The Content of Our Character April 5, 2008Posted by voolavex in Uncategorized.
Tags: Add new tag, State's Rights, Voting Rights Act of 1965
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When I was a teen-ager, the worst fight I ever had with my father was about the Freedom Rides. Incredibly, he had raised me without bigotry in 50’s America (think about it – it’s a rare and fragile gift ). I was 15 and had saved enough money to get on the bus and register voters and he told me simply “no”. I accused him of being a bigot. But his explanation was simple. He was terrified I would be killed by white people. Idealistic and wet – I had no comeback and so I didn’t go. I have never forgotten the fight and the lesson it offered. He clearly knew things that it would take me a lifetime to learn. It has.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has been dead for 40 years but his elegant dream ended long, long ago. Not in the hearts of daydream believers – but in the cold reality of the nightmare that is America’s endless, ugly hypocrisy toward stolen and sold humans who got here as slaves. We created – in that awful business- a unique American that is refused a real home here and one who cannot go back home again. Yet who belongs more? As I waged my own war for Civil Rights in the 60’s – I never gave a thought to the fact that there should never have been this war to begin with. That after Emancipation, freed slaves – Americans through and through, should have simply been treated as emancipation decreed. This was the dream that began on Juneteenth and started a process that saw colleges, schools, businesses and mobility among newly freed people in the United States until about 1876. Brave, ingenious people who invented their own forty acres and mules in as many ways as there are ways to imagine. People, forbidden to read or write, whose first acts included those very skills that should have brought them into American history and society as a success story for the ages. Instead 18 states created Jim Crow laws that mandated “separate but equal”; laws that continued a slavery that exists into this new century. If separate but equal had been a statement of fact – not an invention of bigots – the freed community might have still flourished. The status of equal in the equation might have allowed this community to create an infrastructure rivalling that of the other America – the same way that immigrants, after Ellis Island opened for immigration in 1892, created the Emerald Society, the B’nai B’rith and other ethnically centered welfare organizations that kept traditions alive, while allowing each group to mainstream on their own terms, into the common population. Most immigrants at first, even practiced a version of their own Jim Crow, in subtle ways, with churches, synagogues and fraternal groups that excluded some and welcomed others. And it worked for them, to a large degree. But the real Jim Crow was none of these things – and least of all was it equal. These vicious laws ridiculed and subjugated freed slaves; cleverly engineered to ignore their rights as citizens. A State’s Rights free for all to keep them down and back and trodden upon for as long as they lived. Jim Crow and his ugly twin De Facto Jim Crow would not allow them to rise, to learn, to create, to prosper. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not a triumph for anyone – it merely restated what should have been in effect since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865. Ninety-nine years later, after opportunistic Americans of all backgrounds demonized fellow citizens descended from former slaves, this act was passed to honor a promise dishonored and never kept. One year later The Voting Rights Act tried to do the same thing
So I believed in that movement – I lived that movement – I admired the activists who created that movement. I revered Dr. King and I believed what he believed. It took me over 40 years of close observation and anger to realize that he was trying to make a silk purse out of a 346 year Holocaust that was illegal and immoral. He used his pulpit and his reason to shepherd people into a path of truth gone cold. But he tried. And he died trying.
He is still a hero to me, nonethless, and deeply deserving the respect and admiration of every American. Perhaps someday we may even see the dream come true. And we are reminded, on this 40th anniversay of that dark day at the Lorraine Motel, that he dreamed and hoped for the lives and future of not only his people, but all people. And as so many of us outgrew or abandoned his truth and this fight, we have still failed to realize that in fact, it was the content of our character that was in question. It still is.