Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So many moving images over the past weeks... gave up trying to save them all, but this is the one that left me speechless and awash in tears ... .

It came in an email with this message:

Subject: A picture worth 158 years
Date: November 2, 2008 12:02 PM

The picture above is from the Obama rally in St. Louis. I guess the eye is first drawn to the sheer number of people. Impressive. But that's not the point of this picture to a historian.

If you look in the distance, you can see a white building with a greenish-copper dome. That's the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.

The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on the Scott's behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

I found it rather uplifting that, 158 years later, the man who will most likely be the first black US President was able to stand outside this very same courthouse and gather that crowd. Today, American looked back on one of the darkest moments in its history, and resoundingly told Judge Taney to go to hell!

Photo: Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

It was during these years (prior to 1978, I believe) that I left my position at the university at Berkeley ...

to return to try to save our small family business which was in a shambles. This was also the point where the political Betty was born and began the process of learning to lead through trial and error.

It was such a time as this. We were in the throes of my very first period of active campaigning. The city of Berkeley was in a heated mayoral race between Gus Newport and incumbent and now former mayor, Shirley Dean. That was in 1978. It's interesting that in this year, 2008, Ms. Dean is again challenging the incumbent mayor, Tom Bates. And, no, I have no horse in this race -- these players are only incidental to the story I want to tell.

Though I no longer lived in South Berkeley by that time, having divorced and remarried, this was Reid "turf" where Mel and I had carved out a bright future back in 1945 -- intended to support and hold as legacy for our 4 children. It was all threatened now -- with Mel's health rapidly deteriorating and the business in a state of financial ruin. The streets of our low income community were alive with negative street life. It had changed drastically since we created our little music store there years before. Our block had become ground zero for the drug trade.

It would be up to me now, and I'd spent the previous two decades living in suburbia raising children and accumulating little experience that would be applicable to what would be needed at this point in our lives.

I'd gone to Carol Sibley, a close friend of my husband, Bill's, and a widely respected community leader who'd almost single-handedly brought the school busing solution to Berkeley during the great battles to desegregate -- and who could be enlisted (I hoped) to help me to locate the sources of political power that might help my impoverished and crime-ridden south end of the city. She brought me together at lunch with her dear friend, Shirley Dean, who not only refused to be of any help -- but who stated firmly that she had "no intention of turning her back on the black leader 'down there' who supported her fully." I read this same leader as the major source of the corruption I was having to deal with and told her so. Nothing could dissuade her. She had his word. I was the new kid on the block with no conceivable power with which to barter.

Everywhere I looked there were Shirley Dean signs posted throughout South Berkeley. It felt hopeless. With so little to lose, I went to the Gus Newport headquarters (we'd never met at that time) and picked up as many signs as I could carry. I posted them everywhere possible on my building, and hoped for some sign of hope. We were in a sea of Dean signage. I then took the remaining signs and walked up and down a 3 block area asking for permission from store owners for window space in which to post them. Everyone readily gave permission. But the next day when I drove to work past those same shops -- every sign had been removed and replaced by Dean's posters. It felt hopeless.

A few weeks before election day I purchased large rolls of newsprint, a gaggle of wide-tipped felt pens and duplicated my sample ballot in bright red and blue ink. I filled my 8' plate glass display windows with my huge homemade ballot -- prominently posted my signature at the bottom -- with each candidate as well as each initiative checked. I purposely left a couple of initiatives in doubt (with question marks) to assure anyone interested that I really didn't have all the answers but was going with my best opinions in each case. I did not pretend to be telling anyone how to vote; but was being completely public with my own intentions. It was my hope that other merchants might do the same so that we might -- together -- raise political awareness on the street. On my counter I posted a legal-sized sheet that explained my conclusions for anyone to see and take away. I registered voters and took the time for friendly debates. It was a wonderful experiment in democracy.

If my intention was to end up in the Fortune 500, this surely wouldn't be the means by which it was achieved. Operating a little record shop on Sacramento Street in South Berkeley would surely not get me there. I needed another reason for braving the often frightening environment in which I found myself. I was perfectly willing to settle for social change as a reason to open the door each day. As long as the little shop paid its expenses and a couple of small salaries, I could feel successful. Being what I wanted to see in the world turned out to be the motivation needed to get through some pretty tough times. Setting short-term achievable goals guaranteed enough satisfaction to keep spirits high and the customer base growing. In time I published a newsletter that went out to 20,000 faithful Reid's customers from all corners of the country and abroad. Eventually I gave it up because I could no longer afford the cost of 3rd class postage or the hard job of writing, stamping, bundling, and carting all those bags to the Post Office for delivery.

