Monday, September 26, 2016

Charlotte Burning

The black woman from Mississippi is testifying.

“The deputy took me into a cell and then got two black prisoners and ordered them to beat me. All because I wanted to register to vote.”

The men she is testifying to are the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic convention. LBJ is desperate to advance civil rights and still hold together his coalition of southern democrats. The woman testifying is trying to get blacks seated in the all-white Mississippi delegation. Mississippi and the neighboring southern states are not happy. 

Johnson strikes a compromise to give the Mississippi blacks one black delegate, but even that is too much for Mississippi and Alabama. They walk out of the convention. Johnson holds the south together by bullying, force of will and an appeal to common decency and secures the nomination to run against Barry Goldwater. (Scenes from “All the Way,” a riveting docudrama.)

Most of us remember Johnson not only because of the Vietnam War (his Waterloo), but also for his remarkable legislative legacy: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid. 

But how many white folks have repressed their memories of Freedom Summer, when CORE and SNCC organized a voter registration drive in Mississippi. Those three boys whose bodies were found in an earthen dam, boys the ages of our college student children, were among the volunteers that summer. A white deputy sheriff arrested them for speeding and held them until 10:30 so he could let his white supremacist friends know when they would be released.

A lot of people died that summer. A lot of churches were burned. All to get a few new black voters registered. It was the beginning of epochal change, but it was only the beginning, and for too many it was the bloody end.

I was nineteen that summer. On my way back to Duke University, where some of my friends were members of CORE and rode with the Freedom Riders. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t feel it. It was almost as if by growing up at a southern country club, where only men could be members and the only blacks in sight were wearing waiter’s jackets or carrying golf bags, I had been inoculated against a harsh reaction to racial prejudice. Like a flu shot: you might get a little queasy when some old fat white guy in plaid pants started telling racial jokes, but you didn’t have to get up to throw up.

For me, that came later. My inoculation wore off in law school and I had to get out of there. When I moved to Los Angeles, I wasn’t running away from the blacks, I was running away from the whites. I still don’t like to go back there. Even mild exposure to that kind of prejudice makes me ill.

If that’s my reaction, as a privileged white man, think what the reaction of a black man or woman must be. 

You are black and you live in a community where the police harass you with impunity. They murder your friends. You may not remember Freedom Summer, but you don’t have to, you are re-living it. The fear is passed along almost as part of your DNA. Don’t talk back to the man. Don’t make eye contact. Step off the sidewalk when he is coming. Remember Emmet Till.

It’s easy for whites to condemn black violence. After all, civil order is the bedrock of democracy. But if you put yourself in their shoes, if you think back honestly to the way they were treated in the old south, the way they are treated even today in many parts of the country, if you consider that the terror of that treatment must live inside them like a vicious parasite, is it any surprise that Ferguson erupted in violence? Is it any surprise that Charlotte is burning?

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