The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

<em>The Underground Railroad</em> by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”

On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day in 1907 WH Auden was born. His poem ‘September 1, 1939’, written in a bar in New York at the outbreak of war, seems to chime with our own time (even if he later disowned the poem, saying it was ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’). And on this day in 1933, Nina Simone was born. ‘I wish I knew how
it would feel to be free; I wish I could break all the chains holding me,’ she sang, while in her song ‘Revolution’, after a lifetime of tireless advocacy for the civil rights movement, she saw in the demand for Black Power the challenge to continuing racism, inequality and repression in the United States: ‘The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back.’ And now, written this month we have a superb poetic response to the present situation in America from Joanna Clink.

Continue reading “On this day: three voices that speak to our time”

Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump

Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump

So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair. Can we find any hope on this dark day? Continue reading “Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump”

The Speech: King’s ‘I have a dream’ 50 years on

The Speech: King’s ‘I have a dream’ 50 years on


‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’
– Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

‘That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance: perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream we dreamed in agony.’
– James Baldwin

I’ve been reading Guardian writer Gary Younge’s new book The Speech: The Story behind Martin Luther King’s Dream, published to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 28 August 1963. It was a book I had to read, because the summer of 1963 radicalised me and defined my politics for the rest of my life.

In that regard, I was brought up short by Younge’s observation early on in his book that in its immediate aftermath, it was not obvious that the speech would have any significant political impact. While it served its purpose on the day, inspiring those who heard it, the speech did not figure prominently in the media reports of the event.  Younge quotes Drew Hansen who also wrote a book about the speech, The Dream, as stating:

At the time of King’s death in April 1968, his speech at the March on Washington had nearly vanished from public view. There was no reason to believe that King’s speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole… King’s speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record.

That gave me pause for thought: when, actually, did I first read, or hear, King utter the ‘I have a dream’ passage that, in my memory, I associate with that summer when, 15 years old, I was inspired by the civil rights movement, and followed news of terrible events such as the brutal suppression of the children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing?

Leonard Freed  2
The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

1963 was one of the few years in which I ever kept a diary, and in it I find that I have recorded each of these events, as well as the March on Washington itself.  Interestingly, though, on 29 August, although I note the news of the march and Martin Luther King’s presence, there is no mention of his speech, let alone ‘I have a dream’. Of more interest to me at the time is the fact that Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary performed, and that the trio had sung Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

So when did I first read or here King’s words? There is no way of knowing this now.  In the Guardian archive, I discovered that newspaper’s two reports of the event on the following day.  The front page story made no mention of speeches, let alone ‘I have a dream’, and no mention of Martin Luther King.  Oddly, the report does not record the presence of any named black leader – only that ‘among the first to arrive was George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi movement’.  Another report on page 9 by the same journalist does record that ‘the leaders of the main organisations which have sponsored the march delivered brief addresses’, but mentions no names and does not record any of their words.  Newspaper of record? Quite astonishing, really.

All this reveals how unreliable memory can be, and how, in the case of an event as ‘historic’ as King’s ‘dream’ speech, its historic nature may not have been immediately apparent. It no doubt inspired those who were present that day, but at what point were his words widely disseminated?

Leonard Freed  1
The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

In his book, Gary Younge sets out to explore the appeal of King’s speech, and the different ways in which it has been interpreted from the afternoon on which he made it. Drawing on his own interviews with civil rights leaders and activsts including Clarence Jones, who wrote the first draft of the speech, Younge reveals how the speech was written, and how as he delivered the speech King departed from the written text to extemporise its most memorable segment.  This short book does an excellent job of setting both the march and the speech in the context of what  Younge identifies as a ‘pivotal moment’ when the movement to end segregation evolved into the demand for black equality.

Activists Marching to Lincoln Memorial

The crucial backdrop to the March on Washington and King’s speech was the way in which segregation in the South, for so long accepted as the norm, was being openly challenged and brutally defended in 1963. Again, I remember how as a teenager at the time, as well as being enthralled by the bravery of civil rights activists, being astonished and appalled by the actions and statements of men like ‘Bull’ Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham who turned the jet hoses on the children, and George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (who said, ‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’).

As positions hardened, writes Younge, ‘key players who had learned to live with segregation – the federal government, business interests, liberal whites, conservative blacks – were forced to reckon with the arrival of a new order.’ In few places were these developments clearer than in Birmingham , Alabama.  In one of the most racist cities in the South, segregation  – in schools, libraries, hotels, lunch counters, water fountains and toilets – was strictly enforced and violent attacks on the homes of black activists were commonplace. In May, Martin Luther King had joined protesters sitting in at lunch counters across the city.  He had been arrested and jailed, placed in solitary confinement where he wrote his crucial Letter from Birmingham Jail on toilet paper.

With so many adult protesters in jail, and funds for bail nearing exhaustion, the movement turned to children to keep the protests alive.  On the first day, just under 1000 were jailed, most of them children.  On the second day the city powers turned hoses ‘powerful enough to rip the bark off a tree from thirty yards’ on the kids.  The images of the brutality went around the world.  I remember my own shock on seeing them as a 15 year old.

Children protesting in Birmingham 1963

Birmingham 1963 sprayed with fire hoses

As the protests continued, King and his associated agreed a controversial deal with the city authorities to bring about desegregation of lunch counters. It was a deal that inflamed the racists, and the following evening a bomb ripped through the motel where King had been staying (he had already left).  Rioting followed in the town and martial law was imposed.  This only highlighted growing divisions within black politics, with the deeply-held principle of non-violence adhered to by King and the civil rights movement challenged by those who argued that they were for violence if, in the words of Malcolm X, ‘non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence’.  The issue was moving beyond desegregation to the broader question of white supremacy and how to challenge white people’s hold on the power structure.

