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Mississippi: A March Resurrects a Movement

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Overcoming disunity, out-of-fashionableness, poverty, and aching feet, the civil rights movement was reborn Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi state capitol, before the executioners’ eyes of 700 Mississippi troopers and police, armed with M-1s, live ammunition, and tear gas.

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1000 after the baptism of spit in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon. And they were 15,000 Mississippi Negroes, their biographies etched in their bent spines and gnarled hands. There were a few clergymen, 100 New Left types, a small group of 1930s liberals like Paul O’Dwyer, and a handful of dreamy Dylanesque kids, but mostly they were the porters, maids, and high school students of Jackson, giving a great movement the rare gift of a second chance to redeem its country’s greatest sinner.

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The anemia of the civil rights movement, inflicted by ghetto riots, integration next door, and the rhetoric of LeRoi Jones, has been cured — at least for a moment — by a cathartic wave of blackness and bitterness. One senses that the obscenely banal comments of the President and the Attorney General after the tear-gassing in Canton were too much for even the generous, ecumenical soul of Martin King. They helped the paralyzed move­ment turn a difficult corner; ex­cept for the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this is still a reformist rather than revolutionary movement, but its opposition is now total and its energy renewed. Next week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have 35 organizers in the 15 rural counties the march passed through, and SNCC will have a dozen. Mississippi II is about to begin.

The mood of the march redirected the too many dreams deferred since the hike from Selma 14 months ago. The unseating of Julian Bond, the failure of the war on poverty, the triumph in Alabama of Mrs. Wallace, the gerrymandering of the Mississippi congressional districts, and the tear-gassing in Canton, they have all driven the ambrosia of liber­als — love — out of the Movement. The spirit of Gandhian agape that hung like a halo over Selma, with its nuns and angelic-faced students, was gone, replaced by a clenched militancy fueled by a despair expressed by Martin King’s admission that his dream of Washington 1963 has turned into a “nightmare.”

The march created its share ot small, memorable moments. Singing, Sunday-dressed kids on unpainted porches waving Amer­ican flags. Marlon Brando limp­ing along anonymously between a 66-year-old cotton picker and a 16-year-old student from a segregated Jackson high school. The shame in the eyes of the old Negroes when they turned away from pleas that they join the pilgrimage. Bob Parris, who started this particular arc of his­tory in 1961, hovering unnoticed and sad on the edges of the crowd. (He is now quietly organizing in Bolivar County.)

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But more enduring than such vignettes is the hard political significance of the 21-day journey down sunbaked U.S. 51. The confirmation of Martin King as the soul and pivot of this movement; now even the kamikazes of SNCC admit “King’s got balls,” after the trials of Philadephia and Canton. The barring of the NAACP from the climactic rally program at the capitol because “they are part of the Administration, not the Movement,” as a militant minister put it. The new path SNCC has charted for itself, as it begins to march to the sound of a different drummer. Every SNCC worker explains the slogan Black Power differently, and so does every journalist. (In Canton, when Stokely Carmich­ael screamed, “This will separate the men from the mice,” the AP wire quoted him as saying, “This will separate the men from the whites.”)

Cleansed of its tumescence of hate, Black Power is an obviously effective strategy for about 40 rural counties in the Black Belt. Explained intelligently, it is perfect psychotherapy for Negroes ashamed of their blackness. As a stance, it is certain to capture the loyalty of many young ghetto Negroes who have felt themselves orphans since the assassination of Malcolm X. But as a program for a movement, it is the fantasy of victims.

Saturday night, about 2000 marchers, plus about another 9000 Jackson teenagers, filled the grassy athletic field of all-Negro Tougaloo College for what Car­michael called “a party.” Sammy Davis sang show tunes and then flew out on a private jet to Las Vegas after march leaders tried to shame him into staying for the procession to the capitol the next day James Brown, who makes Elvis Presley look like a paraplegic, re-created the am­bience of the Apollo with his blues. Marlon Brando told them, “You are the heroes of America … I should be out there and you should be up here.” Carmi­chael, addressing their buried pride, said, “I know you’re out there. Smile so I can see you.” Dick Gregory said he “wished LBJ was the Pope, so that way folks would only have to kiss his ring.” Then the rally ended about 10 p.m., and the leaders retired to continue their public debate that has gone on since Memphis, when Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young went home, and Bayard Rustin rejected  King’s plea that he come to Mississippi to handle the logistics of the 220-mile procession. To the fury of much of the Movement, Rustin claimed he had to finish an ar­ticle for Commentary. SNCC was dissuaded from the civil disobedience, the NAACP barred from the platform because of Wilkins’ antagonistic remarks, King’s most gifted aide, Andrew Young, chosen to emcee the capitol rally, and the divinely inspired Meredith granted the longest speaking time along with King.

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Toward Capitol

At 11.30 Sunday, the procession, 3000 strong, began to file out of Tougaloo toward the capitol, nine miles away. An FBI agent rode in the first car and an integrated SNCC couple in the second, a Black Panther bumper sticker was flapping on the rear. They were singing, “We’ve got the light of freedom …”

The conflict between SCLC and SNCC was played out all along the march. When SCLC arganizers distributed American flags, SNCC’s Willie Ricks took them away, and the Reverend John Morris gave them out again. The SNCC kids chanted “Black Power” and the SCLC staffers chanted, “Freedom,” and usually carried the marchers with them.

What two weeks ago had seemed a meaningless contrivance for the media was slowly transformed into a moving spectacle as the column inched through the unpaved Negro slums of Jackson. Wave after after of Jackson Negroes poured into the column, dressed for Sunday church, badly concealing their pride, and many clutching American flags, that were waved like magic wands every time whites on the sidelines showed their Confederate flags.

It was hot, about 95 degrees, and on almost every block a Negro family was waiting to offer ice water to the marchers. They threw kisses, smiled, prayed, and many joined the swelling, uneven line.

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At a shopping center there was the surrealistic scene of 30 whites, their faces looking like they were recruited from central casting, shouting epithets and taking pic­tures of the marchers. They were guarded by a cluster of 10 Negro highway patrolmen. A little kid with the words “Give me free­dom or give me death” crudely painted on his CORE tee shirt tried to give one of the whites a Black Panther bumper sticker and a Negro patrolman pushed him back into the march.

When the column passed the next large clump of whites, the pilgrims broke into a rendition of “Dixie” and the whites looked like they were watching Robert E. Lee’s tomb being vandalized.

By the time the exhausted, sweat-drenched marcher’s reached the capitol it was almost 4 p.m. Sullen whites, about 1500, ringed the appointed rally area. Shoulder to shoulder, encircling  the stained-glass capitol, stood 700 state troopers, city police, and guardsmen, defending the government of Mississippi from its own unarmed citizens. On the platform sat the unique leadership of the Freedom Movement, and one could not help but measure men like Martin King, Reverend Ed King and Larry Guyot of the MFDP, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and even emotional, visionary Carmichael, against the leadership of white America. Martin King or LBJ, Reverend Andy Young or Cardinal Spellman, Guyot or Ronald Reagan: who are better qualified to lead this nation?

Inscrutable James Meredith spoke first and was honored by a standing ovation from the platform as well as the multitude.

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They Larry Guyot, the panda-like chairman of the MFDP, rose to talk, unspeakable memories of white violence charging his voice and sending tremors through his body. He said, “Black people must learn three phrases starting at birth: white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and black power.” With that, Carmichael, perched on the edge of the platform, leaped up screaming like a teeny bopper at a Rolling Stones concert. Guyot closed with the prophetic words: “This is not the end; this is the beginning.”

Then is was Carmichael’s turn in the subtle contest for the heart of the resurrected Mississippi Movement. Lean, lithe, with bulging eyes like James Baldwin, he took off his shades as he began his talk with the words, “I want to talk to black people across the this country …”

In private, Carmichael’s description of the ideas behind his slogan of black power is persuasive. But excited by 15,000 black faces, network cameras, and a five-minute deadline, the 25-year-old leader of SNCC was reduced to slogans to explain a slogan. He transposed his words, spoke in a false Southern accent, and at the end the rehearsed chant of black power organized by the SNCC staff failed to engulf the rally.

Then it was time for King, the 37-year-old preacher who holds the unity of this amoeba-like movement in his healing hands. The speech he offered was merely a variation of his inspirational sermon delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. He told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.

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Then it was 6 p.m. and it was ending. Meredith still had the shotgun pellets lodged in his body, a beaten marcher was still in a Canton hospital with a collapsed lung, 5000 newly registered voters were in the rolls in 15 counties. The crowd reached out to grab strong but unfamiliar black hands and sing the holy song of the movement:

“God is on our side. We are not afraid …”

SNCC’s Willie Ricks, who has the look of a Times Square evangelist, began to scream, “Black power, black power, black power …”

But he was drowned out by the rising voices of 15,000 Negroes singing, “We shall brothers be — black and white together — we shall overcome — someday.” ❖

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BLACK LIKE WHO? On Black Rage

American culture seems to lack two ele­ments basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Ameri­cans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of de­fending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeni­able opportunities and freedom-loving peo­ple to acknowledge its legacy of unspeak­able crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.

