Sunday, November 28, 2021

Oxford, Mississippi, a literary town where--from Stark Young & William Faulkner to Barry Hannah & Willie Morris to Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Mary Miller & William Boyle--the creative well never runs dry

(William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten in 1954)
 

 As I did once recently on the subject of labor, I was asked by the Reverend Gail Tapscott to join a panel discussion on Oxford, Mississippi, and its literary tradition today (November 28, 2021) for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. I joined my friend Kaye Bryant, who told of meeting William Faulkner as a young girl and hearing his ghost tales. Below are some of my prepared remarks for today's service: 

Many people think it all began with Faulkner, this identification of Oxford, Mississippi, as a literary town. That’s not true. I’d say it began with drama critic, playwright, and novelist Stark Young, whose home still stands on Oxford’s University Boulevard, next door to William Faulkner’s novelist brother John’s home.

 

By the time William Faulkner started writing fiction seriously in 1925, Stark Young was already a well-known theater critic and the author of The Flower in Drama: A Book of Papers on the Theater (1923). He would also gain renown as a novelist. Ellen Glasgow said of his 1934 novel So Red The Rose: “There has never been a novel of the South … that can compare with it.”  Born in Como, Mississippi, Young graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1901 and taught there from 1905 to 1907. He became drama critic at the New York Times and the New Republic magazine. Young was one of the Nashville-based Southern Agrarians, which also included Robert Penn Warren and other poets and writers who yearned for a non-industrial South that held true to its better values of the past.


(To the right, Stark Young)

 

Faulkner’s brother John deserves mention here. Always in the shadow of his more famous brother, he wrote novels such as Men Working (1941) and Dollar Cotton (1942).

 

Of courses, there’s Faulkner himself, the Nobel Prize winner, the creator of the Yoknapatawpha series. My late friend Jere Hoar, a widely published short story writer and author of the classic hardboiled novel The Hit (2002), was one of the last living links to Faulkner before he recently died. He attended the wedding of Faulkner’s daughter at the writer’s fabled home, Rowan Oak, and was close enough to the family to have been asked to drive to Chicago to pick up Faulkner at the airport and drive him back to Oxford. Unsure of his navigational skills, Jere declined, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.

 

Another important Faulkner link in Oxford today is writer and publisher Larry Wells, whose late wife Dean Faulkner Wells was the great writer’s niece and grew up in Rowan Oak after her father, Faulkner’s brother, died in an airplane crash. I loved listening to her many tales of “Pappy” as she was growing up.

 

New York Times bestselling writer Ace Atkins (no relation but a kindred spirit!) and I would gather at Jere’s farmhouse off what is now called “Faulkner Highway) every month or so and talk about books, writing, and film over glasses of bourbon and platefuls of fried chicken. I miss those days. Jere would regale us with tales of his writer friends like Jim Harrison and another Oxford writer, Barry Hannah. Barry loved guns and often came over to target shoot on Jere’s many acres. Barry’s own short stories were always razor edged, even poison tipped, a shot to the heart. Like this line from his story “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter”: “You may see me with the eye-patch. In almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph, riding right into your face.”

 

(Barry Hannah, from the back cover of his 1985 collection of stories, Captain Maximus)

 

Another is, and I’ll paraphrase: “See that beautiful blonde sitting over there. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s glad as hell she’s no longer in his life.” 

 

Jere’s home was a step into Faulkner land. The walls were covered with paintings of prized bulls, horses, and dogs. He loved to hunt and kept horses till his dying day.

 

I first met Barry Hannah as a political reporter in the early 1980s. I came to Oxford to cover a political fundraiser at the old Downtown Grill (now called Boure's), and there was Barry deep in his cups on one side of the room, and fellow Oxonian Willie Morris on the other. Both holding court, neither particularly interested in talking to one another. A rivalry of sorts existed between the two very different writers. Morris was journalist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi for many years. His books North Toward Home and Terrains of the Heart are personal favorites.

 


In Terrains of the Heart, he waxes nostalgic about the bar at the old Holiday Inn near the Oxford town square, arguably, he said, the best Holiday Inn bar in the country. I once wrote a column on the locally famous bartender there, Clyde Goolsby.

 

(To the right, Willie Morris on the University of Mississippi campus)

 

I met Willie several times and once interviewed him on the phone. I’ll never forget his visit to Oxford to help commemorate the Faulkner statue by the City Hall. The historian Shelby Foote was there, too, and I remember remarking what two classic Southern faces on that small stage.

 

One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Larry Brown’s collection of short stories, Facing the Music (1988) (another is a signed copy of Eudora Welty’s collected works. I met her once when I was working as a reporter in Jackson). A local firefighter before he became a nationally known writer, Brown wrote tough, gritty stories about the people in the rural environs around Oxford. I never actually met him, but I saw him sometimes at a favorite watering hole, the City Grocery bar, and walking—or should I say staggering—along the Square at night.

 

Soon after I first moved my little family to Oxford in 1990, I took my late wife Marilyn and two small children, 7-year-old Rachel and 6-year-old Michael, to a reading by Larry Brown at one of the courthouses on the Square. Brown’s writing could be full of expletives and raw scenes, and so was his reading. I began to squirm as I realized my two were the only children in the room, and they were getting an earful, or so I thought. Near the very end of Brown’s reading, he said something like “hell” or “damn”, and Rachel turned to me and said, “Daddy, he just said a bad word!” Apparently she hadn’t been paying much attention during the reading!

 

Oxford today is still chock-full of top-notch writers. My gosh, too many to even name. There’s Mary Miller, a Grisham Writer-in-Residence whose short play “A Young Ghost” I was pleased to direct for an Oxford Theatre production last year. Noted short story writer and screenwriter Chris Offutt writes and teaches here. William Boyle’s 2013 novel Gravesend is one of the best I’ve read in the past decade or more. He works at a local vinyl store when he’s not in New York City or somewhere in France being touted as one of the best young writers on the scene.

 

My buddy Ace Atkins has written dozens of novels and generally enjoys a commanding presence on the New York Times bestselling lists. Another top writer is novelist Tom Franklin, and his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is a major poet who served as Mississippi’s poet laureate.  Legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie lives here. Ralph Eubanks writes and teaches here. Lisa Howorth’s novels have gotten much attention. Jack Pendarvis lives and writes here. Many others have come through, lived for a while, and moved on, including Richard Ford, Megan Abbott, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and, of course, John Grisham, whose commanding home on a hill just outside of town provides shelter to the Grisham Writers-in-Residence.

 

This is a literary town. It’s in its life’s blood. The well is deep, and I don’t think it will ever run dry.

 

 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Is the U.S. South a different nation? A Journey into Deep, Dark Dixie

 


(Highway 49 in the Mississippi Delta)

 

The journey was something out of an Eric Ambler or Graham Greene novel. It was roughly 20 years ago, and I was on a train from Krakow, Poland, to Bratislava, Slovakia. My mission was to meet with journalist Pavol Mudry to hear his tales of dealing with Slovakian strongman Vladimir Meciar, who had done his best to destroy Mudry’s Slovak News Agency (SITA).

 

I had left sunny Krakow, where black-robed priests walk the ancient streets of the Stare Miasto, the city’s Old Town, and where steel workers at the giant Nowa Huta factory joined with shipyard workers in Gdansk to create Solidarity and bring down the brutal communist regime and breathe political freedom back into Poland.

 

I traveled through the night to a darker place than Poland, one where the threatening shadows of post-communist demagogues like Meciar still loomed over the land. I didn’t speak Polish but I did know a little Russian. When I tried to speak it, people just stared at me coldly. My good Polish friend Ala Kopycka from Lodz later told me, “Joe, don’t speak Russian in Poland.”

 

Late in the night, the train stopped at some remote station, and a peasant woman carrying a huge sack of potatoes came into my train car and sat across from me. She had a broad, pleasant face and began talking to me in Polish as if I were a native. I simply smiled, nodded, and acted as if I knew what she was talking about.

 

Pavol met me at the station in Bratislava and became my tour guide through the city, where what were likely Meciar goons had broken into SITA headquarters and stolen its computers and other equipment. The police never investigated.

 

I thought about my Slavic adventure recently after reading a couple recent articles about my native South, itself an exotic outpost in the USA where political demagoguery and authoritarian impulses have made it at times practically a nation on its own, yet one with a profound impact on the rest of the country.

 

I’ll never forget reading years ago Sally Belfrage’s 1965 book Freedom Summer, her account of traveling to Mississippi along with other idealistic young people who’d trained in Ohio and come south to register black voters and fight racial segregation in 1964.

 

“(We) were behaving as warily as a band of illegally documented refugees on the Orient Express approaching a forbidden Balkan border. The night seemed peaceful enough, but the change from light to dark was becoming substantive, and everything ahead was dark. SOUTH! … Flat, endless Delta land of cotton, straight two-laned road, monotony, with only an occasional shack to interrupt a landscape that was a visual forever. … At a crossroads, pointers to towns named Savage, Coldwater, Alligator. The heat was still and dazzling … a weird silence, which seemed to spread outward without an end.

 

"The country was foreign, resembling Spain or Syria or anywhere where heat and poverty combine to overwhelm attempts at the streamlined."

 

Mississippi and the rest of the South might seem much less threatening today, but a difference remains, certainly in the eyes of Maine-based writer Wayne O’Leary.

 

The sharp divides that have split the nation go far beyond urban-rural differences, O’Leary wrote recently in the Texas-based Progressive Populist. “The split is between the South, the states of the old Confederacy (along with some border states), and the rest of the country. It’s a division that’s been there since the Civil War ended in 1865, but lately it’s become an ever-widening chasm impossible to bridge except with the utmost difficulty. Differing values and beliefs that have coexisted uneasily well over a century have become seemingly irreconcilable under the psychic pressure of the Trump years and can’t be smoothed over.”

 

 A once Solid South for the Democratic Party is now solidly Republican. Fundamental Christians, anti-vaccers, union busters, and Trumpsters rule the land. “Donald Trump … appeals to something deep in the Southern psyche,” O’Leary writes, and the South “threatens to drag down the rest of the country in the process of acting out its bizarre conception of `freedom.’” Freedom, for these Southerners, means no COVID-19 vaccine mandate and free-range to Republican legislators who want to suppress voting by minorities and others who might threaten their rule.

 

Legislators in some non-Southern states like Wisconsin and Ohio are pushing bills that would re-open the doors to child labor to offset the current pandemic-spawned labor shortage, an idea bound to resonate in the South where children once slaved at textile mills across the region.

