<\body> Stories in America: July 2005

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Photos: Oklahoma's Church Signs

We took these photos over the past two days driving from Oklahoma City to McAlester. As the saying goes, there are churches on almost every corner of the Bible Belt and in some cases, they're right across the street from each other. McAlester, population 17,652, is home to 77 churches, according to Church Angel.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Oklahoma Sit-Ins: A Conversation with Clara Luper

In 1957, high school history teacher Clara Luper was given the opportunity to escape segregated Oklahoma by spending a few days in New York presenting "Brother President," a play she wrote about Martin Luther King. Luper and the group of students she brought with her were able to go about their day like everyone else and order sodas from non-segregated lunch counters. As their bus journeyed back through the Jim Crow South, Luper vowed to take on segregation and explained how she was going to do it in her book, Behold the Walls:

"I though about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veterans' Hospital and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, "Someday will be real soon," as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, "Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let History alone be our final judge."

Shortly thereafter, Luper and 12 members of the NAACP Youth Council, ages six to 17, walked into the Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered 13 Coca-Colas. A typical response from Luper's fellow white customers was, "The nerve of the niggers trying to eat in our places. Who does Clara Luper think she is? She is nothing but a damned fool, the black thing." Thanks to patience and persistence, Katz, a major drug store, eventually desegregated the lunch counters in all of its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

That action led to similar sit-ins in Oklahoma City and across the South. Luper eventually became known as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Luper is well-known in Oklahoma, but isn't a household name nationwide. Today 82-year-old Luper speaks about her work to groups across the country and is involved with the NAACP, Miss Black Oklahoma and her church. I recently spoke with Clara at her home in Oklahoma City.

Tell me about the work you've been involved with in the past, specifically the sit-ins.

Well, first off, I'm black. I've known segregation as one of the worst experiences of a person's life. I was born in a segregated area. I went to a segregated school where we'd be reading sometimes on page four and the next page would be ten. I have had the experience of going to the back of the bus, not being able to go to libraries, public accommodations and what have you. I've always hated segregation with a passion. That's why I've been associated with the NAACP.

Did you immediately recognize that segregation was wrong?

I was always taught that segregation was wrong. I came from a family that understood the scars of segregation and they knew it was wrong, but doing something about it was a different story because Oklahoma was primarily at its infancy a Democratic State. In writing the Constitution, the first laws that were passed were segregation laws, so my parents had lived with it. My dad was a veteran of World War I and he believed what Woodrow Wilson said: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. My mother was from Texas and she saw a black person burned in Paris, Texas and she was afraid that would happen to anyone who spoke out against segregation. When I would say, why do we have to go to the back of the bus? My mother would say, shut up; my dad would say, someday you'll be able to ride anywhere on the bus. He had a lot of faith in what would happen and what would change in Oklahoma.

When it comes to segregation and racism, most people think of Mississippi and Alabama. What would you say to people who don't know that much about the history of Oklahoma, especially as it pertains to racism and segregation?

Well, they haven't studied Oklahoma history because during the debate on the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, one Senator stated that Oklahoma had the worst segregation laws in the United States, which is true. Our laws were on the books and they stated very clearly that we should be separated. It was written by Bill Murray who hated Catholics, Jews and Blacks. And he wrote it so that all laws would be segregation laws. People just don't know because we are a young state and people have not paid attention to us like they have in other states. We've had lynchings in this state. We've had burnings. In fact, my building was bombed. We've had a lot of things. But one difference between Oklahoma and the other states is that we had a nonviolent movement here.

Tell me about that movement.

In 1957, I wrote as part of a black history program, a play that I call, "Brother President," which was a story about Martin Luther King. I had met Martin Luther King through the NAACP when he received an award in New York City. I'm Baptist and I was so proud to hear a Baptist minister talk about social changes. I wrote this play and for the first time in my life, I took a group of young people to New York City because the NAACP had asked for voices from the South and we went there. Most of my kids had never had the opportunity to go in a restaurant and order Cokes and what have you. We lived at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City and the kids really enjoyed it, but on the way back, we came back through segregated Washington DC, which was another experience. Then I thought that I cannot leave this area until I take my kids to Arlington Cemetery. That's a heartwarming experience because you just don't realize how many people have died perpetuating what we call democracy. So a 14-year-old girl standing in the Arlington Cemetery says to me: what can we do? All of these people have died for freedom. What can we do? We came back through the segregated South where we couldn't eat in restaurants.

To make a long story short, when we came back to Oklahoma City, the NAACP youth council met and wanted to open public accommodations to all and we thought it'd be easy because we are known as the Bible center of America. We thought all we had to do was make our wishes known. I had a friend, who happened to be white, who was so excited about the project. We decided to go to the restaurants together and when we did that, all hell broke out because they would say to the white lady, come in, but Clara Luper, you can't come in. We did that for seventeen long months and after seventeen months, the kids made reports and my daughter Marilyn said, let's go downtown and wait. And we selected the stores where most blacks traded. So we decided that night to go to Katz Drug Store. Katz Drug Store not only had drugs, it had a basement with tennis shoes and shirts and what have you. So we went in, 13 of us, and took seats. People that had known us for years began to curse us. They called the police. Policemen came from all directions, but we were just sitting at the counter. We were not arrested. That was in 1958 and we are getting ready to celebrate the 48th anniversary of the beginning of the sit-in movement. We celebrate every year. That's how we got started.

When did the dialogue begin to shift? In the beginning, people were outraged.

People were outraged. We had to sit-in from 1958 to 1964, so they were outraged because we were able to uncover the prejudice that had been quilted into the intellectual fabrics of the whites in this state.

Did you have any white champions? Did anyone have a change of heart and say, you're right, segregation is wrong.

I don't think they had a change of heart. There were a lot of whites that participated in the movement. I told the whites, when you participate in this movement, you're going to suffer discrimination and they found that. A priest at a local Catholic Church here was abused and finally he was run out town. Doctor Yates, who was a young Presbyterian minister who participated, was run out. There were a lot of white people that wanted to see the change. See, white people had a fear in Oklahoma. If they would come out and support us, they would be isolated from their friends and neighbors. There were many business owners that felt if they would come out and support us, they would lose their white customers. There were jail-ins. I went to jail 26 times. There were read-ins. While we were sitting-in, our kids were preparing to live in the real world, so they were reading. Out of that experience, we got doctors and lawyers. A lot of people have gone to the top. In fact, one of the top brain surgeons in the United States started when we were down there sitting-in. He wanted to be a doctor and I said, if you want to be a doctor, memorize all the bones in the body, the vessels, the veins and the arteries and that is what he did. They were very, very successful. In fact, this year, during the sit-in freedom fiesta celebration, one of the young ladies who was voted the best principal in the United States, who has a master's degree, was our guest speaker. She was one of the kids who had the experience of reading during that time.

Are most of the people involved in the sit-in alive today?

Yes, most of them are alive.

And you're in contact with them?

Yes, they're all over the country.

What's the climate like today? I notice that when I go to churches, they're either all-white or all-black.

