Plague Notes

There’s a new kind of balance now between the local and the not-local. Global news is of dread interest to all, reliable and scary – “cases near 2 million” – but we are just as interested in what’s happening on our own block or in our town.

selfie on Brewbaker field

Junie and me, on spring-green Brewbaker Field, behind our sequestering house in Lexington.

We all have stories to tell. No one’s story is average or insignificant. (On National Public Radio, random ordinary people’s voices carry dignity and weight alongside the president’s news conferences and reporters reporting from Paris or Rome.) Collectively these individual stories make up the numbers, the statistics. (At least 580,878 people in the U.S. have tested positive, according to the NYTimes database. More than 23,000, about 4%, have died.) But each one wants to be told, in Zoom meetings between siblings or among college classes scattered across the land. Those stories are our lessons for the day, and for the time to come.

Things are turned on their head. Positive is bad, and a false negative is the last thing we want in our test results. Being stuck at home is a journey, an adventure with an uncertain destination that will bring us home when we can set out into the world again.

The common good, that elusive abstraction of academics like Michael Sandel, is temporarily visible to the non-elite, like dust motes you can see in a stroke of sunlight. Everybody must play nice. Everybody has public obligations, and everybody carries an inner truth of privacy rights, behind their mask or within their prison homes or literal prisons.

Whether for the rich or the poor, the un-evolving spiky little virus is the same. All are vulnerable, even if our protections vary. Humanity is the same. The variance that we created is visible now, the guilty gulf between the richly housed and the homeless, the Hamptons and the refugee camps.


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On Atlanta’s northern border

[Published in website “Like the Dew,” October 6, 2019.]

Fifty years after my graduation from North Fulton High School, the pages of my 1969 “Hi-Ways” yearbook fill gaps in my mind better than any real memories. I look at my senior picture, a boy I barely recall with dark eyebrows and blond hair where I have little now. Next to me, in alphabetical order, is Ed Davenport. I didn’t know him.


Me. . . .and Ed Davenport, in 1969 yearbook.

But I do know that he was the first African-American to graduate from North Fulton in its long history as one of Atlanta’s best public high schools. (I also know, from my research in Southern literature, that the poet James Dickey and writer Flannery O’Connor both went there for at least one year in the 1930s – at the same time!)

The Class of ’69 recently held a 50th anniversary reunion. We met in a crowded bar scene in Brookhaven on a Friday night, had a Saturday tour of the handsome Depression-era school, now occupied by the private Atlanta International School, and met that night in a Hyatt-Regency ballroom just inside the Perimeter.

Something protected us in those years, being at that school at that time in history. We were covered by a gauzy veil, guarded against the Sixties except for the good music. We were oblivious, indifferent to the times and the changes going on. We held on to a good past, and a decent public education, up until the changes couldn’t be avoided. Then we graduated, and dispersed into the maelstrom.

My debate partner went the farthest for college, to Dartmouth, and now practices law in Atlanta. One top student became the U.S. Ambassador to Panama. Another became the first Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, adopting the role that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. created to clean up the Hudson River. The “Artful Dodger” to my “Oliver” in our senior play became the singer-band leader of the best blues band in Georgia, The League of Decency.

In the crowded ballroom Saturday night, I saw Ed Davenport. He was sitting at a small table with his Filipina wife, Dina, talking to another classmate. When my chance came, I sat at his table and we began to talk.

But how do I get his story? I didn’t know him 50 years ago. Across the civil rights history that I study more deeply the further I get from high school – the history we somehow didn’t see beyond our high school gauze – how could I interview him as if he were the embodiment of that history? It didn’t seem decent. But this was a happy enough greeting. Dina laughed a lot, and made me sign my senior picture in his yearbook. I thought of an opening.Ed Davenport and e

“I actually studied this in grad school,” I told him, gently shifting to the sensitive subject of race. “We think of this one big history of the civil rights movement, with the usual heroes.” But really, I said, there are thousands of civil rights histories, most of them untold.

The first big wedge was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, aimed not at voting rights or grownup discrimination but at children in schools. That’s why every Southern state, every school district, and eventually every public school had its own civil rights story. We know about James Meredith at Ole Miss, and Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans in that famous Norman Rockwell painting. But there are thousands of other “firsts.” And here was one, one of the last – oddly enough, 15 years after the Brown decision. Ed Davenport began to open up, and I began taking notes.

Did he live in Buckhead, a solidly white community that lost its battle against being annexed to Atlanta in 1950? No – he lived in Grove Park, about eight miles away in the west end of the city. He was getting in fights at West Fulton High, a previously all-white school in the middle of its troubled transition into an all-black school. Ed’s mother told the principal she wanted him out of that school.

The principal suggested more solidly black schools like Harper or Frederick Douglass. No, she demanded, he needs to go to North Fulton. But how did she know about the Buckhead mystique?

“My grandmama lived there, in Piney Grove,” Ed Davenport said. She’s buried there now, in a weed-slung graveyard that is the remnant of Piney Grove. Like the other small 19th century black communities squeezed out of Buckhead during the Jim Crow years, Piney Grove has disappeared. One of the streets used to be named for his grandmother’s family, West, he said. Her property was gobbled up for Georgia 400 and Piney Grove Baptist Church has been replaced by high-end canyons of condominiums.

