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After trouncing William J. Fulbright in the 1974 primary election and winning the Arkansas US Senate seat held by the internationally recognized American Statesman, Chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, and one of the US Senate’s most powerful and most eloquent speakers, Dale Bumpers became an overnight Arkansas celebrity.
Of a more humble background than his predecessor and a country lawyer by trade, Bumpers was inclined to be more folksy in his small group and one-on-one conversations. And even though his grandiloquence on the Senate floor and his public speeches engaged the respective audiences intellectually, Bumpers never lost the oratorical magic touch of speaking to, instead of at, his colleagues and fellow citizens. A case in point was his stellar speech to his former Senate colleagues in the Bill Clinton impeachment trial and in defense of Clinton during the final arguments on the senate floor. Bumpers’ impassioned speech of January 21, 1999, given only days after he retired, might very well have been a factor in saving Clinton’s neck and zipper.
In 1975 Senator Dale Bumpers was invited to address the students and faculty at the university with which I am affiliated. For an ice breaker, he commenced his speech with the following joke:
At midnight a gunman held up an Irishman in Dublin, Ireland, placed a gun to his head, and said: “Catholic or Protestant?” To which the fast-thinking Irishman responded “Jew.” “Aha!” responded the gunman, “I am the happiest Ay-rab [emphasis his] in town.”
The only memory I have of that speech was the roaring laughter of the crowd. A young and non-tenured faculty member, I kept my mouth shut.
Four years later Bumpers was invited to give a speech at the opening ceremonies for a newly erected brick residential co-ed home for developmentally disabled adults, a unique project supported by a combined effort of a private, non-profit organization (the services of which are intended to help its clients in reaching “the highest level of independence to become an integral part of the community”), a local charitable foundation, and the local community. The aforementioned joke must have worked well for the Senator who, by that time, was on his way to becoming a popular politician and national figure. No sooner than he stepped up to the microphone, did Dale Bumpers recount the same joke. This time it elicited an even more boisterous response. Seated on the front row, I wanted so badly to get up and leave, yet I could not do so. At the time I was serving on the board of said organization, and I felt that my obligation to this very worthy organization took precedence over my indignation at this vile ethnic stereotyping, yet again, in a public forum, and narrated solely as a cheap shot to warm up the large crowd at someone else’s expense. This was not a political event; to use journalistic parlance, there was absolutely no need to throw red meat to the crowd.
Within days I wrote Bumpers a letter in which I chided him for resorting to such abject and contemptible humor and the denigration of an already maligned ethnic group in, of all places, the Bible Belt, and posed the following question: “Would you have dared narrate the same joke using a Black person or a Jew as the butt of your joke?” To his credit and in a demonstration of magnanimity of character, Senator Bumpers sent me a one page reply in which he apologized for his thoughtless utterances and promised to desist from resorting to ethnic stereotyping.
I spent the summer of 1982 in St. Paul/Minneapolis serving as a consultant for the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center. And I watched, with much trepidation, Israel’s launching its June 6, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a brutal application of force that resulted in the killing, wounding and maiming of tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Tens of thousands more were forced to become refugees, many for the second and third times. As the war began to draw to an end in late September of 1982, the denouement to this sordid drama set about the catastrophic and heinous genocide at the Beirut-based Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. Perpetrated by the Lebanese Phalange and orchestrated by Ariel Sharon (aka the Butcher of Lebanon) and his minions, between 2,500 and 4,500 Palestinians were wantonly slaughtered during a 36 hour orgy of killing, raping, pillaging and the burning of the dead and dying. The world shamefully looked away, and some observers believe that the US Navy, barely two miles off the Lebanese coast, knew about the unfolding events; the ships had been intercepting messages between the killers and their Israeli godfathers. Ronald Reagan slept through the night because Robert McFarland, his National Security Advisor, did not think that the mass murder of Palestinians merited attention. Not even the animals were spared. To cover up this dastardly act, the corpses of the victims, much like animal carcasses, were sprinkled with lime, and were hauled off en masse in the buckets of front end loaders and disposed of in mass graves. And to this day these miserable creatures have had no kadish, no decent burial, no grave markers, and no memorial; their memory, their pain, their plight, their abject misery, and their cry for justice were buried with them. In a rare moment of exercising moral principles, Israel’s Kahan Commission concluded that Sharon “bore personal responsibility” for the mass murder, and he subsequently resigned as Defense Minister.
Incensed at both the cold-blooded murder and the apathetic manner in which the US, the European Community (the so-called civilized Western World), the UN and the so-called Arab brethren responded, I decided to channel my frustration and anguish into constructive action. I decided to help in the efforts of adoption agencies that were attempting to cut through the maze of red tape to speed up the adoption of orphaned children and in facilitating efforts to bring maimed and disfigured children to the US for plastic surgery and prosthetic therapy.
By 1982 Betty Bumpers (the Senator’s wife) had established a reputation for having worked with Rosalind Carter on the 1977 “first Federal Initiative for Comprehensive Childhood Immunization” program. And in 1982 Mrs. Bumpers launched Peace Links, an organization whose intent was “to effect a mind shift in the way people think about peace and war.” She and her organization worked diligently “to educate communities about a new concept of national security, the value of cultural diversity, non-violent conflict resolution, global cooperation, citizen diplomacy, violence prevention and peace building.” And Peace Child, a children’s musical, was produced in communities around the nation, including my own.
My wife subsequently involved her elementary students in the making of 1,000 origami cranes that were sent to the Hiroshima monument, a project for which one parent suggested that she was promoting communist propaganda. Conjecturing that there were regular evening discussions at the Bumpers’ dinner table about the welfare of children and Mrs. Bumper’s peace initiatives, I was certain that the Senator would be receptive to a meeting to discuss my concerns. Thirty years ago this week the meeting was held in Senator Dale Bumpers’ Little Rock office. And for the record, David Pryor, Arkansas’ other senator, declined to meet with us.
