Douglass told the audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, that for a free black like himself, being expected to celebrate American independence was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem.
Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist, this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African Americans.
Origins of the psalm
Psalm 137, the subject of my book, “Song of Exile,” is unique in the Bible. The only one out of 150 psalms to be set in a particular time and place, it relates to the Babylonian Exile – the period between 587-586 B.C. in Israel’s history, when Jews were taken captive in Babylon and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed.
Its nine verses paint a scene of captives mourning “by the rivers of Babylon,” mocked by their captors. It expresses a vow to remember Jerusalem even in exile, and closes with fantasies of vengeance against the oppressors. The Babylonian exile served as a crucible, forcing the Israelites to rethink their relationship to Yahweh, reassess their standing as a chosen people and rewrite their history.
The exile story, which echoes through the Bible, is central to the major prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Lamentations and Isaiah. And the aftermath of exile, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return to Israel, is narrated in books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Bible scholar Rainer Albertzestimates that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”
Because the psalm deals with music – a famous verse asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” – it has been like “poetic catnip” – intriguing to musicians and composers. Bach, Dvorak and Verdiall wrote musical settings for it. Verdi’s first popular opera, “Nabucco,” retells the story of the captivity.
Frederick Douglass, of course, claimed the message of the psalm for enslaved African Americans.
In the wake of World War II, the dissident actor and singer Paul Robeson saw deep parallels between the plight of Jews and African Americans and loved to perform Dvorak’s setting of the psalm.
Some of the most celebrated African-American preachers, including C. L. Franklin of Detroit (Aretha Franklin’s father), also preached on the psalm. C.L. Franklin answered the psalm’s central question of whether to sing with a resounding yes. So did Jeremiah Wright, who was Barack Obama’s pastor when he lived in Chicago.
Valuing the act of remembrance
So, what is the central message of the psalm for today’s world?
Meanwhile, Bible scholars are working to interpret a trove of cuneiform tablets that give a more nuanced picture of what life was really like in Babylon for the Judean exiles. And rightly so. For in the midst of all the injustices that confront us every time we check news headlines, remembering is as crucial as forgiving.
That was Frederick Douglass’ point as well. He said of his enslaved compatriots,
“If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’”
Remembering their history is what many Jews worldwide will do when they observe Tisha B’av, the most somber of Jewish holidays. It commemorates the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and centuries later by the Romans. Jews will reflect on these two historic calamities along with many others.
And that is the message of Psalm 137 as well. It captures succinctly the ways people come to grips with trauma: disbelief, turning inward and venting their rage. There is a reason it continues to resonate with people.
The powerful Mississippi Baptist Convention on Tuesday called for state leaders to change the Mississippi flag, with its Confederate battle emblem in one corner.
“It has become apparent that the discussion about changing the flag of Mississippi is not merely a political issue,” Baptist leaders said in a statement. “… The racial overtones of the flag’s appearance make this discussion a moral issue. Since the principal teachings of Scripture are opposed to racism, a stand against such is a matter of biblical morality.”
The convention includes about 2,100 churches in Mississippi, and Baptists are the largest denomination in the state, with over 500,000 members. Leaders said their stance on the flag doesn’t represent every member church, but they believe it represents a majority and asked for “Mississippi Baptists to make this a matter of prayer and to seek the Lord’s guidance in standing for love instead of oppression, unity instead of division, and the gospel of Christ instead of the power of this world.”
The convention’s statement said: “Given the moral and spiritual nature of this issue, Mississippi Baptist leaders offer prayers for our state officials to have wisdom, courage and compassion to move forward. We encourage our governor and state Legislature to take the necessary steps to adopt a new flag for the state of Mississippi that represents the dignity of every Mississippian and promotes unity rather than division.”
Under growing pressure to change the flag after decades of bitter debate, Mississippi legislative leaders say they are discussing the issue, but lack votes to change it as their regular session draws to a close.
Mississippi business, church and community leaders have called for a change, and the state faces intensified national scrutiny amid calls for removal of relics of slavery and the Confederacy.
On Monday, Mississippi State’s star running back Kylin Hill tweeted that he would not play football until the flag changed.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has long called for new state flag. In a statement last week, MEC said the current flag “Is offensive to many, not representative of all Mississippians and perpetuates negative stereotypes of our state.”
“MEC feels strongly that adoption of a new flag is a timely and high profile action that would improve Mississippi’s image, advance a new narrative about our state, and set the stage to enhance economic opportunities and improve quality of life in a fair and inclusive manner for every Mississippian.”
