A Gettysburg Address for the 21st Century

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Twelve score and six years ago our founding fathers (and founding mothers) brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in hypocrisy, and dedicated to the proposition that most white men were created equal, but women, Blacks and Indians were subhuman and much less than equal.

Now we are engaged in a great cultural war, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battlefield of that war, called Washington, D.C.   Many of us have come to protest on a portion of that field.  A chamber where those who raised enough money to get elected can further their dreams of power, glory, and greed.  Our enemies would strip us of the little democracy that is left in our country.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should protest this attack on our democracy; though it will probably not make much difference and may only end up with us getting beaten and clubbed.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot succumb — we cannot give up — we cannot forget– this ground. Brave men and women, living and dead, have struggled here before us, have protested here before us.  From those honored protestors who have gone before us, we make increased devotion to the cause for which some gave their last full measure.  It is perhaps far above our ability to add or detract from their valiant efforts.

The world may little note, nor long care what we say here.  It will all too soon forget what we tried to do here as well.  But let us not surrender to world opinion.  As Americans one and all, we must be dedicated to the great task still remaining; to make this nation truly proper to be called a nation of justice, equality, and freedom.

We here highly resolve that those living, and dead shall not have struggled or died in vain. That this country, under manifold Gods, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that a democratic government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.  And that someday, America will manifest the dream of Martin Luther King to become a country where little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

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Old Times There Are Not Forgotten!

The lyrics from the title song above were written by Daniel Decatur Emmett.  One well known verse is:

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray!  Hooray!

In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand

to live and die in Dixie.

Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

Ironically this song was written by a Northerner and first sung in New York City in 1859.  The first shot was not fired in the Civil War until April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter.  I often heard this song when I was growing up since my mother and I were both born in Alabama.

farm roadsI was born in Fairfield, Alabama and my grandparents had a farm in Ensley, Alabama.  Years later and the farm is now ancient history and Ensley is a bunch of suburban homes adjacent to Birmingham.  The cow paths, chicken barn, pig sties and goat pens are long gone.  The rolling dirt road that once led to the Farmers Grain and Feed store is now a paved two lane highway leading to Walmart and CVS.  I remember feed millmany trips down this road beside my grandfather who always had a large quart canning jar full of ice and water and wrapped in a towel.  When we arrived at the feed store, he would go in to purchase his feed and buy me an RC Cola from the metal soda box on the front dock.  I would sit on the side of the feed store loading dock while the workers would pack his pickup truck with bags of grain and other assorted farm essentials.   My grandfather would have a brief chat with the workers and we would be on our way back to his farm.

Old Farm

My grandfather and grandmother lived in a Quonset hut that they purchased after the end of WW II.  The hut was all metal and “rooms” were defined by hanging blankets.  I do not remember any doors in the hut except the single door leading outside.  Beyond this door was the path that would take you directly to the outhouse.  Other paths branched off this main path to the barn and various animal areas.  My grandfather and grandmother always lived frugally but they did not scrimp on the food.  Breakfast would be grits, brains, bacon and eggs.  Lunch would be fried chicken with collard greens and large baking powder biscuits.  Supper would be fried potatoes, green beans and either roast pork or perhaps barbecued goat.  Fridays we would eat catfish and okra.  I never tired of my grandmother’s southern cooking.

blast-furnaces-of-a-steel-mill-light-j-baylor-robertsMy grandfather supplemented his meager income by working at the Birmingham Steel mill.  I remember when we would go to Birmingham at night.  The sky would be full of smoke and sparks from the various steel mills in the city.  The steel mills dominated ingot of steelthe city architecture and they owned the night.  As we came closer to one of the mills, we would soon see the large red hot ingots lying on their side cooling off in the mill yard.  Occasionally, we could see the huge ladles of red hot ore pouring out their contents into the casting molds.  Sparks would fly everywhere and cauldron of steelthe night sky would be lit up with flames streaking hundreds of feet into the heavens.  It was almost like a fireworks show that went on night after night.  I left the mills and Alabama when I left home in 1964 thinking that I would probably never see either of them again.  I was wrong though.

