|Statue of Freedom at the top of the Capitol Dome|
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.—Aeschylus
[Quoted by Bobby Kennedy speaking about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.]
Part I of this News from the Muse began with the joy and terror of January 6, 2021— a day which gave us news of the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both from Georgia, turning that state a glorious blue, a day which shocked us with horrendous scenes of the violent insurrection against the Capitol, incited by a berserker outgoing president.
The Muse then led us back into American history, remembering the assassinations of so many of our leaders, JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and finally Bobby Kennedy, in the 1960s. I turned to my husband, Dan Safran, who was a ‘60’s activist, to help me understand what happened to Lady Liberty in that fraught decade. What will we need to remember in order to revive Her?
The Education of a ‘60s Activist
But history will judge you, and as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, in the extent to which you have used your gifts and talents to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow men. In your hands lies the future of your world and the fulfillment of the best qualities of your own spirit.—Bobby Kennedy
|Hannah and baby Dan|
Though I’ve been married to Dan for over four decades and heard many of his stories about being an activist in the ’60s, I couldn’t articulate what had led him to this path. So, I asked him. He credits his mother’s activism with sparking his own. When he was a child his mother, Hannah, taught elementary school in Harlem. She knew what Black people were suffering and supported their issues. His father, Saul, was an immigrant from Poland who had come to America to escape anti-Semitism. His stories attuned Dan to the immigrant experience.
|Saul and Hannah, Florence, Italy 1931|
But what really raised his consciousness was the racially integrated progressive camp his parents sent him to when he was 13. Before then he had had little exposure to people from other cultures. He loved that camp, attended it for three summers. It was a work camp—they built a recreation hall. He says he learned about social consciousness from the kids at camp.
|Dan (the tall one) at Camp Wyandot|
As I listened to Dan speak of how he became an activist, I realized what a fateful collision of energies—the Spirit of the Times, Dan’s personality, and Lady Luck created the stepping-stones of his path, leading him into the major issues of that time. Anyone who knows Dan knows how good he is at making connections with people, at networking, and at being open to learning from any situation he is in. He said: “In 1960, when the sit-ins began, it raised my consciousness, crystallized my energy. The protests were being done by college students. I was one—at Queens College in New York. I participated in boycotting Woolworth’s.”
|Dan at 21|
At the University of Pennsylvania Dan became active in the NAACP and continued boycotting Woolworth’s. He said: “In the meantime the War in Vietnam was beginning to cook. I became aware of Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence and how their convictions and courage inspired thousands to resist oppression. As I read more about non-violence, it became a powerful belief system for me. As a Jew with a cousin who fought and was wounded in World War II, I was conflicted about the war and the obligation to fight, albeit violently to save oppressed people. However, because of my growing belief in non–violence, I decided I wouldn’t join the military. I was called to a pre–induction physical and refused to step forward when I was asked to.”
That turned out to be smart. An ACLU staff attorney told Dan that not stepping forward meant he was still a civilian and the military couldn’t force him to do anything. However, as a result of his resistance, Dan was “invited” to speak to Army Intelligence. He went three times, was asked all the usual questions: No, he didn’t belong to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. No, he wasn’t against the United States; he just didn’t agree with all its policies. Yes, he had refused to sign a loyalty oath; he considered it a violation of his Civil Rights. Dan made a connection with a Sergeant who, while fingerprinting him, said that if asked, he too would refuse to sign a loyalty oath.
Dan learned he was simultaneously being investigated by the FBI. They said they had reason to believe he was a communist. (Remember, this is just a few years after the House Un-American Activities Committee had ruined the lives and careers of many progressive Americans by accusing them of being communists.) But Dan was consulting with the ACLU, which told him that the FBI had no business investigating him just because they had a suspicion.
