Meister Käßner
13 min readJul 2, 2020


Partying like its 1988: Some Reflections on the State of Human Rights in New England in 2020

The Human Rights Now Tour in Philadelphia

It feels like dancing in a graveyard. I should be celebrating. Seven years after Nashoba Valedictorian Alex Ablavsky challenged the Nashoba Community at graduation to reconsider the use of the chieftain mascot the school committee last night voted unanimously for its retirement.

As the local newspaper noted, most of the debate was about process. How can we give residents an adequate opportunity to be heard on such a pressing issue? Some committee members proposed delaying the vote until a public hearing could be heard. The motion failed five to six. That debate echoes one of the most fundamental dilemmas of our time. Whose voices count? Who gets heard in a time of crisis?

When members of the class of 2020 were in their first year at the school a t-shirt design advertised them as having 2020 vision. Their senior t-shirts declared boldly, “Once a Chieftain, always a Chieftain.” One might ask what changed in so short a time that a school year that began with an emphasis on empowering student voices ended with a definitive unanimous vote to change the mascot despite significant opposition from the local community and many students.

The answer is as simple as it is dumbfounding for people schooled in direct democracy and innumerable town meetings.
“You don’t get to vote on other people’s rights.” Unless of course you are on the school committee, and school committee members are elected. We live in a Republic, not a Democracy. That was quite intentional. If you don’t believe me read the Federalist Papers or better yet read the earlier Massachusetts Constitution and the debates which surrounded it.

The Massachusetts Constitution, the OLDEST written constitution in the world, boldly declared in article 1, “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

It is interesting how insistent they are on property rights. Certainly, they are bearing the burdens of the recent tax rebellion against England. They also are likely in a state of denial. They have conveniently forgotten the insecurity of their own land titles. Their earliest property deeds promised to respect the traditional “hunting and planting” places of their indigenous forerunners. Such clauses were ignored and soon forgotten as sons needed land. “Indian Wars” provided villains whose rights need not be respected. They were the “unlawful combatants” of the seventeenth through 19th centuries. We could safely ignore the fact that they were defending against a European invasion.

Courtesy Wikimedia File:John Greenwood — John Adams — 26.386 — Detroit Institute of Arts.jpg

The Massachusetts Constitution was drafted by John Adams, sent to the towns for suggestions, modified and ultimately adopted in 1780. It became a model for state government in other states and for the federal constitution. Massachusetts liked to lead then, and it still does today.

As the country was still negotiating in Paris with George III, two legal cases made their way through the courts about who could claim equal status as humans born free. The first concerned “Mumbet” or Elizabeth Freeman, the second, Quock Walker. The full story is told elsewhere and need not detain us now.

The key lesson is the Massachusetts Constitution with its Bill of Rights established values and set intentions. It was the job of the courts and leaders to make sure that they are embodied in our institutions and daily lives. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court abolished slavery in 1783, critics soon bemoaned their loss of property and judicial tyranny. Apparently “Freedom and Self Determination” was worth some criticism from the Right.

We only encounter the beating heart of leadership when we declare ourselves on the side of freedom, justice, and mercy. Such values are worth a “long twilight struggle,” to quote another Massachusetts politician.

One hundred and ninety-six years later Article One was amended to read. “All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.”

The bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the rising Women’s Movement and the delayed equality of Black, Chicano, and Indigenous leaders forced a more inclusive declaration of human rights.

Yet all was not well in the cradle of liberty. The prior school years had been wracked by race riots and serious division. A federal court decision had mandated the integration of the Boston Public Schools. White homeowners cried foul, but conveniently ignored the decades of resistance to integration waged by the Boston School Committee. Boston remained stubbornly segregated. The dream of integrated schools articulated in Brown v. Board of Education remained unrealized. Gerald Ford publicly condemned the judge’s decision.

The fault lines were between Southie and Dorchester and Roxbury, poor Irish and Italians vs poor Blacks. The working-class whites turned bitterly against beloved hero Ted Kennedy and Ted Landsmark was attacked with an American Flag on City Hall plaza.

The story is elegantly told in The American Experience Documentary Eyes on the Prize in The Keys to the Kingdom in a section entitled “North to Boston.”

“North to Boston” is as absolute must for adults in Massachusetts, who want to understand the recent roots of contemporary rage. The students who lost years of schooling to racial violence are now in their fifties and sixties, no doubt the failure of the white community to lead left a lasting imprint on their psyches and economic prospects.

