Justin Krebs's blog

Walking, Literally, In Dr. King's Footsteps: A Photo Itinerary.

Traveling Liberally Passport To Change
by Josh Bolotsky, Living Liberally

A quick note - in the post below, I talk about my first time visiting Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta and other crucial locations in the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's - all of them places which resonate on today's anniversary. I know other Open Lefters have visited, worked and lived in these locations, and I would love your reflections below.

My family is not rich, but I'd be willing to wager that I received the greatest graduation present of any college graduate in the United States last year, hands down.

A months-long trek through Europe? A garage full of foreign cars? Long-stowed-away wine collections?

Nah, considerably less decadent, but way cooler. My immediate family (mom, pop, middle brother Jeremy, youngest sister Ilana) haven't been on vacation together in a very long time - schedules clashed, schoolyears interfered and it somehow just wasn't meant to be. We'd had blocked away the second half of December to do something - something that hadn't yet been determined. My graduation present? Determine that something within a certain set of time/budget parameters, parameters likely to make it a roadtrip of roughly a week in length, likely in the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States.

For me, the decision was simple - as a good liberal American history buff, I wanted to go on a civil rights history roadtrip, with a focus on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to walk the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a block away from the city's Civil Rights Institute. I wanted to see the bus station in Montgomery where the freedom riders were surrounded. I wanted to walk the halls of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. I wanted to find a supermarket that still sells Mr. Pibb, which is virtually nonexistent in my home base of NYC. On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, I want to share a little bit about this trip, which brought us through Birmingham, New Orleans, Montgomery, and, finally, Atlanta.

I hate to have to include this disclaimer, but I feel it necessary: I'm aware of the pitfalls here. I'm aware of the stereotype red-alert: a privileged college graduate beset by white liberal guilt goes on a 'civil rights history vacation,' implying not only that 'civil rights history' is finished, that there are no civil rights battles left to be fought so we can just classify the whole topic under 'history,' but also that we can visit the streets of Birmingham where children were firehosed and attacked by dogs the same way we can visit the beaches of Cancun with a pina colada in hand - or, worse still, to approach it as something to mark off a checklist. Yes, I am well-aware of the the risk of dishonoring sacred places by the camera hanging around the neck of your Hawaiian t-shirt, the ease of forgetting that in the schools of Jena and neighborhoods of St. Bernard's Parish and in countless border towns and so many other places there are still daily injustices, etc. etc. etc. I am setting myself up as quite the easy target.

Two thoughts.

1. I did my best over the course of this trip to do good. To make it clear that the civil rights battles we were discussing are not closed cases, to volunteer in New Orleans and to see the poor neighborhoods of Montgomery not far from Ralph Abernathy's 1st Baptist Church. To provide educational materials beyond the standard "MLK talked about having a dream while visiting DC, and then did nothing much else for the five years before his death" spiel. To listen to Taylor Branch's America In The King Years series on audiotape in the car and watch "4 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Broke" in the various hotel rooms along the long trip from Central New Jersey to central Alabama.

2. There is a point at which the fear of looking bad while examining the past means that one never, in fact, looks at the past. "If I go on a trip to the Birmingham City Jail, I might look like a rich liberal white kid." So you don't go to Birmingham. And you never get the chance to visit that jail. And an experience that might have made you a better ally in the fight to take America forward never happens, all because you were afraid of looking like a bad ally. Of being tacky. I can't tear the CD player from my parent's minivan when we drive by poor neighborhoods. And if I had to, family members who might have an enlightening experience in these areas wouldn't have gone on the trip in the first place.

(Before I delve into the itinerary, huge credit is due to my sister, Ilana, who took most of the below photos, as well as to A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, which was an indispensable resource.)

Birmingham.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which, tragically, does not allow pictures to be taken inside its exhibit hall) is literally across the street from Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, the site of the infamous September 1963 bombing which claimed the lives of four little girls.

This is the view from the steps of the church - the statue you see in the front of the BCRI is a sculpture of Shuttlesworth.

