Daddy was not a religious man. But if the Kingdom of God is within, as Jesus says in Luke, it was there, within his mind and heart, that this Kingdom radiated. I think of it as a spectrum of energies, like the wave lengths of visible light between infrared to ultraviolet.
At one end of the spectrum was something simple: his notion that every ordinary day is an extraordinary miracle, if we could only see it. “Take any day, a soft summer day.” That’s one of the songs he wrote – lyrics and music. Or his poem that begins “One good day is only once/ And it begins forever deep.. .” when the sound of leaves laughing and “insects inspecting things unseen” are understood as “God’s odd hum.”
In an old volume of Shakespeare’s works he bought for his bride in 1949 “B.C.” (Before Children), he inscribed this: “A gift to mark the most important occasion: a day: un-marked and uncelebrated. It represents the truly important.”
At the other end of this energy spectrum was History. His mental Time Map was marked by ideas that squeezed themselves into channels like a great river system – with headwaters in the 17th and 18th centuries, joining together: democracy; free press; the profit motive; checks and balances. He taught students to see these in newspaper stories. In his lucky career with Newsweek, he saw this great force of history face to face in the Civil Rights Movement, and bore witness to it in his lyrical Southern voice.
And throughout this scale of frequencies, tinted with colors from one end to the other, the way a rainbow registers all colors without a clear boundary between them, there was his love of Embo, matched with rare chemistry by her love from him, and of family, of generations – of forbears and children and grandchildren. And on outward it went, to every wayward character he encountered in his worlds.
This was the Kingdom of God within him. His excited imagination behind those blue eyes could see it reflected even on a Sunday morning in any great sermon full of personal drama, or in the very space above the people in church, up to the rafters. He told me after church once in recent years that he could feel the presence of something in the very air above the people, a presence like love itself.
–Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, Atlanta, Dec. 15, 2020
I found among my father’s effects a thin, musty hardcover volume called The History of Western Culture, a collection of Life Magazine articles that ran between March 3, 1947, and Nov. 22, 1948. Each one is far grander than a typical Life article of that time. It begins with a 14-page essay of text and pictures about the Renaissance, and ends with a focus on the revolutionary year of 1848. Meanwhile, I am currently reading a history of the American West by Bernard DeVoto called The Year of Decision: 1846, published in 1942, the first year of America’s gung-ho involvement in World War II. In these two books, you can see America in the 1940s looking back on the 1840s in a particular way that is worth remembering, or recovering. The 1840s and the 1940s were intensifiers of history, each a giant lens that focused literary and political sunlight that had been falling around the world, or at least in the Western world, for decades if not centuries. To line up these two lenses produces a very bright illumination.
One thing I recognize in The History of Western Culture, especially, is the enthusiasm my father had for this grand-narrative of western history. Of course he loved this Life magazine series, published between his graduation from college and his wedding. Unlike stuffy academic histories, it was what first-rate journalism could do with history for the general reader. (I sense behind the series, which bears no bylines or editorial names, the nationalistic optimism of Henry Luce and a distant cousin of Daddy’s, Life editor John Shaw Billings.) “I write for the nonexistent person called the general reader,” DeVoto says in his Preface.
Another revelation in these books, for me, is the powerful confluence of forces, of complicated urges for a new world of human possibilities, in the 1840s. Of course these urges carried with them the moral and ecological evils we now are (rightly) trying to sort out. Manifest Destiny, New England utopianism, Thoreau and Bancroft, the Mormon trek and President Polk’s gobbling up of Mexican territories, California and Oregon lands. And in Europe, in 1848, revolution, restoration, nationalism, liberalism. These day, it’s hard to appreciate these ferments and the epic grandeur of it all. But in the 1940s, it was intellectually solid to see all this with some amazement, along with irony and paradox.
One passage of the Life text on 1848 recovers the beauty of the word “liberalism” in its original sense. This understanding could be something that principled liberals and principled conservatives (the few that remain in either camp) might consider, if the Biden era is going to be one of pragmatic compromise and problem-solving.
Liberalism. “A term which has been muddied in the 20th Century’s many intellectual gutters was still a definite philosophy in 1848. It was a view of life which, in politics, emphasized the individual’s freedom from arbitrary rule. It saw the state, checked by parliaments and constitutions, as a ‘passive policeman’ whose main duty it was to keep order and protect property. Economically liberalism fought for freedom of trade, contract and enterprise; fought the aristocracy’s ancient privileges as well as tariffs and guilds. Intellectually it believed in progress through science and technology. It was the philosophy of the middle class, which had fought to establish it ever since the twilight of the Middle Ages.”
Ok, maybe that’s a suspiciously post-war, American Century sort of view of the age of Dickens and Louis Napoleon. But add in “a free and responsible press” (the name of a commission Luce launched and sponsored in 1942), and it comes close to why the label “liberal” is as good as it gets in politics, for all Newt Gingrich’s cynical campaign that made it a dirty word.
I wrote this for RARA, to appear in Lexington’s weekly News-Gazette on Nov. 18.It went up on the paper’s website Nov. 13.
No family table in our community need be without a turkey and trimmings this Thanksgiving.
The Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) has joined with the three public school systems and other food distribution partners to give away up to 1,000 frozen turkeys – about 15 tons of turkey – along with potatoes, green beans and fruit.
The free drive-thru distribution starts today at Fairfield Elementary School from 3:30 to 5 p.m. The giveaway continues at other school sites Thursday in Natural Bridge and Friday in the county, Buena Vista and Lexington.
On Saturday, Nov. 21, “Turkey Giveaway 2020” concludes with drive-thru pickups at RARA, 350 Spotswood Drive, Lexington, from 1-3 p.m.
All families needing help are welcome.
“Need” is taken on trust and doesn’t mean you have to be going hungry, said Jen Handy, executive director of RARA. “You’re not going to be taking the turkey from somebody else. We know it’s been a hard year.”
The idea of using school freezers around the county occurred to Handy in an inspiration that seemed crazy, at first. At the end of September, she was in a friend’s backyard watching their children play. Her friend said she had always wanted to give away Thanksgiving turkeys at her family restaurant, which prompted Handy to wish RARA could do that on a grand scale.
“My husband says I’m not afraid of a bad idea,” at least one that seems so at first. The problem was that RARA’s freezer had too little room, and would have other items in it. She considered church kitchens, then realized that public schools would be perfect. Their freezers would be under-utilized and they would be the distribution sites, as they have been for needy families throughout the pandemic.
All three school systems said yes, and began “fast and furious” planning, said Matt Crossman, director of school services for Rockbridge County.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for our families, our schools and RARA,” Crossman said. “It’s great that people can come together when things aren’t great. We need a little bit of sunshine.”
Another partner is Campus Kitchen of Washington and Lee, a student-run program that provides low-income families with balanced meals using nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste. RARA has partnered with Campus Kitchen for years, currently serving six sites around the county with a Mobile Food Pantry.
RARA, which is part of the “Rockbridge Feeds” coalition of food-distribution organizations, recently received the 2020 Humanitarian of the Year award in the area Chamber of Commerce’s People’s Choice Award. It will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022.
The frozen turkeys are being purchased through existing contracts or special orders from Sysco, Food Lion and Kroger, said Lindsey Pérez, program manager for RARA. The funding comes from a federal CARES Act grant through the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath and Alleghany, Pérez said.
Families will receive a whole turkey or frozen three-pound turkey breast, depending on family size. Families that have already received their Thanksgiving meal through the Mobile Food Pantry are asked not to get a second during this week’s drive-thru events.
You do not need to pre-register. RARA is asking that you stay in your car while volunteers collect basic household information. Cars in line before 3 p.m. will be served as long as supplies last.
The meals come with instructions for safe thawing and cooking, supplied by Rockbridge County’s Cooperative Extension service. Covid-19 safety precautions will also be observed in the distribution.
Indoor Thanksgiving gatherings, nationwide, are worrying public health officials. If the distribution of free turkeys in the Rockbridge area encourages families to stay home and not join larger gatherings out of the area, that could help. “Gatherings with attendees who are traveling from different places pose a higher risk than gatherings with attendees who live in the same area,” according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Meanwhile, The Community Table, which has been distributing free take-out meals every other Monday since June, will have a Thanksgiving-style dinner to hand out next Monday, from Good Karma restaurant. The drive-thru, around the RARA building in Lexington, will begin at 6 p.m. and continue until all 150 turkey-and-sweet-potato meals have been given out.
As difficult as 2020 has been, with its election-year divisions and pandemic sheltering, Pérez said there’s a lot to be thankful for in the Rockbridge area. “This is a great community that we live in. People come together and support each other and help out any way they can.”
The Turkey Giveaway drive-thru will be at:
Fairfield Elementary School (for Rockbridge County School District families), Wednesday, Nov. 18, 3:30-5 p.m.
Natural Bridge Elementary School (Rockbridge County School District families), Thursday, Nov. 19, 3:30-5 p.m.
Parry McCleur Middle School (Buena Vista School District families), Friday, Nov. 20, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Lylburn Downing Middle School (Lexington School District families), – Friday, Nov. 20, 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
Rockbridge County High School (Rockbridge County School District families)- Friday, Nov. 20, 3:30-5 p.m.
[This is the obituary I wrote for our father yesterday, a day the family gathered on Anne Preston’s front porch in Decatur to absorb the fact that he had passed away that morning. The Hospice staffer reached me around 6:30 a.m. while I was at Tate. A few moments later, two deer walked regally by just in front of the screen porch, a doe and a buck, disappearing into the thick mist. Meanwhile, in Decatur, Anne remembers waking up suddenly, inexplicably, at 3:30 that morning. My brothers Bryan and Walter had the exact same experience.]
Joseph B. Cumming, 94, Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau chief during the civil rights era and a pied piper of many gifts, died Monday, Nov. 9, in Decatur.
Among the journalists who covered the “Race Beat,” Cumming was their poet laureate and teacher of many, with a lyrical and historian’s touch. After 198, he taught journalism at West Georgia College and wrote a column on Southern writing for the book page of the Atlanta newspapers. With a Ralph McGill Lifetime Achievement Award and honorary doctorate from the University of the South at Sewanee, Cumming was more honored in the delight he took encouraging the achievement of others.