During this time, it became clear to Dan that he wanted to work in the field of Race Relations. How could one earn a living by doing this sort of thing? He arranged to meet with leaders of the organizations he knew were doing this kind of work: the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Urban League, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and asked them what they looked for in the people they hired. He learned that a Master’s Degree in Social Work with a focus on community organizing was a good ticket. When he and his first wife, Barbara, went to Bryn Mawr Social Work School, Barbara chose the clinical track and Dan chose community organization. His informational interviews turned out to be spot on. His first job out of Social Work school was with the American Friends Service Committee in Washington DC, organizing fair housing groups.
|Dan and Lisa, age 2|
Dan told me: “That was the best job I ever had. I worked with Jim Harvey, an African American Baptist and a military veteran. We appreciated each other as we worked to prevent discrimination. We were dealing with a vast system: if a Black family purchased a home in a previously white neighborhood, Real Estate companies would frighten the current homeowners, saying that they had better sell quickly because their home values would plummet. Our job was to work with communities to adopt a more welcoming attitude in order to prevent this kind of block busting from going on.
“Our approach was to go to social action committees of churches and synagogues and find out who was interested in holding neighborhood meetings. Our operating strategy was to ‘Change the Climate of Opinion.’ It was fear and hostility—what we now call ‘othering’ —that caused the problems. Jim and I basically facilitated and listened. We were good organizers because we didn’t preach. People would say a few things about their fears. There was always this moment when someone in the group would say: ‘I’m not moving. If someone sells their house to a Negro family that’s fine. If they can afford to live here, they’ll be good neighbors.’ That changed the climate. Every so often someone would spit out a bunch of racist stuff. That also changed the climate of opinion in our favor, because no one wanted to be identified with that kind of bullshit, particularly because the meeting was sponsored by a faith–based institution with good human values.”
Dan and Jim created a safe container for people to express their fears. They facilitated and listened respectfully and in so doing changed the climate of opinion because of their accepting attitude. A Jungian might call that an alchemical transformation.
When the Anti–Poverty Program began Dan got a position as a community organizer for the Southeast Neighborhood House. Lady Luck was smiling on him, because the trainer for the program was Amy Horton, wife of Miles Horton of the Highlander Folk School, famous for teaching activists non-violence and community development. What Dan learned from her about role playing and empowering people by respecting their skills is alive in him to this day. The policy of the Anti–Poverty Program was that their grantees be run by the people who were affected—“Maximum feasible participation of the people to be served.”
I love a story Dan tells about a training he did to support citizen participation for people on Neighborhood Advisory Committees. Dan said, “I was learning a lot on the fly. I provided information. They raised questions. I used the experiences they actually had in their Advisory Committee meetings in the workshop. It was very practical. I used role playing. I asked them to come up with a problem. The group said there weren’t enough neighborhood workers. Possible solution—get more. Course of Action—go to the of Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) national headquarters and demand more. They decided to do it. I didn’t think this was a good idea because our funding came from a local community action agency via the regional OEO headquarters where allocation decisions were made. But their logic was to go to the top. They wanted me to lead them. I said I wouldn’t lead them. I would attend.
“We went into high gear role playing. I played Sargent Shriver (then the head of OEO) for three nights. They learned a lot about power. I would divide them against each other. Or I would talk and talk and fill the time— thank them for coming and escort them out of the room. They learned they needed to have a spokesperson—they could always caucus. A 25 year–old single mom with four kids—ages 3 to 9—was chosen by the group. I role played with her, frustrated her by doing the bureaucratic dance. Finally, she banged her hands on the table and said, ‘My kids are hungry!’ This stopped me in my tracks. I said, ‘Winner! That’s it!’
“The group followed up on their decision to go to the national OEO headquarters. They brought some of their kids. They went up to the 8th floor of the OEO building on L St., got out of the elevator, stood in the lobby. The staff, who had become part of the bureaucracy, were thrilled to see real people. They told us Sargent Shriver was in Europe. Members of the group asked:
‘Who’s in charge?‘The Deputy Director.’‘We’ll see him.’‘He’s busy now.’‘We’ll wait.’
The staff brought the group into a conference room, offered pizza and Cokes, were very solicitous. I never forgot that. It made a tremendous impression on me to realize bureaucracies are not made up of people who see everything the same way. This led me to a whole different organizational tactic I learned to use to help oppressed groups see that the ‘wall’ of power was made of bricks, which they could take apart.
