Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Byrd yearns for freedom-loving days of yore

Jerry Stratton, July 1, 2006

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song. Arlo Guthrie does one of my favorite renditions of it. The song also has an interesting story behind it. In the introduction to his 1981 rendition of Amazing Grace on the Precious Friend album, Guthrie praised the author of the song, who was a slave-trader before he became an abolitionist.

That man might have lived a long time ago, but he’s a friend of mine today. Because anybody who is not afraid to turn around is a friend of mine today.

It’s a very biblical praise; the bible reserves greater praise for those who sin and change than those who are righteous from the start. Now, John Newton didn’t literally turn his ship around in the way that Guthrie describes, but he did indeed change from a slave trader to an abolitionist minister over the course of his life.

Newton used his experiences to end Britain’s participation in the slave trade. A slave trader that pretends their past never existed is another story entirely, which is why Senator Robert C. Byrd’s letter asking me for money seems extraordinarily ill-written. He hearkens back to his first term in the Senate both in the beginning and ending of his fund-raising letter:

More than forty-seven years ago, I stood in the chamber of one of the most hallowed institutions in the history of freedom—the United States Senate—placed my hand upon a Bible and swore an oath.

I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Nowhere in that oath did it say that I had to stand silent as Americans’ liberties are undone.

Senator Byrd is not known for standing silent. He is known for spending fourteen hours filibustering the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Yet never have I been as concerned for the fate of American liberty as I am today.

The emphasis is the Senator’s: that sentence was its own underlined paragraph. For Byrd to say that he was less concerned about liberty when he started his career than he is now is a masterful understatement. He defended the Klan as late as 1958, six years after he first took office in the House, and in 1964 in the Senate, that hallowed chamber of freedom, he argued that blacks were mentally inferior to whites due to differences in brain weight.

Senator Byrd needs to make sure his people read these letters before they sign his name to them. Maybe I’m being too hard on him, but it was definitely uncomfortable reading that letter because of what Byrd was doing in that hallowed institution where he first swore that oath.

Yes, people can turn around. But if John Newton had, instead of preaching against slavery from the pulpit, asked his congregation for money to continue the freedom-loving work he started on when he first began sailing across the seas—without mentioning why he’d been sailing across the seas—even Amazing Grace wouldn’t have saved his reputation.

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