New Orleans/St. Bernard's Parish.

I wish I were sharp enough to initially realize, as I did later, that New Orleans was the intended destination of the Freedom Rides - however, no choice to visit New Orleans was quite that eloquent. Instead, I knew that if we went to some of the most famous locations in American civil rights history, without contributing something back in the area which most obviously indicates that those fights are still ongoing, that we'd be making an egregious mistake. As such, we made a two-day stop to volunteer in St. Bernard's Parish, next to New Orleans - one of the areas hit hardest by the negligence surrounding Katrina.

There are some great new organizations doing work in the gulf coast generally and New Orleans specifically, with Hands On New Orleans being a particular stand-out, but we decided to go ahead with Habitat For Humanity New Orleans, which assigned us to a storm-hit elementary school that was slowly, in a multi-year project, being repaired and brought back to a usable state.

A room assigned to a group of volunteers to paint.

It's impossible to communicate just how nauseating the state of the area was that late December, a full 26 months after Katrina first made landfall - I can only do my best.

The car windows were fogged by our pressed-up faces, part of us knowing that we looked like schoolkids passing by a horrendous pile-up by the side of the road, knowing just how voyeuristic we were being, and yet, being unable to help ourselves - the horror of the moment outweighing our more reserved instincts.

But there's a peril to emphasizing this horror, which is the fear that you'll discourage tourism to New Orleans - which is why I'll note that the tourism-friendly parts of New Orleans, e.g. the French Quarter, look much the same. (There's something really sad about this balancing act - that one must try to accurately report the horrors while also requiring a tacky mention of tourism potential - but in a world where the aid isn't coming from our federal government, there ain't much other choice.)

Montgomery.

The entrance to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center, whose centerpiece sculpture is portrayed at the top of the post.

The ethereal view from below of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as the chief pastor from 1954 to 1960.

I include this picture because it epitomizes a phenomenon I found myself silently remarking upon throughout the entire trip. On the left side of this picture, in the background, you see the Albama State Capitol, a site of so much history - the first capitol of the confederacy, the end-point of the march from Selma, the building from which George Wallace reigned as Governor - and, literally down the street, is the church whose basement served as the incubator for the Montgomery bus boycotts, the formation of the SCLC (though it started in the Montgomery Improvement Association), and so much more. All within a 1000-foot radius. One has a similar feeling in Birmingham (where the Baptist Church is just a few blocks away from crucial sites in the children's crusade) and in...

Atlanta.

...where the Ebenezer Baptist Church seems like a sort of nucleus around a map of vital history.

Across the street from the Baptist church were King's father pastored, until King took over those duties in 1960, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King's childhood home, and his final resting place.

Postscript.
It didn't strike me until a few weeks after the trip's end that we had sort of looped around the intended path of the Freedom Riders - stopping in Birmingham, circling the entire path to New Orleans, coming closer again in Montgomery, and finishing out int Atlanta.

There is, of course, so much we didn't get to see, but perhaps the site I missed the most was one nowhere near the intended freedom ride path - Memphis, TN, which today, and for the rest of the weekend is hosting The Dream Reborn conference on a green economy; it's good enough to know that not everyone has forgotten that the dream didn't end in 1968.

We've Got Our April Fools...If Only They Were Joking

As Americans face a home mortgage crisis,
McCain suggested they fend for themselves,
while wanting to bail out the industry
that enabled the crisis in the first place.

As new violence erupted in Iraq,
revealing how little progress we've made,
McCain claimed the surge was working.

As the media enjoysed McCain on Letterman,
they laughed off as a simple "gaffe"
his continued false statements on Al-Qaeda.

For April Fools Day, McCain & his media fans
revealed themselves a group of April fools...
if only his stances were just a bad joke.

Forget the fools & find the friendly fun
of like-minded lefties lifting a libation
at your local progressive social club.

DRINKING LIBERALLY
Find - or start - a chapter near you.

