For most of 2010 through 2012, I was trying to figure out answers to these questions: Why are the American people so divided, and hostile to one another? How will we meet the many challenges we face when there is conflict among the people and gridlock in Washington?
I worried at times that we were going to slide into deeper economic turmoil and perhaps even violence. I also feared that our division was aiding a gradual slide into plutocracy — governance by the elite, the super wealthy. In other words, we were being divided and conquered.
Years from now historians may note the irony that in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United case that opened the way for unlimited political spending by corporations during a period when the citizens were disunited, and locked in a culture war. Disunity may not cause plutocracy, but it enables it.
By the summer of 2012, I’d wake up with an unshakable urge to hit the road and just start talking to my fellow Americans. I could try to have the kinds of conversations that I thought we needed to have as a country. I wanted to understand better the nature of our division by learning more about our history, and by seeing how people are surviving in these trying times, hearing people’s personal stories, and sharing some of mine. I especially needed to know that I could talk to people of backgrounds and beliefs very different from my own.
In November 2012, Eric Byler and I set out on a journey across America with a video camera and my old cocker spaniel, Dudley.
We had no idea that we would end up spending over a year on the road, the majority of that time in North Carolina.
We started our filming on election day in Prince William County, Virginia, where our last documentary project, 9500 Liberty, was filmed.
In Prince William County, a swing county in a battleground state, we witnessed and documented five-hour lines at River Oaks precinct, the polling station with the most African American voters in the county. The scene there reminded me of a disaster area, with people forced to improvise after an unexpected catastrophe. Volunteers were distributing bottled water, food, and chairs hoping voters would not give up and go home.
During North Carolina's 2013 legislative session, a fierce debate took place over how to change the state tax code. Because Republicans had won a super majority in the General Assembly as well as the governor's race in 2012, the real tug-of-war centered around an aggressively conservative tax reform package championed by State Senator Bob Rucho, Co-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. A less aggressive proposal was preferred by House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is likely to be the Republican nominee to challenge US Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat.
The differences were over to how to make up for the lost revenue caused by cuts in the income tax rate, corporate taxes, and the estate tax. Should they expand sales taxes? Should they tax social security? Which tax exemptions should they eliminate?
Sen. Rucho told us during our interview with him that he was intent on eliminating state income taxes altogether, and installing a consumption-based tax system. Speaker Tillis went on record to say there was a "philosophical divide"between the House and Senate Republicans. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) sided with House Republicans, and Sen. Rucho's resigned his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee (his resignation was not accepted, however, and he later returned to his post).
The tax plan the Governor signed into law eliminated a 3-tiered tax system and replaced it with a flat income tax rate of 5.8% for 2014, and 5.75% for 2015. The corporate tax rate was reduced from 6.9% to 6% for 2014, 5% for 2015 and if revenue triggers are met, 3% for 2017. The loss in revenue estimated at $650 million annually would be offset by expanding the sales tax and eliminating various personal exemptions including the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Although this did not go as far as Senator Rucho had wanted, it does represent a radical change to North Carolina's tax system.
This is an excerpt from Rev. Dr. William Barber's speech at Binkley Baptist Church in Durham, NC on June 30, 2013 — four days after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Our web series did not release this footage until now because this event was likely to be included in our upcoming feature length documentary. But this speech, out of many that we have filmed, best encapsulates Rev. Barber's religious and moral convictions.
After filming a speech Rev. Barber gave in Virginia, I wrote about a topic I had ignored for many years, religion:
There is beauty in today's movement to reclaim Christianity from the talons of oligarchy and oppression.
Yesterday I spent most of the day in a church where the man you see here gave a sermon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, another pastor sang a song that went "They will know we are Christian by our love." I was surprised to realize that those words actually made sense, and even resonated with me for the first time.
Truth be told, I am not a believer in this religion or any religion, but it is a blessing for me, I must admit, to at last be able to look upon the Christian faith with deep respect and warm regard.
It's such a huge part of American history — those who have fought and are fighting to protect its integrity are doing a service not just to their faith but to their country.
My father's life-long work was with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as Senior Trial Examiner and a Civil Rights Attorney. He established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for the southern sector with headquarters in Atlanta during the war years.
He was appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt and our family moved to Atlanta. My dad was not a pretentious man and he spoke very little about his work. I learned about his life primarily from my brother and the records he left me.
The FBI finally released his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) files in 1996. These particular incidents took place between the war years through the mid-50s.
1) Dad obtained several photographs of lynchings in the South (Tennessee as I best remember) and made arrangements with the editor of a major news magazine (I do not remember which one) to have them published. When that did not happen he contacted the magazine and was told that the FBI would not allow it.
Dad took the photographs to the FBI and questioned Hoover directly. His FOIA files showed Hoover’s efforts to track and discredit him and have him labeled a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The blacked-out lines in the FOIA files mainly covered the names of the informants who were primarily Hoover's puppets.
When questioned by the FBI as to whether or not he was a Red, Dad replied, “No – I'm Pink!” Dad’s own records and the support of his personal friends brought an end to Hoover's accusations and the hearings, but not before they took a terrible toll on all of us. Our phone was tapped and I remember the exchanges between the FBI and my father. In the mid-1950s things began to change for the better.
2) My brother told me of one evening in Atlanta when the KKK burned a cross in the yard. Dad found out later that the man he had trusted at an Atlanta newspaper was a member of the KKK.
3) When the FEPC offices in Atlanta were first being set-up, Dad hired the first African American secretaries and stenographers.
Dad passed away in 1985. His obituary was a simple one only noting he was a civil rights attorney and one of the first NLRB trial examiners.
Author Joy Boothe and I felt that this short story about love and racism in America would be a fitting way to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on his actual birthday. 11 years younger than Nelson Mandela, Dr. King would by 85 today.
Joy and I filmed this video as a gift to her son, and, I mentioned to her later that it might be something worth sharing with the public. The story was first published in The Great Smokies Review. Joy and her husband Norm Rabek are two of the many dear friends we've made during our travels for Story of America. They live in Yancey County, NC in a house on a mountain ridge that they built themselves.
Joy says about the short story she reads above: "This is the true story of how I came to give that name to my oldest son. My grandparents on both sides were dirt farmers in South Alabama with only a few years of school. My granddaddy never learned to read. My parents were the first to graduate from high school. My mother got pregnant with me while they were still students. They both died when I was eleven. I had one year of college. My son Jesse has a master’s degree from MIT."
Full text of the short story:
Jesse. I am five years old and I hate the name. It reminds me of my great uncle Jesse Long. A drunk. At family gatherings he would roar in, all hot stinking breath and red face. He liked to sing “Mule Train” at the top of his lungs and stomp and stumble around like he was buck dancing. He scared me to death.
One thing led to another, I guess, until he put the shotgun he used to hunt with under his chin and blew his head off. I have heard Aunt Nanny, his wife, tell how it was a hundred times. “I was cooking back-bone and liver,” she’d say, “and it was bad hot that day. And flies, Lord, I’ve never seen as many flies as we had that summer. Jesse came in from the field to eat. He was sober for once. I was surprised, but I didn’t say anything one way or the other. You know he was bad to hit me if I mentioned his drinking. Anyway, he gets his gun out of the bedroom and walks out on the back porch. ‘Nanny,’ he says, real polite, ‘would you come here, please?’ Well, just as I stepped out on the porch, he pulled the trigger. His jawbone flew at me and hung in the screen by my head.”
Now, in Sunday school, when I study about Samson slaying his enemies with the jawbone of an ass, I picture Nanny and Jesse on the screen porch.