The climate today in Oklahoma has changed. The churches are still the most segregated part of Oklahoma. Our school system has changed, the employment picture has changed on the lower level, but we are still the last ones hired and the first ones fired. I think it's a climate of understanding and credit must not only be given to the NAACP. It must be given to the men that fought in World War II and the Korean War and Vietnam because these guys came back with a different attitude. Things have changed for the better because I know I couldn't even go downtown and now I'm always getting invitations. I got an opportunity not only to work in black schools, but in white schools. I remember quite vividly one white lady who didn't want her son in my class and had the audacity to come to my classroom and call for her son. At that time, I had to show her that I was the boss of that classroom, so I went out and said, show me some identification because you might be somebody trying to kidnap one of my students. She was nervous and finally pulled out a driver's license. I explained to her, you've got to understand that I'm responsible for this classroom and her son, who was a junior at that time, was so embarrassed. When I went in and got him, he was angry with his mother. They had quite a fuss and he told his mother, I'm staying in this class because I'm learning something. But to bring it around, this young man is now president of a company and last year, he called me and asked me to go to lunch. He didn't tell me his mother was going to be present. So I went to lunch with him and he had his mother apologize to me. He said, this is the lady that changed my life. I came from low-income people. I couldn't understand kids who had everything, but wouldn't study and wouldn't work. I really produced some great students because of that. I called them my diamonds and explained, you gotta dig for a diamond. You gotta polish it.

How did the apology make you feel?

In the first place, I have never had the seed of hatred in me. And the white folks that spit on me and cursed me, they were ignorant people. They didn't know my dreams and my aspirations. They didn't know my understanding of America and what it was all about, so I felt sorry for them. I remember one time, I was havin' some fun and I asked one of the segregationists to describe a black person to me. He couldn't do it because we come in so many different colors. When I ran for the United States Senate and I was down in what is known as Little Dixie, one of the leaders of the community asked me how I felt about interracial marriage. I really hated that he asked me that because I know so many marriages have failed whether they're white and white or black and black. I told him, I have never seen an elephant having intercourse with an ant and therefore, I believe that anything that God did not want to mate, he made biologically impossible. He didn't like that, but nobody asked me about interracial marriage again. I think people are hung up on the wrong thing.

Like gay marriage?

Yeah, I have nothin' to do with anybody wanting to marry anybody. That's their business.

The type of activism that you were involved with doesn't happen today. There are protests, but a lot of people say it's difficult to make an impact.

We were protesting against the laws. Another way to go about it is through education. That's what we've got to do. The textbooks must be changed. For example, the Oklahoma history books, before 1980, hardly had anything about women and women were the backbone of the state. The more you know about women, the more you know about blacks, the more you know about Indians, the better off you are. History books have been written by white men.

But in terms of activism and actions, people from all over the country took to the streets during the Republican National Convention, hundreds of thousands protested the war, people sign petitions, people volunteered during the election, people call their Senators, but many on the left feel like their actions don't make a difference.

The problem is with the young people between the ages of 18 and 45. Those people have not gotten out and registered to vote. They don't think what happens in Washington affects them. You know I'm anti-war because I see no need to go somewhere to put democracy down somebody else's throat when we don't have it ourselves. Bush has a lot of personality that will make people say ok, ok, ok without thinking. That's what is happening. I'm not tied to any political party. I have friends who are Republicans, Independents and Democrats. I'm only interested in people who believe everybody should have basic rights.

What is your opinion of the Bush administration and what they've done over the past four years?

What have they done over the past four years? I know one thing: 1700 of our bright young Americans have died for a cause that I don't understand. Naturally, I'm speaking from a mother's standpoint. I would like to see a war where old men have to go and fight. That would be the kind of war I would like to see. Bush and his group should go over there and send our boys home.

Democrats tend to ignore the so-called "red states" like Oklahoma saying it's not worth spending money here. What do you think about that?

I think it's a mistake. In politics, all states are important.

Why did John Kerry fail to win one county here?

John Kerry didn't come to Oklahoma and connect with the right people. He was not able to get his message out. I voted for him and I think he got most of his votes from the east side of Oklahoma City. The east side is predominantly black.

What can politicians do to get more blacks to vote?

We've got to get them registered and to the polls. A lot of them are still afraid to vote.

What advice would you give to the Democratic party?

I think they should make use of the black media. I'm on the radio. I work for KTLV. We couldn't get Kerry's group to spend any money in the black community. We have black newspapers and black radio programs. They've got to become involved because the day is over when you can have a bbq and ask people to come out and vote.

They're really struggling with issues like gay marriage and abortion because the Republicans have done such a good job of turning those into wedge issues.

Those aren't our issues. I don't know any black people who are concerned with gay marriages and abortions. Those are somebody else's issues. We're concerned with hospital prices, medicine, jobs, social security, education and all of that.

It's interesting you say that because when we go to black churches, people say they're against gay marriage and abortion, but say they shouldn't be political issues, whereas when we interview people at white churches, those two issues are at the top of the list. They say they like Bush because he's against gay marriage and abortion.

That's a poor reason. I don't have a right to tell you whom you should marry. I don't have a right to take that decision away from you. I was at one black church and the preacher was explaining that those aren't our issues. Those are Bush's issues. He asked preachers, how many of you have married a gay couple? And not one of them had. This is not an important issue in the black community, according to the blacks I've talked to and God knows I've talked to a lot of them. Unless we wake up, many church people will wake up without health care and social security and other things. Then there will be a crisis in the churches. The Democrats should hit it head on.

What does being Christian mean to you?

Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live. That has really paid off for me because today I am so fortunate in that I have 90 students and I'm paying their room and board at Oklahoma City University. A man put up a million dollars in my name and another organization put up $300,000. This means so much to me because when I went to college, my mother had to move to the servant's quarters so I could go to school.

Would you mind sharing a few more stories from your past that stand out?

I had the opportunity to debate a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and that was quite interesting. I could hardly wait because I know the key to winning a debate is to make a person angry. At the beginning of our debate, I said, I am so happy to be here to debate this issue with my brother. He got mad and he told me he was not my brother. I apologized and said, you've got to remember sir, I'm a Christian and I've been told that all men are brothers. (laughs) That made him so mad. In place of debating the issue, he started saying that he was not my brother. I said, sir, I'm apologizing to you. That's what I've been told: God our father, man our brother, but maybe I have to go back and get my Bible and reread it.

How did the rest of the debate go?

I won it. I won. (laughs) I have another story. We walked to Lawton trying to integrate an amusement park. The man who owned it had me arrested because it was a swimming park and he didn't want blacks to swim. He said he didn't want me swimming in his pool and I looked at him and didn't say anything because I couldn't swim. (laughs)

What eventually happened?

We finally got it opened. The whites weren't always like that. We had one white man, the owner of a park, put us in jail and his dad came and got us out. (laughs) You can never tell. In studying history, only 25 percent of people in the south had anything to do with slavery. You want to make sure you're picking out the right ones. But who can tell who is the right one? That's why you have to love everybody.

Oklahoma City Progressives: Fire Rove

On Tuesday night, as we were searching for a restaurant, we drove past a group of people in front of a coffee shop waving "Fire Karl Rove" signs. We stopped to ask them a few questions. Turns out, they are part of the Oklahoma City Impeach Bush Meetup Group and meet every Tuesday night. Here are excerpts from those brief interviews:

We're just mad as hell. This war is illegal and the people in the White House are traitors and criminals. It's time for the people to wake up.

Why did Kerry fail to win one county here?

This is Oklahoma. This is the reddest of the red. That's why we voted for the General because we figured we'd have a better shot with him. It's tough here, but we get lots and lots of thumbs up and waves and lots of birdies, too. You're in the inner city and we have our arts district here and we had a huge gay pride parade here. It's a lot different than the rest of the city. Anytime you get out of this central area, it gets pretty red. But you know, they are nice friendly folks and they'll let you in traffic and that kind of thing, but they just don't like you talkin' bad about their president.
-Randy Feuerborn

I was in the military and that's why I'm here. I got out in '92. I spent 14 years in the Navy. I know how those boys feel over there. The media doesn't tell us how they feel and what they're going through.
-Roger Harkness, Oklahoma City Kid Blogger

We are trying to make people aware. I think a lot of people feel this way, but they're afraid to speak out, especially in Oklahoma, since it's a very conservative state. I was surprised that we got so many honks and thumbs up. It's important to let people know that we're here. There are so many lies and deceptions coming out of the White House. We're doing this every Tuesday. It's our responsibility to have the discussion with others. Once you start talking to people about it, they ask questions.