 

Still, Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer “dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers” in labor unions and progressive legislation, according to a recent article on Southern labor by Hamilton Nolan in In  These Times.  Operation Dixie was a massive labor organizing campaign in the South in the late 1940s and early 1950s that largely failed.

 

 Only problem is, Shaffer said, “I don’t got the power to do that shit.” Major union losses at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, site and at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, brought home that fact.

 

Yet Southern workers clearly want a better South than the one they have now. The best way to achieve that end is through an organized workforce. Miners have gone on strike in Brookwood, Alabama. Other workers have struck in Memphis and Paris, Tennessee, Louisville and Dry Ridge, Kentucky. Nolan writes that “not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where workers are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen.”

 

Hope springs eternal. Even in the Deep, Dark South.

 

 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Labor South Roundup: Loss of good friend and writer/teacher Jere Hoar; plus a look at how the state of Mississippi enriches its famous friends with federal welfare dollars

 

Labor South Roundup: Loss of a good friend and fine writer/teacher; plus a look at how Mississippi spends federal welfare money.

 

(Yours truly to the left, famed journalist Curtis Wilkie in the center, and Jere Hoar to the right)
 

I lost my good friend Jere Hoar recently, a legendary professor here at the University of Mississippi, a fine writer whose 2002 novel The Hit should be a hardboiled noir classic, and wonderful raconteur.

 

He was 91, a long life, and he was one of the last here in Oxford, Mississippi, who personally knew the novelist William Faulkner and his family. To go to Jere’s rambling farm home just off what is now called “Faulkner Highway” was a trip to that fabled past with his horses, his dogs, his hunting grounds, and his stacks of books and magazines everywhere, and his arsenal of guns! The walls of his living room were filled with original paintings of prized horses and bulls and dogs, signs of a love of the outdoors that endeared him to good friends like the noted writer Jim Harrison.

 

"I think I was happiest in the classroom teaching, in meadows and tamed woods hunting quail, and taking care (with my herding dog) of our flock of sheep," Jere once wrote in a Christmas card to my wife Suzanne and me. He taught journalism at the University of Mississippi for many years. On the card was a flock of sheep in the snow. 

 

Here in the photos you see him with me and his Nawlins-born-and-bred scientist/writer buddy Ron Borne on an Oxford street, and another with the legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie, who lives in Oxford, for a joint writers outing at a restaurant in the tiny town of Taylor near Oxford.


(To the right, yours truly, Ron Borne, and Jere Hoar on an Oxford, Mississippi, street)

 

Our good buddy and New York Times bestselling novelist Ace Atkins should be here among these photos but I couldn’t find one. The three of us were too busy in our regular gatherings at Jere’s house talking books, movies, and writing over glasses of Jack Daniels and plates of fried chicken to take photos!

 

Jere wrote an unforgettable blurb for my 2015 novel Casey’s Last Chance that might have served one of his own books well, whether The Hit or his 1997 collection of short stories Body Parts. “The sense of place … is palpable. The author knows the long dark stretches of blacktop between dim lights on Mississippi secondary roads, the dangerous sections abruptly encountered in our few cities, the little towns with photographs in filling station windows of mere boys and handwritten signs that say STOP THE KILLING.”

 

I feel sure that blurb alone sold more than a few books.

 

Jere once told me, “When you get old, you don’t regret what you did, you regret what you didn’t do.” One of Jere’s regrets came in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s when the Faulkner family asked then-young Jere to drive to Chicago (I believe that was the city) to pick up the Nobel Prize-winning author at the airport and drive him back to Mississippi. Jere’s uncertainty about navigating that long trip made him decline the request. He told me that story so many times I’m sure it was a decision he never quite forgave himself for.

 

Regrets are a part of life, and they’re mixed in with a myriad of other memories that bring us comfort, pride, happiness, a smile to our faces. Jere gave me a lot of those kinds of memories that I’ll never forget.

 

How Mississippi spends its federal welfare dollars

 

The state of Mississippi, perennially among the poorest in the station with an entrenched poverty that generations of conservative political leaders have done little or nothing to alleviate, has demanded that native son and football great Brett Favre refund some $828,000 in federal welfare funds that the state awarded him to make speeches and participate in a family-stabilizing” initiative. Favre says he already returned $500,000 of the $1.1 million that was granted him.

 

Problem was, as reported in Mississippi Today, Favre never even attended speaking engagements where he was scheduled to speak. For months, officials knew of the discrepancy but did nothing until State Auditor Shad White recently stepped up to the plate and made the demand.

 

Favre is one of 15 individuals and organizations to get letters from White’s office insisting on repayment of some $77 million in federal welfare funds doled out to them during the administration of former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a conservative Republican. Bryant was probably more than happy to award federal welfare grants to a Hall of Famer like Favre or retired WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase Jr., who owes $3.9 million. DiBiase’s dad, also a former WWE wrestler, owns $722,299.

 

Family member Brett DiBiase has already pleaded guilty to an alleged welfare scam and owes $225,950, according to Mississippi Today.

 

The Marcus Dupree Foundation, named after another football great and Mississippi native, owes $789,534.

 

Former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis authorized the $77 million handout and himself owes a whopping $96 million-plus! He faces embezzlement charges. Appointed to his post in 2016, Davis took his orders from Governor Bryant, but nobody is pointing a finger at Bryant—yet.

 

Most of these funds came through the so-called Mississippi Community Education Center, the owners of which also face huge multi-million-dollar refund payments.

