A Diana Ross Concert Sparks Memories of the African-American Rebellion of 1967

Diana Ross Pic

Last week, my wife, Peggy, and I attended a Diana Ross concert at the Interlochen Music Camp here in Michigan, where we’re spending our summer. The sold-out performance was spectacular as the 73 year-old Ms. Ross reprised hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop, in the Name of Love.”

The nearly all-white crowd of Baby Boomers spent most of the 90-minute show on its feet applauding, dancing and singing along with the still-beautiful diva who was supported by a remarkable band and a quartet of dynamic back-up singers.

It all took us back to the ‘60s and ‘70s before our hair turned white.

It also made some of us recall an era before Ms. Ross’ hometown, Detroit, became a byword for urban decay reminiscent of the Third World. Back then, it was a vital industrial and cultural center, the birthplace not only of The Supremes’ Motown Sound, but of the Black Panthers, and the focus of the northern phase of the Civil Rights Movement that changed our nation forever.

That phase had protestors responding to poverty and police brutality more violently than our domesticated history would have us recall. Exactly 50 years ago in 1967, it turned Detroit into a flashpoint of the Great Uprising of the African American working class, whose effects are still being felt today.

The rebellion (portrayed in the mainstream press as “riots”) began in Newark, but quickly spread to the Motor City and almost 400 U.S. urban centers. In fact, between 1960 and 1971 there were nearly 1000 such uprisings across the country.

In response the government called out the National Guard. While cities burned, troops with bayonets fixed marched on protestors; tanks rumbled down ghetto streets.

That sort of response to such widespread unrest indicates a nascent civil rights revolution, not mere riots.

The bi-partisan Kerner Commission underscored that point, when it examined the rebellion’s causes. Its Report blamed the uprisings not on the protestors, but on white racism.  It called for the equivalent of a huge Marshall Plan to counter the effects of the police brutality and deep poverty that, it said, had sparked the violence.

However, instead of massive investment in public schools, housing, and social programs, the “riots” in Detroit and elsewhere evoked a counter-revolution that we experience still today.

The reaction began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. His Southern Strategy took advantage of the very racism denounced by the Kerner Report. Ironically, Nixon’s approach used religion to appeal to the anti-black sentiments of white Christian Evangelicals especially in the nation’s South. It transformed the Republican Party into the out-of-control reactionary force it now represents under Donald Trump. It eventually gave rise to stop-and-frisk policing, to the massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos, and to the widespread execution of unarmed black men and women at the hands of increasingly militarized urban police forces.

Additionally, the counter revolution saw defunding of public schools, public housing, and social programs. It witnessed the transformation of the War on Poverty into the War on Crime. It entailed capitalism’s abandonment of the working class, as it off-shored jobs vital to the economies of cities like Detroit, Newark, and Camden.

Finally, the right wing reaction to black rebellion suspended democracy itself in Detroit, as an unelected Emergency Manager overrode community welfare in favor of austerity measures that further penalized the poor. And as economist, Richard Wolff has indicated, the resultant and much ballyhooed “Detroit Renaissance” amounted to nothing more than gentrification on steroids, where billionaires are subsidized to build glitzy high-rises and restaurants.  Meanwhile on the periphery of apparent renewal, 40% of the population remains mired in poverty in a state where 48% of African-American children are poor.

What a contrast: the splendor and betrayed promise of Miss Ross and the Civil Rights Movement, on the one hand, and the disintegration of the counter-revolutionary Detroit (and America) on the other!

It’s time to reject the latter in all its brutality and to re-embrace the former with all the enthusiasm of those Boomers at Interlochen last week.

Without uttering a word about politics, Ms. Ross reminds us that we can do better. The Kerner Report tells us how.

Aging Miraculously: Life’s too Short to Give Up on Faith & Activism!

Aging

I’m currently enrolled in an extremely thoughtful on-line course about aging led by the great spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson. The course is called “Aging Miraculously.”

As I approach my 77th birthday, Marianne is stimulating me to rethink this Third Act of my life. Her course is making me less willing to “retire” from it all as one mistakenly identified with this rapidly changing body. I’m more anxious to “re-fire” the spirit I truly am – the Self that never ages. I’m realizing that the time I have left on earth is far too short for me to surrender to the life of an elderly spectator.