“So, the Deputy Director comes in. He opens a huge ledger book and when he starts explaining the allocation system, the group’s spokesperson listens and then says,
‘My kids are hungry! We don’t have time for this. We need action now.’‘Well, what do you want?’‘We need 300 neighborhood workers.’
“Meanwhile the press came and observed. The group decided they weren’t leaving until they got what they came for. That wasn’t part of the training. The result was that OEO gave them a commitment for 25 additional neighborhood workers for the whole city. Southeast Neighborhood House would get an additional 5. This was very successful, got lots of media attention. And I got into a lot of trouble with the Southeast Neighborhood House Director, who was upset because I hadn’t alerted him. He was blindsided, though he supported the action. The people were very empowered. The training worked.”
Dan recalled something he read years later in Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed —you’re not really teaching if you’re not learning. It has to be dialogical. Dan and the group had presumed that the staff of OEO would be hostile. They weren’t. Quite the opposite: “Don’t treat power as monolithic. It’s not. Your job is to find the loose brick. Find ways of extracting it and the thing will collapse.”
In 1965, Dan began working as a consultant to Head Start. This took him to the South, where he had many complex and interesting experiences. One, in Alberta, Alabama particularly stands out for him. He told me: “An African American Church had written to OEO, saying: ‘We’re not getting help from the local politicians, they are not involving us.’ The Church wanted early childhood education that would serve their kids. I met with a community group at the church and spent two days helping them do their proposal for Head Start. It was the kind of South that I had always heard about. Abject discrimination. Refusal to cooperate by a white power structure that was accustomed to ruling over Black community members, completely discounting Black people and their needs. It was exciting to me to realize we had the Federal Government responding to an appeal from a community group. That’s the way it should be. I loved telling my mother: ‘Guess who’s paying me to do this work? The Federal Government!’ The people in Alberta, Alabama got their Head Start program.
|Head Start Flag|
“I really enjoyed doing consulting work. I developed an expertise in Parent Involvement, one of Head Start’s key components. I loved helping parents become more astute and engaged. And of course, I was identified with them because I had a toddler at home. Often, I’d be there to hear a parenting talk and realized I knew nothing about all of this—for instance, developmental stages. I was being empowered.”
Bobby Kennedy for President
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppressions and resistance.—Bobby Kennedy
In March 1968 President Johnson announced he would not run for President for a second time. This was a complicated moment. Johnson was reviled by many on the left, including Dan and me, for continuing the horrendous slaughter that was the Vietnam War. But it was Johnson who was making real change happen in domestic politics. It was he who won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid. We all owe him such a debt of gratitude. It was also Johnson who pushed through the many aspects of The War on Poverty. This did so much to open the doors for Lady Liberty’s arrival among poor, Black and brown people, giving them a voice in the institutions set up to help them and hired Dan and many others to do their remarkable community organizing work. Johnson was a tragic figure. To this day, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for some of the most progressive legislation in Dan and my lifetimes. In 1966 Bobbie Kennedy had warned him against continuing the bombing campaign, declaring that we were "on a road from which there is no turning back, a road that leads to catastrophe…” It certainly led to a catastrophe for Johnson and the Great Society he envisioned.
Images of the Viet Nam War
By 1968 Dan had become well known as an activist and community organizer in Washington D.C. He was recruited to run on the slate of delegates to the Democratic Convention by a group which opposed Vice President Hubert Humphries’ nomination to become President. Humphrey, also a tragic figure, was rumored to oppose continuing the Viet Nam war but, as Vice President, he continued to support Lyndon Johnson’s policies. The delegation supporting Bobby Kennedy won in the primary and Dan was elected as an alternate delegate. He was part of a diverse delegation, ethnically and by age and gender. It was exciting. And then on June 4th everything fell apart when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated right after winning the California primary. Dan told me: “The Washington DC delegation wasn’t sure what to do. Gene McCarthy, who was also running, asked to meet with us. It was a very disappointing meeting. One young man, in his 20s, had expressed his concern that there were insufficient recreational activities in his part of Washington and kids couldn’t play at night—no lights. He got a very unempathic response from McCarthy: ‘Well that’s a local issue.’ It was such a shut–down that everybody—even those who had supported McCarthy initially—came away knowing they were not going to support him. We ended up supporting one of the members of our delegation—an African American Minister named Channing Phillips—knowing that he didn’t have a chance. This was July. The convention was in late August.
