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.