Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years on

Posted November 22nd, 2013 by Tom

cronkite_w_bio1Fifty years ago I sat in my 4th grade classroom at San Jose Elementary School when Mr. Monteith, the 5th grade teacher from the room across the grassy space between our buildings was suddenly banging on the window of our room and shouting something unintelligible before turning and rushing back to his own classroom. His antics were amusing, we thought. When he returned a few minutes later and burst through the door into our classroom to announce the President had been shot, we were stunned to silence. We marched single-file to his room because his had a television and ours did not. We watched as Walter Cronkite soon removed his glasses, choked back what seemed to be tears, and announced that the President was dead.

The world as I knew it felt like it was spinning away, changing into something different that made no sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Gather at the Table authors record Gettysburg Address for PBS site

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Tom

This post was originally published at Gather at the Table


LincolnSilhouetteNovember 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. PBS and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns launched a national effort to encourage people to video record themselves reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, one of the most important statements on human equality in American history.

Sharon Morgan and I participated in the project, as have President Obama, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Spielberg, and many others. You can watch our video at the Learn the Address website on PBS. Or you can watch it below from the Gather at the Table YouTube page.

We hope our participation will raise more awareness of the Coming to the Table approach to acknowledging and healing wounds from racism and the legacy of slavery that Sharon and I wrote about in Gather at the Table.

And may we all now re-dedicate ourselves “to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

Prof. Howard Zinn vs. Gov. Mitch Daniels = Victory for Zinn (and Truth)

Posted August 21st, 2013 by Tom

Zinn_DanielsI take a healthy dose of satisfaction when privileged people in power are stifled in their wrong-headed attempts to exert control in clearly damaging ways.

Case in point: When Mitch Daniels was still governor of Indiana he attempted to influence the removal of books and courses from high schools and colleges that he considered too liberal. According to the Associated Press:

“Daniels requested that historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn’s writings be banned from classrooms and asked for a “cleanup” of college courses. In another exchange, the Republican talks about cutting funding for a program run by a local university professor who was one of his sharpest critics.”

Within a series of emails the AP acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, on February 9, 2010 Daniels wrote of Zinn and his work:

“This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned that his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is ‘the textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Read the rest of this entry »

Watch Night: A Celebration of Emancipation for 150 years

Posted December 31st, 2012 by Tom

This post is specifically intended for my white friends who (like me until several years ago) have never heard of Watch Night, or don’t understand the significance of its observation on New Year’s Eve; specifically in African American churches and communities.

Watch Night originated with John Wesley in the mid-18th century, designed to deepen the spiritual commitment of members of the Methodist Church with the coming of each new year.

On New Year’s Eve in 1862, Watch Night took on special significance as African Americans, abolitionists, and others opposed to slavery awaited word that President Lincoln would indeed sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He did, of course, and January 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of that momentous occasion. Watch Night became, in a very real sense, a true Independence Day for African American people, since, as Frederick Douglass pointed out during a speech on July 5, 1852:

“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

No one was immediately freed as a result of Lincoln’s Proclamation. But once issued, it shifted the focus of the Civil War from preserving the union to one of human liberation. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t reach people still enslaved in Texas for another two and a half years. June 19, 1865 is now celebrated as “Juneteenth” – another important Independence Day.

Slavery was officially abolished by the United States with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.

The celebration of independence in this nation is complicated. As we continue in our quest to create “a more perfect union”, the prayerful and respectful commemoration of Watch Night is one of the important steps in our journey together.

Happy Watch Night, Independence Day, Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial, and New Year everyone!

Liberty vs. Enterprise: Monticello, Brown University & Slavery by Another Name

Posted February 15th, 2012 by Tom

Throughout history, when the battle has been between Liberty and Enterprise, Enterprise has usually won…

Three items of note caught my attention this week… all caught up for centuries in this historic battle.

Brown University thoroughly investigated its historic ties to slavery and the slave trade, and its profit therefrom, and issued a remarkable report a few years back. This week it was announced that Brown will acknowledge its deep, historic connection in a very public way by following one of the recommendations in the report and create a slavery memorial in a prominent place on campus. Read the rest of this entry »

A Challenge on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday

Posted January 15th, 2012 by Tom

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on this day, January 15, in 1929. To commemorate the occasion I read his Letter from Birmingham Jail that was written in response to a published statement by eight Alabama clergymen in which they claimed his actions in their state were “unwise and untimely.”