Poll: For first time ever, most Mississippians support changing state flag
The state’s chamber of commerce has released a new poll that shows a seismic shift among Mississippi voters in favor of changing the state flag to remove its Confederate battle emblem.
The poll released by the Mississippi Economic Council shows voters favorable to changing the flag 55% to 41%, a flip from a 2019 poll that showed 54% of voters favored keeping the current flag. MEC says polling data supports its call for the Legislature to act this week to “change the flag now.”
The poll was conducted last week by the Tarrance Group, a company with extensive political polling experience in Mississippi that has polled voters on the flag issue for years. It also showed that support for changing the flag jumped to 72% when people were asked about changing to a “state seal flag” that includes the motto “In God We Trust.” The survey showed the state seal version has support from a majority of Black and white Mississippians.
That the poll was backed by MEC will likely carry weight with lawmakers, who often look to the influential chamber of commerce for economic development counsel.
“In the nearly 20 years we have held the position of changing the state flag, we have never seen voters so much in favor of change,” said Scott Waller, president of MEC. “These recent polling numbers show what people believe, and that the time has come for us to have a new flag that serves as a unifying symbol for our entire state.”
Waller continued: “The Mississippi Legislature is poised to do the right thing this week, and we wholeheartedly support their efforts. As we seek to recover from crippling economic losses from COVID-19, we must show Mississippi is open for business to everyone – and no person should feel left out. Our state flag must be the flag for all of our people, and I cannot think of a better change for our state than to include the national motto ‘In God We Trust,’ which was also recently added to our state’s seal.”
MEC also launched an “It’s Time” campaign today to lend support with the efforts to change the flag, with a full-page ad placed in newspapers across the state. The campaign is supported by more than 100 business and industry leaders and includes full-page ads in newspapers across the state.
Separately, the Mississippi Association of Realtors on Wednesday issued a statement calling for lawmakers to change the state flag.
“The current Mississippi flag serves as an unnecessary hindrance to progress and growth,” the statement said, “and the Mississippi Realtors support swift legislative action to retire the current flag and replace it with a flag that reflects the enduring and remarkable qualities that make Mississippi a wonderful state to call home.”
Lawmakers in both the Senate and House have engaged in conversations about changing the state flag the past two weeks as protests about racial equality have continued across the state and nation. Tens of thousands of protesters in Mississippi have focused their demands around the state flag.
Late last week, as pressure to change the flag continued to grow, lawmakers discussed two options: adopting a second official state flag or letting Mississippi voters decide the fate of the current flag. In a 2001 referendum, 64% of voters voted to keep Mississippi’s current flag. Leaders who support changing the flag today fear a similar outcome would stall efforts to change the flag for years to come.
“I trust our leadership to pass this critical legislation at this important moment for our state,” said Mississippi Power President and CEO Anthony Wilson, who serves as Chairman of MEC. “They can take comfort in knowing that many Mississippians stand behind them. MEC not only represents the interests of Mississippi employers but also their employees. Our business members’ long-standing position to see the state flag changed not only reflects their desire to foster a more open business climate in our state but also reflects the overwhelming sentiment of thousands of their Mississippi employees as well.”
The Tarrance poll was conducted from June 16-18, with a sample size of 500 likely voters and a margin of error of 4.5%.
A poll conducted earlier this month by Mississippi-based Chism Strategies found 46% support for retaining the old flag compared to 44.9% who support changing it. In terms of polling, the outcome would essentially be considered a statistical tie. That poll indicated momentum for changing the flag was growing. In September 2017, when Chism polled on the same question, the result was 49% to 41% in favor of the old flag.
The Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaks on the National Mall, June 23, 2018. Fellow co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis stands on the right. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The Poor People’s Campaign, a grassroots group with branches in more than 40 states, is urging resistance to or noncooperation with state plans calling for the reopening of the economy just weeks after the coronavirus put most of the country on lockdown.
In its new slogan, the campaign, co-chaired by two Christian ministers, is asking its followers to “Stay in Place, Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies.”
The campaign urges Congress, the president and state governors to follow the recommendations of public health experts and not risk a resurgence of the virus, which is disproportionately affecting poor, uninsured, low-wage laborers, many of them “essential workers” who have no alternative but to go to risky jobs that make them vulnerable to the virus.
“These plans to reopen show no regard for human life,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, during an online news conference on Wednesday (May 13). “They’re prioritizing the profit of the few over the needs of the majority.”
The Poor People’s Campaign has long demanded that the government provide health care and paid sick leave for all. Theoharis also called for a universal guaranteed adequate income for all.
The campaign is planning a day of action on May 21 that will include a call-in to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging them to provide more relief for the poor in any future stimulus bills.
The campaign also announced that a previously scheduled June 20 March on Washington will be an online event.
Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic has been devastating economically, especially in nonwhite communities where people live in more crowded conditions and are more likely to be employed in public-facing occupations (such as food service, transportation and home health care) where they are more susceptible to becoming infected.
The latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for African Americans is 2.6 times higher than the rate for whites, according to the APM Research Lab, which tracks coronavirus deaths by race and ethnicity.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, who co-chairs the campaign with Theoharis, said that he and other leaders are suspicious of governors, especially in the South, who are pushing to have their states reopened. He criticized governors who have refused to expand Medicaid and who have pushed for what he called “voter suppression bills.”
“They have no credibility for us to believe them that things are fine,” he said.
The news conference included three people considered essential workers who talked of their fears in going to work without health care or paid sick leave.
“We’re not really essential, we’re expendable,” said Denita Jones, a mother of two who lives in Texas.
The call also featured Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, who was commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene until two years ago.
“The virus is invisible and it spreads silently,” Bassett said. “But it is not imaginary. We have to use the public health tools at our disposal to bring this under control. Wishing it away will only cost more lives.”
Antoine Dow has been cutting hair for 24 years. Dow, who owns a barbershop in West Baltimore, gives many of his clients their last haircut at local funeral homes, after losing them to gun violence. (NATE PALMER FOR KHN)
Quant’e Boulware combs the hair of Davonte Robinson before cutting his hair.(NATE PALMER FOR KHN)
BALTIMORE — The barber had with him his tools of trade: a black leather smock, a razor, clippers, scissors and tufts of black locks he had collected from the floor of his shop.
He would use them to try to cover the bullet hole that tore through his client’s head.
Antoine Dow owns a barbershop in the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore and has often been called upon to provide clients who have been gunned down with their final haircut. It’s a ritual that he says helps bring some dignity to the young black men whose lives are disproportionately affected by gun violence, many of whom Dow knew and serviced while they were still alive.
“When I walked into the room and saw his body, I didn’t recognize him because the trauma to the skull was so bad,” Dow said of Deontae Taylor, 20, a young man who was killed last fall. “The entry wound was a hole and the exit wound was sewed up in the back like a football,” he said.
After he finished, he called Taylor’s mother. “I did the best I could do.”
The decline in gun deaths in some major cities across the country has made headlines, but in places like Baltimore, the numbers remain high. There were 348 homicides in Baltimore last year, up more than 12% from the year before, and only five fewer than the record set in 1993. Firearms were involved in 312 of the 348 killings, according to an analysis of the latest numbers in the Baltimore Police Department Crime Stats Open Data database by Kaiser Health News.
On Saturdays, the busiest day at Antoine Dow’s barbershop in the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore, Dow can be found cutting hair from 6:30 a.m. to as late as 9 p.m., cutting the hair of roughly 72 clients in a single day.(NATE PALMER FOR KHN)
Dow has been cutting hair for 24 years. He started when he was 19, giving haircuts to friends in his father’s basement. In 2001, at age 27, he found a small shop with a reasonable rent that had only enough room for one barber. He had the shop remodeled and has been open ever since. On Saturdays, he can be found cutting hair for as many as 70-odd clients, his barber chair positioned at the shop entrance, where he can greet each person as they enter.
“I always wanted my own barbershop. I pretty much knew what I wanted to do, because I enjoyed it, and people would pay me for it,” he said.
The issue of gun violence has followed Dow for years. In 2000, at a barbershop on the corner of Lafayette and Division streets in West Baltimore where he worked, Dow was shot in the leg after he tried to intervene in an argument between a client and another man. His client, Howard Robinson, 35, was shot in the back and died later that day.
Typically, funeral homes dress the bodies of the deceased and cut their hair, if necessary. But sometimes a favored barber is brought in.
Dow was 26 when he performed his first haircut for a deceased client. In that case, it was an older man who had died of natural causes, circumstances that Dow said are much easier to manage than a shooting victim. He has continued to take on the difficult task of providing haircuts for clients who have been killed, for a straightforward reason, as he sees it — “because I cut their hair while they were alive.”
And as his business has expanded, Dow has hired other barbers who have also learned the trade of post-mortem hair cutting.