 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Workers in the South and beyond striking against the intransigence of their bosses, hedge fund owners, and even their own union leaders

 

(Memorial to the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis)
 

 

Whether it’s the ongoing pandemic, rising frustrations within the rank-and-file of unions against not only corporate bosses but their own labor leaders, or both, workers are taking to the streets and going on strike across the country for better pay and working conditions.

 

Alabama miners strike as the company’s hedge fund owners reward execs

 

Mine workers have waged a six-month-long strike at two Warrior Met Coal mines in Brookwood, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa, as the mines’ hedge fund owners refused to restore the pay and health care cuts that were made several years ago in an effort to get the company back on sound financial ground.

 

A consortium of as many as 30 hedge funds took over the company in 2016 after its previous owner filed for bankruptcy. In classic hedge fund tradition, the new owners are insisting on up to 16-hour days and seven-days-a-week work schedules as the company enjoys new prosperity to the tune of $4 billion in revenues since the takeover. Company executives are lapping up as much as  $35,000 in bonuses as a result.

 

The company’s latest contract offer would only restore $1-an-hour of the $6 pay cut miners had accepted after the takeover.

 

“This company has prospered,” miner Dedrick Gardner told Steve Wishnia of Labor Notes. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

 

Dana workers on one side, union and company bosses on the other

 

Wildcat strikes are taking place at the Dana Inc. auto parts company after workers in Paris, Tennessee, Louisville and Dry Ridge, Kentucky, Columbia, Missouri, and other plants across the country soundly rejected a contract offer that was negotiated by the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers.

 

Despite low pay and 12-hour-per-day, 7-days-per-week, poor COVID-protection working conditions at Dana, union officials have thus far ignored workers’ rejection of the contract, instructing them to keep working.  The unions have okayed a number of pay-cutting concessions ever since Dana came out of bankruptcy 13 years ago.

 

Auto mechanics in Chicago defy their own strike-breaking union

 

In the spirit of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, one of the most famous of wildcat strikes in the country’s history, auto mechanics in the Chicago area are also on strike in defiance of their own union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM). They’re demanding higher pay for their low-tier members and better health care provisions.

 

The response from IAM leadership has been to encourage strikebreaking and isolation of the strikers. Union leaders want the workers to accept lower pay than what the strikers demand as necessary just to keep up with inflation.

 

In the 1968 strike in Memphis, Mayor Henry Loeb refused to even recognize the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as a valid union representing the sanitation workers. The workers struck anyway, winning their work action ultimately but strike supporter Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life in the process.

 

A strike in Bourbon country

 

Over in Bourbon country, some 400 workers at Heaven Hill in Bardsdown, Kentucky, are also on strike after rejecting a contract offer by a wide margin. “During the pandemic and all that, the company has told us, we’ll remember you all during contract time,” local union leader Jerry Newton told Mike Elk of the Payday Report. “Well, contract planning is here. They have showed us no respect.”

 

Workers say their wages are significantly lower than those at other whiskey-making companies and that they’re now being asked to work weekends as well as during the week.

 

Heaven Hill makes Evan Williams and other well-known whiskeys. Whiskey sales have risen since the onset of the pandemic even as restaurants and bars have experienced declining revenues.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

A Labor Day look at the intersection of labor and religion over the course of labor movement history

(To the left, Harper magazine's depiction of the violence that broke out on Haymarket Square in Chicago in May 1886 when police confronted workers demanding an 8-hour workday)
 

My friend and relative the Reverend Gail Tapscott, an old radical like me, invited me to speak to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi, today (Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021) about "Labor and Religion" to mark the nation's observation of "Labor Day" on Monday, September 6.   Below are my prepared remarks, which I'm leaving in all caps. That's the way I typed it to ease pressure on these old eyes! I thought I'd share my "sermon" with my readers at Labor South. By the way, I grew up in the Pentecostal Church but joined the Catholic Church in 1989.

THANK YOU, REVEREND GAIL. IT IS A PLEASURE TO BE HERE.

 

YOU KNOW WE SHOULD BE CELEBRATING LABOR DAY ON MAY 1, LIKE MOST OF THE REST OF THE WORLD, BUT WE DON’T.

 

KNOW WHY? PRESIDENT GROVER CLEVELAND AND THE POLITICAL/BUSINESS LEADERSHIP DIDN’T WANT AMERICAN WORKERS CELEBRATING IN SOLIDARITY WITH WORKERS AROUND THE WORLD. THAT’S S WHY HE SETTLED ON THE FIRST MONDAY IN SEPTEMBER. NOW BANKERS AND CEOS CAN ALSO CELEBRATE LABOR DAY. IT ALL GOT STARTED WITH THE PROTESTS FOR THE 8-HOUR WORKDAY, SOMETHING THAT LED TO THE HAYMARKET SQUARE PROTESTS IN MAY 1886, A DECISIVE DAY IN U.S. LABOR HISTORY.

 

BUT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT LABOR AND RELIGION. I HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE OLD TESTAMENT.

 

SIRACH 34:22 > “HE SHEDS BLOOD WHO DENIES THE LABORER HIS WAGES

 

MALACHI 3:5 > “I WILL BE SWIFT TO BEAR WITNESS AGAINST THOSE WHO DEFRAUD THE HIRED MAN OF HIS WAGES.”

