Thursday, September 27, 2012

James Meredith, still a loner, still on a mission, 50 years later

(James Meredith on the Ole Miss campus in 1962)

OXFORD, Miss. – James Meredith’s new book, A Mission from God, co-authored with William Doyle, sometimes reads like the opening confession in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

“I befuddle people,” Meredith admits. “People have an awfully hard time trying to figure me out.”

Here’s more:

“I’m not a team player. I am my own team.”

“A lot of folks think I’m a real odd bird.”

Like the unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky’s classic 19th century novel, Meredith confesses he’s a self-absorbed loner.

“I am immortal. … I am a moment in history … My ego is so enormous. … Someone once wisecracked that my name should be changed to `I, James Meredith.’”

(To the right is Meredith during a recent book signing at Off Square Books in Oxford, Miss.)

Meredith has baffled admirers and detractors much of his life, certainly since that day 50 years ago when he, the lone black man in a sea of white, entered the campus of the University of Mississippi and enrolled as its first black student. A riot by angry whites left two dead, dozens shot, and more than a hundred more injured. President John F. Kennedy sent 20,000 troops to Oxford in what some have called "the last battle of the Civil War." Oct. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith's admission to Ole Miss.

In his own words, the Attala County native is “a civil rights hero who absolutely hates to talk about civil rights,” a black man who rejects the term “African-American,” a man who once joined the staff of the original modern-day GOP obstructionist, the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina (also known as “Senator No”).

Meredith endorsed Mississippi segregationist Ross Barnett’s gubernatorial bid in 1967 and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s bid for Louisiana governor in 1991.

Meredith’s career after his dramatic showdown at Ole Miss has been a series of fits and starts: abortive runs for Congress and other offices, including president of the United States; a mixed record of business ventures; a law degree from Columbia University although he never took the bar exam and never practiced law.

When I first met James Meredith in Jackson back in the early 1980s, he had just founded what he called the Reunification Church, which he believed would help him fulfill his “divine responsibility assigned by God,” revealed in a “series of dreams,” and “use my life for the betterment of my people and mankind.”

The church turned out to be a dream that never quite worked out.

Today, nearing 80, he admits he has one great regret: “I have not done nearly enough to help America’s poor, and especially its poorest black citizens.” As for communicating his ideas of “triumphant American citizenship, black advancement, and black self-transformation” effectively to others, “I have failed completely” so far.

He always set his sights high, and he always had a strong sense of self. When the mob at Ole Miss crowded close to him in 1962, shouting epithets and threats, he said his view of himself was this: “I am a Zen samurai. I am invincible. Nothing can harm me.”

After all, he had come back to Mississippi after years in the U.S. Air Force to declare war on racism at “the holiest temple of white supremacy in America,” Ole Miss. A man who eschewed Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, Meredith “believed in overwhelming physical force and the threat of organized violence, legally applied by the federal government” as the only means to defeat the Jim Crow South.

When he began his lonely 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson in 1966, “I could feel the spiritual presence of my late father walking beside me, and along with him were no less than Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers of America. There was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass, along with my African and Indian royal ancestors … .”

He would be shot on the second day of that journey.

Today, when I walk the tree-lined pathways of the beautiful campus of Ole Miss, I see what James Meredith helped accomplish here. I see students of all races burrowing in their books, hurrying to their classrooms, laughing outside the Student Union. What Meredith did not only changed a university but also a state and a nation.

He admits he has always been “a loner among blacks as well as whites.” He would never be the leader on the steps of a great memorial preaching to the multitudes, never the congressman negotiating compromises over thick stacks of legislation, certainly never the civil rights leader-turned-media celebrity.

He would and will always be that lonely figure, a mystic and a mystery, who stepped onto the stage at a critical moment, braving more than his share of what Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows,” showing unimaginable courage and fortitude, enough to override those baffling moments since then. That includes even now as he rejects the statue of him on the campus he integrated as a “false idol” that “must be destroyed and ground to dust.”

Meredith is still on a mission today, and again it has to do with public education. He wants to "challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community." And, in doing that, he says, "I'm still marching against fear" and for courage and commitment.
One key to the James Meredith mystery that’s never been much discussed is provided in his book: his love for Mississippi. He left it many times, but he kept coming back. “Mississippi is mine. And one must love what is his. I love Mississippi like a bee loves honey.”

That’s a profound statement from someone whose love hasn’t always been requited. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Victor Bussie: Remembering a Southern labor legend

(To the right is Victor Bussie at his Baton Rouge home in 2006)

Victor Bussie, longtime Louisiana labor leader and a legendary figure in the Southern labor movement, died at 92 a year ago this month in Baton Rouge, La. I interviewed Bussie at his home in Baton Rouge back in February 2006. Here's a column I wrote from that interview. I thought now might be a nice time to remember a special friend of working folks.

