Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Community, Charity, and Chili at Tree of Life UU Congregation

It was a busy morning last Sunday at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road.

Cathy Patenaude, Manager of Development and Social Media for the McHenry County Health Partnership Clinic, (center) accepted the symbolic big check for $644 after services on February 10 at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  The clinic provides vital medical care to the underinsured and uninsured residents.  Tree of Life supports partner organizations every month with Second Sunday collections.  Representing the Congregation were Dr. Lisa Messinger and Patrick Murfin of the Tree of Life Social Justice Team.

Winners of the Tree of Life Chili Cook-off are from left to right Marc Stettner, third place; Patrick Kerin, champion and trophy winner; and Beth Hoover, second place.  The Cook-off was held after Sunday services and was the kick-off to the congregation’s annual Pledge Drive.  In addition the championship trophy the top three out of 16 entrants took home a hot pepper necklace, decorative commemorative chili spoon, and a Starbucks gift card.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Lincoln and Faith—Fact and Fiction

Evangelicals have been trying to claim Lincoln for a long time.  Today's Religious Right continues to do it.

Note—On Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday we revisit an analysis of Honest Abe’s religious beliefs and connection.  As you read, contrast to those of the current occupant of the White House who claims to be a born again Christian and a champion of the Religious Right yet shows no knowledge of or interest in the faith he professes.

Back in 2009 the nation was in the grip of a wave of Lincoln mania in conjunction with the bi-centennial of his birth.  There was an avalanche of new books and articles examining every aspect of the Great Emancipator’s life, work, and connections.

The Religious Right—those who were not also neo-Confederates any way—was busy, as usual, trying to retroactively adopt him as an Evangelical Christian.  On the other hand the small world of the Unitarian Universalist blog-o-sphere and a spate of sermons, tried to lay claims that Lincoln was, at least in spirit, a Unitarian or a Universalist.

Scott Wells, a leading Universalist and Christian blogger from a Southern background claimed to be immune to the cult of Lincoln worship.  For his family Lincoln represented oppression, destruction, and, for them, the nightmare of Reconstruction.  He also scolded U.U.s for trying to appropriate Lincoln into our ever popular lists of famous UUs.

The following is adapted from my response to Wells.

Hagiography aside, there are many reasons to put your understandable regional bias aside and spend some time studying Abraham Lincoln. As flawed and inconsistent as any man, he is still rewarding for the subtlety and depth of his thought and his life long struggle to reconcile a true and deeply held idealism with both personal ambition and the need to act in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Even Harry Truman, a Missouri Democrat whose unreconstructed Confederate mother never forgave him for making Lincoln’s Birthday a national holiday, came to deeply admire his ancient tribal enemy
In talking about religion Lincoln often expressed a modest practicalism.
Lincoln’s relationships to religion are not a murky as some suppose. Certainly any denomination that would attempt to claim him as its own is self-delusional. Here is some of what we know.

1)   At no time in Lincoln’s life did he ever claim to be a Christian as understood at his time or to be saved.

2)  As far is known he was never baptized and never became a member of any church.

3)  Among his earliest published writings were attacks on a political rival, Peter Cartwright who was a fire-and-brimstone Methodist circuit rider who had accused Lincoln of infidelity and had used his wide Methodist connections to build a Democratic political operation.  The articles, which appeared under a nom de plume, mocked both the man’s religion and his attempts to use his followers as a political base.  Lincoln claimed never to have “denied the truth of Scripture” but did acknowledge that he was not a church member.  Lincoln defeated Cartwright for a seat in Congress, but Cartwright’s charges—and his own tart responses—would dog him for years.

4)   Like most self-educated Americans who had literary aspirations and who were not versed in the Latin and Greek of the Eastern college educated elite, Lincoln had two primary sources to draw from for both inspiration and style—The King James Version of the Bible and the popular plays of William Shakespeare. He knew both. But his writing was infused with the cadences and majesty of the Bible. He could also, if the occasion called for it, usually in response to some hypocrisy from the mouth of a believer, quote verse with ease.