Such awareness was reinforced last night during a conversation with five dear friends of mine. The youngest pair among us were in their mid-60s; the rest of us were in our late 70s and early 80s. (Even writing those words frightens me!)

In any case, there we were reviewing the ills of the world:

  • Trump
  • The gradual disappearance of democracy
  • Its replacement with plutocracy and authoritarianism
  • Class warfare: the unending wars of the world’s richest (the U.S. the E.U., Israel, Saudi Arabia) against the planet’s most impoverished (e.g. in Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. . .)
  • Terrorism

The question of faith came up and its power to change all of that.

Now, mind you, all of us in the conversation identified ourselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, my friends (none of them taking Marianne’s course) seemed convinced that faith has no power to alter the problems we were busy rehearsing.

Selfish human nature reigns supreme, one friend insisted. It’s unredeemable. So nothing can ever really change – except for the worse. What we do in church is meaningless as far as engagement with the world is concerned. No one really understands any of it anyway. But that’s the best we can do. It’s naïve and a waste of time and energy to think otherwise. We must settle for the mediocre.

And, in any case, we’re all old! So all that’s left for us is to finish out the few years we have left with our low expectations intact – just enjoying the moment and (cocktails in hand) being happy. Our work is over. God expects no more from us. The world’s problems are no longer ours. They belong to our children. And good luck to them with that!

With Marianne’s instruction in mind, I wanted to shout: “Stop, stop! Cancel! I don’t want to hear that! Precisely because I’m a community elder, I have no time left for such small-time thinking and pessimism.

“In fact, it’s all an insult to God. We’re talking about faith here. – about the power of God and of God’s Word to change the world and its consciousness that condemns us, our children, our grandchildren, and the very planet to destruction. Don’t you see that despite the faith we claim, we’re denying that power? We’re arrogantly claiming that we and the world’s thinking and technology somehow have more clout than God himself – that the Almighty stands impotent before the likes of The Donald, Mad Dog Mattis, our computers, robots – and desperate fears!

“I refuse to believe that. Please stop! Cancel!

“And besides: the power of faith to change the world has been undeniably demonstrated. It’s just that as successfully propagandized, relatively comfortable white “Americans” we’ve bought into the “official story” as narrated on Fox News.  It wants us to believe that it’s all hopeless.

“We’ve fallen into their trap!

“However, the fact is that the world has already been changed dramatically by faith-in-action. And for more than 60 years, it’s scared the hell out of the fearful little people at the top. Since the Civil Rights Movement (beginning with Brown in 1954), they’ve been desperate to cram that genie of faith-inspired human liberation back into its bottle. But it simply won’t fit.

“Since Vatican II (1962-’65) and the emergence of liberation theology at Medellin (1968), backward church authorities (like Paul II and Benedict XVI) have been doing the same thing – with the same result. The genie is loose forever. Thank God.

“I’m referring to the undeniable fact that the Civil Rights Movement and liberation theology have changed the world. Without them, you can’t explain Black Lives Matter or the pink tide that has swept Latin America in the past 20 years. You can’t explain the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez, Standing Rock in the Dakotas, the revival of the women’s liberation movement, or LGBTQ activism.

“Without recognizing the power of faith to change the world, you can’t explain movements for independence in Palestine and throughout the Islamic world. Face it: what’s happening there is intimately involved with faith!

“And it is precisely those movements that have given birth to a counter-revolution waged by the fearful little people who pretend to lead us. Don’t be misled: the right wing co-optation of faith has not arisen spontaneously from selfish human nature. Instead, it was part of the well-funded Nixon Southern Strategy to distort Christian faith to counter a growing black power that faith itself had inspired among African Americans everywhere. All of that eventually resulted in the Tea Party and the control of the GOP by Christian conservatives.

“Moreover, fostering and bankrolling evangelicals throughout Latin America (and here at home) was part of Reagan’s response to liberation theology. Already in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller had identified it as a danger to national security. Similarly, the rise of ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism has been nourished by counter-revolutionary forces in Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski who originally assured fighters in Afghanistan that their resistance to Russia had Allah on their side.

