America, We’re Better Than This

(Originally published July 4, 2021)

America, we’re better than this. We’ve allowed ourselves to be lied to. We’ve been willingly herded into ideological corrals based upon which news channel we watch or which newspaper we read, or in many cases, whether we choose to read a newspaper at all. We’ve accepted the rhetoric of angry demagogues who have labeled us and arrested our ability to think critically about the world. We have accepted those labels and segregated ourselves along false political lines.

We exchange angry messages with strangers of different political tribes on social media, but we no longer talk with our family at the dinner table about important issues because we have lost the ability to think with complexity, to speak rationally, to consider ideas which do not fit the talking points we’ve embraced. We have entrenched ourselves in safe, comfortable spaces, where our assumptions are no longer challenged, and the information we receive is thoughtfully curated to reinforce what we have already decided is true, and to make us feel secure in the political tribe we’ve chosen.

We have allowed ourselves to forget that we are a kind and generous people, which is a virtue and a strength. It does not make us “suckers”, rather it reveals our essential goodness. We are a nation of immigrants who have built this republic into the single greatest country in the history of the world. We too often view our nation’s history through a lens of either mindless patriotism, or damning critique of past sins – there is no middle ground, no room for complex thought. “Kinder and gentler” is a punch line these days.

America, we’re better than this.

Fifty years ago, we landed a man on the moon. It was the culmination of a bold idea and an audacious challenge to do big things, great things, in the name of advancing science and technology, and for the sake of challenging ourselves as a people to be better and to strive. Twenty years prior, an entire generation of soldiers, sailors and Marines came home from the battlegrounds of Europe, having soundly defeated the evil of totalitarianism, liberating an entire race from the ovens of a demented racist. They came back with a voracious energy and a single-minded drive to get on with their lives. The GI Bill sent them to college, and they spent the next several decades transforming our country into the single greatest economy the world has ever witnessed.

America, it’s time to get back to doing big things. It’s time to get back to talking with one another, exchanging thoughtful ideas, turning off the talking heads and rolling up our sleeves to do meaningful work in our communities and beyond. We must embrace our national heritage of leadership on the world stage.

It’s time to reengage with our allies and partners across the globe, to embrace once again the alliances, which have fostered peace and stability across the world for over seventy years. Its time to reject the false pretense of isolationism, and move once again with great urgency and energy into the world, to lend a voice for individual freedom and liberty at a time when totalitarianism seeks a second act.

It’s time cast off the shackles of hyper-partisanship, and to reject the dimwitted ramblings of political provocateurs. It’s time to peer over the fence and shake hands and have conversations. It’s time to strip ourselves of labels and engage in the exchange of ideas, to open ourselves up to intellectual challenge, and to be unafraid of “the other”.

We have painted ourselves into ideological corners, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time to be complex thinkers, not adherents to the orthodoxy of “red” or “blue”. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Principled compromise, not scorched-earth politics, is the bedrock of democracy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

We can support our police forces, honoring the vital and noble work they do in our communities, yet hold them unapologetically to standards of excellence and professionalism. We can support our military, yet demand of our leaders that armed force is used sparingly and intelligently. We can embrace the mantle of world leadership without being the world’s policeman.

We can embrace the words from “New Colossus” inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” – we can embrace the energy and vitality of the immigrant which has made our country unique in the history of the world – we can show kindness and compassion – yet still develop common sense immigration policy.

We can embrace the Second Amendment, yet enact common sense gun legislation, and seek to address the underlying causes of gun violence. We can be proactive and not reactive in providing meaningful treatment for mental illness.

We can move boldly toward sustainable and clean energy by investing in science and technology. We can and should look toward solutions to protect our environment with all the urgency of a moonshot.

We should expect excellence of ourselves and our fellow citizens, yet provide meaningful assistance to those who fall behind. We can help without judging, hold accountable without dehumanizing, and find ways not to punish, but to rehabilitate, and to reintegrate into society in meaningful ways, with full rights of citizenship for those who earn it.

We can do all of these things and more if we are not afraid to think and strive and accept nothing less from ourselves and our elected leaders. And to quote our 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, we can do these things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”.

America, we’re better than this. Now what are we going to do about it?

Odd Times at the Odd Fellows Tract

(Originally published Summer, 2021)

“Providing science-based environmental stewardship for the health, safety and prosperity of ALL North Carolinians.” – North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ)– Mission Statement

stewardship (stoo-erd-ship): 2. the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for or preserving –

For a regulatory body guided by such lofty ideals, it would seem a foregone conclusion that public land immediately adjacent to a state park would not be suitable for a rock quarry. Certainly not if said park happened to be the most visited in the entire North Carolina State Park system, with nearly two million annual visitors.

Certainly, given all the measurable deleterious environmental and public health impacts wrought by such a quarry, and the swiftly dwindling public green spaces available to Triangle residents, such a quarry would be rightly seen as a nuisance at best, and at worst, potentially ruinous to the state park system’s crown jewel.

Surely, given that the quarry would compromise the health, safety, and prosperity of North Carolinians, such a circumspect regulatory body would summarily dismiss the mining permit in question.

Well, it’s complicated.

