Friday, January 14, 2005

Four Farewells And A Happy Birthday 

First, an explanation; gentle and even alert readers may not have noticed, given the splendid efforts of the other 6/7ths of Corrente, but I've been largely absent from regular posting for some weeks now, although I have managed a shadowy presence in the comments. This was due entirely to illness, nothing more, which has now finally begun to recede, in favor of healing and eventually, I hope, my usual robust health.

I was able to continue to pay attention to the world around me and even to make notes; I hope to catch up, but if some of my posts review some familiar territory, I can only hope for your patience.

First, the farewells. Much has been written about Susan Sontag, when she was alive, and in response to her too early death. Yes, she had reached her seventies, but it is hard to imagine a more vibrant public intellect than hers. I knew her only as a reader, in spite of several opportunities to meet her through academic friends. I declined because I couldn't imagine a more intimate relationship than that between admired writer and admiring reader. I was in high school when I read her essay, Notes On Camp" in the Partisan Review, one of many newspapers and magazines that arrived regularly in my home; yes, I was remarkably lucky in the parenting department. I'd never heard the word "camp" used the way Sontag was using it, in fact, I wasn't sure whether her "camp" was a noun or an adjective, (it was both I finally figured out), however the aesthetic and its many paradoxes she was describing I recognized with that special shock reserved for unrevealed revelations at last revealed.

Eric Alterman had a lovely personal remembrance I can't link to because I simply can't figure out how to find those permanent Altercation links I know are there, and which Goggle refuses to offer up. (Any readers who can tell me what I'm doing wrong, please do so in comments) Eric emphasized Sontag's bravery, and he made me understand that beyond her stardom, she was not always an intimidating presence, and that it was her habit to draw out the quietest person in the room in the service of her relentless curiosity; could this quiet person have knowledge Sontag ought to know about.

As touching was this from Tom Englehardt:
On the first day of the New Year, while headlines blazed with news of 140,000 or more deaths around the coastal rim of South Asia, I found myself with a small but solitary task. I removed Susan Sontag's name from the list of those who receive Tomdispatch. She had been an early reader, well before this service gained its own name or a modest Web presence. And when it did, at the beginning of 2003, she allowed me to post a sobering(yet stirring) speech of hers on Israel's "refusniks," on what it means to resist service to your own country, a speech that seems increasingly relevant today; and later, another on the Bush administration's embattled cross-Atlantic relationship with Europe.
Tom includes links to both speeches. Read the Rebecca Solnit article, "Sontag and Tsunami" that Tom's piece introduces.

Listening to NPR I heard that the people of Sarejavo will be naming a street after Sontag, who, in case you don't know, went there in the mid- nineties, when the city was under constant bombardment from Serb artillary, to direct a play, and thereby to stand with the Muslim people of that city by opposing the power of raw force without conscience with the power of art. Whatever one's disagreements with Susan Sontag, and it wasn't possible not to have them with so vivid and authoratative an intellect, God, she was a brave woman. The Guardian also has a lot of good stuff on Sontag; start here and click away.

Robert Matsui gave the lie to all that Republican public disdain for public service. He was what every member of the House of Representatives ought to be, a tribune of the people, by the people, and for the people. I hope many of you were able to see on C-Span the Memorial for him that took place in the Capital. All the speakers were wonderful, especially Nancy Peloisi, whose deep love and sorrow often threatened to overtake her words. President Clinton spoke last, and once again I found myself awed by his deep humanity. His own recent illness has clearly taken its toil; he looks gaunt, and some spark of vitality hasn't yet returned; still, it was an amazing performance, and I do not mean that perjoratively; Mr. Clinton was not pretending anything; he was gathering his energy, his thoughts, his emotions and his words to pay tribute to a friend who was an exemplary citizen, taken from us entirely too soon; only in that sense was it a performance. The ex-president spoke without notes, and before he got to what he wanted to say, he graciously summarized and remarked upon what had been said by those who came before him to that lecturn. His own thoughts were about commonality vs. division, a common theme for Clinton, but one that was completely appropriate for Bob Matsui, a supporter of Nafta, as Clinton pointed out, and yet a man whom the head of the AFL-CIO had also come to mourn.

I did meet Mr. Matsui; I had gone to Washington, with others, to protest the Reagan and then the Bush administration's refusal to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his massive mis-treatment of the Iraqi people, and in particular his genocidal actions against the Kurds. Irony of ironies. Representative Matsui not only listened intently, he talked with us about what he could and would do, all of which he did. In the runup to the first Gulf War, Robert Matsui put in a call to each of us who had come to talk with him in his office that day, to ask us about our views on Bush's push toward war, about which we had various attitudes. How terrible that we take such superlative citizens who spend their working lives in public service so much for granted; our democratic republic would not be possible without the likes of Bob Matsui. He made me proud to call myself a Democrat.

Robert Heilbroner was both an academic and a public intellectual. He wrote with clarity and grace about economics, and about the history of economics. No one wrote better prose about that subject, although both Galbraiths, pere and fils, were his equals, and Max Sawicky is no slouch and shares Heibroner's deep wit. Everyone should have a copy on their bookshelf of Heilbroner's great work, "Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers." You can find an excellent more formal obit here.

James Forman died this week. We hear so much talk recently about the "compelling" stories black and hispanic conservatives bring to the offices they are appointed to, as if people like John Lewis, John Conyers, and yes, James Forman somehow had it easy, riding that liberal gravy train to fame and fortune.

From the Washington Post, see if this is a compelling enough life story to stand up to the likes of Armstrong Williams and Clarence Thomas, who never ran for office and never oganized anything beyond their own personal ambitions:
James Forman was born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1928, and spent his early years living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Miss. When he was 6, his parents took him back to Chicago, although he often spent summers in Mississippi. Until he was a teenager, he used the surname of his stepfather, John Rufus, a gas station manager, unaware that his real father was a Chicago cabdriver named Jackson Forman.

He graduated with honors from Chicago's Englewood High School in 1947 and served with the Air Force in Okinawa during the Korean War. After his discharge in 1952, he enrolled at the University of Southern California.

Early in his second semester, in 1953, he was falsely arrested, beaten and held for three days by Los Angeles police. The experience prompted a breakdown that briefly put him in a psychiatric hospital. Afterward, he returned to Chicago and enrolled at Roosevelt University.

He graduated in three years, planning to be a writer or journalist. While doing graduate work at Boston University, he wrangled press credentials from the Chicago Defender and took the train to Little Rock, where, in the fall of 1957, court-ordered school integration was being resisted. From there, he filed a few stories and looked for opportunities to organize mass protests in the South.

After working briefly as a substitute elementary school teacher in Chicago, he found that opportunity in Fayette County, Tenn., a few miles from his childhood home. Seven hundred families of sharecroppers had been evicted from their homes for registering to vote. Joining a program sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, he helped publicize the farmers' plight, distributed food and registered voters.

In the summer of 1961, he was jailed with SNCC-organized Freedom Riders who were protesting segregated facilities in Monroe, N.C. After his sentence was suspended, he went to work full time for SNCC.

One of Mr. Forman's early challenges was to referee an internal dispute between SNCC activists who believed in direct action -- sit-ins, demonstrations and other forms of confrontation -- and those who believed voter registration was the most effective path to political empowerment. Mr. Forman maintained there really was no distinction.

"The brutal Southern sheriffs," he wrote a few years later, "didn't care what kind of 'outside agitator' you were; you were black and making trouble and that was enough for them."

He also wrestled, as did most SNCC members, with the meaning and utility of nonviolence. Unlike his friend and SNCC cohort John Lewis, who considered nonviolence a way of life, Mr. Forman considered it a tactic, nothing more. There were times, he believed, when self-defense -- fighting back -- was absolutely necessary.

Mr. Forman also was often at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1961, for example, Mr. Forman objected to King's involvement in the Albany Movement, a boycott, sit-in and voter registration drive SNCC initiated in Georgia.

