Meeting my moment

obama speech

(Marty Dobrow is an Associate Professor of Communications at Springfield College.)

April 11, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas

Even President Obama’s staunchest critics—and there are no shortage of them here in Texas—generally concede that the man is a good speaker. So on first blush, it seemed odd to some of us assembled yesterday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library to hear President Obama seemingly repeat himself.

As the keynote speaker on the third and final day of the Civil Rights Summit, an event centered around the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, the President recounted a famous story about his predecessor. He described Johnson’s immense challenge in taking office in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. For three days there was a grim and surreal vigil across the land, filled with imagery that still touches the heart:

  • LBJ’s somber swearing in aboard Air Force One, with Jackie Kennedy (still in her blood-stained pink dress) standing beside him.
  • The shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby captured live on television.
  • The poignant salute of his slain father by little John F. Kennedy Jr. on his third birthday.

Amid this darkness, LBJ planned what had to have been one of the most difficulobamas speecht, most freighted, speeches in the history of our country. His first address to Congress and the American people was set to take place on Wednesday, Nov. 27, one day before Thanksgiving. As President Obama related yesterday, Johnson was counseled by many of his top advisors not to broach the controversial Civil Rights Act (that Kennedy had proposed back on June 11—a bill that was stalled in a log-jammed Congress). In Obama’s words:

“One particularly bold aide said he did not believe a President should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be.
“To which, it is said, President Johnson replied, ‘Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?’”

The room, filled with a veritable who’s who of civil rights icons (Andrew Young, Bernice King, Julian Bond, etc.) broke into raucous applause.

And then, we heard this:

“What the hell’s the Presidency for?”

This was no redundancy, though. In the second instance, President Obama wasn’t quoting President Johnson. He was standing there almost in the middle of the second term of his own presidency, an historic presidency that began with astonishing hope, and posing the question to himself.

And then answering it: “If not to fight for causes you believe in.”

The Civil Rights Act was, I believe—and I’m certainly nowhere near the first person to say this—the single most important law of the 20th Century. It came at colossal political loss to President Johnson (a near complete swing of the South to the Republicans), but I believe it moved us closer to the idealistic promises in our founding documents about equality and justice. In essence, President Obama stood before us, before the entire nation, yesterday as the very embodiment of the law.obama long view

No President has ever paid such homage to LBJ. To do so in the past was viewed as being politically perilous. For Republicans, Johnson was too connected to all the progressive agenda of the “Great Society,” which some of them view as government overreach. To Democrats, Johnson’s plunge into the morass of Vietnam was equally toxic. So Johnson was, in essence, a man on an island.

All of which said to me that LBJ was a profoundly complicated man. We don’t like complication in America, much preferring the soothing illusion of black and white (metaphorically, non-racially). What is more comforting, say, than the unambiguous outcome of an athletic contest, where we have a winner and a loser?

But Obama plunged into the shades of gray in honoring his predecessor and the exact time when “he meets his moment.”

It felt to me that in posing that question a second time, President Obama was doing more than honoring LBJ. He was giving a pep talk to himself.

What is it for? To fight for causes you believe in.

**

Of course, it gets political. Almost everything does these days. As a child, I used to put my hand over my heart every day in school, finishing the Pledge of Allegiance with the idealism of “with liberty and justice for all.” Nowadays, I can’t help thinking about the word that precedes it: “indivisible.”pledge-of-allegiance-history_5

Even President Obama admitted yesterday, “Our society is still racked with division.”

Still, he summoned a sense of energy and hope: “Ours in the end is a story of optimism.”

And if there is one thing that, in my view, pulls us all together as Americans it is this exact arena of civil rights: our rights as individuals in this country. It seemed symbolically powerful to me that on this final day of the Civil Rights Summit, there were impassioned speeches about civil rights by both President Obama and former President George W. Bush. (Regrettably, Missy and I couldn’t get tickets to the latter speech.)

In some ways, that essential spirit of working together in the name of the rights of citizens was, in my view, best defined by the first panel discussion that kicked off the Civil Rights Summit on Tuesday afternoon. The topic was gay marriage. The two panelists were Ted Olson, the former U.S. Solicitor General, a staunch conservative; and prominent attorney David Boies, a bona fide liberal. Olson and Boies were once front and center on the national stage when Olson represented George W. Bush, and Boies represented Al Gore in the epic Supreme Court case that ultimately decided the 2000 presidential election. What moment in American history can match that one for pitting the two parties against each other with everything on the line?

