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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Like it or not, we come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours. The way to knowledge, and self-knowledge, is through pilgrimage. We imitate our way to the truth, finding our lives — saving them — in the process. Then we pass it on.
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~Paul Elie (from The Life you Save Might Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage)

Mesmerized by this meditation on history and our place in it tonight.

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Our lives begin and end the day we become silent about things that matter.
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~Martin Luther King Jr.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was marked by one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

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From our head of content, trentgilliss:

Behind my new office in Loring Park is an entire level of the city that’s been layered over with macadam and concrete. But this hidden passage still exists and, some day, some day, access will be granted from the outside. I only wish the landlords would offer a hint to it with a light well or a discovered porthole. #hiddenminneapolis (at Krista Tippett Public Productions)

From our head of content, trentgilliss:

Behind my new office in Loring Park is an entire level of the city that’s been layered over with macadam and concrete. But this hidden passage still exists and, some day, some day, access will be granted from the outside. I only wish the landlords would offer a hint to it with a light well or a discovered porthole. #hiddenminneapolis (at Krista Tippett Public Productions)

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trentgilliss:

“It immediately looked right.”

It’s been 60 years since the double helix structure of DNA, the key to life itself, was first revealed to the world. The BBC’s “Science in Action” walks the listener along the journey of this discovery with some of the scientific giants of the time. The delight is still there in those voices. So wonderful.

Also clears up some of the debate over the credit of Crick and Watson. Their approaches to modeling and sense of beauty moved the idea forward… through actual base pairing cut-outs!

(h/t Krista Tippett)

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obitoftheday:

Obit of the Day (Historical): Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated by James Earl Ray* on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in the city to support a strike by the city’s black sanitation workers. (The strike was precipitated by the deaths of two black workers who were crushed in malfunctioning garbage truck.) 
Dr. King was standing on a balcony outside of his motel room joking with Jesse Jackson (future leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and presidential candidate). At 6:01 p.m. a shot rang out and Dr. King collapsed onto the balcony. It was determined later that he was shot with a 30.06 caliber rifle which struck him on the right side of the face and throat.
The 39-year-old civil rights champion was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis. It was quickly determined that Dr. King was shot and killed by a “bare headed white man in his 30’s, wearing a black suit and a black tie.” He was alleged to be driving a white Mustang.
The death of Dr. King, a believer in non-violent protest that he adapted from Gandhi, sparked actions in the black community that Dr. King had fought against more than a decade. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, NJ. In Chicago 3,000 National Guard troops were marched into the city’s West and South Sides where rioting and looting had broken out. Some fires were set but the casualty rate was low and the city returned to relative calm by that Monday. (It was during the Chicago riots that Mayor Richard J. Daley infamously ordered police “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” There were anywhere from 9 to 11 deaths over the weekend but the causes were never determined.)
Dr. King, who was born Michael Luther King, Jr. but had it changed by his father so their names would honor the Protestant reformer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dr. King decided in his junior year at Morehouse College to become a pastor.
He studied theology at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, PA where he was one of only 6 black students in a class of 100. But his leadership ability shone through and he was elected class president - the first African American to hold the position. He also earned a fellowship for doctoral work.
He enrolled at Boston College and while in Massachusetts, met Coretta Scott, who was studying music at Antioch College. They married in 1953.The following year Dr. King was hired as the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was 25 years old. 
Then on December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.
Four days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and Dr. King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott lasted 381 days, brought national attention to Mrs. Parks, segregation, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling declaring the bus segregation unconstitutional.)
From that time Dr. King became the face of the modern civil rights movement. He returned to his home of Atlanta in 1959 and from there with the support of organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Dr. King the push for civil rights across the segregated South.
Dr. King, and thousands of men, women, and children, would silently suffer through arrests, beatings, attacks by dogs, and blasts of fire hose water presenting to the United States and the world a non-violent response to unbridled violence and hatred.
Dr. King’s greatest moment was seen by millions. On August 28, 1963 A. Philip Randolph, the head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, partnered with six other civil rights organizations planned a march on Washington, D.C. Dr. King spoke to the assembled crowd of 200,000 - of all races and ages - and television audiences in the millions telling them, “I have a dream…” (You can see the entire speech here.)
In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (In 1950 Ralph Bunche was the first black person to win the Peace Prize. He was given the award for his mediation in Palestine.)
The work of Dr. King and countless leader would lead directly to the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, both signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Dr. King was present at the signing of the latter.
After Dr. King’s death he received a final measure of disrespect. Georgia governor Lester Maddox refused to allow Dr. King’s body to lie in state at the capitol building. He stated that Dr. King was an “enemy of the country.” He did not close the state government in Dr. King’s honor and refused to lower flags to half-staff until he was told that it was a federal order. Governor Maddox even placed the National Guard around the capitol building in order to “protect the property of the state.” Over 200,000 mourners attended Dr. King’s funeral and there were no incidents of violence.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried in Southview Cemetery with his parents. Later his body was moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center located at the former site of his boyhood home.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law making the third Monday of January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. On August 22, 2011 the Martin Luther King Memorial was opened to the public in Washington, D.C. 
Note: This is a far from a full treatment of the life of Dr. King. It is a summary of his life and legacy. I know that I have left out significant moments in his life and career. There are myriad resources available detailing, in full, Dr. King’s life and legacy. OOTD recommends you search them out for more information.
Sources: NY Times obituary, NY Times assassination coverage, Chicago Tribune, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, CORE, Our Georgia History, Answers.com, Wikipedia.org
(Image of an unidentified girl walking past Dr. King’s coffin on April 9, 1968. The photograph is copyright of Harry Benson, www.harrybenson.com.)
* Although James Earl Ray was arrested and sentenced to 99 years in prison, there was later discussion that he was not either the true shooter or acting alone. Even members of the King family felt that Dr. King’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy. Mr. Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of 60 having recanted his confession to the murder and pleading for a new trial. No evidence has been made public presenting another theory for Dr. King’s murder.
Other relevant OOTD posts:
Dr. Joe Williams - St. Louis civil rights leader
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth - SCLC co-founder and sometime critic of MLK
Clara Luper - Oklahoma civil rights pioneer (an OOTD favorite)
Rep. Katie Hall - Indiana Democrat who sponsored bill to create MLK holiday
Dan Martin - Atlanta florist who supplied flowers for Dr. King’s funeral

