Experienced the most curious juxtaposition of “movies” the other day. In the morning, a phone camera video of a white police officer with his knee in the back of a prone African-American teenage girl in a bikini. As two boys run toward the scene in what looks to be an almost instinctual gesture in defense of the girl, the officer pulls his gun from his holster and runs them off before going back to subjugating the girl, who is lying face down on the grass, her hands cuffed behind her.
No great production values and short duration, but a scene of undeniable impact.
In the evening, home with the daughter, I suggested we consider renting a movie. She immediately piped up, “Have you seen Selma? I’d see it again!” She had watched it in her history class.
I hadn’t seen Selma, one of countless movies that make it onto my loosely held list that never quite make it off that list before their very existence disappears into the ethers of memory.
One can’t help but be profoundly moved by the raw emotive power of the events in Selma. Pictures of human solidarity and nearly unsurpassed courage in the face of horrid, irrational hatred.
The struggle for simple human dignity, and the tremendous sacrifice by so many who in their very act of peaceful defiance demonstrated that very dignity to the world and themselves, even as many of them paid for it with their lives or with grievous bodily injury.
More than 50 years later, it is good that we can marvel at how far we have come as a society in protecting and promoting the rights of the previously disenfranchised—while lamenting that we still have a very long way to go.
We see our shortfall still in the cumulative power of recent events in Ferguson, Columbia, McKinney, and other settings in what would appear to be an almost viral outbreak of offense and outrage. Of course, each individual case must be judged on its own merits, with defendants, in this case police officers, afforded presumption of innocence and all due process.
But it would seem to require some artful mental gymnastics to maintain that these events don’t collectively add up to a very troubling, longstanding pattern of residual racism that is still in the process of being uprooted after hundreds of years of its nearly free, unmitigated reign.
Those roots go deep, reflecting a primitive tribalism that no doubt had an evolutionary function at one time but began falling by the wayside thousands of years ago as homo sapiens emerged from their caves and began taking stock of themselves and others across the neighboring hills and valleys. We are still catching up to that change in this country and in many others with far worse manifestations of ancient tribal prejudices than we suffer here.
Lingering racism is often disputed by arch-conservatives, who profess that racism is mostly passé, existing as much or more in the imaginations of minorities and white liberals who see racism behind every wayward incident of death or injury involving police. Their preferred narrative is that such incidents are caused by a simple lack of respect for authority.
Such conservatives often claim not to see race and ethnicity themselves but only “human beings,” with a wish that others would do the same and “get over” the whole racial identity thing.
Would that it were so easy.
I think we are obliged to give every individual law enforcement officer the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know what really happened in Ferguson. Only the two main protagonists in that situation do, and one of them is dead.
And in McKinney, whatever that officer’s overreaction to the girl whom he deemed it critical to subdue in such a crude and overpowering way, I can allow for the possibility that given how quickly things can escalate in the field, the chaos may have caused him to react instinctively when he noted two bodies approaching him running, and he pulled his gun in fear for his life. Notably, he did not fire and quickly holstered the gun when the approaching boys veered at the sight of it and it was obvious they would be doing him no harm.
In truth, as troubling as the numerous instances of apparent police brutality are (Rodney King now seems an awful long time and many incidents ago), they are not anywhere near the most egregious reflections of the deep racism still lying coiled and potent at the base of a country now 150 years removed from a civil war fought over one side’s right to enslave other human beings for economic gain.
To conservatives who claim racism is more a historical relic rather than lingering malady, I would note that as I write this, there have been 27,163 comments appended to the Yahoo News article detailing the McKinney incident. I did not have to scroll long at all to find the selection that follows. Indeed, they all appeared within the first few pages before the sheer weight of their mendacity and unrestrained vileness caused me to recoil. A mere sampling:
Univited (sic) guests, like cock roaches (sic), but worse.
It’s time the police ask one question when a complainant calls for protection, are they black. If the answer is yes then politely tell them they don’t interfere when blacks are involved figure it out for yourself. These people resent being policed and a large portion of the public supports their whine. Give the public what they want and see if they like it.
Did you comply with the orders given to you by the Authorities ?….Of course not! Just run yo mouth(that blacks can do best)and jump around like a bunch of monkeys. One parent said “but these are our children”….well yo children are drinking booze, smokin pot and fighting, according to witnesses. So where are you, Parent?
I will not apologize for being white. I will not apologize for the fact that blacks commit more murders than whites. I will not back down from the facts just because blacks might riot. I will tell the truth and stand tall with no fear from the black racists who threaten whites for being white. I will not quietly stand by while belligerent ignorance turns a blind eye to the facts. Wake up Americans, our country is at a turning point and if we allow it to be driven by ignorance, then we all need to be prepared for the worst.
He told them to leave and they did not the two young blacks came up behind him like a bunch of coyotes to bite his heels looks to me like they wanted to take him down that is when he drew his gun what did they think he was going to do I think he acted in a responsible manor (sic) BLACKS will be BLACKS
Blacks always are violating us and our civil rights….but who always goes around and acts like victims…holding the race card…that way they can sweep all their sins and crimes under the rug….and hold it over our heads….all the while living off our backs…it needs to stop….they are taking advantage of us…
Stop acting like smart mouthed out of control thugs and you won’t get restrained like the animals you are.
The black folk needs to be separated from the rest of society until they’re domesticated enough to be human beings.
black girls like to run their mouth. he repeatedly ordered them to leave. to them its all a joke. it would be funny if she was on the ground and he laid his penile on top of her and said it was his gun
These sentiments—and literally hundreds of thousands more like them—pop up like poisonous mushrooms every second of the day in comments sections and chat rooms and, no doubt, over dinner conversations across this nation. They stand as stirring testimony to how much work still needs to be done before we can even begin to approach the color-blind society whose members recognize in each other the tremendous, deep commonality that far better reflects the essential truth of humanity than do differences in skin tone, body type, social mores, language, or any other distinguishing characteristic.
Nothing changes overnight. We ourselves change slowly, for the most part, in even the smallest ways, not to mention wholesale transformations that are more the stuff of myth and new year’s resolutions than they are reality. And so it is with humanity writ large.
So while change is slow, it is inexorable, I dare to say. And its movement in this troublesome and glorious human pageant is ever and always—though only eventually, after much resistance—toward the vision of what finally triumphed in Selma.
Both Mahalia Jackson and the song she sings here figured largely in the Civil Rights Movement, reflecting again the indelible power of music to undergird and shape human history.
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Deep appreciation to photographer Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Pencils photo courtesy of Adam Clark Nottingham UK, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elstruthio/
Photo of Selma to Montgomery March taken March 15, 1965, from the Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974), Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatespecial/
Photo of civil rights sculpture is from the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, commemorating protests that helped bring about school desegregation in the state. Sculpture by Stanley Bleifeld, photo by Ron Cogswell, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/22711505@N05/