Friday, May 10, 2019

Premature Aging: Selling Work in Scandalous Times

By Greg Guma 

I was wearing a hipster-establishment wide tie and cranking across the Interstate toward Lake Morey. Something between fear and early onset dementia had drawn me more than 100 miles to the Governor’s Conference on Older Workers. Actually, it was the “invitation” from my boss, who ran work and training programs across Vermont under contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Gov. Tom Salmon in 1973

Half conscious, I pit-stopped in Manchester for coffee and news; gas shortage paranoia and the latest Washington Looney Tunes. Today the newsmaker was James McCord, competing for headlines with John Dean. The former White House counsel had secrets to tell, but the ex-wire man was threatening to sue. It was June 12, 1973, deep into the Watergate era, I was 26 years old, and getting prepared to spend a day deciphering the cliches of bureaucrats and businessman.

“Did you come for the same thing I did?” Walter shouted as he shuffled across the parking lot, his backdrop a paunchy foursome and the 18th green, tucked away a few miles from the highway. Chic. He repeated the welcome. “So, did you come for the same thing?”


“The girls!” He elbowed me and winked, eyebrows edging toward receding hair. Sly devil. Walter was definitely an older worker. And a State Legislator. Despite the casual sexism, my first impulse was to grin. I settled instead for a return jab and headed quickly toward the Inn.

Once inside, I momentarily gaped at all the video equipment, before remembering that the state’s governor would attend. Only the second Democrat elected in a century, Vermont’s big fish, Tom Salmon, was heading toward this very spot.

I had tried to plan for everything, all the necessary gear and attire, and a mindset meant to camouflage how out of place I felt. But I’d messed up. Crossing my legs I stared down at two sneakered feet. The conference shoes were back in the car and I was trapped at the plenary session in ragged, torn white tennis shoes. 

Most people were still hugging the back of the auditorium, downing their first drinks of the day. The cash bar here opened early. They hadn’t noticed me yet, so I made a run for the exit and retrieved a pair of black boots. Slightly scuffed, but they made me feel more secure.

What’s the point? Back in those days the dress code in places like the “home of the Vermont Open” was shifting slowly toward “mod,” especially since Salmon’s election, but it was still pretty formal. My tie was a safe choice, wide with a little flash. Similar touches were visible in a field of mostly grey suits. But sneakers? Not yet acceptable for official government or corporate work.

On a porch two veteran bureaucrats were shooting the breeze as they gazed at the lake on a warm late Spring day. One worked for the state, the other was a Fed. I stopped for a talk.

“I wish I could do that,” the Fed sighed. He nodded toward the young people on a beach below. Several of them were about my age, old enough for bank accounts and debts. Before his companion could ask what exotic things the “kids” were doing, the Fed explained. “You know, just take a few days and (sigh) do what I want.” 

He savored the words. Then followed up with the news that I had already missed the best show the night before. Apparently, the fireworks were wondrous to behold. As I recalled later in an article for The Vermont Freeman, my mind wandered for a moment to a strange fantasy; balding men — from both public and private sectors — spacing out on the hotel light show, and baying at the moon as they hunted down female “assistants” through the underbrush. Weird things were happening in the Age of Aquarius.

Tom Salmon shares with a group as Greg takes notes.  

“The best way to tell a person’s age is not to.” This was the slogan for thought from the Commissioner of Employment Security, who issued the official welcome along with some quick tips and vital statistics. She explained, for example, that older workers are a good employer bet for several reasons — work habits, experience, productivity and dependability, plus their low absenteeism and high retention. 

Next was the Coordinator of the National Council on Aging, who reminded us that “whether we like it or not, we get one day older each day we live.” Heavy. The rest of her talk was peppered with stats and logic apparently lifted from Reader’s Digest. 

With more than 90 million people in the workforce, we learned, 45 percent were over 45 years of age. “Baby boom is now baby bust,” she claimed. “People 25 to 35 years old are not producing.” What America needed was 2.5 children per family,  but only 2.0 were being produced. Noting that a third of all US citizens were over 55, she concluded with the upbeat announcement that the “youth revolution” was over. 

Since those 1973 stats, the US workforce has almost doubled. However, the percent of people in it who are over 45 has actually stayed about the same. On the other hand, the birthrate has continued to drop, while the number of people over 65 has grown from 35 to 50 million in the last 20 years. They currently account for about 29 percent of the population. 