How we got here

The Odd Fellows tract as it is known, is a 105-acre parcel of land immediately adjacent to William B. Umstead State Park, along Reedy Creek trail. The parcel is bordered roughly by Umstead Park to the north, I-40 to the south, Lake Crabtree County Park to the west, and the current Wake Stone Corporation quarry to the east. This tract of public land was deeded to four local governments – Wake County, Durham County, the City of Raleigh and the City of Durham, in a July, 1976 transfer from the Sir Raleigh Lodge 411 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows to those governmental entities.

RDU Airport Authority (RDUAA) manages this land on behalf of the owning municipalities under legislation passed by the North Carolina General Assembly following that 1976 sale. NC General Statute 63.56(f), states:

“no real property and no airport, other air navigation facility, or air protection privilege, owned jointly, shall be disposed of by the board (i.e. RDUAA), by sale, or otherwise, except by authority of the appointed governing bodies, but the board may lease space, area or improvements and grant concessions on airports for aeronautical purposes or purposes incidental thereto.”

This 105 acre parcel of land has been the focus of a years-long struggle between a private corporation bent on expanding operations, and private citizens organizing to save not just the 105 acres, but the sanctity of Umstead State Park, and the rights of impacted landowners.

This struggle unfolds in fits and starts while the governing bodies which own this public land sit strangely quiet.

In 1980, Wake Stone Corporation initially submitted an application for a mining permit for a tract just east of Odd Fellows, where their current mine, the Triangle Quarry, is now in operation. That original permit was initially denied by the NCDEQ, which cited the “combined effects of noise, sedimentation, dust, traffic and blasting vibration associated with the proposed quarry and the impacts upon William B. Umstead State Park.”

What followed was an appeal by Wake Stone and a series of reviews by various state agencies, including NCDEQ and North Carolina State Parks. Ultimately, the mining permit was approved in 1981 with a few caveats, including a substantial buffer between the quarry pit and Umstead, a donation to the State Park system, and a clause in the permit which would effectively sunset mining operations within fifty years, or ten years after active mining ceases, whichever of those comes sooner.

The “sooner” verbiage in that Fifty-Year Sunset Clause would effectively halt operations by Wake Stone by 2031 at the latest, at which time the land would be turned over to the State of North Carolina.

Over the next 37 years, Wake Stone filed numerous renewals for their mining permit with no alteration to the Fifty-Year Sunset Clause. However, in March, 2018, Wake Stone filed a mining permit modification, which substituted the “sooner” language with “later”, effectively negating the Fifty-Year Sunset Clause. The change enabled mining, and possibly even expansion, into perpetuity.

This modification was completed by NCDEQ staff under the supervision of an Interim DEQ Director, William “Toby” Vinson without the requisite Permit Modification Application or fees. Neither North Carolina State Parks, nor affected landowners and businesses were consulted about the change. 

Subsequently, RDUAA entered into a mineral lease with Wake Stone Corporation on Friday, March 1, 2019 with a scant forty-eight hours of public notice. The “lease” would allow Wake Stone to create a new rock quarry pit within the 105-acre publicly owned Odd Fellows tract. This lease was completed without the consultation or approval of the owning municipalities, and with little to no window for public comment.

Make no mistake, this agreement is not a lease in any realistic sense of the word.

Imagine leasing a car, and returning it to the dealer at the end of the lease period with the wheels, seats, engine and dashboard removed. Moreover, imagine the dealer agreeing to the removal of those items at the outset of the lease. It is unimaginable because that is not how leases work. Such is the jaded and farcical nature of RDUAA’s agreement with Wake Stone.

The Public Responds

Following the RDUAA/Wake Stone lease, the Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists (TORC), along with adjacent landowners Randy and Tamara Dunn and Wake County resident Bill Doucette, filed a lawsuit against the RDUAA and Wake Stone Corporation with the following requests:

  • Municipalities must provide approval for disposal of their mineral rights – this approval has not been obtained.
  • The RDUAA has exceeded their authority granted by the State Legislature.
  • The signed lease of March 1, 2019 is not valid, and therefore should be nullified until the governing bodies approve the sale of their mineral rights.

Meanwhile, The Conservation Fund, a non-profit environmental preservation group based in Arlington, VA, offered $6.46 million to purchase the Odd Fellows tract and donate the land to William B. Umstead State Park. RDUAA declined this offer, citing the wildly optimistic potential for $24 million in revenue from the Wake Stone lease over two decades. However, that amount is not stipulated in the lease. Wake Stone only guarantees $8.5 million in back-loaded payments. The present value of the lease is $4.6 million.

What could explain RDUAA’s decision to 1) enter into an unlawful lease, and 2) decline a $6.46 million lump sum sale in lieu of a lease valued at $4.6 million to be paid in installments over twenty years?

Can you say good ole boy politics?

John Bratton, the founder of Wake Stone Corporation, as well as his sons, John, Jr (Vice Chairman of the Board of Wake Stone), Theodore Bratton (CEO) and Samuel Bratton (President), have made tens of thousands of dollars in political donations to various campaigns, both Democratic and Republican over the decades. It would appear those donations have purchased the silence of the owning municipalities, run by politicians who have been the beneficiaries of Bratton largesse over the years. The Brattons are now calling in those favors in an effort to expand their quarry operations onto public land.

Where we are, and next steps

In April 2020, Wake Stone Corporation filed a mining permit application for the Odd Fellows tract. A public hearing was held by the NCDEQ on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, which included over 570 virtual attendees and 78 speakers over the course of several hours, all of whom used their allotted two minutes to speak out against the expanded quarry, with the lone exception of Wake Stone President Samuel Bratton. The attendance was so great that the hearing was adjourned after 10pm and an overflow hearing was scheduled for July 7, 2020.

