“To the Gallant Black Men Now Dead” By Dr. Vincent Harding 1966

vincent harding Here is Brother Vincent wrestling as a poet with America.  His dignity, and that of the great movement of which he spoke, contrasts utterly with, though it is a hope of, the America in which we find ourselves.  For America is, and remains an opponent, giving way but glacially at best, as Black Lives Matter heroically and tragically, shows (yesterday a 16 year old young man was gunned down in Utah for holding a stick – see here<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BnXW2Uxqqc>).   How can Freddy Grey and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Walter Johnson and Trayvon Martin and so many others have been murdered, here and now, in America by officials as depraved and obtuse as those of Wetumpka, how can buildings still be named for the Klan-lover, segregator Woodrow Wilson at Princeton or University Presidents and other officials just not care that black folks are sometimes subject to derogatory howls in the night?

***

Dr. Vincent Harding

November 1966, Negro Digest

“Pentagon officials are praising the Negro as a gallant, hardfighting soldier. New figures show that proportionately more Negroes have died in Vietnam than military personnel of other races.”

–       Atlanta Journal, March 10, 1966

U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops attacking under a murderous barrage of artillery and searing napalm Friday trapped and crushed an elite communist force… Killing an estimated 522 of the enemy… Heavy artillery and flaming napalm bombs… took a savage toll among the communist troops…”

–       Atlanta Constitution, April 23, 1966

* This poem was written in response to the refusal of city officials in Wetumpka, Alabama to bury to body of Jimmy L. Williams, a fallen black soldier, in the local military cemetary.

 

My brothers,

I weep for you

Hearing sounds of your death in the jungle,

performing great deeds of gallant savagery

I weep because I remember

I remember how long has been this dying.

I remember how it began in the jungle,

dark jungle, they said.

How it began

when white and Christian they came

to save you

From savagery

and paganism.

To save you from heathen habits

—like burning your enemies to death

To save you

for one hundred and fifty dollars a head.

I remember, my brothers, how you died in thousands

with hands chained behind your backs,

How you died as you walked the path of sorrows

from the heart of darkness

to the light

of Christian ships and guns

and hymns of praise.

Were you gallant then

dropping along the way,

dropping with wife,

falling by screaming child,

Or were you brave

as you watched them dragged away?

Were you heroes then

when you left your final whiteness on a jungle path

to bleach the eyes of some next weeping band!

You are good at dying,

gallant black brother.

Too good.

I remember how you died on board a thousand ships

And heard no mourners song

where you were left

one hundred fathoms in the deep.

Were you gallant then?

Or just a stinking slave?

The times have changed black brother.

The times have changed,

The tunes have changed

and I weep for you

because I remember.

Who praised you

when first you touched these blessed shores

for sweet new dyings

on such safe and solid ground?

Who gave you medals sir

when lashes from ten thousand whips

stole bitter measures from your flesh?

When the booted feet of praying men

stamped your black image into the dust

of God’s own chosen land?

Who saw

Who cared

when all emasculate you fell

into unmarked darkness of hell

driven from those so fierce moanings

of a wife possessed

by the white white heat

and the rigid sperm

of a master’s burning frame?

What death of soul was in that fall?

Who marked it, praised it,

called you brave?

They say you die well my brother.

Oh God, how you have died!

On each plantation acre,

God how you died!

In every city’s new plumbed paths,

On each road gang

Canal and shipping crew

Your dying fed the water and the land.

Wherever lines of building digging men

cried out their old new songs

One was your mourner’s dirge.

And when the wars began

Oh blessed wars!

For freedom,

and liberty

and land

and insanity,

I remember the irony in all your dying.

How you killed Indians

to be slaves on their land,

How you obeyed orders

And won full rights to continue ways of death.

I remember the wars—

Crispus Attucks and his rag-tag crew

helping a nation wrench free

to strangle you (and me).

I remember where you fell

at Lexington and Concord

and how the Father of our country

said you were useless—

until the Redcoats wooed you.

Then you rowed the Delaware with freedom’s friend

To Philadelphia’s freedom stand

where patriots crowned him president

and wrote your bondage large

with freedom’s blackest ink.

I weep for you,

black companions in the way,

Rescued, so they say,

from jungle and from night

to live and die for freedom’s light.

I weep remembering that night,

so endless night,

when first I heard your songs

of troubles and chariots

and sorrow and hope

of groping and thirsting

for the morning.

I weep because I know the seed of those songs

springing from a thousand dyings,

dyings with no citations

with no speeches

and no praise,

because you were only dying,

black brother,

only dying, and not killing,

only dying,

and crying

in the blackness of night.

But then you sang a new song

marching behind Jackson into battle,

Blessed battle!

