Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From Selma to President-elect Trump

Last night I watched Part 1 of a two-part special that takes a timely look at what has happened in America's black communities in the five decades since the major constitutional victories of the Civil Rights movement. "Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise" is at once a sobering yet powerful reminder of how far the country's most crucial ethnic minority has come since the legal eradication of Jim Crow, a hundred years after slavery, and how far we still have to travel before the promise of true equality is more reality than dream.

The most riveting image of this pithy but briskly paced retrospective came from deep in the heart of black-belt Alabama, where the sharecroppers of Lowndes County displayed unfathomable resolve and courage and dignity in registering to vote. Their first step towards exercising a long-denied constitutional right carried with it the risk of loss of life, not to mention home and sustenance, for these would-be voters were treated as aliens in the land of their birth.

Racial terror in Lowndes County was undisguised, perhaps especially because black people comprised 80% of county residents. The white men who considered it their duty to keep those black people under heel had no need for ginned up rituals and pointy-headed masks to cover their barbarism. They saw inhumane treatment of their fellow citizens as sacred honor.

Fortified by young idealists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] like Stokely Carmichael who immersed themselves in the community, these poor black farmers risked everything for a vision of a better way of life for their children.

In showing how overt barriers of racial discrimination were dismantled, this must-see program reinforces important parts of American history too often buried, glossed over, or shaded. Facts do matter. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said after his unsuccessful attempt to combat housing discrimination in Chicago, racism in the North was more virulent than anything he had ever observed in the South. His experiences there helped crystallize his understanding that segregation was imbedded not just in political and social structures, but was deeply rooted in the American economy. The program points out, albeit in passing, the role of government at all levels in creating and maintaining America's ghettos. The concentrated poverty these public policies engendered has made racial and national progress more difficult.

African Americans have shown themselves to be extraordinarily resilient, so this story is far from unremitting gloom. There is a glorious sound track, ranging from Spirituals to Stevie, from Aretha and James Brown to the Sugar Hill Gang and Public Enemy. There are iconic references everywhere: Flip Wilson, Soul Train, and countless other markers of the coal deep influence of black people on every aspect of American culture. And throughout, in what could easily be overlooked, is the subtle but powerful effect of black people telling our own story through the voices of activists, witnesses and scholars.

It may dawn at some point upon senior viewers that this quick and measured history — so vivid and contemporary to our circumstances — is news to Millennials, Gen Xers and those yet to be named. I found disturbing echoes of present day attitudes and polices and politics of current trends throughout the program, especially in crowd scenes of backlash. And who remembers that while Ronald Reagan campaigned on a slogan to "Make America Great Again", his administration proceeded to accelerate the construction of gilt-lined streets for the favored and busted pavement for the rest of us? If this history was more widely known and shared, perhaps we would not be so in danger of repeating less savory aspects of our past.

Part 2 airs on Ideastream next Tuesday at 8pm. You can catch Part 1 online here.