When Emily Raboteau, daughter of famous historian Al Raboteau, traveled with a group of undergraduate students to Birmingham, Alabama, she met Chris McNair, a man haunted by the past. McNair is the father of Denise, who died at the tender age of 11, fifty years ago on September 15, 1963—one of four girls killed by the bomb that rocked the foundations of the city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Only three weeks after the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. had shared his dream of a future where young white boys and black boys, white girls and black girls, would hold hands, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were denied that future.
In her remarkable Searching for Zion, published earlier this year, Raboteau describes McNair’s shrine to his daughter’s memory: “a pair of black patent leather shoes and matching purse, a charm bracelet, a tiny two-inch child’s Bible, a blue floral handkerchief, and the jagged piece of concrete removed from her skull.” When one of the students asked if Mr. McNair had forgiven the white supremacists who took his daughter’s life, his answer was righteous rage.
God, McNair said, “would destroy Alabama by wiping it clean with His hand.”
In the realm of our public memories of the civil rights movement, could anything be more un-King-like? Wasn’t the civil rights movement about reconciliation and hope? Wasn’t it called the March on Washington for Jesus and Forgiveness? (Nope, it was for “Jobs and Freedom.”)
Three weeks ago, we were celebrating the March on Washington; we were watching and listening to King as we do each January on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday created in the conservative era of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This year was precious, for it marked the fiftieth anniversary and we commemorated the day with another march, televised like the one in 1963. But on this occasion we discussed and judged it in Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and on a host of 24 hour news programs.
How do we balance King’s dream with McNair’s nightmare in our supposedly post-racial and now-digital age? We still live in a country of freedom dreams and violent nightmares.
The nation has a black president and the outpouring of joy in 2008 was hard to quantify, but young black men are still murdered and imprisoned in epic numbers. We have rising integration in schools and businesses, but Christian churches lag behind tremendously—and often fuel the fires of other racial conflicts and controversies.
And as we go, the digital and media realms allow for increased chatter about all of it, leaving some of us to wonder if the democratic cacophony actually encourages hate.
After that church bombing a half century ago, Americans seemed to have more questions than answers. With the tools of their time they spoke into the sadness. King went to Birmingham and eulogized three of the deceased girls. He told the mourners that the girls “did not die in vain” and the crowd responded “Yeah!” He told them that “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil” and the people said “Oh yes.” But there would be no Lazarus moment—Mary and Martha would still have to mourn.
When Reinhold Niebuhr addressed the bombing, he sighed that “we have to admit first of all that we have miserably failed to give the Christian message a real content.” The white churches, Niebuhr intoned, “have failed.” Anne Moody, the young civil rights activist, made a striking declaration: if God was white, she was done with him. But if when she got to heaven she found out that God was black, she would “try my best to kill you.”
In 1964 folk singer Joan Baez lamented the limits of song in Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday“:
A Sunday has come,
A Sunday has gone,
And I can’t do much more
than to sing you a song.
How will future generations remember our time? Fifty years from now, my guess is that most Americans will once again remember the March on Washington with pride. Those who hear about the Birmingham church bombing will experience a sense of sadness. “Birmingham Sunday” will still be available on Youtube (or whatever new technology there is) and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will still host memorials. The March will loom larger, but Birmingham will still haunt the nation.
What great sermons, theological statements, social activist spiritual ruminations, or musical interventions will be recalled of our trials and tribulations? Will there be a song to lament Trayvon Martin that will move us fifty years from now? Will there be a preacher who stands amid the crisis and prophetically reveals a way from despair to hope? And in what media will it be recalled: cinematically? musically? can web pages hold these kinds of memories?
I hope we can remember Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson not simply for dying, but also for living. They played, they giggled, they went to school and church. We may not have videotape of them leading a march or Facebook accounts where they had posted pictures, yet they can still be present in our collective imaginations as more than the tragedy of collateral damage. When we consider making a better America, perhaps we can make it for young boys and girls who are very much like them.
By: Edward J. Blum, Religion Dispatches, September 10, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” so disturbed the American power structure that the F.B.I. started spying on him in what The Washington Post called “one of its biggest surveillance operations in history.” The speech even moved the head of the agency’s domestic intelligence division to label King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”
Of course, King wasn’t dangerous to the country but to the status quo. King demanded that America answer for her sins, that she be rustled from her waywardness, that she be true to herself and to the promise of her founding.
King was dangerous because he wouldn’t quietly accept — or allow a weary people to any longer quietly accept — what had been. He insisted that we all imagine — dream of — what could and must be.
That is not the mission of politicians. That is the mission of a movement’s Moses.
And those Moses figures are often born among the young who refuse to accept the conditions of their elders, who see injustice through innocent eyes.
King was just 34 years old in 1963.
As President Obama put it Wednesday:
“There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.”