According to a spokesmen for Vermont’s Apprenticeship Council, what the country needed in the 1970s was more manufacturing jobs for proud, dependable older employees, along with a reduction in the eligibility age for Social Security and, oddly enough, a lower minimum wage for students. The last suggestion took me by surprise.

“Wisdom, experience and productivity is being robbed from the economy,” the speaker warned. Nevertheless, “We WILL be blessed with clean air, clean water and lower noise levels. That doesn’t yet include rock bands. But we can hope.” 

In the midst of such bad jokes and relentless pandering it was hard to keep my negativity in check. Making matters worse, a television in the room where I was writing my notes provided a jarring counterpoint. The coverage that day dealt with all manner of dirty tricks. Specifically, Gordon Strachan was tracing the White House-Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) approach to disciplining disloyal members of the Republican Party. Apparently, Nixon wanted to help “sympathetic” Democrats (a few still existed) while denying financial support to any Republican who defied the administration. This sounded a lot like President Trump.

But it wasn’t the news of the day or the talking points being hammered home at the conference that made me the most uncomfortable. It was how the real concerns of the elderly were being sidestepped and exploited to score points or secure funding.

It was too late for second thoughts, however. Everyone was standing for applause as Governor Salmon swept down the aisle. Grey suit, naturally, with wing-like lapels, red striped tie and healthy tan. Plus a flash of teeth that momentarily blinded me.

“I notice some younger types,” said the chief executive with a brief glance in my direction. It felt like an ominous start.

Salmon had reached “the ripe old age of 40,” he announced, while 49 percent of Vermonters were 25 years of age or younger. “The concerns of the young are a different proposition,” he concluded. The remark was perplexing. Maybe he was just trying to identify with his audience. 

Charging on, Salmon mentioned a “fascinating article” he had read just that morning “between bumps and grinds.” That must have been a reference to the drive over. The story in Natural History was called “A New Age for the Aging.” But that’s all we heard about it, although his tone did indicate that the “new age” would be a good one.

Over the next five minutes he transitioned from generalizations to anecdotes. Salmon talked about jogging, the billions spent on cosmetics and “the proliferation of books on diet.” Then he asked rhetorically, “How many of us have given up smoking? How many have advised that others give up smoking? All of these things indicate that, indeed, we are intensely aware of the process — getting along in years, growing old.”

Despite the platitudes, the performance was impressive. More than 150 people were happily digesting big scoops of Salmon’s random thoughts. There were few hard facts in the mix. What he offered mostly were feelings and jokes. Yet most of the audience was with him; the rest were at least trying to follow his train of thought. After all, it was his conference.

“Take a gander at the facts,” he instructed, right hand shooting out at some supporting data that was invisible to the rest of us. “If only we could double the post-training years, people could put back from their vast pool of resources twice as much.” It was reasonable, on the surface. But the argument reminded me of a line from the film comedy, The Heartbreak Kid: “It’s time people stopped taking things out of this country and started putting things back in,” says the witless hero.

To be fair, Governor Salmon was wandering toward a point. “A fundamental goal of this society is to extend the span of healthy years,” he eventually explained. So, the basic idea was that the able-bodied elderly could be putting more back into the economy. But the way he expressed it left me unconvinced. There were also obligatory references to the environment, the issue that had turned the election in  Salmon’s favor the previous November, and warnings about the decline in industrial jobs as service employment increased.

Finally, he offered a candid admission: “We’re not doing anywhere near enough.” Yet you had to wonder, about what? Biological research? Industrial jobs? Jogging? It was hard to tell, and he was becoming distracted. Leafing through his notes, Salmon mumbled several times, “We haven’t done enough...”

After a moment, however, he recovered and shifted back into comedy club mode. “I had the pleasure of seeing Danny Thomas last week at Lake Tahoe at a governor’s conference,” Salmon recalled. At one point Thomas had asked a question: “Did you ever hear about a group of widowers touring Italy on a bus?” 

Get it? Widowers. You see, husbands usually die first. Hilarious. 

We had reached the finale. The governor’s role, he explained, was “to serve as a catalyst for discussion and ideas.” But then he added a disclaimer. “We don’t want to give the impression we have a neat package plan.” No risk there. And some future shock. Salmon had just read Alvin Toffler’s book on the subject and summarized its point as follows: “Human beings are unable to accept too much change too fast.”

