Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What would Jesus the Migrant say to Mississippi politicians this year?

In her new book Jesus Was A Migrant, writer Deirdre Cornell says migration is central to “biblical spirituality” and the chosen people themselves were “displaced, uprooted, homeless” migrants. Joseph, Mary and Jesus were refugees as well as migrants when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s tyranny.

“Jesus belonged to a people indelibly marked by stories of Exodus and exile,” Cornell writes. “His life and ministry are framed by these narratives.”

Moses tells us in the Old Testament’s Deuteronomy our duty to migrants: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Giotto's depiction of the Holy Family in exile)

I’ve got a feeling that migrants are not going to be feeling the love in Mississippi in 2015. Gov. Phil Bryant is up for re-election, and that’s not good news for migrants.

After the bruising 2014 midterm elections that saw veteran U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., defeat Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel in the Republican primary, Bryant is going to have to mend some major fences for his support of Cochran. He boasted his Tea Party credentials when he got elected governor, but then when push came to shove he supported the well-oiled Country Club wing of the party.

As deeply bitter as Tea Partyers are about Big Money Republicans like Cochran and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, they may like undocumented migrant workers even less. In his role as state senator, Chris McDaniel “authored scores of anti-immigrant bills,” according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which anticipates a “backlash of racist, anti-immigrant proposals (to) come through in the 2015 Legislative Session.”

Bryant built his political career in part on demonizing undocumented migrant workers. As state auditor in 2006, he issued a report claiming they cost the state millions of dollars in education, health care, and other undeserved benefits.  Yet a 2013 Immigration Policy Center study shows they also generate nearly $600 million in economic activity even though they remain excluded from most government benefits.

Last July Bryant wrote a letter to President Obama declaring his intention to “prohibit the federal government or its agents from housing large numbers of new illegal immigrants” in Mississippi. Apparently he has no problem with housing thousands of them in prison. Mississippi even has a special prison for immigrants, the for-profit, 2,500-inmate Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, one of 13 such facilities in the country.

In his response to the huge crisis of migrant children seeking shelter in the U.S. from violence and abuse in their native Honduras and El Salvador, Bryant declared he would no longer accept children in Mississippi as part of the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program.

Obama told the nation in November that he would offer up to five million undocumented workers protection against deportation and a pathway to getting legal work permits, and the Republican outcry was immediate. Cochran, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and other GOP leaders in the state blasted Obama for what they considered a power play and abuse of office.

“While the president grants amnesty to countless illegal immigrants, millions of American citizens are still struggling to find work,” U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said in a statement. “It’s time for the president to stop playing politics and instead put the American people first. I will do everything within my power to prevent this unconstitutional and unwelcomed action.”

Coming after years of congressional inaction, Obama’s executive order—and the president quoted scripture in his message to the nation--is expected to affect about 45 percent of the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers. An estimated 9,000 migrant workers in Mississippi will be eligible for protection and/or work permits under Obama’s order.

Changing demographics that include a fast-growing Latino population have national Republicans worried that the anti-immigrant politics of conservative Tea Partyers will hurt the party’s chances in future elections. Corporate-minded Republicans like Haley Barbour value the cheap labor pool migrant workers provide. However, those demographics aren’t changing fast enough in Mississippi to worry Bryant and Tea Partyers like Chris McDaniel unduly.

Too often missing in the debate are the migrants themselves. Their voices are rarely heard. Writers Russell King, John Connell and Paul White eloquently described those voices in their 1995 book Writing Across Worlds:

“The migrant voice tells us what it is like to feel a stranger and yet at home, to live simultaneously inside and outside one’s immediate situation, to be permanently on the run, to think of returning but to realize at the same time the impossibility of doing so … . It tells us what it is like to live on a frontier that cuts through your language, your religion, your culture. It tells of long-distance journeys and relocations, of losses, conflicts, powerlessness, and of infinite sadnesses that severely test the migrant’s emotional resolve.”

We should listen.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" still resonates today with its pro-union, pro-people message--from Hong Kong to West Virginia

(A scene from the 1945 movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie irons for her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny)

I met Francie Nolan when I was a young man, and I’ve never been prouder of that than now after having read her story in Betty Smith’s classic 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Francie is the main character in this tale of poor first and second generation immigrants living in the tenements of turn-of-the-last-century Brooklyn. She’s an impressionable teenager who loves her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny and respects her mother Katie’s daily struggles to make ends meet when even a single penny is a precious possession.