It was also amazing! In the days that preceded the Newport/Dean campaign, I watched in awe as people drove up in their cars and parked while they marked their sample ballots and moved on. Even the young street guys sat on the curb and made notes. In time candidates for city offices began to stop by to chat and to seek endorsements. It was the most astounding thing I'd ever experienced. Does one become a civic (political) leader by self-declaration? Apparently so. Who on earth would ever have guessed such a thing even possible?

(Do you suppose I'd become a community organizer? The term would have meant nothing to me at the time.)

Over the next few years it was really fun to see the neighbor's begin to stop by prior to my ballot posting to stick their heads in the front door to ask "... how we gonna vote this year, Miss Betty?"

Do you suppose that's the way it happened over the cracker barrels at the Grange long ago?

I've missed that hands-on involvement over the years since turning the business over to David. Operating Reid's Records as "proprietor" was so much more than it seemed. I got to really love
the give and take with customers and the sense of power over my declared "500 Feet." It led to a continuing life of political involvement since that time, and with a quiet sense of how easy it all is, if you factor in the human touch.

Postscript: Gus Newport was elected mayor that year, and four years later we served together as Northern California co-chairs of the first Jesse Jackson campaign for the presidency.

And -- Reid's Records still exists (even as "records" disappeared along the way) after 63 years and counting -- still serving its community with youngest son, David, now at the helm. Ours is probably the oldest continuing small black music store in the country -- now specializing in church supplies as well as the best in black gospel music. We just had a face-lift after far too long (new awnings and paint job). The community has undergone great changes and most of the old-timers have moved on. If you live in the Bay Area do stop in for old times sake, and give David a chance to continue to serve in the old tradition that we all enjoyed for lo those many turbulent years. Had we only have known what lay ahead, and that we may have played a tiny role in the social progress now evident in the nation. I believe that we did just that, though it involved a lot of blind faith in what was then an unknown and murky future.

Photo: The group photo was taken of noted gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and her entourage, at the height of her career. Reid's Records became the place where many of the most noted black performers stopped by, including Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Patti Austin, etc., over the years.

Lower photo: Yes, that's a young Janet Jackson who stopped by to sign albums for our customers.
None will ever know how difficult these past months have been for one so terminally political as I ... .

Though I've not missed total involvement in the electoral process since my first vote at the age of 21, in this most remarkable election in the lives of all those living today - I've been relatively silent. No walking precincts. No endorsements or bumper stickers. No placards on my car's back window nor campaign buttons on my lapels. Checks were submitted online and phone-banking from my cellphone from home. But, yes, I do have at least two tee-shirts and a couple of souvenir buttons brought home from one of the national conventions by friends. But for the most part I've never ever been so uninvolved in presidential campaigns.

There weren't the usual gatherings at campaign offices or attendance at work parties. No. This was a very different experience for me; though the Internet did allow the kind of anonymous participating in online discussions that removed some of the sting of isolation. Not sure I could have managed without some way to vent.

It is probably a wise decision by government to limit the ability of federal and civic employees to lobby in these cases, but it's really frustrating. I've surely felt the need for restraint and have agreed with the principle, in general. It's in the specific that it becomes so hard to hold to such rulings.

Today is Sunday; the last after a two-year battle for so much more than the White House. It may be a battle for the soul of the nation -- a crucible.

Since the National Park Service manages the White House, The Capitol Mall, all monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C., we rangers can volunteer to work the Inaugural proceedings. Can you imagine what a plum this assignment would be if realized?

We're near the end of the process now; the historic election is only days away. And however it goes, I've volunteered to work the Inauguration in January. If chosen, I may be picking up trash behind the parade or working a bottled water station, but I'll be there, hopefully. Though that will depend upon the outcome, of course (so I suppose it's not really "however it goes" at all). And anyone can surely guess from the content of my writings just where my heart lies and just how high my hopes are for the long-delayed fulfillment of the promise of the great American Experiment.

Wish I could sleep from now until the first precincts are counted!