A Letter Revisited

Author: Anthony Walton '82

Photo by Barbara Johnston


Editor's Note: Last week, this magazine featured "Letter to Jack," an essay by Anthony Walton '82 originally published in our Autumn 1994 issue, as our latest Magazine Classic. This week, we asked Walton to reflect on his letter and the themes contained therein, 25 years later.


When I wrote the essay “Letter to Jack,” I was a young man of 34 who had begun to advance his thinking about race in America from a personal and subjective concern to a larger, more comprehensive understanding of history and systems. In 1994, I was in the process of composing my book Mississippi, and I had been studying the history of that state and of the South in general, as well to a limited extent the history of Chicago, so linked to that of Mississippi. I had begun to reckon with the historically rooted, striated tragedy around race in the United States.

I had moved to Maine from New York City while working on that book, and had made a new friend shortly after my arrival: John Stephen “Jack” Gleason ’65. We met in an odd but, in looking back, appropriate fashion. There had been a racially motivated attack at the University of Maine in Orono during which African American students (quite rare there at that time) were beaten by a group of white male students, who had then deliberately hung a New York State license plate — ripped from the car of one of the victims — from a tree. I was outraged by this, even more so because the sheriff of the county, while voicing regret over the incident, was taking a “boys will be boys” approach and refusing to arrest the perpetrators, or even to fully investigate. After feeling angry but powerless for several days, I learned that the First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the state of Maine, John Gleason, was a fellow Domer. 

I called the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown Portland (which was, pre-9/11, a much simpler task), asked to speak with Mr. Gleason, and when he connected, said, “I’m a Notre Dame alum, you’re a Notre Dame alum, and I need your help.” He asked if I could come by after business hours that afternoon. It was December and, at our northern latitude, getting quite dark early. I remember being ushered into the office and seeing Jack sitting there in darkness, with only a green-shaded desk lamp illuminating the pile of papers he was working on. He got up, came out into the waiting area and sat down, and I told him what had happened up in Orono — and voiced my concern that things were being smoothed over and possibly even covered up. He listened carefully, shook my hand, and said he would look into it.

The next day, four agents from the FBI’s Civil Rights Division in Washington flew to Bangor, drove from there to Orono, and began to investigate the incident. (It’s only in retrospect that I realize what a bureaucratic sleight-of-hand that was on Jack’s part, not sending agents from Maine, who may or may not have had ties with or obligations to local law enforcement.)  This show of federal force got results — the locals began to produce the accused, and the sheriff suddenly took the case very seriously. While the perpetrators were not punished as harshly as I might have liked (jail time, preferably federal), they were held accountable, and the community and state were made aware of what had happened. This contributed, I think, to a calming of race relations in that part of the state, as those potentially inclined to such behavior realized that there would be a cost to it.

And there was more. Jack, along with his boss, then-U.S. Attorney Richard Cohen, organized a meeting the following summer of all the police chiefs in the state, asking them to convene and be briefed on the specific topic of racial violence and how to proceed if such violence occurred in their communities. In another stroke of bureaucratic brilliance, Jack scheduled the meeting in the beautiful tourist town of Bar Harbor, because, as he said, “What chief’s spouse wouldn’t want to come to Bar Harbor in the middle of July for a couple of days on the feds?” He also invited all of the state’s television stations. The meeting was led by the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Civil Rights Division, who came up from Washington to speak and answer all questions, and conducted a seminar on what did and did not constitute a racially based civil rights violation. Single-handedly, Jack had altered the climate and awareness of an entire state on behalf of a group of citizens that might have otherwise been isolated and overlooked. 

Jack and I had shared a ride to Bar Harbor and back, and in those hours discovered affinities that went beyond making sure criminals got punished. We began having lunch once a month at the Muddy Rudder in Freeport, halfway between Brunswick and Portland. He loved Notre Dame athletics in all forms, especially (of course) football, and we began to watch games together at his home in Cape Elizabeth, literally locked away from the rest of the house by his wife, Charlene, who could not bear our yelling and screaming over the smallest success or reversal. We would take long bus rides together to watch ND basketball play whenever they were in New England. 

Jack, a graduate of the Program of Liberal Studies, was an extraordinarily avid reader and always had a book he wanted to discuss and one he wanted you to read, which could range from a classic crime novel (I will never forget the intensity of his insistence that I read George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle), to a Civil War or Vietnam  history (he was a veteran of several tours in Vietnam), to something profound and philosophical, like St. Augustine’s Confessions or Plato’s Symposium. And, as we were both Chicagoans, we discussed that inexhaustible subject cover to cover, from every angle, whether Democratic politics there, the Cubs, the endless varied neighborhoods, or organized crime (before he and his family came to Maine, Jack had been a federal prosecutor in Chicago, and he was a bottomless font of stories about mobsters and how hapless they were as opposed to the alleged geniuses of Hollywood lore). Most intensely, we would talk about race — how intractable it was, how it had marred American life, and whether or not anything would ever change.  He had hope. I wasn’t so sure. 

