During much of the 1960s I kept an antiwar poster on my wall with a quotation from Albert Camus that read, “I would like to be able to love my country, and justice too.” The following essays, which will appear in book form later this year, attempt to locate and define a coherent American tradition consistent with Camus’s words–reconciling authentic patriotism with original artistic creation, unpopular opinion and moral principles that don’t change with the winds.
The subjects of the essays include rebels in politics, education, journalism, religion, literature, film, sports, music, law, popular culture and social struggle. They are rebels against conformity, commercialism, racism, oligarchy, conventional wisdom, stacked decks and sacred cows. They can be described as visionaries, revolutionaries, radicals, liberals, nonconformists, outsiders, insurgents, prophets, pathfinders. They don’t fit under any one ideology or party. Most are too much the free spirit to be categorized. They are part of a continuum of conviction and creation in our tangled national history. But they are all distinctively American.
Some, like Walt Whitman, are famous. Others, like Benjamin Mays, are comparatively obscure–almost cult figures–revered by a small, intense following. Still others, like Margaret Sanger, have faded from memory and deserve a new shaft of sunlight. Most of them did not lead perfect lives–few humans do. They all did heroic things, even if they didn’t always lead heroic lives. Some had lousy second or third acts in their lives. A few, however, are close to sainthood, including Dorothy Day and Bob Moses.
They all follow in a native tradition that stretches from Jefferson and Tom Paine, through Lincoln, Whitman and Thoreau, to the founders of the labor unions, to Eugene Debs, to the early blues singers, to Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, to Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
This is the tradition of populist patriotism that I have felt a kinship with since the early 1960s. It is an attitude, and a value system, more than it is a party or a platform. It is an alloy of individualism, anti-authoritarianism, talent, egalitarianism, underdogism, multiculturalism, artistic freedom, fearless independence and affinity for the common man.
Some of my own defining experiences took place on those occasions where I felt most free to love justice and my country at the same time–when I planted myself in this rebel tradition. I still remember singing “We Shall Overcome” in Brown’s Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in February of 1965. Martin Luther King was in the pulpit, his arms linked with Andrew Young and John Lewis. The rally was for the right to vote, which was soon to be secured by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after thousands had gone to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience.
I remember riding in an open car with Robert Kennedy as he campaigned for President through Watts and East LA. At each stop in the Mexican-American neighborhoods, a mariachi band greeted him with a Mexican-style “This Land Is Your Land,” which was his campaign theme song. From the vantage point of the trunk of his car, I could see, with piercing clarity, the hope shining in the eyes of all these blacks and Latinos, who would give him 90 percent of their votes on the day he was shot.
Even during the pits of the 1960s, when I felt the most depressed and alienated by America’s racism and military interventionism, I was still able to find aspects of America where I felt at home. Baseball, and later basketball, became my nationalism. I healed from the assassinations of King and RFK by listening to The Band, Carole King, Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin during the summer of 1968.
There was always an alternative America I could pledge allegiance to–the America of the Bill of Rights, sports, blues, jazz, art, unions, writers and social protest. This identification with part of our history and part of our culture kept me sane; I never became anti-American. I loved my country because it had produced Walt Whitman, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer, RFK, Miles Davis, George McGovern, Willie Mays, Herman Melville, Bessie Smith, Sandy Koufax, Cesar Chavez, Janis Joplin, Larry Bird, Lenny Bruce, Sam Cooke, Fiorello LaGuardia, Walter Reuther, Roberto Clemente, Murray Kempton and, above all, Dr. King.
I was able to convince myself that they represented an alternative conception of this country, that they were just as legitimate and American as the burglars of the flag, whom I loathed: Nixon, Kissinger, George Wallace, Senator Bilbo, Henry Ford, John D. and Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Frick, General Custer, Richard Helms, Antonin Scalia, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy and Spiro Agnew.
My America is Jimi Hendrix playing his solo, electric guitar version of the national anthem, to close the music festival at Woodstock. My America is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on that hot August afternoon in 1963, when he seemed to be secretly channeling Scripture, the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln. And he was preceded to the podium that day by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Mahalia Jackson, a Whitmanesque trifecta of table setters.
America is Bruce Springsteen singing “Youngstown” and “Philadelphia,” with their echoes of Woody and Steinbeck. It is Dylan singing of answers blowing in the wind, and “Blind Willie McTell,” and “Every Grain of Sand,” and sounding a little like the ghost of Son House. It is Hank Williams singing (and writing) “I Saw the Light” and “Alone and Forsaken.” And it is Robert Johnson singing (and writing) “Terraplane Blues” and “Love in Vain.” Whenever I hear Dylan, Bruce, Johnson and Hank, I can hear America singing.
America is Studs Terkel talking about Chicago, Pete Hamill writing about New York, Faulkner writing about Mississippi, Ellison and Baldwin writing about Harlem. It is Jacob Riis and Walker Evans photographing the destitute, and Ansel Adams shooting the natural beauty of the American West. America is books by Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Ralph Nader and Michael Harrington–all published between 1961 and 1965–that changed the national consciousness and consensus about the environment, cities, automobiles and poverty. We are a democracy that can be changed for the better by books and the free flow of information.
These essays, at bottom, are a celebration of history, standards, individualism and an alternative America. They are a hymn to the bravery of rebels past, present and hopefully future.