I was a student at East Carolina University in the late 1960s visiting a friend in Chapel Hill, N.C., who roomed with author Betty Smith. She, of course, was Francie in this very autobiographical novel, and she was a gracious lady. During dinner at her home that evening she consoled me when a piece of my steak few unexplainably from my fork across the room. “It could happen to anyone,” she said, and the redness began to drain from my face.

I never got around to reading her great novel—the Oscar-winning 1945 movie is also a classic—until now, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s a perfect novel to read at Christmas time, and it still has much to say seven decades after it first appeared.

The Nolan family was fiercely pro-union. “Look at my Waiters’ Union button,” Johnny Nolan tells Francie while she irons his waiter’s apron. “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. … Then I joined the Union. … The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.”

Much later in the novel, after Johnny’s death, Francie is at the iron again, this time to iron her younger brother Neeley’s shirt. “Francie looked for the union label in Neeley’s shirt and pressed that first. (`That label is like an ornament … like a rose you wear.’) The Nolans sought for the union label on everything they bought. It was their memorial to Johnny.”

Like the Nolans, working people today still struggle all around the world. Whether they’re immigrants or native-born, they don’t have many politicians, preachers, or scribblers to stand by their side and take up their cause. 

Their best chance is to stand together. That’s when they get heard.

No organization has been stronger in defense of democracy and the rights of regular folks than the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in Hong Kong, where student demonstrators and union leaders have stood side-by-side to protest since September the heavy hand of Beijing in their city’s affairs. They’ve risked their freedom and even possibly their lives to stand against a plan that would guarantee a coalition of Big Business and Communist Party leaders in Beijing vetting rights over candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 election for chief executive.

It’s a fight for democracy, and you’d think President Obama and the great so-called champions of democracy in both U.S. parties would be rallying to support the pro-democracy demonstrators. You’d be wrong. Obama and Congress have been silent.

Not much more has been heard from Great Britain, the former imperialist, drug-running (remember the Opium Wars?) colonizer that once “owned” Hong Kong. A group of British Parliament lawmakers did plan last month to go to the city of 7 million to investigate but was told it would be refused entry.

In recent weeks, HKCTU leaders and journalists have been arrested by Hong Kong authorities for their alleged role in the protests. The HKCTU leaders were quickly released, but government officials have expressed growing impatience. Without Western support, the protesters have little leverage over the long haul.

Back here in the States, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. is threatening to close plants if the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union doesn’t accept its latest contract offer, union officials say. The union has indeed rejected that offer. You’d think the company would be more willing to bargain in good conscience after a judge forced it to end its nine-month lockout of workers at its Memphis, Tenn., plant.

To the east of Memphis in Nashville, Tenn., students and workers have joined to protest Vanderbilt University’s outsourcing of custodial services to the Aramark firm. That outsourcing cost 35 workers their jobs. Their successors will likely earn less wages and have fewer benefits.

Some good news has emerged, however, with the indictment of coal mining baron Donald L. Blankenship in connection with the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that cost 29 workers their lives. Blankenship was chief executive of the company, Massey Energy, that owned the mine.  The federal government has accused him of gross violations of health and safety laws.

You hate to think that an indictment is a cause for good cheer here at Christmas time, and in reality it’s not. The good cheer comes whenever and wherever justice is served.

Justice is what you’d like to be able to expect here at home in the United States. It’s part of the American dream that brought Katie Nolan’s mother to this country. “What did we have in the old country?” Mary Rommely tells her daughter. “We were peasants. We starved. … I miss the homeland, the trees and broad fields, the familiar way of living, the old friends. … In spite of the hard, unfamiliar things, there is here—hope.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The real winner in the last election: The Politics of Money. It's where bipartisan love can always be found.

(Haley Barbour)

OXFORD, Miss. - What a gathering it was two years ago when Terry McAuliffe got together with his buddies Bill Clinton and Haley Barbour in Horn Lake, Miss., to celebrate the plant opening of GreenTech, a then-McAuliffe-led producer of battery-charged automobiles.

The three pols had a high-old time, lots of non-partisan backslapping, guffaws, a few off-color jokes, and general glee at the prospect of flowing cash that GreenTech offered.

