Still not equal

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Dr. Barbara Reynolds blogger/columnist at The Washington Post Root DC
Dr. Barbara Reynolds
blogger/columnist at The Washington Post Root DC

I was especially interested to read Barbara Reynolds’ op.ed. piece on civil rights in today’s morning paper.

Her piece, first published in The Washington Post, contrasts the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of today with those demonstrations of the 1960s civil rights movement.

If I had a signature issue when I was writing editorials for The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, it was civil rights. So here it is, long after my retirement in 2000, and I still carefully follow the story of the struggle of our black citizens and other minorities for equal rights.

In her column, Rev. Reynolds notes that at protests today, you have a hard time telling the legitimate activists from the “mob actors who burn and loot.”

She recalls civil rights leaders of that now long ago era, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andy Young and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In contrast with many of today’s demonstrators, such heroes and their followers in those marches and sit-ins exhibited great discipline and forbearance – even when police set upon them with billy clubs and tear gas.

These demonstrators wore suits, ties and dresses, attired in fitting fashion for the dignity and resolution their faces showed.

Dressed in torn jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers, many of the today’s Black Lives Matter demonstrators taunt police and appear bent on confrontation. Some throw bottles and rocks.

Yes, these young people have reason to be upset and angry. Black and Hispanic unemployment remains double that of white unemployment. In some cities, that contrast is more like three times. Social services are spotty and poorly funded.

Segregation in housing and schools in larger cities remains intractable. In a few southern states, public officials continue to seek ways to prevent black citizens from voting.

It would be an insult to minorities and their hopes for equality to point out the social changes that have taken place since the 1960s. Indeed, these are innumerable. In Barak Obama, we’ve even elected a black president – twice.

Nevertheless, equal rights for all citizens still appears the dream of idealists. Which at least explains in part the rowdy behavior of the Black Lives Matter demonstrators as they assess the reality. But they’re still missing something.

At the end of her column, Rev. Reynolds quotes the nasty lyrics of the rappers. Suffice it to say this sounds like the language of surrender, defeat.

What a far cry from the inspiration and hopeful songs of the civil rights movement. For me, the words still ring out – “We shall overcome.” Someday. Yes, someday.

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Hear the wedding bells ring

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Bailes celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary and the one-year anniversary of a California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriages
Bailes celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary and the one-year anniversary of a California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriages

What a time to be living! Just this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court declared gay couples in every state enjoy the constitutional right to marry.

No exceptions. No exclusions.

This is more than a victory for those gay couples living in the 14 states that have yet to grant these couples the right. The 5-4 decision certainly is a big win for them.

This is also a win for all of us who cherish the fundamental American values of freedom and equality. We’ve pledged “justice for all” since kindergarten. We’ve pledged it at the start of the school day. We’ve pledged it at ball games. We’ve pledged it our homes. Now the court has put some meaning in that pledge for gays.

Indeed, the court’s affirmation reminds us of what’s woven into the fabric of our Republic. To be sure, the arc of history can be long, as the old saying goes. “But it bends toward justice.” I love the solemn promise of that phrase.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in the many years I wrote editorials and columns for the morning paper in Fort Wayne I never said a thing about gay marriage. Nor did any other major daily, I’m sure. I don’t recall anyone at our very welcoming Unitarian congregation raising the question.

I retired from the paper in mid-2000. So in this case justice has come swiftly, within just a few short years. But I want to tell you, our church certainly has been prepared.

If any denomination has always openly welcomed gays and lesbians, it’s the Unitarian-Universalist churches. At beginning of our Sunday service the person presiding welcomes everyone no matter who you are or whom you love.

Here in Indiana, lower courts already have upheld gay couples’ right to legally marry. We attended once such wedding together. In that ceremony my wife Toni was honored to stand up with good friends as they exchanged vows.

With Friday’s high court decision, every state’s gay couples can now enjoy the rights and privileges. They can now feel the joy of having their rights as Americans affirmed, their full humanity upheld.

Maybe in time, the dissenting four conservative justices will come around to see that granting equality to gays was the only right decision. Consider that at the beginning not every Supreme Court justice embraced the New Deal, Social Security or Medicare.

I must add three more cheers that the Supreme Court, once again, affirmed this week the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare.