 

AND THE NEW TESTAMENT:

 

JAMES 5:1 > “THE WAGES YOU WITHHELD FROM THE WORKERS WHO HARVESTED YOUR FIELDS, (WHO ARE) CRYING ALOUD, AND THEIR CRIES ARE BEING HEARD BY THE LORD.”

 

I’LL LOOK MOST CLOSELY AT OUR JUDEO-CHRISTIAN HERITAGE TODAY, BUT I COULD ALSO LOOK TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD AT ZEN BUDDHISM, THE BUDDHIST MONKS WHO PROTESTED INJUSTICE IN VIETNAM IN THE 1960S AND IN MYANMAR IN THE 1990S AND LATER. THE BUDDHIST SCHOLAR D.T. SUZUKI NOTED THE POVERTY OF THE BUDDHIST MONK WITH HIS “ONE DRESS AND ONE BOWL, UNDER A TREE AND ON A STONE,” AND THEN IN THE WORLD “THE DESIRE TO POSSESS, ONE OF THE WORST PASSIONS, WHAT CAUSES SO MUCH MISERY IN THE WORLD. … AS POWER IS DESIRED,” HE WROTE, “THE STRONG ALWAYS TYRANNIZE OVER THE WEAK; AS WEALTH IS COVETED, THE RICH AND THE POOR ARE ALWAYS CROSSING SWORDS OF BITTER EMNITY.”

 

(To the right, Pope Leo XIII)

 

WE SEE THE RISE OF THE MODERN LABOR MOVEMENT PARALLEL THE GROWTH OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AROUND THE WORLD AND IN THIS COUNTRY IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE CIVIL WAR WITH THE ELIMINATION OF SLAVE LABOR IN THE SOUTH. THE RISE OF FACTORIES AND ACCOMPANYING EXPLOITATION OF WORKERS LED TO KARL MARX AND FRIEDRICH ENGELS AND REVOLUTIONS ACROSS EUROPE IN THE MID-1800S. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FELT COMPELLED TO RESPOND TO THESE CHALLENGES. THUS POPE LEO XIII AND HIS ENCYCLICAL LETTER “RERUM NOVARUM” (“THE CONDITION OF LABOR”) IN 1891. HERE HE DEFENDS THE RIGHT TO PRIVATE PROPERTY. HE’S NO MARXIST THIS POPE. HOWEVER, HE ALSO DEFENDS THE RIGHTS OF THE WORKER TO A FAIR WAGE AND TO BE ABLE TO JOIN UNIONS WITHOUT FEAR.

 

(Karl Marx)
 

THE LETTER BECAME ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS IN CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING, ONE THAT ASPIRED TO REFLECT THE TRUE TEACHINGS ON SOCIAL JUSTICE OF JESUS CHRIST. IN THE WAKE OF THIS LETTER, YOU’LL SEE WORKER PRIESTS IN FRANCE, LABOR PRIESTS IN THE UNITED STATES, AND DECADES LATER, CATHOLIC PRIESTS WORKING WITH THE LEADERS OF THE SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT IN POLAND. THE NUNS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THE POOR AND MARGINALIZED IN EL SALVADOR. EVEN THOUGH THE CHURCH LEADERSHIP TO ITS SHAME OFTEN SIDED WITH THE POWERFUL, THE CAPITALISTS, THE ESTABLISHMENT, SOMETHING THAT HAS GONE ON SINCE ROMAN EMPORER CONSTANTINE IN THE 4TH CENTURY LEGALIZED INSTEAD OF CONDEMNED CHRISTIANITY.

 


(A garment industry sweatshop in 1890)

 

IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE 19TH CENTURY AND FIRST DECADES OF THE 20TH, JEWISH IMMIGRANTS ESCAPING THE POGROMS IN RUSSIA AND EASTERN EUROPE POURED ONTO ELLIS ISLAND IN NYC AND POPULATED THE GHETTOS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, BRINGING SOCIALIST IDEAS WITH THEM AS THEY WENT TO WORK IN THE SWEAT SHOPS OF THE GARMENT INDUSTRY.

 

THE RABBIS OFTEN SIDED WITH THE FACTORY OWNERS, BUT NOT ALWAYS. THERE WERE RABBLE ROUSERS LIKE NATHAN DAVIDOWSKY IN YIDDISH WRITER SHOLEM ASCH’S NOVEL EAST RIVER WHO TOLD THE CROWDS THINGS LIKE THIS: “WHEREVER GOD’S WORD HAS COME TO US—THROUGH MOSES OR THE PROPHETS, OR THROUGH JESUS AND THE APOSTLES—GOD HAS CHAMPIONED THE OPPRESSED AGAINST THE OPPRESSORS. GOD IS ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE WORKERS AND AGAINST THOSE WHO EXPLOIT THEM.”

 

IN MY OWN RESEARCH I’VE FOCUSED ON MY NATIVE SOUTH, AND YOU SEE AND LABOR AND RELIGION COME TOGETHER IN THE COTTON MILLS OF THE CAROLINAS AND IN THE COTTON FIELDS OF THE ARKANSAS DELTA IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY. POOR FARMERS ESCAPING THEIR DEAD FARMS FOUND THEMSELVES DOING THE SO-CALLED STRETCH-OUT” IN THE NEW FACTORIES, WHERE THE BOSSES DEMANDED INHUMAN LEVELS OF PRODUCTION ON THEIR NEW MACHINES.

 

LABOR LEADERS SENT PEOPLE LIKE LUCY RANDOLPH MASON, DAUGHTER OF AN EPISCOPALIAN MINISTER, ARISTOCRATIC RELATIVE OF ROBERT E. LEE, ACROSS THE SOUTH TO ORGANIZE THOSE WORKERS. DEEPLY RELIGIOUS WITH A FAITH THAT SOCIAL JUSTICE LAY AT THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY, MASON FOUND HER STRONGEST OPPOSITION OFTEN IN THE LOCAL CLERGY WITH THEIR CALVINIST BELIEF IN AN ORDER THAT MADE SOME PEOPLE MASTERS AND OTHERS SERVANTS.

 

HERE IS THE STORY OF MASON'S ENCOUNTER WITH "PREACHER JONES" FROM HER AUTOBIOGRAPHY TO WIN THESE RIGHTS


"THE PREACHER DROPPED HIS BULL-LIKE HEAD AND HUNCHING FORWARD SAID TO ME: `YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN NO KIND OF RELIGION--YOU BELIEVE IN A SOCIAL RELIGION AND THAT AIN'T CHRISTIANITY.'


"I, TOO, LEANED FORWARD AND ASKED EARNESTLY, BUT POLITELY: `THEN YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS? ... YOU CAN'T BELIEVE IN WHAT JESUS TAUGHT IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A SOCIAL RELIGION. HIS WHOLE LIFE, HIS TEACHINGS, AND HIS DEATH WERE ALL PART OF A GREAT SOCIAL RELIGION. JESUS SAID THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF WAS SECOND ONLY TO THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE GOD WITH ALL ONE'S HEART, MIND, AND SOUL.'"

 

WORKING WITH THE COAL MINERS IN WHAT SHE CALLED “MEDIEVAL WEST VIRGINIA” WAS ANOTHER POWERFUL AND FIERY WOMAN OF LABOR, MARY HARRIS JONES, BETTER KNOWN AS MOTHER JONES. MOTHER JONES WOULDN’T HAVE HAD MUCH PATIENCE WITH PREACHER JONES. FAMOUS FOR HER MOTTO “PRAY FOR THE DEAD AND FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR THE LIVING,” MOTHER JONES ALSO SAID THIS: “I WOULD FIGHT GOD ALMIGHTY HIMSELF IF HE DIDN’T PLAY SQUARE WITH ME.”

 

(Highlander historical marker)

 

IN THE 1930S YOU SAW THE RISE OF LABOR AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZATIONS LIKE HIGHLANDER IN EAST TENNESSEE, A LABOR SCHOOL AND TRAINING CAMP ORGANIZED BY SEMINARIAN MYLES HORTON AND THEOLOGY STUDENT DON WEST. ROSA PARKS WOULD BE AMONG ITS FUTURE STUDENTS.

 

IN TYRONZA, ARKANSAS, YOU SAW THE RISE OF THE SOUTHERN TENANT FARMERS UNION, FOUNDED BY SHARECROPPER-TURNED SOCIALIST H.L. MITCHELL AND GAS STATION OPERATOR CLAY EAST. THE SCHOLAR ELIZABETH ANNE PAYNE, WHOM SOME OF YOU KNOW AND WHO MAY BE OUT THERE LISTENING, WROTE ELOQUENTLY ABOUT THE “QUASI-RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT” THAT THE STFU WAS EVEN AS THE COMMIES TRIED TO MOVE IN AND TAKE OVER, HOW THEIR MEETINGS WERE LIKE RELIGIOUS REVIVALS WITH FIERY SERMONS AND HEARTFELT HYMNS SUNG.

 

(A call to strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s)

 

LABOR WRITER STANLEY ARONOWITZ, A GREAT SOUL WHO RECENTLY PASSED AWAY, HAS COMPARED THE EARLY PENTECOSTALISM OF RURAL SOUTHERNERS WITH THE CATHOLICISM OF SICILIAN AND POLISH IMMIGRANTS, HOW PENTACOSTALISTS, THOSE USUALLY POOR AND POWERLESS HOLY ROLLERS, LOOKED TO AN OLD TESTAMENT GOD WHO HAD NO PATIENCE WITH RUTHLESS TYRANTS WHO SUBJUGATED GOD’S PEOPLE.

 

OF COURSE, SOME OF TODAY’S PENTACOSTALIST PREACHERS, ESPECIALLY THOSE ON TELEVISION, AREN’T SO POOR ANY MORE, AND THEY TEND TO SIDE WITH THE TYRANTS. MANY OF THE GRANDCHILDREN OF CATHOLIC IMMIGRANTS, TOO, HAVE FORGOTTEN THEIR ROOTS.

 

 

(Pentecostal preacher)

 

 

FATHER CHARLES OWN RICE OF PITTSBURGH, PA., ONE OF THE GREATEST OF THE LABOR PRIESTS, CALLED THE PHENOMENON OF CATHOLIC REPUBLICANS “ANOTHER CROSS TO BEAR IN MY OLD AGE.”