Ed came to North Fulton as a junior. How did he get to school each day, from the other end of Atlanta? “I was 16, so I bought me a car.” What kind? A 1955 Chevrolet. How much did it cost? “I think it was $250,” he said.

Browsing through the yearbook, I asked about his teachers. “They were . . .mean!” he said. That was true, I thought, for some of them. Mean old maids from an older era, but dedicated. One of those that he remembered was Miss Plaster, a tough English teacher. Her meanness toward Ed Davenport had a particular edge to it. He remembers her asking him, when he came into class a little late, “What are you doing at this school?”

He went to the principal, Mr. Bryce, about Miss Plaster. In the mold of his mother’s example, he demanded that the principal get him out of Miss Plaster’s class. It worked.

“Mr. Chesna, he was a great guy,” Ed said. Joseph L. Chesna was white, or course – all of the teachers were white. But he wasn’t someone you would have if you were college-prep. He was the wood shop teacher.

We exchanged business cards, Ed and I. His card had the crisp Delta airline logo, his name and title, “Edward E. Davenport Sr., Base Maintenance Technician, RETIRED.” He lives in the exurban city of Douglasville. He and his wife enjoy the benefit of deep-discount Delta flights to other countries.

Soon, they will be flying to the Philippines to visit her family. Her family is not wealthy, he said, but when he visits them, they treat him like someone very special, a prince, an American. “That feels good.”

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The Arrival of Father Tuck

[This is a slightly edited draft of a profile I wrote for our local weekly, The News-Gazette, twice as long as the one I ended up sending to be published on Dec. 4, 2019.]

The Rev. Ellis Tucker “Tuck” Bowerfind, 61, has arrived from an Episcopal church in Alexandria to become the new pastor for Lexington’s historic Grace Episcopal Church.

Tuck and wife

Selfie of Dalea and Tuck in New York City

The grandson and great-grandson of Episcopal bishops, he is a descendant of the prominent Tucker family that has served Virginia since the Revolution as judges, law professors (including two at Washington and Lee in its earlier days), congressmen, and an antebellum novelist admired by Edgar Allen Poe. But what appealed to the church’s Call Committee was his quiet, methodical way of engaging other people in ministry.

“Our interactions with Tuck and his wife (Delea) have been wonderful,” said Gail Dickerson, chair of the Call Committee (and now senior warden for the Vestry). “They’re so easy to be around you feel like you’ve known them for years.”

If Tuck Bowerfind is easy to be around, it’s an expression of his theology. “The witness we’re bearing is that all people are made in the image of God, are holy,” he said in a phone interview. “But we also have to construct what we mean by holy.”

In a time when Christianity seems captive to politics, and politics are dividing people, “the most radical thing you can probably do is build a personal relationship,” he said, “regardless of [the other person’s] political views.”

The search for a new rector – “rector” is the head pastor of an Episcopal church – was a year-long process of careful self-reflection for the 179-year-old parish. It came in the wake of a couple of changes that had rattled the historic church. In 2017, the Rev. Tom Crittenden resigned after 10 years as rector. (Crittenden is now an interim rector at another Grace Episcopal Church, in Yorktown, after a successful stint as interim rector of a church in Decatur, Ala.) And just before that, the Lexington church had changed its name from R.E. Lee Memorial back to its original name of “Grace.”

The Vestry, a lay governing body comprising 12 elected church members, selected a seven-member Call Committee in September 2018. The Call Committee proceeded, with careful deliberation, to engage the entire congregation in cottage meetings, a weekly prayer, and a 22-page parish profile for what the document called “a new and promising chapter in the life of our parish.”

IMG_4972Dickerson said that Bowerfind’s name was submitted by a parishioner early in the process. All candidates’ names were first sent to the Rev. Jonathan Harris, a canon with the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia in Roanoke. Harris narrowed the pool and sent his list to the Call Committee, which winnowed these to several finalists for Skype interviews and other vettings, Dickerson said.

On Sept. 27, a letter went out to the congregation from Lynwood Dent, senior warden, and Steve Shultis, junior warden, announcing the unanimous decision of the Vestry for Bowerfind, “in response to a passionate, unanimous recommendation from the Call Committee.”

Bowerfind was ordained in 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born, the son of a doctor and grandson of the Right Rev. Beverley Dandridge Tucker, a past Episcopal bishop of Ohio and Rhodes Scholar. (That bishop’s father, also Beverley Dandridge Tucker, had been the second bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.)

A graduate of St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Yale Divinity School, Bowerfind served churches in Cleveland and in Barnstable, Mass., before coming to St. Luke’s, Alexandria, in 2003 as rector. Aside from his work at St. Luke’s, he was active in the Diocese of Virginia, where a great-great-uncle, the Right Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, had been the eighth Episcopal bishop (and later, Presiding Bishop of the national church). Last year, Bowerfind was named co-chair of the Virginia Diocesan Committee on Race and Reconciliation.