This is a powerful and thought-provoking letter that I believe will benefit anyone who reads it and ponders Reverend King’s words. I recognized many phrases that have become oft-quoted and iconic over the years.

My challenge to you today is to take the time to read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and select one phrase that isn’t oft-quoted or iconic; one that speaks to you anew today and inspires you. Copy and paste the quote as a comment for all of us to share.

I’ll begin with the phrase that stands out to me today:

…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

May we all continue to be inspired by the life, the message, and the living legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and may we recommit ourselves to work always for truth, mercy, justice, and peace.

African American Genealogy, by Sharon Morgan

Posted September 3rd, 2011 by Tom

Most readers of this blog are familiar with my writing partner and friend Sharon Leslie Morgan. Together we are writing Gather at the Table which will be published by Beacon Press in 2012.

One particular area of expertise of Sharon’s is her focus on genealogical research for African American people. Having researched her own family history for the past three decades, she shares information and services to help others explore and appreciate African American family history on her website Our Black Ancestry. She is now sharing her expertise in a new, 12-part blog series at Geni, the website that is in the process of building the definitive, world-wide, family tree.

I encourage my friends to read the first installment of the series here and add your comment to Geni and Sharon about what you think!

Teardrops on the City

Posted June 24th, 2011 by Tom

White man with a guitar leans on black man playing a saxophone. Both are dressed in black and white clothes. White album cover. Everything about the Born to Run album cover is black and white. Very little about Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons was.

They didn’t make an issue over a black man playing in an otherwise all-white band in the early 1970’s when the wounds from Jim Crow and the recent Civil Rights movement were still fresh and raw. When they weren’t welcomed in certain towns or hotels, they just played their music elsewhere. They rocked. They danced. They engaged in soulful kisses. They laughed. They invited us to join them “when Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.” They chipped away at America’s racism by living its opposite.

From Eric Meola, the man who shot the iconic photo:

Is it, as so many writers have stated, a declaration of the friendship and camaraderie between the two men? Yes. Was it a deliberate, premeditated statement by Bruce about race relations? Probably not. Yet it became that, and by including Clarence from the beginning, Bruce chose not only the one remaining band member he most identified with, but the one who happened to be black. In an album of saxophone solos, from “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” it seems an obvious choice. And, a brilliant one which came to symbolize far more than any of us could have envisioned.

Those who know me well understand just how deeply I was impacted this past week by the passing of The Big Man, Clarence Clemons. I believe the last time I wept at the death of a “celebrity” was when Jimmy Stewart left us in 1997. The story of It’s a Wonderful Life (“no one is alone who has friends”) rests at the core of my philosophy of life. The music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band provides the soul; the soundtrack for the life of my family since Lindi and I fell in love dancing to “Crush on You” twenty-six years ago at my old haunt, Pat & Mike’s Cinema & Restaurant.

Our three daughters used to create dances to perform to Bruce’s music (they shimmied and bopped a tremendous Hungry Heart). We drove to Tacoma in 1988 with our four kids and our dog Harley to wait in line for 33 hours outside the Tacoma Dome in a non-stop drizzle to buy tickets — long before internet sales — to see the band during the Tunnel of Love tour. Lindi and I have taken road trips during several tours to see Bruce and the E Streeters multiple times over the course of a week or so. Highlights include several concerts being perched in the very front row; our elbows resting on the stage. Lindi’s hands resting on Bruce’s knees during a guitar solo. Me furiously strumming Bruce’s guitar as he held it out to several of us during a Born to Run solo riff.

We met the Big Man one time at a hotel bar in Calgary. I walked up to him and pointed out Lindi and our friend Angel at a nearby table.

Angel’s from New Jersey, says I.

Is she now, replies the Big Man.

Her birthday is the same as yours.

Is that a fact.

I lean in close and whisper. She used to sneak into your club in Red Bank when she was underage.