More struggles for a just and peaceful society remain. I know that. Too many families don’t get the boost they need to join the middle class. Too many children remain in segregated schools. Too many elderly citizens waste away in their own homes alone and forgotten. Too many guns are in the hands of the wrong people.

But with affordable health care now affirmed, with the right of gays to marry secured, this surely is a time to celebrate. If you see me in the next few days and I’ve wearing that old Larry Hayes grin from ear to ear, you’ll know exactly why I’m so happy.

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Get out of jail card free

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goojfIt’s a feature in the morning paper every Saturday:

A new list of felonies, 50 exactly this most recent list.

When I turn to that page, I often think about the law professor at Georgetown University I got acquainted with when my wife Toni and I lived in Washington, D.C. That was in 1992.

Toni was on an assignment at the National Science Foundation. I wrote my editorials and columns from The Journal Gazette‘s bureau in the National Press Building.

It’s the weekly list of local felonies that brings Rick the law professor to mind.

At that time, he often visited local D.C. high schools to teach them about the law. I don’t recall that he hoped his talks would help some students stay out of trouble. No doubt the kids would be better informed about the law after his visits.

If you look over the current high school curriculum in most districts, you’ll discover the standard fare – social studies, English, various levels of math, shop and home economics.

I’d be surprised if more than a few schools in Indiana or any state offer a high school law class. Of course, your standard government class touches on statutes and the mechanics of how proposals become law.

Granted, my knowledge is dated. My last year as a high school teacher was the 1969-1970 school year. Still, a check of a few web sites suggests that the curriculum hasn’t changed much. I think it’s time for an addition.

Here they are, some 50 people in our county, likely facing time in jail, maybe even prison. Maybe big fines, too. You can bet that they heard of the Bill of Rights. You can bet their high school teachers also introduced them to other legal provisions in the American system of government.

Somehow, these 50 people recently charged with felonies missed a very important lesson in school: How to stay out of trouble with the law.

In many families, you just never think of breaking the law. Oh, you might get a traffic ticket. But as a rule that doesn’t put you at risk of being locked up, for months, maybe years.

Offenses in Saturday’s felony list includes cocaine dealing, drunk driving, child molesting, invasion of privacy, carrying an unlicensed handgun. I suppose none of these people charged thought they could get arrested.

I’m also sure that many of them had committed some offense before and never got caught. Apparently, these people took one chance too many.

Would a class on staying out of jail have spared them all this grief? I’d like to believe that such a class might well have kept a few of these people on the straight and narrow.

There’s the “Scared Straight” program. Here juvenile officials take kids who’ve committed an offense for a visit at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey to hear prisoners lecture them on staying out of trouble.

Problem is, the research on this program suggests it doesn’t work. Does the visit with hardened criminals even glamorize crime? I’ve wondered.

But I think a good high school class on crime could be worthwhile. What I have in mind is a class that introduces students to all manner of crime and criminal justice. Start with criminal behavior. Talk about policing, invite police commanders to lecture and answer questions.

By all means, such a class would tell students about the risks of apprehension and imprisonment. It would run directly counter to the advice they might get from stupid friends who think they’ve got an easy way of getting money.

This class would give every student lots to think about. One student might go into law enforcement. Another might take up a career in the law. Another might be challenged to become a juvenile worker.

Often schools fail to teach the most basic lessons – how to choose a spouse, how to pick a career, how to buy a house and how to decide where to live. But few lessons in life are more important than staying out of jail. Sure, you might pick up that lesson from your parents. Most of us do.

But lots of folks fail to get the message. About 50 of them in our county every week.

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The war we lost

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Touching "The Wall" (source: Wikipedia)
Touching “The Wall” (source: Wikipedia)

You can find his name on the Wall in Washington D.C. at row West 47 – Micky Ray Highlander.

He was one of my students back when I taught high school English in Dayton, Kentucky. That was in the 1960s. Micky played one of the Gilbreth children in the senior play I directed, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” His antics stole the show.

Tuesday’s late evening special, “The Last Days of Vietnam,” brought Micky to mind. For me, it was an extraordinary examination of a time most Americans probably prefer to forget.

In one scene we see thousands of Vietnamese streaming down a main thoroughfare in Saigon, ahead of advancing North Vietnamese troops. In another scene we watch thousands more beg to get entry to the fenced-in yard at the American embassy.