“As community elders, we should know all of that. We’ve lived through it. We are products of the hope-filled ‘60s. More importantly, the Catholics among us are products of Vatican II and liberation theology and of the unlimited horizons of faith those movements opened. As a result, we have experience, knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom unavailable to our children, grandchildren, and to the young in general.

“Keeping those memories and hopes alive represent our specific contributions to saving the world. But time is running out.  To retire now without passionately sharing what we’ve learned is not just irresponsible. It deprives us of the joy that comes from fulfilling our very life’s purpose.

“What’s left of this particular incarnation is too short for wasting it on despair and surrender. It’s too short to live as though we are primarily aged bodies rather than the ever-youthful, experienced, informed, and wise Selves that God has created.

“It’s time to get on with Act Three and to finish the performance with a flourish and deep bow.”

In Memoriam: Fr. Norbert Feld

This evening I received the very sad news that Father Norbert Feld (Society of St. Columban ordination class of 1949) died today at the age of 87. Fr. Feld was my philosophy professor in the early ‘60s when he was in his mid-thirties. Norbie was one of my most memorable teachers at the major seminary level in Milton, MA, which I attended from 1960 to 1967.

In fact, each morning I remember him in my prayers as one of my three most influential professors at that level along with Eamonn O’Doherty and John Marley. From Eamonn I learned the science and art of scriptural interpretation. His impact on me can’t be measured. From Fr. Marley I learned about liturgy; he also introduced me to theological giants like Hans Kung, Teilhard de Chardin and Edward Schillebeeckx. Not insignificantly, Fr. Marley was my spiritual director who sympathetically helped me through the crises involved in exiting the priesthood after so many years of preparing to enter it.

I’m not sure how to characterize what I learned from Fr. Feld. I don’t remember much of what he taught me about philosophy – except that he once said that Rene Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” But I think Fr. Feld woke me up to politics and the art of independent thinking. That, I think, is why I remember him as so influential.

Hearing that from me might surprise some of my seminary colleagues, since Norbie was an extreme conservative, while I’ve become the polar opposite. William Buckley and the editors of The National Review were his heroes. Norbie disliked the Kennedys, and had little sympathy for the anti-war protestors. I don’t remember what he thought of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

As for his philosophy classes, they were memorable for his avoidance of the topic. I mean Fr. Feld would devote half to three-quarters of almost every class to discussing “current events” rather than the Scholastics, Enlightenment thinkers, or Existentialists. We’d always encourage my classmate, Frank Hynes, to egg Norbie on. “Hynie” (who later became a Boston politician himself) was much more politically literate than the rest of us who had been cooped up in the seminary since puberty. He was also more liberal than Fr. Feld. So he knew how to “get Norbie going.” It worked every time, and we all loved it.

Fr. Feld was also an athlete. He played football with us, and always hit hard; he was good about taking hard hits too. He’d play baseball with us as well. However, his best sport was hockey. He was as good as any of us. And “he didn’t need no stinkin’ shin guards” either. Instead he’d protect his legs with folded cardboard cartons tucked into his hockey socks. I remember one time he led us all in the building of an outdoor hockey rink in the seminary quadrangle. He was really serious about it. And each evening in the coldest weather while we were in “study hall,” we could see him out there sprinkling the rink’s surface to make it smooth for the next day’s play.

When we weren’t studying, he’d be after us to work on the rink with him. “Holy Honk!” he’d say, “you all want to play hockey. But you gotta to do the work. ‘Criminetley,’ get out here and help!” Maybe I learned that from him too – the expectation of hard work, and how to ‘swear’ like a priest.

Along with others, I’ve told Eamonn how much I appreciated what I learned from him. I’ve also thanked Fr. Marley for what he taught me about liturgy and theology, and for the help he gave me when I needed it most. I regret that I never expressed my gratitude to Fr. Feld for all he gave me.

Again, I’m not quite sure how to name his gift. But it was real. And whatever it was, I’ll remain eternally grateful to him for it.

Thank you, Father Feld. Please rest in peace!