5)  He deeply admired Thomas Jefferson and treasured the Declaration of Independence as the essential founding document. He borrowed from Jefferson, and from George Washington, the language of Deism in public discourse. He frequently spoke of Providence, Creator, and other Deist constructions. He did not avoid the word God, but he did not invoke an explicitly Christian God. One can search in vain for much use of the words Christ or Savior outside of the context of letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers often echoing back sentiments expressed by the bereaved. He was all for giving whatever comfort he could.

Springfield"s Presbyterian Church continues to call itself  Lincoln's Church and includes this inaccurate--Lincoln was still just growing his beard when he left town--illustration in their literature
6)  In Springfield he attended Mary’s Presbyterian Church and was friendly with its minister but never joined the church or partook in the Spartan Presbyterian communion.  That hasn’t stopped that congregation from calling itself “Lincoln’s Church” to this day.

7)  He read the published sermons of both William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker and appropriated or adapted words from each—especially Parker—in his speeches. But in practice as President, despite a personally cordial relationship with Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, he found Abolitionist Unitarians to be pig-headed impediments to a practical prosecution of the war and a move toward post-war healing and a re-united country.  Despite this the UU congregation in Springfield proudly adopts his name.
Lincoln read, admired, and paraphrased Unitarian Theodore Parker.
8) He believed deeply and viscerally in Fate and implacable Destiny. This was part and parcel of his widely reported melancholia. Some scholars have attributed this to a sort of Calvinist hang-over. Could be. But Lincoln’s sense of fate and destiny seem to rise from far more ancient impulses.

9) There is nothing to connect Lincoln to institutional Universalism. Steven Rowe a Southern Universalist Church  historian responded to Wells with an excerpt from memoirs by Universalist minister quoting appreciative comment by Lincoln after attending a debate between a Universalist and a orthodox minister:

“I used to think that it took the smartest kind of man to preach and defend Universalism; I now think entirely different. It is the easiest faith to preach that I have ever heard.  There is more proof in its favor, than in any other doctrine I have ever heard. I  have a suit in court here to-morrow and if I had as much proof in its favor as there is in Universalism, I would go home, and leave my student to take charge of it, and I should feel perfectly certain that he would gain it.” Such were his words.

Unfortunately there are no other witnesses to Lincoln attending the debate described or speaking this assessment of it.  And I am sure a diligent search of the memoirs of ministers of other denominations can turn up appreciative Lincoln quotes, some perhaps true, others the product of devout wishful thinking.  Yet there is much to suggest that Lincoln privately embraced a kind universalism of spirit that accepted a common struggle for understanding a greater mystery that transcended mere denominationalism.
Artist Michelle L. Hamilton depicted Lincoln describing his experiences in a White House séance.
10) In the White House, with the gruesome burdens of a war-time presidency on his shoulders and the private grief over the loss of his beloved son Willie, Lincoln followed Mary’s lead and seemed to take Spiritualism, then at the height of its American popularity, with due seriousness. At the time many Universalist ministers were also toying—to considerable controversy—with Spiritualism. But again Lincoln never publicly endorsed Spiritualism, or acknowledged it as his faith.

In the post-war years both the Abolitionist preachers with whom he sparred during the war and a generation of new Unitarian leaders bloodied on the battlefields of that war—Jenkin Lloyd Jones being a prime example—participated in the myth making that turned the martyred President into a kind of a Saint. They went too far. And rubbing the defeated South’s nose in it exacerbated the regional disdain with which you grew up.

But I think many modern Unitarians and Universalists can find much with which to resonate in Lincoln’s personal spiritual journey.  It so resembles so many of our own.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dying to Bowl—The Orangeburg Massacre

Students at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg marched after some of them had been barred from the All Star Bowling Alley and roughed up by police the night before.  This orderly demonstration deteriorated into scuffles after being attacked by police.