BATON ROUGE, La. – Labor patriarch Victor Bussie, confidante of presidents, senators and governors, saddens at a half-century-old memory of a politician and friend who gained national notoriety for exploits that included an affair with a French Quarter stripper but who was simply “Uncle Earl” to the working people of Louisiana.

Bussie was with Earl Long in the late 1950s when the three-time governor’s mental breakdown forced his family and friends to send him to a mental institution in Galveston, Texas.   “He had been crying all the time for grape juice. He loved grape juice. We’d bring him some, and he’d pour it all over himself. He looked horrible. … It made me realize if it could affect a person in the position of governor … it could affect anybody.”

(To the left, Earl Long giving one of his famous barn-burners)

It was one of a hundred tales the 87-year-old Bussie told during a recent visit related to a book-in-progress on the Southern labor movement. As president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO from 1956 to 1997, the trained firefighter withstood many a firestorm during a tumultuous time in history. A key player on the political as well as the labor scene, he recalled President Kennedy once summoning him to the White House to get him to convince U.S. Sen. Russell Long, D-La., to support the bill to establish Medicare. Bussie’s lobbying transformed Long from a powerful opponent to a leading champion.

“I said, `Senator, I’ve come to tell you the AFL-CIO is not going to support you any longer. You’re blocking a program that’s more important to us than any other thing else you could have voted for or against. … Russell Long helped pass the bill.”

Bussie offers the perspective of long years in the trenches when he looks at the working lives of Southerners today and yesterday. Like Claude Ramsay in Mississippi, he saw his state AFL-CIO suffer major defections—40 percent of the membership in Louisiana—because of his strong stand in support of civil rights during the 1960s. His home was once bombed by Klansmen.

He worked with Earl Long and others in keeping a full-fledged, anti-union “right to work” law--which critics call a “right to work for less” law because of its long-term effects of keeping wages and benefits down— off the books in Louisiana during the civil rights era. This was a rarity in the South. The state finally passed such a law in 1976.

Still, the movement that Bussie and others fought so hard to preserve is today at its lowest ebb since the 1920s.  Union membership has dropped from a post-World War II high of roughly one-third of the workforce to approximately 13 percent. Last summer the defection of the Teamsters and other major unions from the national AFL-CIO split the movement. Meanwhile, the transformation of the U.S. economy from a manufacturing to a service base continues unabated, leaving many good-paying union jobs in the dust.

Also continuing unabated is the anti-union assault by business groups such as the so-called “Center for Union Facts—an organization led by former tobacco industry lobbyist Richard Berman that has begun running full-page ads in the New York Times and other leading newspapers vilifying unions.
Still, the statistics and campaigns don’t deter the optimism Bussie feels about the movement. The high-priced campaigns can’t kill an idea—the idea of working people joining together to have a united voice on issues that affect their working lives.

“People are gradually beginning to realize there is no strength without an organization,” Bussie said. “They are beginning to realize what can be done to them if their enemies are given full control.”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chicago's Rahm Emanuel & Arne Duncan: Preaching Koch Brothers gospel on public education

Barack Obama, then still a U.S. senator from Illinois, said this back in 2006 about teachers, unions and education:

“If we’re serious about building a twenty-first century school system, we’re going to have to take the teaching profession seriously. … It also means paying teachers what they’re worth.”

These words, from his book The Audacity of Hope, would seem to put now-President Obama decidedly on the side of the 29,000 striking public school teachers in Chicago. So would these:

“Teachers unions have resisted the idea of pay for performance, in part because it could be disbursed at the whim of a principal. The unions also argue—rightly, I think—that most school districts rely solely on test scores to measure teacher performance, and that test scores may be highly dependent on factors beyond any teacher’s control, like the number of low-income or special-needs students in their classroom.”

Furthermore, “working with teachers’ unions, states and school districts can develop better measures of performance, ones that combine test data with a system of peer review.”

I remember Obama’s speech at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago and his resounding endorsement of organized labor and praise for its contributions to American life and well-being. So why are some of his closest political allies—Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—acting like Republicans, pushing privatized education in the form of publicly funded-but privately run charter schools, a new and intense focus on standardized test scores to assess teachers, and a general anti-union attitude when it comes to public school teachers?

At times Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff at the White House and a featured speaker at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and school leaders in his administration have come perilously close to sounding like one of those Mississippi legislators back in 1985 who dealt with an 11-week statewide strike by public school teachers by granting them a $4,400 pay raise over three years but at the cost of no-strike provision in state law that prevented them from ever striking again.