On this day, I recommend listening to conversations with two of the men closest to him: John Lewis and Vincent Harding.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

obitoftheday:

Obit of the Day (Historical): Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated by James Earl Ray* on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in the city to support a strike by the city’s black sanitation workers. (The strike was precipitated by the deaths of two black workers who were crushed in malfunctioning garbage truck.) 

Dr. King was standing on a balcony outside of his motel room joking with Jesse Jackson (future leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and presidential candidate). At 6:01 p.m. a shot rang out and Dr. King collapsed onto the balcony. It was determined later that he was shot with a 30.06 caliber rifle which struck him on the right side of the face and throat.

The 39-year-old civil rights champion was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis. It was quickly determined that Dr. King was shot and killed by a “bare headed white man in his 30’s, wearing a black suit and a black tie.” He was alleged to be driving a white Mustang.

The death of Dr. King, a believer in non-violent protest that he adapted from Gandhi, sparked actions in the black community that Dr. King had fought against more than a decade. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, NJ. In Chicago 3,000 National Guard troops were marched into the city’s West and South Sides where rioting and looting had broken out. Some fires were set but the casualty rate was low and the city returned to relative calm by that Monday. (It was during the Chicago riots that Mayor Richard J. Daley infamously ordered police “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” There were anywhere from 9 to 11 deaths over the weekend but the causes were never determined.)

Dr. King, who was born Michael Luther King, Jr. but had it changed by his father so their names would honor the Protestant reformer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dr. King decided in his junior year at Morehouse College to become a pastor.

He studied theology at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, PA where he was one of only 6 black students in a class of 100. But his leadership ability shone through and he was elected class president - the first African American to hold the position. He also earned a fellowship for doctoral work.

He enrolled at Boston College and while in Massachusetts, met Coretta Scott, who was studying music at Antioch College. They married in 1953.The following year Dr. King was hired as the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was 25 years old. 

Then on December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

Four days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and Dr. King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott lasted 381 days, brought national attention to Mrs. Parks, segregation, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling declaring the bus segregation unconstitutional.)

From that time Dr. King became the face of the modern civil rights movement. He returned to his home of Atlanta in 1959 and from there with the support of organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Dr. King the push for civil rights across the segregated South.

Dr. King, and thousands of men, women, and children, would silently suffer through arrests, beatings, attacks by dogs, and blasts of fire hose water presenting to the United States and the world a non-violent response to unbridled violence and hatred.

Dr. King’s greatest moment was seen by millions. On August 28, 1963 A. Philip Randolph, the head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, partnered with six other civil rights organizations planned a march on Washington, D.C. Dr. King spoke to the assembled crowd of 200,000 - of all races and ages - and television audiences in the millions telling them, “I have a dream…” (You can see the entire speech here.)

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (In 1950 Ralph Bunche was the first black person to win the Peace Prize. He was given the award for his mediation in Palestine.)

The work of Dr. King and countless leader would lead directly to the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, both signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Dr. King was present at the signing of the latter.