Unfortunately, this fact has become trivi­alized — partly by black middle-class oppor­tunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lil­lian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civili­zation. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.

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Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to at­tacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and au­thorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark con­trast, most American elites, owing to nar­row, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the ex­pression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been direct­ed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and les­bians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These tar­geted expressions of black rage, though of­ten downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative power­lessness of a people toward whom Ameri­can elites have been and are indifferent.

The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major Ameri­can-elite response to this threat was to re­duce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle­-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonex­istent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.

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The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been dev­astating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the funda­mental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power fil­tered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communi­ties, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desper­ate situation, has failed to make the requi­site symbolic gestures to the black commu­nity in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokes­people, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilan­tism is a shon one for an abused and en­raged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.

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Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direc­tion. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country de­pend, in large part, on whether we acknowl­edge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.

Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan

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Blacks and Jews

The Tragedy of Jackson, the Logic of Coalition

What Jesse Jackson said is a tragedy: for him, for black-Jewish rela­tions, for champions of compromise in the Mid­dle East, and for the noble concept for a rain­bow coalition of the re­jected. What Jesse Jack­son said will profit and please all the little dema­gogues who feed off fear and hate.

All we can do now is try to convert this calamity into something positive, by learning from it, by searching our souls, and by becoming more sensi­tive to each other’s pride, pain, and even to each other’s paranoia.

What is needed now is the courage to transcend our automatic loyalties to our own tribe. We need Jews who can see — and say — the truth about Ed Koch, or any other mem­ber of our tribe, who prac­tices discrimination, group stereotyping, scapegoating, or system­atic disrespect for any mi­nority in our society. And we need blacks who can see — and say — the truth about Jesse Jackson, or any member of their tribe who does the same thing.

I know this is not easy. When I wrote a series of articles almost 10 years ago exposing Bernard Bergman, an Orthodox rabbi, as a corrupt exploiter of the elderly, I was accused of anti-Semitism by some Jews. They said I was in­juring all Jews and Israel. What I was writing was true, and faithful to my ideas of justice. But the attacks hurt, and made me feel misunderstood.

Only by creating loyal­ties to something more universal than our im­mediate tribe — to ideas and values like com­munity, tolerance, plural­ism, and equality — can we begin the process of reciprocity and reconcil­iation between blacks and Jews. And this process is the only way out of the present antagonistic pre­dicament that has the people who hate both blacks and Jews laughing and celebrating.

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When Ed Koch lied about Basil Paterson, first in interviews, and then, more maliciously, in his book, some Jews did speak up, as best they could, including Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Haskell ­Lazerre of the American Jewish Committee, union leaders Jacob Sheinkman and Victor Gotbaum, Sol Stern, Victor Kovner, and Letty Pogrebin.

When Jesse Jackson lied, and then admit­ted his bigoted “Hymie/Hymietown” slur against Jews, some black leaders did speak up, as best they could, including Basil Paterson,­ the Amsterdam News, Julian Bond, Reverend Calvin Butts, col­umnist William Raspberry, Denny Far­rell, David Dinkins, Carl McCall, and Al Vann.

These leaders, reaching out beyond the tribe, suggest the reciprocal model for future reconciliations. I wish more Jewish politicians would agitate against the abomination of apartheid. I wish more black politicians would crusade against the scandal of Soviet anti-Semitism. I wish Jews focused more on the fact that there is not one black person among this nation’s 100 senators or 50 governors, and that there is no black (and no Latin) on this city’s Board of Estimate, even though New York City’s population is 50 per cent nonwhite. And I wish more blacks who tend to see Jews as powerful would focus on the fact that there is not one Jew in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, and there is not one Jew on the Supreme Court.

I wish more Jews understood that it was black votes, mobilized by Al Vann and Major Owens, that elected Elizabeth Holtzman district attorney in Brooklyn. I wish more blacks understood that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago against a Jewish opponent, and that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Bruce Wright to his judgeship in Manhattan, also against a Jewish rival.

In this city, in this time, reconciliation between blacks and Jews — as difficult as it surely will be — is the only practical path from community empowerment to suc­cessful electoral coalitions for blacks. And for liberals and labor, it is the only avail­able road from futile opposition to power-­sharing with minorities. And this time it must be done with self-respect, mutual respect, and complete honesty.

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Jesse Jackson is a polarizing figure because he is perceived so differently by blacks and whites. There is no doubt that he is seen as an inspirational hero by most blacks, especially by poor and younger blacks. But most whites either fear him, or disagree with him. Nevertheless, most of the whites I know who support his candidacy are Jewish.

Until his “Hymie/Hymietown” slur, Jackson’s campaign was having a positive effect. He was forcing the white can­didates to deal with important issues like enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a response to apartheid, and the unfair Democratic Party delegate-selection rules. His eloquence on behalf of the powerless was stunning. He made the most sense on Central America and the military budget. He was a stimulus to voter regis­tration. He spoke for compromise in the Middle East. He was at 16 per cent in the polls in New Hampshire and gaining momentum.

Then, in a conversation with a re­spected black journalist named Milton Coleman, he used the disgusting insults, Hymie and Hymietown, and everything changed.

At first, Jackson lied. He denied he had said it. On February 19, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Jackson said:

“It’s simply not true, and I think the accuser ought to come forth.”

Three days later, in New Hampshire, Jackson said: “I won’t deny, nor at any level will I admit it.” A few minutes later, he added: “From my point of view it’s a denial.”

Seven days later, Jackson finally ad­mitted he had said it, describing his slur as “an off-color remark that has no bear­ing on religion or politics.”

That was a minimalist apology. The fact is that what Jackson said was an expression of bigotry, not very different from the well-known ethnic insults by Spiro Agnew, Earl Butz, and Abraham Kauvar, the former New York Health and Hospitals Corporation president who used the slur “nigger” — and was not fired by our mayor, who has a double standard in most matters involving blacks and Jews.

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Probably the most sensitive analysis of Jesse Jackson’s retreat from deception to evasion to confession was written by a non-Jew — Murray Kempton, in the March 4 edition of Newsday. Until that column, Kempton had all but endorsed Jackson in several prior essays.

“And then [Kempton wrote] Jesse Jackson was heard speaking of Jews as ‘hymies’. When this charmless lapse came to the public’s attention, his first reaction was to treat questions about it as a worse offense than the one he had committed. He began by pushing failures of recollec­tion to the extremes of the border between truth and falsehood, and, when evasive action finally failed him, he conceded that he had been ‘partially at fault.’ There are few more graceless apologies than those suggesting you were only a minor actor in a trespass that had been exclusively your own.

“If anyone except Jesse Jackson were responsible for indulging in a spot of Jew­baiting, then who else was at fault? The Jews?

“In any case, Lally Weymouth’s portrait of Jackson in the current [March 5] New York magazine, most tellingly sug­gests that ‘hymie’ is a word of art that comes to his lips not so much from care­lessness as from habit.”

Habit is the heart of the matter. It’s habit that makes the remark indefensible. Jesse Jackson has a history of saying things that hurt Jews, that stereotype Jews, that are insensitive to Jewish his­tory, that lump Jews together, that see Jews or Jewish influence where none exists.

This is different from Jackson’s substantive policy statements about Is­rael and the Palestinians. There is noth­ing anti-Semitic about wanting to see a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza while supporting secure interna­tionally recognized borders for Israel. This is the view of Israel’s peace move­ment, George McGovern, Anthony Lewis, Nat Hentoff, Irving Howe, and many other people of conscience. Even mainstream Jewish organizational leaders like Nathan Perlmutter have recently ap­peared on television to say that Jackson’s position on a Palestinian state “is not anti-Semitic.”

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The problem is habit and history. Jackson has too often made references to “Jewish slumlords,” to “Jewish re­porters,” to “Jewish businessmen,” that inappropriately single out Jews for attack. He said he was “sick and tired of hearing constantly about the Holocaust.” Bill Singer, who was cochairman with Jackson of the Illinois McGovern delegation in 1972, says Jackson called him “the little Jew” and that he believes Jackson “har­bors a great deal of prejudice.” Habit and history.