1968 was one of the most eventful years in American history—the Vietnam War raged.  Riots of Black rage tore up inner cities. Chicago Police themselves rioted, beating and gassing demonstrators at the Democratic Party Convention. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon was elected President. Apollo astronauts first orbited the Moon.
Maybe that explains how the first ever shooting of students on campus by authorities on February 8, 1968 gets overlooked.  But how do you explain the fact that even then, it barely caused a ripple in the national consciousness?
Students at historically Black South Carolina State College (SCSC) at Orangeburg just wanted to bowl.  Although certainly not untouched by more than a decade of Civil Rights turmoil in the South, students there, typically the first in their families to go to college, usually concentrated on their studies.  It was certainly hotbed  of radicalism. 
Like many small towns, recreational opportunities were limited.  Just outside the University sat the town’s only bowling alley All Star Bowling Lanes on US 301 owned by Harry K. Floyd.  It had a firm Whites Only policy.  On February 6 a large group of students attempted to enter the bowling alley.  They were refused admission.  Scuffling broke out and local police were called.  In the resultant melee nine students and one officer were injured.  Two female students were restrained by one officer while being beaten by another.  The campus erupted in rage.

Governor Robert E. Mcnair mobilized the National Guard and sent a large contingent of State Police.
Rowdy demonstrations and arrests occurred the next evening.  Students announced that they would keep up street actions.  Local officials called for help.  Governor Robert E. McNair mobilized a National Guard unit and dispatched large numbers of State Police to Orangeburg.
On the night of February 8, students started a large bonfire in the street near the bowling alley.  Bottles and rocks were thrown at massing authorities.  There were claims that at least one Molotov cocktail was thrown.  The Fire Department was called to douse the bonfire and the State Police advanced “in protection” of firefighters.  Students fell back to campus exchanging jeers and insults with police and throwing objects at them.  The crowd of 200-300 students stopped just inside the entrance of the school.
One police officer suffered minor injuries to the face when struck by a piece of banister railing.  Police later said that they came under fire from snipers.  Some witnesses recall two or three popping sounds.  Much later it was determined that an Orangeburg city policeman fired three warning shots into the air with his carbine. 
Unnerved and enraged the State Police unleashed multiple volleys at the students at a range of about 20 yards.  The Police were armed with sawed-off riot shot guns.  Ordinarily these weapons are supposed to be loaded with light bird shot for non-lethal crowd control.  The pump action shot guns instead were loaded with heavy buck shot, nine pellets to a cartridge and designed to kill.

Orangebur dead surrounded by State Police.
In moments three young men lay dead.  At least 26 others were shot, most in the back while fleeing.  Many had multiple wounds from the devastating buck shot.  Forty years later, another man showed a scar and said he was shot in the stomach that night but was afraid to seek treatment.  After the shooting stopped, two students were beaten, one for questioning the Police.  Twenty-seven year old Louise Kelly Cawley was beaten and sprayed in the face with Mace while trying to bring the wounded to medical treatment.  A week later she suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injuries. 

Orangeburg victims--Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond, and Delano Middleton.
The dead were SCSC students Samuel Hammond, 18, Henry Smith, 19 and Wilkinson High School senior Delano Middleton, 17.
That night the Associated Press (AP) reported the shootings as a “heavy exchange of gunfire” with authorities.  It never corrected this entirely erroneous report.
The next morning Governor McNair told reporters it was “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.”  He fretted that the state’s, “reputation for racial harmony had been blemished.”  He was also a fount of misinformation not only backing claims that the police were fired on, but claiming that the shooting occurred off campus as students were rampaging.  He also blamed “Black Power advocates” for the unrest.  National news outlets did little to counter this biased account, which became widely accepted.

