Dylan and the Prez
Dylan and the Prez

Times Can Be A-Changin'

The invitation came from the president and first lady in the form of phone calls and e-mails. Would I like to attend a concert at the White House in honor of Black History Month?

Oh, by the way, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and a constellation of actors, singers and civil rights leaders will be there.

Have you any idea how that sounded to someone who worked as a foot soldier in the civil rights movement four decades ago?

Yes, after all these years, I could make my way from L.A. to the White House.

First surprise: Bob Dylan had never sung at the White House.

Second surprise: Everyone I told about the invitation was impressed not by my attendance but by Dylan's.

So was everyone in D.C.

President Obama, in graceful opening remarks, noted that "Bob Dylan has taken time off from his never-ending tour" to attend. Master of ceremonies Morgan Freeman seemed a bit awed when he introduced "Mr. Bob Dylan."

For his part, Dylan appeared simultaneously humbled and bemused by all the fuss. He sang a great rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and after a smile and a few words with the president and Mrs. Obama, Dylan exited stage right.

Dylan's classic song has always inspired hope. But on this day, in this political climate, it also provided an answer of sorts.

At the National Tea Party Convention two days before the concert, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin had leveled a jibe at Obama's 2008 campaign theme, saying, "How's that hope-y, change-y thing working out for ya?"

No one answered her from the White House. The Obamas continue to insist that the best response to partisan sniping is to reach out to the other side — just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached a half-century earlier.

In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, King conducted a nonviolent choir with millions of Americans, while also serving as the nation's psychiatrist treating America's collective (and conflicted personal) history of race relations.

Those of us who experienced how the movement worked — on the streets and in the churches and jails — know that "Freedom Songs" embodied the spirit, solidarity, strength and soul on the struggle's front lines in the South during those difficult days.

Both the leaders and the unsung heroes whom King called "the unknown ground crew" knew that the hooded racist terrorists were tying to create a climate of fear, with repression and violence.

The response from the civil rights movement was not to be drawn into the cycle — not to answer violence with violence.

Having studied nonviolence a good deal while serving on King's staff from 1965-1968, I think it is important to understand that the conceptual framework of nonviolent conflict resolution provides for a final stage not of victory but reconciliation. (The six steps of nonviolence are delineated in the first of Dr. King's five books, Stride Toward Freedom, and are listed at kingcenter.org.)

In today's context, rather than partisan verbal bashing by some commentators on Fox News, as well as others on CNN and MSNBC — all of whom President Obama has suggested we turn off — a nonviolent approach would be to give your adversary a face-saving way out of the conflict.

Shouldn't that be our future? The times can be a-changin' today if we want them to.

As for the rest of the White House event, the Greek vegetarian salad was excellent. The concert was sublime.

Smokey Robinson's soulful rendition of "Abraham, Martin and John" and his "People Get Ready" duet with Jennifer Hudson provided poignant moments, as did Natalie Cole's tribute to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

The same can be said for Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who too had been on the front lines of the nonviolent struggle in the South four decades ago and who toured the nation, giving concerts to provide financial support for civil rights and voting rights campaigns.

At the White House on this day, after she sang the first few lines of the organizing song "Ain't Gonna' Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," she stopped and told the crowd: "This is a freedom song, and you are supposed to sing, too."

They did.

Editor's note: Leventhal is an L.A.-based activist, journalist and author. His first book, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, was selected for inclusion in a Smithsonian Museum traveling exhibit. He is working on a screenplay about the summer of 1965, when he was a civil rights worker and a semipro baseball player — the first white in a league with African-Americans.


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