From the standpoint of environmental impact and quality of life for Triangle area residents, the idea of a quarry expansion onto the Odd Fellows tract should be a non-starter.

Wake Stone seeks to cart away 105 acres of forested habitat, topsoil and stone at a rate of up to 500 truckloads per day in an area immediately adjacent to William B. Umstead State Park. Visitors to the park would not only be subjected to the nerve-jangling cacophony of hundreds of dump trucks rolling daily along Old Reedy Creek Road, but also to airborne particulate matter.

This airborne menace would include silicate, which, when inhaled can lead to silicosis – a permanent scarring of the lungs. There is no Federal regulation limiting non-workplace exposure to silica. Mine workers would be equipped with PPE. Runners, mountain bikers and other unwitting park users? They would be on their own and highly vulnerable.

There is also the terrifying peril of fly rock, which are rock fragments from blasting which fly beyond the blast site, potentially causing injury and property damage. With virtually no buffer zone between the proposed quarry expansion and Umstead State Park, this would present a potentially lethal peril. Seismic damage from blasts can and do cause damage to nearby homes as well.

There is good reason for land use restrictions and zoning, which typically prevent incompatible commercial and industrial operations like mining from locating next to state parks.

And then there is the long-term impact of an expanded quarry.

Wake Stone has attempted to paint a rosy picture of a public lake which would be left in the aftermath of mining operations decades from now. In reality, the Odd Fellows tract, currently forested habitat supporting a thriving ecosystem, would be a 400-foot hole in the ground.

The pit would not flush itself naturally as would a normal body of water, which would result in a fetid pool of runoff water, stagnant and inaccessible to the public due to the vertical nature of the rock face. No beach, no public use, just a nuisance and a liability which would need to be permanently cordoned off and monitored at great expense to the owning municipalities long after the rapacious Brattons have made off with their millions from the destruction of publicly owned land.

The NCDEQ has an opportunity to stop this environmental and ethical catastrophe in the making. The history of Odd Fellows is being recorded day by day, and the legacies of the NCDEQ board will be inextricably tied to that history.

Will those legacies speak to the principled preservation of public land and upholding the lofty ideals of their mission statement? Or will they speak to feckless catering to moneyed interests and a 400-foot hole in the ground?

For additional reading and viewing:

Attend the July 7, 2020 public hearing!

Foxcroft Lake on the Odd Fellows tract

Odd Times at the Odd Fellows Tract, Part II

Additional Perspective on the Historical and Cultural Significance of William B. Umstead State Park and the Odd Fellows Tract

(Originally published Summer, 2021)

Last week, I reviewed the ongoing struggle over the Odd Fellows tract – 105 acres of publicly owned, forested habitat, which directly borders Old Reedy Creek Road in William B. Umstead State Park. The years-long struggle pits the RDU Airport Authority (RDUAA) and Wake Stone Corporation against preservation groups, adjacent landowners, and private citizens determined to save this forested ecosystem from an ugly fate.

The purpose of this installment is not to rehash those points, which can be found here, but to further delve into the historical and cultural significance of the Odd Fellows tract, as well as Umstead State Park, which is at great risk from the proposed new quarry.

For most who have biked, hiked or run through the jewel that is Umstead State Park, the history of this land may not be front of mind. It is easy to become lost in that endorphin fueled reverie common to those of us who calibrate the miles via landmarks just as easily as through our Garmins. A bend in the trail here, water fountain there, a lake, an old family cemetery, a hill… good Lord, those hills. We know this park intimately, at least the frequently traveled parts.

But not everyone is privy to the deep history of the place. The more observant visitors among us might glimpse an occasional stone chimney just off the trail through winter-bare trees, standing sentry over a long-abandoned home site. These glimpses hint at the history, but there is so much more than meets the eye.

A farming community transformed

The area now encompassesing Umstead State Park, was populated as early as 1800, as small farms sprung up in the area around Crabtree Creek in northwestern Wake County. By 1810, Anderson Page, an early entrepreneur and industrialist established a water-powered mill on Crabtree Creek, known first as Page’s Mill, then Company Mill. Other mills populated the area, including the George Lynn Mill on Sycamore Creek (1871), and a later mill on Reedy Creek.

Wake County residents traveled from miles around along Old Middle Hillsboro Road – an early precursor to present-day Highway 70 – then south along Mill Road to Crabtree Creek to ground corn and catch up on local gossip. The Company Mill was in operation until the 1920’s and then largely washed away during a great flood in the 1930’s. Portions of a dam wall built at the mill site are still visible along the southern banks of Crabtree Creek within the park.

As farms populated the area, forests of oak and pine were largely cleared for fields. Early farming was marginally successful, but poor cultivation practices led to soil depletion and erosion. Depression-era farmers made futile attempts to grow cotton in the worn-out soil around Crabtree Creek, but by the early 1930’s, landowners in the grip of financial ruin were bought out under the Resettlement Administration (RA), a federal agency created under the New Deal which relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government. Through that process, in 1934 federal and state agencies combined to purchase 5,000 acres of sub-marginal land to develop a recreation area. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) work crews, largely staffed by North Carolinians, built facilities including Camp Sycamore on Sycamore Lake, and other campsites.

