Friday, February 28, 2014

Racism in Religioussippi

According to Ecclesiastes 3:1, there is “a time for everything.” Among other things, that may mean there is a time for reading good literature and a time for reading popular novels.
This year so far has turned out to be the latter for me, as I have read three John Grisham novels since the beginning of the year.
I first decided to read “The Racketeer” (2012) because of the review of it my daughter-in-law posted on her blogsite, “Brenda’s Bookshelf.” Then my daughter Karen gave me a copy of Grisham’s new novel, “Sycamore Row,” for Christmas.
In mid-January, after finishing “The Racketeer,” which I found quite engaging, I started reading my Christmas present. I soon discovered it was the sequel to Grisham’s first novel.
So I put “Sycamore Row” on the back burner and read “A Time to Kill” (1989), which doubtlessly reflects the words of Ecclesiastes 3:3. It was a long (765 pages in the large print edition), spellbinding novel.
Grisham’s books may not be great literature, but they are alluringly-told narratives.
Then June and I watched the movie with the same name as the 1989 novel. I enjoyed it greatly—as did June, who had not read the book—and thought the end of the movie was better than the book’s ending.
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading “Sycamore Row,” which took place three years later in the same Mississippi town as “A Time to Kill” with Jake Brigance, the same youngish lawyer, as the central character.
A common theme of the two books is the racial tension between whites and blacks in the fictional north Miss. town of Clanton. And even though the first book was set in 1985, the demonic activities of the KKK played a prominent role in it.
In discussing the race issue in the new novel, Lucien, an aging, disbarred lawyer, says to Jake, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.”
(Many of you will remember that the popular novel/movie “The Help” was also set in Mississippi.) 

Early this month, “Religioussippi” was the title of an online article by Religious News Service. That article started,
 Once again, Mississippi ranks as the nation’s most religious state . . . according to Gallup’s annual religiosity rankings. More than 60 percent of Mississippians call themselves “very religious.”
So if Mississippi is as racist as Grisham portrays in his novels—which, unfortunately, it probably is, although not as bad now as 30 years ago—how can that be reconciled with Mississippi being the most religious state?
Well, on the one hand it means that there are many African-Americans in Mississippi—a higher percentage (37.3%) than any other state—and a large percentage of them are strongly religious.
But it probably also means that for many white Mississippians, their religion has not been broad (or deep) enough to embrace black people as equals in every sense.
There are exceptions, of course. I have known Mississippians like Jake, the central character in the two books mentioned above, who treat African-Americans in the community with respect and dignity.
Many others, though, including some church people, not only look down on blacks but on people like Jake as well for being too friendly with “them.”
I am sad that the most religious state in the nation is also one of the most racist states.
That shouldn’t be so. But, unhappily, that seems to be the case.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Remembering Cassius Clay

Boxing is not my favorite sport, to say the least. But in the early 1960s June and I followed with considerable interest the up-and-coming career of a flashy Louisville boxer.
That boxer was Cassius Clay, who won the heavyweight championship of the world 50 years ago, in February 1964. Partly in recognition of Black History Month, this column is about Clay, who later became known around the world as Muhammad Ali.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents were members of the Southern black middle class, certainly not wealthy but better off than most African-Americans of that time.
Still, young Cassius grew up feeling the discomforts of racism and prejudice. According to Anthony O. Edmonds’s biography Muhammad Ali (2006), “the defining moment in his racial education” came when his father told him about the murder of Emmett Till in August 1954.
Even though I am 3½ years older than Ali, I don’t even remember hearing about that tragic event at the time. But, of course, I was not a black boy in the South.
It was that same year, when Cassius was 12, that he first began training to be a boxer. His amateur career, especially at the beginning, was not an overwhelming success. Still, he won the national Golden Gloves titles in both1959 and 1960.
Then in September 1960, while still only 18, Clay won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome. That was, no doubt, when June and I began to hear about him, for we had moved to Kentucky the year before and were regular readers of his hometown newspaper, The Courier-Journal.

In spite of the latent racism in and around Louisville, Clay enjoyed considerable acclaim when he came back from Rome with a gold medal. Later that year he turned pro and began a stellar career as a professional boxer.
He later claimed that he started boxing because “it was the fastest way for a young black man to achieve social and economic mobility” (Edmonds, p. 17). Especially up to and including the time of his stunning defeat of world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, more and more accolades were heaped upon him.
By then he had, indeed, achieved celebrity status and considerable wealth. But public opinion quickly began to change when Clay changed his religion. Just the day after the Liston fight, Clay announced that he had given up Christianity and had become a member of the Nation of Islam.
Then on March 6, 1964, he announced that he had given up his “slave name” and that his new name was Muhammad Ali. His name change is a bit ironic in light of the fact that Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), the noted Kentucky planter and politician for whom he was named, was an ardent abolitionist.
There is much more to Ali’s story: his conviction in 1968 for refusing induction into the Army, his contracting Parkinson’s disease in 1984, his lighting the torch for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the $80 million Muhammad Ali Center opening in Louisville that same year.
Sadly, Ali, who now lives in Arizona, is said to be in “terminal decline” from his Parkinson’s. But the “Louisville Lip” was a colorful man I remember well from more than fifty years ago. Some of what he said is worth remembering, too.
Here is one of his notable quotes: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Good words, indeed.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Faith-Based Discrimination