So now, America yearns for more of these young leaders, and in some ways it has found some, not just in the traditional civil rights struggle but also in the struggles to win L.G.B.T. rights and to maintain women’s reproductive rights.
Yet there remains a sort of cultural complacency in America. After young people took to the streets as part of the Arab Spring, many Americans, like myself, were left wondering what had become of American activism. When was the last time our young people felt so moved that they took to the streets to bring attention to an issue?
There were some glimmers of hope around Occupy Wall Street and the case of Trayvon Martin, but both movements have lost much of their steam, and neither produced a clear leader.
So as we rightfully commemorate the March on Washington and King’s speech, let us also pay particular attention to the content of that speech. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now,” not the fierce urgency of nostalgia.
(I was struck by how old the speakers skewed this week during the commemorations.)
What is our fierce urgency? What is the present pressure? Who will be our King? What will be our cause?
There is a litany of issues that need our national attention and moral courage — mass incarceration, poverty, gun policy, voting rights, women’s access to health care, L.G.B.T. rights, educational equality, immigration reform.
And they’re all interrelated.
The same forces that fight to maintain or infringe on one area of equality generally have some kinship to the forces that fight another.
And yet, we speak in splinters. We don’t see the commonality of all these struggles and the common enemies to equality. And no leader has arisen to weave these threads together.
Martin Luther King was a preacher, not a politician. He applied pressure from outside the system, not from within it. And I’m convinced that both forms of pressure are necessary.
King’s staggering achievement is testament to what can be achieved by a man — or woman — possessed of clear conviction and rightly positioned on the side of justice and freedom. And it is a testament to the power of people united, physically gathering together so that they must be counted and considered, where they can no longer be ignored or written off.
There is a vacuum in the American body politic waiting to be filled by a young person of vision and courage, one not suckled to sleep by reality television and social media monotony.
The only question is who will that person be. Who will be this generation’s “most dangerous” American? The country is waiting.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 28, 2013
“An American ‘Hyphenated’ Idiot”: Bobby Jindal Blames Racial Inequality On Minorities Being Too Proud Of Their Heritages
One day after thousands rallied at the March on Washington 50th anniversary demonstration, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) pitched the Republican civil rights vision…by criticizing minorities for not assimilating into American culture.
In a Politico op-ed Sunday, Jindal lamented that minorities place “undue emphasis” on heritage, and urged Americans to resist “the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl” comprised of proudly ethnic identities.
Jindal insisted that, “while racism still rears its ugly head from time to time” since Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, the major race problem facing modern America is that minorities are too focused on their “separateness”:
Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.
Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans?” That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.
There is nothing wrong with people being proud of their different heritages. We have a long tradition of folks from all different backgrounds incorporating their traditions into the American experience, but we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl. E pluribus Unum.
If he had done even cursory research before writing his editorial, Jindal may have discovered some systemic inequities preventing minorities from assimilating to his satisfaction. Though Jindal is right that Americans have made “significant progress” since the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, the national black unemployment rate has steadily remained double the white unemployment rate for the past 60 years.
In urban areas like Chicago, the poverty rate and median income for black families is also about the same as it was in 1963.
Even segregation, once vanquished by the civil rights movement, is rebounding aggressively. Since 2001, urban schools and neighborhoods have become increasingly re-segregated through lax integration enforcement and so-called “white flight.” Research shows this resegregation intensifies poverty and violence in minority neighborhoods, trapping black families in an endless cycle. Jindal himself has helped this trend along in New Orleans with his school privatization plan, which has worsened racial inequality in 34 historically segregated public schools and, according to the Justice Department, “reversed much of the progress made toward integration.”
By: Aviva Shen, Think Progress, August 25, 2013
After half a century, the March on Washington has moved into the historical record as a courageous but hardly radical event. It is widely remembered for Martin Luther King’s brilliant extemporaneous riffs on “I Have a Dream.” But even a peaceful assembly by “Negroes,” as black Americans were then known, was a dangerous idea in a volatile era.
President John F. Kennedy was dead-set against it, and protest planners were careful about choosing their allies for fear of informants to the Kennedy administration and his Federal Bureau of Investigation. Civil rights leaders formally demoted their best strategist, Bayard Rustin — though he continued to do most of the work — because he was openly gay and a one-time Communist, either of which would have been ammunition for those who wanted to derail the civil rights movement.
The march succeeded, though, perhaps beyond its organizers’ wildest dreams. A solemn demonstration of the power of black Americans’ simple plea for full citizenship, it proved to be one of the pivotal episodes of the civil rights movement. Its success in setting the stage for the Voting Rights Act shaped politics for the next 50 years, helping to propel President Barack Obama into office.
In the current political climate, it’s easy enough to minimize the remarkable progress toward full equality that the nation has made since 1963. It’s true that racism lives on, re-energized by pandering politicians and media demagogues. The criminal justice system is replete with discriminatory practices. Pernicious stereotypes still shadow the lives of black Americans.