And you helped with the Kucinich campaign?

Yes, we even got stopped by a state trooper while we were working on the campaign. Luckily, he was a Democrat and saw all of our campaign stuff and said, you girls can go. But we gave him some Kucinich information because he hadn't heard of him.

Considering that Kerry didn't win one county here, what did people think about Kucinich?

Most people had never heard of him. I used to work with Republicans and all they knew was four letters: B-U-S-H. I had a bunch of Kucinich information in my cubicle and they would ask about him. I gave them information and most people we talked to that read the stuff said, I love the guy, but there's no way he can win so I'm not going to put my energy into it, which was so sad.
-Sharon Ginsler

I just heard a comment today from someone who heard that Valerie Plame didn't even work for the CIA when her name was leaked and I'm wondering, where do people get this information? It's just crazy. It was all over the news, but it has taken a back seat. We want to keep it in the forefront and the way you do that is get out in the street and hold up your sign. It's short and simple. Fire Karl Rove. We feel we have the right to get out there and voice our opinion. I've called three of the major networks in town. I've done a lot of interviews with local radio stations, but other than that, it's hard to get the alternative message out. We have to get our message out through the Internet or the radio because the major networks are scared to touch this stuff.

And you worked on the Dennis Kucinich campaign?

Yes, I visited over 200 cities in Oklahoma.
-Lisa Ghariani, State Coordinator for the Dennis Kucinich Campaign

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Diverse Oklahoma: Judaism in the Bible Belt

Since we're in the middle of the Bible Belt, we've been spending most of our time interviewing Christians and going to Christian churches, which are on almost every corner in many areas of Oklahoma. One could easily overlook the fact that Oklahoma City is home to synagogues and mosques, as well as a Sikh and Hindu Temple. Barry Cohen is the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation founded in 1903 in Oklahoma City. Temple B'nai Israel is co-sponsoring a forthcoming exhibit of the Nazi persecution of the homosexual community and works with the local NAACP. Rabbi Cohen, 36, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and last worked in Scottsdale, Arizona as an assistant Rabbi at a reform congregation.

What brought you to Oklahoma City?

When I was out in Arizona, I was a congregational rabbi for two years and then my career took a turn and I got into Jewish journalism. I was working at the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix for four years, but I missed a lot of aspects of the congregational world and I was concerned that the window was going to close eventually. There are only so many years you can be out until people look at you strange and say, where have you been? So it was time to get back in the game. I interviewed at a number of different places and this seemed to be a good place to get back into the congregational world. I've been here a little more than a year. My wife gave birth to twins seven months ago and we really feel like we've been welcomed into the community. Temple B'nai Israel is like a ready set community. We made a set of friends pretty easily. They've been very welcoming without being hovering or trying to be too intrusive. Even though I've only been here for a little over a year, in many ways it feels like a lot longer as far as comfort level. It's such a contrast to Phoenix where it was difficult to make substantial friendships. The Jewish community here has been here longer than the state has existed, so you have people here who can trace their family line back to the Land Run.

Tell me more about Oklahoma's Jewish community.

Oh my goodness. I had no idea it had such deep roots. It really goes back to the Land Run, if not even before. Most settled in Eastern Oklahoma. Most of those Jewish communities have declined to the point of being non-existent and like almost every Jewish community, they move from the little town to the big city. The real concentration of Jewish communities are in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. There are a few isolated communities here and there, but it's impressive how families have come out here and stayed here for generations.

We've been on the road for about three months now and have gone to a lot of churches. The Christian way of life obviously gets the most attention. Do you work with Christians or have relationships with pastors?

It's very clear when I was interviewing that they were looking for a rabbi who would be out in the community. In many ways, I'm taking over from the substantial work that my predecessor did. He built a strong connection with the African-American community, with a local Catholic Church and a local Unitarian Church. It's very important for there to be a Jewish face out in the community and even in the political community. With this being a state capitol, already just by virtue of being a Rabbi at this Temple, I was asked by a state representative to be the House Chaplain.

What I'm also finding at churches is that there are so many different flavors of Christianity. I've met progressive Christians who do outreach to the poor and the community at large. I've also met conservative Christians who spend a lot of money upgrading their buildings. Does that apply to the Jewish community here, in terms of people being both liberal and conservative?

Within this congregation, it is clear that there are people here who are hardcore Democrats, hardcore Republicans, moderates, Libertarian, you get the whole gamut. That being said, there is a core group of people here that believe in getting out in the community. For example, every Christmas we work at Will Rogers Airport to give the employees -- the people who give out information -- the day off. We say, this is much more of an important day for you than it is for our community. There's another group that tutors within the public school system and is involved with a number of social action programs. Again, there is the need to take the teachings of Judaism and make them real so they don't just stay within the walls of this house of worship. You've got to express it out in the community or really you're just talking.

When you interviewed here, did politics come up?

No. In many ways, politics, except for a minority of people I've gotten to be friends with, doesn't come up. I respect that. I'm not going to take an official political stand from the bima during one of my sermons. You can take a look at Judaism and be a Communist. You can look at Judaism and be a Libertarian. So you can take a look at the 4,000 years of Jewish history and find any political hook. I'm not about to try to say this is where Judaism stands on this issue because that's misusing the traditions and I don't want to alienate anybody. People haven't really put me on the spot and that's been refreshing.

And there's a conservative congregation in the area?

Yes, Emmanuel Synagogue. They fall within conservative Judaism and there's a small Chabai presence.

So there are three in town?

Yeah, and that's it. It's a small community of about 2500 Jews and we're all able to sit at the same table. There are families that belong to this congregation that have their primary membership at the temple, but have an associate membership at the synagogue or vice versa, so you have families that maybe grew up in the conservative synagogue and a few generations later, gravitated here. We still view ourselves as a single community because it is small. A few years back, we combined the religious schools so the temple kids and the synagogue kids could interact. For years, if you grew up a youth in the temple, you barely even knew the people your age right down the road.

On this trip, we've been exposed to both liberal and conservative pastors. The liberal pastors say, if your neighbor is thirsty, give him or her a cup of water. Help the poor. Respect the environment. Celebrate life. The conservative pastors tend to focus on sinning, which makes you feel pretty awful. What about liberal and conservative Rabbis. What are the differences?

That's a great question and it is getting harder and harder to define. In many ways, there are probably more similarities than there are differences. A generation ago, a more liberal Rabbi would not really be all that ritualistic, keeping kosher wasn't important, prayer is important, but community is more important. They would be much more willing to take strong political stances. Growing up in Memphis, they would be marching with African-American communities and be side by side with Martin Luther King. They would be at sit-ins. They would really be putting themselves at risk for religious principles. For better or for worse, there were some congregants who didn't like what they were doing and others were thrilled. Conservative Rabbis tended not to be as controversial. They were more ritualistic. Now it's harder to figure out, ok what's the difference? What's happening is the reform movement is becoming more conservative. My concern is that we're losing a bit of that social action tug. We're not so willing nowadays to take risks for the sake of politics, for the sake of the homeless, for the sake of the downtrodden and people who abuse drugs. Are we there for them? There's more of a push to what I call internal looking and spirituality, which is hard to define. So in that way, the reform movement is kind of veering back towards the center. Conservative Judaism hasn't changed as much, but what the conservative movement is facing is an internal shift. Some are becoming much more traditional, almost to the point of Orthodoxy and some are reacting to the world that's out there and becoming more liberal.