Critics around the country and world began to call Boston, “Birmingham on the Charles.” In the wake of court ordered integration the middle class and affluent escaped to the suburbs or to second homes on the North Shore, Cape Cod, or the Islands. As was the case in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 integration was a game for the poor. The wealthy could always retreat to wealthier or whiter enclaves.

We have been told that laws do not change hearts and minds and that is true at least in the short run. Nevertheless, movements inspire a generation and successful movements are taught in schools and shape the world view and objectives of the young.

It is the struggle for justice and freedom that leaves traces indelibly in our hearts.

As Dr. King noted in one of his first public speeches for the Montgomery Bus Boycott,

“If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Such prior lessons are the back story of the campaign to change mascots. The student had studied the Civil Rights Movement and the precarious legacy of slavery and equal justice in the Bay State.

The winds of change that have been sweeping the nation since the murder of George Floyd finally reached “Nashobah” the land between two waters in North Central Massachusetts. Central Massachusetts should not be confused with Nashoba county Mississippi, yet both have pickup trucks and houses with Confederate Flags.

The current group of youth activists has particularly inspired me. I think especially of the eloquent young women who started the petition and lobbied on YouTube and social media. They were unfailingly polite, willing to have personal conversations in which they both listened and taught. Such women and men represent the hope of a rising generation. They have endured countless lock down and ALICE drills, and then walked out to protest gun violence. To paraphrase Dr. King these women are the veterans of the creative suffering of the home front of the War on Terror. They live outside of Boston traumatized by the Marathon Bombing and the 9/11 flights that originated at Logan airport. Their passion is to create a more just and inclusive world for all.

Many of their critics retreated into insults and defenses of “locker room talk.” These female, LGBTQIA+, Black, and Latino students have been taking careful notes and they have a lifetime to advance the causes they care so passionately about. They are not about to roll over and play dead because of a few insults on social media. Some of them have learned the hard way the meaning of the word “consent.”

The auditorium in Mary Rowlandson Elementary School, in Lancaster, is decorated with murals of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. How many families sat through choral and band concerts, recognition nights, play rehearsals, and 8th grade graduations under their stern gazes? They remind us that our highest aspirations should be to transcend our communities of origin and fight for a more just, inclusive, and caring world.

As someone who has had the honor and privilege of sending my children to those schools and teaching history within the district, I am often struck by how far we have come and how much further we still need to travel. I created an opening question graphic recently where I simply posed the question “Mary Rowlandson, Godly Puritan or Imperialist Stooge.” The answer is of course a resounding “Yes.” Our inability to see the truth and learn from both positions is our fundamental dilemma in 2020.

To tear down every monument and rename every school would amount to an erasure of the struggles and traumas of our entire history.

Most great American Leaders were racists and peacemakers, white supremacists, and paternalists, cowardly and incredibly brave.

Woodrow Wilson wrote the 14 points and created the League of Nations while defending the Ku Klux Klan.

Roosevelt and Washington from Wikimedia Commons, File:Booker Washington and Theodore Roosevelt at Tuskegie Institute.jpg

Theodore Roosevelt entertained Booker T. Washington at the White House and visited the Tuskegie Institute before backing down to public pressure. His cooperation with lynch law in the south and racist dismissals of Latin American concerns were part and parcel of his “Cult of Christian Masculinity.” He also rebalanced power in favor of unions, regulated business, and established a legacy of environmental conservation. To dismiss him simply as a jingoistic imperialist jerk is to miss his many significant contributions to a more just society.

The same justice Earl Warren who corralled nine votes for Brown vs. the Board of Education cajoled Franklin Roosevelt into intern Japanese Americans for the crime of not assimilating into a country that rejected them for the color of their skin. He had to experience the segregation in the South and the humiliations of his Black driver before recognizing and ultimately redeeming his previous misdeeds. President Eisenhower disapproved, but perhaps he can be forgiven too since he helped liberate Western Europe from Nazi Germany.

As an educator I keep placing these events in the context of my own senior year back in the heady days of 1988. The stock market had swooned in the fall of 1987 shaking people’s confidence in Republican economic stewardship. Democrats were eagerly investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, hoping that would bury the Teflon president for good.

Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square. Wikimedia Commons File:Photograph of President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev in Red Square, during the Moscow Summit — NARA — 198592.jpg

But Reagan was resilient he rallied and then traveled to Moscow in 1988 to sign historic arms control agreements, encourage Jewish refusniks who were seeking asylum in Israel, and rally a generation of students at Moscow State University to believe in the possibilities of Freedom.