One of the challenges Bowerfind faces is common nationwide, the fact that the fastest-growing demographic in American religious life, larger now than any single denomination, is the “nones,” those of mostly younger generations who claim no religion at all. For Grace Episcopal, the challenge has this local twist: the parish has traditionally envisioned part of its mission as serving students at its two adjacent college campuses.

“The biggest issue is simply the reality of God and the believe-ability of the gospel in terms of the real world, a scientific worldview,” Bowerfind said.Grace in snow

“Obviously the answer is faith, but certainly it can’t be simply to ask young people to set aside those concerns” about believing in claims of supernatural historical occurrences. “I come from a background where the construction of faith is work you do. To construct your faith is as important as the faith you construct.”

Younger generations are facing extreme change, he said, and they wonder why traditional churches aren’t changing too. “The church thinks it can retain the old trappings, but the trappings are no longer . . . trapping people. It’s a challenge to those of us who love the trappings.”

He said he welcomes the challenge of secular society and the questions the young are asking, because it places an important judgment on the church. He named three big “strikes” against the church in this judgment.

One is unity in Christ – when even people within a church can’t come together in love, that’s strike one. Second is in standing with the poor, the oppressed, the looked-down on, the outsider – strike two, he said.

Strike three is this: “The church ought to be a place where there’s wisdom, in particular, right now, how do we deal with emerging technology, the consequences of which none of us have any understanding.” In particular, he named global warming as the equivalent of our previous terror over nuclear holocaust. Global warming “represents the holocaust that ought to be driving us into each other’s arms to look creatively until we’ve found the solution. . . The question is, will we do it?”

Bowerfind and his wife, Delea, who holds a master’s degree in applied social work, have bought a house just outside Buena Vista. They have four children: Tiffany Joly, a lawyer married to Matt Calise, who works at Georgetown University Law Center; George Bowerfind, who manages a restaurant in Williamsburg; Dorothy Bowerfind, a graduate of St. John’s, and Elizabeth Bowerfind, a classics major at New College in Sarasota, currently in Athens, Greece.

They have one grandchild, Archer Calise, 7, of Alexandria.

Tuck and grandson

Archer and Father Tuck

Bowerfind preached and celebrated Communion at Grace Episcopal for the first time on Dec. 8, the second Sunday of Advent.






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Five Lessons & Carols for Southern Liberals

(This essay first ran in the website “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Southern Culture & Politics,” Dec. 8, 2019)

The word has gone forth. Our historic Episcopal church has done what many thought was impossible – we got rid of the name that the church had borne since 1903, R.E. Lee Memorial Church.

Confederate shadow

Photo from Hillsville, Va., by Doug Cumming

After the slaughter in a black Charleston church in 2015 and the neo-Nazi violence of Charlottesville in 2017, we finally replaced a Confederate symbol, Robert E. Lee, with the original name that Lee himself knew when he saved the war-shaken parish in his final years in Lexington, Virginia – “Grace.”

Now, after an interim rector oversaw two years of “healing” and a new rector has arrived, my church finally has a future as well as a past. The Bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Virginia sent praises for our spiritual journey out of a “time of trial in the life of the parish.” A letter from the national Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the cool preacher whose sermon went viral from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, said it all: “God has been at work in Lexington.”

When I was in the middle of this “time of trial,” between the rise of Donald Trump and the end of his first year in office, I wasn’t the only member of the parish who was struck by the parallels between our church’s divisions and America’s. Old-guard defenders of keeping the “Lee” name formed an unmovable “base,” and a significant number of parish leaders, like today’s elected Republicans, would not deviate from the base. They finally admitted, okay, maybe we’ll change the name someday, but not now. It would be mere “political correctness,” disrespectful of a great military hero and Christian gentleman, they said.

As Congress moves inexorably, painfully, through the Constitutional process of impeaching the President, I am remembering lessons I learned from this parochial name-change experience. The lessons seem relevant. But I can’t be sure, since no one in our church wants to talk about what we went through. “Healing,” apparently, means silence. So this is for you outsiders, my “Five Lessons and Carols” in this Advent season.

One, taking time is nice, but doesn’t change many minds. The Charleston, S.C., shooting triggered a call for a “Christ-centered” discussion of our name. I agreed, as a member of the elected governing body, the Vestry, that we shouldn’t rush. We opted for many house meetings, and then promised a Vestry vote that would require two-thirds to change the name.

Grace signI was among those who felt the congregation should have time to process the controversy and be listened to. As a mass media professor, I was influenced by pollster Daniel Yankelovich’s book Coming to Public Judgment. That book optimistically describes how people process controversies over time, opening up new understandings and giving all opinions due respect. This un-hurried process doesn’t necessarily yield agreement, Yankelovich says, but it does lead to “public judgment,” a feeling that the matter is settled and we can move on.

This, it turned out, was wrong. At the end of 2016, nine out of 15 vestry members voted to change the name, one vote short of the super-majority. Nothing felt settled. Everybody was mad. Families left.