He also linked the idea that “we aren’t doing nearly enough” to another assertion, that “we’ve made modest beginnings.” The point? Apparently that, although we aren’t doing enough, we must also be wary of doing too much.

Edging away from the podium, Salmon assured everyone that he looked forward to more dialogue... but regretted that he had to leave. His exit line was another joke, this one unattributed: “I don’t have to leave, but I can’t stay here.” 

The punchline hung in the air just long enough for the governor to glide out the door. What all of it suggested to me was simple: a good-looking young man with a deep voice and a first-rate tailor can move into some very high places.

At this point I had to ask: Why had I bothered to attend? Desperate for friends, or seeking tennis partners? Then I remembered — job security. But also had a more serious thought. Fear of aging was being manipulated, here and elsewhere, to promote a preoccupation with age. Related to that, one of the speakers had noted that the Older Americans Act was the only piece of social legislation that Nixon had signed. It was all that remained of President Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

After the morning session I walked past the bar. As usual it was packed. Passing on alcohol for the moment, I returned to my car for a private joint. Floating back to the lunch line my wide tie felt big enough to trip me. 

Swim-suited teens sat in the canopied walkway between the parking lot and the lounge. “Every sha na na na, every wo oh oh oh, still shines,” they sang. “Every shing a ling a ling, that we started to sing, so fine.” The Carpenter’s nostalgic tune fit in well. Forward into the past.

I bought a beer and found a perch at the periphery of the action. The participants were mostly identified by name tags. Deals were definitely being made. The morning’s boredom had given way to the expectation of nailing down some funding. 

A bit later, noticing a corner table surrounded by the low hum of lunchtime patter, I nabbed a seat. A man from GE was trading small talk with my boss and a younger management type. The manager was proto-Nixon, tightly wound, committed, and eager to make connections.

GE started the ball rolling. “Where do I know you from? Do you belong to the Elks?”

“No. Rotary,” said Nixon. As it turned out, they had even more common ground.

GE then turned to me and asked, “What do you get out of this?”

“All foreplay,” I whispered. “No action.”

Nixon zeroed in on my boss. “You with OEO?” He asked.

“Sponsored by them.”

A sly smile. “How’s funding look?”

“OEO looks dim, very dim,” he admitted. “But we DOL contractors have been expanded. Matter of fact, I got a call yesterday asking how much money I can use.”

Nixon recoiled, his lips narrowing to a slit. “I see,” he grumbled. This wasn’t what he expected, especially with the government trumpeting de-funding and Nixon promising smaller budgets and staff reductions.

“You always wonder,” my boss pressed, “what you would say to that kind of question. The real question, though, is whether you can use the money effectively.

“I see. Of course.” Nixon took a drag from his cigarette and turned to me, a missing piece of the puzzle, some young guy with longish hair making notes about who-knew what. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

I smiled sheepishly and nodded down the side of the table lined with bureaucrats. “I’m with them,” I said.

Nixon was finding this slice of real life hard to swallow. But my boss explained that the main issue concerning what were then called “Manpower” programs was who would control the purse strings. Governors were the most likely candidates; states’ rights usually translated into governors’ discretion. And governors responded strongly in those days to at least two known stimuli — federal cash and weekends at Lake Tahoe.

Somewhere between lunch and the afternoon panel discussions I lost the thread of the day. Only phrases penetrated the fog of conference talk. Later, as I headed back along the Interstate, I passed a road crew. Young men were strung along a roadside ditch, sweating in the afternoon heat. It made me wonder, just what will be the future of young people like these in the new age of the aging?

The goal, as outlined during the conference, was to extend the years of productivity. Retirement was once the light at the end of the tunnel, a safety net and reward for decades of service. But the new reward was apparently another job. The logic was that normal people, “responsible citizens,” want to work as long as possible, no matter whether it is on an assembly line or at the side of the road. Given the national epidemic of boredom and depression, that didn’t make much sense.

Nevertheless, the prevailing assumption was that healthy people are “hooked in,” busy, off the street, and not concerned about changing the system. So, productive people are happy people, and older people, at least according to the experts at Lake Morey, could be the happiest of all. This was reinforced often through anecdotes and innuendo, a dubious notion that could only be asserted with confidence from a podium.