By 1943, with World War II underway and New Deal programs winding down, the State of North Carolina purchased this area, known as Crabtree Creek Recreation Area, for $1. The area was later named Crabtree Creek State Park.

The legacy of Jim Crow

Crabtree Creek State Park was segregated from the outset, with Camp Whispering Pines designated for African Americans on a pond at Reedy Creek. By 1950, one thousand acres of Crabtree Creek State Park was designated for use by African Americans, and named Reedy Creek State Park. The white entrance to Crabtree Creek was located off of Highway 70 in the north, while the black entrance to Reedy Creek was located to the south, at the terminus of Cary’s Harrison Avenue.

The two parks were separated by the meandering Crabtree Creek which bisects the park roughly west to east. While this fixed boundary demarcated the space, fording at any number of points could easily breach the boundary. To make the separation more durable, stands of forest were often employed. Writing about improvements to the parks in 1950, the Raleigh News & Observer provided a perverse note of reassurance to white parents that a large forested buffer would separate the white and African American youth camps, stating that the two camps would be more than a mile apart at the Crabtree Creek dividing line.

Reedy Creek State Park was one of just two facilities operated by the state park system designated for African American use, the other being Jones Lake State Park in Bladen County, southeast of Fayetteville. A third park, Hammocks Beach State Park was planned for minority use after it was donated to the state in 1961 by an association of African American teachers, however the park opened to all people following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1955, Crabtree Creek State Park was renamed for late Governor William B. Umstead, an advocate of environmentally friendly legislation who had recently died in office. In 1966, the two state parks were joined under the name William B. Umstead State Park, and both sections opened to all citizens. To this day, there is no road or trail connecting the former white entrance at Highway 70, and the former black entrance at Harrison Avenue – a subtle reminder of the dark history of Jim Crow.

Odd Fellows and Foxcroft Lake

Over the decades, the Odd Fellows tract and other forested lands around the borders of Umstead have been used much like the park itself, for recreation and enjoyment of the outdoors. The Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows purchased their tract of land in 1958 and made it available to local Boy Scout troops for monthly meetings and overnight camps along the shores of Foxcroft Lake.  

As Raleigh evolved from a sleepy Southern capital to a thriving metropolitan city, land use and availability became a greater concern. The Research Triangle, was founded in 1959 and named for the three anchoring research institutions, NC State University in Raleigh, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham. This venture, led by politicians, university officials and business leaders, sought to transform the economy of the Piedmont region away from the traditional, yet fading industries of textiles and farming, and toward a new focus on technological innovation and development. By the mid 1960’s, these efforts picked up steam, jobs followed, and the population increased at a historic rate.

Sensing the need to secure bordering properties against the threat of incompatible industrial encroachment, North Carolina State Parks published a Master Plan for Umstead State Park in 1974. The plan contained a land acquisition strategy, which called for obtaining 916 additional acres of land in three phases along the borders of the park. The plan also called for deleting 186 acres along Turkey Creek, on the east side of Ebenezer Church Road, roughly the location of the Hamptons at Umstead neighborhood today. The net total of 730 acres proposed for acquisition included land between Umstead and I-40 where the current Wake Stone quarry sits, and the Odd Fellows tract immediately to the west.

The plan noted that most of the proposed lands need not be acquired if legally binding assurances could be made by landowners guaranteeing existing land uses would remain indefinitely. Such assurances could be secured by scenic easements that would exclude land uses incompatible with the park, including high-density residential, commercial or industrial development, or timber clear-cutting.

During this time, an expanding RDU Airport just to the west of Umstead also sought to secure its borders and acquire land for future expansion. Just two years after the publication of the Umstead Master Plan, the Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows and other landowners sold their properties along the southern border of Umstead to the four municipalities – the cities of Raleigh and Durham, and the counties of Wake and Durham. The sales were coerced, as the municipalities sought to secure land for use by the RDU Airport Authority. The landowners chose to sell in order to avoid loss of the property by eminent domain.

Even after the forced sale of Odd Fellows in 1976, the tract remained a de facto extension of Umstead, with continued use by local Boy Scout troops. With the rise of mountain biking in the 1990s and 00’s, trails were developed along this tract as well as the adjacent “286” tract. These uses were compatible with a state park, and provided enhanced access to trails and outdoor activities for Triangle residents.

East Coast Greenway

The East Coast Greenway (ECG), an ambitious 3,000 mile hiking and biking route which connects hundreds of greenway and hiking trail systems from Maine to Florida, runs through Umstead State Park along the Reedy Creek Trail, and along Old Reedy Creek Road south of the park. In a 2017 study of the economic impact of the ECG on the area, it was estimated that the Triangle region enjoys $90 million annual in total benefits from gains in health, the environment, transportation and enhanced access. The ECG runs literally within yards of the proposed new Wake Stone quarry.

If Wake Stone is approved for a new quarry pit, access to the ECG and Umstead along Old Reedy Creek Road would effectively be cut off for an extended period of time, if not permanently. 500 dump trucks a day would roll along that road while the tract is deforested, until Wake Stone’s proposed bridge is completed over Crabtree Creek. Given the noise, the danger of truck traffic, the threat of lung disorders from airborne particulate matter, and the peril of fly rock generated from such a quarry, would the ECG and it’s significant economic impact be enhanced or diminished by a new quarry?