Most damning, black workers have come no closer to closing the economic gap than they had in 1963. The Washington Post recently cited figures from the Economic Policy Institute showing that the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks 50 years ago. The yawning gap remains today, with unemployment at 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks, according to the Post. Furthermore, over the past 30 years, the average white family has gone from having five times as much wealth as the average black family to 6 1/2 times, the Post said.
Still, it’s disrespectful to those hardy and brave souls who stood on the Mall 50 years ago to suggest that little has changed. The nation has undergone a remarkable transformation in five decades, as the two elections of a black president attest.
Black men and women now hold positions of influence and authority throughout academia, business and the professions. They lead the U.S. armed forces. They are cultural icons, some so popular they are known simply by their first names.
The everyday interactions of Americans from different racial and ethnic groups have changed, as well. Interracial marriage is broadly accepted, and biracial children are a growing part of the population. Schools may not be as well-integrated as King had dreamed, but they are much more diverse than they were 50 years ago. So are churches and civic clubs.
Even the angry backlash by Tea Partiers and other sectors of the far right is a sign of changing times. Much of the hysteria that is lathered up by right-wing talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh is a last surge of protest by an aging demographic: older whites who resent or fear the changes fostered by the civil rights movement. The country is growing browner, and by mid-century, whites will no longer constitute a majority of the population. As a voting bloc and cultural influence, their power is waning. And they know it.
The good news is that younger whites are much more likely to embrace diversity, to accept cultural change, and to support the nation’s civic creed of full equality for all, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Polling data show they diverge from the views of their parents and grandparents on many social issues.
Of course, younger Americans will have their struggles, too — their bitter disagreements and their political challenges. And they will have to tackle the economic injustices around which King planned his last crusade.
But they seem less likely to forge a future cleaved by color, and that’s worth celebrating.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, August 24, 2013
“Fifty Years Later”: We Appear To Be Re-Segregating, Moving In The Opposite Direction Of Dr. King’s Dream.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I have a gnawing in my gut, an uneasy sense of society and its racial reality.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech keeps ringing in my head, an aching, idyllic, rhetorical masterpiece that envisions a future free of discrimination and filled with harmony and equality. But I wonder whether the day he imagined will ever come and whether many Americans have quietly abandoned King’s dream as a vision that can’t — or shouldn’t — exist in reality.
I’m absolutely convinced that enormous steps have been made in race relations. That’s not debatable. Most laws that explicitly codified discrimination have been stricken from the books. Overt, articulated racial animus has become more socially unacceptable. And diversity has become a cause to be championed in many quarters, even if efforts to achieve it have taken some hits of late.
But my worry is that we have hit a ceiling of sorts. As we get closer to a society where explicit bias is virtually eradicated, we no longer have the stomach to deal with the more sinister issues of implicit biases and of structural and systematic racial inequality.
I worry that centuries of majority privilege and minority disenfranchisement are being overlooked in puddle-deep discussions about race and inequality, personal responsibility and societal inhibitors.
I wonder if we, as a society of increasing diversity but also drastic inequality, even agree on what constitutes equality. When we hear that word, do we think of equal opportunity, or equal treatment under the law, or equal outcomes, or some combination of those factors?
And I worry that there is a distinct and ever-more-vocal weariness — and in some cases, outright hostility — about the continued focus on racial equality.
In this topsy-turvy world, those who even deign to raise the issue of racial inequality can be quickly dismissed as race-baiters or, worse, as actual racists. It’s the willful-ignorance-is-bliss approach to dismissing undesirable discussion.
In this moment, blacks and whites see the racial progress so differently that it feels as if we are living in two separate Americas.
According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, nearly twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts. And about three times as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants, in public schools and by the health care system.
In fact, a 2011 study by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School found, “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”
And in these divergent realities, we appear to be resegregating — moving in the opposite direction of King’s dream.
The Great Migration — in which millions of African-Americans in the 20th century, in two waves, left the rural South for big cities in the North, Midwest and West Coast — seems to have become a failed experiment, with many blacks reversing those migratory patterns and either moving back to the South or out of the cities.
As USA Today reported in 2011:
“2010 census data released so far this year show that 20 of the 25 cities that have at least 250,000 people and a 20 percent black population either lost more blacks or gained fewer in the past decade than during the 1990s. The declines happened in some traditional black strongholds: Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta, Cleveland and St. Louis.”
In addition, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month found that “about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”
Furthermore, there is some evidence that our schools are becoming more segregated, not less. A study this year by Dana Thompson Dorsey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that “students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”
I want to celebrate our progress, but I’m too disturbed by the setbacks.
I had hoped to write a hopeful, uplifting column to mark this anniversary. I wanted to be happily lost in The Dream. Instead, I must face this dawning reality.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 23, 2013