On 11 June, soon after President Kennedy had made a televised national address announcing legislation to end segregation, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot in the back with a bullet fired from a behind a bush as he stepped from his car outside his home. Hearing the news, Bob Dylan immediately set to writing the awkwardly challenging lyric that he would later sing at the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.

In his book, Gary Younge places the ‘Dream’ speech in the context both of the events that heightened tensions before the March on Washington, and what unfolded in the years immediately following:

King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech occurred at a pivotal moment. He was the most visible face of a demand – ending legal segregation – that seemed at the time not only plausible but inevitable. As long as the movement focused on that specific goal, all the protests, arrests, and even deaths that occurred along the way had a clear purpose; his speech, and the march at which it was delivered, reflected a general sense of optimism that things would change for the better. However, once that struggle had been won the question of equality remained unanswered, leaving the coalition splintered and its aims either diluted or redirected to goals evidently much harder to attain and more difficult to define.’ None of these developments happened immediately or evolved evenly. Far from it. King’s star continued to ascend for a short time even as the fortunes of those he sought to lead waned. At the end of 1963 Time magazine named him Person of the Year; the following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, on the ground, the movement continued to advance. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered swaths of new Black voters in the most racially hostile state of the Union. A year after that would be the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, demanding voting rights and Johnson’s commencement speech at the historically Black college Howard, in favour of affirmative action. Nonetheless, as the decade wore on, the mood of African Americans was increasingly infected with cynicism, despair, and even despondency. At a meeting in Chicago in 1966, King was evidently shaken after being booed by young Black men in the crowd. He later recalled:

I went home that night with an ugly feeling; selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why should they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people. For twelve years, I and others like me have held out radiant promises of progress, I had preached to them about my dream. . . . They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

On the evening after the march, Malcolm X said to Bayard Rustin: ‘You know, this dream of King is going to be a nightmare before it’s over.’  The nightmare began on Sunday 15 September when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The bombers had waited for the church’s annual Youth Sunday, and the explosion tore out the church basement, where children practiced their parts for the ceremony. Four girls were killed: three 14-year olds and one 11-year old. The bombers had chosen their target for its charged symbolism. The church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963: it was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained; and it was where civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth had inspired activists with speeches and sermons.

Gary Younge sees the consequence of these events in these terms:

At a rapid clip, the centre of gravity of Black politics migrated from the South to the North, from rural to urban, middle age to youth, God to Mao, and from integrated, interracial non-violent struggle to race-based, black nationalist militancy that accepted violence as a possible strategy.

March 63 2

Reading Gary Younge’s book, images of the March came into my mind, some of them, I realised, from Richard Powers’ fine novel The Time of Our Singing, about a family defined by racism. This is the passage that I was remembering:

They gather at the base of the Washington Monument.  People pour in from wherever there is still hope of a coming country.  They rumble up from the fields of Georgia on broken-down grain trucks. They ride down in one hundred busses an hour, streaming through the Baltimore  tunnel. They drive over in long silver cars from the Middle Atlantic suburbs. They converge on two dozen chartered trains from Pittsburgh and Detroit. They fly in from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas. An eighty-two- year-old man bicycles from Ohio; another, half his age, from South Dakota. One man takes a week to roller-skate the eight hundred miles from Chicago, sporting a bright sash reading FREEDOM.

By mid-morning, the crowd tops a quarter of a million: students, small businessmen, preachers, doctors, barbers, sales clerks, UAW members, management trainees, New York intellectuals, Kansas farmers, Gulf shrimpers. A ‘celebrity plane’ airlifts in a load of movie stars – Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Diahann Carroll, Marlon Brando. Longtime Freedom Riders, veterans of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Albany, join forces with timid first-timers, souls who want another nation but didn’t know, until today, how to make it. They come pushing baby strollers and wheelchairs, waving flags and banners. They come straight from board meetings and fresh out of prison. They come for a quarter million reasons. They come for a single thing.

The march route runs from Washington’s needle to Lincoln’s steps But as always, the course will the long way around. Somewhere down Constitution are jobs; somewhere down Independence is freedom. Even that winding route is the work of fragile compromise. Six separate groups suspend differences, joining their needs, if only for this last high-water mark.

The night before, the president signs orders to mobilize the army in case of riot. By early morning, the waves of people overflow any dam the undermanned crowd-control officers can erect. The march launches itself, unled, and its leaders must be wedged into the unstoppable stream after the fact, by a band of marshals. There’s agitation, picketing, a twenty-four-hour vigil outside the Justice Department. But not a single drop of blood falls for all the violence of four hundred years.

Television cameras in the crow’s nest of the Washington obelisk pan across a half a mile of people spilling down both sides of the reflecting pool. In that half mile, every imaginable hue: anger, hope, pain, new-found power, and, above all, impatience.

Music breaks out across the Mall ~ ramshackle high school marching bands, church choirs, family gospel groups, pickup combos scatting stoic euphoria, a funeral jubilation the size of the Eastern Seaboard. Song echoes from staggered amplifiers across the open spaces, bouncing off civic buildings. A bastard mix of performers work the staging area – Odetta and Baez, Josh White and Dylan, the Freedom Singers of SNCC and Albany fame. But the surge of music that carries the marchers toward the Emancipator is all self-made. Pitched words eddy and mount: We shall overcome. We shall not be moved. Strangers who’ve never laid eyes on one another until this minute launch into tight harmonies without a cue. The one thing’ we did right was the day we began to fight. The song spins out its own rising counterpoints. The only chain we can stand is the chain of hand in hand. All past collapses into now. Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom. Hallelujah.

David Strom hears the swelling chorus in a dream. The sound bends him back upon his past self, the day that first took him here, the day that made this one. That prior day is here completed, brought forward to this moment, the one it was already signalling a quarter century before. Time is not a trace that moves through a collection of moments. Time is a moment that collects all moving traces.