Killing with him you sang a new song

Dying for him you sang a new song

Dying for him you sang a new song

and the nation sang along

and the praises rose again

while I weep for you my brothers

because they say you die well,

meaning really this, my brother,

meaning really this:

“You kill well.

You kill our enemies with such valiant savagery

singing your tender songs.

And when he kills you

we weep,

officially.

So sad to see you go.”

But the sentence is not ended, black brothers,

only bent

to purposes of death,

and I weep to hear it close

like this:

“When we kill you,

Oh niggers,

Oh niggers

When we kill you

Sometimes we are silent,

officially.

Sometimes we smile,

But sometimes we shout,

nigger,

Sometimes we shout

like we did in Cincinnati

firing cannon at your shacks

and in Philly

pulling you black and bleeding off the trolleys

and in New York

burning your flimsy homes

and across the South

breaking your spirits and your backs

(While our dear General Jackson,

now rewarded for blood,

sits in Washington,

expels the Indians,

brings in the millennium

and DEMOCRACY

for all men

not black

or red

or dying.)

But we do not weep when we kill you.

We do not weep.

We shall not weep.”

This is the way the world ends, my brothers.

This is the way the world ends.

And Nat Turner is a witness.

I remember Nat Turner

Who was not willing to die,

Who had learned how to kill,

and did not think Indians

or Redcoats

or Spainiards

were his enemies,

and led—in the name of Christ—

a band of black avengers

across Southhampton county,

leaving trails of whitened dead

along a path of sorrows

in terrified Virginia.

Here was killing for freedom,

Slaughter for liberty,

Destruction for the Lord,

all the things they praise you for

dead brothers.

But where are the songs?

I hear no songs for him,

see no medals struck,

no towns named,

no schools or streets

called by Nat Turner’s name.

Why?

Did  he learn too well

his catechism of Christian death?

Did he choose the wrong men to kill?

I weep for Nat Turner,

Led by the masters’ bloody Christ

to the master’s grave,

unheeded,

unsung,

unknown,

officially.

No hero,

but a savage black slave—

who would not let the master

name his enemies.

I remember Nat Turner,

to witness

to the lie.

They say you die well my brother,

but only in the line of duty

under white orders

to kill.

Medals go only to slaves

who die at their masters’ command.

I weep when they speak of your gallantry

and how you have proven

to be men.

For I remember Civil War beginning

how you rushed to Father Abraham

offering your lives again

to kill well

and die well.

And I remember how he sent you home

asking if you would not like

to emigrate

to Central America instead.

I remember how

you pounded even then

on doors of death again

and were not admitted

‘til the war’s dark days

brought cries for help,

even yours.

I remember how they blamed you

For the war,

How they refused to fight

when someone said

it now was meant to free you.

I remember how they rioted

rather than fight at your side,

how they killed you in the cities of the North

gently humming “John Brown’s Body.”

 

 

They say you die well

and they are right.

For I remember how you fought

when finally you were let in

to all the pleasures of Civil death.

The United States Colored Troops they said;

And your bodies lay as still as any others

in The Wilderness,

and at Gettysburg

even though they paid you less than whites

to die

and kill.

You won your medals

and your praise

and proved that you were men.

And when the marching was over

And the bodies cleared away

you were still men

when they lynched you

and burned you

and took away your vote

and fought for your male organ

in the sunlight

of a thousand towns

across the blessed land.

Perhaps they had forgotten,

forgotten you were men

forgotten you were gallant,

for they remembered only

black nigger

as you died

so well

in the darkness

and the light.

God, how you died!

Brave black men.

And I weep for you

that with the stench

of your brothers’ burning

still plucking at your nostrils

you volunteered again

and were refused again

and finally convinced the nation

that you should die again

in Cuba

for freedom

and liberty

for the blacks and mulattoes

who looked like your twins

and found as much freedom

as you had known

under the heavy hand

of America.

And when you returned

with the heroes’ band

to march through southern streets

Did you recognize the hanging trees

or sense the meaning

of the slightly blackened places

in the steamy village squares?

My black brothers,

My dead black brothers,

What did you think of Atlanta in 1906?

What did you think

when the riots began

and the dying continued?

Have you collected your awards yet

for those fine dyings

in the New South?

And what were the words

of the Springfield Citation

as the mobs rushed to burn your houses

and bring you the honor of death?

Did they really say:

“Lincoln freed you,

We’ll show you where you belong”

in Springfield, Illinois?