An opportunity to get things right

The leaders of our local municipalities and regulatory bodies have a unique and fleeting opportunity to protect public land for the enjoyment of current and future generations of Triangle residents, property owners and taxpayers. They have an opportunity to enhance North Carolina’s most visited state park, and bolster the Triangle’s reputation as a legitimate destination for hiking, biking and all manner of outdoor activities.

They have an opportunity to honor generations of farming families who called this land home as far back as the early 1800’s. To memorialize the generations of African American residents who found solace in Reedy Creek State Park during the dark chapter of Jim Crow. And to commemorate the generations of Boy Scouts who developed skills, self confidence and character along the shores of Foxcroft Lake. It is a rare opportunity to protect an asset which brings tens of millions of dollars in annual benefits to this region.

This moment is much larger than the 105 acres in question. This moment will define who we are and what we value as a community, and as a society. We have an opportunity to get things right, and the choice between right and wrong has rarely been more evident.

Please contact your local city and county representatives, your legislators, Congressmen, the Governor, and members of the RDUAA and NCDEQ and let your voices be heard. Because on this Independence Day, we the people have an opportunity too.

African American Boy Scouts at Reedy Creek State Park – NC State Parks archives

For additional reading on the history of Umstead:

Why I remain optimistic about the future of America

(Originally published Summer, 2022)

There are so many reasons for pessimism at this time in our country’s history, and that of the world in general. The world seems literally to be falling down around us. Daily we are bombarded by news of unfathomable suffering, cruelty, and tragedy. This generation doesn’t need horror movies. We have our newsfeeds. 

War, famine, corruption, ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and political instability have always been grim parts of the global equation, but these things are pressing in on us evermore, both in reality and in perception, thanks to the ravenous monster that is our 24-7 news cycle. Moreover, these things are no longer relegated to the notorious caldrons of chaos in the Middle East, Central America, or Eastern Europe. They have come to our own doorstep and settled like radioactive particles into the once civil and comparatively serene nooks and crannies of American life.

Mass shootings occur, on average, multiple times each day. There have been 314 such shootings so far in 2022, an average of 1.7 per day, according to the Gun Violence Archive.[i] This includes the July 4 shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, IL, in which a gunman killed six and wounded many more; and the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. Even during a recent mall shooting in Greenwood, IN, which was stopped, thankfully, by an armed citizen, three people were killed and two more injured. Despite the intervention of the fabled “good guy with a gun,” sightings of which have been Sasquatch-like in their fleeting rarity, three innocent people were still gunned down. Not exactly a win, and certainly not a strategy to prevent future bloodshed. Nor, I would submit, are the tiresome “thoughts and prayers” offered up in knee-jerk fashion by impotent and feckless lawmakers who simultaneously and perversely boast of their NRA approval ratings.

We can no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of a retreat from the summer heat to a cool, dark movie theater without thoughts of survival strategies, as we choose our seats not for the best view of the screen, but by calculating the most direct route to an exit. The very act of going to a movie, or a restaurant, or the grocery store can seem a gamble at times in the roulette wheel nature of random gun violence which pervades American life.  We live daily with the specter of calamity. The very real possibility of untimely and violent death has become a constant, loathsome companion. 

Our country survived four years of Trumpian griftocracy, incompetence and corruption the likes of which we have never seen, and for which our democracy was woefully unprepared. Many who voted for Trump in 2016 assumed he would be a clownish novelty as president, ultimately to be reined in by systematic guardrails, political norms and the wisdom of advisors. Despite whatever hesitancy or discomfort they may have felt about his court jester persona, boorish behavior and troublesome pronouncements (“I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?”), they could not bring themselves to vote for Hilary Clinton, or for that matter, anyone with a “D” behind their name. Their’s was a political calculation for many caught between what they considered two unsavory choices.  

More perplexing was the choice of over 74 million Americans who voted to give Trump yet another four years in office in 2020. Particularly those evangelicals who, I can only presume, must have found the President’s personal behavior, (“grab ‘em by the pussy”), appalling, embarrassing and unacceptable. Ultimately, many of those evangelicals, being essentially single-issue voters, made the jaundiced calculation that nearly any Trumpian excess was excusable, so long as he did their bidding, appointing friendly judges regardless of qualification, who would ultimately do the work of dismantling Roe through misdirection and outright lying under oath. And in that calculation, their grandest hopes came to pass.

But with the end or Roe, the genie is now out of the bottle, and many “red” state legislatures have predictably proposed draconian laws which would ban abortion altogether, even in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is threatened. Texas, which boasts of doing everything bigger, has taken this derangement to new levels, passing legislation which would provide monetary awards – bounties – for private citizens who report other private citizens engaging in, or assisting with a procedure which had been legal only days before. The legislation is as perverse as it is callous, incentivizing vigilantism, dividing communities, and rewarding cruelty when compassion is needed. Some states which have passed abortion bans are studying legislation which would prohibit its citizens from traveling across state lines to obtain abortion legally elsewhere, a dystopian police-state strategy Stalin himself would have warmly embraced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some elected officials within the deranged Trump realm have suggested a Federal abortion ban, even after years of arguing that abortion should be a state-by-state issue – a breathtaking display of hypocrisy even by Washington, D.C. standards.

