MAYA ANGELOU took to Twitter on May 23 to send us a message, using the uncaged blue bird of the Internet to sing to us one more time. “Listen to yourself,” she tweeted, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
And then, five days later, at the age of 86, she was gone. And like before, like always, she was everywhere.
She was so much and so long a part of our cultural foundation, it’s hard to think of when her voice and grace and style weren’t around to carry us through the rough passages of the national life. Her poetical voice speaks eloquently for itself; what’s been less thoroughly documented in the reservoir of posthumous praise is her standing as a rights activist in the 50’s and 60’s.
From her work with W.E.B. duBois in Ghana to a leadership role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, elbow to elbow with Martin Luther King Jr., to taking her place with Malcolm X in internationalizing the scope of understanding America’s racial dilemma, she set an example of all of us.
Her absence preceded another, one more deficit in the great American chain. The death of Ruby Dee, on June 11 at the age of 91, was another body blow for anyone who valued her work as an actress (from “Raisin in the Sun” to “American Gangster”) and another civil rights activist at the height of that era of our troubles.
Their losses, their absence on the cusp of this historic American season are measured against those of 50 years earlier, and the gains we’ve made since. Against all odds.
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In its reliable zeal for even-numbered observances, the media takes note of this as the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the time of the historic voter registration drive meant to emancipate the American South of an undying racially-inspired chicanery at the ballot box.
In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of from three to 10 years. Edgar Killen, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but escaped conviction when a lone juror refused to convict him. Seven others also were acquitted.
In January 2005 Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. His state trial began in June 2005, and he was convicted of manslaughter later that month. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of his conviction last November.
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FOR MISSISSIPPI — an epicenter of the nation’s racial upheavals and a barometer of its changing racial tolerance — past is prologue. Benjamin Chaney, James’ younger brother, told me in June 2005: “If there was any interest on the part of the state of Mississippi to bring these people to justice, then all the people still alive and involved in this would have been brought to the grand jury.”
“We have all the evidence showing law enforcement officers involved," said Dave Dennis, the co-organizer of Freedom Summer, in June 2005. "The people who did this were much more widespread. ... This was a conspiracy on the part of the state of Mississippi and its elected officials to deter African Americans from their constitutional right to vote.”
Fast forward 50 years. The strange nexus of race and politics in Mississippi took another twist on Tuesday, June 24, when Republican Sen. Thad Cochran defeated his Tea Party-backed challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, in the state’s primary election — in no small part because of votes from African American Democrats predisposed to support the devil they knew, instead of the devil they deeply feared.
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In some ways, we’ve taken giant steps in that tree-ring time. On Wednesday, in a year already crowded with anniversary, the United States observed the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender and religion in employment, education and other spheres of public life.
It was a law whose panoramic embrace of the people of a demographically emerging nation remains one of the most significant human rights achievements in history — the world’s history and our own.
In The Atlantic, Michael O’Donnell observed: “The past 50 years of American history are almost unimaginable without it.”
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BUT FAST forward that half-century again. The virulently partisan nature of our current politics has led to some dispiriting conjectures. In a solid July 2 piece in Politico, senior editor Todd Purdum says that landmark legislation couldn’t get through Congress today. He notes that “the climate in today’s Washington is so different from the one that produced what many scholars view as the most important law of the 20th century ...”
That conjecture, advanced by many of those Purdum interviewed, is almost certainly true, and the height of two improbable ironies. Think of it: In the most poisonously racist era of the American century, when black lives were literally under siege on a regular basis, when peeping out the window like Malcolm (with an M1 carbine in his hand) felt like a necessary existential everyday thing for black Americans, the Congress of the United States rallied together, despite its differences, to pass one of the legendary laws of our time, a law that enshrines and embodies nothing less than the American ideal.
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If African Americans’ relationship with their native land was distilled in a Facebook status, it would be: “It’s complicated.” Spike Lee understood that on June 30, 1989 — 25 years ago last week — when he released “Do the Right Thing,” a film whose rhetorically explosive exploration of race and community in a hermetic, superheated racial tableau has become a national cultural document.
“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? ...
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
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DOUGLASS CAME by his acid perspective honestly. A former slave who transformed himself into an orator of the first rank, he knew all too well the double-edged sword of the American experience for African Americans. We’re invited every day to speculate to how far we’ve come from Douglass’ day, or from the crucible days of Freedom Summer. There’s as much reason for celebration as disappointment. There’s as much reason for disappointment as celebration.
The fireworks that set off car alarms and kept house pets on edge all day yesterday are the benign but symbolically confrontational ballistic metaphor for what this country is, internally, politically, much of the time. The Independence Day those fireworks symbolize is fraught for black Americans.
Today, the day after the brass bands and pyrotechnics, the reflex pledges of allegiance, we’re left to apply the principles on which that allegiance must depend. We’re asked to live out those principles. Like Maya Angelou did. And Ruby Dee. And Michael Schwerner and James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
The hoopla of the 4th of July is the easy part. Now comes the hard part, the hard work of getting closer to the ideal we celebrated yesterday. Closer to the less imperfect union we’ve envisioned for 50 years, and more. That challenge needn’t be as complicated in the next 50 years as it was in the past. As it is right now.
Image credits: Angelou: tk. Dee: tk. Missing poster: FBI. LBJ signs Civil Rights Act 1964: Public domain. Malcolm X: unknown. Douglass: via history.com. Hurricane Katrina survivor: NBC News.