Thursday, April 12, 2012

Immigration, targeted state workers, workers' comp, and student loan debt on tap at Labor South. Meanwhile, a swan song at one newspaper

Greetings, Labor South readers, and sorry for the pause since last posting. Lots going on, of course, on the Labor South front.

In the works is another look at the immigration situation across the South with Tea Party-inspired legislation confronting business-unfriendly realities such as worker-empty fields and construction sites. This is a clash long predicted in this blog and now playing out within the Republican Party. A fascinating part of this story is the fact that the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance continues to work miracles with the help of the Black Legislative Caucus to forestall or kill Alabama-style anti-immigrant legislation in the state.

However, on other fronts here in Mississippi--traditionally the South Exaggerated--the new Republican leadership continues its assault on workers' compensation and now, Wisconsin-style, state workers. Another issue Labor South is pursuing is the ongoing college student loan debt crisis that threatens to worsen as states cut higher education budgets and universities hike tuition rates.

Meanwhile, this writer has made a big change in deciding to discontinue his nearly 30-year-old column in Mississippi's largest newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, an act prompted by the latest round of early retirement buyouts at the Gannett-owned newspaper that claimed two of its most senior editors, both personal friends: David Hampton and Jim Ewing. I'll continue writing and publishing, of course, here at Labor South and in different venues. More on that later.

On that note, however, I thought I'd share with you my farewell column for the Clarion-Ledger, which is scheduled to run this Sunday (April 15). In this blog, I've never provided a great deal of detail on my 36 years as a working journalist. Maybe some of you might find interesting the column's history and some of the reaction it has received over the years.

Remember: I'll be posting again soon on this blog and writing plenty of columns and articles elsewhere, but here below is my swan song at the Clarion-Ledger:


An old IWW Wobbly tune often comes to mind when I get a nasty letter from an irate reader taking exception to something I wrote in a column.

“You ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a Red” goes the song, and certainly I’ve been called a “Red” and worse many times. Maybe the worst ever was this: “Do you ever consider the possibility that you are a f _____ moron? Not just disingenuous and hypocritical but cognitively impaired?”

After considering that possibility, I decided the letter writer might himself be “cognitively impaired” so maybe some empathy was in order.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately about the column because this is the last regular one that I’ll write in these pages, ending a nearly three-decade run since my first one way back in the early 1980s on the Shoccoe dam project. The pending departure of old friends and colleagues like David Hampton and Jim Ewing from the Clarion-Ledger signaled to me that perhaps I, too, should pack my pen and paper and move on. I’ll keep writing. It just won’t be here.

This will be welcome news to letter writers like the fellow quoted above. Lordy, some of them have been nasty. One writer described a column I wrote back in 1994 as “the most ridiculous, irresponsible and leftist I have ever read since I arrived in Mississippi.” Fast forward to 2010 and this is what another reader said: “What a crock of s#&%#. Just as I thought a ray of sanity had made it through the left-wing pinko fog of your Goofy, child-like dream world, you come back with this garbage.”

Then the writer added this: “Are you trying for the Bill Minor Most Disliked Person in the State Award … ?” (Note: I’ve patched up some of the punctuation.)

That’s where the writer messed up. Comparing me to Bill Minor was the best compliment he could have ever paid me. Minor is a hero of mine and, in my book, the greatest Mississippi journalist ever.

Of course, not all the letter writers wish me God’s speed to Hades. One just recently had this to say: “You are truly a friend to the decent working folks of Mississippi.” That meant a lot. So did the card my good friends Sandy and Alice Margolis once sent me to mark the Jewish New Year. On it they wrote, “We believe you have a Jewish heart because you believe in justice and truth and honor.”

What a blast being a journalist and a columnist is. For me, it has meant having a platform to pursue worthy stories that are ignored or overlooked by much of the mainstream press. Here in Mississippi those stories include the ongoing saga of workers’ compensation and the assaults against it, the plight of workers at catfish plants in the Delta, the struggle of working people anywhere to have a voice and sayso in their lives.

As a veteran political reporter, I realized years ago the old red-button issue of civil rights rarely raised a fuss among readers any more. The minute I started talking about labor unions, however, it was, Katy, bar the door! Like the late, great state AFL-CIO president Claude Ramsay once told civil rights leader Aaron Henry, “These people are going to make peace with you before they make peace with me. All you want is a seat at the table, but I want some of their money.”

A column doesn’t always have to be about politics or, even for me, labor unions. Mine has been a ticket into the lives of an unbelievably interesting assortment of people. There was traveling Pentecostal evangelist John Meador and Catholic mystic and healer Father Clarence Waguespack of Vacherie, La. I’ll never forget farmer-philosopher Aron Self, who preferred to plow with horses and mules rather than tractors. Nor will I Mamie Stitt and the other semi-pro baseball fans rooting for their hometown Verona (Miss.) Black Sox.

Bartender Clyde Goolsby, bluesman Terry "Harmonica" Bean, and shadowy civil rights-era figure Buford Posey were among the many who opened their doors to me. Places also were great subjects, whether it was Lusco’s restaurant in Greenwood (Miss.), Red Square in Moscow, a beer garden in Munich, or Durty Nelly’s, a 350-year-old tavern in County Clare, Ireland.

Maybe the column that stands out the most is the one I wrote about my first wife Marilyn and her death from cancer in 1994. I described how we met in North Carolina and how she so fascinated me with her tales of Mississippi that we eventually moved here. That column brought me dozens and dozens of letters from across the state.

And you know what? Every single one of them was full of support and well wishes. I’ll never forget it. I saved every letter.

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