Then we tried another time-consuming – and expensive – process simply to repair the damage. A pair of consultants guided an ad hoc church committee for nine months to issue a beautiful 15-page report recommending nuances of compromise, including (to much shock and surprise) restoring the historic name of “Grace Episcopal Church.” The vestry split again, worse than before. More “no-change” old-guard had been voted onto the vestry (beware of backlash in 2020!). Then Charlottesville happened, and the gulf widened. With each side dug in, we barely passed the name-change, this time by a simple majority, and a two-vote margin.

Two, for opponents of change, “the right time” is never. Early on, many wanted to end the discussion with a congregation-wide vote. That’s not Episcopal governance. We distributed a survey instead. Opponents of change took the results as a vote – two-thirds against a name-change. The people had spoken, they said, and the vestry shouldn’t overturn the will of the people.

After Charlottesville, which was about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee 70 miles to our northwest, the problem with being R.E. Lee Memorial Church rattled us again. But the old-guard felt it was not the right time – since “our” Lee was not the general on horseback but the church’s former senior warden. Yes, we’ll change our name at some point, they said, but not now. One vestry member was so appalled at that, she resigned.

Three, niceness isn’t enough. I have a friend, a former Democratic operative and Obama administration official, who is finishing a how-to book for political liberals that seeks to extol the wisdom of Machiavelli. “Being Good Isn’t Enough,” she plans to title it, quoting “The Prince.”

I found myself slowly giving up on attempts to be gently persuasive – listening, praying, praising the good will of all sides – and instead, started counting potential votes. I found myself being Machiavellian, I confess. Some, recognizing that, saw me as the Enemy. I came to see my many opportunistic saves, barely keeping a name-change possible at a half-dozen key times, as miracles. It must have been the Holy Spirit. Machiavelli, intensely anti-church, is under-appreciated as a good Protestant realist. Nancy Pelosi, a good Catholic, likewise.

Four, understand tribal identity. You may think that it’s enough to stand on transcendent ideals like the Constitution or the rule of law – or God.  But we’re in an age of identity. Even an Episcopal church, spiritually led by bishops and declaring a gospel to the wider world, will close up like a tree-house boys’ club when the wider world has a different view of its name. If you don’t like it, you can leave, some actually said. Belonging to a church, or a political party, has become more determining of position than any of the institutional beliefs supposedly held by that church or party.

Five, after the change, don’t look back. After the name change, the hurt was much deeper than I anticipated. Not that this was the cause, but one of the most influential leaders of no-change resigned from the vestry and checked into Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital and another was struck by cancer. Our interim rector, charged with “healing,” brought in a couple of monks for a day-long workshop on reconciliation, and it worked like a dud. After a powerful sermon on reconciliation, one old-timer came up to me in tears and apologized. But no one else has said a word to me about “the late unpleasantness,” as one Sons of Confederate Veterans widow calls it.

Good things have been happening at Grace Episcopal Church. Our new music director has brought in African drums, college musicians and cool new songs we’ve all learned. An international conference on peace and reconciliation in South Sudan was hosted by Grace Episcopal in September. Our new rector, the Rev. Ellis Tucker “Tuck” Bowerfind, was the Virginia diocese’s co-chair of a committee on race and reconciliation.

None of this would have happened at “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” at this time in history. And yet, no one wants to tell the story of how we changed. When the local weekly paper asked me to cover the South Sudan conference, a reference I made to this history was sugar-coated, pre-publication, by a call from the church to the editor, when the church couldn’t reach me (this is how small-town journalism works sometimes).

I’m telling you this story, because I think it’s a good one. But I’ve accepted that I can’t tell it in my church community. That’s my penance. And if the Democrats don’t blow it, I for one don’t intend to gloat or rub it in. This is my Christmas carol: the future is good; blame is not.

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Down to the entryway of higher education

For millions of Americans, community college is the gateway to higher education, job skills and a better life. Last fall, for me, community college was a gateway in the other direction.

It led me, temporarily, out of the bubble of elite higher education.

With a semester off as a tenured journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, I spent this fall teaching a writing/research course at Surry Community College. Every week, I drove the 130 miles from Lexington to stay at our son’s farm in Fancy Gap and taught a class of 16 challenging students on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Dobson, N.C.

Walk in the woodsI recommend the experience to other university professors. We have a lot to offer — and something to learn.

It was Trump country. And yet, I found more diversity there than at W&L. Four of my Surry students were Hispanic. One young woman wrote in an assignment of her mother’s Hispanic shoe store getting ripped off by a few shoplifters. An African-American single mom in her 30s wrote in another assignment a memo to the principal of her daughter’s elementary school, questioning the decision to pull her daughter out of the regular class for special help.

One student managed the local Dairy Queen. Another worked at Chick-fil-A. Four were “Early College” high school students. Four were repeating the class. Four more failed to show up or dropped out.

Virginia has a system of 23 community colleges and an ambitious goal of making “first-generation college student” an obsolete term, with a college graduate in every household. North Carolina’s community college system, once considered one of the most progressive in the country, has 58 campuses.

The funding of this system seemed criminally low for being “progressive.” My pay as a one-class adjunct barely covered mileage and meals, even with the extra $4.70 a week thrown in for my Ph.D.

But the experience was rewarding. It freed me from a privileged liberal arts environment and tested my real value as a teacher. If this was left-behind America — Trump’s unrewarded supporters and demonized immigrants — what could I teach them about writing?My class

A lot. Nonfiction writing, I tried to show, is personal empowerment. Instead of a research paper, I gave assignments I thought could be useful to them: a memo, an op-ed, a press release, a blog post, a publishable book review. Writing, I said in every way I could, is connecting with a real audience. It’s thinking logically, supporting assertions, making claims that persuade.

And what a time for applying these ideas — with the U.S. House engaged in the ultimate Constitutional exercise from the Age of Reason: impeachment of a duly elected President.

I wanted to show respect for them, as they did for me. So for class discussion, I used a few good opinion columns I could find that leaned slightly in Trump’s favor.

Professors in their ivory towers wonder what could have gone so wrong with America, that so many citizens could elect a big-time real estate cheat and reality TV star. For some of us, our reaction is a sincerely baffled curiosity, with a sense of obligation to serve the common good in a time of need with our modest skills – teaching, scholarship and service.

Community college, as W&L’s provost told me, is “where the real heart of American education is happening right now.” A Harvard-educated law professor recently left his New York university to teach a semester in ethics in “Appalachia,” to try to understand what went so wrong in 2016. Evan Mandery was turned down by a Tennessee community college, but eventually taught at Appalachian State, writing that he took solace in the shared moral values he found underlying the argument of liberals and conservatives (but not libertarians, who he said valued abstractions over empathy).

I suspect that other professors would like to teach at least one term or course at a community college, if such experience were rewarded by their home universities. But that would take a fundamental shift in the reward system.

Community colleges could help by making it easier for us to teach there. I was dismayed at how many hoops I had to jump through — for almost no pay.

But there are rewards. For me, the best reward was to be let into another world, sometimes poignantly expressed. “I come from the kind of place where the tobacco grew and the factories fell,” one student wrote. “The place where I’m from has little to offer and little to gain.”

This op-ed appeared in a slightly different for The Roanoke Times, Dec. 2, 2019, A-7.

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Michael Cohen’s Lesson

Michael Cohen's Lesson

They’re cheering Trump in Atlanta, cheering him in Monroe, La.

This is the world of TV that Neil Postman warned about in Amusing Ourselves to Death, now taken over the whole American brain and nervous system, our national politics. The system now seems to have no memory, not even of the TV drama we saw 10 months ago. Mine isn’t so good any more, and spending time with Daddy, whose memory gears are totally stripped, makes me wonder if I remember correctly that scene on CNN back in February.

That was when Michael Cohen, Trump’s “fixer” for 12 years, came clean in sworn testimony before the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings. Cohen was a broken man, the very image at the heart of the gospel, confessed and empty and ready to begin to be a full human again, humble, in tears, bearing witness. And Cummings was up there on the dais, the son of sharecroppers and a black Baptist, looking like a preacher, judging but sympathetic.

“If we as a nation did not give people an opportunity after they made mistakes to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well,” Cummings said. He seemed to be rising to that heroic level that Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina attainded during the Watergate hearings. “We are better than this,” he said. “We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.”

Cohen sat silently listening to this sermon, and began to cry.

Cohen is spending three years in a federal prison now, forgotten. Elijah Cummings is dead, and seems forgotten.

Republicans now have joined hands to defend Trump against this impeachment inquiry. They are doing, in their own fashion, what Cohen warned them that he had done for so many years.

“Everybody’s job at the Trump organization is to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen said.

“Every day, most of us knew, we were coming in, and we were going to lie for him. And that became the norm.”

Every day, the Republicans have their talking points, their defenses for Trump. Back in February, against the dramatic scene that played out between Cohen and Cummings, their  defense was that Cohen admitted he had lied, over and over, so why should we believe him now?

That’s an interesting catch. If someone who has lied and lied and lied for his boss wants to come clean, what can he do? Confess. But he’s a liar. So his confession must be a lie.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

[This was first published Nov. 12 in the online “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Culture & Politics.” Caricatures by DonkeyHotey via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.]



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Review of ‘Deep South Dispatches’

Herbers, John N., with Anne Farris Rosen. Deep South Dispatch: Memoir of a Civil Rights Journalist.Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. 260 pp. $28.

Look up John N. Herbers’s byline in the New York Times Historical database and you find 1,157 articles from 1963 to beyond his retirement twenty-four years later. Most of these trace the climax of the Civil Rights movement out the South and, after 1965 in Washington, the larger vectors of political and social change through Watergate (“Nixon Resigns” was Herbers’s story ) and the Reagan years.

Herbers is one of the heroes of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Race Beat. Roberts and Klibanoff feature him, “low key in manner and speech,” as the first reporter to write about the formation of the white Citizens Council, the only United Press reporter to cover Emmet Till’s well-covered murder trial, and the head of UPI’s Jackson, Miss., bureau when its talented staff alone recognized the race story as highly newsworthy when most of Mississippi preferred that it disappear.

