Henry David Thoreau. His book Walden and essay Civil Disobedience influenced my thinking greatly when I read them in college. I was not the only one– Tolstoy, Gandhi, MLK, John Muir, Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright all mention being profoundly affected by his writings. In the 1960s Thoreau’s concepts of civil disobedience and direct action helped shape the strategies of the civil rights movement, the free speech movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. His spirit is never far from the surface throughout the SDS manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden.
When arrested in 1846 for refusing to pay poll taxes because of his opposition to slavery, the event that led to his writing of Civil Disobedience, he was visited in jail by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson reportedly asked: Henry David, what are you doing in there? Thoreau’s reply: Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?
Shortly after his release from prison in 1990 Nelson Mandela visited Oakland. Mandela came to thank the Bay Area because Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco were among the strongest defenders of ordinances calling for divestment of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa. The leading voice in that struggle was our congressman Ron Dellums. In 1986 the U.S. House of Representatives passed Dellums’ anti-apartheid legislation, calling for a trade restriction against South Africa and divestment. A primary precondition for lifting the sanctions was the release of all political prisoners. President Reagan vetoed the bill; however, his veto was overridden. I was at the Oakland Coliseum 29 years ago today, June 30, 1990. Mandela also thanked area longshoremen (ILWU) who refused to unload South African goods.
Here’s to the great Phil Ochs on what would have been his 76th birthday (December 19). During the Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements and the Vietnam War, Ochs was one of the most influential singers of his time. He was also an Ohio State journalism student and worked for the school newspaper, the Lantern. At OSU he met his political mentor, Jim Glover, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. Odd (sad) that the university remains ambivalent/silent about his legacy…
“A good song with a message can a bring a point more deeply than a thousand rallies” – Phil Ochs
The milestone incident known as the stand in the schoolhouse door took place fifty-three years ago today, June 11, 1963, at the University of Alabama, when Alabama’s Governor George Wallace attempted to physically block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the university. It was one of the crucial moments in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and a shining example of graceful leadership under immense pressure.
Previously, in his inaugural address as governor, Wallace had shouted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He repeatedly assured his constituents that he would keep his promise and defy any and all federal court orders forcing integration in his state. So on that fateful day he was determined, and honor-bound, to stand his ground. Part savvy politician, part carnival barker, Wallace certainly had a flair for the dramatic and he had staged quite a show for his rabid fans. For his part, Kennedy had to find a way to enforce federal court orders without playing into Wallace’s hands by turning him into a high-profile martyr for the southern racist cause, let alone keep the peace on a campus swarming with white supremacists itching for a fight. The riots a year earlier between whites and national guard troops at Oxford Mississippi over James Meredith had to have been fresh in his mind. (Listen to Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town)
During the stand-off JFK and his brother Bobby were busy working the phones between Washington and their agent at Alabama, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. They were very hesitant to just “kick the governor out of the way.” Their primary dilemma: sending troops too soon might set off violence, but waiting too long might be seen as a retreat. Their solution: Malone and Hood waited out of site under a federal marshals’ protection while Katzenbach went forth to confront Wallace face-to-face on the steps of the admissions building. He calmly and respectfully served the court order and listened to the recalcitrant Wallace’s prepared statement. Kennedy then ordered Katzenbach to turn away, walk back to the students, and escort them to their dormitories. It worked! There was no riot, but also no retreat. Wallace was able to save face with his people and leave the scene. Malone and Hood quietly returned the next day and registered without incident.
Alabama was the last American state to desegregate its universities. Luckily, due to the Kennedy brothers’ resolve and quick thinking under pressure, the Tide went out with a whimper and not a bang. That night President Kennedy went on national television to give a groundbreaking speech. In the age of Trump it is important to hear his words again on this important anniversary…
Watch the great documentary on these days by Robert Drew. I read somewhere that this was the first movie that Obama screened when he entered the White House in January 2009? See it below: