share those insights with my readers. Just to give you an idea of how hard I'm trying to stay away from anything that might trigger another article, my current read is Nature Cures: the history of alternative medicine in America. While this is a topic of great interest to me, it's not likely to result in an irate article or elevated blood pressure, so I'm safe for a few days, at least. Phew!

I was a kid during the civil rights movement. I wasn't untouched but I didn't 'get' it to any substantial degree. My life was exceptionally self-centered in that inimitable, young, suburban, teenage way. Social outings, clothes and constant phone calls to keep tabs on who was in and who was out were interspersed with irksome schoolwork and family obligations. That's what I was all about, I'm chagrined to say. My life simply didn't (consciously) include exposure to racism, disenfranchisement or much unpleasantness coming from the outside world altogether. In looking back, I don't very much like myself in my youth; I am positively mortified by how shallow I was. To my tremendous relief, I've been much more impressed by my kids' teenage years. While they certainly are not perfect, they've been connected to the real world in a way that I was not. They have grown up in suburbia, as I did, yet their experience has been vastly different. The world is surely a different place and that accounts for part of it. I'd like to think that my eventually raised consciousness has also influenced them. My son claims that his interest in history and politics stems from hearing so much at home "ad nauseam," a direct quote, I'm afraid. If you ask me, I'd swear that I barely talk about that stuff; no one at my house seems that interested. As soon as we are out among family friends and the conversation veers to politics or voting though, I see those eyes start to roll and then glaze over. But, I digress....

Williams' book reminds me of Paul Rogat Loeb's The Impossible Will Take A little While, which is quite a compliment. Rob Kall, my boss at OpEdNews, recommended it to me when I was feeling overwhelmed and dispirited a number of months ago. Loeb compiled essays by community activists across the globe, each with a poignant story to tell. It was just what the doctor ordered and this collection has become a favorite of mine. One particularly vivid image has stuck with me all this time. In the introduction, Loeb tells of attending a benefit for a South African project with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. After his speech, a band began to play and rather than calling it a night, Tutu was out there on the dance floor, dancing energetically and having the time of his life.
"I'd never seen a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still less one with a potentially fatal illness, move with such joy and abandonment. Tutu, I realized, knows how to have a good time. Indeed, it dawned on me that his ability to recognize and embrace life's pleasures helps him face its cruelties and disappointments, be they personal or political." (Loeb, p. 1)

This really resonated for me. If a person so clearly dedicated to his cause could somehow keep a sense of perspective and allow himself some well-deserved 'down time', then surely I could follow his example. While I've had varying levels of success with this, I do see that becoming humorless and overly grim just makes me a serious drag and does not impel anyone to pay closer attention to my rants.

I've mentioned elsewhere that when I watched David Earnhardt's "Eternal Vigilance" I felt a very strong connection with the 2005 Nashville conference of voting activists. In fact, I inexplicably felt as if I had been there, although I hadn't even been aware of the gathering at the time. In a similar way, in reading about the civil rights movement now, when I'm in a position to more fully appreciate it, I'm getting a second chance to observe it. If I had been a few years older, or had grown up in the city or in the South, I might have chosen to get involved.

The twin themes of feeling marginalized and powerless weave their way through all grassroots movements. Getting involved is a positive response, an affirmation. It's a way of saying 'no, this is not right, this cannot stand' and of being willing to stand up, stand firm and bear witness. This boomer generation of ours has gotten dangerously complacent. In a few short years, we've forgotten the power of protest and our children have never experienced it. Our historical memory is as damnably short as our collective attention span, with dire consequences. As George Santayana wrote in Life of Reason "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' (p. 284) Iraq is a tragic case in point.

It is no mere coincidence that the architects of the Iraq debacle shared a singular lack of military experience. (See: "The Sunshine Patriots: The GOP's champions of this war had a hard time finding their own way to the battlefield" for details.),robbins,56166,1.html
I visualize a darkened room with a bunch of shirt-sleeved, paunchy white males of a certain age sitting around a game table, drinking beer while boisterously playing a round of "Risk, the game of global domination". Their lighthearted banter combined with a criminally superficial understanding of the region (again, reverberations of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) make this analogy even more apt. As soldiers are moved around at the whim of the players, it's more akin to a scene in a frat house during a post-finals wind down than how I prefer to picture foreign policy being devised. "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!" may have worked for Admiral Farragut during the Civil War; in the context of Iraq, it indicates a strategy that flies in the face of reality. That's what the opponents of this Administration are up against. We must be perfectly clear about that. In terms of reason, as Gertrude Stein commented in another context, "there is no there there".

I wrote once that we stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, who did the heavy lifting so that we can forge ahead. Williams' book
"is a compilation of narratives about coming to terms with conscience. These stories reflect the many voices and experiences of people who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and other struggles for equality, including the women's movement, the struggle for gay rights, and even the fight to save the environment." (p.2)

Williams tells of how a young Abraham Lincoln visited a slave auction with his father in New Orleans. Seeing children torn from their parents' arms made a very deep impression on him. Even though he admitted to not believing in blacks' equal standing, this experience shaped Lincoln's worldview and allowed him to later take the pivotal role that he did regarding the Civil War and emancipating the slaves.

Williams continues:
"The best of American history is made up of people like Lincoln who experience a moment of revelation that inspires them to fight against injustice. No matter how momentous the issue, social transformation begins with individuals awakening to a new way of seeing the world." (p.2)

While the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s is, for many of us, something from grainy black-and-white newsreels and documentaries, the fight for civil rights is far from over. Likewise, we have a big fight on our hands regarding this generation's Vietnam – Iraq. There is a certain symmetry to writing about Williams' book on the day that so many citizens converged on Washington DC to protest Bush's Iraq policy. Estimates range from 'tens of thousands' to 'hundreds of thousands', depending on the source. This Administration's total discounting of the 'thumpin'" they received in November has finally, belatedly, pushed the public too far. People from all over the country joined together to take a stand and make a statement. Despite Bush's attempts to squelch all dissent as unpatriotic, the anti-war movement now represents the mainstream of American opinion; it can no longer be considered a fringe group. Among the demonstrators were veterans' groups as well as soldiers on active duty, the latter a new phenomenon and symbolic of the depth of the opposition. The Mayor of Salt Lake City, hardly a bastion of wild-eyed lefties, also went to Washington. He spoke at the rally and tied Iraq with other anti-democratic policies including wiretapping and the use of torture.

In a way, the Bush administration has made it easier to become an activist. In fact, it's hard to settle on just one policy to oppose; there are, tragically, so many to choose from. Perhaps disgust with our government's response - to Katrina, Iraq, global warming, the failing economy, the cost of health insurance, massive job outsourcing, our fallen image in the world, the abridgement of civil liberties, Abu Graib, the erosion of traditional checks and balances – will lead the public to also examine the shameful way our elections have been torn from the hands of the voters and handed over to private corporations, high technology and their technician 'experts'. Over three billion dollars later, we have even less confidence in our elections than we did after the hanging chads debacle in Florida 2000. There is less citizen oversight, transparency or access to election records. If you doubt this, look at Alaska's two year fight to examine their 2004 ballots (and then the 2006 votes) Florida's 13th Congressional race as well as the egregious happenings in the California 50th Congressional district primary in June:

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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