He is survived by four children, seven grandchildren and five great granddaughters. His wife of 68 years, Emily (Wright) Cumming, died four years earlier.
Born in Augusta on Feb. 26, 1926, the sixth generation of a family harking back to the city’s founding, Joe Cumming graduated from Sewanee in 1947, after serving in the Navy, and began work in a family building-supply business. There he learned from his Uncle Harry Burum the power of the profit motive, and the rough dignity of the unsung characters he recalled in an article for Georgia Magazine. Burum Company “had taught me much of what I needed to know” before moving his family to Atlanta in 1955.
Two years later, he joined the Newsweek bureau started in Atlanta by William A. Emerson, another colorful mentor. Cumming covered news from the Cuban Revolution to the trouble a young Pat Conroy created teaching poor black students on Daufuskie Island, S.C. But the big story was the decade-long saga of the Black movement in the South.
“By the greatest good luck,” he once wrote, “I could squeeze into black churches and feel a breathing air of excitement. We in the media walked beside the marches and demonstrations, and eavesdropped on confrontations.”
Besides filing dispatches for Newsweek, he hired and encouraged others, from stringers around the South to reporters he sent forth. One of those was the late Marshall Frady, who credited Cumming with first teaching him “the possibilities of a journalism employing the extra eye of the artist.”
His professional life and private life moved to the same rhythm. He and his wife hosted an annual big-band “I’ll Remember April Party” for years in Atlanta and, later, in Carrollton. He played jazz saxophone and piano with friends and family. He wrote the scripts, lyrics and music of several musical comedies and helped start the Tater Patch Players, a community theater in Jasper. In downtown restaurants and Manuel’s Tavern, he organized gatherings of writers and national journalists in Atlanta bureaus.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Bo Emerson (William’s son) wrote on Facebook on Monday: “Driven by his conviction that people need music and lyrics and poetry and drama to survive and that amateurs can create beautiful theater, he made the world a better place.”
After earning a master’s degree at Emory University in 1981, he moved with Emily to Carrollton, where he taught at West Georgia until 1991. They moved back to Atlanta in 2011.
His poems were published by Peachtree Publishers, in collaboration with sons, as “The Family Secret,” and a selection of his magazine articles and columns were collected in “Bylines: Writings from the American South, 1963-1997.”
Since Emily’s death in November 2016, he has lived at Arbor Terrace of Decatur. Despite the onset of dementia, his children found inspiration in his company on outings, where he rhapsodized on the miracle of the everyday sights with the excitement of a fresh discovery. The isolation of the pandemic led to a physical decline. He died peacefully.
His surviving children are Joseph Bryan Cumming III of Nashville; Douglas O. Cumming (Elizabeth) of Lexington, Va.; Walter W. Cumming of Black Mountain, N.C. and Anne Cumming Preston (Clay) of Decatur. Also, grandchildren Anna (Cumming) Beckley (Gary), Alston Cumming (Julie), Helen Preston, Paul Preston, Daniel Cumming, William Cumming (Alyssa), and Sarah Rose Cumming.
Election Day was a long one for me, up at 4 a.m. in the cold moonlight to be a poll worker, rotating tasks that led to my 7:15 p.m. emptying of 746 machine-read paper ballots from the big black box under the reader machine. Home by 9 p.m. The box reminded me of the kind of trick box magicians employ to make somebody disappear, then re-appear. It had a lock that I got to open with a color-coded key, and a wire tab I got to cut with wire cutters, observers from both parties and six other county volunteers looking on.
There was no sleight of hand about the results for the rustic precinct in that firehouse out by House Mountain in western Virginia – 598 votes for Trump’s electors, 127 for Biden’s. America has a very parochial system of voting. It must be frustrating for Putin’s hackers, and makes the Robin Williams movie “Man of the Year” a fictional impossibility, that a big federal contract could be let out to an evil tech giant to handle all the votes.
So, we’ll watch things play out over the next few days, or weeks — that very local system, under our system of laws, not men. (Chief Justice Roberts began 2020 with a New Year’s resolution for the federal judiciary to judge without fear or favor, with honor and integrity. The Times reporter called it a rebuke to something President Trump had just said about “my” Supreme Court.)
People see things in their own ways. The morning after, based on the failure of voters to decisively repudiate Trump as the polls predicted, I realized that my view of Trump may be a lot more personal and eccentric than I had thought it was. I thought most people could recognize a bully and a swindler. But now I think maybe it’s something in my own past experiences, maybe a suppressed trauma.
To me, Trump is not a Hitler, or a racist, or stupid, or an evil person, or even a conservative. (I’ve increasingly come to appreciate principled conservatives over the last four years, and may have actually become more conservative politically in my dismay over the bullying and the con-game.) I’m sorry these ordinary labels seem too ordinary – bully and con artist. Maybe it’s something from my own unique past that shapes my perspective. Fraudulent salesman. Swayer of crowds. I know these types.