"A strong people's movement was in progress, the people were feeling their own strength grow," he wrote some years later. "I knew how much harm could be done by interjecting the Messiah complex -- people would feel that only a particular individual could save them and would not move on their own to fight racism and exploitation."

King came to Albany, spoke and left. SNCC's work in the area continued for the next couple of years.

In the summer of 1964, Mr. Forman's SNCC brought almost a thousand young volunteers, black and white, to register voters, set up "freedom schools," establish community centers and build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Among those volunteers were Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, the three young men murdered along a muddy road near Philadelphia, Miss., in June 1964. (According to Julian Bond, Mr. Forman was probably not aware in the last days of his life that Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and sawmill operator, had been recently charged with the murders.)

Later that summer, Mr. Forman journeyed to Atlantic City, where he worked to persuade Democratic Party officials to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention. Despite his efforts and despite the powerful testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, who told of being fired by her boss and beaten unconscious by the police for her work in support of MFDP, the upstart party failed to supplant the state's party regulars.

"Atlantic City was a powerful lesson, not only for the black people from Mississippi but for all of SNCC and many other people as well," Mr. Forman wrote. "No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South."

Despite Mr. Forman's growing militancy, SNCC dumped him and Lewis in 1966, replacing them with Carmichael and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson.

Mr. Forman, who always had been interested in African liberation movements, went to Africa in 1967. In 1969, he helped organize the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where a "Black Manifesto" was adopted. He also founded a nonprofit organization called the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee.

On a Sunday morning in May 1969, Mr. Forman interrupted services at New York City's Riverside Church to demand $500 million in reparations from white churches to make up for injustices African Americans had suffered over the centuries. Although Riverside's preaching minister, the Rev. Ernest T. Campbell, termed the demands "exorbitant and fanciful," he was in sympathy with the impulse, if not the tactic. Later, the church agreed to donate a fixed percentage of its annual income to anti-poverty efforts.

In the 1970s, Mr. Forman was in graduate school at Cornell University and received a master's degree in African and African American studies in 1980. In 1982, he received a PhD from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities.

A writer and pamphleteer, Mr. Forman moved to Washington in 1981 and started a newspaper called the Washington Times, which lasted a short while. He also founded the Black American News Service. He was the author of "Sammy Younge Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement" (1969), "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" (1972 and 1997) and "Self Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African American People" (1984).


In July, despite being weak from his long struggle with cancer, Mr. Forman took a train from Washington to Boston during the Democratic National Convention. He took part in a "Boston Tea Party," in which members of the D.C. delegation tossed bags of tea into Boston Harbor to protest lack of statehood and no vote in Congress.

"It was said that on his deathbed, Frederick Douglass's last words were, 'Organize! Organize!' That's what Forman did every day of his life," Bond said. "That's what today's civil rights movement has forgotten how to do."
Notice, no cushy internships or associateships at phony think tanks, no stipends, no entrys into journalism by way of rightwing publications, just a long, hard, slog, trying to make this country into the America most Americans imagined, wrongly, it to be. And how do we thank this American hero? Well, too many of us don't. For me, I will honor James Forman by acting upon the message of his life, the message of all those great American lives which informed the sixties in this country, not only James Forman, but James Farmer, and Fannie Lou Hammer, and James Cheney, and Thurgood Marshall, and all the American people they stirred to conscience and action, which included me - "Organize! Organize!"

And now to the birthday. Eric Alterman is forty-five today, so visit Altercation and find out about the noble manner in which he would like those of us who are part of the Altercation community to celebrate in his honor; find out as well about Eric's own successful organizational effort to get The Economist to unslander Susan Sontag. Then let Eric know that you honored the good birthday cause he directs us to by leaving a message in the convenient box right at the end of the current post. It's Slacker Friday so there's also a terrific Charles Pierce letter. I've just finished reading "When President's Lie," and it's first-rate history, the best written of all Eric's book, and you should have it on your bookshelf. So, a well-earned Happy Birthday, Eric.

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