Dear Fellow-Elders, I am forwarding this celebration of Brother Vincent by Alan Gilbert, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver,, who also sent a poem by Brother Vincent, blazing with light, blazing with The Dark is Light Enough, that was published in 1966 but since then not well-known till now.  Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth! —  Arthur

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Vincent Harding was angered by and meditated on Jimmy L. Williams’ death in Vietnam in 1964 – Williams had served in the Special Forces – and the refusal of the “officials” (Ku Klux Klan) of Wetumpka, Alabama to bury him in the lily-white military cemetery.  See the story “Burial Rebuff Shakes Battlefront Buddies” here<http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft058002v2;chunk.id=d0e5899;doc.view=print>  for statements about this by his fellow soldiers.  Vincent wrote this long poem, published in November, 1966, in Negro Digest which Sean Ray, who is writing a thesis on Tolstoy, Gandhi and King, discovered and transcribed.

***

There was protest at the time, particularly by Jimmy Williams’ parents, and he was buried in the integrated Andersonville National Cemetery, near where Freedmen had celebrated emancipation:

“In May 1966, 19 year old Jimmy Williams, an African American Green Beret from Wetumpka, Alabama, was killed in Vietnam. His hometown cemetery refused to allow him to be buried due to his race. His mother said, ‘My son died fighting on the front for all of us. He didn’t die a segregated death and he’ll not be buried in a segregated cemetery.’ Jimmy Williams was buried with full military honors in an integrated Andersonville National Cemetery, almost one hundred years after the Freedmen first celebrated their Emancipation only a few yards away.” (from the Andersonville National Historic Site website. h/t Sean Ray)

***

Wetumpka’s cemetery remained lily-white…Being buried there currently is perhaps spiritually equivalent to being buried in a sewer.  Jimmy Williams is honored today at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, see here.

***

Vincent speaks of the “gallant savagery” with which black soldiers, often abused in the well-equipped American army, murdered ordinary people in Vietnam.

***

In 1967, Vincent authored the first draft of Martin Luther King’s memorable speech against the Vietnam War given at the Riverside Church  on April 4th.  It was a choice Martin made – being on the road 300 days a year, he asked Vincent to write it –  as an alternative to a fairly banal speech, and Vincent wrote words – listen here<http://www.mixcloud.com/kymonefreeman/april-4-1967-mlk-revisited-by-the-author-of-beyond-vietnam-with-dr-vincent-harding-on-we-act-radio/> or  read it here <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm>  – which will live as long as American English is spoken.  For that speech is as true today of Obama’s drones, of CIA and Joint Special Operations Command secret activities – 12 raids in 70 countries every night –  as the day it was written.  For the militarized economy is “a demonic destructive suction tube” which steals resources from ordinary people, black, brown, red and white, which could be used for a common good (for an economy which works for all of us, as Bernie puts it) – and funnels them into crazy imperial, and losing wars in the Middle East and a gigantic $1.7 trillion a year war complex/militarism (short for military-industrial-corporate media-most politicians-academic-American trained and aided foreign militaries, and the like complex).

President Johnson and the commercial media then condemned and ostracized King, a central cause of King’s murder 1 year to the day later, April 4, 1968, in Memphis.  Vincent spoke with many people, including me, of the guilt he felt that he wrote the words for which his dear friend was murdered.  James Lawson helped to lift the cross of this somewhat from Vincent who had asked him whether he felt guilty for inviting Martin to come to Memphis, and he said: no, it was Martin’s decision.

***

From the age of 26 on in Montgomery, assassination attempts had been made against King; he told Coretta then that he would not reach the age of 40….

***

In a conversation with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now on this speech in 2008, Vincent spoke of King’s magnificent craziness, of which there is something, as I saw in being with nonviolent village protestors in Palestine, in Dr. Harding also:

“I think Halberstam was very, very much on the point there, Amy. I think that it is impossible to stand with the poor, to speak on behalf of the poor, without getting the kind of responses that people gave to Martin’s speech. He became a voice that was considered to be an alienated, out-of-his-arena kind of speech. And this was only natural in light of the commitment that he made. When you decide that you must go and stand and work with garbage workers, even though you have a Ph.D. in philosophical theology, it is only natural that many people who are accustomed to hanging out with Ph.D.’s in philosophical theology will say that you are crazy for hanging around with garbage workers. But Martin had a magnificent craziness about him that made him very uncomfortable for some people to understand and to live with.

But, Amy, what I want to remember is not simply what Time magazine said or what the Washington Post said, but what I want to remember is what Nina was remembering in her song, “The King of Love is Dead, What Should We Do Now?” What I also want to remember is that great Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, just about ten days before Martin was assassinated, Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way, and we must all engage with him in his way, because,” Heschel said, “the whole future of America depends upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” I believe that. And I think that that is part of the reason why so many people were so uncomfortable, because they knew that he was calling us to a way that was very difficult, a way beyond racism, a way beyond materialism and a way beyond militarism. And those are not easy ways to go.” See here<http://www.democracynow.org/2008/2/28/former_king_speechwriter_dr_vincent_harding>.