Deep South Dispatch, Herbers’s posthumous memoir, richly expands on those war stories from the perspective of this self-effacing man who was “present with his notebook at an astonishing array of journalistic hot spots,” as Gene Roberts writes in a Foreword. Indeed, he puts us in a hundred vivid places, historical but particular in his memory: the sloping porch of Fanny Lou Hamer, inside the homes of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, Klan rallies, sidewalk marches in the in rain in Selma, and more.

This is a different kind of hero story. It covers in 33 shorter chapters most of what The Race Beat covers in 23, because Herbers was there for virtually every big battle. More than another history of the Movement and the press, this is also the kind of biography, or autobiography, our journalism students need for inspiration today. Perhaps I see in Herbers too much of my own still-living father, who as Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau chief covered the same territory at the same time. Herbers was apparently away a lot more.

Like most of the reporters who brought the movement to the nation, Herbers was a son of the white South. He was raised in “genteel poverty” in the Depression, with forebears whose Faulknerian roles in the Confederacy and in a lover’s murder-suicide in Arkansas start this memoir. He served in World War II after high school and began his career reporting for the Greenwood, Miss., daily. He had discovered college on the G.I. Bill and discovered journalism at Emory University. He wrote for the campus paper edited by Claude Sitton, who would later precede him covering the South for the Times.

Herbers’s daughter Anne Farris Rosen, like me a journalist and professor because of the lessons and inspiration from our fathers, ran across these early chapters in a desk drawer. Why did this narrative end with the Till trial, just when his career covering civil rights began? He told her he had already written the rest, in news stories. But that was with the “sterile eye” of the dispassionate observer, she writes in her Preface. Fortunately, she worked with him to continue this “sensitive and introspective narrative” in the same style.

The result is testament to a life fully lived within the high duties and discipline of journalism. Autobiographies by white southern journalists in the civil rights years speak in various voices. This one has an appealing directness in the way it strikes the common themes of the genre. Herbers reflects without bitterness on the conundrums and insanities of the Deep South, how it could be so polite and violent, so spiritual and earthy, so backward and boosterist, all at the same time. He describes white “moderates” who struggled with their conscience and even “thought their way out of the Mississippi orthodoxy.” But they remained silent, unwilling to offend social relations or good manners, as even Herbers saw in himself. He could tell his four daughters not to use the offensive language they heard visiting their Mississippi grandparents. But, “Why didn’t you tell Grandmother not to use those words?” one daughter asked. “She’s my mother,” he answered. “You always respect your mother.”

At Harvard, during his Nieman fellowship in 1960-61, he asked himself the questions put to Faulkner’s Quinton Compson up there: What’s the South like? Why do they live at all? “The only answers I had were family, heritage and familiarity.”

Those conservative values were sharply tested by the demands of Herbers’s beat, especially the merciless expectations of his New York editors at the Times when he alone could cover the latest skirmish for the nation’s leading newspaper. Herbers spent weeks away from home in battlegrounds like Selma, Birmingham and St. Augustine. Often the only time he could see his awesomely enabling wife and daughters was when a vacation or holiday promised a break – but then an editor would call to send him back to the battle instead. He extracted himself from one such assignment in time to reach his family by midnight before Christmas in Memphis. Summoned back to St. Augustine when he was ready to take his family to another coast of Florida, he took them to St. Augustine instead, covering the most violent clashes of the movement while his family stayed nearby at a beach.

Herbers was relentless in following the story into dangerous places, but he could usually blend in with his diffident manner, southern accent, short-sleeve shirt, and reporter’s notebook cut in half to keep hidden. At a wild night of clashes in Marion, Alabama, the target of white thugs was not only the non-violent protesters but also the news media, especially those with cameras that could be smashed. A man in a hat and overcoat suddenly clobbered NBC reporter Richard Valeriani bloody. Herbers, who was standing within range, guessed that the assailant picked Valeriani because of his curly black hair, Italian features and northern accent.

One theme of the genre is what the book But Now I See, by Fred Hobson, calls the white Southern racial conversion narrative. Herbers experiences his conversion gradually and reasonably. He was often running after Martin Luther King Jr. or getting tips from him, noting in a long interview on a screened porch with iced tea how King was so calm and measured, despite death threats everywhere he went. “I left feeling I had been schooled at the feet of the philosophers, historians, and theologians I had encountered during my Nieman year at Harvard.” But the deeper conversion came, as it did for so many white southern reporters on this beat, from the visceral experience of the mass meetings in black churches. “As I sat through hours of music and preaching,” he writes of one of the first of these, “I began to analyze my own identity and heritage. I felt ashamed about the injustices and cruelty my people had inflicted on blacks even though we shared a common religion.”

The book’s subtle revealing of Herbers’s inner life is uniquely effective precisely because it is so restrained. The discipline of a lifetime of careful observing, in the end, delivers not flamboyant self-discovery but a spiritual insight that brought me to tears. A southerner is more moved by the sense data of fragrance, touch and memory than by abstractions. So Herbers, on assignment far from home, cherishes the feel, smell and colorful borders of the cotton handkerchiefs he kept from his father’s store and bedroom. The smell of his father’s sweater he wore once somehow framed an epiphany he describes at the end, as he came upon a dirty drunk on a downtown street in Minneapolis. He was writing a story about urban poverty.

