Martin Luther King and “The Other America”

50 years

(Photo Santi Visalli / Getty)

The March for Our Lives students are presently receiving death threats and profanity-laced tirades, from so-called adults, for their campaign against American gun violence.  However – between pop quizzes and learning how to drive – they’re undeterred.

Someone else experienced a similar backlash for his activism.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to end segregation, poverty, and war.  He was ridiculed, threatened, jailed, beaten, and ultimately assassinated… 50 years ago today.

In a speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967 (known as “The Other America” speech), he said something that could be equally applicable to today’s debate over gun control laws:

Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from (killing) me… And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and does change the habits of men.

King followed this by observing that, once habits change, attitudes and hearts will follow suit.  Based on the behavior of many of our current (elected) leaders, history has yet to render a verdict on this.

On this dark anniversary, it’s good to remember we had a leader of integrity, who was also unafraid to dream.

(To hear King, click the link above, and scroll to 30:00 for the quote)

(Photo Agence France Presse)

Witches, Wizards, Puritans and Periwigs

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One… of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch (Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647)

What?! Executed? For being a witch?

It’s hard to believe, 369 years later. But it happened in New England in the 17th century, and more than once. The largest frenzy occurred in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, when 20 people were hanged for practicing witchcraft.

The “one” who was executed at Hartford was a woman named Alse Young. She was the first person executed in North America, in 1647, for (supposed) witchcraft. Her fate is forever recorded in Governor Winthrop’s above diary entry.

Not much is known about poor Alse. She had a daughter named Alice Young Beamon, who was also accused of witchcraft, 30 years later, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Alse may have been married to a “John Young” of Windsor. But he disappeared soon after Alse’s unfortunate demise.

Maybe he smelled something in the air.

Americans often like to think of themselves as more enlightened than their forebears. But the new American colonies were little different from England and Europe in many ways. The three principal New England colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut) all had rigid theocracies. Church attendance was mandatory. The Bible was the primary religious and legal document. Dark forces and the specter of Satan were everywhere. Just like merry olde England, superstition and belief in the supernatural were commonplace.witch-sculpture

For example, in 1660 a Plymouth colonist named Jeremiah Burroughs (no relation to the English Puritan of the same name) accidentally drowned. A later court inquest blamed the incident on his canoe. The court determined the canoe was possessed.

The Salem trials and executions were ignited when several young girls began having fits. Their symptoms included screaming uncontrollably, hurling objects, and crawling under furniture (this actually sounds like my daughter when she was in 7th grade).

The girls also complained of being pinched, and pricked with pins. Current theory is that these symptoms resulted from infected bread, or a type of encephalitis, or maybe an exaggerated need for attention, among other things.

But in superstitious 17th-century New England, when a skin mole could be a mark of the devil and mental illness was a virtual death sentence… these upright, dogmatic Puritan leaders with their periwigs (later called just “wigs”) became really  wigged out when these girls behaved so.

“Let’s see… whom can we blame for such behavior?”

Well, not surprisingly, the first colonists accused of witchcraft were women, and they lived outside mainstream Puritan culture. Sarah Good (Salem) was a beggar woman. Sarah Osborne (Salem) avoided church and had married an indentured servant. “Tituba” (Salem) was a West Indian slave.

Goodwife “Goody” Glover (Boston) was an Irish Catholic who was executed in 1688 for witchcraft. Puritan minister and author Cotton Mather wrote that Glover was “a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry.”

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Engraving of Cotton Mather

Unlucky enough that Glover was Irish, Catholic, and poor in a parochial society of English Puritans. But her fate was sealed when, due to the fact she could only speak Irish and Latin, she was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English. This was considered a sure sign of witchcraft.

The old men with the white wigs slammed their gavels on their Bibles. But… considering they were Christians and held the Bible as sacred (and this isn’t intended to be a defense)… they merely felt they were carrying out orders.

Why?  Because in King James’ version of the Bible, Exodus 22:18 says Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. And Leviticus 20:27 says A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

I’m not a theologian.  And since I don’t agree with Bible verses such as above, I guess I’m not much of a Christian, either.  I won’t try to interpret the meaning of these agitating words, but it seems obvious that the Old Testament believes in the existence of witches and wizards, as well as capital punishment for “hathing” a “familiar spirit” (whatever that is).