“On the night before the convention began, I was in Chicago, taking a walk with one of the other delegates, an African American psychologist, named Roy, who did training for the police. As we were walking through the streets, we came upon police lined up near buildings, beating their batons. Roy turned to me and said ‘Dan, I’m scared.’ I said ‘Roy, what do you mean?’ He said ‘They’re very high strung. They’re almost looking for trouble.’ That, of course is exactly what happened. The police rioted.
“I attended the convention. There was one defeat after another. The anti-war platform was defeated. On the night Humphrey was to be nominated I and many others walked out of the convention. We decided to join the protestors outside. We were very aware of what was happening in the streets. Dick Gregory invited all of us to come to his house for chitlins. Hundreds of people. A whole bunch of us wearing our suits and our convention badges started walking to Dick Gregory’s house and were blocked by the police. We decided this was the time for civil disobedience. We thought, OK they can arrest us. But they refused to arrest us. Clearly, they were blocking us from the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. They didn’t want to have other people join us. We went back to the main street and joined the marchers. Because we were delegates we were at the front, thinking this would be some kind of protection for people. The whole street was filled from curb to curb with marchers. Up ahead were a whole line of police cars and trucks, some with barbed wire grills, blocking the way.
“This was a very peaceful march. We were all committed to non-violence. The word went out: ‘Let’s just sit.’ So, everybody sat. I was in the front row with maybe 80 other people. The vehicles started approaching us. It was nighttime. We could see them because the TV camera lights were behind them. I remember thinking, ‘they won’t run over us.’ All of a sudden, the police were shooting tear gas at us. A young man, sitting a bit to the right of me was hit by a tear gas canister. Earlier, some young people—I think they were medical volunteers—had been giving out information about what to do in case of tear gas. I thought, ‘That’s nice of them, but it’s not going to happen.’ When I saw that young man hit, I was so angry, I almost lost it. We started running. I tried to pick up cobblestones from the streets but fortunately I couldn’t dislodge them. One of the medical volunteer kids came by with a washcloth and it worked—the tear gas was terrible. None of our delegation badges had any value when the police rioted. I had to get myself together internally. I hadn’t felt that kind of violent anger in a long time, not since I first began to study conscientious objection.
“We were near the Hilton. I walked into the bar. It was like a scene in a movie. People on the inside had no idea of the action on the outside. I felt somewhat safe because I had a suit on and a badge. In a movie the outside would have crashed in through a window. But that didn’t happen, not until the police began storming into the hotel, right past the bar. I learned later that they had gone up to the McCarthy headquarters where they said people were throwing things out the window at them. They came down with people they’d arrested.”
I asked him how that experience had shaped him. Dan said, “It rededicated me to non-violence. I had taken a vow to be non-violent. That’s not natural for people. Violence comes naturally. One has to be aware of that and contradict it. It reaffirmed the corruption of Mayor Daly. He was not going to allow demonstrations to happen in his city. They were suppressed. I saw no violence on the part of demonstrators. We were very disciplined, almost jovial though we got very serious when we saw the police cars. So that also affirmed my belief in non-violence because I don’t think violence is going to work against a lot of guns.”
|National Guard and protesters|
The Funeral Train
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?—Bobby Kennedy
|Response to RFK’s funeral train|
I am haunted by the images of the train that carried Bobby Kennedy’s dead body through America, from California to Washington D.C., haunted by all the people who gathered by the tracks, poor white people, poor Black people, people who looked middle class, waving, waving, in a kind of trance of disbelief. I hold in mind a particularly eloquent wave from a Black woman wearing a headscarf. The wave said not only goodbye to Bobby, goodbye to all he understood about what my people suffer, it said goodbye to the Civil Rights movement, goodbye to the Anti–Poverty Program, goodbye to the Federal Government’s taking an interest in the lives and needs of its ordinary citizens. What I saw on those thousands of faces that lined the tracks was mourning for the loss of hope in America. There is something soulful and substantial about mourning. You confront the reality of what you have lost. You know what it meant to you. And you weep, as John Lewis wept as he spoke of his friend Bobby’s death in the documentary film, Bobby Kennedy for President, as he told us that he had dedicated himself to Bobby’s unfinished work.
|Images of John Lewis|
Toward the end of his life, Bobby Kennedy became a man of such deep feeling, such courageous understanding, that the people lining the tracks knew they had lost someone of great value, not to mention all the other losses of that decade. Maybe they could feel the crush of history that would blockade and undermine so much of the progress we had begun to make. Richard Nixon was about to be elected President.