I can’t remember being bullied, but I see the type and back away. I would protect the bully’s victims the way Holden Caulfield, seeing phonies everywhere, imagines catching children in the rye before they fall off. That’s the compassion I feel for many Trump voters, for example the friendly people I helped vote yesterday, a surprising number who knew me even behind my mask.
Somewhere long ago, I was in a roomful of friends who agreed to listen to a salesman pitch a pyramid scheme. The idea of the money to be made appealed to some, maybe most. Not to me. Even if it was real and legal. The salesman couldn’t believe (or so he said) that I rejected his basic premise – that it’s better for me to have more than I had. No, I thought, not on his terms.
In journalism, we learn to look for the swindle. George Greiff, in the class on reporting I audited at Georgia State, taught us the classic cons and hoaxes. Those are rare, but all politics and business employ the same techniques to a lesser degree. Business and politics work for the common good, I think, only to the extent that people have the common sense to know how much of the con to make allowances for. Why don’t Trump voters see that their man is pure con, with the unauthorized power of the ultimate bully? (I wish someone had written a comic novel that has him as its main character. What a great American novel that might have been!) Have they never been swindled? Bullied?
But the morning after is sobering. I realize mine may be a much smaller, more personal, more esoteric perspective than I assumed. I wait patiently for the vote to be counted and for law to over-shadow our eccentric biases.
An incurable disease stalks the land. It is called democracy. The experts think they understand it, but then it tricks them. “It will just go away,” says the magician, our confidence man, and he might as well be talking about the rule of law and the facts of facts. “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” When it comes to this virus of democracy, I don’t think so.
Originally published in “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Culture and Politics”
It’s Nov. 11 now, eight days since the Election, and Trump is baselessly claiming voter fraud and getting his most loyal underlings, like the testy Mike Pompeo at State, to dig in for him. The New York Times has a report on this with the headline “Fighting Election Results, Trump Employs a New Weapon: The Government.” Here are comments on that Times story from the perspective I hold agree with, that it’s all about the swindle:
“His endgame is to monetize his power over his minions. If he can milk $100 from each of 100 million people he has $10 billion. Enough to bail him out of his failing core businesses and still be as rich as he claims to be.”
“He’s manufacturing leverage to negotiate as much legal immunity as possible, before agreeing to leave. He’ll laugh about this train wreck for years, as a win for him personally.”
“This isn’t about the President retaining power. This, as always, is about the President’s pockets. After his presidency is over, he needs a cash stream.”
White privilege. White fragility. White rage. White guilt. White supremacy. All of these contain a truth too deep for understanding outside a state of grace. When I read these words from “experts” who use their scientific or academic authority to identify one of these sins as a sociological or historical label, something seems profoundly missing. What’s missing is a grace that needs to be made visible as a sacrament. Something makes me want to see these authorities fall to their knees (metaphorically anyway) and confess this sin from their own hearts first. Only then can this powerful naming recover its spiritual dimension. At least give us the appearance of humility, or if coming from a place of personal injury, share that with us as an injured friend might.
“Privilege,” to the audience that matters in these times, simply looks like what they call blessings, the gifts of God in daily life, family, jobs, meals around the kitchen table. To understand these things as “white privilege,” as an actual shame and a sin, requires seeing them as inherently unfair, unjust. And that requires a certain knowledge (a privileged knowledge, at that) and the grace of compassion and shame. It requires empathy for those who are denied the public goods that provide institutional support for those blessings: trust in a fair court system, in law, in the police, in having a decent job built on a good education. It’s not that those things should be taken away from anyone (fear interprets those words that way). It’s not that those things have always been available to white citizens, to the unlucky and the unprivileged. These things are blessings – they are how God would bless America, but not if they are denied unfairly, particularly if the withholding of these public goods is based on deformed ideas of race and a denial of the racism that has sickened America since 1619.
News video of protest marches had turned into scenes of burning and late-night mayhem. We avoid most of that and watch movies. The other night, it was Ben-Hur, the 2016 version that takes liberties with the 1959 Charlton Heston version that had occupied my childhood’s imagination. I had forgotten those old scenes of galley slaves and the bloody chariot race. The scene of this newer version that snagged my adult imagination was different. It was of the carpenter, drawn to help the condemned Judah Ben-Hur as he lay heaped and wounded on the dusty road under his armed Roman captors. Defying the oppressor power of the Roman Empire in a way so different from the Jewish rebellion that Ben-Hur had failed to quell, this handsome carpenter offers him a bowl of water. Ben-Hur is brought back to consciousness and a look of awe when the carpenter asks him to “do the same.”
Pacifism doesn’t work. If you’ve thought about it with a little knowledge of history and the conflicts you’ve witnessed, you know it doesn’t work. But if you’ve thought about it as much as I have, it’s because the idea won’t leave you alone. It haunts you. I can let the meanness of a bully go, and I can walk away from a fight in courage, not cowardice. But these don’t cost me anything, nor do they have the effect of that carpenter on Ben-Hur or the Roman centurions.
“The hand laid kindly upon his shoulder awoke the unfortunate Judah,” wrote Lew Wallace in the original novel – a first edition from 1880 I somehow found among our books. “. . .and, looking up, he saw a face he never forgot—the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.” Maybe this Jesus is a bit too Anglo-Saxon, as imagined by Wallace, a former Union general of the Civil War appointed governor of the New Mexican Territory. But the effect of bringing water to the thirsty, bringing the fullness of love to a stranger, a beaten criminal, in melting defiance of the armed Civil Law – it moves me.
A vast protest movement in cities across America has been sparked by the iPhone videos of policemen killing or wounding one Black citizen after another. It’s the same thing that triggered riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities in the late 1960s, and Los Angeles in 1991. But back then, it didn’t catch the public imagination as a real problem or anything that could be solved by sustained public attention. Black folks knew about it all along. Now, finally, it seemed that almost everybody was waking up to this problem.
Actually, pacifism does work. The face that Judah Ben-Hur couldn’t forget, the power of St. Paul’s command in Romans 12 (Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them) was used successfully in 1960 by thousands of black college students in Nashville. They were trained by the Fellowship of Reconciliation missionary James Lawson (who had studied Gandhian pacifism in India, and would be expelled from Vanderbilt for leading the student sit-in movement there). They marched silently, thousands of them. They went to jail willingly, singing. When arrested or cursed, they didn’t fight back. They stood as a silent force behind Diane Nash, their agreed-on spokesperson, when she asked the mayor if segregation was right or wrong. He had to answer as a man, not a politician. It’s wrong, he said. The protesters then broke their silence with a wild applause. Nashville became the first Southern city to end segregation at restaurants and soda fountains.
A veteran of that student movement named Ernest “Rip” Patton has some sage advice for the leaders of today’s protest movement. He recommends a form of pacifism that is practical and democratic. In fact, it is how pacifism works in a democracy, as it did in the Nashville movement.
Patton appeared last week in a live online program on the First Amendment’s five rights (one of which is to “peaceably assemble”), sponsored by the Freedom Forum. The program involved a USA Today reporter asking questions of Patton and his young counterpart, Philomena Wantenge, the co-founder of a Washington D.C.-based activist group called Freedom Fighters DC.
“Philomena,” Patton said, “I think you have to take charge and not with your phone or with your computer.” He said the key is to organize people face to face, people who believe the same things you believe. Be the leader, he said, but have a strong vice president who can help write press releases and deliver a clear unified message.
Patton was not one of the well-known leaders of the movement, like Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis and James Bevel. He is better known as a local jazz drummer. But when he speaks, it has the authority of a man who has lived the truth of that pacifist movement. “When the media comes to you, you are able to give them something written down.” Reporters are looking for that, not confused messages from dozens of people shouting their own opinions or slogans. “Have people on your committee who know you’re the out-front person.” That’s when you can approach a governor or congress person and make a difference.
Patton sounds like a kind grandfather who knows he was fortunate to have teachers who taught him the same lessons he is now passing on. “What we see now on TV is, you don’t always know who the front person is because the people who are with them are making all the noise.” And then the looters and the arsonists show up.
“You don’t need the noise.”
Philomena Wantenge said she had to agree with Mr. Patton on some things. “I think people just haven’t communicated what they’re marching for.” She speaks fast, about three times faster than Patton, in trying to explain maybe even to herself where the movement is at now.
“Defunding the police is my biggest thing,” she says, but she admits that it’s not clear to many what that means or what direction the movement should take to create change. She says there needs to be a conversation within the movement regarding a collective focus or direction. She doesn’t use Patton’s word “organize,” or pick up on the idea of a well-defined and well-trained group letting a single spokesperson deliver the message.
It’s important to keep the momentum so the movement doesn’t die, she said. “Defund the police” is a phrase that provides some of that momentum. “Saying it makes it easier to grasp,” she said. A lot of white liberal Democrats say the movement should be more careful with using words like “defund.” Words are important, Philomena acknowledged, but in this case, “defund the police” gives powerful words to the movement (never mind how powerful for the Trump re-election campaign) because “we created them, we made them trendy.” Protesters said them over and over, from D.C. to Nashville to Portland. It gives a feeling of a collective, she said.
The power of pacifism is its radical rejection of violence in the face of violence. The Nashville movement protected that message with sergeants-at-arms, Patton said. These sentinels enforced silence when it was time for someone like Diane Nash to speak. The sergeants-at-arms also made it clear that the group had nothing to do with any burning and looting, should outsiders be involved in that. The silent march to confront the mayor was in response to the firebombing of the house of one of the movement’s leaders.
“Now just think if we had been looting and burning because our leader’s house had been firebombed.”
[I wrote this in October, 2019, as I began my three-year phased retirement. It might be useful for anyone interested in the position I now leave open for a new hire.]
In 2003, I couldn’t believe my good fortune in landing a tenure-track position in the journalism department at Washington and Lee. After 26 years in newspapers and magazines with nourishing breaks for a master’s from Brown, a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, and a Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill, I suddenly found myself among other seasoned journalists who were as intellectually and academically engaged as I. The “intellectual and academic” part made us outliers in the honorable but not particularly “learned” profession of newsgathering. Meanwhile, the “seasoned” news-gathering part made us outliers in a liberal arts college as fine as W&L. It seemed a wonderful miracle of hybridization.
