John Lewis

Just over five years ago, I joined Sojourn to the Past for one of its immersive Civil Rights history experiences for high school students. My son, Sam, took the journey along with 100+ peers from throughout the U.S.

In addition to serving as one of about 20 other chaperones, I was in charge of capturing and sharing media, along with official photographer Audra Gray. On the third day of our six-day journey, we had a private audience at The King Center in Atlanta with Rep. John Lewis, who passed last night of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

Rep. Lewis arrived late at our event. He was out the previous night celebrating his 75th birthday. He was worth the wait. A forceful speaker, his voice rose and fell to emphasize his points. You could still hear the hurt, even 50 years after he led the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers cracked his skull.

Rep. Lewis sounded every bit as fresh and relevant as he did when he chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and spoke at the March on Washington, in my view, even more powerfully than Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Sojourn tradition provides each person on a journey a private moment with guest speakers. Hugging Rep. Lewis, I thanked him for all he had done for our country. Then we shot this impromptu testimonial video for Sojourn.

Despite my decades of meeting “important” pro athletes, I had never experienced such gravitas. Although he rests in power now, Rep. Lewis will forever stand as the most important, impactful person I have ever met.

Firewords

Most Independence Days it would be time for fireworks. This Fourth of July, it’s time for firewords.

I have always loved this holiday. I was raised to be a patriot. One grandmother was born on the Fourth of July. The other belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, tracing her lineage to the Revolutionary War financier Haym Salomon.

I drank the same red, white and blue Kool-Aid that most of my peers did. I loved this country and celebrated it every Fourth of July.

Ordinarily at this time of night, I would lie back on a blanket beneath the fireworks at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where I graduated high school and where my parents still live. I would have spent the day following a parade of stilt-legged Uncle Sams and cheerily oblivious families through the streets, drinking beer sold by Rotary or Kiwanis, and “dancing” to a Tom Petty cover band.

Tonight, July 4, 2020, fireworks sound distantly through my Foster City, California porch door. It’s not a scheduled show. Those are all canceled due to the Coronavirus crisis, as was my annual trip home. Air travel is unsafe while this virus rages, and anyway my parents fear infection too much to let me in the door.

So, any fireworks I hear now are set off by the people. By morning. we’ll learn that some of those fireworks were gunshots. Beyond the Coronavirus crisis there is anger in the streets and a reckoning still to come for the recent police murders of unarmed Black folks George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks.

It’s just as well that I did not have a normal celebration today. We’re not free. We are captive to the Coronavirus crisis and the failed government that flouts it — at our expense and deadly danger — even while flying a fake freedom flag. We suffer from centuries of systemic racism, now fanned by 45.

Maybe it’s best that instead of my normal celebration, I spent today on my porch close-reading Frederick Douglass’ “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” One-hundred-sixty-eight years later, his question remains unanswered. So, this Fourth of July, what’s to celebrate?

Coronavirus Diary: Re-Opening

It’s been more than two weeks since my last diary entry. The main reason is that news, thinking, talking, and writing about protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd have consumed my days and nights. I’ve also focused on selling copies of Az Der Papa and worked extensively with students from my “On Point” class at The Writing Salon.

I could not have imagined anything usurping my mindshare from the Coronavirus crisis, but because of who I am, where I’ve lived, and how my friends are, the anti-racism concerns take precedence. I won’t comment further here on anti-racism to keep this diary as purely as possible about Coronavirus.

As to that, signs (or lack thereof) indicate that much is re-opening. Most importantly, the stairs at my running hill shed their police tape and detour signs about a week ago. It has been a blessing to return to running, now mixed in with cycling as much as 20 miles at a time, to keep me as physically and mentally healthy as possible.

Some live televised sports have resumed, notably boxing, golf, and European soccer. More restaurants, shopping, and other services are now available. We have even seen a few friends in recent days as well as light at the end of the tunnel…at least for now.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Funeral

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Black Out Tuesday

The Black Out Tuesday social media campaign makes little sense. At best, it’s an easy way for people, brands, organizations, and institutions to express solidarity. But it seems too easy.

Black Out Tuesday is a handy excuse for some people, especially white people, to avoid the necessary difficult conversations about race at the precise moment when those talks are most important. At the same time, perhaps some people, especially black people, need a break from the barrage of messages about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the Coronavirus crisis’ disproportionate toll on black people, and the President and some of the news media twisting all those stories to defend the racist systems underpinning “America.”

Even if grief moves people to engage in Black Out Tuesday, I hope others remember earlier messages in this current protest movement, such as “silence=violence.” So, today seems the perfect day to raise my voice. Below are links to my work on race, starting with a piece that explains the childhood roots of today’s message, followed by others roughly in reverse chronological order.