In terms of Oklahoma politics, one of the reasons we decided to come here is because John Kerry didn't win one county.

Right. It's about as red as it gets.

What is your opinion of Oklahoma politics based on your experiences so far?

It has been a slow and steady education. It's been a challenge to try to understand what is going on. The most confusing thing about Oklahoma politics from my perspective as a newcomer is that it is incredibly Republican when it comes to Presidential elections. Going back to World War II, the only Democratic presidents that this state has elected were Harry Truman and LBJ. That's it. Today there are more registered Democrats than there are registered Republicans. There is a sizable percentage of Independents, so it's a very strange situation because you may be a Republican running against a Democrat, but in reality it's a Republican running against a Republican, so it's been a challenge trying to figure that out. But that being the case, there is a definite group of strong liberal Democrats within the House and Seante. They know each other well, they share ideas and gravitate towards people in the community that support them. Even though I've only been out here a year, it's been easy to figure out the who's who and get in the game.

So do you consider yourself a liberal Democrat?

It's all relative. Living in Arizona for six years, I would have said I was moderate to left, even by Arizona Republican standards. Moving out to Oklahoma, however, that moderate to left means I'm pretty left. That's reality. It's been fascinating. I don't feel like I've moved; I feel like the place I went to kind of shifted right. (laughs)

Have you had any tangible experiences here that made you wake up and say, I'm in a different place.

Well, usually when you vote, you think it counts for something. I don't think one candidate I voted for, on a Presidential or statewide level, won. At that point, I was like, ok, I'm getting it. And something else that was eye opening happened when I was the House Chaplain for a week and gave a sermon. You work from Monday to Thursday and you're able to give a 10-minute sermon that Thursday morning. So I gave my sermon and I'm sure I gave them a read of the Scriptures that the majority of the people out there probably never heard before. The people that really agreed with me actually walked up and shook my hand and said, thank you for sharing your words. Then an individual came over and asked me to share some words with him out in the foyer. He spent the next 10 or 15 minutes preaching to me about how I was wrong and how if I didn't accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, you knew where I was going. And this is an elected official. That was very eye opening. The person who sponsored me kind of rolled his eyes and said he knew that was coming. But he also let me know that he's not alone.

I've heard in the news about conservative Jews and conservative Christian fundamentalists coming together on issues concerning Israel, like the Dome of the Rock, but I noticed on this trip, that it's actually part of the culture. We were at a church in San Antonio that had more Israeli flags than the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. Have you seen that dynamic here?

It is real. Absolutely. I've seen it more here listening to talk radio. I try to listen to a lot of talk radio just because I'm a huge fan of NPR, but I've got to balance that. There is a strong, strong advocacy within what I would call Christian fundamentalist groups, that are in many ways, more staunchly pro-Israel than some Jews are pro-Israel. This is the category of strange bedfellows. I don't know how deep the love of the Jewish people goes. I hate to sound cynical, but from what I've been able to learn, there is a need for as many Jews as possible to return to the land of Israel, to have control over every inch of Israel, if not expand upon those borders. That must take place in order for Jesus to return. I don't know how deep this love of Judaism goes because it's like a means to the end. That being the case, however, if there's going to be a strong relationship between the United States and Israel, which I want there to be, well, they vote and they want their elected officials to support Israel and to keep Israel safe and sound and have defensible borders. So how far do you go with building bridges into that community and when are you going to know when to stop and say, wait a minute, I can't go much further? And that's where we are right now. It's interesting seeing where the reform movement stands on reaching out to the Christian fundamentalists who are pro-Israel.

Is this something the reforms and conservatives agree on?

Yes, because it's not really a question of Jewish ideology. In many ways, it's a question of, are you pro-Israel? And if you're pro-Israel, then how are we going to keep Israel safe and secure? This is the real blending of politics and religion.

Could you argue that their policies may not make Israel safe?

Absolutely. The classic example right now is you have many people who are Christian Zionists who cannot stand the fact that Israel is planning to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. If you actually read the Scriptures, in many ways, Gaza has been a wild card ever since Gaza was Gaza. There's a misconception that it was Israel and is part of the "Promise Land." This is nothing new, so for people who think Gaza is the lifeblood of the Jewish people are wrong. There are very few Jews in Gaza and again, I'll show my political hand. To me, it is in the best interest of the state of Israel to get out of there. It's not even what I would call withdrawing. It's a question of saying, here's where the border is. We don't need to concern ourselves with protecting a Jewish Israeli minority. Now is the time for the Palestinian people to see if they can create a government. Can they govern themselves? Is it worth putting soldiers at risk? The Christian Zionists just do not understand it.

A lot of their attitudes towards issues like homosexuality are so influenced by lines they pull from Leviticus and the Old Testament as opposed to the Gospels.

To me, it's called cherry picking. You can cherry pick any verse out of Scripture and take it out of historical and cultural context and prove anything you want to prove. To me, that's a complete misuse of Scriptures. If you are an individual against homosexual or lesbian lifestyle, so be it, however, if you want to pick a verse from Scripture to show that this is the word of God to prove your own personal ideology, well you've crossed that line. One of my recurring lines is you can pick a recurring verse from Scripture and in many ways, I wouldn't be alive today because you're supposed to take the insolent son outside of the gates of the city and stone him to death. I guarantee you that at one point in my life, I was an insolent son and I'm still here.

We heard a Baptist preacher in Indianola, Mississippi, scream from the pulpit: All Arabs are born to hate and kill Jews. I approached people after the service and asked them how they felt about that and most said, well, we don't know any Arabs. Matter of fact, we don't know many Jews. But the message was strong and loud.

For those people who are hardcore Christians, I'll pass by them in a grocery store. When there's an event downtown, we'll walk by each other and nod, but unless I go out of my way to make a connection with a church, they'll be doing their thing and the Jewish community will be doing its thing. I've only been out here for a year, but so far, so good. I've had some families say their son or daughter has been pressured to convert by classmates, but that's a rare instance.

I interviewed a gay man the other day and he said, even though the gay marriage ban got a majority of the vote, most people follow the live and let live lifestyle here.

On the one hand, it's been very refreshing meeting people in this community and on the other hand, a little confusing because I've never seen hospitality like this. I've never felt so welcomed by strangers. There's a real sense of community. My neighbors, when we were moving in, they brought over fresh baked cookies. I'm not making that up. Fresh baked cookies. But it goes beyond that. People have gone out of their way when I've been shopping to help me or to just schmooze: where are you from? Welcome to the community. But on the other hand, I think about the way people vote. I'm glad we're not talking about politics. I'm glad I really don't know where a lot of people stand on the acceptance of gays and lesbians or a woman's right to choose because I'm concerned that that hospitality may really break down, but like you said, it's live and let live. It's a fascinating paradox, but it works for some reason.

Where does the Reform Jewish Congregation stand on gay marriage?

We support civil unions. Inevitably, we will debate, as a movement, gay and lesbian marriage. I'm sure people in the Congregation completely disagree, but they're not disagreeing with me, they're disagreeing with the movement. That said, as a Rabbi and the way I interpret the tradition, I don't see anything wrong with gay marriage.

Do you have gay and lesbian members?

We do. We're very open to the gay and lesbian community. There are people that are part of the core membership and they make no bones about it. If they're that comfortable, then we're doing something right.

Is there anything within the movement that you disagree with?

Like I said earlier, I think we're drifting from taking political stands. Join a movement, don't just write a check to deal with world hunger. Why don't you go down and see the face of hunger? Why don't you go work in the soup kitchen? Go even further than that and figure out how we can get rid of the need for soup kitchens. Why are people hungry? I'll freely admit that I'm not practicing what I preach. That's a goal of mine, to get more involved in the community.

On a personal level, what issues are most important to you?

I'm concerned that the middle class is getting squeezed. There's a huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots and that is worrisome to me. The level of polarization based upon economics, but also the polarization politically is bothersome and there's no discussion. To me, democracy is that you have to reach across the aisle and take a look at very controversial subjects and somehow find consensus. Something else that worries me is apathy among voters. I don't know how much people believe in the system as we did in years past. I'm worried about where we get our information to make knowledgeable decisions. If it's all based upon local news or nightly news, we're in serious trouble. That's not thorough reporting; that's not in-depth reporting. We're in a situation where we're making tremendous decisions not only about the people in this country, but also on the world stage. Are we aware of what's really going on? It scares me sometimes to think that we're not a knowledgeable electorate; we're not an engaged electorate.

How does the Jewish community feel about the war?

Few people have asked me what I think about it and I haven't asked many people what they think about it. What I've been able to gather, however, is that initially, not only here, but I would say in the greater Jewish community, there was a much greater willingness to pursue the war with Iraq. The Jewish community is in a very awkward situation because many of them are very liberal Democrats, but at the same time, they're very pro-Israel, so how do you walk that line with a Republican President that is pro-Israel? How do you remain true to your political beliefs and at the same time, act for a safe and secure Israel? How can you be against Bush, but pro-war? There were many people in the Jewish community who were in favor of the war against Iraq simply for the safety of Israel, but as we've found out more about the reasons for going to war and the way it's been handled, there's been a huge sense of confusion and dismay about it. We're in a huge mess now. Every single reason up to this point has fallen to the wayside, including the democracy argument. I just read that according to the proposed Iraqi constitution, women's rights are being rolled back. Women had greater freedom under Saddam Hussein than they do now. Where's the democracy? What does a war with no end mean?

What advice would you give to the national Democratic party?

The Democrats have gotta work on their identity and message. To their credit, you know where the Republican Party stands. The Democratic Party doesn't have a clear identity. In many ways, their identity has been defined by the opposition. I think it's fallen into a trap that it's elitist and doesn't care about anything that happens in the middle. We're gonna write off certain states. I can only imagine the huge contingencies you've found all over the place that would be receptive to hearing a message. The Democrats, to a degree, have gotten lazy. They were in power for so long and have forgotten what it's like to be forward thinking. I'm coming across as a liberal Democrat and I'm not. I have a very strong center. I like to be in the center as much as possible, which means there are times I can consider the Republican. John McCain is a great example of this. I'm a huge fan of John McCain living out in Arizona for six years. His ideas are quite Republican, but brilliant at times.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Diverse Oklahoma: Vietnamese American Baptists

The last few days have been the most diverse since we began our trip. On Thursday we met with a local member of the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a college Republican who plans to join the Army after he graduates, the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation, and members of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. We ended the day at an event sponsored by the Victory Fund, an organization that encourages gays and lesbians to run for office. On Friday we visited a Native American Health Clinic and the Oklahoma City National Memorial to hear Sheriff Charlie Hanger talk about the day he arrested Timothy McVeigh. Yesterday we met our first Libertarian at a body piercing shop (tattoos are illegal here) and stopped by Herland Sisters Resource, an all-volunteer women's organization.

Today we went to the Vietnamese First Baptist Church. Upon arriving in Oklahoma, we immediately noticed a large Asian community, particularly Vietnamese. Several thousand Vietnamese refugees settled in Oklahoma City during the 1970s after the fall of Saigon. Today most Vietnamese residents, shops, restaurants and grocery stores are in the rapidly growing Asian District. The church itself is just outside of Oklahoma City and has 120 members. A few minutes after we arrived, Christen Le offered to translate the sermon, which was given by her father in Vietnamese. After the service, we stayed for lunch and had a conversation with Christen, 26, about the church and the Vietnamese community. Christen's Vietnamese name is Phuong. Christen is below with Christopher Kim, her father, and Patrick Le, her husband.

Why did you change your name?

I changed my name when I became a nationalized citizen. My dad changed all of our names to American names when we became naturalized. My Vietnamese name means Christ in Glory. I've been here for 10 years. Before I was in Texas. My dad built a boat and we escaped Vietnam and stayed in refugee camps for about two years.


In Thailand and Philippines. The First Baptist Church of Ardmore, Oklahoma, sponsored our family, so we spent our first year in Ardmore with no rice. It's a very small town, just south of here.

Did people from the church actually go to Thailand to meet you?

No, a lot of camps were set up to accommodate the refugees that escaped and world organizations sponsored the people in those camps. You don't meet any of them. You're just matched up.

And there was no rice in Ardmore?

There was Uncle Ben's, but it's not the same. (laughs)

How old were you at that time?

I was about seven.

What was it like when you first arrived?

It was different. I started school in first grade. By second grade, I started understanding. By third grade, I was pretty much with it.

Was your family originally Baptist?

I wouldn't say Baptist. There's Catholicism in Vietnam and the other Christian religion was Protestant. It was started by foreign missionaries in the early 1900s. They came over to Vietnam and set up a seminary. My dad came to accept God when he was a little boy. There were already Vietnamese pastors at that time that went through the seminaries. He himself attended the seminaries and was ordained a pastor in Vietnam before he came to the states.

How big is the Vietnamese community here?

There are about 10,000 Vietnamese here. Most are Catholics.

How many members do you have here?

120 people.

How does this church compare to other Baptist churches?

We're similar to most Southern Baptist Churches except we have praise and worship songs, which is untypical of Southern Baptist Churches. We're half evangelical and half Southern Baptist. We were originally from a Baptist Church so we adopted a lot of their ways. We are also part of the Southern Baptist Convention and participate in a lot of their activities. We served as interpreters during the Billy Graham revival a few years ago.

Do you work with other churches?

The other Baptist churches in the area really don't know we exist. They really don't know anything about us.

Tell me about Oklahoma.

Almost anybody in Oklahoma knows about a church or has been to a church. There's one on every corner and maybe two on some corners. Churchgoing is a big part of Oklahoma life. Everybody around here is pretty friendly. This is Oklahoma City, which is called the City. I've never been in a big city. There are a lot of opportunities here. It's not as high paying, but you can afford to live here. A lot of Vietnamese people move here because the cost of living is affordable.

What do you do?

I'm a pharmacist. Both my husband and I are pharmacists.

I've been wanting to interview pharmacists. What do you think of the conscience clause laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense the birth control pill or other medications for moral reasons?

In Oklahoma, the law says it's up to the pharmacist. If you don't dispense it, you'll ask if anybody else is willing to, so it's not a problem here. I still believe that it's up to the pharmacist and pharmacists are honest enough to say, I won't dispense it because I don't believe it's right, but they'll always ask around for others to dispense it.

Have you ever had that experience?

No, because our pharmacy doesn't carry it.

Are you talking about the morning after pill?


How do you feel knowing that you have the choice not to dispense the pill?

I feel it's fair. You shouldn't have to be forced to do something you don't agree with as a professional.

Do you think a patient has the right to access a drug that was prescribed by his or her doctor?

Certainly. Access won't be a problem. If we don't dispense it, someone else will. I believe a patient has the right to get what they want and what they need. If we ran the only pharmacy in town, I think it would be wrong to deny someone, especially if they know that a patient can't get it anywhere else.

Some people say it's against their religion to dispense certain drugs.