In October of 1979, Jackson returned from his trip to the Middle East, where he embraced Arafat. Jackson said the jour­nalists who criticized him were “all Jew­ish.” He singled out David Shipler of The New York Times as one of the reporters who had been unfair because they were Jewish. But David Shipler is not Jewish, and his reporting was not unfair. (Jackson has also mistakenly claimed that Ehrlichman and Haldeman are Jews.) Shipler has subsequently written so sensitively about the deprivations of human rights suffered by the Palestinians, and so accurately about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, that some Jewish leaders are now complaining that Shipler is biased against Israel.

The point is that Jesse Jackson was wrong to single out reporters he thought were Jewish, and to assert their religion was prejudicing their professionalism.

Jackson fails to recognize differences and distinctions among Jews, a failure which leads him to stereotype. And stereotyping can lead to paranoia. In the last month, Jackson has said that he is a victim of “a conspiracy” by Jewish organizations. He has said the criticisms of him, and the demonstrations against him, were “too orchestrated to be accidental.” He has equated the disruptions and threats of violence that come from the goons of the Jewish Defense League with a memorandum accurately documenting his public remarks circulated by the Anti­-Defamation League. To me, what the Jew­ish Defense League has done is despica­ble, while the ADL is merely doing what any pressure group should legitimately do to get its point of view across.

There is no Jewish conspiracy to “get” Jesse Jackson. The reporter who first re­vealed the Hymie remark was black. Jeff Gerth, the Times reporter who revealed the $200,000 donation from the Arab League to PUSH, is one of the best and most honorable investigative journalists in the country. I am writing this article because I believe in what Martin Luther King told the multitude on August 28, 1963: that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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The JDL — and its demagogic leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane — no more represents all Jews than the Five Percenters repre­sent all blacks. When the first inflam­matory advertisement from Jews Against Jackson appeared in The New York Times, the ad was immediately condemned by leaders of both the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. The mainstream Jewish organizations have been restrained and re­sponsible in reacting to Jackson’s can­didacy.

On September 16, 1979, Jackson ap­peared on the CBS show 60 Minutes. He said: “With all of the talk of the black-­Jewish alliance, we don’t own radio stations together, we don’t own TV stations together, we don’t own banks together, we do not share in the ownership of the in­dustries they have begun to get some hold on together.”

I fear that Jesse Jackson — and a surprisingly large number of people — ­believe in the stereotypical myth of the powerful Jew. (Ellen Willis published an excellent essay on this theme in the Sep­tember 3, 1979, issue of the Voice.) This myth can lead to a form of scapegoating about “the Jews” controlling the banks, and “the Jews” controlling the media.

The real power in America is corporate and military. C. Wright Mills taught us that in The Power Elite more than 20 years ago. Jews do not own the biggest banks, like Chase, or Citibank, or the Bank of America. Jews do not own the biggest corporations, like General Motors or ITT. Jews do not own any oil com­panies, like Mobil, Gulf, or Texaco. Jews do not control the defense industry, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA. Jews do not own any of the corporations that have become symbols of greed and misconduct, like J.P. Stevens, Hooker Chemical, Kerr-McGee, or Lilco.

There are no Jews on the Supreme Court. There are no Jews in Ronald Rea­gan’s cabinet. Jews do not own the TV networks. Jews do not even own the New York Post or the Daily News.

But I know from personal conversa­tions how widespread and deep-seated the myth of Jewish power is. And this mis­conception causes resentment among the truly powerless, who have less privilege than the Jews.

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There is a parallel misconception among many whites, which is that blacks have successfully made it into the middle class as a result of the gains of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. This fallacy is effectively demolished in an essay by Paul Robeson Jr. in the Feb­ruary issue of Jewish Currents. Robeson’s essay is a review of The State of Black America, published by the National Ur­ban League. It documents that blacks are worse off now than 10 years ago, by all economic measures, including median in­come and the percentage of families living below the poverty level.

During the “Hymie” controversy, Jackson staff members and advisers were quoted several times as saying it wasn’t so serious because Jackson never expected to get many Jewish votes anyway. Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, said this.

This response is morally blind. It as­sumes that non-Jews are not offended by a religious slur. I think they are. Most of my non-Jewish friends’ were disgusted by Jackson’s remark, and several ceased to support him because of it. Jackson’s sup­port in New Hampshire shrunk from 16 per cent to 5 per cent after the “Hymie” slur, and the Jewish vote is negligible in New Hampshire.

When Spiro Agnew used the term “fat Jap,” not only Asian-Americans should have been offended. When Abraham Kauvar said “nigger,” not only blacks should have felt violated. When J. Peter Grace said most Puerto Ricans were living off food stamps, we all should have been outraged.

Reciprocity and reconciliation.

I understand that Jesse Jackson has been the victim of some traumatic ex­periences inflicted by a few extremist Jews. His life has been threatened — no trivial matter to a former aide to Martin Luther King. Dead animals have been left on the doorstep to his office. Bomb threats have been phoned regularly to his New York campaign headquarters. His an­nouncement for president was disrupted by the JDL. Two of his campaign offices outside of New York have been fire­bombed. His family has been harassed. Some of his quotes have been wrenched out of context and misinterpreted by his critics.

But none of this can exonerate Jackson for what he — a Baptist minister and a candidate for president — said about Jews, and about New York. His choice of lan­guage, as Basil Paterson said, was “im­permissible when said by anyone, on or off the record.”

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Next year Ed Koch will try to use the memory of Jackson’s slur to destroy any black candidate who seeks Jewish votes.

But what is Koch’s moral authority in the realm of racial harmony, sensitivity, and justice? What is Koch’s habit and history?

I would argue that in some ways Koch is the white mirror image of Jackson, and that of the two Koch is the more danger­ous, because he has more power. Ed Koch controls the allocation of a $14 billion budget; Jesse Jackson can only agitate. Koch holds life and death power over the people who live in New York; Jackson is a symbolic politician and a Chicago clergyman. If we are to be even-handed we should recognize that because Koch is the mayor of the largest city in this country, he can do more harm to more people with his defects of character than Jackson can.

At this stage in history there should be little need to recapitulate all that Koch has done to injure and insult minorities, except to refresh the memory a bit. He closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1979, even though there was a desperate need for medical care in a community with frightening statistics on infant mor­tality, life expectancy, and tuberculosis. In 1982 the TB rate in central Harlem was 10 times the national average. There were nine deaths from TB in Harlem in 1981, and 22 the next year.

Koch approved a redistricting plan for the City Council that even Ronald Rea­gan’s Justice Department found biased against blacks and Latins. He refused to fire his health and hospitals president af­ter the man used the word “nigger” in public. He has kept Elliot Gross in his job as medical examiner despite the obvious cover-up autopsy Gross performed on the battered body of Michael Stewart. He has refused to appoint civilians from outside the police department to the brutality review board. Koch endorsed Andrew Stein over David Dinkins, Alfred DelBello over Carl McCall, and Fred Richmond over Bernard Gifford, in a pattern of re­jection of superior black candidates. Koch supported the legally unqualified Robert Wagner for schools chancellor over two better-qualified minority applicants. Koch has failed to provide adequate municipal services to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Harlem, and other poor, black neighborhoods, while hoarding a $500 million budget surplus, and giving millions of dollars in tax abatements and tax exemptions to mid-Manhattan landlords.

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And then there is Koch’s comment on blacks and Jews which first appeared in Ken Auletta’s profile in The New Yorker in 1979, and which Koch, incredibly, in his new book, says he still believes to be right and true. What Koch said is this:

“I find the black community very anti-Semitic… My experience with blacks is that they’re basically anti-Semitic… I think whites are basically anti-black.” Think about this remark for a moment. Think about the values behind it. Think of it as a window into the mind of Ed Koch.

In the secrecy of Ed Koch’s mind lurks the belief that black people are “basically anti-Semitic,” and this justifies treating them unequally, just as the belief that whites hate blacks justifies appealing to that hatred to win elections.

Curiously, Koch confuses religion and race. He says blacks are biased against Jews, but he doesn’t say Jews are biased against blacks. He says whites are biased against blacks. Koch’s hate equation is unbalanced.

Koch says “my experience with blacks…” But Koch has no experience with blacks. He has not had one black personal friend since I met him, which was in 1962. Koch has no intimate, personal knowl­edge of what blacks really think and feel.

Our mayor’s bigoted generalization about blacks has no basis in fact. The available evidence points in the opposite direction. In 1979, Kenneth Clark took a poll of blacks to discover their attitude toward other racial and ethnic groups. The poll showed that blacks feel more sympathy with Jews than with any other white religious or ethnic group. In 1983, The Washington Post and ABC took two polls to measure the attitude of blacks toward Israel and the Arab nations. The poll revealed that blacks feel more sympa­thetic to Israel by a ratio of 3 to 1 — ­roughly the same ratio as the American population as a whole.

For the mayor of New York City — the greatest port of refuge in all history for every persecuted immigrant group — to proclaim that blacks hate Jews and that whites hate blacks is demented. And for him to govern on this false and cynical assumption is poison.

