The death of a public figure

Ask Arthur Anything response

Harvey Milk.George Moscone
Harvey Milk and George Moscone

For Arthur’s Ask Arthur Anything feature – I wonder where he got THAT idea? – I asked him one or two questions. One was “Other than Nigel [his late husband], whose death did you most mourn? Also what death of a public figure most affected you?” I’m going to focus on the latter.

Arthur wrote: “Two deaths affected me well afterward: Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 and Matthew Shepard’s murder twenty years later.” And it is true for me as well.

At the time, I thought Harvey Milk was the “other guy”, a city councilman killed along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by colleague Dan White. This happened only a short time after the Jonestown massacre, in which a large number of Bay Area residents died, traumatizing the community. Congressman Leo Ryan was also murdered in Guyana, tearfully announced by Moscone.

But by the time I saw the 2008 film Milk, I knew how important Harvey’s leadership was in LGBTQ+ rights. And that he went to school at the University at Albany.

I discussed Matthew Shepard in a comparison with Emmett Till, about whom I’ve written often. “Neither victim was a publicly known person; they weren’t activists in their respective civil rights struggles. Yet because Emmett’s mother had his battered body photographed in an open casket, because we saw the fence upon which Matthew was symbolically crucified, they were remembered nationally far beyond how the average murder victim is recalled.”

And yes, I protested in Albany against a certain ‘religious” Hate group, which came to town some years ago to complain about Laramie Project performances.

Dead musicians

Unlike John Lennon’s assassination, which hit me immediately, George Harrison’s death didn’t have the same instant impact. I knew he was dying. It was after 9/11; in fact, he was on the cover of TIME magazine in late November 2001, the first cover that wasn’t about 9/11 or Afghanistan in a couple of months. As I played George’s music, and later, when I heard the  Concert For George, his passing developed a greater resonance.

Sometimes, I’ll point out to Brian Ibbott, host of the podcast Coverville, which music stars had birthdays the following month that were divisible by five. I noted that David Bowie would have been 75 on January 8, 2022. Someone commented, “There hasn’t been a David Bowie cover story since the tribute in 2016. January 10 will also be the sixth anniversary of this sad day. So, please!”

Weird thing. I was recently watching that bit with Bowie and Bing Crosby on the latter’s holiday special. You know, the one with the fascinating dialogue. I was thinking, “Crosby died [on October 14, 1977] before that thing aired.” And suddenly, I realized, “Bowie’s dead too!” This is obviously something I knew intellectually since I had written about it more than once. Yet it took me by surprise and made me quite sad.

I’d count Prince, especially since my niece Rebecca Jade started singing with Sheila E. in 2017, and they cover so many of his songs. They both appeared in the televised Let’s Go Crazy — An All-Star Grammy Salute 2020, with Sheila as a musical director.

Martin

The person, though, whose death has hit me more at a later date is Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember when he died in 1968. However, I’ve learned SO much more about him subsequently. I’ve tried to make a point in the past decade to write about him every year around the dates of his birth (January 15) and death (April 4).

This is particularly true since certain people have hijacked his message into simplistic tropes. I wrote in 2013, What Would Martin Do, which is pretty representational of what I’ve been going for.

There are many others. For instance, several late entertainers and athletes I’ve admired, from Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Aaron, who had to endure Jim Crow.

Coincidentally, the very same day Arthur debuted the aforementioned post, Kelly shared For Carrie,  noting Carrie Fisher, gone five years. It’s worth checking out.

August 28 is just one of those dates

the next MLK

Emmett Till
Emmett Till
August 28 is a momentous date in US history. I was thinking about a question someone asked me earlier his year. It was whether someone – Bryan Stevenson, specifically, but it doesn’t matter – was the “new Martin Luther King, Jr.”

A couple of minutes later, I realized it was the wrong question. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC on this date in 1963. While he may have been a singularly gifted orator, HE wasn’t the Civil Rights Movement. There were a quarter of a million people at that demonstration alone. They all struggled to create racial justice back at home.

Millions have fought the fight since before the founding of the United States and still do so today. Most of them have names we don’t know. Some we’re familiar with because of the abuse they suffered. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker on this date in 1963 in Washington, is recognized because he survived violence on several occasions, notably in Selma on March 7, 1965.

Others we know, probably better because they were killed. The deaths of Medgar Evers (1963) and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (1964) are seared in my memory. But so are the murders of Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both in March 1965 in Alabama. Malcolm X’s 1965 death is being reinvestigated in 2020.

NMAAHC

Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955, in Mississippi. I’ve mentioned him more than once here. He might have been just another black kid killed by bigotry. But his mom had the courage to let his beaten corpse be shown to the world. My daughter went to the National Museum for African American History and Culture in February 2020 with a bunch of church folk. One of her friends was stunned by the inhumanity of his death.

Obviously, we haven’t achieved that “post-racial” nirvana some people – not I – predicted after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. BTW, he accepted the Democratic nomination on August 28 of that year. But it’s not going to be an Obama or a King or the mother of Emmitt Till who will change the world. It’ll just have to be all of us.

For Constitution Day, please watch 13th

from 300,000 inmates in 1970 to over 2 million today

13th amendmentMy daughter has watched the documentary 13th (2016) about a half dozen times. She compelled me to watch it recently as well, and now I commend it to you.

13th refers to the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The problem is that section that is italicized section effectively meant that people, specifically black people, would be arrested on minor charges such as vagrancy or loitering, and ended up being leased out to industry. It was Slavery by Another Name.

This was followed by Jim Crow segregation and lynching, enhanced in no small part by D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s arose from the death of Emmett Till. But it was stifled by the mass incarceration efforts of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton, which affected blacks disproportionately.

Even Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, noted in the film that the much greater sentencing for crack, more often used by blacks, than for powder cocaine preferred by white people.

The country went from having about 300,000 inmates in 1970 to over 2 million today, about 40% black because of various sentencing guidelines. The US has 25% of the incarcerated in the world, though it has but 5% of the world’s population.

13th was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, who had directed Selma (2014). Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, Grover Norquist, Charles Rangel, Bryan Stevenson, and several others. Plus archival footage of Lee Atwater, and every President after JFK.

Watch 13th HERE (96 minutes). See the preview HERE.

Listen to:

Letter To The Free – Common ft. Bilal
Work Song – Nina Simone
Human – Rag’n’Bone Man

Matthew Shepard as Emmett Till

Matthew Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, became activists for gay rights and more vigorous prosecution of hate crimes.

Matthew ShepardRecently, Arthur wrote about Matthew Shepard’s interment, a surprising ending of a two-decades-long journey.

In case you are unfamiliar, per NPR: “Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally killed on a chilly night in Wyoming 20 years ago… was finally laid to rest at Washington National Cathedral… A reflective, music-filled service offered stark contrast to the anti-gay protests that marred his funeral two decades ago.”

The music included Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem, which always affects me greatly. His parents had been afraid to bury him in Wyoming, lest his grave be ransacked.

Somehow, that murder became a flashpoint where other crimes of that nature had not. “Shepard’s killing became the basis for a play, The Laramie Project, which brought widespread attention to the problem of homophobia.” The events were the subject of a 2002 TV movie, The Matthew Shepard Story.

“Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation and became activists for gay rights and more vigorous prosecution of hate crimes.”
emmett till

It occurred to me that, in some basic ways, his death paralleled that of Emmett Till, the Chicago-born black teenager who was murdered, purportedly for whistling at a white woman, in rural Mississippi in August 1955. The woman in the case has only recently recanted her allegation.

His brutal demise, which helped energize the efforts for black equality, has been the subject of Dreaming Emmett, the first play by the Nobel-winning African-American writer Toni Morrison, in 1986, and the Oscar-nominated short film My Nephew Emmett (2017), both of which I have seen.

The parallels are interesting. Neither victim was a publicly known person; they weren’t activists in their respective civil rights struggles. Yet because Emmett’s mother had his battered body photographed in an open casket, because we saw the fence upon which Matthew was symbolically crucified, they were remembered nationally far beyond how the average murder victim is recalled.

As I’ve mentioned here more than once, Emmett Till’s death has haunted me ever since I saw the photos in either JET or Ebony magazine in 1960. When some idiot pseudo-Christian group came to Albany to protest a production of The Laramie Project at Albany High School in 2009, I was one of the great number of counter-protesters.

It’s kismet the way some lives, and deaths, transcend to tell the larger story.

Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media

Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.

There are uncomfortable parallels between the deaths of Emmett Till and Philando Castile, as the special “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement, and The Media” pointed out. The special was broadcast on NBC-TV March 24, but I didn’t get a chance to watch it until a week and a half later.

Emmett Till, who narrator Lester Holt suggested every black person in America knows about – is that true? – was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was visiting his uncle in rural Mississippi. He was lynched on August 28, 1955, after a white woman said that she was offended by him in her family’s grocery store. She has only recently recanted that tale.

Philando Castile was shot and killed by a local Minnesota police officer after the car was pulled over on July 6, 2016, with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the vehicle.

In the Till case, it was the decision of Emmett’s mother Mamie to allow, nay, insist on photographers to take pictures of her now-misshapen son. In the Castile case, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds had the wherewithal to livestream ten minutes of video via Facebook.

The MLK special also noted the fickle nature of the mainstream press. It was only the black press that covered some of the seminal stories of the civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/56.

“When MLK’s peaceful protests aren’t covered by the national media in Albany, Georgia, he organized a children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, making for some of the most powerful, iconic imagery of the civil rights movement.”

In general, the MSM was attracted if the action included white people – the freedom riders, e.g., or they can establish a clear good guy/bad guy narrative, as in the children’s march, when dogs and fire hoses were unleashed.

“Hope & Fury” pointed out the parallels between the bloody Selma march of March 7, 1965, and the demonstrations occurring after some young black children and men, with the social media-savvy demonstrators willing to challenge the accepted narrative in the latter case.

As Arthur noted: “The USA has so very far to go before achieving Dr. King’s dream. Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined.”

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