But I wanted to give Jack my best effort at explaining what might have sounded, to him, like the easy cynicism of a young man. He had done so much in the world — so many real things, so many hard things. So many good things. And I think I could have only written the essay I wrote for him, whom I admired, trusted, and loved.  Writing to him allowed me to be wholly honest, and it forced me to dig. That is why I think it speaks to people until this day. The essay was reprinted widely and anthologized, and as recently as two years ago, an editor asked me if I was interested in turning it into a book, an offer I declined. Jack had passed by then, and I don’t think I could have recreated the force of the essay without my special interlocutor. Whatever it is, and whatever people find there, it would not have existed without my connection to Jack.

When I look at the essay today, I am struck by lines like, “[Jack] found strange the claim of one writer, Andrew Hacker, that blacks never, ever, feel at home in the land of their birth. [He] said this couldn’t possibly be true, and asked me if I thought it was.” I did think it was.  And I think it is true today, when the election of Barack Obama, which lulled some of us into thinking that maybe there had been real progress, turned out in fact to have set off a conflagration of racial backlash and outright hatred that is unprecedented in modern times, and which has swept past blacks to consume Latinxs, and which next threatens Asian Americans and Asian immigrants of all varieties. I, and I think most non-whites, don’t feel comfortable. We have to always be on guard, and not just from racist thugs, but from the police, and from endless micro-aggression.

 I wrote, to my friend, “Racism is, in fact, the American issue, on which the country will succeed or fail, because so much else is linked to it. But the country seems to move further and further from any true understanding.” This strikes me as more true today than it previously was. In this time of Trump, with his unceasing, almost daily  racial provocation and not-so-subtle encouragement of white nationalism and white supremacy, I see the nation becoming Balkanized, as Trump’s putative “base” retreats into a vision of the world that has no room for people of color, that rejects immigrants and that ignores the rejection of decades of settled American wisdom on how to interact with other nations (friend and foe), how to conduct the economy, and the best conclusions of the best scientists concerning the environment, energy development and infrastructure. Because the president keeps everyone and everything in such an uproar over racial issues, we are, first of all, unable to discuss calmly all sorts of issues that are subtly and not-so-subtly linked to race — like entitlements, inequality and health care — and we are not able to discuss those largest of all issues, like the climate crisis and the things that come with it — things like megafires, droughts, sea rise, and a looming water and food crisis that will probably be the first manifestation of the climate endgame.

I come back to that first time when I, a solitary black man in an overwhelmingly white state, called Jack, looking for help in righting a wrong. When I think of everything Jack did to help, how he mobilized every resource at the disposal of the federal government, I can’t help but wonder if this would happen today, under a Justice Department run by Jeff Sessions and William Barr, and especially in light of, as Stephen Bannon put it, “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” which is being ruthlessly and deliberately carried out behind the scenes by Trump’s deputies day after day. I recall that it was under the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush that Jack was able to help in the Orono case. And while H.W. Bush certainly committed his share of racial wrong — most notably the Willie Horton affair during the 1988 campaign, something which he will, deservedly, always be linked to — he did believe in the rule of law, and that each and every citizen was entitled to the protection of and justice under the full force of the federal government of the United States. Would this happen today? 

I wrote toward the end of the essay that I wondered if race would ever come between us. And it never did. Jack and I were lucky in that we lived in Maine, a place where race was not in the forefront of social or community consciousness, in a time of relative peace on racial matters. But our connection went beyond that.  So few whites, even those who bear people of color no animus, truly care like Jack did and are willing to step up and take action toward justice. In my considered judgment, after studying these matters for 40 years, I think it just doesn’t register for many white people. It’s not on their radar. And until more actually do concern themselves with racial justice, there really isn’t much hope of improvement, much less true progress. We’ll keep going around a carousel on which issues and tensions, like mechanized toy horses, are up for a moment, then down, then up again in a dizzying spectacle. Jack was a soldier, a decorated Marine without fear, and beyond that a Christian, a Catholic, whose most cherished belief was that no person, as we are instructed in the Beatitudes, should be treated as anything less than a fellow child of the Lord. In our national life, how far are we from that today? 

 


Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey, among other books, and has contributed to this magazine for 25 years.