“I plunged my hands into my sweater pockets for a small bill to give him,” Herbers writes, as something wells up in my eyes. “Suddenly I felt surrounded by Pop’s love, assuring me of my well-being even as the man on the bench may have never known paternal affection. For one tied so closely as a mere observer to the physical world of communities and nations, I nevertheless became increasingly aware at that moment of the spiritual world around me and how its messages come to us in metaphors. The invisible, unspoken work of a spirit, seemingly unrelated to natural law, sustains humans and ties them together.”

Herbers died at 93 on March 17, 2017, six weeks after burying his wife and just before the publication of this life-rounding book.

–My Book Review for Journalism History, Summer 2019

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Glimpses of Buckhead, 1930-40

Something I learned about the cultural and economic life in parts of north Atlanta in the 1930s and ‘40s, from online U.S. Census data.

I looked up a 1930 page that includes my uncle John Kiser, when he was 2 ½ years old. He and his twin Martha were born in New York, but now living at 109 17th St., Atlanta, in the household of their parents Dr. William H. Kiser (31, born Georgia, child-specialist doctor) and Ellen F. Kiser (35, b. in Illinois, occupation: none), with older sister Lucy P., 4 ½. The house is an apartment, rented for $150/month.*

record-image_undefined-4.jpgNearby, at 141 17th St., is the house of Robert B. and Nellie H. Troutman, valued at $20,000. He is a lawyer in general practice, and they have a son and a daughter, ages 12 and 7. They also have (“private family”) living at the same address one Francis Hall (25, Servant, Nurse, Negro), and Roberta Jones (34, Servant, Cook, Negro), and adjacent at 147, a Clifford Jones (33, Servant, Butler, Negro).

I notice a lot more live-in African-American servants looking at the 1930 U.S. Census page for the part of West Andrews, Atlanta, where my mother, Emily, was living.

At 6 W. Andrews lived Douglas B. Wright (35, born Texas, occupation “Painter”) and his wife Gertrude (31, born Georgia, occupation “None,” both parents born Massachusetts), and their four Georgia-born children at the time, Walter W., 5; Emily, 3 ½ ; James O.B., 2 ½; and Douglas O., 9 mos. Also in the household, Bu (?) Butler, 50, “servant,” Negro, widowed. (In the 1940 census, Douglas B. Wright reports his occupation as “civil engineer” in “own office.”)

At 18 W. Andrews lived Harry Williams (49, investment banker in stocks & bonds), his wife Marion, 34, their one-year-old son Harry Jr., and two Negro servants, Lula Dovis (?), 33, and Hattie Simmons, 35.

At 16 W. Andrews, office supply manager Robert W. Neel, wife and four children also had a live-in Negro servant, Frances Strickland, 25.

At 10 W. Andrews lived Frank G. North (50, born S. Dakota, “official” in cotton mill supplies), with wife, two daughters and two Negro servants, John and Ida Hall.

At 8 W. Andrews lived “soft drink” official Samuel F. Boykin, 55, his wife Annie, 50, their daughter Frances, 17, a Negro servant, Margaret Gill, 22, and a Negro nurse, Charlotte Scott, 64.

In the 1940 census, there are fewer live-in servants on this part of W. Andrews. Among occupations such as juvenile court judge, salesman and insurance executive, there are two “servants” in two homes, and in a third, a maid and a Butler, who are married.

*In the 1940 census, William Kiser (age listed 36?), is living without family in Hartford, Conn., in what appears to be a housing unit with many occupants, maybe a medical school dorm? Living in the same unit with Dr. Kiser, apparently, are an Ola Jackson, 25, born in Georgia, and her mother, Lillie Jackson, 65, born in Alabama. It’s not clear whether these two are there as helpers to Dr. Kiser.

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The Mist of History

Living in Rockbridge County, I’ve learned to accept the idea that there are three distinct kinds of “history.” First, there’s the history of historians, the gentle “arguments” of history professors in the three colleges rooted hereabouts and in the lectures you’ll hear Column footin Lee Chapel or Virginia Military Institute’s Jackson Memorial Hall reappraising the Civil War. Then there’s public history, the stories and monuments that give educated folks a sense of pride, or guilt, in the grand narratives. We have plenty of that history here too.

And then there’s what really happened. This is a realm of ghosts and coffins beyond our knowing. I look for that underneath the double-bullseye sidewalk bricks and granite pavers naming the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” In a ditch dug by a work crew along East Washington Street, below the layers of red clay and limestone gravel, I see Progressive Era sewer pipes. But I wouldn’t expect to see deeper layers of real history. The early settlers of Lexington removed about six feet of street and earth to get down to this level. The original doors on the older houses are that far above the sidewalk.

Go to the cemeteries here for the buried kind of history, or see the sunless things buried in libraries, local historical societies, the two courthouses and a dozen or so proud little museums around Rockbridge County. You wouldn’t believe how many splendid little museums there are. In one Saturday afternoon, you can drive north to the once-bustling town of Brownsburg for its modest two-room museum, further north to the McCormick Farm exhibit on the county line, back to Lexington for the Miller’s House Museum at Jordan’s Point (where the Maury River, Wood’s Creek and the old canal come together) and up the bluff to VMI for the two polished museums of George C. Marshall and the Institute.