To impose my belief on someone else is wrong. Things happen in front of your face everyday that you don't agree with.

We've been going to a lot of churches and talking to people about how their faith impacts their politics and voting habits. Half or more of the churches we've visited bring politics into the church. Does that happen here?

No, my dad doesn't like to bring politics in the church because of where he came from. He just preaches what is in the Bible and from the Bible you should know who your candidate is. I don't know if this is common in other areas, but I listen to Christian radio and around voting time, they'll run ads and tell you to participate in the process as a dutiful citizen; other ads actually name people because of their standing on abortion and things like that.

How do you feel about that? Do those ads sway your opinions?

Honestly, no. They are politicians and they tend not to be very truthful.

Does the Vietnamese community tend to lean more conservative or liberal?

Vietnamese are conservative. Vietnamese participating in American politics is rare. They tend to generally be conservative, but some of the people around my age are sick and tired of conservatism.

Is that how you feel?

No, not really. I don't think it's a matter of conservatism or liberalism as long as it's the right thing to do. You know what's right and what's wrong.

Do you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat?

Funny, I registered Democrat, but I voted for Bush because Kerry didn't seem very attractive to me. I registered Democrat because I wanted to vote for Gore last time around, but Kerry wasn't the candidate I was looking for this time.

Did you like anything about Bush or did you vote for him because Kerry didn't do it for you?

I voted for him because Kerry didn't do it for me. If there was a better candidate, I would have voted for him.

Better in what sense?

Telling people the real problems and what they intend to do to solve those problems and not just the run around. Kerry didn't address the issues at hand. I just voted for Bush because I didn't like Kerry.

What issues do you want to hear about in 2008?

World affairs. I really like Bush for going to war. In a nation that is so oppressed...I get all choked up....sometimes war, no matter what the reason you go for, will be better for the people. Imagine if Vietnam didn't go to war. I wouldn't be here. If America wasn't there to see the oppression or see the wrongness that was going on, then people like me wouldn't be here, so for whatever reason people go to war, as long as the world sees what goes on, it will be better than not seeing at all. Bush may be over there for some other reasons. I don't know. But in the long run, it will be better for the people of Iraq.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Life on the Road

The idea for this trip came to me shortly after the 2004 Presidential election, during which time the media had polarized the country by stereotyping the "blue state voter" and "red state voter;" living in San Francisco, one of the "bluest" areas of the country, I felt these stereotypes did the country a great disservice. That said, I live in a liberal bubble and don't hear many differing opinions or know many people living in the so-called red states. So I decided to take a road-trip get a feel for those places and have conversations with people from all walks of life about why they vote the way they do (or not). I had no idea what to expect and wasn't sure how I would be received being a journalist from San Francisco, but I am pleased to say I have been overwhelmed by the incredible hospitality that I have encountered. From Crystal City, Texas to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, complete strangers have invited me into their homes and shared their personal opinions about issues including civil rights, religion, abortion and the war. After spending three months on the road, it's clear the diverse political climate of this country is disconnected from and ignored by the mainstream media.

In addition to my journalistic goals, this trip has taught me more than you can imagine about living in different parts of the country. Just last night, I found out how not to plan my day in Oklahoma City. I spent most of yesterday in my hotel room doing research and setting up interviews. After finally deciding to grab a bite to eat at 9:30 pm, we quickly found ourselves on a harrowing search for a restaurant with some sort of vegetarian option. We passed an endless array of chain restaurants, but most offer steaks and ribs. After becoming extremely restless, we settled for a Taco Bell copycat restaurant on a strip mall and went to Borders for a change of scenery. It was closed, so we ate in the parking lot. Much to my dismay, my supposed vegetarian taco turned out to be a beef taco.

Because this trip has been so rewarding (and challenging), we have decided to extend it for another few months. After Oklahoma, we're going to Nebraska and Montana. I plan to end by interviewing people in my home state of California. I'm funding this trip by writing articles from the road and eventually plan to write a book about my experience.

Here are a few of my most recent articles:

No Room for Moderate Republicans? - AlterNet
As liberal and conservative groups and pundits debate the future of the Supreme Court, a large but often overlooked group is being left out of the conversation: moderate Republicans.

Not So Red - The Austin Chronicle
A 'blue state' reporter journeys through the multicolored regions of the Lone Star State

The Loneliness of a Lonestar Liberal - AlterNet
Progressive activists in Texas face strong and often hostile opposition. But they say they're going to fight to turn Texas blue again.

Your support is also greatly appreciated. With the exception of gas (average $2/gallon) and housing, most necessities, including hotels and food cost just as much as they do in the Bay Area. A $20 donation will pay for a tank of gas and a $40 donation will pay for a night in a hotel. Let me know if you'd like an alternative to donating through PayPal. If you're unable to donate, please send my URL to your lists and help spread the word.

Thanks for your support,

Monday, July 18, 2005


After attending a few weddings and visiting family in California last week, we are back on the road. Last night we landed in Oklahoma, a state in which John Kerry failed to win one county!

Oklahoma was the only state in the country limited to just two candidates for President in November 2004: George W. Bush and John Kerry. On election day, 49 states had Libertarian nominee Michael Badnarik on the ballot; 36 states had Independent/Reform candidate Ralph Nader on the ballot; 37 states had Constitution Party nominee Michael Peroutka on the ballot; 28 states had Green Party nomineee David Cobb on the ballot; and 15 states had Socialist Workers Party nominee Roger Calero on the ballot. So why doesn't Oklahoma have more choices? Activists point to election law, which requires 51,781 signatures to secure full party ballot access and 37,027 signatures to place a President on the ballot. The Green, Libertarian and Constitution Parties of Oklahoma have joined forces to fight for ballot access reform and support legislation that would lower the number of signatures necessary for an unrecognized party to get on the ballot. Four months ago, Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform were told the bill will not be heard; they say they received no explanation for the decision.

I haven't seen much of Oklahoma yet, as I've been holed up in the hotel all day writing and doing research. As we drove from the airport to our hotel last night, I was surprised to see the words "Native America" on Oklahoma's license plates. Legislation was passed for the plates in 1993.

Even more interesting, Native Oklahomans can order license plates bearing the name of their tribes.

The Oklahoma state flag honors more than 60 groups of Native Americans and their ancestors. Oklahoma adopted its first state flag in 1911. The red background of the flag referred to the Native American population, and its central white-and-blue star and two numbers 46 represented Oklahoma's admission to the Union as the 46th state. Some citizens, notably the adjutant general of the state, opposed that flag after World War I because of its resemblance to communist banners.