In our own time, we seem to have forgotten how to mourn, and as a result we find it difficult to hope. We get stuck in anger, in outrage, in denial, in doomscrolling. Maddening and destructive as the Berserker King of Bedlam has been, his years in power have revealed the ugly underbelly of America. I hope the Biden Harris administration will bring a moral compass back to America and empower the Federal Government to work for the good of its citizens. But there is something even harder that needs to happen. We need to engage in a process of reckoning with our history and the evil that has been committed in our name. Only then will we get our train back on its tracks.
|Joe Biden and Kamala Harris|
Inauguration Day January 20, 2021
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.—Bobby Kennedy
None of the outcomes we feared, happened. None of our terrors came true. No one was assassinated. No horde of insurrectionists overran the ceremonies, the gathered former presidents and their wives, the Senators and Congress people from both sides of the aisle, the big empty space left by the outgoing #45 who refused to participate in the peaceful transfer of power. The National Guard was out in force, with weapons. The ritual was elegantly planned and beautifully performed. Michelle and Kamala and Jill looked splendid in their richly colored coats—burgundy, purple, turquoise. It was a feast for the eyes —a solace for our aching hearts and bruised souls.
|Kamala, Jill and Michelle at Inauguration|
Dan and I watched in joy as, on a cold winter day in Washington D.C., Kamala removed her mask, revealing her glorious bronze skin, straightened herself up to her full height, and took the Oath of Office administered by Sonia Sotomayor, our only Latinx Supreme Court Justice. We watched as Kamala was embraced by her Jewish husband, about to become the nation’s first second gentleman. We saw Joe Biden looking healthy and strong at seventy-eight years of age, with his beautiful wife, Dr. Jill Biden. She looked as though she was carrying the worry and overwhelm of the last two weeks. She held the giant family bible as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of Office to Joe. It was not yet noon in D.C., the magic hour when power would pass from the Orange Fury who had shadowed our world and made us fear for our futures for so many years, to the light filled face of the kind and determined man before us, giving his inaugural address. The soul of Bobby Kennedy was gladdened by Joe Biden’s words:
A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat….In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.When he put pen to paper, the President Lincoln said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”My whole soul is in it.Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this….
Fifty-two and a half years after our hopes for America were dashed by assassins, by the kind of people Bobby described when he said:
There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of the comfortable past, which never existed.
For a moment I could see the souls of Bobby Kennedy and Joe Biden taking the arc of history in hand and curving it toward justice. Sadly, that moment is long gone. The Impeachment Hearings impressed me deeply because of the valiant truth telling work done by the Democratic Managers. But the narrative shown of the events of Jan 6th staggers my imagination. I found myself in a daze of disbelief about what happened, similar to what Dan felt in the Chicago Police Riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Though I do take heart that seven Republican Senators voted to impeach, the curtain has been raised on the crazed power of the far right, of the believers in hateful conspiracies, and their enablers in our government. How do we climb out of this morass?
My hope is that activists like Dan was in his generation—like Stacy Abrams and the many young people who worked with her in Georgia, and all those who worked for Truth, Justice and Lady Liberty in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, will continue to do the slow good work of community organizing, of empowering and raising consciousness, all over this land. That is how we earn the future described by our beautiful young Inaugural poet, may she revive our hope in Lady Liberty, may she be an inspiration to us all:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recoverand every known nook of our nation andevery corner called our country,our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,battered and beautifulWhen day comes we step out of the shade,aflame and unafraidThe new dawn blooms as we free itFor there is always light,if only we’re brave enough to see itIf only we’re brave enough to be it.—Amanda Gorman