“Insurrection: Education of a Harvard Guy”
Summer 2005: 36th Street, Minneapolis and Albany, Georgia
Copyright Zev Aelony, Minneapolis, MN 55409, October 20, 2005. Feel free to download or share providing you include this copyright notice. While others are noted and several contributed to these events more than I, the responsibility for the report is entirely mine.
Old, fighting cancer and tired, I left a South Minneapolis meeting discussing DFL candidates and strategies a little early one evening this summer.
A young city council candidate left about the same time. We came, in most ways, from different perspectives. We did agree on opposing efforts to give away, for decades, an important part of the city’s taxing and bonding authority to a wealthy banker. That tax revenue is urgently needed for our schools, parks, public health, housing and raising the wages of all city workers to at least the livability level. A few plutocrats who feel that they are entitled to whatever they want to seize from the public demand to be allowed to do so without the statutorily mandated public vote on the issue.
I thanked him for supporting that position. He turned and somewhat threateningly proclaimed that the sixties were the time for ‘you lefties’ and that now it was ‘our turn’! He thought I didn’t believe him, but in fact I had long since observed the decades-long campaign to roll back even the incomplete humanitarian and liberating gains so many had struggled and suffered for. There is no doubt in my mind that the threat is very real and the regress to the era of slavery and robber barons is well underway. For instance, the more important question with our President’s foray into Alabama was not ‘did he attend National Guard meetings’, but that the reason he was there was to run his friend’s race for congress and to steer it in a direction of ‘racial’ hatred!
October 14, 2005, I was in Albany, Georgia, for what the mayor had proclaimed as “John Perdew Day”; and for John’s performance of a one-act play written by Albany playwright, Dr. Curtis Williams, backed with a marvelous ‘Greek chorus’ of two Freedom Singers, Rutha Harris and Geraldine Hudley. Songs by one of the leaders of the student movement of the sixties in Southwest Georgia, Charles Sherrod, and by Emory Harris preceded the play. “Education of a Harvard Guy” followed John’s growth from a brilliant student who observed the turmoil of the society around him to a determined and more fully human participant in curing the cancer attacking this country.
I was invited to participate because I also was one of the “Americus Four” who faced a death penalty in 1963 in Americus, in Sumter County, for ‘attempting to incite insurrection against the State of Georgia.’ Another of the four, Ralph Allen, died a few months ago. We were unable to locate Don Harris, a SNCC leader in Americus. I have recently spoken with him by phone; he is a newly retired senior executive of a major corporation (I have been told by a mutual friend) and had just returned from his and his wife’s primary home in Switzerland.
Pete de Lissovoy who worked in the Albany Movement was there as was Randy Battle, an organizer in the Americus movement and in the congressional campaign of the courageous C. B, King in 1964, at a time when C. B. was the only Black lawyer in South Georgia.
The charges against the Americus Four were in response to our lawful and non-violent efforts to help fellow citizens register to vote, as was legally and constitutionally guaranteed them. We were trying to end illegal oppression of Black citizens through segregation, denial of equal education, denial of legal protection, job opportunities and many other inequities against people of color. These abuses were also used to suppress the poor whites who often were manipulated as the tools of the few who gained from the system.
Hundreds of others in Americus (population 13,000; half Black) were imprisoned for the same reasons on other charges. Scores of young people were forced into a fenced enclosure in a rural area. Many of us had been beaten with police clubs, shocked with electric cattle prods jabbed into our kidneys or crotches in the attempt to provoke us to respond violently.
This treatment was not isolated to us. Systems of such extreme oppression cannot be sustained over long periods of time without the crudest forms of terrorism.
Also there was John Cole Vodicka, the administrator from his office in Americus of the Prison and Jail Project. He is one of the next generation who are continuing the work of bringing our country toward the more civilized standards promised in our Declaration of Independence. His very dangerous work is on behalf of those wrongly accused or otherwise abused in what I have observed to be largely a system of injustice. It appears to me to be at the crux of whether we will progress to realize what America can be, or fall to the images of ‘Birth of a Nation’.
Increasingly I see the crudest form of slavery being reintroduced by the sale of prison labor to crony capitalist enterprises. The critical element is use of the phony ‘War on Drugs’, ‘War on Crime’, ‘War on Terror’ and similar round-ups of strong people of color or anyone unable to defend themselves for forced labor. I have heard complaints of this by corrections officers among others who see it for themselves. This is not to advocate drugs, crime or terror, but to point out what these false campaigns are actually designed to accomplish and are accomplishing! The US now has more prisoners than any other country in the world. China, with some four times as many people, has half as many prisoners (though it exceeds even us in the barbaric judicial murders we both euphemistically refer to as ‘executions’). Increasingly these people are arrested on dubious charges and sent to for-profit prisons where their labor is then sold. John Cole Vodicka and his associates won’t save the world or America, but they are working very hard to make a difference in rural Southwest Georgia.
My young verbal assailant on 36th Street in Minneapolis should be lauded for his efforts to contribute to our city. His direction, which apparently shared the lust for entitlement as claiming membership in a class deserving more social status than some others just because he believes it includes him, however, is a danger to him and to all. That belief in the entitlement of oneself and entourage at the expense of others is the common thread of the movement which has come to govern us. Its manipulators use the Orwell work “1984” as their operating manual. This plutocratic movement is neither democratic nor republican, conservative nor liberal, nor Christian, Jewish or Moslem.