A new flag was adopted on April 2, 1925. It consisted of a blue field bearing the traditional bison-hide shield of the Osage Indians. Louise Funk Fluke developed the flag based on a suggestion made by Joseph Thoburn of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The blue background of Fluke's design symbolized loyalty and devotion, and the shield suggested the defense of the state. The shield bore small crosses, which stood for stars (as is common in Native American art), and the olive branch and calumet were included as emblems of peace for whites and Native Americans, respectively.
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

A few additional facts about Oklahoma:

*The name "Oklahoma" comes from the Choctaw words: "okla" means people and "humma" means red, so the state's name means "red people."
*Choctaw, the oldest chartered town in Oklahoma, gained status in 1893.
*After the Civil War, many of the lands taken away from the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma Territory were turned over to tribes from the West. As non-Indian expansion pressed westward and the railroads built networks of tracks, the federal government decided to relocate the western Indians, whose homes stood in the way of "progress."
*On November, 16, 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th state. Statehood had become a sure thing, in part due to a discovery which made Oklahoma the "place to go to strike it rich" -- oil. People came from all parts of the world to seek their fortunes in Oklahoma's teeming oil fields. Cities like Tulsa, Ponca City, Bartlesville, and Oklahoma City flourished.
*Oklahoma ranks second to California as the state with the largest Native American population.
*According to 1990 U.S. census data, Oklahoma's population is 3,258,000. Of those, 82.1 percent are white, 8 percent American Indian, 7.4 percent African American, 2.7 percent Hispanic and 1.1 percent Asian.
*In 1911, the Oklahoma Federation of Negro Women's Club protested lynching, in 1914 they endorsed women's suffrage, and in 1957 they promoted the hiring of African American teachers in integrated schools.
*On April 22, 1889, the first day homesteading was permitted, 50,000 people swarmed into the area. Those who tried to beat the noon starting gun were called Sooners. Hence the state's nickname.
*33 percent of Oklahoman adults are living in poverty.
*In 2000, 58 out of every 1,000 Oklahoman teens were pregnant, compared with 43 out of every 1,000 nationwide.
*Number of reported abortions in 2001: 7,038
*This spring, Oklahoma legislators passed a resolution that would ban books on gay families from the children's sections of public libraries.
*The Log Cabin Republicans are in the process of opening a chapter in Oklahoma.

Sources: 50states.com, Oklahoma State government, Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Over the next months, we'll bring you stories about these issues and more.

Let me know if you have any contacts or know of any interesting organizations in Oklahoma.

Thanks for reading and spreading the word!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Casinos, Catfish & Cotton: Exploring the Mississippi Delta

Greetings from the Mississippi Delta!

We left Jackson on Thursday night and have spent the past few days doing random interviews in parks, restaurants and churches. I set up most of my interviews in Jackson because the heat was overwhelming. Who wants to talk politics in the hot sun? Again, we were greeted with amazing displays of Southern hospitality. Interviewees often gave me contact information for friends and colleagues to interview; every person I called invited me into their home without hesitation, which doesn't happen very often in San Francisco. Then again, I've never done this type of project there...

We spent the night in Yazoo City, one of many small Mississippi towns struggling to survive.

It obviously has a proud history given the fact that so many stores are named after the town itself: Yazoo Cleaners, Yazoo Bank, Yazoo Laundromat, etc...

Despite its proud history, many stores are empty, homes are crumbling and the unemployment rates are high.

We stopped in downtown Yazoo to interview the owners of the "Black & White Store" and a group of young people who run a record label.

We then took the back roads, got lost and drove through the Delta. One minute, we're surrounded by vast expanses of lush green cotton, soybean and rice plantations, the next, abandoned homes and desperate poverty; many towns are all but empty.

As you drive through the Delta, a map and decent sense of direction is a must. There are no gas stations or convenience stores around for miles and no signs saying, "No Gas for 30 Miles." You're pretty much on your own.

After about an hour of driving, we stumbled upon Lake George Grocery, a store/small restaurant in Holly Bluff, population 142. The owners (husband and wife), who also run a hunting business to supplement their income, invited us to stay for dinner and try their deer meat (a number of deer head were hanging on the walls). We didn't want to drive in the dark and politely said no, but we are planning to go back tomorrow to interview a few more locals about the dwindling number of small farmers in the area.

From Holly Bluff, we drove to Greenville, a fairly large town full of strip malls and chain stores. Rather than spend time in town, we decided to drive north along the river towards Rosedale. On the way, we stopped at the Winterville Mounds, a museum on the site of a prehistoric ceremonial center built by Native American civilization that thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1450. The mounds were the site of sacred structures and ceremonies. The museum also contains Native American artifacts including arrow heads, clay pipes, shell beads and pots. We got to talking to a man visiting the museum about our project and were invited to his nearby family reunion of at least 50 people. They happily shared their food and invited us to take part in various activities. We spent the day talking to young and old members of the family about segregation, civil rights, poverty, the war, minimum wage and education.

That night we drove to Rosedale, population 2440, another town struggling to survive. A number of people sitting on their front porches waved as we passed by. We stopped in the White Front Cafe: Joe's Hot Tamale Place and interviewed a few locals about the town's past and present.

Rosedale used to be a thriving community, full of blues clubs and locally owned stores. Today, jobs are scarce, leaving young people with no choice but to move away.

Later that night, we ended up in Indianola, home of the blues legend B.B. King. Indianola is a small farming community and seems to be doing better than many small towns because of its close location to the main highway. On Sunday morning, we went to the First Baptist Church and were warmly welcomed by mostly older members, but the sermon itself was extremely conservative and full of political references. I sat next to a woman who said she's fed up with the pastor's negative tone and low level of intolerance and is thinking about leaving the church, to which she has belonged for decades.

Tonight we went to a Fourth of July celebration in Greenville and interviewed both locals and people who drove in from Arkansas, which is only 20 miles away. The event took place near two casinos, which are located on the Mississippi River and are the only form of entertainment in town.

Driving around small towns with no itinerary and not knowing what we'll find is what makes this project special.

Who Supports the Troops? - Part II

In the midst of flag waving and parades on this Fourth of July, it should be pointed out that the cost of the Iraq war is about to hit the $200 billion mark with no end in sight. Even after spending this much money, the Bush administration can't seem to find $1 billion to pay for troops healthcare. In April, Republican senators voted to defeat a Democratic effort to add $2 billion to the 2005 VA healthcare budget. After news of the VA shortfall broke two weeks ago, the House and Senate attempted, but failed to agree on an emergency spending bill. Politicians, who have left DC for the Fourth of July break, say they will make another attempt when they return.

Here are a few articles about this issue:

Leave No Veteran Behind by Congressman Michael Michaud of Maine

Veterans Center of Congressional Battle - AP

Bush's Unforgivable Coverup - Ignoring Veterans Health by Allen Roland, a Navy Veteran

The War Against Veterans - The Toledo Blade

Here is is Part II of my interview with Jack Ricardson, legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America of Dallas, Texas.

What do the guys who come here for treatment say about the war?

They agree with Afghanistan. They think Iraq is a personal thing for Bush. For the man. They felt they should have stayed after bin Laden, the man who attacked the United States instead of pulling our troops out of Afghanistan, leaving 9,000 tense rangers over there, 20,000 French, 20,000 German and some New Zealanders to chase the Taliban. We pulled 100 and something thousand out to go start a war with a country that was not at war with anybody. We had no fly zones north and no fly zones south. They had a little strip of their own country, which isn't as big as Oklahoma in the first damn place, so they were really a big threat to the United States, right? A big threat. We already knew there were no weapons of mass destruction over there because we knew how much we sent over in 1982 when Ronald Reagan signed the order to fight Iran. They used it one time. Then they put them in a warehouse and never used them again. I'm not defending Iraq. I'm just saying they used them one time. When they saw what it did, they warehoused it. We blew it up during Desert Storm. We blew up the warehouses with airplanes.

Have you seen the effects of depleted uranium?

My personal opinion on that is you're gonna see leukemia. I don't think the government knows and I don't think they care about the effects of depleted uranium. This group just don't seem to care. To them, the military is a non-entity. Cheney said one day, well it's all volunteer. What does that mean? They're nothin'? So they volunteer, so they don't mean anything to the country. So they're cattle. They can just go out and shoot 'em and kill 'em and it's no big deal. Of course, they had deferments because they had better things to do. Truman said the truth: any politician that goes to Washington and comes out rich is a crook.

What do you think about the level of loyalty in this country? I've met a lot of Republicans who aren't happy with Bush's environmental policy or the huge deficit, but when it comes to the war, they hesitate to speak out. Some do, but they ask to remain anonymous.

If you are not behind it, you're not patriotic. It's that patriotic crap. To me, the most patriotic people in this country are the ones who are fighting the war; the ones who are against this war because they don't want to see their young people killed. Before this damn thing ever started, I said, there's not one American life worth Saddam Hussein's life. I wouldn't trade one American soldier for Saddam Hussein and you're gonna go over there and you're gonna kill thousands. They killed 3200 women and children going into Baghdad in their apartments doing nothing. These people are home. They are with their families and their kids and we blew the holy hell out of them. They got relatives. Cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. We're creating millions who hate us because of the uniform we wear. People are crazy if they don't realize that. What are they gonna get out of it? Didn't we learn anything in Vietnam? I spent two and a half years over there. Didn't we learn anything? One day we packed our bags up and left. They're doin' a pretty good job over there. Why aren't we over in North Korea dealing with the atomic bomb? There's no oil in North Korea.

How does all of this shape your politics?

I was a Republican. Let me confess. I donated lots of money to the Republican party and I'm so damned ashamed of it, I can't see straight.

Up until when?

Up until this jerk took office. I did vote for Clinton. I didn't vote for the senior because senior had gone downhill in Iraq and I believed that deregulating everything was going to be a disaster in this country. The controls and regulations were put in during the 30s to help the people, not the billionaires. It was to keep the billionaires from making the people pay more than they could afford. That's why Roosevelt put the regulations in there. I've been around 67 years and my people were in the depression. My dad was workin' for a dollar a day. A guy comes up and says, I'll work for 50 cents a day and they told my dad to go away. This was in Arizona. If you read the newspaper, you'll see the Mexican labor is at $4 an hour. Four years ago, it was at $4.97.

Were you raised Republican?

No, my dad was a Democrat and my mom was a Republican. My dad was in World War II. He got shot three times. He and my mama only fought over that cause he was for the little guy. He was for the worker. He taught me how to weld before I could do anything else. When I got out of the Air Force, I went to work as a welder in California, building freeway signs and handrail. Los Angeles handrail. I welded 5,000 miles of damn handrail. I can't even believe it. (laughs) I'm serious. It's always been, in his mind, you gotta keep the people working in order to grow the economy and keep the stock market healthy. I have money in the stock market. That's why I can do this. I spend over $200 a month out of my pocket coming here to work.

So you're a volunteer?

Oh yeah, for four years.

How many hours a week do you volunteer?

I get in here at about six in the morning, everyday, five days a week and I usually leave around 3:30. I open up, make coffee, deliver it to the patients and get their breakfast orders. If they need something from the store, I'll go buy them things.

Do you receive funding for that?

No, I pay for it. I just drove to Washington DC and back in February. I spent five days up there. As you can see, I take a lot of notes.

During the election, people said Bush is going to win because he has the military vote. Based on your experience and the people you work with, why does the military tend to lean Republican?

I can tell you about some of the people who said they were told how to vote. They had to vote for their commander-in-chief. That's what they all said. If you don't and they find out, it's a career killer. That's a fact.

Is that because they're so used to following orders?

They follow orders. I don't know if you saw 60 Minutes where the young man is going through PTSD. In Iraq, he killed a seven-year-old kid. The kid had a gun. He was holding it by the clip and he killed him. He's going through mental hell right now. It's just like Vietnam. We were told to go in there and kill. Don't leave a chicken, a pig or anybody alive. I don't care what the brass says. You talk to the guys who actually did the killing and they're going through hell. When I was in basic training, I had to follow orders. You may not get a chance to talk. You may not get a trial. And that's what you're told.

During the election and running up to it, American casualties were an issue. Since the election, it has become very difficult for Iraq to become a front-page story, especially with stories like the Runaway Bride and Michael Jackson.

The news media doesn't want to talk about it. They oughta be ashamed of themselves. Why do you think Walter Cronkite came out of retirement and started writing commentaries in the newspaper? Because he was sick and tired of only seeing half the story. Half a truth is also half a life. I don't feel the media is honest. I had a guy come in here one day who was hollering about that damn liberal media. I said, do you know the definition of liberal? He said, well no. I said, why are you cussin' the liberal? I said, you get out of here and read the definition of liberal and you come back in here and tell me what it is. Same thing for conservative. I took the dictionary and pulled up the definition of liberal and conservative and typed 'em up and gave copies to everybody. I said, now let's see, what's the problem with being a liberal? I've had people here tell me they believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11. I stand there and argue with them. I gotta get the map out and show people. Look at that tiny country there. What are you scared of?

How do people respond when you share your information?

They've all come back here and agreed. They didn't realize until they started reading and paying attention. They just watch TV. Mike out there voted for Bush. Now he can't believe he was conned by just watching TV. It's all deception.

A few people I've spoken to who have relatives in Iraq and are in favor of the war say they don't watch TV because it's so negative. They say we're building schools and hospitals, but we don't see that side of the story.

They feel like they're doing a service for the people there. The thing is, they really shouldn't have been there in the first place. The 1600 that are dead really shouldn't have been there. What about the 40,000 that are maimed? You can see them out here with their arms blown off. They're trying to figure out how to use their arms. Their legs are blown off. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is hitting these kids years faster than it hit the Vietnam Vets. The vets that came back from Vietnam didn't know what PTSD was. They crawled in alcohol bottles. They crawled in whiskey and marijuana and anything they could do to eliminate their minds. They wound up here 30 years later. We have a wing of them on this floor. You'll see them wandering around here saying, where am I?

Tell me more about the people you help here.

We got a guy here who's trying to live on $800 a month. He's paralyzed and he's in a wheelchair. He's a vet. He's not 65. He don't get social security. He begs for money to buy gas to come in for therapy. He doesn't have enough money for gas. Do you buy food or medicine or gas? Or do you get kicked out of your apartment? Mike over there arrives with me and I take him home. He has no car. He has no money. Social security is gonna be a lifesaver for him. At one time, he was a business owner and made tons of money. His divorce wiped him out and now he lives in an apartment and has a few pair of clothes. That's it. They want people like Mike to pay $50 for an office visit for specialized care, $40 for a standard visit and $15 for each therapy session in the pool. They're charging people who have no money. They're gonna take everything they got. Once a year we have a program where all the homeless vets come in and we feed them, clothe them and cut their hair. We check their teeth, their eyes, give them backpacks and sleeping bags. We get about a 100 of 'em. These guys come in looking like hobos and they don't live inside. These are the trash leftover from Vietnam and Desert Storm. Then they all have a big turkey dinner and get fed. Then they put their stuff on their backs and walk off into the night. We have a meeting next week to talk about what park we'll have it in next year.

How are your injuries? Are you getting better?

No, my spinal cord is smashed. I'm almost 67-years-old. I'm way beyond getting well. I've had a great life. I've been in this chair over 30 years and I've been to Paris, Nice, all over the world. I've been to Hawaii seven or eight times. I've been on cruises. It doesn't stop me from going anywhere. I saw my grandson graduate from high school last Saturday. I got 10 grandkids. One called me up the other night and read a book to me. He likes to read. I've had a lot of fun. My problem with this bunch [the Bush administration] is I've got 10 grandkids who are going to live in this world and it scares me thinking about what they have to look forward to if this gang don't get kicked out. That is the bad part. They're not gonna have the shot I had. I come off a dirt farm. I come off the cotton fields. I retired as a VP of engineering. I was making six-figure salaries for the last 15 years of my job. I didn't mind paying $30,000 a year income tax because it paid for the infrastructure. It paid for the roads, the streets, the lights, the gas. That's what it's all about. That's my whole objection about trying to get some honesty up there. It's for my grandkids.