Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

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)

Flat Justin receives Birmingham Civil Rights History tour

Posted March 9th, 2010 by Tom

I had never heard of “Flat Stanley” when my lifelong friend Mike Godfrey wrote and asked if his son could send me his “Flat Justin” to spend some time with me. Mike and I grew up together because our parents were best friends. We went on vacations together and our families jointly owned a cabin in the mountains. We had some serious snowball fights over the years. I’m not sure there is anyone I spent more time with growing up than Mike until I moved to Oregon to attend college almost 40 years ago. I was honored that JJ chose me to send Flat Justin to.

As I understand it the Flat Stanley Project is an international literacy and community building project where elementary school students create a Stanley character that can be mailed in an envelope. Students from one school would mail their flat characters to students from a school in another part of the country (or the world) and those students create a journal that tells about where Flat Stanley is visiting.

So, variation on this theme, Mike’s son JJ sent his Flat Justin to me and I was to create a journal with pictures of Flat Justin in various places in and around our Central Oregon home/community. Well, Flat Justin learned about our home town all right, but my life takes me to many places around the country so I took Flat Justin with me to Alabama last week where I spoke at three different colleges in Birmingham and Mobile. I don’t know if JJ expected to learn about Birmingham in addition to Bend, but he’s going to nonetheless. I spent most of a day last week touring sites that were significant to the history of the Civil Rights movement and I hope that JJ, his classmates, his teacher, and even my buddy his father, are inspired to search more deeply into our nation’s history than is often the case; that JJ will know more than I did at his age about truth, justice, and equality and just how hard they are to achieve and maintain in our sometimes-not-so United States. (For anyone interested in seeing more photos than are included here, I’ve loaded quite a few onto my Facebook page).

After giving Flat Justin a tour of Central Oregon, here’s what I wrote to JJ:

In addition to being a writer, I speak at colleges and universities around the country about events in the history of the United States that have often been hidden. There are some pretty shameful things that have taken place that have caused a lot of harm to people. Many of those things continue to cause damage to people today. SO, we’re off! Tom and Flat Justin hopped on a plane and flew to Portland, then on to Atlanta, and finally to Birmingham… a LONG day’s travel.

Birmingham, Alabama was the sight of some of the key events in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time there. I’m so glad that Flat Justin could go with me. I hope that my grandchildren, and YOU, JJ, have the opportunity to visit Birmingham some day. It is important to learn about our nation’s true history in order to understand why things are the way they are today. When you are a little older I hope you will read A People’s History of the United States in order to understand history from the perspective of people from other cultures, the workers, and disenfranchised people. It’s important to see things from all sides and to have compassion for others.

We went to Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park). This is a place of both “revolution” and “reconciliation.” Many black people were attacked by white people. Policemen with dogs even attacked black children. Kids as young as you, JJ, were arrested and thrown in jail for wanting to have equal rights with white children. Black people were attacked with dogs, fire hoses, bricks, chains, and bombs. It is hard to believe that these things took place during your dad’s and my lifetimes. There were so many brave people who stood up to injustice in non-violent ways. They changed America and the world. They helped us get closer to “liberty and justice for all.” They are my heroes.

This is 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963, white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted dynamite at the entrance to the basement of this church. When it exploded, four little girls (one was 11, the other three were 14) who were in the basement were killed because of the acts of these terrorists. It took many years before some of the men who killed these girls were finally convicted of the murders. There is a wonderful movie called 4 Little Girls that your dad and mom can rent that tells the whole story. I hope you watch it someday. It is hard to watch because what took place was so horrible. But knowing the truth, seeking justice, and working for peace is what matters.

This is a statue of Fred Shuttlesworth outside the Civil Rights Institute. He is one of the true heroes of the Civil Rights Movement from Birmingham. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped found the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) which was one of the leading civil rights organizations.

Reverend Shuttlesworth is 88 years old and today he lives in downtown Birmingham. I would love to meet him and thank him for his commitment to justice & freedom.

We next traveled from Birmingham to Mobile on the bus. I thought about the Freedom Riders, black people, and some white people, who rode buses into the Deep South in the early 1960’s to protest segregation. They were non-violent protesters and did not fight back when they were attacked and beaten. We had a layover in Montgomery and a friend picked me up and drove me by Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King was the pastor from 1954-1960. This is where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a white person.

In Mobile, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, we visited the University of Southern Alabama where I spoke to a sociology class. That evening I spoke at Spring Hill College at the invitation of a group called “The Quest for Social Justice.” I’m so happy that there are lots of people around the United States who believe in peace and justice and equality and truth and compassion and continue to work for all of them.

JJ, I don’t know if you were expecting to learn things about the Civil Rights movement when you sent Flat Justin to me, but here you go. I believe that we have come a long way on the road to justice in the United States during your dad’s and my lifetime. I also believe we have a long way to go before everyone has an equal chance for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I hope you will read many, many books about our nation’s history. More of them tell the “whole story” now than ever before. I hope you have teachers with the courage to tell all the stories, no matter how difficult they are to hear. It is important to learn the whole truth. A wise person once said, “the truth will set you free.” If you ever want some good ideas on books to read or movies to see that will help you on your journey toward justice and peace, just let me know. There are good stories for boys and girls your age and there are more for when you grow older.

There is a lot I didn’t go into with JJ. I hope this introduction will peak his interest and that he’ll explore more on his own and with his dad’s help. For instance, 45 years ago this past weekend, March 7, was Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of Civil Rights marchers attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery and were brutally attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas.  It is a challenge to figure out how to tell our children the truth about American history. Some of it is horrific beyond words.

But this is our work if we want to leave our descendants a more just and peaceful world than the one we inherited, and the one we currently live in. I look forward to hearing back from JJ once he has a chance to read my journal of Flat Justin’s travels to Oregon and Alabama.

JJ, there are many more places to go…

50 years ago: the Greensboro Sit-ins defied segregation and changed the world

Posted February 1st, 2010 by Tom

Fifty years ago today, on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, four A&T College freshmen students, Ezell Blair (Jibreel Khazan) Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil walked into the downtown Woolworth’s store and sat down at the whites–only lunch counter. They were denied service and refused to leave until the store closed.

Following their bold lead, twenty-five additional students from A&T and other Greensboro colleges joined them the next day. Before the end of February more than 250 demonstrations were held in cities across the United States. By the end of July that year, Woolworth’s was desegregated.

Through the Greensboro Sit-ins, these four young men demonstrated the power of non-violent resistance, increased the visibility and influence of the Civil Rights movement and helped change the course of history.

I’m troubled by the concept of Black History Month, which begins today and every February 1. I’m glad to see a focus on the significant contributions that people of African descent have always made in the United States of America; a focus that did not exist when I was a student and a focus that does not exist today in most school settings in months other than February. I’m troubled that in the minds of so many, Black history is seen as somehow separate from American history.

The story of the Greensboro sit-ins isn’t a story of black history in America. It is a story of brave Americans impacting American History.

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