Americans Who Got It Right

‘We’ve Got A Job’ Tells Forgotten Story Of 1963 Children’s March In Birmingham

Scene from 1963 Children’s March courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although not formally educated in American history, I consider myself a devout student. My interest was casual until the death of my father 17 years ago when it intensified. My first foray was tracking down his Korean War medals. Then I dove into my family’s history learning about its colonial and pre-colonial American past. The natural progression led to studying American history.

When I look back over the nearly two decades, I’m pleased with the quest and the natural growth it produced — including a better understanding of America’s race wars.

It’s Just A Word

Growing up in an evangelical home, I was acutely aware which words not to use. Soft curse words like damn could evoke a lecture. When, as a seven-year-old, I told Mom I wanted a recently released toy called Son of a Gun, she threatened to punish me (‘You want me to mash your mouth’).

But the N-word was more acceptable.

That is not to say my parents used the word or embraced it (they didn’t), but when I dropped the word as a teenager, in anger, at a black man, there was no lecture. I learned the word years earlier from my paternal grandfather who used it to describe a community of  ‘yella n-word’ (a reference to their lighter skin tone) that lived near him in Cumberland County, Kentucky. As an eight-year-old sitting on the couch watching TV with Grandpa, he used it freely when black entertainers appeared on TV, saying, ‘Now there’s one happy N-word.’

I relay this, not to expose the subtle, and not so subtle, prejudice of my childhood, but rather to show that what we teach our children matters.

We’ve Got A Job

Juvenile-level literature like We’ve Got A Job matters on many levels. The book teaches our children positive role models, and it also tells the stories of parents who did ‘teach their children well.’

Like most Americans, I’ve long been familiar with the images, and TV footage, of the Civil Rights movement. Some of the most gripping images, like the one above, capture dogs attacking peaceful protesters. The water hose news footage is also very disturbing to watch especially since, as Americans, we lie to ourselves and say we’re a Christian nation ordained by God as a ‘city set on a hill,’ but our actions say otherwise.

But, what I never knew, until reading We’ve Got A Job by Cynthia Levinson was that thousands — literally thousands — of black juveniles were arrested and crammed into American jails because of their peaceful protests. In Job, the author details the lives of four participants — the youngest is nine-year-old Audrey Hendricks — telling their stories of courage and resolve as they took on the blind hatred of Alabama’s White power structure.

The Birmingham Children’s March took place between May 2 and May 11 in 1963. In the March, roughly 4,000 elementary, middle and high school children were arrested and jailed. The March was organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the author weaves in the role King, and other Black leaders, played as they navigated the delicate balance of protest amid the violence.

Although written for a 12-15 year old audience, the book is a compelling read for adults — and include many unknown facts and stories. One that struck me was — on the day four black girls were killed in a church bombing — two other black juveniles were murdered. One was killed by a police officer and a second, a 16-year-old black male, was shot and killed by a white Eagle Scout.

Levinson received several awards for the book including, the Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction. The book is a reminder that when evil exists — good people, of all ages — rise to resist.

Rating 5 out of 5. I rate this book highly for two reasons: it is very well written as it weaves a lot of information together, some well-known, some hardly known, into a compelling account of an important week in American history. The other reason — the author captures a story that was nearly lost to history.

Categories: American History, Americans Who Got It Right, Books I have read, My America

Letterman Is Back, Better Than Before

I’ve always been a David Letterman fan — from his early days in comedy — to his more mature interviewing of celebrities and politicians in the later years of his show. I was pleasantly surprised several months ago when I learn he was returning with a new talk show.

The series, which is scheduled to release a show a month, is hosted by Netflix. The first episode aired on Jan. 12 and Letterman’s first guest was former president Barack Obama. The roughly hour long interview also included clips from the March on Selma and segments with Civil Rights leader, and current Congressman, John Lewis.

Letterman, who has never shied from his liberal viewpoints, seems to be leading the interview into the realm of how did we get here — a nonverbal nod to the political mayhem unleashed by Trump. Letterman addresses Trump’s Twitter attack on Lewis who, unlike Trump, has earned a place in U.S. history for his work for the advancement of Civil Rights.

During the segment with Lewis, a vintage clip of the original march is shown, and several things are striking about the footage. The viewer is first faced the force and violence used by police officers against the marchers, despite the reality the marchers were not breaking any laws. But, just as jarring is the celebratory cheers from white onlookers that can be heard as the officers begin their assault.

Most of the segment though deals with Obama, and Obama comes across as relaxed, charming and still intimately interested in the future of his country. The Obama interview includes some interesting vignettes in Obama’s post-presidency life as well as his childhood. After sitting and talking with Letterman for an hour, Obama, who was often aloof while in office, seems more down to earth. By the end of the interview, their is a feeling that a friendship exists between the two men.

My Rating 5 out of 5. I’ve always admired Letterman’s ability to interview. (My favorite interview is when he called Bill O’Reilly a goon on live TV). In this first episode, Letterman seems genuinely concerned about the direction of his country, and in one poignant moment, admits his lack of participation during the Selma March era.

George Clooney is the scheduled for the second episode.

Afterthought

  • Another great Obama interview is with Jerry Seinfeld on the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Categories: American History, Americans Who Got It Right, My America

‘Godfather Of Modern Popular Gay Fiction’ Graduated From My Local, Rural High School

If you walk into Eaton High School in Preble County you will not find any quotes from our most prolific author. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has heard of Victor J. Banis — a 1955 EHS graduate.