Department head Ham Smith, near retirement after 30 years at W&L, had been an acting public affairs director at WGBH in Boston and an editor at the Richmond News-Leader for six years. He had a master’s degree in political science from Boston University. Brian Richardson, who would replace Ham as department head, was well-seasoned as a metro newspaper reporter and editor in Florida (he drew on that experience in his textbook, The Process of Writing News, published in 2007 and still used in our classes). He was a Phi Beta Kappa and ODK graduate of W&L with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. The next department head, Pam Luecke, had arrived the year before me, having edited a Pulitzer-winning team at the Hartford Courant and been an editor at Kentucky’s two top newspapers, in Louisville and Lexington. Pam had been a philosophy major at Carleton, a Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University, and master’s degree graduate from the Medill journalism school at Northwestern. She created the Reynolds business journalism chair and program at W&L.
I arrived with another newcomer, Ed Wasserman, who brought to the esteemed Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at W&L a flair for intellectual engagement that spread the department’s profile nationwide through his biweekly syndicated column. With degrees from Yale, the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, Ed was also a consummate news professional and newsroom manager. After 10 years at W&L, he left to be dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.
The department I joined also had a strong commitment to journalism law and journalism ethics, requiring separate courses in both, as it does today. Before I arrived, these were taught by professors with less journalism experience than Brian or Pam, or none at all, but a solid academic foundation. Lou Hodges, a tenured religion professor who had created an “Ethics in the Professions” program, eventually settled in the journalism department to be one of the country’s pioneers of journalism ethics. He brought the endowed Knight Foundation chair of ethics to W&L. The j-law professor, John Jennings, another W&L graduate, had earned his Ph.D. at Stanford (the famous Wilbur Schram was on his committee) and had taught at the University of Texas.
This rare blend of deep journalism background and solid academic grounding marked a long period for this historic department, from the mid-70s to today. My first 10 years here saw little change in the faculty. Then a series of retirements began. The replacements fit the mold of the department’s culture and standards from the mid-70s, though probably higher in the professional empyrean than ever. We hired some of the most respected journalists in their particular fields, passionate teachers with publications aimed at the professional or textbook markets, though only one of these mid-career hires, Pam’s replacement as Reynolds chair of business journalism, had a Ph.D., after many years in the profession.
The department is in a period of transition, building for a future that will inevitably be different from the last 25 years. In the news and marketing worlds, the ever-deepening effects of digital and social media have undermined the standard business models. As Matt Stoller put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The signaling functions of news brands and the cultural barriers meant to guard against distorting effects of advertising have broken down.” A dysfunctional information ecosystem is filling the gaps. This may be the “Watergate” story of our age, a battle for credible truth and verifiable facts to launch a new generation of journalists. This may be as much a philosophical and “civil sphere” battle as one for crusading journalists. Future “mass communicators” will need the underlying values of a liberal arts education as much as they need the professional skills that our department blends with those values. The practices of journalism and strategic communication themselves will always be a form of applied liberal arts in American life. But their future role in renewing a healthy democracy is in play.
The department’s future, like its recent past, is being built on a blend of professional orientation and scholarship. But the admixture looks different today, as it should. Three important goals are being articulated in ways that are voiced differently than they were 25 years ago. One is diversity. The first female on the department’s faculty, a Ph.D. with prior experience in both journalism and public relations, is now in phased retirement. The department has achieved gender diversity, age diversity, and an international-ethnic diversity in its faculty, but has never had a black American tenure-track professor.
The second goal is to have scholars with a research agenda. The academic grounding of the department’s faculty in the last 25 years has been solid enough, but that aspect has been secondary to professors’ professional standards and values. “Fly the flag,” Brian Richardson would always say about our attending academic conferences. Earlier, one long-time department head, Ron MacDonald, had been an influential figure in broadcast journalism but had no advanced degree. Before him, O.W. (Tom) Riegel was an international pioneer in documentary and propaganda studies, but had no higher degree than a master’s. Academic expectations have risen steadily. Two faculty members who combine years of professional practice with Ph.D.s – one being me – are now the first in the department’s history to face retirement without becoming full professors, having been turned down by the Advisory Committee three years ago. Our two youngest recent hires have been new-minted Ph.D.’s with strong research agendas but less, or little, professional experience.
But the third goal is still professional experience and standing. It is this goal that I want to talk about here, lest it be misunderstood as merely an “old” thing or a “weight” on a scale pan that the other two goals can balance out in compensation.
W&L is credited with being where journalism education began. Actually, the program established in 1869 was a scholarship designed to attract young printer’s devils to a liberal education, combining tuition at the college with an apprenticeship under Lexington printer Col. John J. Lafferty. It didn’t last, and no student’s name is on record as getting the scholarship. But in the 1920s, publishers of Southern newspapers established a journalism foundation at W&L to honor their idea of Lee as a Southern icon as well as a visionary for journalism as an academic branch of practical knowledge. This became the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. So, from the start, it was funded and shaped by the news business. That business is changing dramatically, along with its technology and its relationship with consumers of news and information.