Then she owes me money! he thunders. Get her over here!

And so we got our photo of Lindi and Angel with Clarence. Truly one of the highlights of our many encounters over the past quarter century with Bruce and the E Street Band.

My feelings are strong. The sense of loss is tremendous. Knowing I’ve heard Clarence play his saxophone for the last time is heartbreaking.

I’ve waited a week to write about Clarence’s passing because I couldn’t find the words. I still can’t. So I’ve shared a few moments with you. The best words I’ve found were written by Dave Marsh. I hope you will take the time to read MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race. Marsh helped me unpack the myth and recognize the impact that Bruce and Clarence have had on America.

Bruce and Clarence acted out their drama, which is our drama, in the exact same spirit as Twain, and with the exact same ambiguous result. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was stuck because he had no ending. The ending he used is preposterous, obviously. But not because it’s over-reliant on the hand of God. The real problem is that it’s predicated on a false idea: Freeing one slave. You cannot free one slave, and since the slave owner is in the same prison as the slave, just like any other jailer, you can’t free two either. It’s all of us or none of us.

And I’ve never read more clearly and succinctly where so much of the responsibility lies for undoing racism and privilege in the United States:

What I am saying is, America’s race problem has never been solved because white people refuse to recognize that it is only action on their part that can solve it.

These two quotes, of course, are seen here out of context. Read the Marsh article in full. Then play the Born to Run album in full. Then ask yourself once again about your role in righting the wrongs in our world.

Rest in Peace, Big Man.

(thanks to Backstreets for providing so many wonderful links to stories about Clarence, and for all you do for those of us who Ramrod down E Street on our way to the Land of Hope and Dreams)

Civil Rights recognition in Virginia after more than 50 years

Posted June 8th, 2011 by Tom

I received notice through the Coming to the Table network that on Wednesday, June 8, 2011, an historical marker will be unveiled in Front Royal, Virginia marking a significant event in school desegregation. The father of my CTTT friend Betty Kilby Baldwin won a federal lawsuit in 1958 that ended school segregation for his children and other black students. Betty’s brother James will be one of the keynote speakers at the ceremony. Several black pupils from the Warren County High School senior class of 1959 will also be present.

The inscription on the marker reads:

Warren County High School, a Public Works Administration project, was constructed in 1940. In 1958, the local NAACP chapter, led by James W. Kilby, won a federal suit against the Warren County School Board to admit African Americans for the first time. In response, Gov. James Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered it closed in Sept. 1958, the first school in Virginia shut down under the state’s Massive Resistance strategy. After the 1959 Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruling that Massive Resistance was unconstitutional, a U.S. Circuit Court ordered it reopened. On 18 Feb. 1959, 23 African American students walked up this hill and integrated the school.

Most people are familiar with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ended legal segregation nationally in 1954. I suspect most people don’t know about the many, many similar efforts–like Mr. Kilby’s–that were made throughout the United States in an attempt to make the equality that was promised in our Constitution a reality for all our citizens.

Read more here about the events in Front Royal and the challenges the Kilbys and other black families faced as the white people in charge did all they could to avoid complying with the law.

Several members of Coming to the Table have joined the Kilbys and others in trying to convince the powers-that-be in Front Royal of the importance of recognizing this important milestone in the community’s history. I’m proud to know members of the Kilby family and am glad that the residents and visitors of Front Royal–and especially school children–will now have access to this information in a prominent public place at the local middle school.

Thank you, James W. Kilby. America is in your debt.

UPDATE: a television news reports from the dedication ceremony can be seen here . A truly healing event…

On the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War

Posted April 12th, 2011 by Tom

My cousins James DeWolf Perry and Katrina Browne have written an opinion piece for CNN entitled “Civil War’s Dirty Secret About Slavery.”

I encourage you to read the article and ponder what James and Katrina have written. It begins

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

The next four years comprise an opportunity to reconsider myths that have been handed down generation by generation for a century and a half (noble abolitionists from the North versus proud Southerners defending state’s rights). In doing so we may just learn more about the lingering consequences for all of us today. James and Katrina offer a good place to begin.

(James DeWolf Perry and Katrina Browne work at The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry