From Harriet Tubman to John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick: Are Things Better?

By Pete Simon

On October 16, 1968—50 years ago—I entered the gates of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, an hour’s train ride north of Chicago. It would become a gut-wrenching time with endless belittlement, tedious routines, and unreachable deadlines.

Pete Simon is a writer living in Colorado. Learn more about Pete…

Outside of this military asylum, our cities were burning. Back in August, Chicago police had gone on a rampage against protesters in Lincoln Park and adjacent streets during the Democratic National Convention, as many of us questioned the Vietnam War. National Guard troops still patrolled the streets of some cities, including my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the same day, I started basic training, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in defiance on the medal stand at the Olympics in Mexico City; a daring action which had them banned from the games.

When I watched what they did as I sat in front of a TV in a base lounge, I was shocked, but not surprised.  I understood why they did it; the evidence of injustice was everywhere. Now, looking back this last half-century, I realize what those two men did that day lives on through the actions of people like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest injustice.  From day one, I have supported such displays of protest, even while being in the belly of the beast at a military training base.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos: Injustice everywhere.

Scared to death: As soon as recruits around me saw the footage of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised to the heavens, the screaming for their heads commenced. I have never attended a lynch mob, but the unbridled racist profanity and screaming at a fever pitch was one you could associate with a lynching. I was scared to death because I stood-out in silence. I was worried that Smith and Carlos would be lynched by the likes of people surrounding me, who earlier in the day swore to defend the constitution of the United States. And I also worried about the backlash the action by Smith and Carlos would cause; a backlash that included the election of Richard Nixon three weeks later.

I had no idea that John Carlos would go on to earn a doctorate degree and continue to speak out against injustice. A lot of what he was protesting against were things I would later witness aboard ship: racism and homophobia displayed by too many, directed toward people in the U.S. and ports that I visited across Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula.

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October 16, 1968, the day I first put on the uniform, was the day I became very conflicted, a feeling that only became more intense after boot camp. What John Carlos and Tommie Smith did for me on October 16 was provide a healthy dose of inspiration to cope in a lion’s den of ignorance and cruelty. My sense of self-worth, clarity, and justice was never stronger.

The U.S.S. Forrest D. Royal DD872, the ship where the author’s worldview changed.

A year later, as the Amazing Mets somehow defeated the unstoppable Orioles, winning the World Series, the ship on which I was stationed, the U.S.S. Forrest D. Royal DD872, prepared to set sail for Africa and the Indian Ocean theater on what was deemed a “goodwill cruise.” Those six months from November until mid-May would change the way I view world politics (from East versus West, to Northern Hemisphere versus Southern), and the role played by our government in “hot spots” of the cold war in Africa. Such places escaped the headlines back home and (most tragically) were ignored by our anti-war movement.

On our ship’s second stop, Luanda, Angola, it became clear to me that we were not there to pay a social call. We were sharing combat surveillance information with top brass of the Portuguese military who came aboard our ship less than an hour after we docked for an extended briefing with our captain and senior officers. Our ship was equipped with sophisticated radio listening equipment that could receive radio transmissions across the interior of countries, including Angola where liberation groups were based.

The docking of our ship included an ominous display of the Portuguese military presence on the pier, with red-bereted commandos standing at parade rest in front of their machine gun-mounted jeeps. The city was surrounded with barbed wire to keep out MPLA freedom fighters. For the great majority of our crew, it was a wake-up call to what was going on between us and a NATO ally at a time when all British and French colonies in Africa had been granted independence.

{Learn more about the times of strife in Portugal and Angola’s history together.}

The other shock to my system from this particular “goodwill cruise” was the barbaric racist behavior displayed by several of my shipmates toward people of color in the ports of call. They would get rip-roaring drunk on liberty, then seek-out a victim or two and return to the ship with their inebriated stories of conquest–certainly the antithesis of goodwill. Thankfully, most of the crew did not partake in this behavior.  When they went on liberty they handled their alcohol like adults, then went on scenic walks, museums, local marketplaces, etc. My immediate petty officer supervisor, whom I will call Wayne, referred to such people as “faggots” because they didn’t wind up in a back room at a bar with a prostitute.