Local South Carolina Press coverage was sensational and parroted official claims that officers had come under fire by armed students.  Later investigation proved that claim false.  The national press  mostly accepted local claims and the story got little coverage from them.
The Justice Department launched an investigation.  Eight of 66 State Police on the scene admitted firing their riot guns, most of them multiple times.  A ninth officer emptied the six bullets from his .38 service revolver at fleeing students.  They were indicted for “imposing summary punishment without due process of law.”  The officers were: Patrol Lieutenant Jesse Alfred Spell, 45, Sgt. Henry Morrell Addy, 37, Sgt. Sidney C. Taylor, 43, Corporal Joseph Howard Lanier, 32, Corporal Norwood F. Bellamy, 50, Patrolman First Class John William Brown, 31, Patrolman First Class Colie Merle Metts, 36, Patrolman Allen Jerome Russell, 24, and Patrolman Edward H. Moore, 30.  All were white.  An Orangeburg city police officer, later promoted to Chief, also discharged his shot gun but was never charged.  Later another State Police officer, Patrolman Robert Sanders, admitted shooting students but was never charged.
It took less than two hours for a jury to acquit all of the officers despite the fact that evidence presented at the trial was damming.  No guns were ever found among the victims nor did any eye witnesses report seeing any or hearing any gunfire from the crowd.
Two and a half years after the shooting, one man was finally convicted—Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr.  He was a young South Carolinian who was National Program Director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  He happened to be in Orangeburg on February 6.  He had been present at the first disturbance outside of the bowling alley and had been injured.  He was not there in his capacity with SNCC, the organization never had a campaign at the school, and he was not present or involved with events over the next two days.  None the less, state authorities, hoping to shore up their weak case for “outside agitators,” charged Sellers with multiple counts, including conspiracy and incitement to riot.  This was too much for even a local trial judge, who threw out the felony counts with scathing remarks.  But he did find Sellers guilty of simple riot.  Sellers spent 7 months in state prison.  In 1998 Sellers published a memoir of his ordeal, Orangeburg Massacre: Dealing Honestly with Tragedy and Distortion.
Jack Bass’s comprehensive 1970 account, The Orangeburg Massacre was, despite glowing early reviews, effectively squelched in distribution by pressure from Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) chief J. Edgar Hoover, who objected to accounts of FBI agents attempting to cover up for the State Police.  The book was finally re-issued and became widely available by Mercer University Press in 1984. 
Bass continued as an historian to campaign for wider awareness of the buried incident. 
In 2004 South Carolina Governor Mark Stafford finally issued a public statement that, “I think it’s appropriate to tell the African-American community in South Carolina that we don’t just regret what happened in Orangeburg 35 years ago—we apologize for it.”   

The Orangeburg Massacre memoria on the grounds of South Carolina State University today.
The school is now known as South Carolina State University.  Its gymnasium is now named in memory of the three men killed.  There is a monument on campus in their honor and the site of the shooting is been marked. The school conducts annual memorial commemorations and promotes ongoing academic investigation of the event.
And, oh yeah, the All Star Bowling Lanes was renamed the All-Star Triangle Bowl. The Floyd family still owns and operates the business.   It has been integrated for many years.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

White Faces, Burnt Cork Won’t Go Away

Virinia Governor Ralph Northam is just one of many prominant persons whose blackface past has bit them in the ass.