Back in the United States, we watch President Nixon on television explaining the peace treaty with North Vietnam. Yes, the Paris talks produced just such an agreement. Yes, the North soon violated the treaty.

The narrator called the evacuation makeshift. That’s putting it mildly. It looked utterly chaotic in the film footage. Apparently, U.S. intelligence officers weren’t able to persuade Ambassador Graham Martin of the imminent collapse of South Vietnam.

Martin was one of those hard-liner, anti-Communist foreign service officers. From him, we learn, his refusal to accept U.S. defeat was personal. He had lost his son to combat in Vietnam.

North Vietnamese troops showed no mercy to their countrymen who had worked for the Americans in the South. Taken prisoner or shot, some of the uncounted victims of this war.

But then, there was My Lai, the massacre of men, women and children civilians. That was directed by U.S. Lt. William Calley, whose eventual punishment was a period of house arrest, as I recall.

Amid the unfolding fall of South Vietnam, President Nixon was impeached and Gerald Ford became president. It fell to President Ford to “save as many Vietnamese as possible.” This would have been April, 1975.

What a scene that became as people scrambled aboard Chinook helicopters that had landed on the roof of the U.S. embassy, then climbed rope ladders to board waiting American ships.

The PBS account had special meaning to me. No, I didn’t serve in the military. By the time Saigon fell I was writing editorials for The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. For years, I had spoken out against the war. When the end came, you might say I wrote the obituary of Vietnam.

Then, years later, my wife Toni and I joined a tour group visiting Southeast Asia. That meant stops in Vietnam. We visited a museum that portrayed scenes from the war. One wall showed the scores of bodies in the ditch where Lt. Calley’s men had killed so many innocents.

Our Hanoi hotel wasn’t far from a park where the grass surrounded a small lake. Early in the day you’d see elderly Vietnamese practicing their exercises. Nearby, swans floated peacefully in the water.

Later in the day, traffic picked up, mostly motor scooters. One I noted carried a fat goose on the back. No American bombs. No busy recruiting stations. No lines of people waiting for rationed food at the marketplace.

The PBS account estimated that about 130,000 South Vietnamese escaped and were resettled in the United States. No visas or passports required. It was the least we could do.

Then 55,000 American servicemen never made it home alive. You can read their names on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington. As I said, my student Micky’s name is there, W47, in case you want to see.

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We might all be poor

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1937 Plymouth
a 1937 Plymouth

I remember it very well.

Our neighborhood grocer came to the side door of our side of the duplex facing Defiance, Ohio’s Fifth Street.

He was there to take possession of our 1937 two-door Plymouth. I guess Mom and Dad had gotten behind paying the grocery bill.

I don’t recall Dad giving the guy the car keys. But he must have. Nor do I remember any explanation from Mom or Dad about our tight finances. I don’t even know whether we thought of ourselves as poor. Surely not. Bridge, Elks Club, golf club, poker night, fancy restaurants, rich friends – they traveled in the city’s right circles.

Yet there was that overdue grocery bill.

What brought this family embarrassment to mind was an article by Christopher Jencks in The New York Review of Books looking at books on the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Judging from the article, you’d have say that did much to reduce the scourge of poverty in America. Programs that grew out of LBJ’s call helped millions of people. Still do. From food stamps to Head Start to Title I, each one made a difference.

Social Security benefits were raised. I well recall when a man in a dark suit came to my grandparents’ home in Latty, Ohio, where I spent many weeks in the summer.

Mom and Tom, as we always called them, got signed up that day for Social Security. I bet these Herbert Hoover Republicans didn’t bat an eye as they enlisted in Democrat FDR’s anti-poverty program for the elderly.

Food stamps measurably improved the nutrition of recipients. Meantime, it’s hard to see evidence of immediate academic success from Head Start. Yet over the long-term, as the kids grew into adulthood, the benefits are striking.

Those in Head Start and similar early-childhood programs are more likely to finish high school, more likely to attend and finish college and more likely to hold jobs and stay married.

Medicaid, yet another initiative from the anti-poverty era, has meant better health care not only for parents in poverty but for their children as well.