McAuliff, the former national Democratic Party chair and now governor of Virginia, loved hanging out with his mentor and benefactor, former President Clinton, and his old sparring pal Barbour, former national Republican Party chair and governor of Mississippi.

After all, Barbour was key to GreenTech’s securing of $5 million in loans from Mississippi taxpayers plus the usual treasure chest of tax exemptions. And who but Clinton lays greater claim to the school of what New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich called “Green Party” politics in his July 2012 article about the gathering?

McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour are quintessential members of the “Washington Political Class,”  Leibovich wrote, “a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. … One quaint maxim of the Political Class is that there is no such thing as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, only the Green Party. Green as in money, not GreenTech, or anything to do with clean energy.”

In other words, they are the very essence of what a growing number of Americans despise, even if people don’t always connect their anger and frustration to media darlings like McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour.

It’s one reason why record numbers of voters, particularly Democrats, simply stayed home this past election day. What was their choice here in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no “amnesty” for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?

Both parties are so beholden to Wall Street and billionaire financiers that Main Street voters would simply rather watch reruns of “Gunsmoke” on election day. At least in Dodge City, Marshal Dillon (look him up, young readers) takes care of business, and the bad guys get their just deserts.

With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in this month’s election, Cochran is in line to resume again the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee with all its promise of more taxpayer-financed pork for Mississippi. Tea Partyers, still smarting over the loss of Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s Republican primary, hate Cochran’s pork-barreling prowess. They do raise an interesting question:

Why, after all those years of Cochran, the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., and U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., chairing their respective Appropriations committees in Congress, is Mississippi still the nation’s poorest state? More than one of every five Mississippians live in poverty. Roughly the same number never finished high school. One of every four lacks health insurance. Why hasn’t all our pork-barrel done something about those statistics?

Maybe the story of GreenTech sheds some light.

Terry McAuliffe says he no longer has anything to do with the company. He resigned as company chairman five months after that backslapping party with Clinton and Barbour in Horn Lake. Not long after, the federal government launched an investigation into the firm and another outfit, Gulf Coast Funds Management LLC, in connection with the granting of permanent visas to major foreign investors. Production at the Mississippi plant was delayed, and the firm still faces penalties if it hasn’t hired 350 workers and invested $60 million by the end of December.

Barbour’s involvement with GreenTech is reminiscent of his “Port of the Future” deal on the Gulf Coast, where he recruited his friend Thad Cochran to help maneuver a redirection of $570 million in federal funds that had been targeted for Hurricane Katrina victims needing affordable housing. The funds’ new direction? An expansion of the Port of Gulfport that Barbour touted as the “Port of the Future”. The project has foundered ever since amid delays and shrunken promises.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once had this to say about Haley Barbour: “He manages to send the message: This is all a big game—a big wonderful game.”

Well, Haley Barbour and the rest of the Washington Political Class, it’s not a game to us folks out here in the hinterlands.  The economy is still a scary thing on Main Street. Too many people still lack health insurance. The migrant workers who make such great campaign fodder for Democrats like Travis Childers and Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant only came here because of bi-partisan trade agreements that cost them their livelihood back home.

 Put Marshal Dillon on the ballot next time, and maybe people will show up.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jimbo Mathus: Preaching the gospel of rock 'n' roll in the Deep South

A couple of encouraging labor developments took place this week--Volkswagen's announcement that it will allow the United Auto Workers as well as other groups to represent workers in regular meetings with management about workplace issues at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, plus a growing national protest by pilots at Memphis-based FedEx over slow-paced labor negotiations. Labor South will keep an eye out on these matters, but in the meantime here's a feature story about a Mississippi "roots" musician who once said he seeks out in his music the "outsiders, the losers, the scrap-heap cast-off people."

(Above: Jimbo Mathus at his Taylor, Miss., home)

TAYLOR, Miss. – I’ve seen Bible-wagging Pentecostal Holiness preachers at revival time who couldn’t match rock ‘n’ roller Jimbo Mathus for fire in the belly.

“Music is the original peacemaker, the original desegregation tool! That’s what set America on its ear! When you get down to the nitty-gritty about race, music is the pioneer. It worked magic before the government could come in. Good golly, Miss Molly, whole lotta shakin’ going on!”

Mathus takes another sip from his can of Busch beer then pulls back his long, blond locks. He grins, flashing that gold tooth Dr. Sanchez got him down in central Yucatan to replace the original he lost working on a barge in the Mississippi River.

The Reverend continues his sermon. “It hadn’t been that long ago that rock ‘n’ roll changed the world. That’s still the thing. All the blues, gospel, honky tonk, everything leads into rock ‘n’ roll. You can still blaze a new trail!”

It might be time for a call to the aisle, but we are in a small trailer and just across the table from each other anyway. Besides, Mathus is preaching to the choir.

The 47-year-old musician, songwriter, and roots music evangelist says life is good these days. Dark Night of the Soul, the latest effort by him and his band, the Tri-State Coalition, on Fat Possum Records, has been called by one reviewer “closer to the bone” than any of his earlier eight albums, a “search for redemption” that also can “rejoice like a Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning-house-rent party.”

The music ranges from Old Testament anger in Burn the Ships to the dark seduction of White Angel and the love rock-ballad that is Shine like a Diamond. Despite the CD’s title and some of its themes, “I’m actually very happy right now,” the artist says. “I’m happily married. I love what’s going on in my life, the artistic support I’m getting.” Gaining some distance from past darkness helped him write about it. “You don’t feel so close to it.  I’ve seen the ups and downs of life. On purpose. I didn’t want to shield myself from life.”

His landmark 2009 CD Jimmy the Kid has also just been re-released. This is the one that got my attention. Mathus takes you into lonely hotels, honky tonks for fallen angels, on the run from the law among “the sage and prickly pear” out West, and along a dark highway somewhere in America in search of “a little room to rest.” Echoes of Duane Allman, Keith Richards and Webb Pierce are in the air, but the music is still a Jimbo-special, roots-rooted “new trail.”

To many, Mathus is still best-known for being co-founder of one of the top alternative bands of the 1990s, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers, which did hot jazz, gypsy swing, New Orleans marches, and old vaudeville numbers and scored a major hit with the Calypso romp Hell. The band performed on the David Letterman show and at President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration.

Mathus grew up in a music-loving household in Corinth, Miss., that included a nanny who also happened to be daughter of one of blues’ early greats, Charley Patton. “She didn’t talk about him a lot. Blues was the devil’s music. He was a player in bootleg joints, whorehouses, gambling joints. That was nothing she would ever discuss. It was something not to brag about but to hide.

“Along about ’94 it came out she was the child of Charley Patton. At that time, I was of age. She was like family to me. One day I realized, holy-moly, Rosetta is Charley Patton’s daughter! It emboldened me in the blues field to pursue it even harder, to learn the guitar parts, every note.”

Even before he learned of the Charley Patton connection in his household, he was playing rock ‘n’ roll. An early effort was a punk band in junior high school named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. “We made a helluva racket. I was on a mission. I wanted to upset the applecart. I was not playing by the rules.”

Mathus considers himself a student of philosophy—he majored in philosophy at Mississippi State University—and he still probes the mysteries of Eastern and Middle Eastern as well as Western thought.  The South itself is his greatest study, however. “I had more than my plateful to know where I’m from.

“It’s important to know where you’ve been to map out where you’re going,” he says. “Not everybody cares about it. The majority of people could care less, but to me it’s important to feel a part of a bigger picture.”

Amen, preacher.

This article appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A bluesman's take on Tuesday's election: "I been down so long it looks like up to me."

Just filed my analysis of Tuesday's elections for the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss., which will run the article in next week's edition. Will also post soon afterward in Labor South.

In essence, I look at the low voter turnout--records were set in a number of states--and the disassociation growing numbers of Americans feel with money-driven Washington politics.

Here's an excerpt:

"What was their choice in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, (Haley) Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? (Democratic) Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no `amnesty' for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?" 

The sad news is that the country is now jumping from the frying pan into the fire. An emboldened Republican Party, now in control of both houses of Congress, likely will do nothing (positive certainly) about major issues like immigration. Some pundits argue President Obama will take the initiative on this very issue and do what he can without Congress. I'm growing weary of expecting the president to do what he hasn't done in the past. After all, he's also the president who has overseen record numbers of deportations of immigrants.

Neither major party offers Americans much promise, although a handful of politicians here and there do. Like the old blues refrain says, "I been down so long it looks like up to me," and looking "up" may be our only choice right now.

A political friend once told me this about Republicans: "Give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves." Well, now that they've got Congress, they can only blame Obama for the obstruction that they themselves generally cause, and eventually this may ring hollow with the American public. Maybe that's the "up" in Tuesday's election.

