Sunday, October 21, 2007

“Raised like a son by Sallie Jenkins”

The phrase above is being inscribed on a bronze plaque covering the ashes of a good friend who died last Monday, along with his name and years of birth and death.

My friend and I practiced law in the same space for around eight years, before he moved away and married another dear friend. He was only 63 years old when he died, and it was a shock to me to hear of it. He had been suffering from advanced melanoma for over a year, but he didn’t want anyone to know. I won’t name him here because he was a private person and wouldn’t want that, but many of you will recognize his photo and know him for the true friend that he was and is.

A person of privilege like my friend has many options that most of us don’t enjoy, and that was my friend’s life until he reached a point of awareness in the 1960's. Like many of us, he turned from the traditions of his small Alabama town and sought answers elsewhere, leaving a post on the city council and riding off on his motorcycle, “Easy Rider” style. He had some connection with the American Indian Movement and then came to see the my priest friend (yes, the one in the orange jumpsuit below--most of my friends wear their politics well, don't they?), who introduced him to another side of life, that of the wealth of love among the poor black communities of West Alabama’s Black Belt area. He and I were mere acquaintances back then, as we both worked in a Congressional campaign for a progressive woman who eventually lost her race, but I didn’t really get to know him until years later. I had been practicing law a few years and was looking for office space close to home. I had my baby boy in a basket when I visited the house he had renovated for his own law practice space. There were a slew of other young lawyers there, also renting space from him. We hit a deal immediately, and he helped me outfit the office and get settled.

As we grew closer as colleagues, our friendship became more personal, and we spent time at the office discussing the law and politics. There were also fun times together with family and friends. He especially enjoyed the company of my young son and also his brother who was born a short time later. For the older son's first birthday, he gave him a Mr. T doll with such a fierce demeanor that my son tuned up and bawled. It was all we could do to stifle our chuckling as we consoled him. My second son got a more comforting gift, a red Radio Flyer wagon with detachable wood sides (here's a photo of one just like it--with somebody else's children).

I will never forget lying in the hospital bed just hours after giving birth and hearing those squeaky new wheels rolling down the hall.

He was a fierce believer in civil rights and had no use whatsoever for the racist institutions we grew up in. He had maintained a close relationship with an elderly black woman from his hometown who had reared him when his parents died early on, and he often made reference to things she had taught him. Others of his station would have treated her as merely a household servant, but to my friend Sallie Jenkins was his mother.

We seldom saw each other after he moved away, but when we did, he would quote Chief Dan George: “My heart soars like the hawk to see you.” He made all his friends feel welcomed in such a way.

Before he died, he instructed his widow to bury his ashes in the home town he refused to visit unless it was to see Sallie, and not to bury them in the segregated white cemetery, but in the black cemetery next to her grave.

We will miss this fierce warrior, who as I write as being welcomed into the tribes of the Big Sky.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The death of habeas corpus?

Lawbabe is the online moniker I chose several years ago when I realized that the Internet often demands anonymity. It was a phase, but it stuck with me. Now there are people all over the country who know me only by that name. My colleagues in the bar snicker at it, since they know that I haven't been a babe for a long time, and it seems a counter-intuitive handle for someone as serious as I can be about serious things.

Take human rights, for example.

Here is a photo of one of my personal heroes, walking in a Fourth of July parade as a handcuffed version of habeas corpus.

He is an Episcopal priest who guided me through a return to political consciousness after several years of being a sixties Hippy Babe. I will let him remain as anonymous as I am for now, since he is so well-hooded in this photo. However, he has never been anonymous in his years of asserting the case for human rights, and he actually seems to have even stepped up the pace lately.

This is patriotic action, in case you don't recognize it. Nothing is more precious to our U. S. citizenship than these words from the U. S. Constitution:

“The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

A little elementary Latin in case you slept through Civics 101: Habeas corpus is translated as "you have the body." It is an ancient legal writ used by those imprisoned to seek their release when no cause for their detention has been presented. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 has permanently suspended this right in the post-9/11 "war" on terrorism. Many legal scholars believe that the suspension of habeas corpus violates the above provision from the Constitution, in the absence of an actual invasion or rebellion. Even the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, Arlen Specter, thinks Congress should rethink the issue of the legal rights of detainees.

The current occupier of the White House wishes to preempt any potential rebellion and invasion to such an extent that we must be willing to set aside the very rights upon which this country was founded and pretend that it is true patriotism. Ah, if he had only an iota of the patriotic loyalty that my priest friend has.