It might be hard to believe given this heat wave, but we are finally approaching the end of this surprisingly terrible summer. Interestingly we are not giving into our usual nostalgia for major anniversaries, and instead we’re failing to make too many connections between our contemporary problems with regards to race and class, and the similarly explosive events a half-century ago.
The reasons for this lapse in historical analysis are pretty clear. Many of us have bought into the fallacy of a post-racial society (including the President who personifies this development), while others succeed by either denying that racism persists as an endemic problem today, or by recasting obvious racism as a necessity in society. But I feel that the vast majority of us recognize the problem and just choose to avoid talking about it, perhaps out of a deserved sense of shame that we failed to honor the sacrifices of past generations.
As a child of the south, and one in particular who was raised to spit on the Stars and Bars whenever I saw it, I have the benefit of never feeling the need to pretend that systemic racism is an apparition of past mistakes. No my (and I can’t emphasize this enough) public school teachers at the elementary level refused to censor the history that surrounded us. We learned about Medgar Evers getting shot in the back in front of his family. We learned about the three boys who were killed by regular townsfolk in Philadelphia Mississippi and thrown into an earthen dam. We visited 16th Street Baptist, and saw where four girls (who were are age at that time) had their lives cut short by a terrorist who looked like one of our uncles.
I continue to bring up the importance of my time in the south and the lessons my brave teachers imparted on me. I do this because I truly believe that this tendency to avoid the real controversy of racial and class-based violence, whether it is done out of a sincere need to preserve civil tranquility (or out of a cynical need to suppress actual systemic change), is only setting the stage for future conflict. Like Hannah Arendt, I do not believe that evil persists because our society is filled with blood thirsty sociopaths. Rather I see us, and particularly those with power and influence, as cowards. We choose to continue arming our police with military grade weapons, conscious of the potential repercussions, because doing actual work to promote positive change and equity would upset the social order. We choose to promote policies that needlessly punish the poor and provoke cancerous forms of income inequality out of the fear that we might appear “soft” on crime or on those who are supposedly “cheating” the system.
When this cowardice is sanctified into law it becomes a direct form of complicity in the violence and degradation that inevitably follows. And that is why speeches like these two are so important.
There is Dave Dennis explaining why he is “tired” of ordinary people refusing to acknowledge the collective responsibility that led to the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney (the last of whom he was eulogizing in this piece):
“I’m not here to do the traditional things most of us do at such a gathering…But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with”
And finally there is the speech by a Birmingham area attorney, Charles Morgan Jr., who condemned the city he was living in for creating the environment that lead to the bombing of 16th Street Baptist (51 years ago yesterday):
Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.
A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes. And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act. But you know the “who” of “Who did it” is really rather simple.
The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
If hearing this makes you uncomfortable (or even angry)- good. Use that anger as a first step towards realizing that the Klansman isn’t the problem we face today. Rather the true roadblock to progress it is the politician who values the endorsement of a Police Union or an all-white neighborhood group over policies that promote human rights and social equity.
Witness the violence, recognize the real causes of these conflicts, and then do something about that resentment you feel.