And many other rights may well be rolled back. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been vocal in opining that the right to gay marriage should now be reexamined, a right supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Some within the GOP seek what can only be described as theocratic rule. 

The Republican Party, in its traditional sense as one of the two major political parties in the United States, has ceased to exist. It is now, effectively, the Party of Trump, or Trumpism, as that movement seems poised to well outlive its corpulent septuagenarian founding father. Crazy has become mainstream, and an insurrectionist fervor has taken hold of the former Grand Old Party. Well-meaning, patriotic former Republicans have been censured or outright purged from the party for speaking out against Trump’s most nakedly anti-democratic impulses, or by simply telling the truth about January 6th. There is no room for anyone who refuses absolute fealty, who stands on democratic principle, who refuses to kiss the ring. 

And it is getting wild out there, folks. Former Missouri Governor and current insurrectionist candidate for US Senate, Eric Greitens, boasted in a recent, unhinged political ad of going “RINO hunting,” the infamous acronym for “Republicans In Name Only.” In the ad, Greitens wields a shotgun, and flanked by a SWAT team, raids a home evidently occupied by someone of the same party who holds a mildly different political slant than his own. “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country,” Greitens swaggers, enraptured by his own perverse, maniacal cosplay fantasy. 

The reptilian Matt Gaetz of Florida’s 1st-Congressional District, who is under federal investigation for statutory rape and sex trafficking of a minor, said recently of a 19-year-old abortion rights activist, “Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia’s 14th-Congressional District embodies the race-baiting, mouth-frothing, moon-barking, conspiracy-peddling heart of the Trumpist Party. She recently claimed the government was keeping track of how many bowel movements you are having, and how many cheeseburgers you are eating, forcing people instead to eat meat promoted by Bill Gates and grown in a “peach tree dish.” In an infamous antisemitic Facebook rant, the likes of which would cause Berliners of the 1930’s to blush, she implied blame for the western wildfires of 2018 on the Rothchilds, a wealthy Jewish banking family long the target of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. This is but an infinitesimal sampling of the delirium which currently infuses the party of Abrahahm Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Culture wars and performative lunacy have replaced governing philosophy within the former GOP. Gone is even the faintest pretense of guiding conservative principles which once narrated their efforts, and long gone is any thought of “Big Tent” inclusiveness. Weakened by the headwinds of demographic change and the mass defection of moderate voters, remnants of the once-proud GOP have reformed over the energized waters of grievance politics and right-wing nationalism. Having abandoned any hope of broadening the base, they are bent on minority rule via the grossly anti-democratic machinations of gerrymandering and systematic voter suppression. And there is no end in sight to their putrid, self-destructive march. 

So why the optimism? 

The excesses and perversions of Trump and his minions do not represent America, or Americans in the way I know them to exist. This is still the country which, despite its myriad flaws and transgressions, has stood as a beacon of hope and liberty for millions of oppressed peoples across the globe. We are still the people who intervened in two world wars, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of our own to preserve democracy in Europe and beyond, even while our own country effectively existed in a state of racial apartheid.

In the years which followed, we addressed some of our most grievous failures through landmark Civil Rights legislation, moving us closer to that “more perfect union” extolled by our Founders. During the Cold War, the American-financed broadcasts of Radio Free Europe emboldened freedom-craving Eastern Europeans to imagine a life beyond their grey existence behind the Iron Curtain.

We are still the people who, through the inspired words of a young president, the ingenuity of our brightest scientific minds, and our own restless energy, did the once unthinkable by putting a man on the moon in 1969. 

We are still the people whose first instinct is to rush in and help, to care for our neighbors, to, when we are at our best, when we are truly living the rhetorical question, “what would Jesus do?” be big-hearted in our embrace of “the other.” Emma Lazarus put it most succinctly in her poem, The New Colossus, inscribed upon the base of the Statue of Liberty, when she wrote:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I am optimistic that we are still those people.

It is often said that hope is not a strategy. Well, I would submit that neither is pessimism. We can still accomplish anything if we recapture the optimism of Kennedy and Reagan, the energy and vigor of Teddy Roosevelt, the ingenuity and determination of Franklin Roosevelt, and the moral clarity of Lincoln. These are the qualities which make us distinctly American. 

Yet, optimism without action is both empty and delusional. Every American dedicated to the preservation of liberty and our democratic system of government must act in whatever way we are able to maintain and expand our birthright of freedom, and to cast off the looming, existential threat of autocracy and strongman rule. Through educating ourselves, engaging others in well-intentioned conversation and respectful debate, and taking an active part in the democratic process, we still have a chance to right the ship. 

Action eliminates hopelessness. You literally cannot simultaneously act and remain hopeless, for in the very action of running for local office, or writing a letter to the editor of a local paper, or contacting a Congressional representative, or voting, or driving an elderly neighbor to the polling place, or volunteering to assist a recent immigrant, you are asserting your power, and lending your voice to what is still the greatest democratic experiment in the history of the world. 

I am optimistic that liberty will carry the day, and firm in my belief that those cold and feckless souls who have abdicated their solemn oaths to uphold our Constitution will be relegated to the shameful place in history they have so richly earned. 

[i] “There have been at least 314 mass shootings so far in 2022. There have only been 186 days.” Christina Prigano and Ryan Huddle, Boston Globe, July 5, 2022.