Here, in the arena of gay marriage, the former adversaries have joined forces in emphatic support. It is not a position, of course, with universal acceptance. There are smart people who disagree. But the winds of change are inexorable. Boies asked, “Are you going to deprive a class of citizens the right to this fundamental relationship?” Olson described gay marriage simply as “an American constitutional issue.”

As much as the presence of four separate U.S. Presidents at this summit, the partnership of Olson and Boies—given the image of Bush v. Gore—was to me one of the most striking moments of the entire week.

**

Missy and I head home later today at the end of this unforgettable experience. I will close with two quick personal anecdotes.

Yesterday, at long last, my quest to have a conversation with Andrew Young for my book was rewarded with an unforgettable experience. After President Obama’s speech, Ambassador Young invited me to travel with him back to this hotel in a shuttle. We went briefly back to his room to get his suitcase, then took an elevator down to the lobby with Mavis Staples and her sister Yvonne (an exchange that was the comic highlight of the week for me). Then we got back in the van and rode to the airport. Ambassador Young was remarkably gracious and generous throughout.

And last night when it was all said and done, Missy and I had a fabulous time at the home of Mark and Amy Updegrove. Mark is the Director of the LBJ Presidential Library and the man who made this whole thing happen. We first met when we were 17 in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park working for the Student Conservation Association. We hit it off famously as we reveled in the great adventure of our young lives.

This past week was another big one. It was a strange sight for me to look at the stage yesterday when President Obama was speaking with three individuals poised beside him in plush red chairs.

In one sat Michelle Obama.

In another sat Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington.

In the third sat a guy with whom, one summer afternoon many moons ago, I dodged huge hailstones after hours of hauling granite in one of the most beautiful places this amazing country has to offer. His stories last night about the behind-the-scenes drama at the CRS will have me laughing much of the way home.

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A Force in Her Own Right

(Marty Dobrow is an Associate Professor of Communications at Springfield College.)

April 10, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas

One day after she was born, Bernice King bade farewell to her father—in so far as one can say goodbye at that stage of the game. Her dad had to go back to Birmingham for an epic showdown in civil rights, the turning point of the whole movement.

Bond, Dobrow, King

The day she turned five months old, her father was not around to celebrate. He had some responsibilities in front of the Lincoln Memorial. To his credit, though, he did make reference to her: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Bernice never had much of a chance to develop a deep relationship with her dad. He was taken way too soon from all of us, but perhaps most acutely from her—the youngest of his children. On that awful day in Memphis, she was just five years and one week old.

Yesterday at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I had the distinct honor of moderating a 75-minute discussion with Dr. Bernice King and the distinguished Mr. Julian Bond, one of the great civil rights icons of our time.

Dr. King is the CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. She is a minister. She is a lawyer. She is a force in her own right.

I found her to be a deeply reflective person, truly willing to engage in conversation at the heart level. She was tough, charming, funny, clearly committed to education and nonviolence, and not surprisingly very well spoken. The eloquence did not fall very far from the tree.

Dobrow with Julian Bond

Here is one sample, in response to my question about the blessings and burdens of growing up as a child of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

“Wow. Well, starting out with the blessings. Certainly the opportunity to be connected to great parents who made tremendous contributions to our world has afforded me the opportunity to go to a lot of different places and have doors open to me that probably would not have been opened to me—I think that is perhaps one of the biggest blessings….

“On the burden side, it’s a fact that all of us have parents, and typically kids are judged by their parents. And so the biggest burden is that I have parents who have done things that impact the entire world. Most times you expect your children to go further. I would say that is going to be impossible, as far as I can see. And it bothers me a lot because, you know, I’m normal. I want to be able to do things that were greater than my parents. But I’m also realistic. And so I do what my mother taught me, and my siblings, which is to be my best self and do my best in all circumstances. So that ‘Great Expectation’ is perhaps one of the greatest burdens.”

**

JB and BK

Day 2 was an extraordinary day at the CRS. I attended panel discussions that were consistently inspirational.

The first one dealt with the relationship between MLK and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The panelists included legendary historians Taylor Branch and Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as Ambassador Andrew Young (one of MLK’s closest friends and colleagues), and Joe Califano, LBJ’s top domestic aide. Todd Purdum, the author of a wonderful book that was just released about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the moderator. Here is a snippet from Doris Kearns Goodwin on LBJ’s contribution to civil rights:

“I think that tension between a social movement pushing at a president is the best moment in our American history. The Progressive Movement pushed at Teddy Roosevelt. The abolitionists pushed at Abraham Lincoln. And the Civil Rights Movement pushed at Kennedy and Johnson. That’s where change takes place: the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement. And you need, however, a president is open to that. I think that even though JFK had started to be open to it after that March [on Washington], what you needed was somebody who was going to put it at the top of his agenda. And that’s what LBJ did.”

barack obama ticket

The second panel, narrated by famed sociologist Harry Edwards, dealt with sports and civil rights. The two panelists were Jim Brown and Bill Russell. Not only are they two of the greatest athletes ever to play their respective sports, they are both civil rights stalwarts—and best friends for many, many years. On a day, coincidentally enough, when UMass’ Derrick Gordon publicly came out as the first only openly gay player in NCAA Div. 1 basketball, the former Boston Celtics’ superstar pondered the question of how he would respond to having a gay teammate.

“I’d have one question,” Russell said. “Can he play?”

The final panel on heroes of the civil rights movement brought Andrew Young back on stage, along with Julian Bond and Congressman John Lewis (the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington). Congressman Lewis grew up in rural Alabama surrounded by what he called “the signs” (e.g. “Whites only,” “Colored only”).

He asked his parents and grandparents about it, and was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

obama russell

But in 1955 at the age of 15, he heard about Rosa Parks. He heard the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. He was transformed. They inspired him, he said, “to find a way to get in the way.” He got into trouble: “Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

**

It was a truly incredible day. Unfortunately, Missy and I were not able to get a ticket to hear President Clinton last night. (Instead, we went out to the South Congress Bridge to take in the daily sunset feeding frenzy of the famed Austin bats.)

This morning we will be arriving early to get a good seat to hear President Obama. More later.

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True Inspiration (from Jimmy Carter)

(Marty Dobrow is an Associate Professor of Communications at Springfield College.)

April 9, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas

jimmy-carter-campdavid

In April 1974, I was in 8th grade. In my English class, taught by Ms. Kramer (I’m 80% sure on that one), we were doing a unit on limericks. After watching a certain baseball game on the night of April 8, I penned this exact limerick:

Hank’s goal was a difficult plight,

beat Ruth—that would be out of sight,

but Henry hit more

than Babe had in store,

just goes to show black can beat white.

Decidedly outside of my memory, but apparently true, the Governor of Georgia was seated in the front row that night. In an on-field ceremony, he presented Aaron with a license plate for the Cadillac that was given to him: “HR 715.”

Forty years ago exactly from that moment, I got to hear that Governor, one Jimmy Carter, speak last night at the Civil Rights Summit here in Austin. It was a moment that will be even more indelible to me (and I will be sure NOT to commemorate it with a cheesy limerick). At 89, Carter is a force of nature, a man somehow more vibrant, more sure of himself, even more eloquent than I remember him being as President. His commitment to peace and human rights—his willingness to walk the walk, heck, to sprint the walk—is an absolute inspiration.

Sadat_Carter_Begin,_Camp_David_1978

Of all the stories he told last night, one grabbed my heart most profoundly. LBJ Presidential Library Director Mark Updegrove asked Carter what the turning point had been at the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978. (Those were the discussions between former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.) For 13 days, the three leaders were holed up at Camp David. For the first three, Begin and Sadat were at each other’s throats, almost literally. Then Carter had them, in essence, retreat to their corners—not allowing them to talk face to face. He tirelessly did the “shuttle diplomacy” thing, back and forth, seeking common ground, trying to find the human touch that would allow a connection.

Toward the very end, Carter felt certain that the whole thing, however well-intentioned, had fallen apart: yet another in a series of seemingly endless failures to bring about peace in the Mideast. The enemies were too intractable, the age-old antipathy too hard to crack. Both leaders had shown some give, but in the end the state of the compromise they had moved toward was just too much for Begin to accept.

The prime minister, though, had asked Carter if he might be willing to provide a signed photo of the leaders for each of his eight grandchildren. Rather than just signing it with a generic sentiment, Carter found out (through his secretary’s dogged work) the names and proper spellings of the grandchildren. He knocked on Begin’s door to hand him the photos and bid him a disappointed farewell. Begin thanked Carter, and began to look at the photos individually, each bearing the handwritten name of a beloved grandchild. As Carter recalled last night:

“Tears ran down his face—mine, too.”

Then Begin said, “Why don’t we try one more time?”

The peace between Israel and Egypt has kept ever since.

 

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Peanut stew?

(Marty Dobrow is an Associate Professor of Communications at Springfield College.)
Marty Dobrow

Tuesday morning, 4-8-14, Austin, Texas

Inside a small elementary school in Middletown, Connecticut, I first exercised my fundamental American right. I cast my first vote on that Tuesday in November 1980 for Jimmy Carter as President. He didn’t win, but to his great credit, he remembered. Tonight we’re having dinner.

