Monday, January 19, 2009

1963: A tale of two cities

I know fellow pro-lifers who are so verklempt about the pro-choice Barack Obama becoming president that they're going on a "media fast" this week.

Count me out. In other words, count me in the viewing audience when Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States.

I wish the incoming president well. I am praying for him.

LIKEWISE, I am praying that Obama might come to understand that the sort of bodily "autonomy" for some that can deny others the right to be born -- the very right to exist -- is a philosophical body blow to all that made it possible for him to become the first African-American to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And not only that, but a mortal blow to a political and spiritual metamorphosis that has allowed our new president even to be regarded as a human being . . . with all the rights and sanctity that accompany one's humanity.

That a black man could be regarded as a true human being wasn't always a given -- not even in my lifetime. When I was born in Baton Rouge, La., in March 1961, affording people of color all the rights and privileges of American citizenship was a flat-out ludicrous proposition.

And Louisiana, along with a host of other Southern states, went to the wall to preserve that wicked status quo.

WHAT AN AMAZING JOURNEY from then to now. To the inauguration of a black man as president -- as de facto leader of the free world. Despite our serious disagreements with soon-to-be President Obama on abortion, pro-lifers especially ought to rejoice in where that journey has taken us thus far.

We should praise the Almighty for the world of difference between Jan. 20, 2009, and the late fall of 1963, when I was not quite 4 and Barack Obama had just turned 3.

To illustrate how far that remarkable national journey has brought us -- and we're still not yet where we need to be -- it might be useful to review the tale of two cities. One would be Omaha, Neb., where I live now. The other would be my hometown, Baton Rouge.

Here's some of an article from the Dec. 17, 1963, issue of Look magazine. The headline:




Omaha, Nebr., has an easy-going temperament. The people who get along best there learned long ago that you don't ask for anything outright until you've passed the time of day. So Omaha was scarcely ready for the Negro Summer Revolt of 1963, and most folks were plumb shook when it hit.

"Why here?" many asked. Omaha has had a Negro state senator for years. One of the town's most prominent surgeons is Dr. Claude Organ, a Negro, who had no difficulty getting office space in the Medical Arts Building downtown. Negroes hold well-paying jobs in the packinghouses, Omaha's main industry. There are colored bus drivers, mail carriers and policemen. Mayor James Dworak in July set up a biracial committee of top-level white and Negro leaders to investigate and resolve alleged discrimination in housing, jobs, etc.

Why then, in the summer of 1963, did pray-ins, sit-ins, picket lines and threats of a boycott disturb the social and economic tranquillity of a solid town like Omaha?

"This town is sick, that's why," says the Rev. James T. Stewart, director of Social Action for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha. "I'm not speaking of open sores, either — nothing as simple as the ghetto on the 'Near North Side,' where all but a handful of 30,000 Omaha Negroes live. No, our sickness is in the bloodstream — in our inner posture. We are an undemocratic city."

"It's worse than that," declares a Negro, the Rev. Kelsey Jones, pastor of the Cleaves Temple (Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). "There's no place Negroes can turn without being denied right of access. No house, no school, no job opportunity —except for those in the Near North Side, or the 'Neighborhood,' as we call it."

Last May, the Rev. Mr. Jones and several other young ministers formed the 4CL, or Citizens' Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties. "They barged into my office," angrily recalls Mayor Dworak, "with a series of outrageous demands. I offered to appoint one of them, the Rev. Rudolph McNair, to my biracial citizens' committee. Apparently, that wasn't enough, because they picketed the very first meeting of the committee. We won't stand for that here in Omaha."

Made up of Omaha's most influential citizens, the Mayor's Bi-racial Committee claims it is carefully laying the groundwork for the correction of Negro complaints. Says Morris E. Jacobs, a prosperous Omaha businessman and one of the leaders of the committee, "We're trying to set up an ideal that can serve as an example for the whole United States. And what happens? They picket! I got wind of it beforehand, and phoned Reverend McNair. I said. 'We didn't know about your grievances. Now that you've made them known, give us a chance to settle things and redeem ourselves with dignity — don't crowd us.'


