Thursday, August 31, 2017

54th: The March, history and now

YOU SEE IT and it breaks your heart. If there is a drop of blood circulating anywhere within you at all, it was aroused by the image of Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., her head and right hand leaning in to his face, in a gesture that poignantly distilled a daughter’s love and a nation’s self-inflicted pain.

If agony can be said to possess the realm of the exquisite, if we ever hoped for a fresh visual distillation of the human spirit … this was it. Samuel Beckett would understand this picture; his own knowledge from the past is here, vivid and inescapable, and now the mantra of America’s vast unnamables: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

It was a picture in a tweet (like everything else these days), one that the youngest of the King daughters sent to Jan. 15, the birthday of her father, who would have been 88 years old. But what it says about Martin Luther King and our national past, and how we reach back to the past to make sense of an angry present and an unclear future, is resonant and ubiquitous beyond the medium that contains it.

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The Root reported on Monday: “A predominantly black Prince William County church has been the latest target of racists after messages of hate were posted up at the church’s front entrance over the weekend. According to Fox 5 DC, church members at Greater Praise Temple Ministries in Dumfries, Va., found the disturbing messages on Sunday. The news station was told that it took officers about two hours to respond to a call from the church after it was reported.

“One of the signs in question showed the front cover of the German magazine Der Spiegel, which features President Donald Trump wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood: an image that came as criticism of Trump’s outrageous response to the violence following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Accompanying the photo were the words, ‘Now that’s white power. Day of the rope is coming niggers.’ ”

“It’s very disturbing … there are a lot of churches in this area,” a member of the church identified only as Sister Gwen told the news station. “But for the people of color, we have to go through this—it’s like taking a step back to the ’50s and ’60s.”

Specifically it was like taking a step back to the America of 54 years ago, of Aug. 28, 1963, when a crowd of about 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Or a step forward into the present day, and the fact of a march still underway, en route to the nation’s capital to address some other of the nation’s unfinished business.

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PAST IS PROLOGUE: the current march from Charlottesville to Washington and scheduled to end Sept. 6, has its inescapable lineage. The event in 1963 broke new ground in the national discourse; everything that MLK had done to that point had led him there; it was a kind of focal point, not only of his career but also of the question of civil rights as a national matter. But where King’s iconic 16 minutes at the microphone established him as the de facto North Star of American racial morality, we don’t have such a defining, centralizing force in American life today.

That’s both curse and blessing. We can use a moral center in the current debate right now, someone whose animating frame of reference is the spiritual (and not necessarily the religious) instead of the political. King’s oratory that day combined the two, blended the emotional power of homiletics with the everyday pragmatics of common-sense speech, the politics of life.

Who can forget the “promissory note” analogy, crowded with the symbology of quotidian economics? “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. ...

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

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For all its power and its place in the national fabric, the totality of the march’s events at the Lincoln Memorial reflected blind spots by the organizers: it was an oratorical sausage fest. Only one woman gave any address at the march: Daisy Bates, a figure instrumental in the integration of the Little Rock Nine into that city’s high school in 1957, was shoehorned in at the last moment, Mother Jones reported in August 2013.

It was a shortcoming that didn’t go overlooked by Anna Arnold Hedgman, scholar, writer, executive director of President Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign, and one of the march organizers. Hedgman called the male brain trust of the event on the carpet: “In light of the role of Negro women in the struggle for freedom … it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker.”

The march keynotes revealed other elitist tendencies, freezing out a random “Unemployed Worker” at the podium, Charles Euchner reported in Nobody Turn Me Around, a people’s history of the march..

The march didn’t do everything; clearly, some things it didn’t do at all.  But it did what it had to do: the first televised protest demonstration shocked and galvanized a complacent, quizzical nation; and awakened black Americans, in a broad, mainstream way, to the clarified objective now writ inescapably large.

King distilled the pressing, nervous issues into an address that, in his words, then and now, hastens “to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” And now is never a rear-view phenomenon.

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THE URGENCY of now couldn’t be much fiercer than it is, now. More than half a century after the fire and agonies of the civil rights era, we’re fighting old battles all over again, on the same turf in the legislatures and in the streets. Black people in the state of Georgia have to contend with a law-enforcement worldview distilled in the dashcam video-recorded words of Cobb County Lt. Greg Abbott, who, after pulling her car over, told a terrified white driver that she had nothing to fear: “We only kill black people, right?”

We as a nation have to contend with the brittle truth rendered by that paragon of journalism — MAD Magazine — which updated one of Norman Rockwell’s more cherished paintings, “The Runaway,” of a lunch-counter encounter between a burly but sensitive cop talking to a boy running away from home. MAD’s update — with a cop in full SWAT/riot-gear regalia, looking at a young black American boy in less than friendly terms — couldn’t be more on point, more accurate in announcing the terms of engagement between police and citizens in a nation Trumped by fear.

Neither could a recent picture I discovered at Shaun King’s Facebook page: A black cop stands a lonely yellow-tape vigil, protecting those people exercising their First Amendment rights at a white supremacist demonstration going on just yards behind him.

The changes sought at the first March on Washington are the same as those pursued by the good people now making the March To Washington. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of coming off or take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said, 54 years ago. “Now is the time ... 1963 was not an end, but a beginning.”

1963 was a beginning. 2017 is another one.

Image credits: Bernice King communing with father: @Bernice King. Lincoln Memorial program: Daisy Bates: via EURWeb. Cop and kid: © 2017 Mad Magazine. Cop at demonstration: via Shaun King Facebook page.

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