Connie Gilbert, 1939-2016

by Rick Boettger…….

The late, great Connie Gilbert was the hearty soul of the Key West chapter of the National Organization of women since she moved here and started it in 1996. While it had a dues-paying membership in the dozens and had dozens proudly wave signs on Women’s Suffrage and Roe v. Wade days, the required monthly meetings had dwindled to Connie and just a couple of other regulars.

With Connie’s death and the moving away and illness of the other two board members, a former active board member, Betty Desbiens, convened an emergency meeting April 28th. She said only show up if you are willing to take a leadership position. Well, I printed up a handout showing how much we could do with our bank account and commitment to women’s issues post Key West NOW—I thought there was no chance we could continue. I fully expected the “last” meeting would be Betty, Cynthia, and myself, and we would read the Last Rites.

Well, lo and behold, two young women active in the Women’s March movement came! Plus two other formerly active members. When Betty said at a minimum we had to have a President, VP, and Treasurer, I don’t know what came over me, but I offered to be Treasurer.

This was weird on a number of levels. First, when I came to Key West in 1996 I first joined boards and became treasurer of everything. In this town of poets, painters, and drinking fisherman, if you know your times tables you have to be Treasurer. While the financial end of being Treasurer—which, for a decent sized nonprofit is more like being a CFO than a CPA—was easy, I hated going to meetings. (Recently, I offered to be Treasurer of FIRM on the condition I not attend any meetings. I was turned down.)

So meeting-hating me just volunteered for a year of meetings, or maybe longer. Having the least-loved and most difficult position to fill being taken, the undeniable Donna Windle somehow managed to get our two young women from the Women’s March, Lizzy Hoke and Christine Thompson, to take on the President and VP roles in their very first meeting, before they were even members (which they of course quickly became).

Since then I’ve had an excellent planning meeting with Lizzy, re-acquired our old PO Box 6324, which had actually been Connie’s personally, mercifully still in limbo after her death, and begged our bank to keep us on despite our small account and the pain in the neck it is to change signers in the post-9/11 paranoiac banking world.

Much more importantly, Cynthia, Donna, and I attended a Woman’s March program at Fort Zach last Saturday. What a remarkable event! I’d say 80 people showed up, with a huge potluck. After a short general introduction, we broke up into a number of Action Groups. The idea is to act, not just meet and talk. Cynthia and I preferred the Economic Justice group, I because I know econ, Cynthia because she knows how women get screwed on the pay scale. That day, we were subsumed into the Racial Justice group, which definitely has even more economic injustice in it.

Two other groups I know of were on Immigration and the Environment. Cynthia said there were two more. Our group introduced ourselves to each other. Everyone was an activist and/or leader of a community group, even the teen-agers. And merciful heavens, we were led by one of a number of African American leaders attending. Then a young African American man named Monroe (everyone seems to know him) showed up as an active member focusing on the Rights of Felon ballot initiative we are supporting (a disproportionate number of blacks are denied their rights to vote for minor felonies in their youth).

Others described their own actions on behalf of racial justice. It was inspiring to see so many people taking action, and I was gratified to see the younger generation maybe going in a better direction than we old-time, established organizations have settled into with our legacies. One reason I hate going to meetings is that I thought of them as only social functions, which sadly burned off activist energy with a litany of traditional Rules of Order bureaucratic solipsism. The Women’s March people were cutting right to the chase. No titles, no notes, I don’t even think a bank account. Just action.

I long ago found I could accomplish more on my own, and I think I have more in the win column than any old-line organization in town (email me if you want my brag sheet). That makes me wonder why I did not share my story of what I am doing on my own for Racial Justice. It was our job at this meeting to inspire each other by describing what we were doing so that others might decide to join in or otherwise contribute.

Last year I read Ta-Nihisi Coates’ argument for Reparations for the descendants of slaves in this country. It is compelling, and you can read an excerpt from The Atlantic here. [Naja, see the excerpt below]. Instead of waiting for our government to do it, I decided to enjoy for myself the spiritual renewal Coates rightly describes for our nation from reparations. My spiritual sister Patricia Roholt married Keith, a Jamaican Rastafarian and professional reggae musician. He is now like a brother-in-law to me. The biggest dream on his bucket list is to make a pilgimage to the village he has identified in Ghana as the place from which his ancestors were enslaved and sent to the Americas.

Cynthia and I gave him a down payment of $1,000 and expect it will cost around five grand for him to revisit his roots. We will visit them again at their home in Haddo, Jamaican when he gets back to hear about it. I think there are other well-off whites in Key West who might relish doing the same thing. That’s why I’m mentioning it here, and should have described it at the Fort Zach potluck.

Our challenge with the revived Key West NOW is to be inspired to not only meet, but act. Get more attending our rallies. Send more letters to Congress. Support individual women in need. Instead of complaining that the legacy organizations don’t do more, I am now on the hook for helping us to walk the talk. With the energy and competent activism of Lizzy and Christine, I think we can do it.

I conclude by publicly apologizing to Cynthia for more or less demanding that she put on her old publicity shoes, which she burned after putting in 17 years as PIO of the KWPD. She spent a miserable afternoon making the email lists on the ever-changing Gmail, and the reason you saw our announcements everywhere is that she is damned good at her job. Thank you, my Love.

Note: Members and any interested persons, we chose Shanna Key because it is centrally located, has free parking, a quiet back room, and reasonably priced, tasty food and drink. Please check us out! 5:30 on Friday (today) May 19th, at Flagler and Bertha/1st Street in Key West.

For the jump:

​The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.

And this destruction did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day. When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.

On some level, we have always grasped this.

“Negro poverty is not white poverty,” President Johnson said in his historic civil-rights speech.

Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences—deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community and into the family, and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.

We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.​

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