***

As an historian, Vincent also wrote the lyrical There is a River, the most powerful historical account of black people and the fight for freedom and decency in America up to the new opening, the hunger of poor, newly free blacks for reading and learning at the end of the Civil War. I had the privilege of going with Vincent to the meeting celebrating the 30th anniversary of its publication at ASALH (the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) in Richmond in 2011, and saw at a Chapel at the Virginia Theological Union, stained glass designed with the picture of a black woman reading against a fence (see here<http://democratic-individuality.blogspot.com/2011/10/vincent-harding-and-lerone-bennett.html>).

***

Vincent’s writings will live as long as people consider the struggle against the  long American genocides and its corrupt, imperial – and  self-destructive – wars.  This epic poem is part of the journey which Vincent made in writing these other works.

***

Until Sean found this poem in The Negro Digest, I had not known that Vincent wrote poetry.  Published  in 1966, it traces four hundred years of violent oppression, celebrates Nat Turner but avoids his bloody hands, satirizes whites who murder blacks humming “John Brown’s body” (for reasons we never discussed, Vincent had a hard time coming to admire John Brown), comments sadly on blacks fighting in settler wars against indigenous people (to be slaves on the land seized) and ends on a vision of hope (Vincent founded the Veterans of Hope…)

***

For Vincent, the way to his measured and profound nonviolence – mass nonviolent resistance – was through an anger which once sometimes sympathized with violence against the oppressor, even where he thought it unwise.  His profound nonviolence, to force oppressors to submit or hopefully change through nonviolent resistance and not to kill, a matter of spirituality and political judgment, was hard won and learned from and influenced many people, here and abroad (for instance, the courageous Bassem Tamimi – they called each other brothers –  whom Vincent stayed with in Nabi Saleh).

***

Vincent’s poem cries out against a country which oppresses and throws away black people, uses them against native americans, celebrates them only when they “are gallant” and together with poor whites burn Vietnamese villages thousands of miles away, as King’s speech says, but will not let them live together in East Chicago or Detroit, a country which will not even  bury Jimmy Williams in the lily-white cemetery in Wetumpka…

***

Wetumpka is still sick. There is no clear mention of Jimmy Williams even on webpage of the new Black History Museum, opened in 2015 here <http://elmorecountyblackhistorymuseum.org/>  in Wetumpka…

 

***

Or only black,” Vincent writes

 

and dead,

and gallant

and slaves?”

***

And yet even this poem soars at the end toward Vincent’s (and Martin’s) vision of a common place where everyone is recognized – who owns the water? Martin asked in 1968 –  or  a genuine democracy as Vincent would speak about in recent years…

For King’s vision of black and white and native american and asian – all of us united in an anti-racist, multiracial democracy is the only one way forward against increasing, day by day, economic oppression and unjust wars.

***

The racist grave yards of the South –  in Philadelphia, Mississippi, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, whose parents wished them to be buried beside each other after being murdered by the Sheriff and a reverend, leading a mob, could not be buried together…

In response to the murders at Mother Emmanuel in 2015, the Confederate flag in Louisiana was taken down from public buildings  – Governor Nikki Haley nonetheless, deserves credit for responding to these murders – but the journey to make the South a decent place will yet take a long time…

***

Here is Brother Vincent wrestling as a poet with America.  His dignity, and that of the great movement of which he spoke, contrasts utterly with, though it is a hope of, the America in which we find ourselves.  For America is, and remains an opponent, giving way but glacially at best, as Black Lives Matter heroically and tragically, shows (yesterday a 16 year old young man was gunned down in Utah for holding a stick – see here<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BnXW2Uxqqc>).   How can Freddy Grey and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Walter Johnson and Trayvon Martin and so many others have been murdered, here and now, in America by officials as depraved and obtuse as those of Wetumpka, how can buildings still be named for the Klan-lover, segregator Woodrow Wilson at Princeton or University Presidents and other officials just not care that black folks are sometimes subject to derogatory howls in the night?

***

Dr. Vincent Harding

November 1966, Negro Digest

“Pentagon officials are praising the Negro as a gallant, hardfighting soldier. New figures show that proportionately more Negroes have died in Vietnam than military personnel of other races.”

–       Atlanta Journal, March 10, 1966

“U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops attacking under a murderous barrage of artillery and searing napalm Friday trapped and crushed an elite communist force… Killing an estimated 522 of the enemy… Heavy artillery and flaming napalm bombs… took a savage toll among the communist troops…”

–       Atlanta Constitution, April 23, 1966

This poem was written in response to the refusal of city officials in Wetumpka, Alabama to bury to body of Jimmy L. Williams, a fallen black soldier, in the local military cemetary.

 

 

 

Advertisements



    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: