Jack Newfield

American Rebels

During much of the 1960s I kept an anti-war poster on my wall that featured a quotation from Albert Camus that read, "I would like to be able to love my country, and justice too." Some of my own defining experiences took place on those occasions where I felt most free to love justice and my country at the same time-when I planted myself in a tradition that stretches from Jefferson and Tom Paine through Lincoln, Whitman, Thoreau, to the founders of the labor unions, to Eugene Debs, to the early blues singers, to Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, to Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King.

I still remember singing "We Shall Overcome" in Brown's Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in February of 1965. Dr. King was in the pulpit, his arms linked with Andrew Young and John Lewis. The rally was for the right to vote, which was soon to be secured by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after thousands had gone to jail for non-violent civil disobedience.

I remember riding in an open car with Robert Kennedy as he campaigned for president through Watts and East LA. At each stop in the Mexican-American neighborhoods, a Mariachi band greeted him with a Mexican-styled "This Land is Your Land," which was his campaign theme song. From the vantage point of the trunk of his car, I could see, with piercing clarity, the hope shining in the eyes of all these blacks and Latinos, who would give him 90 percent of their votes on the day he was assassinated.

Even during the 1960s when I felt the most depressed and alienated by America's racism and military interventionism, I was still able to find aspects of America where I felt at home. Baseball, and later basketball, became my nationalism. There was always an alternative America I could pledge allegiance to the America of the Bill of Rights, sports, blues, jazz, art, unions, writers, and social protest. This identification with part of our history and part of our culture kept me sane; I never became anti-American.

I loved my country because it had produced Walt Whitman, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer, RFK, Miles Davis, George McGovern, Willie Mays, Herman Melville, Bessie Smith, Sandy Koufax, Cesar Chavez, Janis Joplin, Larry Bird, Lenny Bruce, Sam Cooke, Fiorello LaGuardia, Walter Reuther, Roberto Clemente, Murray Kempton, and above all Dr. King. I was able to convince myself that they represented an alternative conception of this country, that they were just as legitimate and American as burglars of the flag including Nixon, Kissinger, George Wallace, Henry Ford, John D. Rockfeller, General Custer, Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Falwell, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Spiro Agnew.

My America is Jimi Hendrix playing his solo, electric guitar version of the National Anthem, to close the music festival at Woodstock. My America is Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech on that hot August afternoon in 1963, when he seemed to be secretly channeling Scripture, the Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln. And he was preceded to the podium that day by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Mahalia Jackson, a Whitmanesque trifecta of table setters.

America is Bruce Springsteen singing "Youngstown" and "Philadelphia" with their echoes of Woody and Steinbeck. It is Dylan singing of answers blowing in the wind, and "Blind Willie McTell," and sounding a little like the ghost of Son House. It is Hank Williams singing (and writing) "I Saw the Light," and "Alone and Foresaken." And it is Robert Johnson singing (and writing) "Terraplane Blues," and "Love in Vain." Whenever I hear Dylan, Bruce, Johnson, and Hank, I can hear America singing.

America is Studs Terkel talking about Chicago, Pete Hamill writing about New York, Faulkner writing about Mississippi, Ellison and Baldwin writing about Harlem. It is Jacob Riis and Walker Evans photographing the destitute, and Ansel Adams shooting the natural beauty of the American west. America is books by Rachael Carson, Jane Jacobs, Ralph Nader, and Michael Harrington that changed the national consciousness and consensus about the environment, cities, automobiles, and poverty. We are a democracy that can be changed for the better by books and the free flow of information.

They all follow in a native tradition of an alternative America. On July 4 I will honor and remember them and the bravery of rebels past, present, and hopefully future.

Jack Newfield, a veteran New York political reporter and senior fellow at the Nation Institute, is the editor of the forthcoming "American Rebels" from Nation Books and the winner of the 2003 American Book Award for "The Full Rudy: The Man, The Myth, The Mania."

The above is the introduction from the forthcoming July 21 "American Rebels" issue of The Nation. Other "rebels" profiled include Bob Moses by Tom Hayden, Bella Abzug by Patricia Bosworth, Benjamin Mays by Roger Wilkins, Woody Guthrie by Steve Earle, Margaret Sanger by Ellen Chessler, Paul Wellstone by Joe Conason, Dorothy Day by Wayne Barrett, Walt Whitman by Richard Gambino, Miles Davis by Lucious Shephard, and I.F. Stone by Nation publisher Victor Navasky.

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