We’ll never know whether Alse Young, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Tituba, or Goody Glover did hath or hathn’t such a spirit. I’m inclined to think they hathn’t.

Either way, I’m not going to let it ruin my Halloween.  Have a happy one, everyone… and watch out for possessed canoes.

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Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution

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The eminent historian David McCullough (“John Adams,” “Truman,” “The Johnstown Flood,” etc.) was interviewed on “60 Minutes” last year.  He bemoaned the fact that so few Americans today, especially younger Americans, know even basic facts about their country’s history.  He gave the example that, after a speech at a major university, a young woman approached him and gushed “Mr. McCullough, until your speech I didn’t know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”

McCullough’s a gracious man.  He didn’t laugh or get angry when he related this anecdote.  He didn’t even blame the co-ed.  Rather, he blamed parents and an American educational system that so often de-emphasizes the teaching of history.  One could tell McCullough was tremendously sad.

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Phil Robertson

Recently, various media outlets have been displaying just how historically challenged many Americans are.  I’m talking about the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson’s (“Duck Dynasty” TV show) inflammatory remarks in GQ Magazine about African-Americans and gays.  I won’t go into how idiotic and bigoted I think Mr. Robertson’s remarks are.  Any rational, thinking human being, Christian or non-Christian, knows that this guy is, shall we say… quacking utter nonsense.  I’d quote his offensive remarks but they’re readily searchable.

But I’ll say a few words about the backlash and how the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being used and abused by certain people –predominately people with an agenda from a certain side of the political aisle.

Here’s the entirety of the text to the First Amendment, one of ten amendments that comprise the Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Thomas Jefferson

I’m sure most Americans are unable to rattle off these 45 words verbatim.  But memorization’s not important.  What is important is that we understand what the amendment means.  Which is that Congress shall make no law that establishes religion (Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state”) nor prohibits freedom of speech, press, or peaceful assembly.

Mr. Robertson wasn’t thrown into jail.  He wasn’t even arrested.  Why?  Because he didn’t break any law, because Congress didn’t make any law prohibiting his speech or religious beliefs (as twisted as his speech and religious beliefs may be).  His freedom to drool his ignorance to GQ wasn’t violated.  In fact, his words were printed in a major magazine for all the world to see!  He can continue to drool his ignorance.  And the rest of us are allowed to analyze his words and either pity or castigate them, while he continues to paddle his canoe and blow his duck whistles (I guess that’s what he does, since I’ve never seen his show).  He just can’t do it on TV anymore.  The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Mr. Robertson the right to be on TV.

Mr. Robertson’s producers suspended him because his words and ideas were offensive, and probably because they don’t want to lose advertisers.  They’re allowed to do this.  Employers fire people for this stuff all the time.  If I’m sitting in my office and decide to start yelling about anuses and vaginas, and approach enough workmates with the idea that homosexuals are sinners, I’ll probably get fired.

This whole ugly mess does have some violations, though.  For starters, violations of empathy for a persecuted minority and – dare I say it – Christian decency on the part of Mr. Robertson.  And that plus common sense and historical understanding on the part of his defenders.  It’s hard for me to understand the priorities of Robertson’s apologists.  They evidently feel it’s real important to shut up his critics.  But they’re not overly concerned about the 14-year-old gay kid, maybe struggling to come out of the closet, who has to hear that his sexuality is one step removed from sex with animals.

Once again, rather than trying to solve the real problems facing this country, Americans are sucked into a sordid debate because of some yahoo who has a microphone stuck in his face.  And half the debate is being waged by folks who don’t even understand – or don’t want others to understand – the most important amendment to their own Constitution.

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Steve Allen to Jerry Springer

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Dysfunctional excess

Is all it took for my success.

(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)

Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum.  Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute).  I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.”  One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!).  It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.

For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson.  He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show.  He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.”  And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument!  In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out.  His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.”  In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product.   In my opinion, his voice carries weight.  Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period.  That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Politically, Allen was a Democrat.  And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity).  He didn’t believe in censorship.  But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness.  Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council.  The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen.  Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.

In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation.  But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment.  Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity.  And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.