David Strom, an exiled German Jewish mathematician, is remembering another moment of resisting racism. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the black contralto Marian Anderson to sing at the main concert venue in Washington DC because of the colour of her skin. The subsequent news reports created a storm of protest and prompted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to withdraw from her membership of the organization and to organise an open-air concert on Easter Sunday 1939, when, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and to a radio audience in the millions. In the crowd was a young Martin Luther King. In the crowd, too, Powers’s characters David Strom and Delia Daley, a talented African American singer, meet. They later marry – an illegal act in half the states of the union in 1939 – and have three musically talented children.  They make a brave but finally doomed attempt to bring up their three children ‘beyond race’.  Each attempts to come to terms with their mixed-race heritage in different ways; the daughter, Ruth, grows up to reject her parents’ vision and joins the Black Panthers.

On 28 August 1963, Marian Anderson again stood at the Lincoln Memorial, opening the afternoon’s proceedings by singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’.

Freed March
The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

The central chapter of Gary Younge’s book is devoted to a close analysis of each section of King’s speech.  He takes us through the process by which the speech was written and continually refined in the 24 hours before its delivery. Younge tells how, for King’s entourage, this speech had to be different. He notes that although by 1963 King was a national figure, few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. Now, with all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his introduction to the nation.

March 63

King’s greatness as a speaker, said James Baldwin, lay in his ‘intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt or baffle them’. Clarence Jones was his speech writer:

When it came to my speech drafts [King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home.

King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King’s suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The ‘I have a dream’ section was not in it.

Younge’s account suggests that King must have gone to bed that night worried. He explains that for King, the most important thing for him when delivering a sermon was having some sense of where and how he would finish: ‘First I find my landing strip. It’s terrible to be circling around up there without a place to land.’ The problem with the draft that he had prepared was that it seemed a lot stronger on take off than on landing.

As things turned out, Younge explains, ‘the way King ended the speech (freestyling) was far more typical of his sermons than the way he started it (tethered to a written text)’:

But given the enormity of the moment, he could not simply rely on his ability to find the right words at the right time. King was an extraordinary natural orator, but even he was not so confident as to believe his best strategy on such an occasion lay in extemporizing and hoping the Spirit would find him. ‘This was a different audience, a different time, a different place,’ says [John] Lewis. ‘This was truly history, and Dr. King knew it. We all knew it. We’d known it with our own speeches and he knew it with his. He was responding to the occasion. He was speaking not just to the massive audience before us, but to the president, to Congress, to the nation, to the world’.

Martin Luther King Jr -March on Washington1963

On the day, King began by following the written text finalized in the early hours:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Younge notes that immediately King utilizes a favourite rhetorical device that he will employ several times in the speech: anaphora, or repeating a phrase at the beginning of successive clauses:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

Then comes the passage built on the metaphor of the promissory note – a metaphor, says Younge, that came from Clarence Jones, and was based on what actually occurred following the mass arrests in Birmingham that spring that resulted in the need to find a large amount of money at short notice to pay bail for a large number of people. Younge retells the story – one that involves Harry Belafonte, New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and the Chase Manhatten Bank.

And so we’ve come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Next comes the passage that talks of ‘the fierce urgency of now’, the phrase that Barak Obama would adopt during his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

A key section of the speech is a response to those in government, and in the white population generally, who would ask of civil rights campaigners, ‘when will you be satisfied?’:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

King speaking

The speech is drawing to a close, and King is searching for his ‘landing strip’.  The night before the March, seeking advice from his aides about the speech, King had been told:. ‘Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream.’ It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.’ As Younge explains, King had indeed employed the refrain several times before.  For his aides, this speech had to be different. It was going out live to the nation.

As King moved towards his final words, he had a sense, in Younge’s words, ‘that he was falling short’. It was then that Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind him at the podium, cried out: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ King set aside his prepared text and adopted the stance of a Baptist preacher.  Clarence Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: ‘Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.’

So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

‘Aw, shit,’ King’s aide Wyatt Walker said, ‘He’s using the dream.’ Clarence Jones thought: ‘He’s off, he’s on his own now, he’s inspired’.  King had found his landing strip:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

King’s speech – overlooked the following day not just in The Guardian but also receiving no mention in the Washington Post  – would eventually become one of the most celebrated in American history. That it has is largely due to the ‘Dream’ passage. James Baldwin in No Name in the Street probably put his finger on the reason why:
That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony.
Overshadowed by the ‘Dream’ passage, but just as fine is the ‘free at last’ coda:

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The Black March In Washington For Jobs And Freedom
Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte

In his final chapter, Gary Younge assesses the legacy of King’s speech – in the context of the election of America’s first black president, but also the continuing racial inequalities and injustices of American society in a year that has seen the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the teenager Trayvon Martin. Younge’s perceptive assessment notes how responses to King’s speech have differed ever since the moment it was given: how the speech has been interpreted in very different ways, and used to support various positions.  These are Younge’s closing words:

In the final analysis to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general and the dream sequence in particular are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreams of a better world where historical wrongs have been righted and good prevails. That is why the speech means so much to me and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.

I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, a time when idealism was mocked and ‘realism’ became an excuse for capitulation to the ‘inevitability’ of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the Left as well as the Right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers. […] While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.

With a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan and laid out his case for tougher legislation or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.

Instead he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether the task of building the world he was describing was Sisyphean or merely Herculean, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with power to act upon it. In so doing he showed that it is not naive to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for, and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?

In my next post I’ll explore the musical associations of the March for Jobs and Freedom.