But Americans hardly can declare victory in the War on Poverty. Visit any city and you’ll encounter folks living on the street. When we lived a year in Washington, D.C., my wife Toni and I daily encountered people begging at street corners and at the entrances to the Metro subway. This was in 1992.

Today, as I was preparing to write about poverty in the U.S., I discovered a Washington Post column citing how a few states recently have moved to further restrict how people getting food stamps are permitted to use them. So recipients can’t pay for soft drinks, steak, potato chips with food stamps.

“The poor you always have with you,” Jesus is quoted having said when his disciples proposed selling an expensive ointment and giving the money to the poor. I’ve heard people cite this verse as an reason to oppose anti-poverty programs.

What I think he meant, assuming the historical Jesus actually said this, is that we always have the responsibility to help the poor. Otherwise, here you would have Jesus and his disciples freely accepting the charity of followers. I prefer my interpretation.

Mom and Dad both worked all the years I was growing up. I was in college when they bought a house of their own. Through college and for years after that, I often found money tight.

Even middle-class families such as mine can fall into poverty. A job lost, a long-term illness, major medical bills – one’s fortunes can take a sudden fall.

We might resent that some our of taxes go to help the poor. We might want to force them to live more responsible lives. But is this a free country or isn’t it?

We might think we’re making it on our own. If we believe that, we deceive ourselves. The truth is that we depend on each other. We should conduct our lives accordingly.

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Here’s one for Dave

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City Councilman Geoff Paddock
City Councilman Geoff Paddock

Dave Lambert died months ago. But every person who attends a peace rally at the courthouse or a march downtown against violence will never forget this hulking man with his handlebar mustache who died in his late 70s.

The other day I found myself thinking about Dave. I was reading the news stories of citizen marches and rallies around the country, in big cities and small. Here in Fort Wayne, The Journal Gazette featured an above-the-fold front page photograph of marchers as they came across the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge downtown.

City Councilman Geoff Paddock and one of my favorite clergymen, the Rev. Bill McGill, appeared to lead the march.

What sparked such demonstrations, of course, were police killings of unarmed citizens, in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland. But a big part of the anger was the failure of local judicial systems to hold these officers to account.

In the New York incident, an officer used a choke-hold on Eric Garner that was caught on a bystander’s camera. The officer doesn’t appear to release the hold even when Garner says, “I can’t breathe.” Yet NYPD forbids the use of the choke-hold. No wonder.

Most protests didn’t destroy property. The main exception we saw of protests in Ferguson. If there was a main theme nationwide it was stop police brutality. In Oakland and in other cities, marchers chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to some eyewitness accounts of the Ferguson tragedy.

Marchers in Philadelphia chanted, “No justice, no Christmas.”

There were so many Berkeley protesters that they shut down Interstate 80.

Will the demonstrations make a difference in how police officers confront citizens? It’s not likely. Police departments are pretty conservative and resist change, as we’ve seen through the years here in Fort Wayne.

But we have witnessed reform. Recruits must not only submit to agility and other tests of physical and mental competence. It’s commonplace now for recruits to take psychological tests, which should screen out applicants with major mental health problems.

As salaries have increased, especially where unions represent officers, we’re seeing more applicants who hold college degrees. I believe that should give candidates a broader understanding of their communities.

At the least, the much publicized tragedies should prompt department-wide review of policies, from training to how to handle potentially violent confrontations with citizens. Officers have much to learn from these recent tragedies.

My old friend Dave led or joined demonstrations against the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan and, before that, the war in Vietnam. He understood that stopping a war where the federal government had committed thousands of personnel and billions of dollars in equipment was quite an undertaking. Yet he also understood that he and others here in our city were joined with thousands of others protesting a war.

I used to remind Dave that if he couldn’t stop a war he and other activists achieved something also important. They protect our constitutional right to peacefully assemble and petition the government for change. Let’s not forget that basic right.

Democracy occasionally takes a wrong turn. As long as citizens can freely take to the streets, we’ll eventually get it right. What a legacy that people like Dave leave the rest of us.

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Justice for gays, justice for all

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Plymouth Congregational Church of Ft. Wayne
Plymouth Congregational Church of Ft. Wayne

What a delightful surprise I had recently when I opened the morning paper and saw a photograph on the front page of my wife Toni giving a speech at Plymouth Congregational Church.
The photo was even “above the fold,” as they say at the paper.

