Julian Bond

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Julian Bond (1940 - 2015)
Julian Bond (1940 – 2015)

I met Julian Bond a couple of times some years back. His death at 75 this week calls to mind another time for me – actually an era that changed the face of America.

Bond was so often in the news for years. He led protests against Jim Crow. He headed the NAACP. He helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council. He served in both houses of the Georgia legislature.

During so much of Bond’s incredible career, I was writing editorials for The Journal Gazette calling our local school district to desegregate. Of course, I was taking note of this long rising star in the civil rights movement.

I remember sitting next to him at the Grand Wayne Center downtown as he was about to move to the podium and give a speech. I don’t recall our conversation. But I do recall noting what a fine dresser he was, everything matched, down to his socks. And what a speaker.

Who could not be impressed: Georgia accent, carefully phrased throughout, friendly, warm embrace of the overflowing crowd. That was Julian Bond.

His biographies flesh out a life that I now realize I didn’t know the half of. His father was a college president. Even as a young college student, he was arrested during demonstrations against Jim Crow. (No surprise there.)

Bond was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. He served as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He spoke up for gay rights.

And I’d forgotten this. At one national Democratic convention, Bond’s name was placed in nomination for vice president. He would have made a fine national leader.

So much in the country has changed. We now have black members in Congress. Same sex marriage is the law of the land. No law in any state now requires the racial segregation of schools. Yet progress on all fronts remains stubborn.

Black income lags behind that of whites. Housing, in practice, remains largely segregated. Blacks remain behind in education.
Although we have a black U.S. president – one measure of progress – a racist tinge colors much of the opposition.

Still, when I recall the victories that Bond and other black leaders championed, I’m reminded of a line that Julian Bond himself probably cited:

“The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Bond. Rest in peace.

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Death of a writer

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William Pfaff (1928 - 2015)
William Pfaff (1928 – 2015)

I hadn’t thought about William Pfaff in some years. I recall meeting him a couple of times at writers’ conferences where he was the featured speaker.

He hadn’t been writing his syndicated column recently. But I always thought he crafted among the best written and wisest commentary on foreign policy. That was his specialty.

He died of a heart attack at 86 the other day. This native Iowan had made his home in Paris since 1971, The New York Times lengthy obituary noted. But it would take more than one obit to give an adequate account of Pfaff’s contribution to the debates on foreign policy.

He had been an intelligence office during the Vietnam war. So his frequent critiques of U.S. foreign policy carried a credibility the work of many others lack. Critique that policy he did. That included his many New Yorker columns about U.S. military adventures in Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Publications worldwide carried Pfaff’s syndicated columns. Many U.S. newspapers, including The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, regularly printed his thoughtful pieces. Once in a while, his writing would pop up in one of my favorite monthly publications, The New York Review of Books.

I’d call him an old-fashioned conservative. He argued in favor of restraint. He was that kind of conservative. I can’t imagine right-wing politicians liking his writing.

Pfaff could readily trace a pattern of American over-extension in recent history. That went back to the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. He called their foreign policies messianic illusions. He did make an exception of Dwight Eisenhower, who himself had warned against foreign entanglements in his farewell address to the nation.

I’m sure he didn’t think of himself as belonging in any liberal camp. To the contrary, he often dismissed what he saw as the dogma of many liberals. That’s the idea that says progress is inevitable. So history always trends toward freedom and democracy.

Recent events in the Mideast and Africa would seem to give the lie to that hope.

In person Pfaff came across as a low-key, thoughtful scholar. Nothing flashy. I liked his writing because he rejected ideology. His style was engaging. He brought a scholar’s knowledge and insight to his work. What an fine role model he was for any writer on public affairs.

I’ll always be grateful for the example this humble man set.

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Vets and peaceniks

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antiwar_peace_rally03_618So what if only a few peaceniks showed up at Fort Wayne’s Courthouse Green on Veterans Day. They held up signs with anti-war slogans as traffic whizzed by on South Clinton. Mostly, the signs called for the end of U.S, involvement in Mideast wars. I knew one couple there from the Peace and Justice Commission I belong to. Another person there I’ve known for years because he’s written a lot of letters to the editor. All thoughtful, caring people.

When my wife Toni and I lived in D.C. in 1992, I showed up at some huge peace demonstrations and marches down Pennsylvania Avenue. Mostly, I was there to write about the event for the Fort Wayne paper. But my sympathies were with the demonstrators.

I imagine most of my peace advocate friends hope their cause will prevail and the United States will withdraw from whatever war our country happens to be fighting at the moment. I’ve never been optimistic that the demonstrations and letters to members of Congress would end a war.

I’m reminded that the Vietnam War ended with the North Vietnamese Communists routing the South Vietnamese and American troops. Our last remaining folk had to be rescued by helicopters lowering ladders to the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The anti-war movement itself hadn’t changed a thing.

A peace demonstration on Veterans Day may seem odd timing. After all, if you go back to the holiday’s origins, you’ll see that it wasn’t intended to glorify war. President Eisenhower signed the bill in 1954 only to honor veteran of all wars Americans had fought in. Veterans groups had lobbied for it.

At first that day of recognition was held in October. But lots of people complained, thought it was confusing. So President Ford signed the bill moving Veterans Day to November, supplanting Armistice Day. Of course, that switch didn’t make champions of Armistice Day happy. Every November 11 you’ll hear of a peace group or two calling on Congress to restore the original name and meaning of the holiday.

I imagine that’s another lost cause. Still, surely Americans who celebrate Veterans Day don’t mean to neglect honoring their great grandfathers and great uncles who fought and died in the First World War. To be sure, in Europe, it’s observed with grand parades. November 11 finds London festooned with poppies.

I doubt that my great Uncle Fred, an American officer during the Great War, would have minded casting a broad net to honor all veterans on November 11. I inherited his letters back home to Van Wert, Ohio, to my great Aunt Dora. Showing careful penmanship, his letters are quite touching, newsy and humble. This wasn’t a man worried about national recognition. He just wanted to get home in one piece.

Meantime, I’m glad to see the peace advocates still speaking up and speaking out, even when few people show up to wave a sign. No peacenik I ever knew hates Americans in uniform. That’s not the issue. The issue for peace advocates has always been the judgment of political leaders who lead the country into ill-conceived wars.

Even if they don’t keep our country out of wars, I’ve always reminded peace advocates that they must keep raising their voices. Those voices help protect Americans’ time-honored right to dissent. Americans can be terrific dissenters. Sooner or later, our political leaders will listen.

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