Right now it’s well before breakfast, and I am gearing up for Day 1 of the Civil Rights Summit from the lobby of The Driskill. It is an elegant hotel: huge columns and chandeliers and marble floors with classical music pumped in round the clock. It has a bona fide Old West history: built by a cattle baron who supplied beef to the Confederate Army. According to legend, Jesse Driskill ultimately lost ownership of the hotel in a poker game. Various whispers on the world wide web claim that he surfaces from time to time here in what is supposed to be one of America’s most haunted hotels. I haven’t seen him yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

civil rights summit tickets

The Driskill was an important place for Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is where he had his first date with Claudia Taylor – a woman who would become “Lady Bird Johnson.” This is where he watched election returns in 1960, when he and JFK were narrowly ushered into office, and again four years later when he won the Presidency over Barry Goldwater.

In a few hours, Missy and I will head over to the LBJ Presidential Library for Day 1 of the Civil Rights Summit. We will take in the morning Educators’ Workshop—meeting a group of people I will be addressing tomorrow—and then attend three afternoon sessions.

The first (“Gay Marriage: A Civil Right?”) has former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson as one of the panelists. The second, on immigration policy, includes former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and San Antonia Mayor Julian Castro, an “across the aisle” panel that should be quite lively. Then comes “Music and Social Consciousness” with Graham Nash and Mavis Staples.

After that, it is time for the “Conversation With Jimmy Carter,” the irrepressible 89-year-old who, with each passing day, seems to be gathering the courage of his convictions with more and more force. Like his politics or not, I think you have to admire his relentless push to try to make this a better place. By “this,” I mean both the United States and the planet.

Afterward, we’ll be dining—along with, I presume, quite a few others.

Marty Dobrow and Missy Marie Mongomery

Tomorrow, President Clinton comes to town, followed on Thursday by President Obama and President George W. Bush. It’s a rare thing, of course, for so many Presidents to gather in one place. When it has happened in the past, it’s all been ceremonial: inaugurations, state funerals, etc. This is different in a way that feels—for all our troubles—deeply hopeful. They are coming together in the name of civil rights. They are here in the service of our age-old fight to build a “more perfect union,” to move toward that “beloved community” that Dr. King dreamed of so eloquently.

We fall short again and again. There are acres of hypocrisy. Huge problems that need huge attention. We are far, far away from “liberty and justice for all.” But this is still an extraordinary country. The CRS might not be a giant leap, but it strikes me as a small—but significant—step in the right direction.

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Greetings from Austin

(Marty Dobrow is an Associate Professor of Communications at Springfield College.)

Monday morning, April 7, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas

The civil rights movement, in my estimation, is nothing less than THE defining American story. I regard it as the quest to make America in fact what America has always purported to be.

Our founding words almost glow with idealism. We have all heard them before, but listen again, freshly, as if for the first time.

Here is the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Here are the first 17 words of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…”
pres obama
The civil rights movement is all about walking the walk. To most of us, it is deeply associated with the 10-year-period from 1955-1965 with all of the familiar imagery: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, the dogs and the fire hoses in Birmingham, Martin Luther King’s soaring oratory beneath Abraham Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow.” But I believe the civil rights story is far older than that, dating back to the first slave boats well before our country started, and continuing on to this day.

The week ahead promises to be one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever known in my 53 years of taking in oxygen on this precious planet. My wife and Springfield College colleague, Missy-Marie Montgomery, and I will be attending the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. It brings together a staggering cast of characters, including President Obama, former Presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush, and numerous icons of the civil rights movement: Andrew Young, John Lewis, etc.

I have two formal roles here. One is to present an overview of the walk-up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to a group of high school teachers, college professors, and museum personnel who are part of the “Educator Workshop” that accompanies the CRS. I will be sharing some of my research for my forthcoming book that explores the 10 months and 5 days between the March on Washington and the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Those two moments of glittering optimism contained so much darkness: the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls, the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and, of course, the dark day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated.
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My other role will be moderating a discussion about civil rights between Julian Bond and Bernice King. Bond has lived so much of the civil rights movement: as a co-founder of SNCC, as a former chair of the NAACP, as the narrator of the incredible “Eyes on the Prize” series, etc. And Rev. King has been an eloquent voice for civil rights for many years, speaking before the United Nations, from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, etc. She is the youngest child of Coretta Scott King and her husband, one of the greatest American heroes who ever lived.

This is a great honor for me, and I am delighted to share the journey with anyone who wants to come along for the ride.

 

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