Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter…

After supper, Tom Atkins said, rather casually, “I have to go to a political meeting to try to get support for my candidacy for city council. You might as well come along.” His wife, Sharon, suggested Helen stay and chat with her.
Turned out that the meeting was a black power rally. All male. I was the only white man there. The others were not at all happy about my presence. I wasn’t very happy about it, either. I think every white person should spend some time as the only one at a minority power rally. It gives you a very different understanding of what minorities experience regularly.
The black power guys seemed to think that Tom had betrayed them not just by bringing me to the meeting but my associating with me at all. But Tom, as always, was thinking ahead. He didn’t want just to get elected; he wanted to build a foundation for basic change in the ways we treat one another. He wanted them to support not just his Boston city council candidacy but his approach to people who were different.
Because we have just celebrated Independence Day, and because of the recent Supreme Court decision that the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary, I’ve been thinking about Tom Atkins, and the nature of power.
In 1957, Thomas I. Atkins enrolled at Indiana University, part of the elite Residence Scholarship Plan, for poor and bedraggled but bright and motivated students who could not afford to go to college otherwise. We called ourselves Ahaywehs, after Dante’s sign over the gate to hell: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. The “elite” status was mostly in our own minds. Tom and I spent a lot of time in Linden Hall-East borassing with the likes of Tom Cone and Jim McKnight and Max Eubanks.
[“Borass” is almost exclusively an IU term. Its meaning has changed a little from time to time over the years, but in our day it basically meant sitting around talking.]
Tom came down to Bloomington from Elkhart, where he had been the first black student body president at Elkhart HS. His father was a Pentecostal minister and his mother was a maid. He became not only the first black student body president at IU [while making Phi Beta Kappa] but at any Big 10 school. I was active in Tom’s campaign for IU student body president, as were Ahaywehs in general. Tom campaigned hard and well. We got him into almost every housing unit, including sororities, to speak. We weren’t able to get him into fraternities. Anybody who heard him and saw his winning smile—half of it saying that we have a secret, you and I, half of it saying that the secret is that “we shall overcome”—wanted to vote for him.
There were two political parties on campus, Organized [OP] and Independent [IP]. Organized meant fraternities and sororities. Independents were everybody else. The OP always won every election, general or by class, because they were exactly what their name said--organized. The frats and sororities required their members to vote. Only a few Independents bothered to run for office or to vote.
It was a divisive campaign. Tom won, though, partly because we managed to motivate more Independents than usual, and partly because a surprising number of those sorority members who heard him speak actually voted for him. There were stories of a number of girls who were unpinned [1] by their fraternity boyfriends because they had voted not just for an Independent but… well, you know why.
After IU Tom went to Harvard, where he earned an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and went to law school. He stayed in Boston. Like so many other firsts in his life, in 1967 he was the first African American elected to the Boston City Council, in one of the most viciously segregated cities in the country, including the South. Most of the vitriol came from Irish-Americans, whose forebears had been treated just like they were now treating African-Americans. Tom went on to become one of the leading civil rights attorneys in the nation.
1967 was a volatile time, the nation angrily and hatefully divided over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. That was the summer I started doctoral studies at Boston U. [That degree eventually accumulated over eight different universities.] That was the time when Helen and I had supper with Tom and Sharon. I knew Sharon also from IU, because we had shared classes as majors in the History Dept.
Many years after Linden Hall, the run-down home of the Ahaywehs, no longer existed, Helen and I were back on campus when his university honored Tom with the creation and dedication of the Thomas I. Atkins Living-Learning Center. They had him scheduled up so completely that we didn’t get to spend any time with him, but we happened to be walking from the Union Building [2] to its parking lot when his limo pulled up in the circle drive outside the main doors. When Tom saw us, his eyes lit up, and he ran over and gave Helen a big hug before the suits pulled him away to keep him on schedule. Over his shoulder he flashed me that winning smile, half a secret and half what the secret was, and I remembered what he had said at that black power meeting back in 1967. “Power is like water. You can drink it, or you can drown in it.”
Tom drank of that water, but unlike so many others, then and now, he refused to let it drown him.
I think Chief Justice Roberts was right when he said that the times have changed. I think he was wrong that the change means we no longer need a Voting Rights Act. The times changed BECAUSE of the Voting Right Act. Times change, but human nature doesn’t. People don’t share power voluntarily. There will always be those who seek to prevent voting by persons and groups that they fear will diminish their power.
Sometimes, in the years of winter, when it seems like we’ve worked hard all our lives to make the world better, but it’s still the same old hateful place, then it is good to remember people who overcame, like Tom Atkins, who by his presence and his work helped us change the way we treat one another.
John Robert McFarland
Dec. 1, 2010, the Thomas I. Atkins apartments in “Southie,” his Roxbury section of Boston, were dedicated. It is a “green” unit. It adds 48 affordable apartments and 3600 square feet of commercial space to the neighborhood.
He died in 2008, of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Tom and I were usually the only two car-owners in our dorm, not counting Frank Merli, our Residence Hall Director. Ahaywehs couldn’t afford cars, but students in general were not allowed to have cars in those days. An exception was made for those, like myself, who needed one for work [pastoring three churches in the hinterlands] and for the handicapped, like Tom, who had one short leg, requiring a built-up shoe, and making it difficult for him to walk long distances]. Mine was a serviceable 1951 green Chevrolet. Tom’s was a ponderous black Packard, circa 1937.
1] If a guy gave his frat pin to a girl, she was “pinned,” which was between “going steady,” and pre-engagement.
2] When Alex Haley spoke on campus, he noted that no one ever spoke of the Union Bldg without reminding him that ”It’s the biggest student union building in the world.”
The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!
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{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}
I tweet, infrequently, as yooper1721.

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