A bad quip: When we stopped in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, there were Arab men standing on the dock holding hands (an Arabic custom unrelated to sexual preference). Wayne’s first comment was predictable. Pointing to the men on the dock, he declared, “Some of the guys on ship should have a good time here,” a quip that brought a few laughs. For this kind of juvenile talk to come from a “leader of men” was not surprising, but it was sad, along with his description of a part of our onboard living space where African-American sailors resided, that Wayne called “The Congo.”

Has anything changed over the last 50 years? Maybe things are getting better? The NFL players challenged me on that question. Some players have taken to riding with police officers on patrol and become involved in police-community work in African-American communities. At least dialogue has started in some places.

Has anything changed over the last half-century? Are things better? I’m optimistic, especially when I view such thoughts as the following. On Oct. 15, the day before the 50th anniversary of John Carlos and the others raising their fists in Mexico City, The Nation published an extensive interview with Carlos. He said:

John Carlos today: “I know God is there and he used me as a vessel to try and wake people up.”

“I just did a talk in Topeka, Kansas. That’s a red state. I had 2,000 people rush to be in the audience to hear me speak. Out of the 2,000, I would say 700 or 800 of them must’ve been high-school students, the majority white. I was impressed that those parents in the red state allowed their kids to hear my speech. So it makes me realize that what I’ve been saying over the years has started to resonate with people, regardless of what their ethnic background is.”

Maybe we still have time. The November 2018 election results from Kansas produced several pleasant surprises for many of us.  Was John Carlos tapping into some of that positive energy? Maybe all of the hatred I witnessed by my fellow recruits and shipmates fifty years ago is being rectified by a younger generation.  Maybe enough of them will continue to vote so we can have leaders who don’t urge whipped-into-a-frenzy people at political rallies to do bodily harm on someone for being a reporter, or for just exercising their (free speech) rights as an American. Maybe.  Just maybe we can sail through calm waters again, or at least more productive ones.  On this, the year of the 50th anniversary of my October 16, I think it’s about time.  You?

The Creator: In the same article in The Nation, John Carlos noted that he was being used by “The Creator” as a vessel for good. He went on: “I thought that was amazing in the sense that whoever the creator of this planet is put me in that situation. I don’t know what God’s name is, but I know God is there and he used me as a vessel to try and wake people up. And I felt extraordinarily proud and pleased. I know we put the shock treatment on people and shocked them enough that they will start to spin their wheels and have some sort of reckoning in their minds. They’ll have to start to think about, ‘Why would this individual step up and do what he’s doing in life?’”

As someone who attended Methodist Sunday school and church in the city of Wilmington while growing-up, sang Methodist hymns and old spirituals in the youth choir, and has listened to jazz, blues and spirituals all of my life, John Carlos’ words about “The Creator” ring true.  I find them refreshing in this day when most people associate any reference to a higher power for inspiration as coming only from the right side of the political spectrum. It has been this way since the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination when the uptick in TV evangelists started.

Harriet Tubman didn’t let injustice stop her.

Are the words of John Carlos here a call, an indication that the world is about to receive a new, more universal kind of calling, all over again? Is it the same type of calling that kept Harriet Tubman going back more than one hundred times to slave territory to bring more and more enslaved people to Pennsylvania?

In Wilmington—one of the last stops going northward on the Underground Railroad—there is a statue of Harriet in Tubman-Garrett Park. The statue and Tubman’s story remind me that with all that I have been through in this life, all that I have witnessed overseas and experienced everywhere, my life is only one tiny piece of the human experience through time.

Colin Kaepernick exercising his rights as an American.

If I had to pick just one day in my life, a day when so much hit me squarely between the eyes, when so much challenged me with all the yelling and screaming of orders around me, and when I saw so much courage displayed by two African-American men who by raising their fists could have lost everything for something they believed in so strongly, all of this was wrapped into just one day: October 16, 1968; a day that will stay with me forever.




How Do You Define Greatness?

By Pete Simon

Recently, someone asked me: How is it that some places in this world are filled with affluence, modernity and relative comfort, while in other places people still live in grass huts without electricity and short life spans?  Are we supposed to feel guilty about that?

My answer was no, but we must be aware of history, understand why certain things are arranged so disproportionately, and respond in the best way that we can.

While serving in the Navy on a trip to Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, I saw many ways to measure the greatness and many ways to compare this country’s “blessings” to other places less fortunate. It is in the eye of the beholder that makes the most difference in how life in one place is compared to another.

What the six months overseas did for me was ask a basic question: Why does extreme poverty still exist in developing places around this crazy world, when continually poor people stand on their own soil and rock containing unspeakable wealth?

It is natural wealth that someone from afar is cashing in on; not them. It is wealth mined or gathered to make OUR cell phones, OUR machine engines, OUR jet airplanes.  Do I need to go on?  And Hollywood gives us a feel-good moment with a blockbuster film about a fictitious African nation controlling a natural resource the world covets. It is the ultimate cruel joke, supposedly providing inspiration.

All of this goes on as our leader uses words like “shithole countries” to describe places where we LUST after the resources. Lust is lust. God makes no distinction between this form of lust and others.

This is the question we should be asking: Does the GREATNESS we want in our hearts represent our better angels and ideals, as taught to us early-on (in my case) in Sunday School? Or is it tarnished by anti-Christian traits like greed, corruption, racism, and sexism? There are many metrics one can use to measure greatness. It depends on who makes up the audience judging whether or not greatness has been reached. Often, it depends on who controls the public’s airwaves to forge public opinion or acceptability on whether we have gotten to “great.”

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But any leader who uses the term “greatness” subjectively in an effort to return to the “bad old days” is not a leader of all men and women. Instead, such a leader is beholden to something darker for entire groups of citizens. It is a world where many who are not “privileged” would never recognize it as great and one they’d rather forget.

Through human history, there are countless stories of the rise and fall of greatness. Centuries ago, Africa had great civilizations, as did other places in our world now considered struggling or developing. All empires we have studied expired at some point.

The actual game changer for today’s world wasn’t what happened on the ground, but on the high seas. The mastery of sea-going vessels by European and Islamic peoples had much to do with them establishing dominance over everyone they visited around the world. That and European development of modern warfare tools. Every place you look where people have been exploited, enslaved, killed, maimed, relocated, it all comes down to one group being conquered by another with superior (great) warfare technology.

Since Hollywood has broken the ice with the movie Black Panther, I would love to see another science fiction movie set in the 1500s in which Africans had the European technology at their disposal so Africans could defend themselves when white people started arriving (imagine the same idea for a movie with Sitting Bull or Geronimo on equal footing with our invading armies).

“…any leader who uses the term ‘greatness’ subjectively in an effort to return to the “bad old days” is not a leader of all men and women.”

In reality, once Europeans established dominance over Africans with superior war toys, they did anything they wanted. It was easy for them to justify it with their embedded racism. The proof is seen in rulers like King Leopold, who treated his Congolese “subjects” like cattle.  Ten million of them died during his reign of enslavement, rape, and torture for copper, gold, and other minerals. In today’s world, he would have been convicted of mass genocide, comparable to the Nuremberg trials.

Africans have their own problems with genocide, exacerbated by tribal/ethnic problems which are a by-product of how European nations drew lines on a map of Africa (at the Berlin Conference in 1885, to create colonial boundaries). At the conference African tribal boundaries, watersheds, and geographical features were usually ignored, thus creating staging areas for future conflicts across the continent (Nigeria and Sudan, to name just two).  Slowly (too slow for all of us witnessing tribal violence and killing in South Sudan) this problem will go away, as economies improve.

The first key development has already started in many countries with remote village electrification. For the first time, people there are not only able to run refrigerators to store medicine and perishable food, but they also operate water purification systems and provide power for local commerce. All of this is possible with solar, wind or geothermal technologies; geothermal resources being most applicable in the East African Rift Valley running through central Kenya.

That’s the good news. The bad news? Remember: Colonialism has never really ended.  English and French banks, and mining companies still hold a lot of sway in their former colonies. African nations, in regular need of cash to build infrastructure or a new industry, often borrow money from their former colonizers and the interest rates charged are back-breaking. That is part of the reason things never seem to get better, or they improve at a snail’s pace.

Black Panther: “Hollywood gives us a feel-good moment with a blockbuster film about a fictitious African nation controlling a natural resource the world covets. It is the ultimate cruel joke, supposedly providing inspiration.”

China is the one place in the world where a nation successfully stood up to the colonial power.  Once partly colonized, the Chinese people overcame and have become a premier driving force in the world. It is why I like the movie “The Sand Pebbles” so much. It gives a brief but powerful picture of our country’s misadventure in China 90 years ago. But China has started a second wave of colonialism, in Africa.

Compared to China, Africans are still taking baby steps, and that is a frightening comparison now as China’s involvement in Africa is huge.  If more African leaders had the temperament of the late Nelson Mandela, who knew when it was time for him to personally give up power gracefully, African countries would be closer to building something very powerful and secure.  In too many countries life-long rulers or tyrants run things into the ground (see Zimbabwe and The Congo). Same-old-same-old leaders breed the kind of corruption that people, representing overseas interests, crave when making deals for coveted resources.

So far, no African leader or the African Union has spoken of a specific plan to stop the one-sided trade deals favoring China in Africa, or the propensity of China to ship in Chinese laborers for Chinese-funded infrastructure construction or other projects, leaving African workers idle. This has infuriated African laborers in Angola and other countries and may provide the spark needed to get African leaders to grow a spine when dealing with China.

Even though overseas interests have tied-up unspoken amounts of Africa’s natural resources, there is still an enormous amount of them underground, unclaimed. The future of the African people is tied to those resources. Will African leaders unite and craft a plan to stop the second colonial wave which is decimating African people?

As it stands now, billions of dollars of precious metals and minerals are leaving for Chinese ports because African leaders crave the Chinese cash being offered in return; they say to develop infrastructure and other projects for the people.

One can only hope the people will find an effective way to account for that money and a better way to make deals (with all colonial powers) in the future. That will be the only way African people will attain a true state of greatness, and level a worldwide playing field that has been uneven and cratered for centuries.

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Trump and Africa: Has he done us in?

By Pete Simon

The great American undoing could have started foolishly enough with Donald Trump’s “S—hole” comment on January 12. He spoke it with all of the grace of a drunken redneck sailor while stumbling down an alley in Mombasa in a forgotten decade when our C.I.A. still controlled everything across Africa.

Just eight days later, during a meeting with the chairman of the African Union, Trump had the chance to make amends, but he said nothing.

During his career, Pete Simon was a reporter and producer for public radio news departments in Colorado and Philadelphia. From 1998 to 2017, he worked in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Golden Field Office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  Now retired, he is a writer living in Arvada, Colo, where he volunteers in the local arts community and public radio. Learn more about Pete…

Then, during his State of the Union speech, he didn’t mention Africa at all.

Leaving aside basic human respect and dignity, which seems beyond him, the need for Trump to extend an olive branch to African nations goes directly to our own economic survival. In just three weeks he placed into jeopardy the free-flowing of countless natural resources that our country must have from Africa in order to survive; a fact most of us here do not realize.

Consider: The next time you flip on a light switch, drive your car, or eat some chocolate, think about where the cocoa, copper, or other metals come from to make those items. These are critical resources affecting our entire country, including, for example, the extractive and renewable energy industries doing business in Colorado. But we take for granted the cocoa and vanilla beans, copper, titanium, chromium, palladium, and other precious minerals that come from the African treasure house.


Those resources were a safe bet for us for so long because of the work over the decades by our diplomats and C.I.A. They ensured African markets stayed open to keep us in this secure bubble. Two things radically change that now: China’s involvement in Africa and Donald Trump.

Extreme theatrics and bombast may have worked for Trump to get him elected. But on a world stage of securing essential trade agreements for our financial security, racist locker room banter is the last thing we need.

Chinese influences: Today, Africa is filled with children learning Mandarin. Gone are the days when European colonizers and the U.S. controlled everything. Now, China has a lot more to say about what goes on in South African, Congolese, and Zambian mines.

Having already spent tens of billions of dollars across Sub-Saharan Africa, China is planning to spend another $75 billion there and $1 trillion on its “Belt and Road” initiative, a jaw-dropping system of roads and infrastructure that will connect African cities to places across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. That is seven times the amount of money the U.S. spent in 1947 on The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.

The Chinese have been winning on the public relations front in Africa since the 1960s and 70s, when they funded and built the TanZam Railway, giving land-locked Zambia a transportation outlet to Dar Es Salaam so Zambia could ship its copper reserves to world markets without having to send it through Apartheid South African ports. (It was China’s funding of the TanZam which caused African nations in 1971 to vote for China’s seating at the U.N.; the event that threw anti-U.N. sentiment here on steroids.) This important history hasn’t been lost on Africans.

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Apology needed: If anyone is left in the pared-down Trump State Department who specializes in African affairs, perhaps they can explain to Mr. Trump why he must apologize immediately for his inflammatory comments, if only for our industries, economy, and future that he always insists is his top priority.

While Donald Trump uses profanity that widens the gulf between the U.S. and Africa, China is spending nearly a trillion dollars to develop the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) designed to link China to Europe, the Mideast, and two African hubs: Kenya and Egypt. Other Chinese-funded rail systems are linking Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Rwanda with the BRI. Photo: A cargo train is launched to operate on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by the Chinese government in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer.

Our only hope…

In 1958, my Methodist Sunday School teacher told our class to celebrate newly-independent nations, like Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. It contrasted well alongside images of Tarzan movies I watched on Saturday afternoons.  As luck would have it, the Navy destroyer on which I was stationed in 1969 was sent to Africa, where my appreciation of various peoples and cultures grew exponentially.

The disrespect shown toward Africans by some of my shipmates seemed anti-American to me. It is one thing for a few racist sailors in African ports to beat-up people they call “gooks”; but quite another for our Head-of-State to verbally trash the continent from which we have taken so much to fortify and maintain what we have. The Chinese must be smiling at the fool in the White House.

The only hope this country has now rests with the intelligence of African people. They know Donald Trump does not speak for most Americans; he did not win the popular vote and the 2016 election is still under review for tampering.

U.S. links: Our country has an obvious historical linkage with Africa. Today, hard-working African immigrants here live the American dream and send some of their hard-earned money back home to their families. Hopefully, this rock-solid relationship will not be shaken by an unstable President. Perhaps an apology shouldn’t be expected, but it sure would be nice to hear him say for once: “I’m sorry.”

Shirley Temple Black’s observations still true today

If we are lucky, this all may sort out for the best. But there remains a bittersweet irony to Trump’s use of vile language—an irony that reflects a spot-on observation made by Shirley Temple Black when she was Ambassador to Ghana during the Ford administration from December 1974 to July 1976.

In his book In Search of Enemies – A C.I.A. Story (p. 174-75), former C.I.A. Angola Task Force Chief John Stockwell wrote of Black:

During a trip from Ghana to Washington in October 1975, Black had lunch in the C.I.A. Executive Dining Room with top agency officials overseeing the (then) Angola crisis. She complained that “No one seemed to be coordinating America’s overall policy in African Affairs, no one was considering what the Angola program (the C.I.A. was orchestrating at the time) might do to our relations with Ghana, or other countries like Nigeria and Tanzania.”

She pointed out the Soviets’ national sport is chess and their foreign policy reflects an effort at the long-range planning of coordinated, integrated moves, although they often play the game badly and are given to serious blunders.”

Black continued: “THE CHINESE are notorious for planning their foreign policy carefully, with moves designed to reach fruition even years beyond lifetimes of present leaders.”

By contrast, Ambassador Black observed, “The United States is a poker player. It looks the world over, picks up whatever cards it is dealt, and plays, raising the stakes as more cards are dealt, until the hand is won or lost. Then, after a drag on a cigarette and another sip of whiskey, it looks around for the next hand to be played.”

Little did Shirley Temple Black know 43 ago that she was describing perfectly what is taking place right now on the African continent between China and Donald Trump’s America.  Can you bare to watch the rest of this reckless behavior?

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