Reagan’s internationalist critics on the Left were equally determined. They planned a global concert tour that would highlight the human rights abuses of western governments. Particular attention was paid to abuses of the United States in Central and Latin America and the white supremacist regime in South Africa that Reagan had long defended. The line up included Youssou N’Dour, Tracey Chapman, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Bruce Springsteen.

Four-hour long concerts included local musicians. Concert goers were encouraged to sign petitions and reaffirm support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, now “First Lady of the World” shaped this groundbreaking document designed to make basic rights available for everyone.

Women were learning how to play the long game and win the future. Perhaps years of experience as sisters, mothers, and grandmothers had prepared them for their moment in the sun.

As someone who attended the Montreal concert at Olympic Stadium, I still wonder how the message of the tour shaped my values and subsequent actions. Born in the USA, Get Up Stand Up, and Chimes of Freedom were anthems of generational change.

Peter Gabriel sang Biko in Montreal and at the close of every concert that decade. Soon the prison doors were opened, and Nelson Mandela walked free. Springsteen performed in East Berlin and fifteen months later the wall came down.

To claim that these globetrotting artists somehow possessed a magic spell that reshaped the world is naive and reductive. It would trivialize the suffering of so many home-grown activists in each of these countries. Stephen Biko was martyred. Countless millions were tortured, raped, and killed under slavery in the United States. Hitler, Stalin, and Tojo launched a horrific war that resulted in the deaths of upwards of eighty-five million people.

Each nation bowed down to extreme nationalism and militaristic ideologies. Totalitarianism of the left and right alike generated extremes of suffering. The Holocaust under the Third Reich, the Terror Famine and Gulag in the Soviet Union and the rape of Nanjing and the abuse of Korean “comfort women. Each is a horrific example of what happens when leaders sacrifice the next generation to an absolutist ideology. In this context British and American leaders rapidly dropped earlier restraint and engaged in total war including the terror bombing of civilians in Germany and Japan.

Self-sacrificial leaders and prophets such as Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romeo, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Emma Goldman are the true heroes. They gave their lives for a better world for the rest of us. Artists and intellectuals served as exemplary allies and amplifiers of their messages, they were not humiliated, incarcerated, or executed in the same way. Yet if you look at their personal lives, they did pay a heavy price.

As Peter Gabriel was releasing his seminal album So and participating in two major Human Rights campaigns his marriage to his first wife Jill Moore collapsed. The fact that his father-in-law was private secretary to the Queen in Margaret Thatcher’s England must have posed significant challenges. His work on soundtracks for Birdy and the Last Temptation of Christ, not to mention innumerable clues from his lyrics and interviews reveals his struggles with mental illness and traditional religion.

Throughout the tour Gabriel began his introduction to In Your Eyes with the lines,

In your Eyes, begin at 5:12

“I believe that people have power; power to make change to end human rights abuse.” He ended by saying, “El Futuro esta en sus Ojos.” (The future is in your eyes.)

Likewise, former English teacher Gordon Matthew Sumner, AKA Sting, had a personal life that was frequently in shambles. His lyrics likewise point to struggles with mental illness and his close family relationships. The song which most troubled me from those years and from the concert was, They Dance Alone (Gueca Sola).

It describes the mothers of the disappeared in Latin America silently dancing while holding up images of their missing husbands and children. American taxpayers were complicit in the deaths of those victims of the Pinochet regime Toward the end the music which had been somber turns joyful. “One day we’ll dance on their grave, One day we’ll sing our freedom, One Day we’ll laugh in our joy, And we’ll dance.”

How can sadness be turned into joy?

How can freedom songs be sung and danced over the graves of the victims and perpetrators of so much injustice?

Monument to the “Great Swamp Massacre” in Rhode Island Wiki Media Commons File:Great Swamp Fight Monument Rhode Island.jpg

This question is made even more pressing by the simple fact that all white Americans live in a conquered graveyard. How many unmarked graves of the indigenous inhabitants of this land go unremarked as we rush off to Fourth of July celebrations?

How many of our wild and domestic non-human relatives end up as road-kill, or harmed by the propellers of our speed boats and jet skis. Shark Week aside, we know who pays the toll for our lifestyle. It is, of course, all of us.

Yet the deeper promise of our shared history, culture, and great religious traditions is that joy, laughter, and dance is the great human contribution. If a movie about the Holocaust can be entitled Life is Beautiful, then somehow amid all that has happened this year, all that has gone wrong, and all the people who have been hurt, there is a chance for redemption. This time it will be more Bob Marley than Bob Dylan. Time to listen to some Redemption Songs.



Meister Käßner

I have been reflecting and writing about the stories, people, and places Northwest of Boston for thirty-five years. I also teach history and manage forest land.