The reward for a lifetime of work used to be retirement, and maybe also a gold watch. In the future it may become a part-time job. But one ingredient still seems to be missing — a meaning for it all.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Presidential Power Plays Call for Constitutional Solutions: The 25th Amendment and Beyond

By Greg Guma

Two-hundred and thirty-one years after the US system of government was created in Philadelphia, it appears to be slowly unraveling. Among the recent signs is growing talk about invoking the 25th Amendment, a “constitutional coup” provision for replacing the president in cases of death, resignation or incapacity. 

According to Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director fired last year, top Justice Department officials at least considered the 25th as an option after the 2017 ouster of FBI Director James Comey. But even Donald Trump’s removal won’t counter the long-term drift toward executive supremacy. To do that, the country may require something more fundamental, another Constitutional Convention.

While speaking to California’s Public Interest Research Group in 1980, Ralph Nader put the presidency in an ironic, yet global perspective. At the time, President Jimmy Carter was struggling with a hostage crisis in Iran. Meanwhile, with the Republican nomination wrapped up, Ronald Reagan promised to win a renewed arms race with the USSR while simultaneously cutting taxes and implementing the conservative nostrum known as “supply-side economics.”

Noting that the race could have broad and drastic implications, Nader suggested a radical solution. “Ronald Reagan is such a threat to humanity,” he quipped, “that the whole world should be allowed to vote for US president.”

Clearly, that didn’t happen. But Nader’s point seems more valid than ever. Presidential power without meaningful accountability is deeply unfair and highly dangerous.

The creators of the US Constitution, although they could not anticipate everything, were certainly aware of the dangers of a drift toward monarchy and empire. Unfortunately, their 18th Century vision no longer meets the test. Even though the president technically needs congressional approval for expenditures and declarations of war, almost anything is possible if a “national security” rationale can be manufactured. Trump has made that all too obvious.

“The machinery of government is being moved to act on a lie,” noted Princeton Prof. Eddie Glaude on Meet the Press last Sunday, referring to the “national emergency” declared to fund Trump’s wall. “The constitutional crisis is here.”

Impeachment is again becoming a serious option. However, the last time that happened (Bill Clinton) the defendant ended up more popular afterward. And even Trump’s removal from office won’t counter the decades long development and evolution of the imperial executive. 

A president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if Congress chooses to act. The truth is, many of the manipulative, unethical or arguably illegal actions inspired, condoned or actively promoted by presidents are actually tested tactics that most members of Congress dare not publicly condemn, questionable as they may be. Too many others are complicit. 

The 25th Amendment deals with replacement of the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacity. One of the most recent additions to the Constitution, it was proposed by Congress and ratified by the states after the assassination of President Kennedy, and was first applied during the Watergate scandal, when Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president, then replaced Richard Nixon as president. Nelson Rockefeller filled the new vacancy as appointed vice president. 

It looked like a quiet constitutional coup that left an unelected executive team in charge for two years. And one of the first things President Ford did was pardon his predecessor. This time around the pardons could begin any minute.

How would the 25th work with Trump? Under Section 4, the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet would have to write the Senate President and House Speaker, explaining that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Already highly unlikely. But with that Vice President Mike Pence would become “Acting President.” Then Trump would send Congress his own "written declaration that no inability exists." He would also threaten to retake control unless —within four days! — Pence and a majority of either (a) the cabinet that Trump appointed, or (b) another body established by Congress says he is unable to do his job. 

This in turn would force Congress to assemble within 48 hours, and to vote less that 21 days later. If two-thirds of both Houses decided that Trump simply couldn’t do the job, Pence would continue on as Acting President. If they failed to decide, however, Trump would regain control of the presidency and the country would be in even bigger trouble. Great TV, but the payback could be biblical.

There must be a better way to run a government, especially since “successful” removal or impeachment  in this case means handing the presidency to another kind of extremist, one backed by the Koch Brothers, an evangelical who effortlessly echoes presidential lies, yet thinks he is on a mission from God.

According to historian Barbara Tuchman, the office of president “has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of one individual.” Thus, she and others have suggested restructuring; one example is a directorate or Council of State to which the president would be accountable. Such ideas were discussed but ultimately dropped at the original Constitutional Convention.

While embracing limits on executive power like “advice and consent” on treaties and key appointments, the 1787 Convention narrowly rejected having the president operate in conjunction with a Council, specifically to serve as a check on unilateral executive power. Benjamin Franklin said at the time that a Council of State “would not only be a check on a bad president but be a relief to a good one.”

Delegates to the original Convention struggled with how to give a president sufficient authority, free from dependence on the legislative branch, without allowing him to become an “elective monarch.” As a result, Article II does not clearly define the term “executive power” or any specific presidential authority in times of war. Congress was given control of military appropriations and rule-making for the regulation of land and naval forces, suggesting that the delegates wanted the two branches to share decision-making power over war. But their general confusion and vagueness about the relationship between the president and Congress left the door open for a gradual expansion of executive power, especially over foreign policy.

Fundamental changes are overdue. Even if the US constitutional system survives Trump, presidents will continue to seek expanded power until clear limits are imposed and public pressure reverses the trend. In the end, the country may not be able to avoid another Constitutional Convention. Even then, the rest of the world probably won’t get to vote for president. But at the very least Trump’s brazen abuse of the office invites some serious rethinking. 

As happened during America’s original Convention, the stated purpose could be eclipsed (or even hijacked) by a “revolutionary” move to revamp the entire system. Still, it does take the approval of two-thirds of state legislatures just to call one, and three-fourths of them to ratify its results. That’s a pretty high bar. As a result, the US Constitution has only been amended when an overwhelming majority of the public views the change as extremely important — and sometimes not even then.

There is nevertheless the risk that something inadequate or worse might emerge, along with new restrictions of basic rights. After all, autocratic leaders and policies have been gaining influence around the world. On the other hand, that’s also an argument for acting fast. Attempting to renegotiate some of the terms struck 231 years ago in creating the US government is certainly preferable to downplaying the drift toward royalism and tyranny.

Dan Rather recently offered a sarcastic take. “Here's a weird piece of trivia,” tweeted the former TV anchor. “Apparently Congress has Constitutional powers as well. And apparently the nation's Founders took those powers seriously because they saw how having a king worked out. Who knew?”

But as Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, reflecting on whether their new national government would endure, “no society can make a perpetual constitution or perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please.” So let’s get started. 

Material in this article was originally developed for reports and editorials written as editor of Toward Freedom, an international affairs publication. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Remembering MLK: Death, Life & Secrets

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis motel as he prepared to support striking Black sanitation workers there. Although James Earl Ray initially confessed to the crime – he later recanted – doubts about what happened persist. 
In the late 1990s, former FBI agent Donald Wilson, who investigated the murder, presented evidence he claimed to have found in Ray’s car – slips of paper that support charges of a conspiracy involving federal agents. Wilson didn’t produce the evidence earlier, he said, because he didn’t trust other investigators and feared for his family’s safety.

Coretta Scott King and the rest of King's family won a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers and "other unknown co-conspirators." Jowers, the owner of a restaurant near the Lorraine Motel, claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King's assassination. The jury of six Whites and six Blacks found him guilty and concluded that "governmental agencies were parties" to the assassination plot.

William Pepper, who represented the King family in the trial, charged that Ray was framed by the federal government, and that King was killed by a conspiracy that involved the FBI, CIA, military, Memphis police, and organized crime figures from New Orleans and Memphis. A friend of King near the end of his life, Pepper also represented Ray in a televised mock trial in an attempt to get him the trial he never had. The results of his investigation are provided in his book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.

Yet, it’s easier, in a way, to accept that King was the victim of a conspiracy than to face other aspects of his life. As Kentucky civil rights leader Georgia Powers put it, “He was a great man – but he was still a man.” Like Bill Clinton, whose record as president was largely overshadowed by relentless investigation of his personal behavior, King was hounded by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to discredit the civil rights leader by exposing his alleged “womanizing.” Many civil rights leaders dismiss such charges as mean-spirited attempts to sully King’s memory and discredit his achievements.