Meanwhile, over the past century, American journalism education has developed a multitude of communication studies by borrowing methodologies from the sciences, sociology and the humanities to gain a respectable home at research universities. The news business has always felt somewhat remote, or quietly superior, to this academic side of journalism and mass media studies. News outlets appreciated the practical training for their new hires from undergraduate and master’s programs, but had little use for or awareness of the higher-level theories and research being done in the Ph.D. programs. (The Freedom Forum Fellowship that put me in a fast-track Ph.D. program at UNC was a small, short-lived effort of former Gannett editors to add a Ph.D. to award-winning journalists and speed them into the classroom.)
In academic status, communication studies will never measure up to the disciplines they have borrowed from. And against the research universities where communication studies carry some weight, Washington and Lee will never be competitive. Our value, recognized nationally, is in our teaching of professional practice while meeting the more balanced and high standards of a top-tier liberal arts college.
Washington and Lee has a rare treasure, being the only highly selective liberal arts college with an accredited journalism program and one with professors who excelled in the business and remain connected to it. Within the past 12 months, reporters and editors from the Washington Post and the New York Times have visited with tales of holding Trump accountable, and have been debriefed at campus dinners. Our students majoring in journalism or strategic communication must get academic credit for summer internships in those businesses. The faculty may need more connections with the strategic communication professions to help students in this relatively new major, but our rich connections with news continue to give our students a shining reputation with business journals, major newspapers and broadcast news outlets. Our standard for journalism majors, by tradition, has been that they will have the skills and self-confidence to begin reporting news from their first day on the job.
Journalism is a wayward profession, almost as improvisational as jazz because of its historic role in America’s democratic experiment and the freedom implied in the First Amendment. But at W&L, the useful aspects of its energies and skepticism as a way of knowing combine, sometimes powerfully, with the ideal of learning as an inherent good. Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” makes the distinction between the inherent good of knowledge and the usefulness of practical skills. Those skills, he says, are more easily and quickly acquired by the liberally educated. He calls liberal knowledge an acquired illumination, “a habit, a personal possession, and inward endowment.” In my experience, journalism feels like that as well.
Here, that inward “illumination” comes from the values and practices of journalism tested within a culture of global thinking and the liberal arts. This alchemy cannot happen without the solid connection with professional practice the department has always had.
We hear every day that Americans must confront “400 years of racism.” But what does that mean? How do we find the access points to this story in its nearly countless and changing contexts? History is not a scoresheet; it is a land both foreign and familiar. It lives in us even as it can seem so far away. — David W. Blight, Yale historian, in the NYT 7/18, 2020
We are packing in a pandemic. I’m emptying rooms in the 1892 house where we have lived for 17 years, in the town where Robert E. Lee and most of Stonewall Jackson lie buried. (Jackson’s amputated left arm remained back in Chancellorsville.) The books that we nest into boxes, those little coffins, remind me of that land “both foreign and familiar,” the history of race in America.
I see our great-grandmother Mary Smith Cumming’s history of Augusta, and slip it into a box. I see the book “Tokens of Affection: The Letters of a Planter’s Daughter in the Old South,” edited by Carol Bleser and published in 1995 by UGA Press, and I’m drawn into reading through it again. These are letters that Maria (pronounced MaRIE-a) Bryan wrote to our great-great-great grandmother, her older sister Julia Bryan Cumming, in the 1820s through the 1840s.
Carol Bleser, who died in 2013, was considered a trailblazing southern historian specializing in 19th century southern women before, during and after the Civil War. She was very impressed by the 167 letters of Maria’s saved by Julia and carefully transcribed much later by Julia’s great-grandson, John Shaw Billings, who was the second in command at Time-Life in New York in the 1950s. Maria’s father, Joseph Bryan, was a prosperous slaveholding planter in Hancock County, Ga. Carol Bleser, of course, looked for cultural codes in the letters, evidence of attitudes toward race, slavery and the politics of the time.
She found in the letters a rich sensitivity to the social relations and European-rooted culture of the upper class that Maria belonged to. Her father had ventured to Georgia from his native Connecticut. He raised his children in the Presbyterian discipline of his Yankee roots, establishing a Mt. Zion Academy with two New York scholars, the Beman brothers, one of whom went on to become the first president of Oglethorpe University. Maria read romance novels and the multi-volume biography of William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist. She lived in New Orleans with her first husband, William Harford of Augusta, vacationed at Saratoga Springs in a hotel with President Van Buren and Secretary of State John Forsyth, and was thankful she bore no children (enjoyed “the happiness of conjugal relations” without “so dear a price” as childbirth).
Maria was served by house servants – her father’s property. Her letters are full of references to the lives of slaves around her, a slave courtship, marriages and families, and the death of some of her favorite servants. But her only comment on the institution of slavery, with all that personal writing, comes at age 19 when she describes her horror at the bloody and swelled face of her personal servant, Jenny, after she was beat by an overseer. “Oh how great an evil is slavery,” she writes to Julia. This was a common sentiment among the well-educated in those days, before the defense of slavery became strident, intellectual, biblical and intractably associated with secession. How great an evil. . .reminds me of what some of us say about fossil fuels as we enjoy its benefits, or about police brutality as we tolerate or support a militarized police force that serves as a wall protecting white areas through tactical force in black inner cities.