Laughing Liberally to Keep from Crying on the Iraq War's 5th Anniversary

We typically subtitle these types of posts, "Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying," a bit tongue-in-cheek. Tonight, we provide a slightly more literal look.

Laughing Liberally found itself in an interesting position this past Wednesday: making dedicated progressives laugh on the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War, not once, but twice, with both an afternoon show at the Take Back America conference, and an evening show at our biweekly Laughing Liberally Labs in New York City. No further commentary - we'll let you decide how we did with a few videos with which to begin your weekend.

At TBA, in addition to an awesome Tuesday performance by Lee Camp, we were lucky enough to have James Adomian with us, doing his best...well, you'll see.

That evening in NYC, we heard the inimitable Harry Terjanian, as introduced by Elon James White.

Thoughts? Opinions on mixing the political tragic with the comedic? Consider this an open thread.

Busting the Myth of the Welfare Queen

Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

When I was a small child, my father, who often votes for Republicans, was explaining to me the difference between Democrats and Republicans. "Republicans want you to keep the money you worked for, and Democrats will take it from you and give it to people who never worked a day in their lives and make you live on the side of the road in a cardboard box. Mommy votes for Democrats — why don't you ask her why she wants you to live in a cardboard box?"

Thankfully I developed a slightly more nuanced view of the American political system. For those who still believe my father, Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino, the story of two welfare mothers who are doing anything but living the high life, comes to the rescue by providing a detailed look at the lives of welfare mothers during the Clinton administration.The book follows Odessa Williams and Cheri Honkala, two welfare mothers in North Philadelphia who know that welfare reform might snatch the benefits they depend on at any moment. Odessa's children are all adults, but she is saddled taking care of a plethora of grandchildren, many of whom have serious health problems. Cheri runs an organization that seeks to bring attention to the plight of Philadephia's poor and works tirelessly but sometimes inefficiently to gain attention for her cause. We find out later in the book that she and her son are able to eat because of her late-night gigs as a topless dancer — that is the only way she can think of to support herself while being a full-time activist.

Odessa is the heroine of the book — we follow her as she visits her son in prison, sells people rides in her car, goes fishing to stretch her food budget, and picks through trash bags in order to cloth her many grandchildren. Odessa's children aren't always on the ball — one son is imprisoned, one daughter is a prostitute whose children live with Odessa, and one of her granddaughters keeps on having children while refusing to further her education or find a job. Not everyone in North Philadeplia is eligible for sainthood — but Odessa is doing everything she can to straighten out the lives of her family members while Cheri works to make people aware of the plight of urban poor people.

The story takes place in the Clinton years under the shadow of impending welfare reform—the women know that they system they rely on is going to end, and they cannot quite imagine their worlds without it. They are anything but lazy, but Odessa, who is ill, cannot possibly work and care for all of her grandchildren and children simultaneously, and Cheri knows how important welfare is to the many families involved with her advocacy group. The Myth of the Welfare Queen does an excellent job of creating empathy for the extremely hard working women who require welfare to allow them to support themselves and their families in an economy that won't give them many feasible alternatives besides starving in a cardboard box.

Drinking Liberally Shot of Truth: Outcrafting the Opposition

Bill O'Reilly claims he has beaten back the dark forces that declared war on Christmas. Despite his best efforts, he may be surprised to find what a pack of proven progressives are saying about "his" holiday.

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Witness the gathering of Crafting Liberally that took place last Sunday in New York. Far from the heathen celebration you might imagine among self-identified liberals getting in touch with their handiwork, these quilters, jewelers and assorted other crafters were looking forward to Christmas. Lisa, teaching the art of folding an origami crane, even suggested using her creations as tree ornaments.

Is it any surprise that liberals enjoy the Christmas season? Giving, sharing...changing course (Scrooge), finding one's heart (the Grinch) -- lessons Bush and Cheney would benefit from.

And after all, what neocon ever gave a damn for a Middle Eastern boy born to a poor unwed mother?

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Liberals should never run from Christmas just because O'Reilly wants to claim it. This season is too full of strong symbols to cede to the other side.