 

THE WRITER AND FOUNDER OF THE CATHOLIC WORKER DOROTHY DAY IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS AND TO ME A KIND OF HERO. SHE DEDICATED HER LIFE TO HER FAITH AND HER WORK WITH THE POOR AND THE WORKING CLASS. SHE WORKED WITH UNIONS BUT SHE ALSO SAID THEY COULD BE BAD AS WELL. SHE COULD BE A SHARP CRITIC OF UNIONS THAT BECOME SELF-ABSORBED AND SELFISH AND DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD AS THEY BECOME MORE SELF-INTERESTED THAN DEVOTED TO THE WORKING MAN AND WOMAN. YET HER SOLIDARITY WITH THE WORKER NEVER WAVERED.

 

(Dorothy Day)

 

OF COURSE, THERE IS ATHEISTIC COMMUNISM, SHE SAID, BUT, AND THERE’S ALSO ATHEISTIC CAPITALISM THAT TURNS GREED, POSSESSION AND ACCUMULATION INTO GODS. AND HER WORDS: “WHAT IS WORST OF ALL IS USING GOD AND RELIGION TO BOLSTER UP ONE’S OWN GREED, OUR OWN ATTACHMENT TO PROPERTY, AND PUTTING GOD AND COUNTRY ON AN EQUALITY.”

 

THIS NATION’S LABOR MOVEMENT ONCE WAS THE PREMIER SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT IN THE COUNTRY. AS IT FADED AND BECAME MORE INWARD LOOKING, THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT TOOK HOLD.

 

IN MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. WE SEE THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT JOIN WITH THE IDEALS OF THE OLD LABOR MOVEMENT WHEN HE CAME TO MEMPHIS TO STAND WITH THE STRIKING SANITATION WORKERS. IT COST HIM HIS LIFE.


(To the right, Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

THERE ARE THOSE CARRYING ON THAT LEGACY TODAY. THE SOUTHERN FAITH, LABOR AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION IS AN EXAMPLE. THE FARM LABOR ORGANIZING COMMITTEE’S FIGHT FOR IMMIGRANT WORKERS IS FUELED BY THE RELIGIOUS FAITH OF ITS FOUNDER, BALDEMAR VELASQUEZ, AN ORDAINED MINISTER AND EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN. WHO ONCE LOOKED AT RELIGION AS A “ANGLO TRICK”. HERE IN MISSISSIPPI, FATHER JEREMY TOBIN WAS A CHAMPION OF THE UAW ORGANIZING EFFORT AT THE NISSAN PLANT IN CANTON.

 

SO RELIGION AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS GO HAND IN HAND, AND THEY HAVE FOR A LONG TIME AND STILL DO. KARL MARX MAY NOT LIKE IT, AND DONALD TRUMP AND MITCH MCCONNELL MAY NOT EITHER, BUT THEY’LL JUST HAVE TO DEAL WITH IT.

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Rolling Stones fan says goodbye to Charlie Watts, remembers six decades of fandom and encounters, including winning an argument circa 1965 that they would outlast the Dave Clark Five!

Presenting in the accompanying photo yours truly’s Rolling Stones creds.

 

I loved this group before I even heard them. As a young teenager I saw a magazine article headlined “Would You Let Your Daughter Date A Rolling Stone?”, and that got me Rolling, then I heard “Not Fade Away” on the radio and there was no turning back.

 

Charlie Watts’ recent death at 80 is like a personal loss. A great drummer who didn’t like drum solos or the spotlight, jazz man as well as rock ‘n’ roll legend. I had just bought two of his jazz CDs—“Long Ago & Far Away” and “Warm & Tender”—when I heard about his passing. Love you, Charlie.

 

I’ve seen them three times, including in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1965–see my $3 ticket stub near bottom right of the photo. Brian Jones was still with them then. “Get Off My Cloud” was their latest hit at the time.

 

Met Bill Wyman when he came to my town of Oxford, Mississippi, in 2001 to push his blues book, Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, and tightened my lip a tiny bit when the notorious lecher looked at some length at my beautiful daughter Rachel and said, “I’ve always heard the Ole Miss girls are very pretty.”

 

I once made eye contact with Mick Jagger when he passed by me at the much-respected Lindberg Music Store in Munich, Germany, in circa 1974, where I was working and he was shopping. I didn’t know what to say so I just let him pass by. I had been working upstairs in the store’s warehouse/storage section when my German-born sister Evi, a saleswoman downstairs, came up and said, “Joe, have you ever heard of Mike Jagger?” I said, “Do you mean Mick Jagger?” She nodded. I rushed down, and there he was!

 

Lindberg was a store famous in Munich for its famous customers. During my four-year stint there—I doubled as a student at the University of Munich—I saw jazzmen Oscar Peterson and Count Basie, French chanson singer Georges Moustaki (almost ran him down as I was dumping trash and didn’t see him on the other side of the big trashbox!), King Hussein of Jordan, orchestra conductor Herbert von Karajan, and many others walk through Lindberg’s doors.

 

None made the impression that Mick Jagger did, however!

 

I loved the Beatles, but the Stones were all about grit and rebellion, working class guys who played the blues with a vengeance. Mick’s maracas, and Brian’s harmonica, Bill’s electric base held upright like a shield, Keith like a whirling dervish knees bent and pointing his guitar like the Rifleman’s sawed-off shotgun, and then Charlie, cool, calm, and collected behind it all, laying down the beat that held it all together.

 

They rocked & rolled hopping country blues like “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “Little By Little”, and “It’s All Over Now”, Chuck Berry tunes like “Around And Around” and “You Can’t Catch Me”, preached rock ‘n’ roll gospel with Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Loves Somebody”, and rumbled ‘n’ rolled with Bo Diddley’s “Mona”. They made those minor chords cry in songs like “Empty Heart”.

