Blog 2018

RADIO LEIGH: Protecting Our 1st Amendment and "poem for another stormy day"


(A recording of this post is forthcoming--watch for it in my audio player.)


RADIO LEIGH: Protecting Our 1st Amendment, and poem for another stormy day

October 29, 2018


In the early 70s I had what would now be considered a “progressive” History teacher—which is more a statement defining of our current regressive political and civic climate than it is a remark regarding any degree of this teacher’s actual progressiveness.  Today, I’m sure I don’t know how progressive he was or wasn’t.  What I do know is that he was a teacher, and civic action, Civics was part of his curriculum; we would learn it whether we knew it or not.


This was back when we all had to pledge allegiance to the flag at the commencement of first hour, meaning whatever class we were in first to start the school day.  In this history class we were studying American History with its abysmal treatment of the "Savage Indian" who had to be massacred while, in a practical spasm of irony, also studying the Constitution of the United States of America.  As inheritors of the 1st Amendment anyone wishing to exercise free speech and civil disobedience, could, we were told and if so-desired, refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag and that in so doing we could simply remain silently seated.  I was already suspicious of blind allegiance to anything/-one, so if pledging all to flag and country wasn’t enough, the McCarthy-Era addition of the words “under god” to the pledge bothered the crap out of me.  I was a budding feminist and didn’t figure I owed any allegiance, exactly, to my country and I was even more certain I did not owe it to a god.


I remained seated; silently, respectfully seated.  I had internalized the resistance to the Living Room War whose footage my dad watched nightly on the black and white TV.  I had internalized the civil rights people were fighting for, some of them killed for the right to be female and equal, the right to be black and equal, the right to resist obedience to government when that government was failing too many of its people too much of the time. 


Two years earlier, tired of freezing my legs off at the bus stop I started showing up to school in pants.  Mind you, this was a public school, not a private school, but even so, girls were supposed to wear dresses; that was the dress code.  But I had bell-bottoms to wear and I was determined to wear them, and I did.  I stood up.  I stood up for my cold legs and against the sexist pedagogy that was the national trend.  Two years later all girls wore pants to school if they wanted to.  The Women’s Movement was taking hold, and its impact was real even if we still have no ERA.  I still believe it will come.  We just have to make it come.


When I told this tale of not being allowed to wear pants to school to one of my nieces she was indignant, “No one would ever tell me what to wear!” she huffed, not realizing she had internalized the benefits of feminism--or that it was ironic that, as benefactor of feminism's resistance to the kind of oppression currently revisiting us under the sway of a vitriolic, racist, sexist President, she would nevertheless vote for him, thus helping to revert such benefit by giving her vote power to fascist ideologues dedicated to civic regression and BEing WORST not BEST.  In such an environment the 1st Amendment goes up in smoke much like the sharecropper’s house at a 30's KKK rally—or the peace of gathering for a naming ceremony at a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as happened only two nights ago at the hands of a fascist gunman.


When I sat as an adolescent at my desk, watching all but one or two of my classmates stand, raise their hands to breast, turn to the flag and obediently pledge, I had no fear of death for my self-expression, and I was never ostracized by my peers for exercising my right.  Neither of those would have been conceivable for there was an understood acceptance that I was peaceably expressing myself and, agree or not, this was acceptable to all in that room and school.  This is a lesson that has been wiped out over the last few decades. 


The pathway of improved human conditions, the way of Civil Rights, of Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion, Free Speech and a Free Press is contained in that 1st Amendment to the Constitution that marks the beginning of the Bill of Rights.  How can we not take this to heart?  How can we not waste such a right we are endowed with, a right that is inalienable?


I recently posted a poem I’d written 20 years ago for Matthew Shepard but what I want to add is the other poem I wrote in the same year for James Byrd Jr., whose name is on the same bill as Matthew Shepard’s as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  This is an Act of Congress passed on October 22, 2009 and signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.  Hence, the recent ceremony for the burial of Matthew Shepard’s ashes.  The other man on the bill, James Byrd Jr., was a black man who in 1998 was dragged by white supremacists behind a pickup truck for three miles before being dumped into a Black cemetery in Jasper, Texas. 


I won’t reiterate the gruesome details of Byrd’s death, but I want to say there is a vote you have in your hand if you are 18 years or older, are a U.S. citizen, and are registered to vote.  If you are not registered to vote I hope you will get registered. And then, of course, I hope you will vote.  Yes, I do.  I hope you will vote for the quality of life all people deserve and in whatever peaceful manner they choose to constitute their happiness.  I hope you will vote for the 1st Amendment because it is waiting for you and it certainly needs you.


So, here is the poem I wrote for James Byrd Jr.  I first read it in downtown Minneapolis, at Kieran’s Irish Pub, when they offered safe space for weekly open mic nights and yearly poetry slams.  This is James Byrd’s poem, but I dedicate it to all, and especially to anyone forced into the worst of cruelty for simply embodying their freedom to peaceably be.


poem for another stormy day


not thinkin about race they say it isn’t

about race  like “but” as in “yes but” and

but that was a long time ago and but

that’s not my fault


but now


the way that flag slides up & down

its confederated pole sure aint not joke joe

sure aint no simple carolinian runner

draggin its own cloth around

cuz theres all this bein way eric-rudolph-like

& hidin out in the god-only-knows where

blue smoke rolls in the mornin rubbin noses

with low clouds –n- everthin is trees

 –n- everthin is misty fog

played out on back roads & mountainsides

speakin murder      speakin gray days burnin


so c mon you people of the news

do bring your pads & pens

you holy rollers

theres history up here

in the blood of sunrise


re|d|anger fired up &

big enough to blow

like bombs over-ready

& waiting      just waiting

to take your breath

& the comfort

of a slow steady breeze







dedicated to james byrd jr, jasper, texas




at the time of this writing eric rudolph was believed to be responsible for several terroristic bombings, including the july 27th pipe-bombing at olympic part, in atlanta, during the 1996 summer olympics     that bombing killed one person   Rudolph was thought to have hidden himself somewhere in the appalacians


in november 1999 the naacp accepted a boycott of tourism in south carolina where the confederate flag was being flown over the state building