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The logical morality of black-Jewish coalitions is overwhelming to me. Blacks and Jews share a history of persecution. Slavery and the Holocaust should demon­strate to everyone what intolerance and racism can lead to. Toleration must be a special concern for both blacks and Jews.

Blacks and Jews have a shared history of struggle in the civil rights movement. There is no more haunting symbol of that collaboration than the buried bodies of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner — two Jewish activists from New York and a black activist from rural Mississippi ­who were murdered together by Ku Klux Klansmen outside of Philadelphia, Mis­sissippi, 20 years ago, during the freedom summer of voter registration.

The reason the FBI bugged and wire­tapped Martin Luther King was King’s friendship with a Jewish adviser — Stanley Levison.

But memory, sentiment, or moralism by themselves, are not enough to re­fashion this coalition of conscience. There has been too much pain inflicted: because of the 1968 school strike, because of Bakke and Defunis, because of the firing of Andrew Young, because of the rise of Koch, because of the habit of Jesse Jack­son.

But realism can help rebuild this coali­tion. Mutual self-interest can help. And I think maybe the most helpful glue can be facts. Simple facts.

A most significant fact to understand is that Jews are still, by far, the most liberal group of whites in this country, and in this city, and the most likely coalition allies with minorities. Despite the images of Podhoretz, Koch, and Kahane, Jews are twice as liberal on race as Italians, the Irish, the Poles, or any other white reli­gious or ethnic grouping. Consider these facts:

• In May 1983, in Chicago, Harold Washington, competing against a Jewish Republican, received 35 per cent of the Jewish vote. This was greater than the vote by any other white ethnic group. And it was twice as high as the overall white vote for Washington, which was 18 per cent. If liberal Jews had not risen above tribal loyalties, and had voted for one of their own, Harold Washington would not be mayor of Chicago today.

• In April 1983, Wilson Goode won the Democratic primary for mayor of Phila­delphia against Frank Rizzo with 23 per cent of the white vote. But Goode received 50 per cent of the Jewish vote.

• In November 1982, Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, was de­feated for governor by Republican George Deukmejian by less than 1 per cent of the vote. Bradley won 42 per cent of the total white vote, but he won 75 per cent of the Jewish vote. And Bradley received more support from Jews than he got from Mexi­can-Americans.

• In 1980, Bruce Wright defeated Jack Dubinsky for the civil court in a borough-­wide Democratic primary in Manhattan. Wright ran much stronger in Jewish neighborhoods than he did in Italian or Irish districts, even though his opponent was Jewish. And this was only a year after the Andrew Young firing, which increased tensions.

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Across the country the pattern of statistical evidence is consistent. Jews are twice as willing to vote for a black can­didate like Harold Washington or Bruce Wright as the rest of the white population.

There is other evidence, as well, of the strong, philosophical liberalism of Jewish voters.

According to an ABC nationwide exit poll, Jews voted 77 per cent for Demo­cratic congressional candidates in 1982. Except for blacks, who voted 84 per cent for Democrats, this was a substantially higher proportion than any other group of whites.

One of the best tests of the liberalism of the Jewish community — and of the willingness of Jews to vote for values be­yond the tribe — came in the Mario Cuomo–Lew Lehrman race for governor of New York in 1982. Lehrman was Jewish. He ran in favor of the death penalty and in favor of Kemp-Roth-style tax cuts. He outspent Cuomo by 3 to 1. Yet Cuomo, the Italian, won 64 per cent of the Jewish vote with his pro-labor, pro-poor people plat­form.

And blacks have repeatedly demon­strated their commitment to vote in grow­ing numbers for white candidates who show sensitivity to black interests and a black agenda. Blacks were not apathetic or indifferent when Frank Barbaro, Rob­ert Abrams, Liz Holtzman, and Mario Cuomo ran. Blacks voted for these white candidates in numbers that astonished the pollsters and power brokers. Blacks also voted in vast numbers for Howard Metzenbaum in Ohio, and Carl Levin in Michigan — both liberal Jews.

The rainbow coalition that elected Mario Cuomo and the similar coalition that elected Harold Washington are the hope I see for the future. These are the models we must try to replicate to retire Reagan, replace Koch, and to change the direction of America from Charles Darwin to Martin Luther King. ■

 

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

When Martin Luther King Came to Harlem

Less than a year before his assassination, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to Harlem. In the June 22, 1967, Village Voice, contributor Marlene Nadle observed the crowd anxiously awaiting the Baptist minister’s arrival: “Using programs folded accordion style instead of pastel fans with pictures of Christ, they managed to turn the chandeliered ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt into a Baptist Church.”

At times during her reporting on the event, Nadle comes across as jaded, as in her description of when the audience initially glimpses King in a movie being shown by the hospital workers’ union, which had arranged the event: “The Lord appeared for the first time — on film. There was a great burst of applause.”

But when King arrives in the flesh and delivers his speech, Nadle acknowledges why the crowd is so rapt: “What he said was not important. It was the man who lent weight to the words. It was his presence felt, his integrity sensed. Such a man could make the telephone book seem like the gospel.”

But in point of fact, her coverage of the speech revealed that King’s words were very important. He was unafraid to speak to America’s most powerful interests — at his growing peril. Nadle relates his principled opposition to the Vietnam War: “ ‘Who appointed this country divine agent to the world?’ he asked. ‘Who gave it the arrogance to try to fix up another country when it hasn’t put its own house in order? How can it expect its black soldiers to fight in brutal solidarity with whites in Vietnam and then come home and not be able to live on the same block with them?’ ”

King goes on to ask: “How come this country only worries about Vietnam? How come it doesn’t use its power against South Africa or Rhodesia?”

And the stirring oratory calling out hypocrisy at the top just keeps coming:

There has been a whole lot of applauding in this country. People and the newspapers applauded me in Montgomery when Negroes were killed and I urged people to be non-violent. They applauded me in Birmingham when Negroes were gassed and I urged people to be non-violent against Bull Connor. They applauded me in Philadelphia after the bodies of the three were found and I urged people to be non-violent against Sheriff Rainey. Yet they damn me now when I urge people to be non-violent against little children in Vietnam.

Even tonight, a man came up to me and said that my talking against the war had hurt my leadership. He urged me to pull back from my position.

My answer to him was: “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine my position by polls nor by what is safe or politic or popular, but by what is right. As for hurting civil rights by my position, the war has already done more to hurt civil rights than I could ever do by talking against Vietnam.”

Despite the dismal picture both in and out of this country, the Lord has not been beaten down. I have not lost faith. We have survived slavery. No war and no backlash is going to turn us around.

The crowd answered: “Amen.”

Then King, foreshadowing why he is celebrated every year — on his birthday in the dead of winter — as a great American, concluded, “We shall overcome. No lie can live forever.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Lives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century.

With Aretha passing this week at the age of 76, I thought of her scene in 1980’s Blues Brothers, a vastly underrated musical comedy that visually centers everything good about this country around the art and personal struggles of roots musicians like Aretha, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.

Aretha — lithe and gorgeous in her waitress uniform — portrays the hardworking owner of a diner who performs a forcefully kinetic version of “Think” to warn her man not to leave his job in the kitchen to rejoin the ragtag Blues Brothers Band. Aretha (reportedly frustrated in her lifelong desire for a movie career) acts her ass off, giving this cameo role layers of depth and verisimilitude that director John Landis could not have anticipated. Her onscreen transition from solicitous waitress to battle-ready matriarch is a switch every black woman learns to flip to protect herself and her family. With every shoulder roll, emphatic shout, and perfectly enunciated ad-lib, Franklin — with three fierce customers/backup singers bearing witness — demands respect, cooperation, and common sense from the feckless men who threaten her domestic tranquility. The symbolic setting is an immaculate blue-collar work space in which Aretha looms larger than life, ruling with regal physicality as she brings one of the few songs she actually wrote to vivid life. It was electrifying for me to watch her compress all the dignity, delight, and despair of being black, female, and working-class into that one brief performance. It prefigured every Destiny’s Child hit, every riot grrrl anthem, and every female-empowerment video ever broadcast on MTV. The scene tells a universal story in some of its particulars. But also a profoundly black story.