I entreated two colleagues with whom I am philosophically aligned to accompany me to Dale Bumpers’ Little Rock office. I met Johnny Wink in 1973 when we simultaneously embarked on academic careers (now in their 40th year), and Randall O’Brien in 1980, when he joined the ranks of the faculty as a young dynamo fresh out of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (and Yale Divinity School). Johnny and Randall have several things in common: they are both Mississippi natives (Johnny claims Gulfport, MS, and Randall claims McComb, MS); they came of age in the 1960s, and they experienced first-hand the tectonic changes that came about as a result of the tremulous struggle for civil rights; the tumultuous 1960’s social changes in Mississippi and the reverberating aftershocks in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia helped shape their characters; the needles of their moral compasses are solidly glued on due north; they are well known for their impeccable personal and professional integrity; their eloquence, speaking, and writing abilities are superior to anything I would ever hope to achieve; they are committed husbands and loving fathers; they are outstanding and popular professors who’ve earned meritorious honors for their teaching; they are scholars par excellence; while Randall is a minister, Johnny mesmerizes his audiences with his poetic genius. Randall would subsequently chair the Baylor University Department of Religion, become Dean and Executive Vice President at Baylor, and be tapped for the Presidency of Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. And for the past forty years Johnny has been hammering out grammar, composition, creative writing, literature, Latin and Greek into the young minds of legions of young scholars who’ve gone on to make their mentor proud. French, Russian, Spanish, and a dabbling in Arabic and Hebrew are but side avocations for him. A Vietnam War Protestor who participated in peace vigils, Johnny’s missives against the Iraq War bespoke of his respect for life and the perspicacity acquired over time. A decorated Vietnam War Veteran, in 2006 Randall drove to McComb, MI, to meet Brenda Travis who, 45 years earlier, and at the age of 15, had been jailed for daring to march for justice. In Randall’s own words:
After 45 years of exile, Brenda returned to Mississippi, June 21, 2006, for the 45th anniversary of the direct action against segregation in Mississippi. Determined, I got in my automobile, pulled out of my driveway, and drove 10 hours from my home in Texas to meet her in McComb. I had something to give her; I had something to say to her.
Following two days of recognitions, speeches, awards ceremonies, a moving graduation exercise nearly half-century too late for the seniors of Burgland High, class of ’62, and a final stirring address to a full house at Burgland High by Brenda Travis, the right moment arrived for me to approach Brenda. My heart raced.
“Brenda,” I began, “I’m Randall O’Brien. I am a minister and Executive Vice President and Provost of Baylor University. I grew up in McComb.” “Oh, I’m very glad to meet you.” “No, the honor is all mine. You are a hero of mine. I was 12-years old when you sat-in at the bus station and marched on City Hall. You were 15. Those remain, for me, two of the greatest acts of bravery in my lifetime.”
“How very kind of you. Thank you, Randall.” “Brenda, what happened to you was one of the darkest travesties of justice in American history. I am ashamed; I am embarrassed; I am angry. I am also changed by you, by your life, your courage, your cries for justice. As you know,” I continued, “our lives always travel down paths of continuation or compensation, one or the other, in the area of racial injustice. Your witness, and the courageous work of your sisters and brothers has been a huge influence upon my life. I’ve tried to live my life to help compensate for all the wrong done to African-Americans. How can I say, thank you, Brenda, for who you are and for who you’ve helped me to become?” (Google A Bronze Star for Brenda by Randall O’Brien for the complete narrative.)
In a most unique gesture of altruism and superior demonstration of nobility of character, on June 21, 2006, Randall O’Brien gifted the Bronze Star he so deservedly earned to Brenda Travis, a warrior of the Civil Rights demonstrations. Politicians had lied to us that we were fighting the Commies in Vietnam (and they’re still doing so) for democracy’s sake. The Johnny Winks and Randal O’Briens of this nation deserve Congressional Medals of Honor for giving voice to the disenfranchised. For indeed, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Had I been gifted with poetic skills, I would have written this essay as poem under the title Ode to Friendship and Justice.
Only two things linger from the one hour meeting with former Senator Dale Bumpers: When told about the dire conditions in the tiny Gaza Strip and the plight of its then-950,000 citizens concentrated in the world’s “geographically highest density population,” Bumpers, like most politicians, and working from scripted information, expressed doubt about the large concentration of Palestinian refugees in such a tiny strip of land. Today 1.67 million Palestinians are living in the largest open air concentration camp/prison, a hermetically sealed off 139 sq. mile area isolated from the rest of the world.
As we prepared to leave, Randall looked into Dale Bumpers’ eyes and stated (in his unique and gentle Mississippi drawl) the following: “Senator, there is a broken bone in history. We’re calling on you to help mend it.”
Since 1965 America has pretty much come face to face with the sordid demons of its past, and, had it not been for America’s mending of its own broken bone of history (Civil Rights and Women’s Rights), Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton would not be where they are today.
Is it not time for the Ob-Illary team to stop their phony lectures on human and women’s rights and do something other than playing puppeteers and marionettes in the sordid danse macabre of death and destruction that is plaguing North and Central Africa and Asia and to advocate for the God-given “inalienable rights” of millions of men and women, including Palestinians?
Is it not time for the US to stop impeding peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for Palestinians? Is it not time for America to come face to face with the foreign policy demons that have superimposed successive Administrations and Congresses into the straight jacket of complicity? And finally, is it not time to help set and mend, once and for all, the broken bone of Palestine, a bone whose shattered fragments have splintered the region and the world?
Raouf J. Halaby is a professor of English and Art at a liberal arts university in Arkansas. email@example.com