Before more than a hundred people from various churches, Toni was speaking out against attempts to ban gay marriage and in favor of granting this fundamental right to every person, whatever his or her sexual orientation. Just a few weeks after her talk, we joined friends, gay and straight, at the downtown convention center for a gay and lesbian dinner dance to raise money for the cause of equal rights.

Then this Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped the bombshell. The court declined to take up appeals by opponents of gay marriage. Before the court had been seven petitions. The non-decision was a decision. It meant that gay marriage is now legal in more than 30 states – those states where lower court decisions had struck down bans. That included Indiana.

Opponents may not give up their battle. But the constitutional scholars and other legal experts that I’ve read say that it’s only a matter of time before every state must honor the marriage of gay and lesbian couples.

I thought that Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Court of Appeals had it about right. In a recent case, he noted that the arguments of opponents to gay marriage were so full of holes that they couldn’t be taken seriously.

Surely gay marriage is one of the great civil rights issues of our time. But the federal courts aren’t the only or even the most important battleground. Like black leaders who fought segregation for generations, gay and lesbian leaders have been waging this struggle for equal rights for nearly as long.

They’ve led parades. They’ve written letters to the editor and op.ed. columns. They’ve testified before the committees of state legislatures. They’ve enlisted political leaders. They’ve enlisted ordinary people. They manned phone banks. They’ve championed the care and treatment of AIDS victims.

Straight men and women such as my wife have joined this cause for justice. You probably won’t find a town or city that doesn’t have advocates. But winning the right to marry is not the end. Even as our gay and lesbian friends celebrate their hard-fought victory today, many still will face discrimination in housing, employment and within many families. The laws on the books that should give them full access aren’t universally honored.

So all of us who care about simple justice must not think these recent victories permit us to withdraw from the battle. This is no time to be silent. This isn’t only about a minority of citizens. It’s about who we are and what we really stand for. We still must speak up for everyone’s right to be true to themselves, gay or straight. Yes, to marry. Let’s make ours a better community. Indeed, let’s make this an even greater, more just country.

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A death in Missouri

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Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of how it happened that the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson came to shoot and kill Michael Brown Jr. in broad daylight on a street in Ferguson, Mo.

The shooting August 9 set off a week of demonstrations. Some protestors threw bottles and broke store windows. Some looted. Others called for peace and brought food and water to the demonstrators. Many demanded the prosecutor indict Officer Wilson for murder. Meantime, Michael Brown’s funeral drew thousands to the church. That included the nationally known Rev. Al Sharpton. He gave the eulogy.

For the rest of the country, the shooting opened an old, festering wound about how white police treat black citizens. It’s not common for an officer to shoot and kill a citizen, especially one who, like Brown, is unarmed. Yet in so many communities across the country relations between police and black citizens remain sensitive if not downright hostile.

Black citizens don’t need sociologists who study this stuff to tell them that blacks are more likely to end up with longer prison terms than whites for virtually the same drug-related offenses. Across the board, blacks in most communities and cities are more often
charged with traffic and other misdemeanors. Black citizens understand that two standards in the justice system apply: One for whites and the other, more strict, for minorities.

Then there’s Ferguson, Mo., one of many seemingly thriving St. Louis suburbs. You’d think that in a town that’s two-thirds black, the powers that be would see to it that the police force has a similar make-up of blacks. But of the 53 officers on the force, only three are black. One of them has an administrative job with the department.

Likewise, Ferguson’s mayor is white; nearly all members of the city council are white.

As things stand now, a grand jury will not take up the shooting of Michael Brown until October. I imagine that by week’s end the protestors from outside Ferguson will have gone home. The preachers will find a new inspiration. The columnists and editorial writers will take up other causes. Like the Trayvon Martin shooting death by a neighborhood watchman in Florida, this tragedy probably will fade and the national focus will shift once more.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that the death of Michael Brown will not be forgotten. I want to believe that the calls for justice will echo throughout the land. Young Brown’s story did gain national attention. Just today, the September 1 issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail. The cover portrays images of people raising their hands in a graphic reflection of Ferguson demonstrators who raised their hands with the message: “Don’t shoot.”

A beginning? We’ll see.

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