Comment on Donald Sterling and Doc Rivers
Opinion and memoir of my childhood in race and sports
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 4/28/14

I #RunWithMaud
Commentary, video and shoutouts for the reasons I ran

Speaking of Donald Trump
Video and poem used to introduce my poetry class to middle-school students I teach within the Citizen Schools program

Long Shot: Conversation with Craig Hodges
Video interview of former Chicago Bulls star and activist and author

Voices We Need to Hear
On watching “Black Panther” and the importance of black voices in media

First and Lasting Visions of the Late Jimmy Webb
Remembrance of my friend from Sojourn to the Past, an original “foot soldier” on the Bloody Sunday march over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge (includes Jimmy’s hilarious remark from the pulpit at Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal at the 2:55 mark of this recording).

Our Sojourn
Narrative and photos from a journey with Sojourn to the Past, the civil rights education nonprofit

Speaking of Donald Trump

At the start of a Citizen Schools semester, we Citizen Teachers pitch the students on the Apprenticeship we will lead. Above is my pitch for my Poetry Apprenticeship.

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Front Row at the Shitshow

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Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.

“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.

The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”

I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.

Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.

But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”

Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.

An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.

Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.

Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”

The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”

A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.

For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.

Long Shot: Conversation with Craig Hodges

The loudest noise I ever heard rose in a roar toward the top row of the old Chicago Stadium, thanks to a dagger to the heart of the hated Pistons from the hand of Hodge late in game one of the 1991 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. More than a quarter century later, Craig Hodges makes news and noise of even greater importance.

In Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, Hodge recalls his life of activism — fully woke from the jump — that led to his being blackballed from basketball. Following Hodge’s appearance on a panel discussion at the Socialism2017 conference in Chicago, we sat for this interview, thanks to Long Shot publisher Haymarket Books.


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First and Lasting Visions of the Late Jimmy Webb

I first saw the famous video clip of Jimmy Webb from “Eyes on the Prize,” when it premiered on PBS in 1987. His 16-year-old face was angelic, guileless, plaintive as he articulated non-violence to deputy sheriff L.C. Crocker, who had stopped Jimmy from leading marchers to Selma’s Dallas County Courthouse.

In a key moment in that clip, trying to reason with the unreasonable about equality and justice, Jimmy says, “Sir, are you saying that if I have a quarter, and I’m black, and you have a quarter, and you’re white, that my quarter isn’t worth as much as your quarter?”

To see the difference in size and armament between Jimmy and Crocker was to see David and Goliath. How often do you see video of Biblical moments?

I next saw the clip in 2015 projected from a laptop while sitting in back of a crowded, sweltering art studio in Selma with about 100 high school students from around the U.S. who were traveling with Sojourn to the Past. Sojourn Founder Jeff Steinberg pressed pause, and from the back door of the studio, in sight of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in walked Jimmy Webb.

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The room roared for about five minutes, maybe 10. Jimmy was impossibly small and large at the same time under his African cap, overalls, shirt and tie, and a medal commemorating the 50th anniversary of his Bloody Sunday march. He stood and accepted our applause as it rained down on him, salve for the savagery that had rained down on him in Selma in 1965 and for most of his seven decades.

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My journalism career had brought me into meetings with famous athletes, artists, authors, entertainers and politicians, but I had never met a Biblical figure. I had to know Jimmy better.

That night, the Sojourn program called for Jimmy to kick it with the kids. Someone asked what music he liked. “Abdullah Ibrahim.” An involuntary “woo!” escaped me, because Abdullah Ibrahim had made me cry in 1985 when I saw him perform on my college campus at the height of protests calling for the university’s divestment from South Africa.

Jimmy caught my “woo,” flashed that brilliant smile and loosed the first of a thousand cackles I would enjoy over the last 20 months of his life. Abdullah Ibrahim’s music was common ground that gave us a little extra to talk about after the Sojourn ritual of standing in line for photos and a hug and dropping a quarter into Jimmy’s collection for the shelters he was building for South African AIDS orphans.

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The next morning, I lucked into a spot next to Jimmy in the breakfast line. We got to talking for what has turned out to be one of the most important hours of my life, learning straight from David how to non-violently slay internal and external Goliaths. We shared brief biographies. I was flattered at how closely he listened to mine. Here are notes from his that I later put into my journal:

His “Eyes on the Prize” segment exhibits the courage, leadership, patience and wisdom he already possessed as a 16-year-old. I asked if the composure and fearlessness he showed there came from his upbringing or the training he received from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He said, “Both.”

He told me stories of his lineage more off-color than I should share here. He said that what looked like courage in “Eyes on the Prize” was just the knowledge that he already was dead. Racial violence was so common, assumed, sudden, random, unprosecuted and ingrained in everyday life that he and his peers expected short lives. That alone emboldened them to lead activist lives.

He spoke of his learning tenets of non-violence from SNCC leader James Lawson in Nashville. The philosophy of non-violence made sense, Jimmy said, because “we were outmatched” in any violent battle for rights and dignity. I asked his advice on how to put non-violence into action in my life. What stuck with me was to go slowly and accept small victories. He drew the analogy of a drunk who waited until 9am to start drinking instead of the previous day’s 8am. “If you get into something too quickly, you can end up getting out too quickly, too.”