Note—The scandal over Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam black face and Klansman photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook continues to rage unabated and has ground state government to a standstill.  Northam is not the only politician in either party to be caught up in such controversies.  Many celebrities have also been caught from Mormon good girl dancer/singer Julianne Hough to Ted Danson, and such beloved figures as Joni Mitchel and nice guy Tom Hanks.  So have school teachers, ministers, cops, and judges.  Up to the mid-1950’s white Americans considered blackface entirely normal, respectable, cute, and even excused it as a tribute to Black culture.  The recent revelations occurred decades later after everyone but Megyn Kelley should have known better.  Yet the practice endures.  Today we resurrect a history of American Minstrelsy, the origin of blackface.
The first Minsrtel show extablished conventions and stereotypes for blackface revues and introduced songs like Jimmy Crack Corn  and Turkey in the Straw.
On February 6, 1842 the very first all Blackface revue took the stage of the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City.  The Virginia Minstrels launched a new theatrical form with their own entirely self-contained shows after brief trials, first for no admission at a billiards parlor, and in January as part of a larger program at the Chatham Theater.
While Blackface performers had been popular on stage for at least two decades, they usually appeared as solo or duet acts or occasionally in short comic skits.  The new show put the whole cast in Blackface and invented most of the conventions that became standard to Minstrel shows.
Dan Emmett, a fiddler, conceived and put together the original four-member troupe which also included banjo player Dick Pelham; Billy Whitlock, dancer/comic/tambourine player; and bones player/comic Frank Brower.  Whitlock and Bower became the first end men known as Tambo and Bones, who provided the patter and jokes.  Emmett acted as master of ceremonies, a role that would later come to be known as the Interlocutor and be refined as a character aspiring to dignity, but pompous and “putting on airs.” Whitlock also did a Locomotive Lecture, a predecessor to the stump speech, the comic centerpiece of the second act of later Minstrel Shows.
The Minstrels successfully toured for a year and in 1843 their songs were published as The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels.  Among the songs the troupe introduced were Jimmie Crack Corn and Turkey in the Straw which would later come to be regarded as genuine American folk songs.  They were probably written by Emmett, an accomplished song writer who later published many songs under his own name, most famously Dixie, the biggest hit of 1859.  Ironically, Emmett, an ardent Unionist would become distraught when the song became the unofficial Confederate anthem
The group broke up late in 1844 with each performer going on to other projects, including imitation Minstrel shows that were quickly springing up.  They reassembled in England in 1845 and introduced the form to British and Irish audiences in three months of performances.  Pelham stayed in England and helped popularize it there.
By the 1850’s Minstrel shows were the most popular form of theater in America.  Dozens of companies toured houses in major cities, and more ragged troupes plied the small towns of the Midwest and South.  Casts grew and a number of stock characters were introduced for the comic sketches including the beloved elderly slave Uncle Ned; his wife Mammy (like all women’s parts in the first decades of the Minstrel show played by a man); the Trickster who could fool his master (often left out of Southern shows); Jim Crow a braggart actually modeled on a white stock character of the bragging frontiersman a la Davy Crocket; the dandy Zip Coon; and the Wench or Yeller, a light skinned mulatto or high yellow woman in fashionable white clothing who was the object of lust for both the black characters and the unseen white massas.
All of these characters were performed with exaggerated accents—in fact accents some scholars believe to have been virtually made up but which became so pervasive that they actually influenced Black speech. Characters were given to wild gesturing, lip smacking, and eye rolling which was highlighted by the burnt cork make-up.  They were seen as ignorant, foolish, vain, lazy, and apt to petty crime, although the Uncle Ned and Mammy characters could be sympathetic for their loyalty to the Massa and his family.  The shows established stereotypes which persist to this day.

The most fmous of all minstrell show established an enduring format and introduced the songs of Stephen Foster.
The most famous and successful Minstrel troupe of this period were the Christy Minstrels which had the good fortune of having Stephen Foster as their principle song writer.  Formed by Edwin Pearce Christy this company finished firmly setting the conventions of the Minstrel show, including the division into three acts.  The large company, always seated in a semi-circle after entering to a grand promenade, provided the specialty performances in the second act, and actors for the final act, an extended skit often satirizing a classic or popular play.
After Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out, many troupes dedicated the final act to short versions of the book or satires of it.  Some were faithful to Stowe and sympathetic to the black characters.  Many others turned the characters into the worst stereotypes from the Minstrel show stock company—a development that in the years after the Civil War so obscured Stowe’s original work that many assumed that the derogatory images came from her work.  The shows became known as Tom Shows.  This image tarred the reputation of the book and its author with emerging Black empowerment critics who turned Uncle Tom into an epithet.
Despite what seems to us today to be overt racism, the shows were popular with Black audiences as well as with whites.  At least blacks could see themselves—or caricatures of themselves on stage.  At least they were not invisible.  It has been compared to the later phenomena of the immigrant Irish embracing the stock Paddy characters of early Vaudeville with their broad, but unrecognizable brogues, pugnacious aggressiveness, sloppy drunkenness, and the sentimental songs composed for them.  In both cases the victims of the stereotyping came to embrace parts of the image and even to integrate some of it into their own culture.

