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“So far like the present...”1

Jul 30, 2008
I just finished an extraordinary book, which I should have read years ago. In fact, I should have been in it!

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. It is, quite literally, a blow-by-blow recounting of the early years of the greatest struggle of our time—the struggle for equal justice for all in America. Now I was a nine-year-old midwesterner in 1954, so I probably shouldn’t blame myself for not being in on the inception of the civil rights movement. However, I was 17 in 1963 and should at least have been in Washington, D.C., listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech which climaxes this volume.

Of course, 1963 wasn’t the end of the civil rights movement, not even the beginning of the end, though it may have been, to quote Churchill, the end of the beginning. King’s role would go on for another five years, until his assassination on the balcony of that infamous Memphis motel on April 4, 1968. Branch’s magnum opus goes on as well, in two more volumes, Pillar of Fire (1963-65) and At Canaan’s Edge (1965-68).

The highlights of this first tome (it is over 1,000 pages) are familiar to any literate, engaged American: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; early voter registration drives; Birmingham with its fire hoses and police dogs; the assassination of Medgar Evers; and, of course, the huge March on Washington, the largest and most peaceful demonstration in D.C. history.

However, it’s the infinite, day-to-day details which Branch covers that most impressed, moved, and horrified me. The jailhouse beatings of the female Freedom Riders; J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive and underhanded pursuit of King and his inner circle; the Kennedys’ vacillations and betrayals. And through it all, the enormous cast of characters besides King which he brings to vibrant life. They risked (and too often lost) everything to put an end to lives that were scarcely an improvement over slavery.

The depth and breadth of hatred, brutality, and injustice which southern politicians, law enforcement officials, and average citizens have visited upon their black brothers and sisters is sickening to behold, and there can be only one possible explanation for it in my view: They must be so unable to get past what they have done to black people that it makes them all crazy.

Meanwhile,2 Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old father of two, was beaten to death by six white teenagers in Shenandoah, PA, in front of eyewitnesses who were able to—and did—identify them all. It happened a little over two weeks ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] Three teens have been charged in the beating death, including 16-year-old Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17-year old Colin Walsh, and 18-year-old Derrick Donchack.2.1 In addition, 23-year-old Joseph McTiernan has been charged with giving Donchack alcohol before the crime was committed.2.2 [Update, August 19, 2008] Two of the teens will be tried for third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. A third teen will be tried for aggravated assault and other charges.2.3 (Update, September 6, 2008) A fourth juvenile (unnamed as of yet) has been charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation, and related counts.2.4

Meanwhile,3 a handcuffed African-American named Baron Pikes was shot nine times with a taser gun by white police officer Scott Nugent in Winfield, Louisiana. Pikes was unconscious for the eighth and ninth shots, which killed him. It happened six months ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] “Winn Parish [LA] District Attorney Chris Nevils announced Monday that the grand jury is scheduled to convene on August 12 and begin hearing evidence in the death of 21-year-old Baron Pikes.”3.1 [Update, August 14, 2008] The grand jury indicted Nugent for manslaughter yesterday.3.2 It makes one wonder what it takes to be guilty of murder in Louisiana. It probably has something to do with your color. [Update, September 13, 2008] The Winnfield Civil Service Board upheld the firing of Scott Nugent and the Pikes family has filed wrongful death suits against Nugent, the city of Winnfield, and other parties.3.3.

Meanwhile,4 there is good reason to suspect that 19-year-old Pfc. LaVena Johnson was beaten, raped, and murdered by one or more American contractors in Iraq. The Army has ruled her death a suicide. It happened over three years ago. No independent investigation has been launched. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] According to Truthdig.com, a 15-person civilian task force was named early in 2008 to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. However, the panel has yet to meet.4.1

How long, Oh Lord, how long?
1A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, quoted on Quotationsbook.com (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2Friend of Mexican Immigrant Beaten to Death in Pennsylvania Gives Eyewitness Account of Attack, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2.1Now that Shenandoah teens are charged, reactions vary, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, July 27, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.2Man charged with furnishing alcohol to Shen[andoah] beating suspects, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.3Judge Reduces Charges in Killing of Mexican Immigrant. from Democracy Now, August 19, 2008 (Accessed August 19, 2008)
2.4Juvenile charged in fatal immigrant beating, from the Morning Call, September 5, 2008 (Accessed September 6, 2008)
3Death by Taser: Police Accused of Cover-Up in Death of African American Man Shocked Nine Times While in Handcuffs, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
3.1Grand jury to probe taser death, WDAM-TV, July 28, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
3.2Ex-officer faces charges in Taser death from the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, August 14, 2008 (Accessed August 14, 2008)
3.2Civil Service Board upholds firing of Winnfield Officer in Taser case, from thetowntalk.com, September 12, 2008 (Accessed September 13, 2008)
4Suicide or Murder? Three Years After the Death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq, Her Parents Continue Their Call for a Congressional Investigation, Democracy Now!, July 23, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
4.1Sexual Assault in the Military: A DoD Cover-Up?, by Col. Ann Wright, in Truthdig.com, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
tags: History | Martin Luther King | Law

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