But we don't need to out-argue him...we just need to out-craft him.

On this last night of Channukah, and in the full swing of the seasonal spirit, Happy Holidays.

Eating Liberally Food For Thought

The O'Brien Retort: Day of the Dead, & the Naked

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(kat: Iowa farminist & sustainable ag advocate Denise O'Brien, founder of the Women, Food & Agriculture Network, recently attended a meeting in Mexico City with Central American women farmers. Upon arriving, her contingent encountered a group of Mexican protesters who'd lost their land to a corrupt politican. Denise provided us with the following account--and photo:)

We came together in Mexico City on the day before All Souls Day, Halloween in the United States. Arriving from El Salvador, Iowa, Honduras, Georgia, Grenada, New York, Wisconsin and Mexico. Farmers, rural and urban women, activists and organizers all gathering to discuss and analyze what impact globalization has had on our communities, on our lives. Travel for some was long and difficult - having to come from remote areas and having experienced being robbed of all money and material goods. Coming with a sense of urgency to discover how our lives connected and how we could attempt to overcome the challenges in our communities.

Chilo, a wonderful anthropologist and activist, oriented us to the culture of the Day of the Dead. She explained how Christianity and Indigenous beliefs intersected to create an honoring of those who have come before us. The traditional mood for this holiday is bright with emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the dead. This is because they think of The Day of the Dead as the continuation of life. They believe that death is not the end, but the beginning of a new stage in life. These people are usually Christians of Native American descent whose ancestors introduced indigenous ideas of life after death. Many questions were asked and some found it difficult to understand how this pagan event could have anything to do with Christian beliefs.

As we explored Mexico City during the festivities our senses were tantalized with many sights, sounds and smells. A cadence of drums came from one end of the Zocalo. Our curiosity took us to observe the members of a group of protesters called the 400 Peoples. They were asking for economic aid from visitors to the Zocalo --México's largest municipal square-- during Dia de Muertos festivities between the 31st and 3rd of November.

These nearly naked men were there in protest of political irregularities by Dante Delgado --photo that covers their private parts-- of Veracruz. They complained that this Senator in the Mexican Parliament had robbed them of everything they had when he was the Governor of the State of Veracruz. Naked women stood on the street corners handing out literature and taking contributions to support their protest. We talked with these women to find out how they could be so courageous to stand naked on the street to let the public know about this corrupt man. They told us that they had no other choice, that this man had taken their land and they had nothing to lose. Those of us from the United States let them know that we were in solidarity with them and told them how brave they were to stage such a protest. This would never have been allowed in our country.

As we returned to the Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker Center and our home for the coming days, we began to debrief and to prepare ourselves for the coming days together.

You may ask what this has to do with food. That will follow in upcoming reports for the retort.

Reading Liberally Page Turner: What Book To Give Your Conservative Uncle This Holiday Season

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Well, O'Reilly is getting even more ballistic than usual, so y'know what that means - the holiday season is upon us. With the first night of Hanukkah this evening, with Christmas and Kwanzaa only a few weeks away, some of our minds turn to gift-giving. Namely, what to give to that conservative uncle/aunt/friend who constantly e-mails you conservative spam and  turns every family get-together into a political referendum. Figuring that knowledge is power, we asked some of our favorite activists what book to give our favorite conservative this winter. Happy Holidays!

David Dayen, The Right's Field and Calitics: My conservative uncle would get one book for the holidays - The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. After all, if they want to live in a country with an ascendant conservative movement they're going to have to find another planet...

Steve Perez, United Federation of Teachers:  I'll recommend Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. Three reasons: first, it's fiction, and I prefer that to a polemic. Second, it's a good book, funny and smart. Third, there's a lot of progressive science fiction being written, and IMO it doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Elana Levin, Drum Major Institute: That Howard Zinn history book could be a good one to convert him. For your apolitical teenage cousin, though, they should get Jessica Valenti's book, Full Frontal Feminism.

