I finally got around to seeing the movie ‘Selma’ and I had to drive to (of all places) Los Alamos, to see it, as it had been replaced in Santa Fe by a movie about white retirees in India. Over the past month or more the film was always on the top of my ‘must see’ list, but it kept getting shuffled to second place by something else, like the movie based on a book by my favorite author, or what turned out to be a crappy biopic about Alan Turing. The Turing movie had made me a little leery of seeing another historical biopic as that one was so absolutely formulaic and boring as a film. At any rate, a sense of urgency hadn’t come over me until ‘Selma’ had left my neighborhood for a place that’s even whiter than Santa Fe.
Partly it was hearing about the anniversary celebrations and march in Selma and partly it was watching a speech by someone I consider to be a truly great president. The film is an extraordinary document, in that it views history through the eyes of recognizable human beings. It breaks totally free of the usual revisionist image of absolute sainthood, portraying Martin Luther King as a flawed and passionate man motivated by righteous anger as much as by compassion, and as a brilliant and intuitive tactician who knows when to advance and when to have patience.
I have seen, time and again, these same qualities displayed in our president. I sensed that in his Selma speech Obama, in his always carefully modulated and tempered manner, allowed a bit more of that anger to graze the surface. This is one of his best and definitely one of his most challenging, as it pulls no punches about where America sits regarding racial prejudice and politics, as opposed to where so many people think we are. I’m sure that it’s being attacked by conservatives for its audacity, criticizing their lily white intentions or impugning their sense of christian righteousness. His characterization of Americans explicitly steers away from the doctrines of ideology that govern our oppressors:
“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.”
Just a couple of week’s ago, when Obama spoke at the White House Prayer Breakfast he riled up the demagogues and their simpering allies with his critique of the common crimes committed historically in the name of virtually all religions. He offended some southern white christians by mentioning the truth about their own history and by avoiding their demand to continue dividing the world into waring factions of the faithful. Just last week, the Prime Minister of Isreal had the disrespect to use our congress as his platform to declare himself and his nation to be on the side of the most extreme factions in American politics. (The long term damage this has done to the relationship of Isreal and the United States – beyond the commercial interest of buying and selling weapons – is immeasurable).
The fact of the matter is that, at least since the Age of Reagan, there has been a swelling of reaction in this country against all people of color. Conservatism has become a code word for bigotry and the same sort of white crackuhs’ who for generations tortured and terrorized the black populations in the south are now the very same people making the legislative agenda in Washington. The truth is they never went away. Reagan simply got them to switch parties. Nowadays they dress better and talk better and most of the times they even manage to appear respectable. They even have their own television channels. To openly criticize them is to be accused of ‘reverse racism.’ Well, most of them happen to be white, and virtually everything they advocate reflects an underlying assumption of white supremacy so, what the hell, let’s just openly play the race card and stop bullshitting with each other.
Yes, things have improved for most people. I was five or six before I even knew black people existed, seeing one for the first time riding the bus downtown with my grandmother in my very segregated (at the time) northern city of Cleveland. I remember being threatened as a young campaigner for Louis Stokes, who became the first black mayor of a major city in the United States. I spent my high school summers in dialogue with mostly black students who were my fellows in Upward Bound, one of President Johnson’s War On Poverty programs, while the city borke out in flames all around us. When Barack Obama was nominated to run for president I had strong doubts that this country would ever elect a black man to be its leader, and I was proved wrong.
However, as Obama says in his speech, our march is not finished. How could it be? The wounds we’ve inflicted on one another don’t just go away without a long time to heal. Between the end of the civil war and the 1970’s over 3200 blacks were murdered in this country by white people, for no other reason than that they were black and somehow ‘offended.’ An enormously disproportionate number of people of color are imprisoned or excluded from the political process. As we’ve been shown, time and again, many of our communities are still governed by brutality.
In my years as an adult I’ve watched our society’s attitudes toward diversity broaden while at the same time I’ve watched the rise of political forces that seek to keep us back in the age of ignorance and intolerance. Obama’s election, perhaps more than any other single factor, served to flush much of the lingering hatred and prejudice out of the ol’ woodpile. The dawning of the Internet has accelerated this process of exposure. Talk radio and comment sections are dominated by bigotry, and ignorance has become a public virtue. While the right has organized and thrust itself into power the liberal left has acted like petulant short sighted children for the most part, angry because they don’t get the favors they demand and using this as justification for crapping out of the political process.
What I most admire in those who have been and are great leaders is the quality of patience, bred through a sense of true compassion and a willingness to take chances, risking unpopularity when the situation demands. These are the people with whom I choose to stand.
Here’s the speech: