Friday, June 26, 2009

Broken heart, not cardiac arrest killed Michael Jackson

By DeWayne Wickham

The king of pop is dead.

Death came to Michael Jackson as he was in Los Angeles preparing for a series of 50 sold-out concerts in London that was expected to breathe life back into his troubled career. The official cause of his death is said to be a cardiac arrest, but I suspect it was a broken heart that sapped the life from Jackson’s body.

Once a fixture on the pages of Billboard, the Bible of the music industry, Jackson spent the last years of his life trying to distance himself from the ugly tabloid headlines that tarnished his reputation. Twice he was accused of child molestation. Each time Jackson denied any wrongdoing. The first case, a civil lawsuit, was settled in 1993 for an undisclosed amount of money. The second one, a 2005 criminal case, ended with Jackson being acquitted of all 10 charges of a legal proceeding that had dragged on for two years.

“He just wanted to get it behind him,” Johnnie Cochran, Jackson’s lawyer in the 1993 case told me shortly after the settlement was reached. “He’s a pretty vulnerable guy, with a big heart,” the famed attorney said of Jackson.

Sadly, the taint from these cases – and Jackson’s bizarre lifestyle – put the brakes on his phenomenal music career. They also probably put some deep cracks in Jackson’s heart.

Jackson loved to be onstage. As a performer he had no equal. During his appearance on a 1983 television special celebrating Motown Records 25th anniversary, Jackson stunned a worldwide audience with his “moonwalk,” a dance move that seemed to defy the laws of physics. The next day he got a congratulatory call from Fred Astaire, himself an icon of American dance.

Later that year, Jackson produced another electrifying moment with the release of “Thriller,” a 13-minute video which revolutionized pop culture in much the same way that talking movies changed the silent film industry. After “Thriller” music videos increasing became mini-movies, though none has matched the success of Jackson’s breakthrough video.

But with extraordinary fame and wealth came greater scrutiny for Jackson, who spent many of his last years in a California on a 2,800 acre ranch he called “Neverland” - the name of a mythical island where the fairy tale character Peter Pan lived. Like Peter Pan, Jackson never grew up – not really. Not off stage.

“He’s just a big kid, at heart,” Cochran told me back in 1993.

What’s certain is off stage – away from the sanctuary of his music – Jackson behaved like a shy, confused little boy. He often appeared in public wearing disguises that fooled no one, but seemed to satisfy his desire to temporarily escape his celebrity. He spent a lot of time with his three children. He built a zoo filled with exotic animals and an elaborate amusement park on his ranch. Both of these he often opened up to the children of others. But Jackson moved out of Neverland after his 2005 acquittal and struggled to hold onto the property as his income dwindled and his debt increased.

This must have done even more damage to Jackson’s heart.

Like so many members of my generation, I grew up with the legendary music of Michael Jackson. I remember him as the soft spoken lead singer of the teen idol group in the late 1960s called "The Jackson Five." I went to the movies to see his film debut in “The Wiz,” the 1978 film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” I watched him claim the title of “King of Pop” in the 1980s and saw his career nose dive in the 1990s

But like so many others, I never really thought of him simply as a person. And in the end that was probably more than Michael Jackson's heart could withstand.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why Congress' slavery apology falls short

By DeWayne Wickham

Last week, the U.S. Senate apologized for slavery and the Jim Crow century that followed. But like the House of Representatives, which passed a similar resolution last July, it failed to give a detailed confession of its complicity in this great crime.

Instead, the Senate followed the House's lead and simply bemoaned the mistreatment of millions of blacks who were forced into slavery from 1619 through 1865. It didn't say anything about what Congress did — or didn't do — to aid and abet that "peculiar institution."

That's not good enough. For the sake of history and closure, Congress needs to describe the full nature of its offenses in support of slavery and the century-long period of legal disenfranchisement of blacks that followed. Too many people in this country have little knowledge of the legal cover Congress gave slavery. Too few people understand how Congress perpetuated the suffering of blacks long after the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

The apologies passed by the House and Senate, and the joint resolution that's expected to come soon, amount to a guilty plea. As in a criminal case where a defendant cops a plea, Congress should be forced to give a detailed confession of its crimes against blacks.

It should acknowledge how the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act reduced slavery to a political balancing act. The purpose of these federal laws was to keep the nation evenly divided between slave and free states — a heartless political calculation.

Congress should also acknowledge the harm it did to untold numbers of slaves when it passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which denied runaway slaves a jury trial and the right to testify in their own defense.