A handful of men control most of Omaha's money and businesses and set the city's political, social and moral climate. Almost everyone agrees that atop this small pyramid sits Peter Kiewit, the personable, easy-going native Omahan who presides over Peter Kiewit Sons' Co., one of the nation's largest construction firms. Kiewit, with Morris Jacobs, heads the employment subcommittee of the Mayor's biracial group. "We called in the heads of Omaha's 125 largest businesses," he says. "We requested more jobs for Negroes and complete cooperation in the Mayor's project. Jobs will be coming — we already have pledges from the business community.

"As for housing, I've seen little solid proof that Negroes want to move away from their own neighborhood. I happen to know that 135 FHA-owned houses are up for grabs in Omaha; each of these medium-priced houses is available to anyone who wants it. Not one Negro has applied. In time, I feel, as their leaders prepare them for better jobs and higher educational goals, many will apply. I don't think that certain activities of the 4CL are going to help at all. These demonstrations are bound to cause resentment, and there is a real danger that harassment and intimidation of businessmen will hinder or even set back their cause."

Between the urgent militants of the 4CL and the plodding moderates of the Mayor's Bi-racial Committee stands a Negro, Dr.. Claude Organ. Texas-born Organ, 36, and the father of six, is a distinguished academic surgeon, a professor of surgery at Creighton University, president of Omaha's Urban League and on the board of the Catholic Interracial Council. Organ lives in two worlds — the white one owned and operated by Omaha's power elite, and the black one enclosed within his skin. He has managed both skillfully.

It was Dr. Organ who, early last year, suggested to members of the Negro Ministerial Alliance that the time was right for a more concerted push than either the Urban League or the Omaha branch of the NAACP was equipped to make. The result was the 4CL, which splintered off to become the most active arm of Negro leadership in town. Organ himself, as a man deeply respected by both whites and Negroes in Omaha, is a member of the Mayor's Bi-racial Committee. "I know some people say I wear two hats. I just do what I can," he says.

In Omaha, the rules of the race game are known to everyone. Alfred C. Kennedy, the city's leading realtor, has said that he would inquire about property for a Negro buyer in a white neighborhood, but would not participate in the closing of the deal or accept any commission, to protect his firm against possible reprisals.

Daniel J. Monen, chairman of the Mayor's biracial housing subcommittee, adds, "I've run into a damned lot of inflamed white people." He urges his group to avoid extremism.

Thus, the ghetto way of life goes on in Omaha, and Negroes there grow increasingly impatient.

Peter Kiewit and Morris Jacobs have become special targets of the 4CL. In early September, Kiewit's newspaper, the
Omaha World-Herald
, was silently ringed by picketing members of the group, which accused the World-Herald of employment bias and slanted reporting.

Jacobs called the demonstration "unfair," but Omaha Public Safety Director Chris Gugas, who had threatened to invoke the city ruling that prohibits unlicensed demonstrations, made no arrests.

According to Elizabeth Davis Pittman, an attractive Negro attorney. "The powers in this city are not so much angry as they are resentful because it is their consciences that are being picketed."

Those consciences are getting a workout. Though there is comparatively little social interaction between whites and Negroes in Omaha, the town's ordinary Negroes, so long docile and silent, have begun to speak out, now that the 4CL has prodded white Omahans into listening.

Last summer, when Omaha school superintendent Dr. Paul Miller cited "126 Negroes" in the school system, Mrs. Mildred Brownell challenged, "One hundred and twenty-six teachers?" As it turned out, the figure 126 included some 78 teachers; the rest were employed in custodial and other nonprofessional jobs.