At Natural Bridge, now a well-managed state park 12 miles south of Lexington, you walk under “the most sublime of Nature’s work,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia about his purchase from King George III.

Canal boat

Canal flatboat as would have carried goods on the old North River canal in the 19th century.

 Pass underneath the chilling power of the limestone arch, and down the path you come to the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit. This native American tribe is said to have lived here for hundreds of years. The woodland Monacan tribe itself may be 10,000 years old, but only recently has it achieved federal recognition. History, as Gertrude Stein said, takes Time.

There’s something that is both rock and bridge about this area. It was a bridge to elsewhere, a passthrough place on the Great Wagon Road. That was the Appalachian dirt road to the southwest for the Scots-Irish migration, and the way Sam Houston went (his 1793 birthplace honored in two markers at Timber Ridge Wayside). Today, it’s a crossroads, the midway point between Atlanta and New York, the place where in the 1940s Hodding Carter Jr., the great Greenville, Mississippi, newspaper editor, would stop with his family on the way to their summer vacations in Maine to lecture the children on the Civil War (recalled Hodding III in a talk here at Washington and Lee University). But it’s also a rock, a sanctuary, a separate peace in the Valley where the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies squeeze a little closer together.

“It is a region with a different soil, a different climate, different scenery, and a population more distinctly sui generis than any,” wrote John Sergeant Wise, who spent Lex Carriagethe Civil War as a VMI cadet and whose father Governor Henry Wise (a Washington College graduate) helped bring on Virginia’s secession with his day-long interview with the mortally wounded abolitionist John Brown.

In Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, with its buried veterans of the American Revolution and Confederacy, the statue of Stonewall looms with mystic power (at twilight, the Haunting Tales-Lexington’s Ghost Tour makes you believe the head turns sadly toward the grave of his first wife, Eleanor Junkin, the grave plot where Jackson as VMI Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Artillery Tactics came to pray daily).

So many graves in this cemetery (photographed by local super-star photographer Sally Mann) hide their own histories. General E.F. Paxton had died in the Battle of Chancellorsville with Jackson in 1863, at age 35. The simple headstone has only a single incised quotation: “It is well with thee.”

His father Elisha had hauled timber and crops down the North River (now the Maury) and built the Paxton House (now restored in Buena Vista’s Glen Maury Park, where old-timey festivals and rallies continue alongside the river).

“What we need is history,” said George C. Marshall. A quote from his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize address in the Marshall museum says the path to peace is to study with “almost scientific accuracy the circumstances which have marked the breakdown of peace.” That takes time, which is something we have here.

[This is the slightly edited version that ran in a magazine published recently by the Visitors Centers of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, 2020 Inspiration Guide.]

Marshall poster

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Shade for sale?

We worked in the lower pasture getting fence posts and yellow jacket stings (two, that is, for me), then met William in Dobson at the Mexican restaurant called Tlaquepaque. It’s bleakly set between the highway and that giant chicken processing plant, Wayne, where a few hundred cars of the Puerto Rican workers broil in the sun to molten temperatures. The cracked asphalt lot and gravel that serve as a giant stove top to the Tlaquepaque building are nearly at that level of heat, so Alyssa parks the Yaris in a lonely strip of tree shade 50 feet in back. Wm Avis & AlyssaWalking across that waste, holding Avis’s either hand, they make such an iconic picture of the Human Race starting anew, I take a shot of them on my iPhone. That shade for the car is so valuable, yet nobody is making money off of it. I wish I could figure out how to do that, like the person who first figured out that millions of people would pay $1 or more for plain old drinking water in plastic bottles. I’d be a gazillionaire, and save the world.

Shopping at Food Lion in Dobson the day before, I parked next door in a back slot at McDonald’s that was covered in tree shade, mildly illicit for a Food Lion shopper – but free.

There are but two new missions left on this God-given planet in my lifetime, and the lifetimes of my children and my students. One is to make adjustments for the rising temperatures, rising seas, and preposterous storms – adjustments for ourselves individually, and for whole groaning populations. (Here on these old weathered steps to a ramshackle house off the Blue Ridge Parkway, coffee in hand, I’m making my adjustments 2000 feet above the Carolina foothills, which are themselves 1000 feet above the the Outer Banks in the path of Dorian. Ominous clouds drift overhead from that directions.)

Mission Two is to begin shifting our energy sources from hydrocarbons to solar and wind, and to engineer our cities, economies and appliances for greater and greater efficiency. (Fortunately, the engineering part is well underway. The latter part needs a huge goose, something like a Pearl Harbor that gets something like a carbon tax passed in a jiffy.) Mission Two won’t get us to a leveling off of CO2 and climate change for 40 years, but still, it’s our mission.

If I could figure out how to corner a market on shade – to franchise it as Dixie Shade, or “Beyond a Shadow” – I’d address both missions at once, and make a killing.



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