I stumbled across his name on the Preble County Wikipedia page — and then I read his 2008, 400+ page memoir, Spine Intact, Some Creases.

I found him to be a very interesting individual.

His book should appeal to at least three categories of readers:

  • those interested in First Amendment rights,
  • the gay community, and
  • locals interested in Preble County’s 1940s-1950s history.

First Amendments Battles

Victor is listed as a juvenile living at home in his father’s 1954 obituary. In the book, Banis details his last conversation with his father.

Banis moved out of Preble County after high school and within a decade found himself indicted in Sioux City, Iowa for ‘conspiracy to distribute obscene material’. Banis was indicted for his novel The Affairs of Gloria. As Banis writes in the foreword of the re-release of The Why Not Gloria,

…had one ‘damn’ in it and one ‘go to hell.’ It did, however, significantly have some — again tepid — lesbian scenes.

The federal government and the U.S. Postal Service found the lesbian scenes morally offensive.

Banis would eventually be dropped from the case (the other defendants were not), but he still spent the first decade of his writing career with a suitcase packed and an open offer to move overseas should another indictment be handed down.

A conviction in these obscenity cases could yield a 20-year or longer prison sentence.

But, instead of prison, for more than a decade Banis was at the forefront of the popular gay fiction scene. And, in true capitalism form, it proved quite profitable because he had found an unmet need. In the early 1970s, Banis was earning about $200,000 a year — the equivalent of $1.2 million today.

Not bad for a former Preble County resident.

Eventually, Banis would write in several genres, including straight romance, but it is his 1960s gay C.A.M.P. series that collectors seek out. Those interested in his work will find a bibliography of about 150 titles in Spine Intact.

Being Gay In Small Town America

Although I found his First Amendment battles intriguing, and his personal life interesting, another appeal was the local history. Included in the 27-chapter book are roughly four chapters worth of local history. Some of it is a little salacious for this region — his cross-dressing Halloween adventure at the Armory at the age of 12, the first time a male classmate expressed a romantic interest in him, and his romantic liaison at 17 with his 26-year-old Boy Scout leader. He writes,

When I began a relationship with my friend I was lonely to a suicidal degree. I knew only one other gay youth in Eaton, Ohio. There were gay adult males in town but, mindful of their own safety, they avoided involvement with someone so young…In retrospect I suppose that the folks in Eaton, Ohio, who guessed what was going on with my friend and me thought it none of their business.

Banis’ parents are buried in Preble County.

The relationship would lead to a nonfiction work, Men and their Boys: the homosexual relationship between adult and adolescent (1966), in which Banis interviews homosexuals males that had relationships with older men.

Crimes Against Humanity

Early in this memoir, Banis states that Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is about Preble County (Anderson was born here, but moved by age two to Clyde, Ohio). If Banis’ assertion is accurate, Anderson’s work paints our dark side.

And when you read some of the incidents in Banis’ life, his assertion may be true.

In his book, Banis describes how his family ‘saw’ his oldest brother on a back country road in Preble County the night he was killed in Italy. Banis’ brother died in WWII shortly after his 23rd birthday.

As a Preble County resident, Banis grew up poor in the 1940s and 1950s. It was an era where being gay was a crime and it was a region, then as now, where homosexuality, by and large, is not accepted as natural. But, indirectly, this book challenges what we say we believe by showing us who we are. Banis mentions the gay local politicians, the homosexual book he found at a Preble County drug store in his youth, and the regional gay bars and hangouts that he frequented in his late teens/early 20s.

And he also exposes the crimes committed against gays by those in authority. Banis admits being gang raped by three officers (he does not offer location) and reports how, in Indianapolis, police officers abused gays at a party he attended. As you read the story of his youth and early 20s, the man has a right to be bitter, but he is not. Instead what flows through his words is a kind man filled with understanding, forgiveness and humor. He is witty. He occasionally ‘name drops’ (Hugh Hefner comes to mind). He jokes about his sexual liaisons with military personnel and, in general, he upholds his journey as one he was blessed to have travelled.

He also acknowledges the challenge his mother faced — being a Christian with a gay son. But, I feel his mother may have had a mischievous side when it came to the whispers that she almost certainly heard from the righteous.

While visiting him in California, Banis’ mom asked for a copy of some of his work (probably C.A.M.P., the gay male series, based on the vignette). And, as Banis notes, he presumed the books would go into a drawer somewhere so she could say she had a copy of them. Instead, mom decides to let her minister (Church of the Brethren), an aspiring writer who had expressed interested in her son’s writing career, read one. Banis writes,

The Reverend never expressed to her or to me any opinion on the books’ literary merits. Indeed, he never mentioned them to me at all, but he did look at me rather differently on my subsequent visits.

He never asked again about my writing either, and the next time I visited church with my mother the sermon was on ‘the Unintentional Sinner.’ I kept my gaze straight forward and sang the hymns with gusto, although I got through ‘He knows me as I am’ with some difficulty.

A Little Long

My only criticism of the book is it could have ended a little sooner. By his own admission, he meanders. By the end of the book, you will read several chapters offering would-be writers advice and some self-esteem tips. It’s all solid writing, it just feels somewhat out of place for this book.

Rated: 4 stars out of 5.


Local Trivia

Residents of Eaton, Ohio should know at least one of Banis’ sisters, Fanny. She was mayor of Eaton from 1993-1998.

Categories: Americans Who Got It Right, Books I have read, My America, Preble County, Understanding Trump Counties