James Adomian, Resident Open Left Bush impersonator and comic: What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank. Judging by its cover, it looks like it could very well be a volume dedicated to gloating over the triumphs of Nixon and Reagan - one of those hateful books advertised in the back of National Review. But start reading it, and you see what a dupe you've been for voting on the culture war all these years, when all along it was the sons-of-bitches in the big corporations and the big banks whom you've been boosting at the expense of your own economic welfare! Throw that yule log on the fire, Uncle Wingnut!

Josh Bolotsky, Living Liberally: If your conservative relative is anything like mine, they're not getting their politics from the books they read - it's from the talk-radio they listen to. So the solution is not to get them a physical book. The solution is an audiobook, to first do triage on the problem and stop them from listening to the thing influencing them in the first place. My suggestion? The most recent Stories From Lake Wobegon collection by Garrison Keillor, Never Better. Filled with midwestern values and tales of small-town life that any social conservative would embrace, and punctuated every so often with gentle paeans to progressive politics (a shout-out to Title IX here, an ode to gay rights there). Showing the relative that being a solid traditional American citizen and holding progressive politics aren't in conflict is the first step.



Jay Hazen, Reading Liberally: Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops, by Ilona Meagher. Often the human costs of war are obscured at the time of conflict and well beyond, and it is happening again. My conservative uncle is a big fan of chain emails with pictures of flashy billion-dollar fighter jets twisting into formation for a tight little bomb pattern. This book is a reminder that for all the rhetoric of movement conservatism, responsible government makes more of a difference than an extra three F-22 Raptors in the lives of our military families.

Lee Camp, Laughing Liberally comic: Give them a fairy tale because they're already cut off from reality. It will make them feel at home.

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying: The Predatory Lending Association

by Justin Krebs

Usually, Laughing Liberally posts feature original content from our network of comedians and writers.  But recently a topic crossed our radar so funny that it deserved special attention:  Predatory Lending.

Specifically, the Predatory Lending Association -- a website promoting resources:

...dedicated to extracting maximum profit from the working poor by increasing payday loan fees and debt traps. The working poor are an exciting, fast growing demographic that includes: military personnel, minorities, and most of the middle class.

The clean and friendly site, complete with Google map tools and little sidebar calculators looks so earnest that it takes a minute to realize who they are representing...or, rather, satirizing.  For example, their slick-looking map application actually features a "poor finder"...a presumably essential resource for any predator.

This site is a great example of the role of humor in political discourse.  It's actually informative:  their "Industry Threats" page talks more about real efforts to curb predatory lending practices that I generally hear about.  And it's entertaining -- I want to keep reading to see what I'll find beyond their "Military Loan Crisis" link, and just how far these guys will go with their discussion of the "Myth vs. Reality" of their industry.

It's a site that will leave people informed and outraged...and will make them laugh along the way...which as Stewart and Colbert keep proving is a great way to get your message across.

Being a Republican's Just No Damn Fun

GOP hopefuls attack each other
for opposing waterboarding, supporting gays,
& letting immigrant children attend school.

Bush's Australian ally gets booted out of office
& his Pakistani pal gives up his military post,
leaving W with as few friends globally
as he has right here at home.

Trent Lott resigns to become a lobbyist
...because it's better than being a GOP Senator.

And Bush had to welcome Gore to the White House.

Being a Republican's just no damn fun.

Well, living in fear, hating Hollywood
& having no gay or black friends
...it just doesn't sound very fun.

...which makes it a very fun time
to share your views & a little booze
at your local progressive social club.

DRINKING LIBERALLY
Find - or start - a chapter near you.

Laugh To Keep From Crying: Lee Camp on Children's Healthcare



History has a way of repeating itself, and that serves comedians well. After Bush vetoed the expansion of children's healthcare, Lee Camp recorded this video. We thought it would quickly go out of fashion, but here Bush is, getting ready to veto SCHIP once again...thus allow Lee -- and us -- to recycle this great short shot of political whiskey.

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