After Dr. King’s death he received a final measure of disrespect. Georgia governor Lester Maddox refused to allow Dr. King’s body to lie in state at the capitol building. He stated that Dr. King was an “enemy of the country.” He did not close the state government in Dr. King’s honor and refused to lower flags to half-staff until he was told that it was a federal order. Governor Maddox even placed the National Guard around the capitol building in order to “protect the property of the state.” Over 200,000 mourners attended Dr. King’s funeral and there were no incidents of violence.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried in Southview Cemetery with his parents. Later his body was moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center located at the former site of his boyhood home.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law making the third Monday of January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. On August 22, 2011 the Martin Luther King Memorial was opened to the public in Washington, D.C. 

Note: This is a far from a full treatment of the life of Dr. King. It is a summary of his life and legacy. I know that I have left out significant moments in his life and career. There are myriad resources available detailing, in full, Dr. King’s life and legacy. OOTD recommends you search them out for more information.

Sources: NY Times obituary, NY Times assassination coverage, Chicago Tribune, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, CORE, Our Georgia History, Answers.com, Wikipedia.org

(Image of an unidentified girl walking past Dr. King’s coffin on April 9, 1968. The photograph is copyright of Harry Benson, www.harrybenson.com.)

* Although James Earl Ray was arrested and sentenced to 99 years in prison, there was later discussion that he was not either the true shooter or acting alone. Even members of the King family felt that Dr. King’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy. Mr. Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of 60 having recanted his confession to the murder and pleading for a new trial. No evidence has been made public presenting another theory for Dr. King’s murder.

Other relevant OOTD posts:

Dr. Joe Williams - St. Louis civil rights leader

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth - SCLC co-founder and sometime critic of MLK

Clara Luper - Oklahoma civil rights pioneer (an OOTD favorite)

Rep. Katie Hall - Indiana Democrat who sponsored bill to create MLK holiday

Dan Martin - Atlanta florist who supplied flowers for Dr. King’s funeral

On this day, I recommend listening to conversations with two of the men closest to him: John Lewis and Vincent Harding.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Comments
anniebissett:

… if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” …Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
- Martin Luther King Jr., the night before he was killed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
Woodblock print by Annie Bissett

anniebissett:

… if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” …Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

- Martin Luther King Jr., the night before he was killed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.

Woodblock print by Annie Bissett

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Krista Tippett interviews civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis in Montgomery, Alabama during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Amazing man!

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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QuestloveThe pleasure of being stuck on the Tarmac at O’Hare International is having the time to read some of my favorite mags (along with watching old Entourage episodes). As serendipity would have it, it was Burkhard Bilger’s profile — no, his portraiture — of Questlove, the ambitious bandleader and drummer for the Roots, in The New Yorker I most unexpectedly dug. A few weeks earlier my colleague, Stefn’i Bell, across the cubicle aisle said that she was going to “stop following Questlove on Twitter” because he’s so active on it. I hadn’t even heard his name before so I had no clue whom she was talking about, despite watching him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon so many times.

After reading the piece, you can’t help but have a deep admiration for the musician and the man. Two days later? A video of Questlove in studio listening to and breaking down the original multitrack recordings of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On” is showing up in my Facebook feed.

trentgilliss:

Wow, this is groovy: Questlove breaking down the rhythm tracks of the original multitrack studio recordings of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On.”

“What’s so cool about it is that this is one of the most undefined drum songs of soul music. I don’t think of drums when I think of ‘What’s Going On.” I think of the conga, but I always felt like it was a ritual syncopated…

I always wondered though why didn’t they just bring the… like, it could’ve been a whole different song had the drums just been the force of it, but I guess that would’ve taken away from it.

And here Questlove discusses how he thinks of “What’s Going On” as a winter song and marvels at the perfection of its “crude harmonies”:

Then they break down how the single was recorded nine months prior to the release of the album, the piano being used as a percussion line, and the “infamous football players”:

(Big thanks to Mikel Ellcessor of WDET to turning me on to this.)

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laphamsquarterly:

One of three photographs that show Abraham Lincoln arriving at Gettysburg for the consecration of the Soliders’ National Cemetery. Lincoln arrived around noon, and the headliner for the event was Edward Everett, who spoke for more than two hours. 
When Everett had finished, Lincoln got up and delivered the 272-word Gettysburg Address, which took about two minutes.

I find this completely spellbinding. Just imagine.
~Trent Gilliss

laphamsquarterly:

One of three photographs that show Abraham Lincoln arriving at Gettysburg for the consecration of the Soliders’ National Cemetery. Lincoln arrived around noon, and the headliner for the event was Edward Everett, who spoke for more than two hours. 

When Everett had finished, Lincoln got up and delivered the 272-word Gettysburg Address, which took about two minutes.