Even after slavery ended on Dec. 6, 1865, Congress refused to safeguard black voting rights. In 1891, a Senate filibuster killed a bill that would have placed national elections under federal control to stop Southern states from denying blacks the right to vote. It took 74 years for Congress to undo that wrong with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It took even longer for Congress to right the wrong it did to Harriet Tubman. An escaped slave, she worked during the Civil War as a Union army spy and scout. But she never got a pension for her military service. In 2003, Congress agreed to pay Tubman's estate $11,750 — the value of a widow's pension that she should have gotten for her husband's military service.

And here's something else Congress must own up to. In 1901 — a year in which 105 blacks were lynched — the House killed this country's first anti-lynching bill. The legislation would have made lynchings a federal offense and increased the possibility that such crimes would have resulted in a trial and conviction. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, but not one was ever enacted. Four years ago, the Senate apologized for its failure to pass an anti-lynching bill.

From 1902 through 1964, nearly 1,600 blacks were lynched in this country. And 99% of everyone involved in these lynchings escaped prosecution by state and local officials, the Senate said in its 2005 apology resolution.

In their sterile mea culpas, neither the House nor Senate have come close to admitting the role those bodies played in the sorry history they now decry. Until they do, their apology is a hollow act of political expediency.

And it should not be accepted.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cowardly racist reaches end of diving board

By DeWayne Wickham

Life must have become unbearable for James von Brunn.It had to be tough for this longtime anti-Semite and white supremacist to stomach the changes this nation has undergone in recent months. The election last year of America's first black president must have rubbed von Brunn raw. And President Barack Obama's visit this month to a former Nazi concentration camp was probably more than von Brunn could take.

After years of claiming the Holocaust was a hoax and saying blacks were "incapable of inventing even the wheel," all this was apparently more than von Brunn could take. Police say he rushed into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday armed with a rifle and critically wounded a black security guard, who later died. Other guards returned fire, critically wounding von Brunn.

After years of spewing his venomous rage in books and on his Web site, the 88-year-old von Brunn apparently decided to "go out with his boots on," as his ex-wife told the New York Daily News he had said he would do.

Back in 1981, von Brunn was arrested for storming the offices of the Federal Reserve Board and trying to make a "citizen's arrest" of its members. He blamed them for high interest rates at the time.

He served time in prison for that offense. But for the most part, von Brunn was more talk than action -- until he entered the Holocaust Museum with a rifle.

If he survives, von Brunn faces prosecution by a Justice Department headed by the first black attorney general. And he likely would be tried in the District of Columbia, where jury pools are largely black.

That would be poetic justice.His action at the Holocaust Museum is a chilling reminder that members of the rear guard of America's racist past are, as von Brunn once said of himself, "getting near the end of the diving board."

They no longer have the public backing of a White Citizens Council to cloak their bigotry. The brazen political support they once got from elected officials -- especially governors and senators from the old South -- has been replaced by a far more tolerant brand of politics in the new South.

But racism isn't dead. Far from it.On its Hatewatch Web site, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists dozens of acts of racial and religious violence and intolerance that have occurred since the beginning of this year. Last month, The Boston Globe reported that Obama's election spurred "a wave of hate group violence," including the killing of five law enforcement officers.

There's emerging evidence that right-wing hate groups and radical ideas are spreading across the United States, Mark Potok, who runs the center's Intelligence Project, wrote in a recent online editorial.

It may not have been coincidence that von Brunn, who had warned of the coming demise of the white race, attacked the Holocaust Museum when he did.Young cast members with the play "Anne & Emmett," scheduled to premiere in the museum's theater that night, were rehearsing. The one-act play is an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank, a 15-year-old Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.

The play is the work of Janet Langhart Cohen, a black journalist married to former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is white.Von Brunn may or may not have known about Langhart Cohen and her play. He was certainly aware of the racial barriers this country has broken recently, and of the Holocaust Museum's role in exposing the consequences of religious intolerance.

In the end, it was more than this aging bigot could stand.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ball is now in Cuba's court

By DeWayne Wickham

The Obama administration — not Cuba — is the biggest beneficiary of the Organization of American States’ decision to revoke its 46-year suspension of Cuba from the hemispheric group.

The decision, which came as President Barack Obama was on the first leg of his five-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, is not likely to bring Cuba back into the organization anytime soon. Cuban President Raul Castro has denounced the OAS as a tool of American hegemony in the region and scoffs at the idea of rejoining the organization.

If Cuba decides to return to the OAS, it must agree to adhere to the organization’s democratic principles — a litmus test the Obama administration got the OAS to impose as a condition of Cuba’s readmittance.The OAS “showed flexibility and openness” in agreeing to lift its suspension of Cuba, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement shortly after the group voted by acclamation to end the ban.