One after another each of the five major steel mills in Birmingham shut down, unable to compete with more modern methods of making steel.  Soon there were only large rusted metal cities looming ominously over the landscape but devoid of soul and spirit.  The smoke and flames were gone from the night sky.  Each of the mills were torn down and replaced by shopping centers or parking lots until finally only one of the old mills

Steel Mills Birmingham

Steel Mills Birmingham

remained.  Civic minded leaders in a spirit of trying to capture history decided to turn this last steel mill into a museum.  Later on in my life, I toured this museum and visited the various plant areas but it was not the same anymore.  The plant that had killed hundreds of men and took my grandfather’s left foot was now lifeless.  In my imagination, I could see shadows of the dead men who had sweated in the heat of the blast furnaces and stoked coal to feed the hunger of the ovens for fuel and a growing nation for automobiles.  A steel mill that had once been a dangerous fiery roaring tiger was now simply a large cavernous rusty building that echoed in my mind with the mute sounds of the past.

Years after my first marriage was over, I took my second wife Karen down to Alabama to visit the remnants of the clan that my mother had belonged to.  By this time, my grandparents were dead and most of my aunts and uncles were also deceased.  I had never gone south with my first wife and so it had been years since I had visited Alabama.  Karen and I had taken trips together to several different countries.  We had been to England, Scotland, France, Germany and China.  I warned her that going down South would be a culture shock.  I was not surprised when she later told me that the “culture shock” she experienced in the South and with my relatives was greater than any she had experienced on our overseas trips including China.

Karen said she had heard that the South was still fighting the Civil War but she could not believe what she heard and saw during the trip.  Numerous bumper stickers, ain'tfergettintattoos, hats and t-shirts proclaiming:

  • Hell no, we ain’t forgettin
  • The South will raise again
  • Long live the Confederacy
  • Nathan Bedford Forest: American Patriot
  • Confederate American and proud of it

And of course, she saw numerous Confederate flags hanging from houses, pickup trucks and motorcycles.  We even found a roadside stand where they were selling Confederate memorabilia and a large sign over the stand proudly proclaiming “Heritage Not Hate” as though the Civil War was about mint juleps and the right of slaves to sing and dance all night long.

red neck shirtIt became apparent to me why I never took my first wife to visit my relatives.  Deep down inside, I was both appalled and ashamed at their ideas and behavior.  During our visit Karen and I listened to more prejudice and bigotry then I had heard in years.  I retreated to an almost catatonic state.  I did not once broach the subject of racism or discrimination despite the abundant evidence of its pervasiveness.  My normal outspokenness for intolerance was stilled in the onslaught of insults and harangues that I heard towards Blacks, Mexicans and other minorities.  It was like a Gordian knot of discrimination and I did not know where to start unravelling it.  On our way home, Karen and I discussed our mutual inability to speak out or take any action in the face of this prolific bigotry.  I perhaps more than Karen was embarrassed that I had said and did nothing.  I had become the silent person who fails to speak out.

We can talk about moving on but I don’t think many of us realize how long it takes to change a culture and to really let go and move on.  There have been and continue to be many changes in the Old South.  Slavery has of course ended.  The plantations are gone and Jim Crow rule is finally over.  The Confederate Flag has even been taken down from most Southern State Capitals.  The symbols and icons of the Old South are fast disappearing.  Nevertheless, in the hearts and minds of many Southerners, you can still hear the refrains from Dixie repeating: “Old times there are not forgotten, Look Away, Look Away, Look Away, Dixie Land.”  When it comes to the South, old times there are still not forgotten.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever been down South?  What was your experience?  Do you have any roots in the South? If so, what changes have you seen over the years?  What do you think it will take to make the South forget the Civil War and move on?

Life is just beginning.

“In the South, history clings to you like a wet blanket. Outside your door the past awaits in Indian mounds, plantation ruins, heaving sidewalks and homestead graveyards; each slowly reclaimed by the kudzu of time.”  ― Tim HeatonDon’t Be Ugly:

 

 

 

 

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