Southern Change – One Man’s Journey (2011)

Bill Dufford, or “Doc”, as he is affectionately known by friends and former students, is a physical embodiment of the complexities and contradictions that are the American South. At once the prototypical Southern Gentleman and a defiantly vocal Southern liberal of the most passionate variety, he is equal parts Atticus Finch and Malcolm X. Athletic and tall, Bill possesses a healthy, energetic vitality, a booming voice and an infectious laugh. Though in his eighties now, subtly softened by time and with a thick shock of white hair, he could still whip me in racquetball as recently as ten years ago – more a testament to his enduring vigor than my ineptitude in the sport.

A life-long bachelor, he is a son of an older, meaner South. Bill came of age in a time of now unthinkable cultural dualities and cruelty toward blacks. A white son of the privileged class, he accepted the status quo of Jim Crow laws and the oppressive racist climate they propagated.

Things began to change in the South though, and with Bill, following the integration of Beaufort (S.C.) High School, where he had been comfortably ensconced as principal in the mid-1960’s. Following integration, Bill left Beaufort and his native state to pursue a PhD at the University of Florida. He came back a different man.

Working for peaceful desegregation with the passion of a convert, he dedicated himself to the cause of educating all of South Carolina’s children. This ruffled a lot of feathers within the establishment at a time when the Confederate Battle Flag had been recently raised atop the Statehouse dome in Columbia. Early on, at least one school board invited him not to return for a second year. Undeterred, he pressed on, both in the classroom, and as assistant director of the Desegregation Center of South Carolina. This was a holy war, and Bill was in full battle dress.

I came to know him decades later, in 1991. His last teaching post, prior to retirement was at Lower Richland High School in Columbia. A number of my college friends had graduated from L.R.H.S. and one of them regularly house-sat for Bill on the weekends. I instantly liked Bill, and despite our age difference, we became fast friends.

He was opinionated, but never over-bearing. He possessed liberal political views that could only be described as the polar opposite of my equally opinionated, though staunchly conservative father. I was fascinated by his passion and challenged to develop my own views of issues, rather than offering mindless regurgitations of my father’s stances.

I would visit him from time to time at his home in Columbia’s venerable Rose Hill neighborhood, where we would discuss the issues of the day. Though his was a beautiful home – an early 20th Century brick bungalow typical of the neighborhood, it’s décor was what one might expect from a life-long bachelor and educator. Stacks of thick, important books, framed black & white photos of classes taught and football teams coached, trophies earned and various other accumulated stacks of paper, all covered by a layer of dust. Bill ate out nearly every meal, so predictably the smallest and least-used room in the house was the kitchen, built off to the side like some shriveled appendage.

During one of my visits, Pat Conroy called, just to chat. Conroy was a student at Beaufort high school during the years Bill was principal there, and was one of my favorite authors. Before I dove into Conroy’s “Beach Music” a few years prior, I rarely read for pleasure. His florid prose changed the way I viewed the the written word, and I devoured his works. He turned me into a reader, and inspired me to consider writing. As I sat in Bill’s living room on Heyward Street, Doc spoke with casual familiarity and deep tenderness to a man that I revered. I saw Bill in a new light.

I have tremendous respect for Bill and the journey he’s taken. Though I don’t see him as much these days, I still call him from time to time, just to chat about politics among other things. We don’t always agree, but as with all great teachers, even in when our opinions diverge, I never fail to learn from him. That speaks to me of a life well lived.

Sons of Confederate Veterans official response to my letter to the editor (2006)

I stumbled across this during a recent internet search regarding the ongoing Confederate flag fiasco in Columbia. Seems the South Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in their newsletter, The Legionary, felt obliged to comment upon my 2006 letter to the editor of The State newspaper calling for the flag’s removal from the State House grounds. In all fairness, I thought I’d post the entirety of their article here:

“A Fraternal Organization of Southern Men”
A Publication of the Sons of Confederate Veterans
Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp #273
Columbia, S.C.

What passes for informed discussion in The State newspaper very much depends on the viewpoint of the author. Take, for instance, a letter to the editor which appeared earlier this month. Alan Piercy of Columbia employed 360 words to put forth his view that while he considers the Confederate flag “sacrosanct and beautiful,’’ it’s time to take it down because it offends others. Of course, The State is only too happy to let this scalawag babble forth because his opinion agrees with the paper’s long-standing desire to eradicate the banner.

Now, if The State cared one iota about logic, reasoning and intelligence – things you might think a sizeable daily newspaper would be interested in promoting – it would have ensured Mr. Piercy’s letter never saw the light of day. It would have buried the letter not because its view is unpopular with many folks, but because it’s so poorly thought out. Consider: In Mr. Piercy’s opening paragraph he says “I am as proud a Southerner as you will ever find, and while the banner to me is sacrosanct and beautiful,’’ because it was misused by others later, it’s time to remove it from the State House grounds. (Mr. Piercy, of course, fails to mention that hate groups such as the Klan also misused the American flag.) He continues, “… for the African-American community in South Carolina, some 30 percent of the population, the flag … represents menacing bands of robed Klansmen – thugs eager to flex their collective muscle, yet too cowardly to show their faces. It represents a system of separate but equal, a concept so full of lies in the Jim Crow South that it would be laughable were it not so tragic. It represents fear and oppression and cruelty.’’

