Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Condi's Dad and the Lessons of War (2004)

[Originally posted on October 27th, 2004)

When I hear Condoleezza Rice defending the war in Iraq I think of her father denouncing the war in Vietnam. Condi's dad was a Dean in the college of liberal arts at the University of Denver in the early 1970s when I was editor of the student newspaper, the Clarion. His name was John Rice, but no student dared call him that. He was an imposing figure, and we all called him "Dean" Rice.

In her book Bushwomen, Laura Flanders traces how Condi Rice was recruited by right-wing Republicans. Flanders recounts how Ms. Rice, speaking at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, said that her father "was the first Republican I knew," and claimed "In America, with education and hard work, it really does not matter where you come from; it matters only where you are going."

That's not what I learned from Dean Rice. I took his class "The Black Experience in America," and continued to attend the seminars with his encouragement. The seminar was built around a series of invited speakers who lectured in a public forum followed by classroom discussions. That's where I met Fannie Lou Hamer, a Black voting rights activist from Sunflower County Mississippi, who led a challenge to the all-White Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democrat Convention, which failed that year but succeeded in 1968. That's where I heard Dean Rice explain that he had always refused to register as a Democrat because that was the party of the bigots who had blocked his voter registration when he and his family lived in the South.

Dean Rice may have been registered as a Republican up North, but he taught me about working for progressive social change and opposing institutional racism. He taught me that White people like me enjoyed privileges routinely denied to Blacks. He taught me that the proportion of Blacks serving in Vietnam was tied to economic and social policies at home. And he pointed out that along with this knowledge came an absolute moral imperative to act.

The seminar speakers invited by Dean Rice included a wide range of perspectives--from members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, to exiled South African poet Dennis Brutus, to Louis Farrakhan explaining the teachings of Black Muslim Elijah Mohammed, to Lee Evans and John Carlos who were organizing Black athletes to resist racism. It was Carlos and a teammate gave the black power salute after winning medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. I still have a tape of the lecture by Andrew Young who was then a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was long ago, but I think I remember Condi as a teenager all dressed up playing the classical piano introduction to Young's speech. Condi was so smart and talented she was a bit scary. We all knew she was being groomed to go far, but we never suspected she would end up painting a public picture of her father that many of us would not recognize.

Dean Rice had high standards for all of us; and as his students we respected him enough to ask him to speak in May of 1971 at a campus memorial service for the students slain at Kent and Jackson State the previous year. Dean Rice eulogized the dead students as "young people who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and for the cause of eliminating useless war." He read the names of those from the university community who had died in Vietnam. He spoke of the atrocities. Then he challenged us all: "When tomorrow comes will you be the perpetuators of war or of peace? Are you the generation to bring to America a lasting peace? Or did your brothers and sisters at Kent and Jackson State die in vain?"

Jim Heltsley, who taught in the Speech and Communications department, was deeply moved by the speech delivered by Dean Rice. That day he sent a large envelope to me containing a letter to the editor. Heltsley wrote: "After listening to Dean Rice and others speak of the 'senseless' war and of the atrocities committed there and within our own country, I shook with silent frustration....I wanted to shout that it is all of us that are guilty-we who sit there and do nothing."
"I sat there in the sun looking at a one-eyed veteran and felt the place where my left elbow used to be-it was torn off by shrapnel in Korea in that infamous 'police action'. There must have been older faculty members present who felt the tearing sensation of bullets" in the Second World War. "But here we sit and accuse others of not doing anything...we are all responsible-in particular we who should be expert witnesses!"

Heltsley wrote that he did not have the courage to be arrested in protesting the war, but that that in the envelope was something he could do. Enclosed were his four Korean War medals he was rejecting, including a Purple Heart. I thought about the medals and the message, and what I had learned from Dean Rice over the years. I thought about how my brother had stood up for his different set of principles, and was serving in Vietnam while I sat safely at a desk on a college campus.

We ran the letter from Heltsley as the front page of the Clarion, with the medals laid across the bottom of the page. The next day I laid down and was arrested with other protestors at a federal center outside Denver in an act of civil disobedience to protest the war in Vietnam.

More than thirty years later I leaf through old issues of the University of Denver Clarionand old letters from Dean Rice. On the television I hear the Bush Administration justifications and rationalizations for the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the endless wars. And I know that what I taught my child, and what I teach others, is shaped by the question asked by John Rice in 1971: "When tomorrow comes will you be the perpetuators of war or of peace?"