FROM SACRED TO PROFANE: “Echoes of a Whimpering Nation”

Talking Drum: At Peace...Alabama’s gotten me so upset…  Tennessee made me lose my rest…  And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…  Hound dogs on my trail…  School children sitting in jail…  Black cat crossed my path…  I think everyday’s gonna be my last.      (From “Mississippi Goddam,” Nina Simone, Carnegie Hall Concert, 1964)


Most African-Americans can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing, in 1963.  That’s when little Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were murdered, as the Ku Klux Klan dynamited Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th St. Baptist Church.  At 10:22 a.m., time lurched violently backwards- then stood still– as a hush swept across our nation’s character.  That evil September 15 morning, we were already rigged for war, in a U.S. Navy fleet battle group, operating in the Maya-Blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, a full 67 days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.   World War III was darn near on the horizon.  But, a few of us were past ready to do battle with the Klan!

That’s because of what happened just three months earlier.  On June 12, 1963, I’d almost blown a gasket on hearing of Medgar Evers’ Mississippi driveway assassination- just hours, but seemingly moments, after President Kennedy’s nationally televised civil rights speech. Medgar was a decorated WWII Army veteran and Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary.  And, I was peeved at the KKK’s cowardly rifle attack on this civil rights warrior. In anger, I’d sworn to join the Black Panther Party when I got home, mostly to seek revenge.  But, reason prevailed and the thought fizzled after timely, long-term exposures to various matured Mediterranean and North African cultures, as well as the ripening rich mosaics of America, before and after completing my military tour of duty.

However, before then, within a year of the vicious murders of 37-year-old Medgar, 11-year-old Denise and 14-year-olds Addie, Carole and Cynthia, Mississippi’s “Ku Klux Kowards” were at it, again.  A little after mid-night on June 21, 1964, these short-sighted white supremicists brutally lynched three young civil rights workers- Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner– in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  When I heard about it, the first words out of my mouth were actually the title to Nina Simone’s new controversial song. Just three months earlier, this jazz singer first sang her famous “Mississippi Goddam,” at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. And, that summer, “Freedom Summer-1964,” the music launched many long, sometimes heated, discussions with a close friend, a fellow shipmate who- like 20-year old Goodman and 24-year old Schwerner, both New Yorkers- happened to be white and Jewish (Chaney, 21, was a black Mississippian).  This time, we were playing war games in the Azure-Blue waters of the Mediterranean, where we were home-ported and I even played a few years of soccer, on the U.S. 6th Fleet team (represented by 15 Navy & Marine athletes of the U.S. 6th Fleet Flagship, U.S.S. Springfield).

Earlier that evening, like other knee-jerk reactions, my youthful indiscretion had allowed me to be goaded into a brief scuffle with a suspected Klan sympathizer but, ironically, an otherwise valued teammate.  Later, my studious Judaic brother was counseling me on how stupid and counterproductive my actions were. His way of counseling was often getting in my face, nose-to-nose, gritting his teeth and raising his voice with thought-provoking discourse.  I never let on that I was listening.  But, he always seemed to make sense.  He was armed with a couple of years of college, a rarity among our enlisted brethren back then, and lessons learned from the streets of Brooklyn.  Intellectually, he strongly supported the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the dangerous non-violent work of black ministers and Jewish rabbis who were spearheading operations to register thousands black Mississippi residents to vote.  But, the only thing I thought about was Nina Simon’s take on things.

Frankly, anything labeled “Mississippi” that summer seemed to set me off- except Nina’s protest song.  Her composition and the intellectual musings with my Jewish soul brother that summer helped me put America’s special brand of racism in proper perspective.  I didn’t always agree with his points of view, but learned a lot from his outlook, stemming from his own family legacy, mostly Orthodox Jews, though he mostly rebelled against their strict religious diet.  Yet, what he shared about their unsung involvement within the struggle for black freedom were eye-openers. I learned even more about myself and the boomerang effect from the ignorance of hate.

To some African-Americans the terms “Jewish” or “White” when linked to black struggles for freedom, are oxymoronic. But, after that summer, I thought it shameful how their stories went almost unnoticed while their families- like our own- continued to suffer within the aftermath of often horrific and inhumane tragedy.  It’s still disgraceful, in my opinion, that classroom history books don’t teach about Theodore Wiener, Jacob Benjamin and August Bondi– the three Jewish guerrilla fighters who fought alongside Abolitionist John Brown, during the 1859 raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal. And, much of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League’s involvement within civil rights struggles remain as foggy footnotes to this chapter in our ugly past, including the ADL’s successful effort in thwarting a 2008 assassination attempt on President Barack Obama. 

Today, a significant few Americans now think it’s a sport, within their sick political schemes, to drive racial wedges between our various cultural groups.  And, other dimwitted politicians, and those who blindly follow, seem bent on pushing the envelope of established constitutional norms and sacred ideals- not for public interests, but for selfish, personal gain.  And, this newfangled style of nut-ball politics and pseudo-journalism, especially that practiced by fake conservative-oriented media, seems to defy all things held holy, by our Constitution, as well as the Bible, the Torah or the Tanakh.

 “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” to reset the course for peace and the general welfare of our honorable nation, should begin by rejecting the race-baiting antics of a noisy, selfish few.  Their pea-brain babble, dwelling on shallow racial differences, are the echoing sounds of a whimpering nation, before it crumbles and falls, not the sounds of freedom’s ring.  What we have in common- not our differences– defines the noble etchings of our nation’s chiseled character.  I, for one, am no longer goaded by ignoble fools!

HOW ABOUT YOU?  Is the character (legacy?) of our nation now at stake within the apparent partisan political leadership vacuum?  Please let us know within the ‘comment’ section, below.  Thanks. 

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(Originally posted @ on August 23rd, 2010)   


About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.