I don’t know what Julia thought about slavery. But her life changed when she left her father’s plantation and settled with her husband Henry Cumming in the cosmopolitan life of Augusta. I have a large portrait of Henry Cumming. It’s wrapped and sitting among boxes in the hot front room. This house has always reminded me in a foggy sort of way of Granny and Granddaddy’s house at 2231 Cumming Road. Packing up, it feels like I’m wading into the soul of our memories here, but also saying goodbye to other ghosts: goodbye to Daddy’s childhood in Augusta, and to the world of these letters, the lost wealth in Hancock County. I imagine Carol Bleser finding the forgotten graves and foundations of the Bryan plantation lost among briars and snakes in one of the poorest black counties in Georgia. And against that image, I feel her excitement poring over these letters, discovering and preserving a fantastic world in a book, where she trusted that history lasts longer than in graves or monuments. She dedicated the book to her granddaughter Caroline, who by strange coincidence is the daughter of one of Libby’s childhood friends from McLean, Liz Plummer.
Henry was considered one of the ablest lawyers in the state. He grew rich, mostly, the way New Englanders grew rich, with investment in a cotton mill and practicing law for a railroad bank. Slavery was entwined in that wealth in the ways it was with New England wealth, indirectly. Henry was a Europeanist (he had spent nearly 10 years in Europe in a Grand Tour and diplomatic assignment under President Monroe). All five of his sons fought for the Confederacy. Three were seriously wounded, one three times, another imprisoned three times, and the third left dead as a prisoner of war. The fourth died in 1872 after a relapse of pneumonia contracted during the war. Only Joseph Bryan Cumming, “the Major,” our great-great grandfather, survived “relatively unscathed,” Carol Bleser writes. A daughter, Emily Cumming, married a decent son of the powerful and truly odious pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, James Henry “Cotton is King” Hammond. Henry Cumming had a problem with depression. He shot himself in 1866, leaving a handsome estate to Julia and the Major.
What do you do with Confederates in the attic? What do I do with all these books of history, with family stories, as I move out and into another future? It haunts me, not as guilt but just a condition, a nature. I feel all these blood streams coming together through marriage after marriage, preserved in letters, generation after generation, some published, some better left in boxes unread.
While the world has change in a lot of ways since the turn of the 21st century, the two big changes of this spring crystalized things with particular force. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed social inequity and the video of George Floyd’s killing from a police stranglehold has inspired protests that accelerate the Black Lives Matter movement across the world.
When the ideas of the Enlightenment – of equal rights and popular sovereignty – crystalized into revolutionary action, Wordsworth famously noted “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven.” This seems such a moment in history. The dogma of white supremacy is flickering into public consciousness around the digital images of anti-Black police brutality. Every institution and every individual within those institutions must find their own larger accountability in the glow of this consciousness, depending on the ethics and public good of each. My accountability is as a journalism teacher and practitioner (at least formerly) and scholar of news media.
The most powerful news organizations have been blind, at best, to their own white perspectives and race stereotypes. At the same time, the dissenting forms of the minority press have been dismissed or ignored, contrary to the mainstream press’s espoused commitment to the First Amendment. One example of this blindness: A news service dedicated to covering the impact of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling of 1954 carefully framed its coverage as “balanced” (its all-male board included both pro-integration and pro-segregation editors, including two Black men) and dismissed criticism of having no black reporters on the grounds that it considered an “objective” reporter’s race irrelevant.
The news profession began to recognize the problems with this view in the 1960s, with the recognition of black agency in the Civil Rights Movement. The perspectives of non-mainstream identities and experiences began to be valued, at least in principle. But changes in hiring and promotion were glacial. Then came the long-hot summers of the mid-sixties, and the 1968 report of The National Commission of Civil Disturbances. Chapter 15 is on “The News Media and the Disturbances.”
While the commission found that the number one problem was police behavior in black communities, it excoriated the news media for its homogenous take on what makes news. “The press has too long basked in the white world,” the commission wrote. If it looked outside the white world at all, it was with white men’s eyes and perspective. “That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”
The commission found coverage of the destruction in places like Detroit and Newark to be solid enough – thorough, but not sensationalizing. What was lacking, according to the commission, was an analysis of root causes. News coverage, by instinct, favors events and conflict over “conditions.” Carolyn Martindale’s 1986 study, The White Press and Black America, notes that the “plight” of black America didn’t qualify as news until the systemic oppression was dye-traced by Movement events – usually a strategic nonviolent provocation of police violence. Police violence (e.g. Birmingham) “surfaced” the unseen oppression of the ages.
The Kerner report’s cry for change in the American media to “begin now” occurred more than 50 years ago. It may sound hackneyed to say, once again, “The time is now.” But it is so. Recent long-form journalism and books have made the argument for reparations and spotlighted the history of white supremacy, such as David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Today, the dramatic explosion of Black Lives Matter inspires this journalism professor to say it again – it’s time. I am looking to be held accountable.