“Cuba can come back into the OAS in the future if the OAS decides that its participation meets the purposes and principles of the organization, including democracy and human rights,” she said.

Clinton’s interpretation of the OAS action won’t have Fidelistas in Havana jumping for joy. But it will produce a measure of steam control for the Obama administration, which was being pressured by virtually every other OAS country to end its objection to Cuban membership.

With the OAS vote, the ball is now in Cuba’s court. If it doesn’t seek to return to the hemispheric group, it can’t accuse the United States of standing in its way without condemning the other 33 OAS nations for approving the terms of its re-entry. If it chooses to remain detached from the OAS after being invited back in, it risks losing support within the organization.

The Obama administration, by getting a rollback of the ban largely on its terms, has outflanked Cuba and its allies inside the OAS. Coming just weeks after he eased restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba, Obama’s embrace of the OAS action makes him look like the leader in efforts to ease America’s longstanding rift with the Castro regime.

Cuba’s response so far has been a muted call for talks on immigration, the renewal of direct mail service between the nations and cooperation against drug trafficking and terrorism.The Castro government will have to do much more to counter the impression that it clings to the Cold War rift that the Obama administration is trying to end.

It’s not enough to simply argue the limitations and insincerity of America’s outreach — though it is at times both. Cuba must counter Obama’s breakthrough actions with breakthrough actions of its own.The time is right to end America’s embargo of Cuba.

There’s strong support in Congress for this, but with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, Congress probably won’t pressure Obama to lift the embargo without some positive movement from Cuba.Many in Congress understand the embargo hasn’t worked. They know continuing to isolate the Caribbean island nation won’t produce democratic change. As with China and Vietnam, they understand that change — however slow — is more likely to come from engagement.

But as we have so often learned, “all politics is local.” The Democrat-controlled Congress and the Obama administration will be cautious in handling Cuba out of fear a misstep would be turned against them by Republicans desperate for an issue to break their fall.

The OAS vote improves the Obama administration’s standing abroad without causing it any significant political damage at home — and ratchets up the pressure on Cuba to act.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How will historians view Obamas' fist bump?

By DeWayne Wickham

Many people will remember June 3, 2008 as the day Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party s presidential nomination. It was a year ago Wednesday that Obama won enough delegates to become the first black to lead a major party s presidential ticket.

In his speech to supporters in St. Paul, Obama said of his win and the looming general election campaign against Republican John McCain: Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another. That was an unparalleled time in the 219-year history of the American presidency. But the most revealing moment came before Obama spoke a word.

As he walked on stage with his wife, Michelle, to give his victory speech, the crowd cheered wildly. The couple embraced warmly, and then as his wife pulled away to leave the stage she smiled and extended a clenched fist toward her husband. He responded by making a fist and tapping it softly against hers.

That dap – most media reports called it a fist bump – became a major news event. The Washington Post called it “the fist bump heard ‘round the world.” E. D. Hill, a Fox News Channel commentator, asked cynically whether the gesture might have been a “terrorist fist jab.” Time magazine rushed to press with “A Brief History of the Fist Bump,” the origins of which it said were “murky.”

A dap is actually a greeting of respect that is thought to have been created in the 1970s by the Black Panther Party or Fred Carter, a black player with the NBA’s old Baltimore Bullets. But its origin is far less important than the willingness of the Obamas to openly perform this once-uniquely black greeting before a TV audience of millions of Americans of all races. That was a better indication of where this nation was headed than that day’s election results.

Their dap was a dividing line between the politics of old and the new politics that Obama s campaign represented. It was seen by many as an act of affection that humanized the would-be first couple in a way that no words could ever do. It symbolized Obama s ability to transcend race for some, while at the same time manifesting it for others. His very public fist bump that night showed that Obama was confident he had achieved this duality.

During his 16-month campaign, Obama masterfully molded himself into an Omni-American, a term used by cultural critic Albert Murray to describe an American who identifies with all of their ancestors.

Some people may have seen evidence of this in the backing Obama got from across the political spectrum.

“When was the last time American was led by someone who truly thinks of his country’s citizens as ‘we,’ not ‘they,?’ ” left-leaning Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison asked rhetorically in the endorsement letter she sent the Democratic candidate. “Obama is what the historical moment seems to be calling for,” Christopher Buckley, the Republican political satirist and son of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote of Obama in The Daily Beast.

For many historians, June 3, 2008, will be remembered simply as the day Obama became the Democratic presidential nominee. But for those who view that day more closely, they will see the execution – and acceptance – of that dap as proof of a love affair between Obama and the American electorate that propelled him into the White House.