Another is: What do Republicans do when they're not saying, "No"? Not much beyond offering more tax breaks to Wall Street and the rich, feeding the military-industrial complex, and spreading the divide between the wealthy and the rest of America even wider. If they ever were to can Obamacare, what plan are they going to offer in its wake?

People now get a chance to see the answer to those questions. That looks like "up" to me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Labor South roundup: FedEx drivers' court victories, big win for airline employees union, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and international solidarity for auto workers in Mississippi

It’s time for another Labor South roundup with reports coming in of significant gains for labor on several fronts in the South. That includes court rulings against FedEx’s contention that its drivers are “independent contractors,” union representation for thousands of airline ticket and gate agents, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and an international gathering of labor leaders in Canton, Miss., on behalf of auto workers.

FedEx drivers’ campaign to be recognized as employees

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx lost three rounds in California, Oregon and Kansas in the last couple of months in its effort to keep its ground drivers designated as “independent contractors” rather than employees and thus stymie them in efforts to organize into a labor union.

The Kansas Supreme Court, hardly a liberal bastion, agreed last month with earlier opinions in the Ninth Circuit involving cases in California and Oregon that drivers should be considered employees. The cases were appeals of a 2010 court decision that upheld FedEx’s claim. That decision spread across as many as 23 states. A number of appeals were filed based on a wide variety of state laws and standards.

American Airlines gets a union

An estimated 9,000 ticket and gate agents at American Airlines in Texas, Florida and North Carolina won union representation in a September vote that The Guild Reporter called “the biggest union win in the South in decades.”

After a 19-year battle, the Communications Workers union scored a major victory with Dallas-based American Airlines. The vote was made possible by American Airlines’ merger 10 months earlier with US Airways, which already had union representation.

Casino workers negotiating contract in New Orleans

As many as 900 employees at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino are waiting and watching to see the outcome of more than six months of contract negotiations that will add them to the city’s unionized workforce.

A card check last March showed some 70 percent of eligible workers supported union representation. If things go well with the contract discussions, the hospitality union Unite Here will add some 750 housekeeping and food service employees to its ranks. The Teamster’s union local will add about 150 valets, front desk workers, bellmen, and warehouse workers, marking the first time the Teamsters local has entered the hospitality industry.

An estimated 2,000 workers are employed at Harrah’s in New Orleans.

International solidarity with auto workers in Canton, Mississippi

Labor leaders from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, South Africa and Spain, representatives from auto unions in those countries and members of the IndustriALL Global Union, last month stood together in a show of solidarity with auto workers seeking union representation at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

IndustriALL represents more than 50 million workers in 140 nations, including workers at Nissan and Renault plants around the world.

“For years, workers have weathered an environment of intimidation and implied threats from the company regarding the fundamental, internationally recognized human right to organize a union in the workplace,” a press release from the United Auto Workers said about the event.

Local community leaders and workers have testified to a management-spawned anti-union atmosphere at the plant and Nissan’s strong dependence on temporary workers who work for less wages and fewer benefits.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Two Southern heroes who stood up to the Fascists: the Rev. Ed King, author of a new book about the Civil Rights Movement, and the late crusading journalist Robert Sherrill

 (Civil rights leader Ed King during his recent reading in Oxford, Miss.)

Today Labor South looks a couple Southern heroes who took on the fascists who ruled the land.

The white Mississippian who stood alongside MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer during the Civil Rights Movement

OXFORD, MISS. - The Rev. Ed King was certain his days were numbered back during the long, hot summer of 1964.

“None of us in the leadership expected to live through the summer,” the lanky civil rights hero recalled during a recent reading from his book Ed King’s Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi) at Off Square Books here in Oxford.  “We were a band of brothers.”

What made King different from his “brothers” in the Mississippi Movement, however, was his whiteness. A chaplain at predominantly black Tougaloo College, King was on the front lines during throughout the movement, helping lead the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its challenge to the whites-dominated state party and serving as an MFDP delegate to both the 1964 and 1968 national Democratic Party conventions.

The Vicksburg, Miss., native and Methodist minister paid a hefty price for his activism. Beaten and jailed, he suffered permanent facial scars in a car accident in 1963 that he blames on white supremacists out to kill him. His parents were forced to leave the state.