Quant’e Boulware, 24, has worked for Dow the past four years and has cut the hair of two customers no longer alive. One was a 2-year-old child who died in a car crash — his godson. “I rather me cut his hair than somebody else,” he said softly.
Antoine Dow cuts a customer’s hair as others wait in line at his barbershop in the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore.(NATE PALMER FOR KHN)
When clients leave Dow’s shop, he said he tells them to “please be safe,” but he knows that can be hard in a city like Baltimore. He estimates that as many as eight of his clients were murdered in the last year alone.
Dontae Breeden, one of Dow’s younger clients, said that he and his peers often feel invisible in a city where violence is so common and that some young men turn to gun violence out of desperation. “People just want to be known for something,” said Breeden, 22. “They just want recognition.”
Rashad Jones has been a client of Dow’s for three years. In March 2019, he was shot at a bus stop on East Northern Parkway after work. Not only has Jones lost two of his best friends to gun violence this year, but in 2013 his brother was shot and paralyzed from the waist down at age 25.
The barbershop is one of the few places in West Baltimore where Jones, 29, said he feels safe and Dow has tried to provide that comfort to his clients, both in life and in death.
He talks to his clients while cutting their hair, even those who have passed away, like the young man who had been shot in the head.
“I was talking to him while I was cutting his hair, like I do a lot of my deceased clients,” said Dow. “I just said, you know, ‘I hope you rest well.’”
KHN reporter Victoria Knight contributed to this article.
Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans but all people.
In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.
Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.
Just Another Day Off?
As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.
“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, a long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still needs to be worked on.”
So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?
According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”
However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.
“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”
The Importance of Generational Knowledge
As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.
“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”
As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for many different reasons.
“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card.”
For Jessica, an authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.
“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 20th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has joined the fast-growing calls from Texas lawmakers and A-list celebrities to take a closer look at the death sentence of Rodney Reed.
Cruz called efforts to halt the execution of Reed “a remarkable bipartisan coalition” on Friday night, the day before hundreds of people rallied outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion in support of Reed.
“Having spent years in law enforcement, I believe capital punishment can be justice for the very worst murderers,” Cruz tweeted. “But if there is credible evidence there’s a real chance a defendant is innocent, that evidence should be weighed carefully.”
Reed is set for execution on Nov. 20 and has been on death row for more than two decades. His guilt has always been shrouded in doubt, but the attention and calls for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop his death has skyrocketed in recent months.
This week, a bipartisan group of 26 Texas House lawmakers sent a letter to Abbott and the parole board asking them to stop Reed’s execution so new evidence can be reviewed. Sixteen state senators penned a similar letter Friday, prompting Cruz’s response.
At Saturday’s rally outside the Governor’s Mansion, dozens of politicians, activists and former death row inmates joined family and other supporters of Rodney Reed to demand a reprieve. “Yes we want a delay, but that’s not our ultimate goal,” national Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King said. “Our ultimate goal is not just to extend his life by 30 days.”
A spokesman for Abbott did not immediately respond to questions on Cruz’s statement. And the governor’s office has not responded to previous questions on the Reed case.
The murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop and the subsequent conviction of Rodney Reed has been in the spotlight for more than two decades. Reed, now 51, has consistently maintained his innocence in the 1996 slaying. His lawyers for years have pointed to new evidence they say makes it impossible for Reed to be the killer and instead, they say, puts suspicion on Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family, however, remain confident Reed is guilty.
Both men have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted but never convicted, in several other rape cases months before his trial in Stites’ death began in 1998. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Since Reed’s conviction in Stites’ death, a suspected murder weapon has gone untested for DNA, forensic evidence has been reexamined and new witnesses have come forward. That has led to a growing chorus of voices — including celebrities like Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé and Oprah — to express their belief in Reed’s innocence and plead for Abbott to stop his death.
Reed has appeals pending in federal court on new witnesses and a repeated request to test DNA on the suspected murder weapon, but most attention is directed at Abbott’s role. The Texas governor can delay an execution for 30 days on his own. With a recommendation from the parole board, he may grant a longer reprieve or re-sentence a death row inmate to life in prison.
At Saturday’s rally, King and other speakers said at the very least Reed’s execution must be delayed so there can be more time to look at evidence. But they hope to go much further.
“Rodney Reed is doing what I’m doing, claiming his innocence,” said Juan Melendez, an exonerated death row inmate from Florida. “When I saw Rodney Reed’s mother’s eyes, I saw my mother’s eyes. I saw the pain and suffering she is going through.”