The Abject Righteousness of the Civil Rights Movement

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!

-Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again,” 1935

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Recently I’ve been reflecting about citizenship, and all its connotations, in uncomfortable registers. I’ve been motivated by how to prepare for the 2018 midterms, including which candidates to support and how to get involved, and also newly conscious of how Trump’s election and governance have scrambled my understanding of American politics and history. I’m hardly alone in this. It feels like every week there is a new confusion on the left about what is going on right now, and why it’s happening, in order to at least begin to decide whether to care about it.

One haute example of this is the debate between Francis Fukuyama’s and Louis Menand’s philosophies of history. Fukuyama’s idealism proposes that history is predestined “given current trends,” while Menand instead suggests it is defined more by shuffling, disagreements, and unpredictable coalitions. We’ve seen Obama himself appear to waffle about this, first by echoing the call that the arc of the moral universe, while long, does in fact bend towards justice, and later by suggesting, post-Trump, that history “zigs and zags”.

From long reflection, I have come to believe the phenomenon of Trump hinges predominantly on race, and I will explore this topic in future posts. For now, I’d like to prepare those substantive reflections—and also expand on the themes of earlier writings on this blog and elsewhere—by briefly commenting on what seems to make American history tick or flow in certain directions, and how this organizes my sense of what should be done. It’s easy for conversations like this to descend into navel-gazing or airy abstractions, and indeed there’s a bravura in even trying to do it that I suspect makes most commentators avoid it on principle.

Let me say up front that, echoing a recent Facebook post by my friend Nicholas Mulder, if you assign any significance or weight to the daily news, you need a philosophy of history. Whether you think events are stochastic or statistically predictive, or if grand narratives are even possible, is implicitly at stake if you are inclined to groan while reading the Huffington Post or to tweet #metoo.

In America there’s always been this conflict between the “We” and the “I.” It’s seared into our cultural makeup that America is both a collective work-in-progress and a vehicle for personal freedom. Here I mobilize it in a more specific, political sense: a profound and abiding disagreement over how republican politics should operate in this country, and how decisions should be made. The debate is between epistocracy (i.e. that those who know best and are most qualified should rule) and democracy proper. Both themes are present in the Declaration of Independence, famously contrasting a deliberative “we” against the failures of the English King George III. Yet we know from history that proto-Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams favored administrative power and a centralized financial system, while remaining skeptical of the “common man” and putting down Shay’s Rebellion. Though we mythologize the country’s founding as a democratic revolution, this tension between independence and interdependence remained, seared into the Constitution and justified in The Federalist Papers.

Let me say provocatively (because I cannot hope to fully elaborate the point here) that this conflict between the “We” and the “I” is shot all the way through American political history, that we seem to have been living in a great Age of Identity since the social protests of the 60s and 70s, and that there are now signs of a reborn “We” in the forms of protest and resistance following Trump’s election. Again, this is still early days, and we will need a complete diagnosis of this past age in order to learn how to move forward, which neither I nor anyone else can now provide. But I have already found the “We” and the “I” useful for schematizing past upheavals.

Allow me to elaborate on this stance with reference to the Civil Rights Movement. I recently finished watching the documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which traces the movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. I was alerted to it by a passing mention in an essay that claimed viewing it was necessary for one’s civic education to be complete (!).

The episodes are filled with moments so harrowing that I sometimes broke out in a sweat from anxiety, and spent long minutes on my phone as scenes passed by on my laptop that I was too embarrassed to consider head-on. John F. Kennedy, audibly embarrassed, on the phone with the governor of Mississippi, pleading that a single black student needed to be admitted to Ole Miss or else the National Guard would need to be deployed. Young white women explaining to a reporter their own shifting beliefs about whether blacks are racially inferior or just uneducated, as in the background the Little Rock Nine pass down the sidewalk into school. An older white woman in Cicero, Illinois, possibly Italian or Polish but who looked exactly like my mother, confiding to an interviewer that “of course it’s fine for Negroes to live here, but the question is, are they Negroes or ****ers?” The Detroit conflagration as block after block of the city was swallowed up in racial fury. Faculty at Howard University explaining to students why courses in black identity (what would later be known as African-American Studies) were counter to the mission of Historically Black Colleges. New York Jews discovering their inner whiteness as they raged against blacks and “black consciousness” allies over community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. Robert F. Kennedy talking softly to a dirt-poor family in the Black Belt about the importance of learning to read, and tentatively stroking the face of the youngest boy as he walks away. The literal drowning of Resurrection City from downpours on the National Mall, extinguishing the Poor People’s Campaign. A woman crying fifteen years later as she describes singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” under a full moon as RFK’s hearse drove past the Lincoln Memorial. A middle-aged Asian woman shoved into the back of a police van, trying to get out the tune to “We Shall Overcome” and plaintively holding the van door open so she remains visible to the TV cameras. A reporter gagging out of moral sickness as, just behind him, the Attica prison revolt was doused in gas, calling out to his cameraman to cut the feed as the mic can only pick up the sound of bones being broken. White Bostonians overturning police cars and attacking horses while screaming racial slurs I’d never heard before, protesting the forced desegregation of public schools.