Chicago is not Mississippi, however, even if a whole lot of people live there who have Mississippi roots. Despite what Emanuel and his ilk may prefer, Chicago is still union country with 25 percent of its workforce—some 500,000 workers—proudly carrying their union cards. Polls have shown the public in Chicago sides with the teachers, not Rahm Emanuel in this dispute.

The week-long strike in Chicago may be nearing its end as leaders from both sides prepare for a key bargaining session on Sunday.

What will continue beyond that bargaining table, however, is the debate over the future of public education in this country.

Across the South and indeed the nation, politicians have pointed an accusing finger at teachers in decrying poor performances by students in public schools. The billionaire Koch Brothers, virulently anti-union, have poured many millions into efforts to push charter schools to replace public schools, to impose a test-based teacher assessment, and bust teacher unions.

Koch Brothers money generally goes to Republican politicians, but you have to wonder if they and their ideological brothers also don’t have the ear of major Democrats like Emanuel.

Like the privatization of prisons,  public school privatization offers yet another opportunity for  big corporations to get their hands into public coffers and earn a hefty profit. To borrow a point from the late George Wallace of Alabama, is there indeed “a dime’s worth of difference” between Republicans and Democrats on some of the most important issues facing Americans?

In Chicago, Emanuel, like former Mayor Richard Daley and former city schools chief (and now the nation’s schools chief) Duncan have pushed hard for standardized tests in the classrooms, charter schools, and closures for under-performing schools.

Public education in Chicago is a study in poverty. Nearly 90 percent of the students are from low-income families, and 42 percent of them are African American. Some 160 schools in the city have no libraries.

Yes, teachers have asked for pay raises—raises to match their increased workloads and workweeks—but also on the table is a call to the city leadership to invest in public education. Put social workers into the schools, try to save rather than eliminate struggling schools, at least fix the broken air-conditioning units.

The heart of the problem is poverty, and politicians of both parties often have a real hard time dealing with that problem. It’s much easier to schmooze with the big bucks types on Chicago’s Gold Coast and talk about running schools like a business and how that’s going to solve everything.

Meanwhile, students sweat it out, and their teachers sweat it out with them.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Worker issues at the political conventions, and a poultry giant boasts earnings while its workers protest conditions

Conventions wrap up, and working folks look ahead to November

The Democratic and Republican conventions are now behind us, and it’s on to the last leg of the presidential election.

Union-bashing was a prevalent theme at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enjoyed superstar status for their attacks on public sector unions.

Meanwhile, United Auto Workers members wore their membership literally on their sleeves and applauded UAW President Bob King during a prime-time speech on the convention floor.  Too bad, the pundits on the supposedly pro-labor MSNBC television network chatted on air during most of King’s speech.

Outside the conventional hall, the Southern Workers Assembly brought attention to the plight of workers in the South, including those in “right-to-work” North Carolina where the convention took place.

I enjoyed the speeches at the convention from President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and even former President Bill Clinton (I’m not a big fan of his. I’m still remembering his gutting of the Glass-Steagal Act, setting loose the financial speculators who nearly wrecked our economy).

Still, where were the responses to the anti-union attacks from the Republicans? I didn't hear many. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick tipped his hat to the teacher unions, and there was a lot of talk all around about auto workers and the auto industry that Obama helped save.

I would have liked more clear and resolute statements of support of workers’ right to organize and workers’ rights in general.

Poultry giant reporting revenue gains and growth plans as workers protest conditions

Sanderson Farms Inc., the same poultry giant where workers at its Hazelhurst, Miss., plant are protesting horrible working conditions, has just posted a 22 percent jump in revenue with $28.7 million in net income for the third quarter of the current fiscal year.

The Laurel, Miss.-based poultry company also recently announced plans to build a new plant in Nash County, North Carolina, that will employ 1,100 workers.

Area residents and officials had filed a lawsuit to try to prevent Sanderson from building the plant, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals tossed out the lawsuit last month. Residents are concerned about environmental hazards posed by the plant.

At the Hazelhurst, Miss., plant, officials with the Laborers International Union of North America Local 693 held a recent press conference to highlight the poor working conditions there.

The 700 workers at the plant have to do their jobs in 100-degree-plus temperatures with minimal breaks, poor air-conditioning, and unsanitary bathrooms, Local 693 representatives said. They showed large photographs showing worker injuries as a result of the high production demands at the plant.

Union representatives said the plant processes 200,000 chickens every day, and worker injuries are common.