Signs of change are small but promising. Sixteen Omaha clergymen of various faiths last July issued a "statement of purpose for action and a basis for involvement." Laymen, too. are beginning to see the problem as basically a moral one. A white newspaper reporter confides. "We've let ourselves be led by men who are business leaders — people who stress land values, property values, aesthetics — none of which have allowed us, so far, to see the reality of the Omaha Negro's plight. Well. we can't avoid seeing it now."

NOW, HERE'S WHAT it was like 1,000 miles to the south. From an article in Monday's edition of The (Baton Rouge) Advocate:
“When Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday, part of Dr. King’s dream will be realized — we are finally judging a person by his character and not by the color of his skin,” said Freya Anderson Rivers.

Rivers, 62, principal of a Michigan elementary school, was one of four black students to integrate Baton Rouge’s Lee High School in 1963.

“So many people died and suffered to get Obama where he is today,” Rivers said. “What if we’d never had the bus boycott and Dr. King hadn’t come to Baton Rouge to find out how we’d been so successful, would we be where we are today? I don’t think we would.”


Now with Obama’s election, those involved in the civil rights movement say the suffering they endured to change the law of the land and to change people’s hearts and minds was worth it.

“For so many years, I didn’t think that it was,” Rivers said. “But now I know our suffering was not in vain. I have hope that the country is changing. For years I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but I started saying it again the day after Obama was elected.”

In August 1963, Rivers planned to attend the March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

“But we had to cancel the trip when the school district said I had to register for school on the same day as the march,” she said.

Rivers, who was a 16-year-old senior at the time, was one of four students — all of whom had top grades and came from stable families — to integrate Lee High School.

And that year of school was a harrowing, nightmarish experience, she said.

“The four of us were pushed and shoved when we walked down the hallways, we were called names, the other kids spit on us, and when we sat down at a desk in a classroom, all of the other students moved away,” she said.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, U.S. marshals, who feared for the Lee High School Four’s safety, removed the students from school that day.

“As the marshals tried to get us out of the school, a mob surrounded us. The teachers and the marshals had to encircle us to get us to the car,” Rivers said.

As they pulled away from the school, someone threw a bucket of feces and urine at the car, she said.

A first-chair clarinetist at her former school, Southern High School, Rivers had to fight to get to play in the Lee High School band.

When Rivers won a gold medal for a clarinet solo at a state competition, her name was never announced with the other winners’ names.

And Rivers brought her mother to tears during one graduation activity.

“Everyone was walking out in pairs,” the high school honor graduate said. “But no one would walk with me. So, I stood there until everyone else walked out and then I walked out alone like a bride. The crowd booed me.”

Rivers said she will attend Obama’s inauguration.

“You couldn’t keep me away,” she said. “I missed the March on Washington and I plan to make that up by going to the inauguration. There’s a lot of justice to that.”
YES, there is.


Anonymous said...

Nice article. I too am Pro-Life, but it concerns me how many of us "Pro-Lifers" turn around and support the death penalty (which I vehemently oppose also). We are all God's children after all. Even the lives of the two kids robbing the grill store owners was sacred, albeit wasted.

Anonymous said...

I too am a pro-lifer, and while I agree with the fact that our country has come a long way in the areas of racism and equality, I don't believe that gives reason to overlook all the other areas we still need to work on. On the subject of abortion; I can not comprehend how someone can chose to take the life of a child, be it born or unborn, it is still a child. Especially when you consider all the loving couples in the world who so despartly want a baby and are unable to have one for whatever reason. In my opinion the choice is easy, if you don't want a the responsibilty of having a child, DONT'T HAVE SEX. Having sex out of wedlock is a sin anyway, but that is a different discussion. On the subject of Obama; while I did not vote for him, nor do I agree with many of his views, I do understand that nothing happens without God allowing it. Therefore, as a Christian, it is my duty to obey the laws of the land, as long as it does not contridict the laws of God, and to pray for the people of have been placed in leadership positions.