And yet, there were moments of unimaginable heroism. The decision of Emmett Till’s mother to have an open coffin at her son’s funeral so that thousands of blacks in Chicago could see “what they did to my baby” when he spoke up to a white woman in Mississippi, was lynched, and stuffed at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. Members of SNCC training for hours at a time and days on end as their own members, white and black, assaulted and beat them as training for the real abuse of sit-ins at lunch counters. The mayor of Nashville vaporizing his own political base by answering the persistent queries of a civil rights worker that while as a public official he swore to uphold all laws including segregation, as a man he could not defend its practice. An uncut three minute sequence of marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seeing what was about to happen, yet continuing straight into a charging horse-mounted policeman’s baton. Fannie Lou Hamer ignored at the 1964 DNC for having the gall to ask if Mississippi’s closed society was in fact America. Stokely Carmichael inventing, on the spot, the phrase “black power” during the March Against Fear, defying the philosophy and temperament of Martin Luther King, Jr. even as they marched step by step. Cassius Clay, a couple years before becoming Muhammad Ali, insisting over and over that he is “already beautiful” as a sports announcer questions whether he “looks good enough for the cameras yet.” The spontaneous gelling of black consciousness as, for the first time in Howard University’s history, the elected homecoming queen would sport an afro.

In other words it was thirty years of history, well-told and ill-gotten.

I find some of its lessons difficult to absorb. I had never before seen Martin Luther King, Jr.’s achievements as a product of failure, but his own moral arc was defined by personal trauma and strategic blunders that stymied the movement repeatedly. It was out of such blunders—which to him felt less like setbacks than like a totalizing morass of major depression—that King became the moral force we have mythologized. The central example came in the form of Laurie Pritchett, chief of police in Albany, Georgia, who broke the SCLC’s naïve attempt to overwhelm Southern jails. Pritchett figured out how to fight nonviolence with nonviolence by coordinating with other sheriffs to keep his own jails from overflowing. King retreated to lick his wounds for weeks at his home, focusing thereafter on more specific, symbolic victories like Selma and Montgomery (Howard Zinn was part of the Albany movement and to this day views this pivot as a major, tragic blunder). Watching “I Have A Dream” after seeing King be broken made me hear, for the first time, the desperation, despair, and raw deferment in that speech of any near-term expectation of recognition and dignity. What got me wasn’t that King was defeated—it was that he was confused. History was not moving in the inexorable direction inaugurated by the big “We” of the Freedom Riders, SNCC, and SCLC.

It was this conflict between King and Pritchett that oddly reminded me most of our current political moment, in which Cory Booker refers to his own release of confidential Kavanaugh documents as “civil disobedience”, and some on the left advocate the exclusion of Trump supporters from restaurants and boutiques. At the time, King was realizing that the great moral authority of one “We” was running up against, and gummed up by, the indignation and recalcitrance and brute effectiveness of a counter-mobilized “We”. So he became willfully symbolic, shifting into the King of the history books, and alienating many of his more radical adherents in the process.

In effect King gambled that his “We” would scale better and win a war of attrition against Southern anachronism. He refused to take any actions and lead any protests that were not permitted to proceed by federal authorities and judges, including the crowning jewel of Selma, finally extinguishing the Jim Crow South by outing it as politically unworkable and contrary to the American experiment–that it was in fact an “I” pretending to be a “We”. Yet, his movement ran aground when it went north to confront the quieter, more restrained, more economical, and ultimately more pernicious racism of redlining.

Like today, there seems to have been a strategically unworkable, yet changing relationship between political tactics and moral compasses, whose plate tectonics could not be refastened by the hands of men while the ground shifted beneath them.

During the Civil Rights Era both sides unequivocally claimed the moral high ground. Both were convinced of their own righteousness. However I slowly realized, episode by episode, that the movement’s defining feature was not this righteousness but its insistence on democracy as a radically moral and potentially self-destructive commitment to personal autonomy. As the movement ate itself alive, as the SCLC and SNCC eroded and splintered into the Black Panthers against the institutionalists, its true irreverence came to the surface. Why should I fight so hard to be considered part of America? Why can’t I myself be America? What is this paltry “America” that whites think they own? Don’t ask for their permission to free the slave that’s inside you, do it yourself. The rise of black epistemology was, in this sense, a declaration of independence from the old-form civil rights movement, just as the Founders’ was from King George III. The “We” that King helped birth was bleeding out into multitudes of “I’s”. It’s not surprising why, when asked what they most remember about the year 1968, O.J. Simpson’s teammates have cited their winning the Heisman Trophy.

Still, in the process, the movement rewrote the moral calculus by which anyone in this country could take up the mantle of citizenship. We remain stuck today in the molds of resentment and civic pride first cast at that time.

Today I think that mold, particularly for whites, has become brittle and unworkable. In future posts I will explore what this means for being a citizen in the Trump era, and possibly after.

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