I asked more details of his life’s journey. After the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he ended up in the Marines, sent to Vietnam. He saw no combat, but met a mentor, Guido, who eventually reached the Pentagon and offered Jimmy an adjutant’s position. Jimmy said: “I asked Guido, ‘Do you need an adjutant? Or do you need a butler?’ ”

Satisfied the position was legit, and with Guido navigating the necessary clearances despite Jimmy’s civil rights arrest record, Jimmy eventually was signing requisitions with the made-up title of acting undersecretary. “If you assume authority, people give you authority,” Jimmy explained. That was until Caspar Weinberger called him on it.

Jimmy continued working within the Reagan Administration. He was instrumental in helping establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. He helped negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela and escorted him from Victor Verster Prison. Jimmy now is a minister, public speaker, leader of tours to South Africa and builder of homes for children in South Africa, who have lost their parents to AIDS.

Jimmy parted from our Sojourn group that day. But I kept his words and his example close as I struggled with myself over the next weeks and months to grow into non-violence. We occasionally emailed and phoned each other until we next met in Youngstown in October 2015 for Non-Violence Week in Ohio. That event – founded via legislation introduced by Sojourn supporter Penny Wells and her students – includes a parade that I helped marshal along with several of her students whom I’d met on our shared Sojourn.

Near the podium at the end of the parade route, I ran into Jimmy. He was composing an invocation that would launch the post-parade community presentations. I joked with him that I expected to hear some Hebrew. When he took the stage a few minutes later, he referenced God, “who has brought us shabbat and shalom.” He made eye contact at too solemn a moment to smile and cackle, but I heard it anyway.

That night at Penny’s house, over the Amarula cream liqueur Jimmy brought from South Africa, we discussed a sermon I had heard on the radio that morning when the rest of the dial died as I was driving to Youngstown from Central Pennsylvania. The sermon was from Daniel 1:8. Jimmy broke it down from about seven different angles.

That type of conversation, interspersed with his civil rights movement memories, marked our hours together during several days of Sojourn school visits throughout Youngstown. Our bond strengthened. We decided he would stay with me and my family in April 2016 when he planned to visit the San Francisco Bay Area after finishing a Sojourn, on which my wife, Val, also traveled.

They arrived at our house together, grown so close that Jimmy was now family. We’d long been calling each other “brother.” Now it felt official.

Another adopted sister, Val’s former colleague, Heather, also was staying with us. We were up most of the night, enthralled as Jimmy would start sentences, “Well, then Martin said to me…” and “Nelson used to tell me…” How does someone speak that way and still sound humble? Maybe because listening while gazing upon his wizened visage, I still saw the open, guileless, beseeching face that lit up “Eyes on the Prize.” The man was whole when he was 16 and continued growing holier.

The occasion that brought Jimmy to the Bay Area was the bar mitzvah of Jeff Steinberg’s son, Justice. The weekend of Jimmy’s stay, we spoke more of the movement, a topic which by then also included many recent acts of violence against African-Americans by police and others, as well as the looming doom of a Presidential election. Jimmy continued to instruct and encourage me in von-violence, and we deeply explored religion and faith.

Organized religion is not for me. Whatever salvation it has offered others, including Jimmy, I see it as root evil…as divisive as the racism Sojourn helps heal. However, I am irresistibly drawn to people who strike me as spiritual. That’s part of what had me driving Jimmy that weekend not only to Justice’s bar mitzvah but also to Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Jimmy was to lead a service with his lifelong friend, Rev. Dr. Harold Mayberry.

It turned out that Dr. Mayberry was too ill to join us. After a brief private prayer, holding hands in a circle with Jimmy and several ministers in Dr. Mayberry’s office, Jimmy took the pulpit. That will be my forever vision of him. We shared a few more phone calls, but I think of Jimmy as I last saw and heard him during the recording linked below, produced by the church, that will ensure Jimmy Webb’s spirit echoes through the ages.

Pre-Inkflow Work Samples

Links to David Jacobson’s work published elsewhere, starting with the most recent.

Wolfpack Ninja Tour 2.0 Recap
About: An incredible Ninja Warrior event
Published: Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 12/4/17

NFL anthem controversy leads to a Sunday unlike any other
About: Taking a knee
Published: FoxNews.com, 9/25/17

The country’s divided but we can all agree on football, right? Right?
Description: Satire on social issues playing out within the NFL
FoxNews.com, 9/7/17

Manchester
Description: Soccer culture’s healing effect
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 5/24/17

A Visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Description: Review of museum visit
Sojourn to the Past (SojournProject.org), 12/31/16

Life Lessons from the World Series
Description: Reflections on the Chicago Cubs, 2016 World Series Champions
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 11/8/16

Ripple
Description: How Junior Giants coaches positively impact under-served youth
UpMetrics’ “Between the Lines” magazine, 10/19/16

Life Lessons from Muhammad Ali
Description: Observations on the life and death of The Greatest
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 6/6/16

Comment on Donald Sterling and Doc Rivers
Description: Opinion and memoir on race and sports
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 4/28/14

Podcast with Claudio Reyna
Description: Interview with US Soccer Legend
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, April 2014