Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Don't Be Angry You Prophets

I used to be a big pro-basketeball fan. Used to be--meaning-- back in the early 1970's when the NBA was expanding and a new franchise came to Portland. Back in those days the league was not widely followed. Most players toiled in obscurity with modest salaries. The Lakers and the Celtic seemed to play each year in the NBA Finals. Heck, the NCAA playofss with its current scintillating 3 week, 65 team format, was a quiet affair (back then always won by Johnny Wooden and his UCLA Bruins) that only the top team in each conference was elegible to play in the NCAA tourney. I remember one year, UCLA was ranked #1 and USC was #2 and USC was not eligible for the Big Dance. Take heart U of M and V Tech fans---.500 records don't cut the mustard. There were not Cindrella stories back in those days .
With this basketball interest in my personal history, I eagerly watched the two night ESPN story on black players and coaches called "Black Magic" that aired Sunday and Monday night. It was produced by Earl the Pearl Monroe--who I used to love to see when he played for the Knicks. I remember watching the soon to be champion 1973 Knicks lose to our woeful Trailblazers at the Memorial Coloseum in Portland. I sat next to the parents of a Knick player that night. "Oh, I asked the mother of the fan seated next to me who said her son played on the Knicks. "Which player." The mother said, "Phil Jackson, he is the first forward off the bench." "Oh, I know him, he has an unsual jumpshot--sort of like Dick Barnett."
Back to the program--and please hang with me--I will get to the Rev. Wright's comments in a moment.
The "Black Magic" series was about the history of racism and prejudice in college and pro-basketball. For many years the Historical Black Colleges were the only place black players and black coaches got an opportunity to showcase their talents. In those days of segregation, "seperate but (grossly un) equal" was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court. The Southeast Conference didn't get their first black player until 1967 (it was worse in Football--Alabama and Bear Bryant didn't integrate his team until 1973 after they got their tails hammered by Johnny McCay and his USC Trojans and their star fullback--Alabama native Sam "Bam" Cunningham.
The old college game was pretty boring back in the 1940's and 50's. It was half court and very methodical.Pass it around and wait for the lay up or the long set shot. However, in the Black colleges it was all about wide open fast break style. This entertaining form of basketball which is common today was under the radar. It genesis was with Coach McLendon and Ben Jobe--men who labored in obscurity their whole careers. The two styles only clashed a few time--one was the famous secret game in an old YMCA building between McLendons small black school and the Duke University 1944 varsity. McLendons team blew them out of the gym by over 40 points.

When the wide open sytle emerged in the 1978 Duke team--their coach got the credit for being "an innovator."
What was interesting about the program was how calm the former players and coaches are about the gross injustices of the past. They talk in dispassionate terms about the prejudices and taunting and vicious racism they faced. They got along very well with their white coaching counterparts. When Ben Jobes "Southern University" squad thumped Boby Crimmons ACC champion Georgia Tech team in the first road of the NCAA tournament--Jobe and his friend Crimmons who had coached together embraced a long time. Jobe felt sad for his friend and muted the precedent setting victory celebration--the first tournament victory for a historic black college over a major confere3nce champion.
But not all people just accept years of injustice and oppression with such magnimity. Most of the Biblical prophets spoke the truth to power and didn't mince their words. They denounced the kings who oppressed the people and predicted that "they would rest with their ancestors and dogs would like their blood." The Biblical prophets roles is to "comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." I know the oppressed like the soothing words and I know the comfortable oppressors usually denounce the prophets words. I was thinking about this as I read the calls for Barak Obama to distance himself from the more angry sermons of his former pastor Rev. Wright. Watching the show"Black magic" got me in touch with plenty of evidence that would easily justify oratorical outbursts like Rev. Wrights "G-d d--- America."
I am reading Howard Zinns "A People's History of the United States" 1492-Present. Zinn is chronicaling American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official version taught in schools--with its emphaisis on great men in high places--to focus on the street, the home and the workplace.
What Zinn shows is not pleasant. He scholarship is outstanding. Most of my favoirte American leaders don't come off very well. Jefferson, Washington, Jackson all work to maintain the political calculus of the slave holding system.
You get the idea that all legislation to ease suffering and help the immigrant, the working class, woman and African Americans was due to grass roots efforts that became so massive and undeniable that the powerful had to act. One prominent historican said the powerful do just enough to "keep the rioters off the streets."
Gary Wills, hardly a radical historian, writes in his new book that slavery was the organizing principal by which our country was governed. Almost all the Supreme Court justices and President until 1880 were slave owners. The Democratic party owned its strength until 1965 to the white segregationists in the south. FDR refused to pass anti-lynching legistlation in the 40's because he had to hold on to his southern base or lose his New Deal majority. It ain't pretty folks.
We who live in comfort and have not suffered centuries of racism cannot even begin to imagine the rage that lies right beneath the surface in American life.Kings non-violence worked to uncover the ugliness of the racisms in America. When it was shown on televison news--the publc was shocked (and shamed) to action. Bull Conner's fire hoses showed the inhumanity of the segregationists. The Pettis Bridge beatings of peaceful marchers uncovered the depth of hatred and the complicity of southern whites in the system of segregation.

It is sad that Candidate Obama has to distance himself from Rev. Wright in order not jeoparize his campaigns future. Obama has run a campaing based on unity and the sincerehope that we can put the race baiting and sexism and classism of the past behind us and move forward to a new place in American society. This is a tall order given the ugly history of this country. I commend Zinn's book. He makes the case much better then I do.
Until very recently, the historical experience of blacks in America is one of brutal oppression. Why can't we hear that? Now don't get me started on the bail out of Wall Street high rollers and the neglect of homeowners!