I find this completely spellbinding. Just imagine.

~Trent Gilliss

Comments
From trentgilliss:

Now isn’t this fascinating! We’re all well acquainted with the only photo of Emily Dickinson known to exist, the daguerreotype of her as a 16-year-old girl taken in 1847 (right).
Now, it appears a second daguerreotype of the reclusive poet has made its way to Amherst College by way of a dedicated collector. But this one, taken in 1859, shows her in a different light as a young woman in her mid-20s sitting with a friend, Kate Scott Turner:

“If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.”

The Guardian reports on the extent to which the daguerreotype has been analyzed, right down to the “corneal curvature” and the “hair cowlick.” Don’t you just love a mystery? Here’s your chance to be the verifying link.

From trentgilliss:

Now isn’t this fascinating! Emily DickinsonWe’re all well acquainted with the only photo of Emily Dickinson known to exist, the daguerreotype of her as a 16-year-old girl taken in 1847 (right).

Now, it appears a second daguerreotype of the reclusive poet has made its way to Amherst College by way of a dedicated collector. But this one, taken in 1859, shows her in a different light as a young woman in her mid-20s sitting with a friend, Kate Scott Turner:

“If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.”

The Guardian reports on the extent to which the daguerreotype has been analyzed, right down to the “corneal curvature” and the “hair cowlick.” Don’t you just love a mystery? Here’s your chance to be the verifying link.

Comments
When we speak of the idea of America, we are speaking of many interconnected ethical ideas, both metaphysical ideas that deal with ultimate reality, and ethical and social ideas, which all together offered hope to the world. The idea of America, with all that it contained within it about the moral law, nature, God and the human soul, once reflected to some extent the timeless ancient wisdom that has guided human life since the dawn of history. America was a new and original expression, in the form of a social and political experiment, of ideas that have always been part of what may be called the great web of Truth. Explicitly and implicitly, the idea of America has resonated with this ancient, timeless wisdom and has allowed something of its power to touch the heart and mind of humanity. It is necessary to recover this resonance, this relationship, however tenuous and partial, between the teachings of wisdom and the idea of America.
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The American Soul by Jacob NeedlemanJacob Needleman, from his wonderful book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders

A happy Fourth of July to all Americans celebrating independence today. Please keep in mind all the countries and people in the Middle East trying to develop their own experiments in democracy — and that anything worth having always takes time.

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Forty-five years ago today, Thurgood Marshall was nominated by Presdient Lyndon B. Johnson for the Supreme Court. What a day. From todaysdocument:

Message of President Lyndon B. Johnson nominating Thurgood Marshall of New York to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 06/13/1967
Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by the Senate on August 30, 1967, following his nomination by President Lyndon B. Johnson on June 13. Marshall was the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. His nomination followed a long and distinguished career as a prominent civil rights lawyer, and he argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court, including the famous and influential case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Forty-five years ago today, Thurgood Marshall was nominated by Presdient Lyndon B. Johnson for the Supreme Court. What a day. From todaysdocument:

Message of President Lyndon B. Johnson nominating Thurgood Marshall of New York to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 06/13/1967

Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by the Senate on August 30, 1967, following his nomination by President Lyndon B. Johnson on June 13. Marshall was the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. His nomination followed a long and distinguished career as a prominent civil rights lawyer, and he argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court, including the famous and influential case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year

by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor

Meet an African-American Mormon

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.

Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.

In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.

It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.

After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”

Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.

With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.

Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.

In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.

Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.


W. Paul ReeveW. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Comments

Who Are Turkish Voices We Can Speak with in Istanbul?

White İstanbulPhoto by José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flick’s Creative Commons license

Our production team will be traveling to Istanbul this Saturday, and we’re looking to speak with some big thinkers for our public radio program. We want to better understand how Turkey carries forward its historical roots in the Ottoman Empire and before, and how its making the transition from a strict, secular democracy to one that allows for a more expression of religious identity and government rule. Who might be able to tease out the nuances of this tension and growth in Turkey as the country becomes a positive model for other burgeoning democracies in the region?

This person who could walk the line between being an expert who lives out these ideas in his or her daily life. Preferably we’d like to speak to someone who is a practicing Muslim and who grew up with a belief in the virtues and values of Ataturk’s secular approach to democracy. Or maybe this person never felt like those two identities fit in Turkey… But now is hopeful that the two can coexist. How does the larger context play out in individual lives of the speaker and other Turks?

And, since we’re a public radio program aired in the U.S., we’ll need them to be able to carry an hour-long conversation in fairly good English.

Offer your suggestions in the comments section here, or even email me at tgilliss@onbeing.org. And, if you know others who might have some ideas, please pass our request along. We’d be much indebted to you.

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