Capturing a Movement

The New York Times reported today that photographer Bob Adelman has died:

I met Mr. Adelman in 2013, when he came to UAB to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. It was his photos of the movement–peaceful protestors being held back with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the masses, the Children’s March–that became emblematic of the era. He was a kind and gentle man and could tell a heck of a story about individuals like King (whom he called “Doc”) that most of us know only through history books.


Bodies matter, even in Alabama

I came across yet another story in the popular media about horrendous decision-making in Alabama:

A judge in Marion, Alabama, one of the areas I traveled to with David Jay to document the lives of breast cancer survivors lacking access to health insurance and oftentimes knowledge about their disease, is accused of exploiting the poor who enter his courtroom. Of which there are plenty. Marion is home to some of the poorest in the state, many of them African Americans.

As I read this story about people without the means to pay fines being told to donate blood and then bring a form back to the judge proving they’d donated for a credit towards their payment, I thought about the kinds of historical atrocities we discuss in a course I teach called Writing and Medicine. Among them is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which happened between the 30s and 70s (yes, it continued into the 70s) right down the road from Birmingham. Even though penicillin was being used to treat Syphilis by the late 30s, poor African American men were unknowingly refused treatment just to see what would happen to a body left to suffer from the disease. The results were horrific–excruciating pain, infertility, blindness.

While donating blood is certainly a good thing to do, there’s something wrong with making someone with limited means submit to a physical procedure to pay off a debt. Granted, giving blood isn’t as life changing as donating a kidney. Still, offering poor people who are already intimidated by the justice system the “option” of using their bodies as replacement commodities is wrong.

Come on, Alabama.

Alabama in the news, again

During the past week, Alabama has been front and center in the news. Again.

The majority of media attention has focused on the refusal of far too many judges in the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, despite a federal judge’s decision that a ban on same-sex marriage in Alabama (along with bans in other states) is unconstitutional. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore disagreed with the federal judge’s decision and advised judges throughout the state not to go along with it.

Once again, Alabama goes its own way. It’s an embarrassment and a message to the world that “we don’t do things like the rest of y’all.”

I came across another story this morning that made me even sadder:

In a bedroom community of Huntsville, Alabama, a city which is known for being progressive, especially in the spheres of science and technology, an elderly Indian man was stopped and abused by police. The reason? He looked different and didn’t speak English.

I promise that not all of us in Alabama are so narrow-minded.

Gandhi the journalist

The fog from jetlag/sickness is lifting, so I’m finally ready to dig into my memories (and notes!) for blogging.

During my time in India, I visited two sites connected to Mahatma Gandhi: his temporary residence in Delhi where he lived the final weeks of his life before being assassinated in 1948 and his permanent residence in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Gandhi was a complicated man, and his way with words continues to resonate with anyone seeking possibilities for addressing the woes of society. Poverty. Injustice. Prejudice. Unmitigated control.

The museum that has been established in Delhi is particularly powerful. Dioramas depicting the phases of Gandhi’s life line the entryway before opening up into a series of hallways filled with biographical sketches, photos, and other memorabilia.

I was drawn to one commentary focusing on “The Journalist Gandhi” including a quote from one of many writings by Gandhi in Indian Opinion:

Gandhi writes, “In the very first month of Indian Opinion, I realized that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole country sides [sic] and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.” (June 9, 1907)

My first thought upon reading Gandhi’s words was how Gandhi would respond to the onslaught of useless information splayed 24/7 across television, the Internet, and a plethora of other media outlets in 2013. He’d be appalled.

For Gandhi, control from “within” refers to the human spirit, the soul of the writer/man. Control from “without” means listening to naysayers, politicians and pundits whose views are accessible and familiar–but without merit.

In the same article in June 1907, Gandhi also expressed his decision to take up a journalist’s pen: “I have taken up journalism, not for its own sake but mainly as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life.” Those words gave me chills, as I’m sure they would for anyone who writes to make sense of the world.

5 Gandhi Smriti, Delhi

5 Gandhi Smriti, Delhi

Gandhi's writing desk and philosophy of hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil

Gandhi’s writing desk and philosophy of hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil

Words to live by . . .

Words to live by . . .

Gandhi's famous walking stick

Gandhi’s famous walking stick

Marking Gandhi's final footsteps . . .

Marking Gandhi’s final footsteps . . .


David Jay and his assistant, Lauren, have returned to Alabama to photograph more women for the traveling exhibit of The Alabama Project. This time around, we’re heading into Marengo, Hale, and Greene Counties–all part of the Black Belt–to interview some of the poorest in the state, and the country, for that matter. Once again, we’ll be talking to cancer survivors who lacked a steady income, insurance benefits, proper health information, transportation, or other kinds of necessary support when they were diagnosed.

Yesterday and today, David shot a few more photos of two of the original Alabama Project models: Whitni and Brittney. Both have experienced some changes since we last spoke in January: downsized apartments that ease some of their financial strain, a return to school, and a new puppy named Bella for Brittney and her husband Brandon.

We sat in on Whitni and her mom during David’s shoot, learning more about their divergent views on health and cancer treatment. Brittney was working, braiding a client’s hair, as David photographed her. It was great seeing these strong women moving on with their lives despite the obstacles they’ve faced.

Tomorrow, our eavesdropping may not be as simple or as satisfying. From what we’ve heard about conditions in the Black Belt, we’re in for a bit of a rude awakening.

Pathways to Peace

On Friday night, the film series that my colleague and fellow traveler, Cathleen Cummings, and I coordinated came to an end. We’ve been showing movies and documentaries about the intersections between Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance in the road to India’s Independence and the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. to model a peaceful means to justice.

Though I’ve lived in Birmingham for roughly 15 years now and have traveled to India and seen firsthand both the beauty and the inequity that persists in the culture, I have learned much from the images and stories we’ve shared with students and faculty and community members throughout the city these past few weeks.

There’s the story told through the documentary The Dhamma Brothers of a form of meditation called Vipassana brought to Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Alabama which I visited several years ago to give a lecture to some of the inmates. The meditation program is based on a similar approach devised by Kiran Bedi, first female director of the largest prison in the world, Tihar Prison in Delhi.

We’ve heard stories of lesser-known civil rights leaders in the US and India, including Bayard Rustin, who stood beside and at times before MLK but whose contributions are lesser known.

Several of the selections have offered glimpses into the simplicity of Gandhi’s example: the famous salt march to refute taxation on a natural resource, spinning cotton to avoid relying on British goods, fasting and praying–all against a backdrop of escalating violence by those ill-equipped to deal with nonviolent means to change.

The series included memorable films like Finding Gandhi about a mechanic charged with repairing the engine of an old V8 Ford that once carried the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi and I Did Not Kill Gandhi (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara) about a man who believes he is implicated in the assassination of Gandhi because of his involvement in a childhood game the same day as Gandhi’s death. 

A short called Gandhi at the Bat satirized Gandhi’s “peaceful” approach to knocking it out of the ballpark for The New York Yankees.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been caught up in the violent outbursts of my brother. His drug and alcohol addiction and entrapment in bipolar disease have created an atmosphere that is far from peaceful. Edwina has been caught up in her own agony as well, watching her son being ordered back to jail for failing to comply with the conditions of his probation.

Each of the past five Friday nights has offered a chance to sit and reflect on powerful and more productive paths through adversity and pain.