Thursday, May 28, 2015

B.B. King takes his last ride down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the street where he got his start in the late 1940s


(The hearse carrying the late B.B. King makes its way past the famous A. Schwab store down Beale Street in Memphis)

MEMPHIS, Tenn.– John White, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Memphis who got his graduate degree at the University of Mississippi, said he picked up the phone one day as a young fellow and B.B. King was on the line.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled with a laugh.

He found out that King knew his grandmother, Claudia Jackson. They used to date. “She has a photograph of her with B.B. on one side and Elvis on the other.”

(To the right, John White)

White was one of thousands of fans crowding the sidewalks of Beale Street here in Memphis Wednesday as the great bluesman made his last journey down the street where he began his career back in the late 1940s. King died earlier this month at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 89.

A New Orleans-style brass band played “The Thrill Is Gone” and other classics as it marched down Beale in front of the long, black hearse that had carried King from the Memphis airport, where he had been flown in from Las Vegas, and would bring him to his final resting place in Indianola, Miss.

People called out “We love you, B.B.!” and “Rest in peace, B.B.” as the hearse passed by the B.B. King Blues Club and Schwab’s dry goods store and made its way toward Third Street, where it turned right onto what becomes Highway 61 direction Mississippi Delta. When the hearse came to a stop just past Beale, women walked up to the back of it and kissed the rear view mirror repeatedly. Many cried.

(Bluesman Bobby Rush, center, in the crowd around the hearse carrying B.B. King)

Famous blues singers like Bobby Rush and Keb Mo were in the crowd, but most were regular folks like Lucille Shields and Latham Walker.

(Lucille Shields)

“Yes, my name is Lucille,” Shields said, “and I’ve got an ID to prove it.”

Of course, “Lucille” was also the name B.B. King gave his guitars after a long-ago dispute between two men over a woman by that name. The dispute took place in an Arkansas dance club where King was performing and led to a fire and King’s desperate rescue of his guitar from the blazes.

“I’ve been listening to the blues since I was five,” 59-year-old Shields said. “I’m here to celebrate B.B. King’s homecoming from Las Vegas to Beale to back home in Mississippi.”

Latham Walker, 61, is another Memphian who loves B.B. King and the blues. “I’m first cousin with Rufus Thomas,” he said proudly, referring to another Beale Street legend known for his classic “Walkin’ the Dog”. “The blues will never die. The blues will be forever. Everyday everybody’s going through something.”

(To the right, Latham Walker)

I interviewed King back in 2004, and we talked about his career and the future of the blues. He recalled his influences--from his cousin, early era country blues singer Bukka White, to the music he heard up and down Beale Street in the 1940s. Today “there is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris,” King said. “They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”

Maybe among those thousands mourning and celebrating B.B. King on Beale Street Wednesday were a handful of young blues musician waiting for their chance and knowing they’d never forget the day they paid their last respects to the King.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Republican "grass-eater rule" in Mississippi has prison system in shambles, workers' compensation gutted, and education on a precipice


("Uncle" Earl Long on the stump)

OXFORD, Miss. – Three-time Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, a betting man who loved the horses, knew his maneuverings to get a fourth term in 1960 were a long shot.  He also knew he was the last hope for the poor white and poor black in a state where the right-wingers were aching for power.

A.J. Liebling, a newsprint poet who also loved the racetrack, records in his classic The Earl of Louisiana what indeed happened when Uncle Earl’s bet came up short. “The grasseaters and the nuts have taken over the streets of New Orleans.”

Sure enough, newly elected Gov. Jimmie Davis quickly moved to cut $7.6 million in welfare funding and put 22,650 poor children on a path to starvation.

When I get depressed about politics, I look back to Uncle Earl for some solace. His enemies called him crazy—and maybe he was a little—but he was a true-blue populist who stood up for regular folks, something hard to find these days.

Look at Mississippi under Republican “grass eater” rule in both the governor’s mansion and state Legislature.

A lop-sided tax system that favors corporations and the rich has contributed to one of the biggest income gaps between the rich and poor of any state in the country. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn’s solution? Phase out the state income tax and the $1.7 billion in state revenue it provides.

Thank goodness, House Democrats killed Gunn’s plan and prevented Mississippi from becoming another Kansas, where Republicans succeeded in such an effort and nearly wrecked the state’s budget while flatlining its economy.

I’m one of the few journalists in this state who has decried the miserable protections workers here get due to a Republican-spawned gutting of workers’ compensation rules. That’s why I get calls from desperate workers injured on the job with little or no means of getting just treatment from their employers. Got one the other day. What can I tell them? Get people to stop voting in politicians who side with bosses and CEOs rather than working folks.

Another nearly wrecked institution is Mississippi’s prison system. Corruption at the highest levels and medieval conditions within its private prisons have the system’s reputation in shambles. Experts acknowledged during a recent Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics panel discussion here at the University of Mississippi that past politics and a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude set the stage.

My view? The core corruption in the state’s prison system is its willingness to hand over what is a state responsibility to profit-seeking private corporations.

Finally let’s look at education in a state with a sordid history of politically sanctioned disdain for public education.

Once again, the state Legislature ended its most recent session underfunding public schools, this time by $211 million under rules it set for itself in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Initiative 42 (on the ballot this fall and which would force the Legislature to meet MAEP funding requirements or face judicial sanction) is an effort to fix this.

Quite clearly a grass-eating core within the Republican Party wants to privatize public education. Charter schools and vouchers are merely Trojan horses in that cause.  According to a study recently published in New Labor Forum, charter schools across the country have doubled since 2008 while some 4,000 district schools shut down. Charter school CEOs earn as much as three times what school principals earn. Yet charter school advocates are the first to condemn teacher unions that want fair wages and benefits for teachers.

Higher education is in a nationwide crisis. The cost of one college year has increased 1,200 percent over the past 30 years, the New Labor Forum reports. Student loan debt jumped 400 percent between 2003 and 2013. Thank the corporatization of America for those statistics.

The board of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, known as the College Board, has been under fire for failing to renew the contract of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones. The decision, reached in secret, led to widespread speculation about a right-wing takeover of higher education in Mississippi.

Such speculation is warranted given what has happened in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Tea Partyers, corporate wheeler dealer Art Pope, and the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors managed to get rid of progressive UNC President Tom Ross earlier this year as well as university centers devoted to the environment, voter engagement and ending poverty. Pope’s dream is to get writer Ayn Rand, right-wing goddess of unhinged capitalism, accepted into the canon of required studies at UNC.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor and possible presidential hopeful Scott Walker tried to get the wording of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement changed from “searching for truth” to “meeting the state’s work-force needs.” He failed, but he did succeed in seriously cutting university funding.

Mississippi voters have a chance to change things next election. Will they vote for Initiative 42 and for politicians who serve rather than oppose their interests?

I’m hoping, but I’m not placing any bets.

A version of this column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Labor South's May Day Roundup: Rosie the Riveter, building cars in Mexico on the cheap, and anti-union toxins in South Carolina

It’s May 1, the true “labor day”, St. Joseph the Worker Day, and time for another Labor South roundup with a look at the late Rosie the Riveter, the growing auto industry in Mexico, and anti-unionism in South Carolina.

Rosie the Riveter

One of my favorites in my grand collection of coffee cups is my Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It?” cup. With her red bandanna, blue work shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and balled fist, she’s always been a labor hero to me, not only a symbol of World War II-era, factory-working women but also a reminder of the wonderful legacy of women at the forefront championing working-class folks.

One of several women associated with the Rosie legend, Mary Doyle Keefe, died last week in Simsbury, Conn., at the age of 92. Keefe was the model for artist Norman Rockwell’s 1943 rendition of Rosie the Riveter, which had her in overalls with a lunch box and rivet gun close at hand, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf under her feet.

Like another Rosie, the late Geraldine Doyle, who died at 86 in Lansing, Mich., in 2010, Keefe had never worked as a riveter. Keefe was a telephone operator when Rockwell had her pose for him. Doyle was briefly a factory worker but quit when she saw that the hard working conditions might endanger her true love, playing the cello.  It was Doyle whom artist J. Howard Miller used to create the Rosie in the “We Can Do It!” poster.

Some might say the real Rosie was Rose Will Monroe, a Kentucky native who did actually work at Ford’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan, which was building B-29 bombers. She came along after the poster was already created, however, but was featured in a film promoting war bonds. Monroe died at the age of 77 in 1997.

They’re all heroes to me, and they’re all Rosie, one tough gal who wore a blue collar, did a good job, and was proud of her work.

Building cars in Mexico on the cheap

A recent report from the Associated Press shows Mexico in position to become the next “Detroit South” with plans by both Toyota and Ford for new plants there. Most of the 18 auto factories in Mexico were built in the past 10 years.

Mexican workers like the money. They can earn as much as $10 a day at one of the Japanese plants, or even $20 a day at Volkswagen. Those are good wages in a country with a minimum wage of $4.50 a day.

It’s going to be hard for even auto workers in low-paying states like Mississippi to compete with such miserable wages.

So what authors Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in their classic 1955 book, Labor’s Untold Story, described as the “run-away-plant movement” continues, aided by NAFTA and its kin, and it will continue as long as workers remain unorganized on an international scale.

What’s encouraging, however, is that Mexican auto workers are raising complaints about poor working conditions such as long hours and injuries on the job. If workers like them unionize around the world, eventually the run-away plants will run out of places where they can run.

Anti-union toxins in South Carolina

Another recent Associated Press report tells of the decision by the Machinists union to forego a planned union vote last month at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C.

The union released a statement describing the “toxic environment” against unions in the state. Threats and political interference are among the toxins. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has publicly urged workers at the 7,500-worker plant to oppose any unionization effort.

A “toxic environment” toward unions exists throughout the South these days with the Republican takeover of the region. Workers eventually are going to realize that the Nikki Haleys of the world don’t represent their interests. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.