Footnote 27.08.2013

Brilliant piece by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman today on Tom Dispatch about the meaning of the speech for one who resisted Pinochet’s murderous regime. He concludes:

What would Martin Luther King say if he could return to contemplate what his country has become since his death? What if he could see how the terror and slaughter brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had turned his people into a fearful, vengeful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What if he could see how that obsession with security has fed espionage services and a military-industrial complex run amok?

What would he say if he could observe how that fear was manipulated in order to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign land against the will of its people? How would he react to the newest laws disenfranchising the very citizens he fought to bring to the voting booths? What sorrow would have gripped his heart as he watched the rich thrive and the poor be ever more neglected and despised, as he observed the growing abyss between the one percent and the rest of the country, not to speak of the power of money to intervene and intercede and decide?

What words would he have used to denounce the way the government surveillance he was under is now commonplace and pervasive, potentially targeting anyone in the United States who happens to own a phone or use email? Wouldn’t he tell those who oppose these policies and institutions inside and outside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, and not ever to wallow in the valley of despair?

See also

Oddly, despite the fame of Martin Luther King’sI have a dream’ speech, you will be hard pushed to find a full version of it – video or text – online. That is because King himself secured the copyright to his speech in the months after he made it – reputedly in a bid to use the proceeds to support the civil rights movement.  King’s family now own the copyright, which will expire in 2038.

But there are other valuable videos that offer an insight on the March. YouTube has a remarkable TV debate, featuring Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Minklelwitz, and Sidney Poitier, talking about the Civil Rights movement. It took place on the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was hosted by David Schoenbrun and broadcast by CBS.

The March on Washington in Photographs: US National Archives documentary

Whistleblowers and drones

Whistleblowers and drones

Information is power.  But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.  Those with access to these resources … have a duty to share it with the world.
– Aaron Swartz, Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

When I was a kid in the fifties I read a short story (by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, I think) set in an American town where the citizens were spied on in their daily activities by machines that hovered permanently above the streets.  A little later I read Orwell’s 1984, with its telescreens in every apartment that watch and record individuals at all times, while written correspondence is routinely opened and read by the government before it is delivered.

These writers were astonishingly prescient of processes that we now know are routinely used, not only by authoritarian regimes, but, more disturbingly, by many governments that proclaim their adherence to democratic principles, due legal process and respect for human rights. The period we’re in may come to be seen as a watershed moment, when the extent to which democratic politicians are prepared to sacrifice principle and morality became crystal clear.


These thoughts are provoked, obviously, by the files handed to The Guardian by Edward Snowden detailing the extent of the American state’s surveillance of its own citizens, as well as those of allied European states; but also by recently seeing the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and reading pieces in the London Review of Books that discussed the implications of America’s ‘drone wars’.

At the very moment when Bradley Manning’s trial for passing classified material to the website WikiLeaks was drawing to a close, Edward Snowden provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents revealing the extent of US surveillance of phone and internet communications built in the shadows in the aftermath of 9/11. On 12 July, Snowden made this statement:

A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice — that it must be seen to be done.

I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.

Snowden was still sheltering in Moscow airport when I went to see Alex Gibney’s documentary film about WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.  Like many big-screen documentaries these days, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, has high production values, photographed and edited like a feature film, with an original score and cool graphics that give the film the semblance of a spy thriller.

Some I was with at the screening were put out by Gibney’s portrayal of Julian Assange. Gibney tells the story of Assange’s formative years as an activist and young hacker and draws on interviews with WikiLeaks staff and followers who supported WikiLeaks in its crusade – all of whom are people that Assange has subsequently fallen out with.  There’s one voice missing in the Gibney interviews – that of Assange himself, since Assange withdrew his cooperation from the film.

Julian Assange, leader of WikiLeaks, holds up a copy of the Guardian with a front page article that used leaked Pentagon data. during a press conference in London on July 26, 2010.  The
Julian Assange holds up a copy of the Guardian front page with the WikiLeaks story, 26 July 2010

When we discussed the film afterwards, the criticism my friends made was that it over-emphasised the Swedish rape allegations, and failed to consider both the possibility that they had been engineered by US agencies, and the danger that Assange faced of being rendered to America if he had not legally challenged extradition.

Certainly, Gibney does dwell on the rape allegations, as well painting a picture of Assange’s increasingly erratic and egotistical behaviour at the head of WikiLeaks.  But I suspect that Gibney’s portrait is a true one, leaving the viewer  simultaneously compelled and appalled by a character who is brilliant but flawed. Gibney presents a powerful account of Assange’s early successes – for example, how he was instrumental in leaking the documents that revealed the extent of Icelandic bank irregularities.

The fact that Assange fell out with Gibney and withdrew from the filming proved, I think, significant for how the film has turned out.  For, without footage of Assange talking, Gibney has had to focus more on the story of Bradley Manning, and in many ways this is the more compelling drama.

Gibney tells Bradley Manning’s story powerfully – how the conscience-stricken Army private reached his momentous decision to pass to Wikileaks the of the biggest leak of all time – 700,000 classified files,  including the video footage of a US gunship in Baghdad killing two children, two Reuters journalists and several others who happened to be standing nearby.


The story of Bradley Manning, his intense isolation and psychological problems, has an emotional pull that Assange’s just doesn’t possess, however worthy.  When you come out of the film what lingers in the mind is Manning’s isolation and his betrayal by the hacker Adrian Lamo in whom he confided and placed his trust. The heart of the film, in dramatic terms, comes when Gibney reproduces their web-chats on screen, turn by turn. Just words on the screen – but it packs a hefty punch.

'He desperately needed to talk' ... above, a passage from Bradley Manning's infamous online chat, rendered in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
A moment from Bradley Manning’s online chat with Adrian Lamo, as portrayed in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.