Georgia Powers certainly had no intention of doing that. On the contrary. She worked closely with King in the 1960s, organizing to end discrimination in public accommodations and employment and pass open housing laws. In 1967, she became that first Black and first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate, a position she held with distinction for the next 20 years. During her first term, less than a month before King’s death, she spearheaded passage of a statewide open housing bill. After a distinguished career, she passed away in 2016 at 93 years old. She was in her early 70s when we first met in 1997.
MLK and Georgia Powers
As she explained then, her relationship with King was more than professional. Her 1995 book, I Shared the Dream, described how their work together led to a love affair that continued until the last moments of his life. Keeping that secret for almost three decades, she went public only after other civil rights leaders released inaccurate accounts of their relationship and the events surrounding King’s death.
She was particularly upset by a comment in And The Walls Came Tumbling Down , an autobiography written by Ralph Abernathy, King’s close friend and confidante. Although willing to attribute Abernathy’s repetition of Hoover’s smear to illness and poor memory, she felt compelled to set the record straight. “When Dr. King’s life is researched,” she wrote, “I want the part relating to me to be available in my own words. It is my own history as well, both the good and the bad.”

It began with mutual admiration, she explained, and “progressed into a deepening friendship in which we shared opinions, confidences, and laughed often.” She called him “M.L.,” and he called her “Senator.” But King was under tremendous pressure, and ultimately turned to Georgia for intimacy and emotional support, she claimed. Although they sometimes discussed issues and strategies, his main unmet need was time to let his hair down and set his cares aside.

“Some people called him a prophet, and compared him with Jesus,” she recalled. While she did believe that he was divinely inspired, “I knew Martin had all the imperfections, foibles, and passions of a mortal man.” A meticulous person with an affection for silk suits, he enjoyed laughter and jokes, barbecued ribs and soul foods, not to mention the company of attractive women. In short, she said, “He had a good appetite for life.”

He also had a strong sense that he wouldn’t get to see his visions come to pass. Tired and melancholy one night, he told her, “I’m just as normal as any other man. I want to live a long life, but I know I won’t get to.”

Georgia was in Memphis with King on the day he died. The previous night he’d confided, “I’ve never been more physically and emotionally tired.” On April 4, they waited most of the day to see if a temporary restraining order against the planned demonstration would be lifted. But King was adamant. Regardless of what the court decided, he promised, “We will march on Monday.” When Abernathy asked whether he feared what might happen, King answered softly, “I’d rather be dead than afraid.”

As the meeting broke up and the group prepared for a soul food dinner, King brushed past Georgia on his way out the door. “I’m looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening,” he said. “Don’t make any plans.” They were the last words he ever spoke to her. Moments later he was shot.
Looking back, Georgia regretted that her actions may have hurt others, especially King’s wife. But despite those feelings, she didn’t regret her decision, insisting that it wasn’t just some tawdry affair. “When we were together,” she recalled, “the rest of the word, whose problems we knew and shared, was far away. Our time together was a safe haven for both of us. There we could laugh and speak of things others might not understand. He trusted me, and I him, not to talk about it.”

As the years passed, however, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the rumors that distorted their relationship. She also realized that her own life, like so many, was full of hidden truths. One was her ancestry. Although she didn’t know the identity of her father’s father, she eventually learned that he was White. Another involved her great aunt Celia Mudd, who was born into slavery but eventually inherited the rural Kentucky farm on which she spent all her life.
Eventually, she uncovered most of Celia’s story. The key was a 1902 will in which Sam Lancaster, whose father had bought the Nelson County farm, left it to his most trusted employee – the former slave whom Georgia knew as Aunt Celia. That fateful decision led to a court battle with Sam’s surviving brother. The case went to Kentucky’s highest court, yet most newspapers declined to report about it. A Black woman inheriting more than 500 acres of land from a White man apparently wasn’t considered news. Neither was the fact that Celia Mudd went on after winning the case to become a local philanthropist, admired by Blacks and Whites alike. 

Powers and I collaborated on a novel , Celia’s Land,* that explores this forgotten history. During the research I visited the farm on which Celia spent her life. Stepping into the old slave quarters where she was born, I reflected on how much we still don’t understand about that time, when Whites believed Blacks were no more than property. I also thought about how often racism is still ignored, distorted, or downplayed.

Rather than the petty arguments, name-calling and cruel distortions that often characterize political discourse these days, what we need is the courage to face our own and society’s uncomfortable realities – to openly acknowledge them, replace hatred with compassion, and stop accepting convenient myths.
  (Original version posted on April 4, 2008; most read post, Jan. 2012)
* In addition to working with Georgia on the book I have written a play, The Inheritance, also based on Celia Mudd's story.