However, it is King’s work as a photographer and writer that was the focus of his recent visit to Oxford. With co-author Trent Watts, King offers in his new book dozens of photographs he took with his 35 mm camera, intimate shots of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bob Moses and other movement leaders not only at public gatherings but in private moments at COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) offices in Jackson, in pool halls, and in various Mississippi backwaters.

King proves himself a fine writer in the book’s narrative as well, drawing on the prevalent use of dogs by Mississippi law authorities as a metaphor to describe the horrors movement leaders faced. “The leaping, pawing, snarling police dog, the German shepherd—Nazi beast, fang-bared pet and tool of the white police—had by 1964 come to symbolize white racist power and opposition to the civil rights movement.”

Veteran Mississippi political journalist Bill Minor recalled in a recent column King’s dedication to the cause. “One of my most disturbing memories covering the civil rights era was seeing Ed King in clerical collar and ministerial garb yanked off the steps of the old federal courthouse and tossed into a Jackson paddy wagon. … He had gone that day with several black ministers to make Christian witness that blacks were not alone in the struggle for civil rights.”

King’s strong moral compass put him at odds with other civil rights era veterans during the 1990s when he opposed efforts to make fully public with names and all the secret documents of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which had operated like a secret agency to fight racial integration through intimidation, threats, and smear tactics. King felt that victims of the agency’s spying might be victimized again if the files were simply opened with no protections for them. The files eventually were made public.

Now in his mid-seventies, King is an old revolutionary steeped in the tradition of religious leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller. They all sacrificed of themselves to take a stand against fascism.

Robert Sherrill, Southern warrior against the demagogues

My first encounter with Robert Sherrill, one of the South’s premier warriors with a pen, was in the 1980s in a library in Jackson, Miss., where there on the shelf was his blistering indictment of Southern demagoguery, Gothic Politics In The Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy. The 1968 classic ranks up there with A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana and T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long among the best books ever written about Southern politics.

Sherrill died at the age of 89 this past August. The South lost a major voice, but, as is typical for the South, I’ve heard hardly a lament anywhere beyond major publications in the North. In his written memorial, former Nation editor Victor Navasky recalled the late Texas muckraking columnist Molly Ivins’ proposed epitaph for Sherrill: “Here lies a man who never kissed ass.”

A native of Frogtown, Ga., who spent many years in Tallahassee, Fla., Sherrill graced the pages of Nation, the New York Times Magazine, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Playboy and other publications over the years with his no-holds-barred, searing prose.  No ink-stained wretch of the newsroom was better at tearing off the scabs of the many wounds Southern politicians have inflicted on their region and the nation.

At one point in Gothic Politics, Sherrill takes a moment to talk about himself:
“I started writing this in the sub-basement of the Florida capitol: a good place to begin measuring the Deep South. It is a building whose superstructure is appropriately half a foot out of alignment with its foundation. There is a sense of abandonment, a wistful archeological air about the capitol as of ruins nobody cares to dig.”

In other words, the Florida capitol was like the rest of the South—then and still today, a place “of great disrepair as the result of the business-industry power faction’s having ruled successfully for so long.”

Here are a couple of the mini-profiles of now-deceased Southern pols Sherrill gave us in Gothic Politics back in 1968:

Longtime Plaquemines Parish, La., political boss Leander Perez, “the Swamp’s Gift to Dixie”: “Perez has gathered into one spirit all the money lust, moon-spawned hatred for the black man and Jew and foreigner, and painful paranoiac reaction to federalism, that have marked the Deep South for many years; he has gathered them from many sources, and then slopped them back upon the land.”

U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and “Child of Scorn”: “Like Miniver Cheevy, James Eastland, child of scorn, loves the days of old but does not know what to do about it. … He is a loyal Mississippian, and this loyalty, combined with his hold on the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has given Eastland both the motive and the position to shape, retard and pervert the civil rights movement more than any other man in America.”

Oh, could Sherrill skewer a politician who deserved skewering!

However, he also knew that the true secret to Southern politics lay beyond the ever-dominant issue of race, and that secret was MONEY.

Southern pols “never describe their control of politics as originating in financial motives; their objective, they will tell you, has always been purely to preserve the South as the last outpost of fundamental founding-father Americanism.” However, “it was not the NAACP’s … racial emphasis but the CIO and the specter of socialized production and medical care that … inspired the blackest fears.”

Sherrill spoke with the righteous indignation of an Old Testament prophet, and his words still ring true today.