Gibney, presumably to offer some balance, includes interviews with various figures from the US government and security services.  It’s one of those who, confusingly, gives the documentary its title when he candidly says, ‘We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets’. This was before we knew what Snowden’s leaks confirmed.

Another moment in the film points towards the link between WiliLeaks, Snowden and the intensifying drone war being conducted by the US by remote control on targets across the Middle East.  The then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton states that the work of WikiLeaks is, ‘not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships . . . that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.’ What she was getting at is the American government’s belief that certain of the documents unleashed by WikiLeaks resulted in an almost unparalleled shift in global power and in stability in the Muslim world. For example, one of the diplomatic documents leaked revealed the greed and corruption of the Tunisian president, sparking the uprising that inaugurated the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.

But it’s not just a question of revelations that destabilise your allies; the Snowden files reveal just how far the American government is prepared to go in order to identify those who might pose a threat to the US.  This summer, articles in the London Review of Books have reviewed recent books examining how such information might be used – to kill, without judicial process or any formal declaration of war, individuals deemed to be a threat to US interests.

In ‘Like a Mosquito’ (LRB, 4 July 2013) Mattathias Schwartz, reviewing Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill wrote:

Distinguishing between civilian and militant has become a post hoc body-sorting argument. As viewed through the drone’s crosshairs, the ciphers on the ground are neither civilians nor militants: they could be called ‘civilitants’, some of whom have been rendered killable not by who they are or what they have done but by where they happen to be.[…]

In a signature strike, a person is made a target not because of their identity but because of certain ‘signatures’ – criteria associated with terrorist activity. They could be called pieces of circumstantial evidence. An early report in the Washington Post gave a loose description: signatures are ‘patterns of behaviour that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance … that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against US interests’. Kevin Heller, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, has used media reports to compile a list of 14 likely signatures. Five, he found, are legal under international law. Five are dubious. Four are illegal. These four are: ‘military-age male in area of known terrorist activity’; ‘consorting with known militants’; ‘armed men travelling in trucks’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; and ‘suspicious camp’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida.

Schwartz went on to note how monitoring a person’s Internet activity has become crucial to identifying such ‘signatures’:

Meanwhile, the US is doing what it can to blur the distinction between the sniper on a rooftop and the sniper Googling where to buy his first gun. The two cases can be made into one with the ‘broader concept of imminence’ outlined in a US justice department white paper leaked this February:

The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack … does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future … the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties.

So, armed with information culled from the trawls through Internet use conducted by the National Security Agency (as revealed by Edward Snowden) the Americans go in for the kill – even eliminating their own citizens. (See, for example, ‘US drone strikes: Memo reveals case for killing Americans‘ on the BBC News website). In the process, it’s likely (as Bradley Manning’s US gunship video clip showed) that innocent people will die.   In his review of Scahill’s book, Schwartz offers a telling quote from a source in US military intelligence who told Scahill: ‘If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s 34 people in the building, 35 people are going to die,’

Tribesmen on Sunday on the rubble of a building destroyed on Oct. 14, 2011, in an American drone strike against suspected militants in Shabwa Province in southeastern Yemen.
Men on the rubble of a building destroyed in an American drone strike against suspected militants in southeastern Yemen.

A vivid illustration of that statement comes in a New York Times report of a drone attack in Yemen on 14 October 2011:

Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen. It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.

As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.

Why has the use of drone warfare spread so widely and so fast?  Why does the United States not round up, render and imprison those it suspects of harbouring terrorist inclinations – as they did in the decade after 9/11?  An answer is offered in The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti, reviewed by Stephen Holmes in the LRB (‘What’s in it for Obama?’, 18 July 2013).  Mazetti’s case is that ‘the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor’.  In other words, as Stephen Holmes acidly remarks:

The administration doubled-down on what look suspiciously like extrajudicial executions, faute de mieux, after shuttering Bush’s black sites and deciding not to send anyone else to Guantánamo, where approximately a third of the hundred detainees on hunger strike are receiving a macabre form of Obamacare through tubes in their noses.

Holmes adds that Mazzetti’s ‘unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation’ for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, is that the members of the intelligence establishment ‘were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law’. The suggestion is that Obama’s shift to killing suspects from drones has been driven ‘by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary’.

Drawing on Mazzetti’s book, Holmes elaborates:

By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners: ‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.’ According to John Rizzo, a career CIA lawyer, Obama officials ‘never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.’ Summarising his interviews with Rizzo and other insiders, Mazzetti concludes: ‘Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.’

Land of the free? By curious coincidence, while these thoughts were exercising my mind, I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Dickens has a good go at skewering American hypocrisy.  Dickens wrote the novel after travelling to America with all the hopefulness of an English radical.  His disappointment at what he found fuelled the sarcasm in his description of American attitudes and the strange disconnect between the language of liberty, freedom and independence that resounded everywhere in a country where the right to carry a gun and own slaves was guaranteed in the constitution.  Dickens’ disillusionment – to a friend he wrote, ‘this is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination’ – echoes our own disenchantment with Obama’s presidency.

Aaron Swartz, internet activist
Aaron Swartz, who killed himself shortly before his trial for downloading academic journals.

I opened this post with a quote from Aaron Swarz, a tech whiz-kid and political activist passionately committed to internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible.  In January he committed suicide at the age of 26.  When he tried to ‘liberate’ data from an academic website, US authorities responded fiercely with a prosecution that meant he faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. What’s the connection with the foregoing?  As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian a few days after his death:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, arrested on 27 May 2010, detained for much of the time since in solitary confinement, tortured, and convicted in July of violations of the Espionage Act, awaits sentencing. Glenn Greenwald has argued that Manning is the most important whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Bradley Manning

Disturbing and yet inspiring footnote: Email service used by Snowden shuts down, rather than comply with a (secret) US government court order to access encrypted messages on its servers. Details here.

Further footnote: Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks on 21 August 2013. The sentence was more severe than many observers expected, and was much longer than any punishment given to any previous US government leaker. Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, commented:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.  A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability.

The news came in the same week that the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who wrote the series of stories revealing revealing the NSA’s electronic surveillance programmes, detailed in thousands of files passed to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden, had been held under anti-terrorism laws for nine hours by UK authorities as he passed through Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.  As Simon Jenkins wrote:

It remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and growth of state surveillance. The arrogance of this abuse is now widespread. The same police force that harassed Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow is the one recently revealed as using surveillance to blackmail Lawrence family supporters and draw up lists of trouble-makers to hand over to private contractors. We can see where this leads.

I hesitate to draw parallels with history, but I wonder how those now running the surveillance state – and their appeasers – would have behaved under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. We hear today so many phrases we have heard before. The innocent have nothing to fear. Our critics merely comfort the enemy. You cannot be too safe. Loyalty is all. As one official said in wielding his legal stick over the Guardian: “You have had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Yes, there bloody well is.

Travels with Charley: Steinbeck looks for America

Inspired by Melvyn Bragg’s recent BBC 4 documentary about John Steinbeck, I thought I’d re-read some of his novels that I last encountered as a teenager.  But first, because it was mentioned in Bragg’s film and because R’s reading group recently read and enjoyed it, I began with Travels With Charley: In Search of America, a book I’d never read before.

Travels With Charley is an account of a road trip across the United States taken by Steinbeck in 1960 with his French standard poodle, Charley.  I came away a little underwhelmed, though it’s an enjoyable reads and I found aspects of Steinbeck’s journey and his sceptical take on America in the early sixties interesting and revealing of his character.  Steinbeck sets off hoping to find the answer to the question, ‘What are Americans like today?’  In the event, he discovers  many aspects of America in the 1960s that disappoint him.

At the outset, Steinbeck writes that his motivation for the odyssey is to ‘know my own country’, having realised that after a quarter of a century settled in New York he knew the country ‘only from books and newspapers’, and ‘in a so-called writer this is criminal’.  But there is something else: despite deteriorating health (he had suffered a stroke in 1959) and getting on in years, he still feels ‘the urge to be someplace else … the sound of the jet, an engine warming up, even the clumping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder’. In his younger days Steinbeck had wandered all over but he finds ‘the urge for going’ remains just as strong: ‘I was assured that maturity would cure this itch … now that I’m 58 perhaps senility will do the job’.  According to Thom Steinbeck, the author’s oldest son, the real reason for the trip was that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Thom says he was surprised that Steinbeck’s wife let Steinbeck  make the trip: because of his heart condition he could have died at any time.

Steinbeck's truck, Rocinante, now on display at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas

Steinbeck prepared carefully for the journey – this was to be no young man’s On The Road. He had a truck fitted with a custom camper on the back and named it ‘Rocinante’ after the hero’s horse in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  He describes loading it down with everything he could conceive of needing on the trip – from the kitchen sink to a whole library of reference books (today, he’d just take a wifi-enabled laptop).

At the time Steinbeck spent his summers in Sag Harbour, then a small fishing village on Long Island.  It was from there that he planned to set off in late summer. But in the opening section of the book Steinbeck describes vividly how his departure was delayed due to Hurricane Donna . He gives a vivid account of saving his boat at the height of the storm and then swimming to shore through crashing waves.  It seems like a metaphor for his state of mind – fearless, even reckless – as he prepares to dive into the unknown on his continental journey.

Map of Steinbeck's Travels (first edition)

Like William Least-Heat Moon in Blue Highways, Steinbeck prefers to take back roads ‘not conducive to speed’, rather than the highways, ‘the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar’ that cross the nation.  He finds solace in parking Rocinante by a clear lake on a quiet country road to see overhead ‘the arrows of southing ducks and geese’.  In contrast, he describes being sucked into a vortex of traffic that sweeps him past the ‘noble twin cities of St Paul and Minneapolis’:

The traffic struck me like a tidal wave and carried me along, a bit of shiny flotsam bounded in front by a gasoline truck half a block long. Behind me was an enormous cement mixer on wheels, its big howitzer revolving as it proceeded. On my right was what I judged to be an atomic cannon. As usual I panicked and got lost.

He concludes that the highways are ‘wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside’ and predicts that in the future ‘it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing’.

On his travels, Steinbeck encounters a new breed of American nomads, living in luxurious mobile homes, then just coming onto the market. One night he parks up alongside a married couple who invite him into their palatial home. They talk of a new way of living – if you don’t like a place, just pick up and leave.  Steinbeck is intrigued: ‘One of our most treasured feelings concerns roots, growing up rooted in some soil or some community. How did they feel about raising their children without roots?

The husband answers: ‘How many people today have what you are talking about? What roots are there in an apartment twelve floors up? What roots are in a housing development of hundreds and thousands of small dwellings almost exactly alike ? My father came from Italy.  He grew up in Tuscany in a house where his family had lived maybe a thousand years. That’s roots for you, no running water, no toilet, and they cooked with charcoal or vine clippings. They had just two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom where everybody slept, grandpa, father and all the kids, no place to read, no place to be alone, and never had had. Was that better’

But, wonders Steinbeck, ‘Don’t you miss some kind of permanence?’ ‘Who’s got permanence?’ is the response. ‘Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up,  you move on to where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on. I read in a book how Lincoln’s family came to Illinois on a raft. They had some barrels of whisky for a bank account. How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?’

Later the couple show Steinbeck magazines designed exclusively for mobile dwellers: ‘stories and poems and hints for successful mobile living. … advertisements for gadgets, fascinating things, for cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, furniture and beds … full-page pictures of new models, each one grander and more shiny than the next’.

‘There’s thousands of them’, says the man, ‘and there’s going to be millions’. ‘Joe’s quite a dreamer’, the wife says.

Later, driving the highway, Steinbeck has a conversation with Charley (who frequently fulfils this function):

On the subject of roots. He listened but he didn’t reply. In the pattern-thinking about roots I and most other people have left two things out of consideration. Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is that we have.

There are several such passages in this book – and they are the best thing about it.  I’ve recalled this encounter with the mobile home couple, I think, because shortly after reading it I watched a BBC 4 documentary, American Nomads, in which the British writer Richard Grant, who moved to the USA more than 20 years ago, explored an American nation hidden from view – a nomadic nation, living on the roads, the rails and in the wild open spaces. In its deserts, forests, mountain ranges and on the plains, a huge population of modern nomads pursues its version of the American dream – to live free from the world of careers, mortgages and the white picket fence.  In one dramatic sequence he observed the huge encampments of retired ‘baby boomers’ who have sold up everything to buy, like Steinbeck’s couple, a luxurious mobile home in order to travel the land, free of taxes and responsibilities.

First edition cover

Somewhere in North Dakota, parked well away from the road, Steinbeck admits that, ‘I came with the wish to learn what America is like.  And I wasn’t sure I was learning anything.  I found I was talking aloud to Charley.  He likes the idea but the practice makes him sleepy’.

This just about hits the nail on the head as a description of much of the narrative: Steinbeck’s encounters with people along the way are somewhat limited, especially in the final leg of the journey.  So rather than character-revealing portraits of individuals along the way (such a strength of William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways)  Steinbeck tends to muse aloud on his impressions of America in 1960.  So there, under the sycamores by the stream in North Dakota, Steinbeck mulls over the blandness that has overtaken America – packaged breakfasts that have replaced freshly laid eggs and home-smoked bacon, tasteless sausages, indifferent coffee. He concludes that ‘America has put cleanliness first,  at the expense of taste’.  He has listened to local radio across the country: it, too has been ‘as generalised, as packaged, and as undistinguished as the food’.

‘I am in love with Montana’, writes Steinbeck about discovering a state that seems to him to have resisted the rush to homogenisation.

Here for the first time I heard a definite regional accent unaffected by TV-ese, a slow-paced warm speech.  It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. … The calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into its inhabitants.  … It seemed to me that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives.  People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighbourliness.

Approaching Seattle, Steinbeck senses the nearness of the ocean: ‘The Pacific is my home ocean; I knew it first, grew up on its shore, collected marine animals along the coast’.  But, arriving at the coast, he gets a shock:

I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harbourage – a little city of space and trees and gardens. … It is no longer so.  The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present.  The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land. … Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside grey walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.

This is Steinbeck astounded and dismayed at the speed with which America is changing. The corner store cannot compete with the supermarket chains and is ‘rapidly disappearing’. Here is a new America of ‘traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die’.

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. […]  This is not offered in criticism but only as observation. And I am sure that, as all pendulums reverse their swing, so eventually will the swollen cities rupture like dehiscent wombs and disperse their children back to the countryside.

The ecologist in Steinbeck is deeply concerned that eventually there must be a saturation point and that progress may be a progression towards strangulation.  Humankind now has the power to ‘eliminate not only itself but all other life’.  The very survival of the planet is at stake:
We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biological success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves…. I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.

But, Steinbeck has very different feelings about the ancient giant redwood trees that he encounters along the Oregon coast:

The redwoods seem to be out of time and out of our ordinary thinking. … once seen, [they] leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.  … From them comes silence and awe. … They are ambassadors from another time. … The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.

Steinbeck spends two days camped near the redwoods,with ‘no trippers, no chattering troupes with cameras’. In a  wonderful, finely written short chapter, he describes the effect that the trees have on him:

There’s a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates a silence. The trees rise straight up to zenith; there is no horizon. The dawn comes early and remains dawn until the sun is high. Then the green fernlike foliage so far up strains the sunlight to a green gold and distributes it in shafts or rather in stripes of light and shade. After the sun passes zenith it is afternoon and quickly evening with a whispering dusk as long as was the morning.

Thus time and the ordinary divisions of the day are changed. To me dawn and dusk are quiet times, and here in the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound. Underfoot is a mattress of needles deposited for over two thousand years. No sound of footsteps can be heard on this thick blanket. To me there’s a remote and cloistered feeling here.  One holds back speech   for fear of disturbing something – what?   […]  I have had lifelong association with these things. … I can accept them and their power and their age because I was early exposed to them.  On the other hand, people lacking such experience begin to have a feeling of uneasiness here, of danger, of being shut in, enclosed and overwhelmed. It is not only the size of these redwoods but their strangeness that frightens them. And why not? For these are the  last remaining members of a race that flourished over four continents as far back in geologic time as the upper Jurassic period.  Fossils of’ these ancients have been found dating from the Cretaceous era while in the Eocene and Miocene they were spread over England and Europe and America. And then the glaciers moved down and wiped the Titans out beyond recovery. And only these few are left – a stunning memory of what the world was like once long ago. Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?

After returning to his hometown, Salinas in California, highway fatigue seems to set in, and Steinbeck buckets out of California by the shortest possible route:

The journey had been like a dinner of many courses, set before a starving man.  At first he tries to eat all of everything, but as the meal progresses he finds that he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning.

The final section of the book deals rather perfunctorily with Texas before a final rush to get back home.  There is, though, one significant passage in which he describes a detour to New Orleans to observe a daily protest against schools desegregation that was gaining widespread coverage in the newspapers. The New Orleans ‘Cheerleaders’ were a group of ‘stout, middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word ‘mother’ gathered every day to scream invectives at children’. Steinbeck vividly describes the racist fury unleashed by the women on the black children entering the formerly white-only school.