Yes, to some blacks the Confederate flag does unfortunately represent some very unpleasant images, but don’t think for a second that all blacks see the flag the same way.
That’s simplistic and demeaning to 30 percent of our state’s population, some of whom
undoubtedly don’t think much of anything of the flag, just as there are plenty of whites who have no impression either way. And, yes, there are even a few blacks who have a positive view of the flag, particularly those with ancestors who sided with the South during the war.
Mr. Piercy’s next error is his statement that “the flag never even appeared on our venerable State House grounds until the mid 1960s,’’ and that it was “clearly a thinly veiled protest over pending civil rights legislation.’’ The flag went atop the State House dome in 1962. Some time earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower had urged the flying of the banner over state capitols in anticipation of the centennial of the War Between The States.

Let’s not pretend that there weren’t some serious efforts underway in parts of the South
to undermine the civil rights push, but I don’t recall Ol’ Ike being a part of it.
Mr. Piercy adds: “To make matters worse for those of us who love it, our Confederate banner has been bastardized by racists who have pilfered it and distorted its meaning to fit their own twisted agenda.’’ But isn’t this exactly what he’s doing by saying that a) it represents the Klan, Jim Crow, oppression and cruelty, and b) that it offends all of South Carolina’s blacks? Strange words for a man who claims to love the flag.

Mr. Piercy closes by writing that South Carolina needs to remove the flag because it’s the“right thing.’’ The right thing? Says who? If he were such as proud Southerner, he’d stand up to defend his heritage, instead of penning a mealy-mouthed diatribe that besmirches the banner he claims is beautifu.Mr. Piercy sounds like one of those weakkneed self-loathing intellectuals who happily attacks anything Southern if it gets him a few points with his wine-sipping, cheese-eating fellow travelers. If he wants to do so, that’s his right as an American but he shouldn’t try to portray himself as a proud Southerner.

* * * * *

Interesting. After weeding through the petty insults, always the first arrow out of the quiver for those attempting to dignify weak arguments it appears the author’s main points in this rebuttal are 1) While some unreasoning blacks may harbor ill feelings toward the Confederate Banner, most love it dearly. ~ and ~ 2) Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged Southern states to fly the Confederate Banner in recognition of the upcoming Centennial of the Civil War.

I’m sure that President Eisenhower, who hailed from the “Free State” of Kansas, harbored a burning desire to see the Confederate Banner flying in perpetuity. It all makes sense now. In light of those arguments, I guess the insults really were the best part of that article.

Time For the Confederate Banner To Go (2006)

Published in The State newspaper (Columbia, S.C.)

It is considerably past time for South Carolina to remove the embattled and divisive Confederate banner from the State House grounds. I am a proud Southerner, and the banner to me, at one time at least, was an symbol of regional pride, unencumbered by racial unpleasantries in the simpler world view of my younger self. Like many boys growing up in the Deep South, I was fascinated with the Civil War. I revered the many brilliant Southern generals – Lee and Jackson and Longstreet and Stuart. I admired the tenacity, the roar and dash of that overmatched army in Grey and the valiant way they fought against overwhelming odds. For many in this great State – those of us whose relatives fought and died under that banner some 140 years ago – the Confederate Battle Flag represented sacrifice, fierce loyalty to State and an unyielding commitment to independence – not unlike the traits displayed by other, more distant relatives who fought for this country’s sovereignty in the late 18th Century against a hostile and oppressive Great Britain.

SC Confederate banner

However, for the African American community in South Carolina, some 30 percent of the population, I know the flag stands for quite another thing altogether. It represents human bondage, oppression, menacing bands of robed Klansmen – thugs eager to flex their collective muscle, yet too cowardly to show their faces. It represents a system of “separate but equal” – a concept so full of lies in the Jim Crow South that it would be laughable were it not so tragic. It represents fear and oppression and cruelty.

The flag never even appeared on our venerable State House grounds until the early 1964 when, like a petulant and brooding child, the South Carolina Legislature approved its raising under the guise of marking the Centennial of the Civil War. In reality, it was a thinly-veiled protest over pending Federal Civil Rights legislation. To make matters worse the Confederate banner has been adopted by mindless racists who have pilfered it and distorted its meaning to fit their own twisted agenda.

Simply put, the banner has become an instantly recognizable symbol of hate, not just in this country but internationally. It is flown side by side with swastikas and photographs of Adolph Hitler the world over during the rallies of Neo Nazi’s and other like-minded hate groups. No matter what its historical significance to our state, do we really want this banner – this fallen symbol – flying on the most visible and politically significant intersection in all of South Carolina?

Are we really honoring the memory of those ancestors in Grey by keeping it flying, or are we, in all reality, desecrating their memory? I submit to you that those ancestors would be ashamed, not only of what the the banner has come to represent, but of our Legislature and of all of us for our collective failure to end this embarrassment. Would it not be a greater tribute to retire the once proud old flag to a place of honor and learning, where people of all races could gather to collectively discover its true history in an environment unsullied by racist propaganda and historical fiction?

Take a walk around our magnificent State House grounds. You’ll find no fewer than six monuments to the sacrifices of South Carolinians during the War Between the States. South Carolina has properly memorialized its Confederate dead. We no longer need to prominently display a flag which has been the cause for so much controversy and derision. This is not about bowing to a counter-productive NAACP boycott. This is not about doing what people in other parts of the country think we should do (South Carolinians have never concerned themselves with that). This is about South Carolina – on her own terms and with dignity – doing the right thing.