The truth is, Americans born or transplanted into a United States reshaped (but not completely redeemed) by the civil rights decade of the 1960s no longer operate from the same intergenerational memories of fighting the kinds of embedded racism that American blues and black gospel evolved to combat or transcend. Despite the malicious intent of Jim Crow–era segregation, it unintentionally helped black leaders better organize, protect, and uplift future generations by keeping black wealth and genius circulating within predominantly black enclaves. It’s worth remembering that before civil rights organizations decided to focus on persuading whites to like, respect, and hire us, black Americans dedicated more of our resources toward cultivating neighborhood institutions and helping one another. In fact, before federally mandated desegregation, black American talent and entrepreneurship was almost wholly devoted to promoting black socioeconomic networks and self-reliant black excellence. From the late 1800s through the early 1970s, black newspapers, fraternities, and colleges groomed the self-aware black elite that ultimately produced social change through the agency of catalytic individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and…Miss Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin performing at a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden

Aretha Louise Franklin was born into an educated, religious family in 1942 — one year before a series of “hate strikes” by white autoworkers refusing to ply their trade alongside newly hired black mechanics touched off violent race riots that tore Detroit apart. Aretha’s brother Cecil, a college history major, once asked their preacher father why he moved his growing family from relatively progressive Buffalo to a church serving a city seething with racial tensions. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, a persuasive “singing minister” who infused his sermons with practical advice and philosophical metaphors, reportedly responded: “My job was to tend to the spiritual needs of the black community…but I also saw the need to raise everyone’s political consciousness.…Moral justice and social justice cannot be separated.”

Born in the Deep South, the Reverend Franklin used his ministry to support both labor organizer A. Philip Randolph’s and the Reverend Dr. King’s political agendas. As King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference transformed a 1954 bus boycott into a national crusade for equal rights and justice, Aretha’s stature within the black community rose alongside her father’s, with both becoming associated with the core leadership of the movement. Aretha’s inspired singing at rallies, at fundraisers, and on the radio during the increasingly turbulent 1960s and ’70s affirmed both her blackness and her activism as virtues. It was a civic responsibility she shouldered proudly.

During the 1940s and ’50s, independent black record companies (often housed in back of neighborhood record stores) sometimes pressed spoken-word albums for famous traveling preachers, as well as singles by gospel and r&b acts. After moving from Buffalo to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the mid-’40s, Reverend Franklin partnered with the nearby owner of Von/JVB Records to release both his best sermons and the earliest recordings featuring his daughters. All of Aretha’s four full siblings were musical, her two sisters frequently joining her in the studio or on the road. But while the Reverend Franklin deliberately steered his other children toward college degrees, leaving them music as a part-time pursuit, Aretha was allowed to focus exclusively on music.  

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A Memphis-born, Detroit-bred musical prodigy who was improvising complex chords and riffs on the family piano at seven, Aretha was also a shy, somewhat introverted middle child. At the age of ten she lost her mother to a heart attack, and high-profile friends of her father’s, including gospel star Clara Ward and blues great Dinah Washington, became mother figures who nurtured and encouraged Aretha’s talent. She would grow up to cover tunes made famous by both women. Miracles co-founder Smokey Robinson, a childhood friend of Aretha’s brother, told biographer David Ritz that they would be listening to Sarah Vaughan records at the Franklin home, only to be surprised by a still preadolescent Aretha matching Vaughan note for note. “Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer,” Robinson recalled, “yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Raised by her charismatic father to accompany him on piano and sing during church services, at twelve Aretha joined her dad on the road as part of his popular “traveling religious service.” When celebrity guests like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine dropped by to spend time with the reverend, he would proudly wake Aretha up to sing for them. In this way “Ree” achieved early recognition as one of the best of a whole generation of r&b singers who learned to move a crowd by channeling the Holy Spirit. But unlike many gospel singers who switched to “worldly” music, Aretha didn’t suffer the usual “shunning” by gospel fans when a former musical minister chooses to sing about anything other than God. In 1972, when Aretha and the Reverend James Cleveland recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace for Atlantic, she insisted the music be part of an actual worship service in a church, just like she and her dad used to do. Perhaps Ree got a pass because her father was still bringing people to Jesus; perhaps it was because of the spiritual aura that surrounded even her songs about passionate love and heartache.


At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was successfully shopped by her father to John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had previously signed Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. Born with perfect pitch and the spooky ability to learn any song or mimic any vocal delivery by ear, Aretha had already been a strong draw on the national gospel circuit for five years. Among her many early mentors was Cleveland, a master choir director who expanded her knowledge of arranging and production techniques. Ironically, her ability to do so many things so well was to delay Aretha’s rise to secular fame. Able and willing to go in multiple directions, she couldn’t decide exactly how to market herself. At first, she and her father were certain that, since Columbia was already home to Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis, it would prove the perfect launching pad for an emergent Queen of Pop Soul. But they had failed to consider that an old, established label like Columbia might be slow to understand the changing tastes of a growing youth market.  

Seeing her as an artist with Nancy Wilson potential, Columbia had Detroit’s teenage powerhouse recording mostly standards and cabaret blues material, with arrangements too sedate to appeal to hormonal postwar teens already consuming savvy Motown dance hits and sexy doo-wop. So after eight albums in six years that earned critical acclaim but negligible public response, Aretha left the home of Mahalia for Atlantic Records, the rocking house that Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Drifters, and a deal with Stax Records had built.   

In the age of Auto-Tune it can be hard to imagine a time when all live singers were expected to have perfect tonal control of their own voices; yet this was what church training sought to instill. Vocal technique was used to facilitate communication and rapport with the audience. Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato — even lyrics and emotional intensity — according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require. Gospel went beyond the more cerebral sonic explorations of jazz to connect with primal levels of instinct and psyche that would subsequently infiltrate pop music via the sister genres of r&b and rock.

Franklin, with her husband and manager Ted White, signs with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler on November 21, 1966.

Black life in America has always generated its own soundtrack. Different styles — from circle shouts to work songs to jump blues — were spread first through live performance, then via various fixed and electronic media, as a way to give voice to our collective trials and triumphs as a people. Under the severe restrictions of slavery, which only slightly loosened and shifted after manumission, black music needed to serve as both protest and catharsis, allowing us to vent the most complex and nuanced emotions — ideally, as soon as they were felt. This is why first gospel, then r&b, became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. And why Aretha, with her church training, became acknowledged as “the voice” of that movement. Released in 1967 with a sound that wedded the poppy verve of Motown to the sultry syncopations of Stax and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, Aretha’s titanic Atlantic debut served to further consolidate and strengthen the collective dream of a successfully integrated United States.

Aretha’s particular musical gift was a deeply intuitive form of interpretation that made her recordings of “Spirit in the Dark,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” sound impossibly intimate and omniscient. As with her cover of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha didn’t have to write a song in order to make it her own. Her vocal performance implied not only that she understood what her listeners were feeling, but that she somehow also understood everything any listener would ever feel. This is an illusion, of course, but one so convincing that the bewitching appeal of it never fades. It is perhaps this almost telepathic rapport Aretha can build with her listeners, as she adds layers of meaning to each phrase, that facilitates spiritual healing in church settings. It is certainly one of the factors that lifts her best recordings above those of her peers, and from there, beyond category.

As the “civil rights decade” transitioned into the “black-power decade,” all music became more political. Singer-songwriters like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield produced protest and empowerment anthems. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From took Motown into the political arena. White pop musicians from Elvis to Joni Mitchell included anti-war and ecological themes in their set lists. Within this increasingly topical and diverse musical atmosphere, Aretha’s signature renditions of “Respect,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” were especially valued for their political subtexts as well as an ability to encourage fallen fighters not to give up hope. As a child in the Sixties and Seventies, I watched nightly news broadcasts in which political violence seemed to be everywhere, at home and abroad. People were frightened and angry. But the musical response to my trepidation was not the destructive rage of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but softer, sweeter, more constructive songs. Aretha’s choruses exhorted us to have courage, to endure. Lyrics like “Baby, baby, be strong/Baby, baby, hold on” would thread their way through “Lose This Dream” like the balm of Gilead. 

Throughout her career, Aretha moved effortlessly between overtly evangelical recordings like 1987’s double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, gutbucket soul, delicate Bacharach-and-David ballads, and provocative blues-rock covers, as if to show those who would come after her how it should be done. Will today’s stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé even attempt to replicate the diversity of Aretha’s catalog? Would their existing audience tolerate such a move? 

Fans line up for a concert by Aretha Franklin at the Apollo Theater in New York on June 3, 1971.

The creative intimacy and competitiveness of the pre-digital music scene was such that all the great bands and singers knew and admired one another. They made a game out of covering each other’s hits and vying for critical acclaim. Did Aretha envy Dionne Warwick’s and Roberta Flack’s pop singles? Did Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, or Gladys Knight ever strive to snatch Aretha’s crown as Queen of Soul? They were each talented and shrewd enough to keep us guessing with every new album and live performance.

No matter how far into secular music Aretha’s contracts with Columbia (1960–1966), Atlantic (1967–1979), or Arista (1980–2003) would take her, gospel would continue to characterize her sound, whether she was recording the Chic-influenced “Jump to It” in 1982 for writer-producer Luther Vandross or duetting with Whitney Houston in 1989 on an underground dance remix of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” produced by Clivillés and Cole of C&C Music Factory. Indeed, Aretha’s extraordinary ear and willingness to experiment led to many interesting singles that kept her sound relevant. She duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” in 1987, and with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in 2006. Her legacy of delivering pop, gospel, and r&b covers that blow the doors off the originals goes all the way back to 1967’s distaff take on Otis Redding’s “Respect.” And even in her later years, Aretha managed to astonish, taking both a 1994 cover of the Clivillés-and-Cole deep-house classic “A Deeper Love” and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the top of the Billboard dance chart.

In 1980, Clive Davis signed Aretha to Arista Records, one of the few major labels willing to invest in legacy soul divas despite the recording-industry recession of 1979 and the rising popularity of the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. This happened to be the same year Aretha’s performance of “Think” in The Blues Brothers put her golden pipes back on the radar of a teen audience. Protest music, which had been an organic and central part of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies, became a more random, scattershot affair for recording acts in the 1980s. Political songs were often created more to shock or provoke than to make people think and act in more conscious ways. For every trenchant rap like “The Message,” club track like “Beat the Street,” or ska broadside like “Ghost Town,” there emerged dozens of mindless ditties about little or nothing. Topical lyrics in general became darker and more bitter. Without a progressive social context or a community mobilized around higher ideals, entertainment becomes rather hollow. Soulless. (The Eighties were additionally tough on Aretha and the Franklin family, whose patriarch had been shot in a botched robbery and would remain in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.)

To update Aretha’s appeal, Davis resolved to integrate her approach to easy-listening standards on Columbia with the party-hearty stance she took toward gutbucket funk and soul on Atlantic. The resulting synthesis included a touch of Brill Building swing that managed to respect Franklin’s iconic position among older fans while hoping to catch precocious younger consumers. Interestingly, this was the same AOR fusion Arista successfully used to launch Dionne Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston in 1985.

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Near the end of the Eighties, as vocals and instruments couldn’t sound more robotic, the stylistic pendulum began to swing back toward Aretha’s richly human modes of expression. In 1991, TLC, an Atlanta girl group that featured two young singers and a rapper, asserted their feminism and sexual freedom with the same unabashed candor displayed on “Chain of Fools.” T-Boz, whose throaty contralto makes up in precision what it lacks in range, always reminds me of Aretha’s sly lower register. In 1988, Tracy Chapman’s first album harked back to the wry folk wisdom and compassionate insights of Aretha’s solo work on piano, while in 1990 Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love revived the unbridled passion that shaped Aretha’s early recordings on Atlantic. Neither the neo-folk singer nor the pop-soul princess shares Aretha’s timbre — only a recognizable portion of her unique sensibility. In particular, her resilience.

Mary J. Blige, as Puff Daddy’s favorite protégée, strove to voice the hopes and realities of her embattled generation as Aretha had done. But it was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello who came closer to having all the skills Aretha brought to the stage. Erykah Badu came out of Texas in 1997 with the perfect voice and attitude to reinvent r&b in her own spooky punk soul sister image: irreverent, sardonic, a woman in control of herself and her men, and completely indomitable. Badu is Aretha as she liked to see herself…unbreakable. Remember those busy runs toward the end of “Respect” and “Think,” where Aretha ad-libs all kinds of sass? The diva is in the details, and nobody can throw shade into a vocal aside any better. It’s a side of the singer people are often too worshipful to talk about, but it’s an important aspect of her inner strength. She’s survived enough genuine tragedy and heartbreak in life to be allowed to own her moments of bitchiness or depression. But like many women she chooses to tough it out, refusing to be portrayed as weak or vulnerable in any way.

Two years ago, the Knowles sisters put out two albums attempting to set new standards for contemporary post-hip-hop soul. Like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, they want to deepen the lyrical discourse. Maybe even discuss some kind of social revolution. To focus attention on mood and meaning, both Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table apply a skeletal approach to melody and harmony. But the feeling conveyed within the compressed scales and digitized atmospherics Solange uses throughout A Seat at the Table is as stark and moving as anything heard on Aretha’s first live album, Aretha in Paris. It’s almost as if both women studied the palpable acoustic space surrounding the tiny combo on that stage and found a way to re-create those aural textures in a digital setting. Lemonade, in its themes and ambition, may have reminded listeners of Lauryn Hill’s deeply personal 1998 opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or even Alicia Keys’s solo debut. But what I hear in all three productions are aspects of Aretha channeled through each performer. They are heirs to Aretha and the black church in the best possible way, in that they haven’t forgotten that healing comes from not being afraid to reveal your naked heart.


Slowly and quietly, the past few decades saw increasing numbers of younger artists drinking at the font of Aretha’s legacy: Cheryl Pepsii Riley released a moving version of “Ain’t No Way” in 1991, and both Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige managed to cut successful new duets with her. But leave it to the feisty septuagenarian to have the final say on who’s zoomin’ who, by cutting the 2014 concept album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which entered Billboard’s r&b chart at No. 3. Part tribute, part cutting contest, the album shows Franklin bringing all her emotional intelligence plus a shrewd sense of historical perspective to some of the biggest singles the original performers ever had. Adele, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington, and Sinéad O’Connor come together in this context as an intriguing gallery of idols and competitors. 

https://youtu.be/XHsnZT7Z2yQ

Aretha’s reputation within the pop-music establishment is so undeniable as to render any accounting foolish. But the accolades are not why we love her. None of the presidential, civic, municipal, or international awards that came her way explain why this woman had the power to move us so much. I celebrate having been a witness to her life, and mourn her passing because she was special, and we may not see her equal again. Aretha didn’t give many interviews, nor did she explain herself much. But the quote that most reveals the inner thoughts and depths of feeling that fueled her ability to touch an audience came from an interview she gave Essence magazine in the 1970s:

“Being black means being beautiful,” Aretha said. “It also means struggles and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain, and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.”

Aretha Franklin prepares to perform during “The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2015.
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The More Radical MLK Came of Age in New York

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side in which he famously expanded his civil rights message to include a new subject: demanding an end to the Vietnam War.

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam,” King declared. His strong criticisms of the war — including pointing out that the war exploited poor populations while diverting money from services to address poverty, and that it used black soldiers to spread U.S. imperialism abroad — drew ire from all sides.

Some local black leaders gathered outside the church to protest, fearing that the civil rights movement would be harmed if blacks were portrayed as unpatriotic. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People condemned any connection between civil rights and the peace movement, saying it was a “serious tactical mistake.” The New York Times published an editorial saying King’s rhetoric would “lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.” President Lyndon Johnson disinvited King from the White House. The 3,000 spectators at Riverside Church, however, gave him a standing ovation.

It would be a defining speech for King, emblematic of the type that he had given in New York City throughout his career. At the crux of King’s relationship with New York, where he spent considerable time during his early days, was an acknowledgment that the city was a cultural and political hub that allowed him to unite North and South while reanimating his own politics.

“New York provides a lens through which we see a broader and more radical vision articulated by Martin Luther King than is often remembered,” says Sarah Seidman, Puffin Foundation curator of social activism at the Museum of the City of New York, which through June 24 has on display an exhibit titled “King in New York” that explores his relationship to the city. “In particular, that King decried not only racism, but materialism and militarism.”

From the moment King became a national figure, his path would lead him repeatedly through New York. In 1956, after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, King chose Concord Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant for one of his first Northern speaking engagements since the protests began. When King had first lectured in New York in 1950 as a student pastor, at the First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst, his teacher had noted “a smugness that refuses to adapt itself to the demands of ministering effectively to the average Negro congregation.”

But at Concord Baptist Church, 2,500 black people from all over New York packed in to hear the 27-year-old King charm them with stories of a beloved local pastor, an old family friend of the Kings, and lecture on the dignity of black people. “Press on and keep pressing,” he told his rapt congregation. “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk — crawl.”

Soon after this appearance, King’s then–newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to partner with the New York–based NAACP, which had provided legal aid to the Montgomery boycott. The two organizations would continue to share a fragile partnership over the coming years, largely navigated by King and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins. The largely legal-minded NAACP would later take issue with the SCLC’s preference for direct action, and its cooperation with younger, more radical organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These kinds of collaborations, and the tensions they engendered, would be illustrative of King’s career, especially in New York.

In early 1963, King was asked to deliver the commencement speech at the City College of New York. He immediately accepted, even though he was then in the midst of organizing against the police-borne chaos, bombings, and jailings that were occurring in the South.

“There was a lot going on, a feeling that we’re really going down this road,” Jack O’Dell, head of SCLC’s New York office, later told a CUNY researcher. “There was Birmingham, and we were mobilizing for the March on Washington. Dr. King was getting a lot of invitations. But there were few places more important than New York for anything progressive.”

Hours before King was supposed to speak at CCNY, on June 12, 1963, civil rights activist and Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. King gave a speech that included the grave warning that students were “moving into a world of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty” where “we may very well destroy ourselves by the misuse of our instruments.” Without culture (“that realm of spiritual ends”), he cautioned, our civilization (“that complex of devices, techniques, instruments, mentalities, and mechanisms by means of which we live”) would be rendered useless, foreign, even monstrous.

The speech was graphic and bold, as he pointedly discussed Emmett Till, the fourteen-year old Mississippi boy who had been murdered nearly eight years earlier after accusations that he’d whistled at a white woman; the killing of Evers; and the disfigurement of the world. Rather than begging for compassion, he demanded it. But he ended with a familiar chorus:

“With this faith and this determination we will be able to bring into being that great day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands right here in this nation and sing, in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ”

With that, the 3,541 students and their 12,000 guests at CCNY’s Lewisohn Stadium had witnessed a preview of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King would deliver two months later in Washington, D.C., this time sounding more hopeful than fearful.

But during this period, King’s popularity with some in New York began to wane. King’s passive approach did not mesh with the new, more radical point of view that was on the rise in the civil rights movement. SNCC, which King’s SCLC had long partnered with in protests in the South, was beginning to embrace Black Power and reject his nonviolent tactics and welcome of white people to take part in the movement. In July 1963, King was pelted with eggs on the way to deliver a sermon in Harlem, in a seemingly random attack. (Jackie Robinson charged the Muslim Brotherhood were the culprits, though Malcolm X denied this.)

But mainstream New Yorkers still thought highly of the reverend. In 1964, New York City mayor Robert Wagner anointed King, fresh off his Nobel Peace Prize win, an “honorary New Yorker.” Harlem welcomed him back with revelry, but some local leaders were frustrated with the attention King was receiving. King was often sought out by white politicians, like Wagner and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and was seen as something of a political pawn. Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was becoming more aligned with the Black Power movement, took pleasure in mocking him, calling him “Martin Loser King.”

By 1967, SCLC and other liberation movements were fractured. King had become increasingly burdened by the destruction waged by the Vietnam War. His 1967 address in New York was an attempt to correct what he saw as a glaring contradiction in his own nonviolent rhetoric.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” he said at Riverside Church. “With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ ”

But King never got to deliver what likely would have been his most strident anti-war New York speech. King had accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a demonstration for peace scheduled for April 27, 1968, that was sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee.

Shortly after King’s assassination on April 4, the committee ran an advertisement in the Voice that read, “The demonstration will rededicate itself to continuing Reverend King’s efforts to end the war against Black America and to end the war in Vietnam.”

Nearly 100,000 people attended the demonstration. Coretta Scott King spoke in her husband’s place. “I would like to share with you some notes taken from my husband’s pockets upon his death,” Scott King told the crowd before reading what she described as King’s “Ten Commandments on Vietnam”:

“Thou shalt not believe in a military victory.

“Thou shalt not believe in a political victory.

“Thou shalt not believe that they — the Vietnamese — love us.

“Thou shalt not believe that the Saigon Government has the support of the people.

“Thou shalt not believe that the majority of the South Vietnamese look upon the Vietcong as terrorists.

“Thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans.

“Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best.

“Thou shalt not believe that the enemy’s victory means Communism.

“Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States.

“Thou shalt not kill.”

A full-page ad in the April 25, 1968 Village Voice contained a black-bordered addendum: “Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was to have been the keynote speaker on April 27th. The demonstration will rededicate itself to continuing Reverend King’s efforts to end the war against Black America and to end the war in Vietnam.’

Research assistance by Alana Mohamed.

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Conservatives Emerge From Trump’s Shithole to Praise ‘Republican’ MLK

In the many years since activists forced MLK Day on President Ronald Reagan, who’d initially objected that he wanted to make sure Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a Communist first, I’ve watched conservatives nervously confront the holiday, usually by either denouncing King, or by praising him as a conservative Republican.

Last year’s MLK Day was pretty special, with conservatives helping newly elected President Trump beat up congressman and King comrade John Lewis. This year’s was, too, as the president, famous for his racist remarks and actions, kicked off the festivities early by referring to Haiti and the nations of Africa as “shithole countries” in a meeting with congressional leaders.

Trump’s slur was revealed by unnamed sources and separately confirmed by GOP senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic senator Dick Durbin, but there were several rounds of partial and complete denials. The president himself vacillated; CNN’s Jake Tapper said he heard the president only called Africa a shithole, not Haiti; Rich Lowry of National Review claimed Trump said “shithouse,” not “shithole.” (Lowry nonetheless availed the preferred usage as a hook for an anti-immigrant post: “It’s not the s***holes that matter most,” he wrote, “it’s who we are getting from the s***holes.” Now that’s political journalism!)

Republican senator David Perdue flat-out denied Trump had said it, and Republican senator Tom Cotton said he didn’t hear it because he was humming to himself like he always does when he wants to pretend the Bad Thing isn’t happening. (I made that last part up, sorry.)

My guess is that both the presidential proclamation and the denials were done on purpose: the former to appeal to Trump’s base, the latter to give them the added thrill of condemning those outraged by it of spreading Fake News while secretly enjoying the knowledge that their leader — let’s see, how did the Washington Post put it? — “says what many think.”

The more polite rightbloggers found Trump’s comment, as House Speaker Paul Ryan did, more unfortunate than repulsive. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg mainly worried about “the risk of having people think that, when you pull off the mask of intelligent conservatism, all that lies underneath is the face of Trumpism.” His next line, lost in the ensuing laughter, was even better: “Trump is unaware of the sophisticated arguments for many of his positions.” If only someone would explain to him how his racist positions are actually Buckley-esque!

Other conservatives actually defended Trump’s comment. Prominent conservative intellectuals such as Dinesh D’Souza and Tomi Lahren argued in so many words that Haiti et alia were in fact shitholes, and there was nothing inappropriate in the president of the United States calling them that.

None of these worthies made an effort to identify “shitholes” that were not majority black, either because they could not imagine such a thing or because they could not imagine a Trump voter being excited by it.

MLK Day finally rolled around, and appropriate platitudes were mouthed by Republican politicians, including all the ones still in Congress who voted against the King holiday in the first place — see their touching tributes here!

White conservatives gave their black colleagues a rare moment in the limelight. At the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele proclaimed “Black Protest Has Lost Its Power,” citing the NFL protests associated with Colin Kaepernick, because “the oppression of black people is over with.” Steele also complained about “black-on-black crime,” natch, and said “counterprotests” to Kaepernick showed “a new willingness in whites…to say to blacks what they really think and feel” — presumably as did Trump when he called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” and of course when he said that thing about the shitholes.

The Daily Caller and the Daily Signal pooled resources for a story by Amber Randall describing “How Young Black Conservative Women Are Changing the Face of the GOP,” which, given current voting patterns, is rather like describing how black fans are changing the makeup of the National Hockey League.

But as usual it was the white conservatives who really shit in the MLK Day party punch bowl. While the straight-up racists among them told their favorite campfire stories (“Thus the filmmakers behind ‘Selma’ intentionally cut out parts of the script that revealed King’s penchant for prostitutes”), the more housebroken ones tried to find some way to associate themselves with King without endorsing any of his beliefs.

Despite the recent unpleasantness, some tried to do it with Trump.

“While former President Barack Obama claimed to be a champion of helping blacks, it appears President Donald Trump is the only one committed to actually honoring his promise to help minorities in the U.S.,” declared Martin Walsh of Conservative Daily Post. His evidence: Trump signed bills designating King’s birthplace a national historical park and creating a 400 Years of African-American History Commission. Now what did Obama ever do for black people?

“Hey President Trump,” wrote Siraj Hashmi at the Washington Examiner, “MLK Day would be a good time to criticize the FBI.” See, the FBI harassed King, and now they’re harassing Trump with their “probe into the Trump campaign’s connections” — why, it’s like they’re brothers (no offense, Mr. President).

Jeffrey Lord — whom you may remember from when he told a stunned Van Jones on CNN that the KKK is “leftist” — declared at the American Spectator that “the American Left has rejected not just Dr. King but in fact stayed true to the original racist roots of the Democratic Party.” If you already guessed Lord quoted “content of their character,” then said something about “identity politics,” this clearly isn’t your first time at the rodeo. (Lord gets bonus points for this line: “Somewhere Dr. King is shaking his head in disgust.”)

When they were reminded that, in addition to voting rights, King advocated for a universal basic income and denounced not only racism but also “economic exploitation and militarism,” conservatives reacted badly. When CNN reported that King was a socialist, for example, Twitchy argued, “Go home, CNN, you’re DRUNK…dumbest take YET…DAFUQ?…What in the blue Hell are they talking about?” and other such bon mots. Oh, also: “Martin Luther King Jr. was actually a registered Republican.” Checkmate!

As the festivities died down, rightbloggers began to return their attention to their real hero of the week: James Damore, who got fired from Google last year after circulating a memo saying women were unsuited to programming work due to “biological reasons” and innate “neuroticism,” and who announced last week that he was filing a lawsuit claiming Google discriminated against him because he’s a white male conservative.

Rightbloggers rushed to defend Damore’s civil rights and those of others like him, i.e., themselves.

“James Damore’s Lawsuit Exposes Google’s Culture of Ignorant Intolerance,” cried David French at National Review, offering bombshell findings from Damore’s filing like this: At Google “an employee advertises a workshop on ‘healing from toxic whiteness.’ Another post mocks ‘white fragility.’ ” It’s a veritable honkycaust!

The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski had more: Google had also held “an internal presentation urging sensitivity for employees who are ‘living as a plural being,’ ” he sneered. Also, in a note “addressed to ‘hostile voices,’ ” reported Tracinski, a Google manager said, “I will never, ever hire/transfer you onto my team.” What else could “hostile voices” possibly mean besides conservatives? “Google Is Becoming A Police State,” cried Tracinski.

Perhaps this was conservatives’ most sincere tribute to King: They may not believe any of the ideals for which he was persecuted, but they liked how his persecution had made him a hero, and hoped with Damore they could cosplay it for themselves — while skipping, of course, the actual persecution.

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Altina Tracks the Creator of Cat’s Eye Glasses Across the Twentieth Century

Altina Schinasi, Jewish New York heiress of a tobacco fortune, lived almost the entire span of the 20th century. The documentary Altina — directed by her grandson Peter Sanders, with footage shot by her sons, produced by her grandchildren, and apparently largely paid for with her money — is a joyful portrait, although it doesn’t leave out some blemishes.

Altina’s inheritance surely allowed her to pursue an artistic life (and four marriages) that less moneyed women wouldn’t have dared. Sanders’s film is a bit workaday, and it’s almost funny how straightforward and deadpan Altina is in her interviews — it’s her life that was brim-full of pizzazz.

Altina herself is full of surprises, and the film ramps up slowly as details emerge. She invented the now-iconic “cat’s eye” glasses that made eyewear fashionable for the first time ever and foreshadowed her gifts as a sculptor. She was also a generous political force, helping Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust, aiding people against Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities campaign, and getting involved early on in the struggles of Martin Luther King.

In this portrait, we are treated to an acquaintanceship with a woman in an almost constant search for a creative life, and that might be its most moving feature. At a time when expectations of women were rigid and limiting, Altina allowed herself to make choices that seem to have opened doors to both a seemingly fearless creativity and true love.

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Why I Hate Theater! Appalling!

Because crap automatically gets a standing ovation, but the good stuff doesn’t get one until the Times rave comes out. … Too many jukebox musicals end with a mixtape medley that has you thinking the whole show was amazing. … If it’s British, it must be better. Except when it’s unbearable. … The producers of Chicago are perfectly willing to water down the Fosse choreography to high school level if they can book a big enough name who happens to be spastic.

The Fringe Festival does not believe in air-conditioning. … You can sit and slurp food and drinks you bought there, but don’t dare unwrap your own candies! …The original production of everything was better. … I got front row at The Fartiste. … I always give enthusiastic entrance applause to anyone I recognize, usually resulting in everyone around me either glaring or looking confused. … Every movie ever made will eventually be turned into a bad musical. … Every musical ever made will be turned into a bad movie. … They rarely drum up the courage to use the Broadway stars for the screen versions, ignoring all the past travesties that this reckless practice has led to. (And don’t bring up Rent. That was the exception to every rule.)

The Tonys got rid of the Special Events category just as special events started getting intriguing. … Some great performances get squeezed out of nominations, but last year, the Best Actress in a Musical category consisted of five out of the six eligible actresses. If you got up and sang weather updates, you had an 83 percent chance of a nomination. … They keep trying to do Funny Girl without the right Fanny, then scrapping the whole thing. It’s like boarding everyone onto a plane, then saying, “Anyone know a good pilot?” … The kids on the boards are prone to reducing show titles to acronyms, and if you reply, “What the fuck do you mean by HTSIBWRT?” they get really evil. … We’re destined to see Gypsy about every five years until the day we die. It should be every four years.

I’ve saved some special Playbills for literally three decades, only to find they’re not even worth a dollar! … People loudly talk through performances as if you paid big bucks to hear a hit show narrated by a nasal stranger cursed with a crushing obviousness. (“He’s supposed to be Martin Luther King.” “Look, honey, she’s flying with her umbrella.” “He’s a singing and dancing homosexual, but apparently he was a woman in a past life!”) … The night I saw Private Lives, a rowdy guy in the back kept yelling comments at odd moments (“Yeah, right!”), which tended to lower the evening’s standard of dry wit. Noël Coward does not need hollabacks. … Every year, there are two Bible musicals.

Perfectly nice little shows that scream “Keep me Off-Broadway or out of town!” brazenly get moved to Broadway by delusional people who spend their lives overshooting the runway. … Some shows that moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway stubbornly refuse to give up the chance to make money when their run is up, so they just move back to Off-Broadway. … There has never been a Motown jukebox musical on Broadway!

You wait for 90 minutes at the half-price booth, then just as you get to the window, they take down the show you wanted! You end up seeing Memphis again. … Full-priced tickets are not an option, either. They cost so much that instead of taking a date to a hot musical, you can produce your own Busby Berkeley–style revue plus the tour and the movie version (which, naturally, won’t star the Broadway cast). … The bag check at the door is so cursory, they wouldn’t even notice a machine gun you might be packing in your floral clutch. … Ushers always refer you down to other ushers. … Getting coveted aisle seats means you have to stand up every time the other folks in the row claim, “Going to the bathroom for the last time, I promise.” … Halfway through Act Two, you horrifyingly realize that your cell phone is still on. But searching for it will make noise, and turning it off will play music. Do you just stay put and pray, grateful for the night’s first dose of drama? … The no-intermission trend has you home and penniless by 9:30. Wild night out, huh?

Movie stars whose careers have stalled invariably crow: “I’m thrilled to be on Broadway. Theater was always my first love!” … At Hugh Jackman’s revue, hot-flashing matinee ladies swarmed me at intermission and pleaded, “Write nice things!” Truth be told, I got a little scared. … If Shakespeare saw most of the productions of his work today, he’d probably say: “Roland Emmerich was right. Edward de Vere actually wrote this.” … We’re in the middle of a musical-diva golden age thanks to Patti, Bernadette, Donna, Audra, Sutton, Jan, Kelli, Kristin, and Alice, but you still hear theater queens murmuring, “There are no stars like the old days!” … Interactive theater pieces where you have to keep deciding which actors to follow always have me drenched, scratched, and wondering where everybody went.

It would be great to just once hear a producer say: “We trust this musical we’re reviving so much that we’re not gonna tweak a word. We absolutely treasure it, and it deserves to be done exactly as is!” … If you see a friend act in a play, you have to go backstage afterward and think of something to say that doesn’t sound too negative. (“Interesting! You really did it! Your energy never flagged! You were the best one up there!”) … When the show wraps, and I leap to my feet, the actors clearly assume I read the Times, and I’m joining the standing ovation. Please! I’m just bolting! Interesting!

musto@villagevoice.com

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Sing Your Song: Harry Belafonte Hagiography

Produced by his youngest daughter, Gina, this profile of Harry Belafonte, foregrounding the 84-year-old actor and singer’s political activism, is a moving if occasionally wearying hagiography. Not that the subject is unworthy of anything but veneration: Unbowed by the racism that dogged him during the first several decades of his career, Belafonte served as a tireless confidante to and fund-raiser for Martin Luther King Jr., and he enlisted Sidney Poitier at the last minute to travel with him to Mississippi in 1964 to deliver funds to civil rights workers. His humanitarian work in Africa is only one facet of his continued commitment to global justice. Belafonte, in various sit-downs, commandingly narrates his own life—professional, political, and personal—his rhetorical flourishes sometimes bordering on the verbose. (“With her, I could possibly live out the rest of my journey in a joyous world,” he says of third wife Pamela Frank, whom he married in 2008.) Sing Your Song‘s greatest asset is its archival riches, such as a clip from 1968’s Petula Clark Spectacular, in which the British pop star clasps Belafonte’s forearm during a duet—a moment of interracial touching that caused NBC to go bananas—and footage of Sammy Davis Jr., Shelley Winters, and Nina Simone sharing the same stage at a concert Belafonte organized before the last leg of 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery march.