Billy King was a major black minstrel show and performed without exagerated blackface when ever he could.
By the 1850’s Blacks were getting into the Minstrel business themselves.  A handful in the North even appeared in the white blackface shows, although they corked their faces in keeping with the tradition. 
In 1855 the first known all Black troupes started touring, often touting their “authenticness” in comparison to white troupes.  Some of these troupes began to cork only the end men and occasionally the Interlocutor.  This was popular with Black audiences, but the same troupes sometimes had to cork the entire cast to satisfy white ones.  The Black troupes were also the first to include women minstrels and to give them expanding parts in the shows.
By the 1880’s some of the Black troupes were as famous as the white ones and producing their own recognized stars.  The most famous of these troupes toured under different names ultimately becoming Callender’s Consolidated Colored Minstrels.  In the 1870 Black troupes began inserting the first truly genuine Black music into their shows—spirituals known as Jubilees.  White companies soon followed. 
Black touring companies, who often found their biggest audiences in the South often faced, both prejudice and physical danger.  They often could not find accommodations in towns too small for colored hotels and were expected to stay in make-up and character while on the streetMobs sometimes attacked theaters or took pot shots at trains known to be carrying the companies.
While white minstrelsy faded with the rise of vaudeville, Black troupes continued to be popular with Black audiences.  In the early 20th Century Black troupes began introducing more authentic Black music into the mix.  Among those who performed with or began their careers in Minstrel shows were W. C. Handy, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas.  So later Black Minstrel shows played an important part in spreading and popularizing ragtime, early jazz and blues.
After dominating the American stage for decades Minstrel shows, at least for white audiences, began to lose their appeal to the wider variety of vaudeville.  By the early 20’s the last of the professional White troupes had closed.  

Judy Garland appeared in blackface in multiple films but times were changing by 1954 when she did a minstrel show number in A Star is Born without the make up.
But the Minstrel show retained a strong nostalgic appeal. Acts based on the first act of the Minstrel shows—when the whole troop is on stage for big musical numbers, became a standard in vaudeville and were regularly featured in the great Broadway reviews like the Ziegfeld Follies where major stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor made their names performing in them.  Many of the most famous comic sketches and skits lived on in burlesque with the characters often stripped of their Negro identities or even transformed to other ethnic stereotypesAmos ‘n Andy, they long running radio and TV hit was based on Minstrel characters.
Jolson brought blackface and minstrelsy to the very first successful sound feature film The Jazz SingerBing Crosby played Edwin Christy in an early bio-pic that was essentially just a parade of Minstrel numbers by Foster.  MGM, especially, mined Minstrel shows in many of their patented show-biz musicalsJudy Garland and Mickey Rooney did them.  Even Fred Astaire did them.  This continued up through the studio’s big budget Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1950’s.  Almost all of these numbers featured their stars in black face.

This photo of the cast of a porochial school minstrell show in the '60's threw in Indian maiden
By the 1960’s that was impossible on the professional stage, movies, or television even as a historic recreation.  But Minstrel shows were still licensed and frequently performed by community theaters and by high schools right up to the final decades of the century.
The legacy of the Minstrel show, after the understandable revulsion of the Civil Rights Era, remains debated.  If nothing else it was a laboratory for the collision of White and Black worlds and one of the most important formative influences, for better or ill, of an American culture.