Monday, May 15

Guest Blogger - W. David Stephenson

compassionat competency

W. David Stephenson is one of my favorite "professional" bloggers, and he definitely gets a ten on the "intelligence is an aphrodisiac" scale. I hope you get a chance to visit his blog on Homeland Security. It's from a really interesting perspective. David is one of us, you see, and gets leftie blogosphere cred as a true blue conscientious objector during Vietnam. He's also a wonk, in the best sense of the word. That is, the sense of the word that says "this guy knows his shit." Too bad our current Department of Homeland Security, not to mention FEMA, skips "competence" as one of their job requirements.

David is kind enough for Blue Gal, the blog, to leave the technical stuff out and give us this wonderful reminscence of a southern upbringing, and a kickbutt book review with no extra charge. Thanks much, David. -BG


Aubrey W. Williams cures my Southophobia..

I'm grateful to one of my fav's, Blue Gal, for giving me this opportunity to be a guest blogger!

I normally blog on innovative strategies to involve and empower the general public in homeland security, (which is even more important in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe), but I'd like to change gears in this post, taking advantage of Blue Gal's geographic base in Alabama, to deal with one of my personal bugaboos: growing up in the South during segregation.

The experience still haunts me. I faintly remember a black neighborhood right opposite Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean, VA, but those kids didn't walk to school, they were bused somewhere, to what I assume was a crappy, separate-but-definitely-not-equal school. Even more embarrassing, after attending integrated classes outside of Philly through the first half of 5th grade, and having real-life, honest-to-goodness black friends (i.e., not the Stephen Colbert "my black friend Alan" type), I can't believe how easy it was for me to start making racist jokes when I moved to Virginia, as a way to fit in.

At any rate, one of the ways that's manifested itself in my adult life is rather snide condescension toward the South, especially during the Bad Old Days. And that, if you're still with me, brings me to an Alabaman who I suspect Blue Gal would find a a kindred spirit, Aubrey W. Williams (1890-1965).

One of Aubrey's sons, Jere, is my wife's uncle by marriage. Several years ago he gave me a copy of John A. Salmond's bio of his father, A Southern Rebel: the Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams. Wow!

If you buy the conventional wisdom about poor whites in the South being racists because they had to fight blacks for the bottom of the economic barrel, Williams should have been a KKK member: the son of a ne'er-do-well alcoholic, he remembered his childhood "as one of living in many place and many homes, moving around, looking for a cheaper place to live," (NB, Blue Gal, that included moving to Birmingham at 6 m0., then moving 20 times in that city by the age of 10!). He quit school at 7 to work. Not off to a very good start, are we?

However, Maryville College had a special program for young people of promise ( evidently they're still one of those rare schools, not unlike my alma mater, America's Finest Liberal Arts College, which inculcates a sense of ethical responsibility along with educational content...), admitted Williams, and from there (with limited finances always an obstacle), he attended the University of Cincinnati, drove an ambulance during WWI, joined the French Foreign Legion, and finally the US Army. After the war he earned a degree at the University of Bordeaux, returning to the US in late 1919.

After one mis-step (ok,, that's just being selfish on my part: he turned down an offer to be a Unitarian minister in the Boston area -- as a Boston UU I can't help what a cool minister he might have been!), Williams accepted a job as director of the Wisconsin Conference of Social Work. He'd found his life's work.

From there Aubrey Williams went to the American Public Welfare Association, and, when FDR took office, joined the New Deal, specifically the the great Harry Hopkins' Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

Aubrey Williams bloomed under Hopkins, playing important roles in creation of the WPA and the National Youth Administration (he later became the NYA administrator and deputy administrator of the WPA). A particular favorite of Eleanor Roosevelt (Salmon wrote, "Of all the relationships that he [Williams] developed during his years in Washington, this one [with Mrs. Roosevelt] was the most important. From 1935 on, the two worked as a team, reinforcing each other's resolve, pursuing the same egalitarian goals, investigating in the same areas of concern."), his liberalism was a frequent weapon for FDR's opponents. They finally zapped him in 1945, when the president nominated Williams to head the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Senate wouldn't confirm him.

Enough of the bio material. IMHO, here's the cool thing about Aubrey Williams that helps me deal with my Southophobia: his amazing attitude about race (ok, this has admittedly been a rather round-about post....). Quoting Salmond:

"Why he, a southerner, should have believed in the cause of black equality so passionately cannot be known with certainty. Obviously, his deep-seated belief in equality of opportunity for all had much to do with it, while his long sojourn outside the South doubtless helped him shed any racism that his southern boyhood may have bred in him. Williams, who wore few convictions lightly, took none more seriously than this commitment to securing racial justice in America. At times pessimistic about the efficiency of his 'puny efforts,' as he once called them, in the end he lived long enough to see his position vindicated."

The last word on Aubrey Williams belongs to the WaPo in its obituary: "His courage, the paper said, 'was wrapped in extraordinary gentleness .. In all he did he was impelled by the same warm humanity and social concern. Of Aubrey Williams it could truly be said, above all else he loved his fellow man.'"

Wow! I wish I'd met Aubrey Williams (not to mention other Alabamans of his era such as Clifford & Virginia Durr, Justice Hugo Black (who showed that even a Klan member could be redeemed by his later actions), but I'm grateful to all of them for their courage -- and thankful to Blue Gal for this opportunity to deal publicly with one of my demons.
--W. David Stephenson

PS: Aubrey Williams' papers are part of the FDR Library collection..


  1. I must admit I was not familiar with the amount of work Aubrey did during his lifetime.Thanks for the info:)

  2. Anonymous8:35 PM

    Methinks Aubrey's childhood an'subsequent manifestation as an adult shows ye can't blame yer upbringin' fer bein' stupid.

  3. Thank you, David. And I thought northeast Ohio was biased; well, 51%.


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