No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted.  It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. … But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.  In a long and unprotected life I have heard the vomitings of demonaic humans before.  Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow? […]

Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.’

This is the moment of Steinbeck’s greatest  disenchantment with America: he senses that its waste, greed, immorality and racism ran deep.

Norman Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted into school in 1960

A brief digression: this was the same racist protest that inspired Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting,The Problem We All Live With (above).  Rockwell’s image first gained widespread notice when it was published in Look magazine in January 1964 as an illustration accompanying a feature on how Americans live. He no doubt saw news photos of the event in 1960:

Ruby Bridges leaving school in New Orleans, November 1960 with US marshals

On 15 November 1960, The New York Times reported the greeting Ruby and her mother received as they arrived that day:

Some 150 white, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Franz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 am. One youth chanted ‘Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate’.  As four U.S. marshals arrived with Ruby and her mother, they walked hurriedly up the steps to the school’s entrance as onlookers jeered and shouted taunts. On the sidewalk assembled mothers and school students were yelling at police, some carrying signs, one held by a young boy that said, ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Clean White School’.  Another placard read: ‘Save Segregation, Vote States Rights Pledged Electors’.

The 'Cheerleaders’ protest over school integration, 15 November 1960
November 1960: Integration is A Mortal Sin

After this, Steinbeck heads for home, weary and nauseated.  A sense of loneliness and weariness seeps off the page.  On the last lap, back in his home town, he finds himself lost until a traffic cop helps him out:

‘Officer, I’ve driven this thing all over the country – mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live – and I’m lost.’

Illustration from Travels with Charley first edition
So what of Charley?  Steinbeck’s ten year old dog serves several functions in the travelogue. He is an ‘ambassador’ who enables the writer to easily establish contact with strangers, and, as noted previously, he often acts as a sounding board for Steinbeck’s ideas.  Charley’s joyful, intuitive behavior is sometimes contrasted with the less pleasant behavior of many human beings. After witnessing the racial taunts of the white segregationists in New Orleans, Steinbeck observes:
But Charley doesn’t have our problems. He doesn’t belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn’t even know about race…He loved deeply and tried dogfully. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

Like Steinbeck, Charley is an old dog, and problems with his prostrate feature on a couple of occasions on the long odyssey. Most of all, he is a good companion, silent in the passenger seat, happy to listen to Steinbeck’s musings, and pleased, as all dogs are, when the driving ends and he can make his own explorations of the state of America.

There’s been a rather pointless controversy recently about the veracity of some of the encounters and conversations in Travels With Charley following the publication of a series of articles by journalist Bill Steigerwald who, after retracing Steinbecks’s journey in 2010, concluded that Travels With Charley was ‘a fraud’, not just full of fiction, but also a dishonest account of his iconic journey and what he really thought about America.

Jay Parini, author of a Steinbeck biography who also wrote the Introduction for the Penguin edition of Travels With Charley which I’ve been reading, told the New York Times:

I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn’t using a tape recorder. But I still feel there’s an authenticity there. Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer.

I agree with Justin Sorbara-Hosker who writes on his Non-Fiction blog:

I say it’s missing the point, because it ultimately doesn’t matter.  Reading about Steinbeck, keeping to two-lane blacktop and off the smoggy new interstates, camping and  staying in motels (though Steigerwald disputes this), roaming vanishing natural landscapes with his French poodle – I know there’s some fiction mixed in with his fact.  I don’t really care.  He isn’t fabricating events, and even if he is, do we really believe all autobiographical works are one hundred percent truth? […]  What matters is that Travels with Charley provides an insight into the mind of one of America’s best writers – near the end of his career, struggling with ageing, pondering his career and the changes in the country he loves.

Bill Barich, who wrote Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, a retracing of Steinbeck’s footsteps, said:

I’m fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book. The dialogue is so wooden. Steinbeck was extremely depressed, in really bad health, and was discouraged by everyone from making the trip. He was trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of the knight-errant. But at that point he was probably incapable of interviewing ordinary people. He’d become a celebrity and was more interested in talking to Dag Hammarskjold and Adlai Stevenson. The die was probably cast long before he hit the road, and a lot of what he wrote was coloured by the fact that he was so ill. But I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country. His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that.

Steinbeck himself is tentative about his conclusions, and even distrusts his account:

I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.

Weighing up his observations about the American South, he writes:

I’ve only told what a few people said to me and what I saw. I don’t know whether any conclusion can be drawn. But I do know it is a troubled place and a people caught in a jam.

For Steinbeck, it would be pleasant to be able to say of his travels with Charley, ‘I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it’. Instead he feels he only found a ‘barrel of worms’ and that he would be fooling himself if he thought he had anything ‘important or even instructive’ to say about America. The more he considers the question he started out with – ‘What are Americans like today?’ – the less sure he becomes. He has seen so little of the whole that his answer to the question is problematic and can only be considered fragmentary.  What it comes down to, in the end, is just the urge for going:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.
– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, opening paragraph

See also

Change has come to America

Along with I don’t know how many million people around the world, we watched Barack Obama’s inauguration as America’s first African-American President. It felt as if the ceremony washed away eight dreadful years of feeling that everything American was despicable. Instead, there was a sense of real nobility: of democracy and the power of the people as expressed in the voices of the two million-strong crowd – quite possibly the largest mass of humanity ever to have gathered in one place for a single political moment – and of core American values restated. Continue reading “Change has come to America”

Happy Birthday, Martin!

Today is Martin Luther King Day – a public holiday in the USA (just a day before the Inauguration – how cool is that!). Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Martin!”

Bush: the final hours

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter it or abolish it and to institute a new Government… Continue reading “Bush: the final hours”