 

Years later they sang revolution in “Street Fighting Man” and made “Paint It Black” the unofficial score to the Vietnam War. Then showed the Bee Gees and the rest of  that crowd how to really disco with “Miss You”.

 

The music in their more recent CDs like “Rainfalldown” and “Blue and Lonesome” are excellent , but no one buys CDs any more.

 

Just this past year, my filmmaker buddy Tom Thurman came for a visit from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. As I was taking him back to the airport in Memphis, he asked me to take him to see a good friend of his in Memphis for a short visit. Lo and behold, that friend was the great music writer Stanley Booth, who wrote what many consider to be the definitive book about the Rolling Stones, True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, back in 1984. The long-haired scribe lives in a modest home with the walls lined with music, books, posters, paintings, the artifacts of a life devoted to art. He signed my copy of his book. 

 

As a young teenager in Sanford, North Carolina, in the early-to-mid 1960s, I defended the Rolling Stones against all attacks. A good buddy of mine once insisted the Dave Clark Five would be around long after the Stones were gone and forgotten. I’d like to pick up on that conversation today!


Sunday, August 22, 2021

A U.S. Army veteran of both the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars is feeling a strong sense of deja vu these days

 

(Civilians and Taliban fighters at the Kabul airport)
 

 My old Army buddy Bob Mayton of Albemarle, North Carolina, is getting a strong sense of déjà vu these days. Every time he turns on the television and sees the thousands of desperate Afghans at the Kabul airport struggling to get out of their country, he remembers what happened in Saigon 46 years ago.

 

Just as Afghans risk their lives clinging to U.S. airplanes as they lift off, Vietnamese who’d worked with the U.S. military did the same as U.S. helicopters flew out of Saigon for the last time in April 1975. 

 

“We have learned from history that we don’t learn from history,” Bob told me during a recent phone call. “Americans particularly.”


(To the right, junking a South Vietnamese helicopter in the scramble to leave Vietnam in April 1975) 

 

Bob, a teacher and historian, has the unique perspective of someone who served as a soldier both in Vietnam and 

 

Afghanistan, two long and losing wars that bookended a career that began in March 1971 and ended in December 2010. His service included both active duty and also years in the National Guard and Army Reserves and as both noncommissioned officer and officer.

 

He was in Afghanistan from June 2009 to May 2010, training Afghan infantry soldiers in logistics nd infantry tactics for the National Military Academy Afghanistan. He served in Vietnam from August 1971 to March 1973. He and I were in the same Army outfit in Plantation, Vietnam, in 1971 and part of 1972.

 

(Bob Mayton, this writer, and our Army buddy Preston Parker in Saigon circa 1971)

 

“When I left (Afghanistan) in 2010 I thought we were going down the tubes. I am amazed it lasted as long as it did. I saw the Afghan military wasn’t very motivated. It really wasn’t the military’s fault. … They knew about the corruption. They knew what was going on. They were involved in it, too.”

 

Over the 20 years of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent billions of taxpayer dollars on equipment, training, and the waging of a futile war, The equipment will now benefit the Taliban as it takes over the reins of government. War profiteers in the United States grew fat and happy as they do in all wars, and that’s why the “Deep State” they occupy is now so angry at President Joe Biden for finally bringing an end to those once-swollen rivers of cash flow.

 

“That is the ugly, ugly truth about the whole thing,” Bob said. “The military-industrial complex ran amuck. … The U.S. gave Afghans $50 million for spare parts, and we tried to teach them to requisition equipment. They get the $50 million to order spare parts and they wouldn’t do it. That money went somewhere. Into the pockets of officials. Some of that went on in Vietnam.”

 

As in Afghanistan, the years of U.S. investment in training South Vietnamese soldiers went to naught once the U.S. pulled out and the Communist North Vietnamese swept into Saigon.     

 

However, Afghanistan is a much different country. In fact, it’s hardly a country at all.

 

“There are nine major tribes or ethnic groups in Afghanistan. It is not really a nation. It is a collection of tribes. Each tribe wants to do it their way. I don’t think the people as a whole are interested in a united Afghanistan.

 

“I was teaching infantry tactics, advanced individual training. The people came and went as they pleased. Guys would come in and find out they were going to Kandahar and go home, sell their uniforms and equipment. They’d wait a month or so and come back and go through it again. They didn’t want to go to Kandahar. That was where the Taliban was, and troops were getting with the program.

 

“The Afghan people I met on the surface were nice people, and they appreciated what we were doing, but their heart wasn’t in it (the war).”

 

Bob feels the U.S. withdrawal could have been handled better, but “I think there is probably some truth in what Biden said about not tipping off the Taliban with an earlier withdrawal. I like Biden, but I think it could have been better planned.”

 

Bob worries about the Afghans left behind and particularly Afghan women, who now face the religious zealotry of the Taliban. “I worry that the schools for women are going to be gone.”


 (This writer and Bob Mayton in North Carolina in 2014)

 

 What’s also worrisome is the fact that this could all happen again.

 

“I’d like to say no but hell no, but I think it will happen again.”

 

And when it does, perhaps some young soldier who served alongside Bob in Afghanistan will serve in that future war as well, and he, too, will be experiencing the same sense of déjà vu that Bob is feeling today.