Lynn Ford's legacy and Obama's pastor

Dateline: Mon 24 Mar 2008

The late Lynn Ford was a friend and a colleague at the Star. For many years, his feature writing, and especially his city/state columns, fostered understanding of "the other" and helped break down racial stereotypes in the Indianapolis community. That wasn't an easy or painless assignment.

Lynn Ford died in 2002, at age 43, but death is not much of a barrier when it comes to remembrance. Hence I found myself freshly grateful to Lynn last week as the controversy over Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor repeatedly boiled over.

Why? Because Lynn gave voice in Indianapolis, in conversation and writing, in the 1990s and beyond, to some of the same beliefs espoused by Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago. We all survived.

So, while many white journalists and others recoiled in horror last week over Rev. Wright's furious, anti-U.S. rhetoric, I experienced deja vu and a tiny measure of understanding. Been there, heard that. Get it, too, maybe just a little.

Lynn's personal style was never openly angry or militant. He was by nature gentle, soft-spoken, sweet and kind; he'd as soon write about his little pet bird or his mother as race.

If anything, Lynn's despair -- personal and racial -- had been internalized. Always the court jester, he could joke beautifully and lightly in the newsroom, or while sipping Crown Royal whiskey at Thanksgiving dinner, but at his core, I always felt, there was an all-encompassing sadness.

Sometimes his sorrow, like Rev. Wright's fury, bubbled over. When that happened, it was hard, at the time, for some of us (whites) to understand.

Just like Rev. Wright, Lynn gave voice to the idea that AIDS was a government plot against African-Americans. The wild conspiracy theory was a widely held belief among blacks, Lynn said, especially those who recalled the Tuskegee/U.S. government experiments on black men with syphilis in the 1930s in Alabama.

Lynn's mother -- he was raised by a single parent -- was a career Army veteran, and Lynn talked (and wrote) with a brew of emotion about his pride in her service and her toughness, and his own sense of being ostracized or marginalized in the U.S.

He was followed by security guards as he strolled through the perfume aisles at L.S. Ayres. He was tailed by cops as he drove. He heard car doors lock as he walked on streets in twilight. Always honest, not one-dimensional, he also took a cue from Jesse Jackson and wrote a column about his own fear of young black men -- he revealed that there were times when he too felt compelled to cross the street.

Professionally, Lynn was a team player. No editor ever worked harder to make the features section of the newspaper lively, fun and provocative. Yet, as a senior at Northwest High School, he had his dreams crushed by a favorite English teacher: he would never become a journalist, she said. He should seek a trade.

I freely admit that sometimes, Lynn's ideas put me off and, yes, galled me to no end. He once wrote a first-person account of an Indiana execution that was sympathetic to the convicted murderer and decried electrocution while ignoring the criminal's victims. But that was more a fault of planning by editors, who assigned nobody to write about the victims.

Another time, Lynn wrote a column about a black NBA athlete's refusal to stand during the national anthem, an incident that took place in 1996. Lynn expressed his understanding and support.

I found that column particularly distasteful. I wasn't the only white person with that reaction in the newsroom. "I can't even stand to look at him," confided my friend, fashion/home writer Betsy Harris, who at the time sat across from Lynn.

Steeped in my own sense of indignation, I wanted to enlist support for my belief that what the paper had printed and Lynn had written was wrong-headed and should never have run. A bright, young, black college student was working as an intern for features that summer. I fully expected her to side with me; after all, I was not only right, I was the boss. At my urging, she read Lynn's column. Thoughtfully and carefully, she explained that she understood Lynn's point. Many blacks believed what the athlete had done was right, she explained. Yes, college students did as well. I was shocked and mystified.

Later that same day, a line began to form at Lynn's desk. From all over the building, people came to pay respects to him for what he had written -- custodians, clerks, phone operators, librarians, printers. They were all people of color. They had been touched and moved.

As I watched his readers thank him, I began to understand that I did not have all the answers. I began to get that maybe, just maybe, there was more to the world than my view.

This is not a vindication of Rev. Wright's words, not by a long shot. As far as I'm concerned, Barack Obama wrapped that package up nicely last week with his thoughtful discourse on race. But it is a reminder that, in America, race is a subject of nuance rather than a black-and-white discussion.

For that realization, I thank Lynn Ford.

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