There are many examples of these disturbing trends in our society: the police officer who establishes his (or her) ‘manhood’ by beating a defenseless 80-year-old St Paul motorist or a retired New Orleans teacher. Can anyone ignore the officers’ reflection in the gang-member inspired by the public adulation of the pistol-packing cop’s behavior? We are disgusted by the abuses of dictators of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, but it is considered impolite to recall that most were recruited and trained by US ‘intelligence’ agencies. We laud the pilot who thrills to exhibit his or her skills by pinpoint bombing while blissfully feigning innocence of knowledge of the women and children horribly murdered. We elect a president proud of his record -- just in his exciting ride as governor of Texas – of about as many officially ordered slayings as Saddam Hussein is now being tried for.
All are our brothers, sadly blown astray by that most destructive of all winds. Like the young Minneapolis candidate they can thrill to the status thus achieved only while being shielded from seeing the ugly wounds, the hungry children, the socially abused who suffer from their actions – and by continuing to blame the victims for their plight. They can ignore the consequences of their actions partly because, with few exceptions, they are flooded with images of the world which ignore or cover over those crimes.
Our senses are flooded with color pictures and paeans of this terrorist ‘side’ as not perfect, but so far ahead of everything else that all others should be following its lead – and need to be forced to if they don’t ‘see the light.’. Overt censorship is the smaller part of the problem. It is a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction, a coerced ‘political correctness’. As a teacher explains in another classic tale, ‘Brave New World’, “1000 repetitions equals one truth.”
Fortunately the public increasingly rejects that cartoon version of reality, assisted by a courageous few in the press, the electronic media, pulpits, arts and poitics! Even the most devoted advocates of plutocracy and the brutality necessary to maintain it shy away, when they are forced to face it. Often they first deny their own memories of what they have done to protect their own self-respect. But it is, after all, the lack of self-respect that leads us to demean others. John Perdew’s story shows us a far better way; a true ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ worth struggling toward!
.Amidst my dread of the decline of our society back toward the oppressive past which we had just begun to overcome a few decades back, the view in Albany was a different, fresh breeze. In a city two-thirds African American, it should not be a matter of note that its leadership includes African American officials. It should not have to be a matter of note that the historically Black Albany State University is now attended by local white students, that athletic leagues have reached a stage where the mostly Black teams have a few whites and the mostly white teams have a few Black students. It should not be a matter of note that the audience for the play included a few whites celebrating the defeat of segregation as a victory for their community, too.
` It was a thrilling Saturday night in downtown Albany: For the “Harvest Moon Festival” a downtown street was blocked off. Black and white bands played from a stage at one end. Great talent. Jazz & R&B. There was no tension, just a happy toe-tapping crowd, dancing, drinking a beer or soda, shopping at the food and craft booths. Moms dancing in the street with toddlers. A cute girl about nine or so, delighted with the flashing red and green lighted pendant her parents had bought her, laid it on the tar in the middle of the street to photograph it and then ran back to her family squealing with delight to show off the results.
There were two or three mixed groups. No one appeared to pay any attention. A squad car goes by, stops. I feel tense remembering times when that meant cattle prods, a beating, jail. The light changes, the officer smiles and drives on. Mostly groups of black or white, but younger mixed groups, perhaps students from Albany State University.
A retired researcher and teacher, Dr. Abrams, works with John Perdew on developing means to produce more food in limited space, to help small farmers to survive. John works with a project, an outgrowth of The Movement of decades ago to organize such projects, to market cooperatively and to help get funds for new projects. John and Pat's yard is full of herbs and a scuppernong vine -- which I was disappointed to find already picked clean. The city of Albany has recovered remarkably from a pair of disastrous floods. Much of the city that had been down by the Flint River has been moved to higher ground and beautiful recreation areas are being built where until recently there were only destroyed buildings and blight.
I don’t need to tell you that all in Albany is not perfect. It’s not. Thousands labor mightily and still face dire poverty. Whites opposed to recognizing equality have moved to a sparsely populated neighboring county. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard’s name changes as it leaves the Black neighborhoods. Pat Perdew and others organize emergency help for those most in need; but most of those in need would not be in need but for the tilting of the table in our supposedly equal nation.
I was thrilled to see a candle in the wind. A candle that needs to be tended so that it can grow towards inclusion of all in a community of valued difference and common love – the beloved community sought by Hillel, Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, Luthuli, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, James Bevel, Jim Farmer, Clarence Jordan, John Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, Chuck McDew, Dorothy Day, Julian Bond – and a Harvard Guy who says he earned his PHD in freedom in Southwest Georgia, and who after graduation from Harvard returned to live there. Beaten for eating with multicolored friends, threatened with arrest for ‘intermarriage’ he persevered and perseveres. Now it was John Perdew Day in Albany, Georgia! Today, John works to help small Southern farmers to survive economically through cooperative marketing and development.
To reverse our current national decline, to bring us together productively to approach that community, that agape, will take a lot of work.
We hope to bring “Insurrection: Education of a Harvard Guy” to the Twin Cities after Americus, Georgia and Denver, Colorado. Perhaps in January if it can be arranged.
While John, Pat, Dr. Curtis Williams, Peter, Randy, Sherrod and the crew who produced this work state that they are not looking for people to copy what John and the Movement did decades ago, we hope that it will inspire people to see that we do each make a difference either by action or by inaction, and that the winner is not, as the current dominant wisdom would have it he who dominates, but he and she who share most broadly with the tiny family that inhabits this very important speck in the universe!