Saturday afternoon the Missouri University basketball team won their second close game in three days. June and I are Mizzou basketball fans, so we really enjoyed watching those two games as well as most of their other 16 wins this season. Watching their 7 losses is another story.
Although we did not see the halftime activities, the MU football team was honored for their stellar season, culminating with their winning the Cotton Bowl last month. (I am a big Mizzou football fan also, but, unfortunately, June won’t watch football with me.)
MU football team’s “most valuable player” this past season was their 255-pound defensive end, Michael Sam. As most of you know, Sam has been much in the news this month, for he openly announced that he is gay.
(Sam’s teammates had known that, and accepted him without a problem, already.)
Also, as many us of might have guessed, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was not happy with Sam’s announcement—or with the University of Missouri. Thus, last Saturday WBC called for a demonstration against “fag football player shameless Michael Sam” and his supporters.
On the church’s website (, the 2/11 announcement of the picketing plans at Columbia on 2/15 ends with the words, “God hates fag football players and their enablers.”
Admirably, some 2,000 students and townspeople rallied to form a peaceful “human wall” to separate the basketball arena (and the football team) from the hateful protest of WBC.
Westboro Baptist Church members, however, were not the only ones practicing what can be called “faith-based discrimination.”
While most members of the Kansas House of Representatives probably do not approve of the extreme measures of the Topeka church, on February 12 they passed a bill which would allow discrimination based on religious beliefs.
Though the short title of Kansas House Bill 2453 is “Protecting religious freedom regarding marriage,” the language of the bill would broadly give commercial establishments the right to discriminate against gay couples on the basis of the religious beliefs of those who own and/or operate those establishments.
(This issue is closely related to opposition to the health insurance mandate on the basis of religious beliefs, a matter about which I recently wrote.)
Even though HB 2453 was passed by a 72-49 (60%) vote, it seems to have little chance of being approved by the Kansas Senate. Still, it is troublesome when a legislative body will “use religion as a vehicle for bigotry.”
The above quote is from a Feb. 14 editorial in The Kansas City Star, which says that HB 2453 “would make it possible for Kansans to cite religious belief as an excuse to deny services to gay and lesbian persons.”
The Star followed up their editorial by printing Lee Judge’s cartoon in the Sunday paper:

Whether it is the misguided actions of a church or of a state House of Representatives, faith-based discrimination is not only wrong, it also tends to blight the reputation of Christianity as a whole and of church groups and individual Christians who seek to accept, and to treat, all persons as equals, regardless of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation differences.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

One Hundred Years Ago

Helen Lena Cousins, my mother, was born 100 years ago today, on Friday the 13th in February 1914. She was born near Half Rock, Missouri, in rural Mercer County. If you don’t know where Half Rock is, it is a few miles southeast of Topsy(!).
Mom married my father, Hollis Seat, in 1935, two years after they graduated from high school in Grant City, Missouri—the same high school I graduated from 22 years later. She passed away 13 days after her 94th birthday in 2008, having lived most of her long life in Worth Co., Mo.
In 1914, Helen was the second most popular baby girl name (after Mary). Perhaps it was such a popular name in the 1910s because of the fame of Helen Keller, who turned 34 in 1914.
(My father used to tell about a Helen Hunt who worked in the lumber yard at the same time he did in the late 1930s. When customers needed help finding something they were looking for, sometimes they were told, “Go to Helen Hunt for it.”)
In thinking about my mother being born 100 years ago, I began to investigate some into what this country was like in 1914. There had already been a lot of changes between then and the world I first remember, from about 1944. And the changes between 1914 and now are very great indeed.
The population of the U.S. was just over 99,000,000 in 1914; it has now more than tripled to over 317 million. The average lifespan has also grown greatly: in 1914 life expectancy in the U.S. was under 55 years and now it is over 77.5, more than a 40% increase.
Woodrow Wilson, about whom I wrote recently, was President when my mother was born—but her mother did not vote for him. In fact, no Missouri woman voted for Wilson, as women in Mo. were not given the right to vote for President until 1919.
In 1914, Ford Motor Company began using a moving assembly line, dropping the cost of a Model T to $440. It also initiated an eight-hour workday and a daily wage of $5, which was excellent for the time. That reflected Henry Ford’s belief that well paid workers would put up with monotonous work, be loyal, and, most of all, buy his cars.
Speaking of cars, there were already around 1,500,000 motor vehicles on the road in 1914, about 10 for every 660 people. Now there are over 250 million passenger vehicles, around 10 for every 13 persons in the U.S.
There have also been great changes in the availability and use of electricity, telephones, toilet facilities, air travel and so forth. I wonder how old Mom was she when she first had access to electric lights and an inside toilet at home—many years after 1914, I’m sure.
One hundred years ago the most significant world event occurred in June 1914: an Austrian archduke was assassinated. That led to the beginning of the Great War (now known as World War I) on July 28—although the U.S. did not enter the war until 1917.
Since that tragic event is so significant, I plan to write more about it later this year. And it will be interesting to consider how much the world’s political situation now is similar to what it was in 1914.
In their 12/21/13 issue, The Economist wrote that there are now “uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war.” Do you see any of those parallels?