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The right side of history

September 24th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” – John F. Kennedy


With the exception of committed white supremacists, almost every American holds the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in high regard. This is partially because his legacy has been, to use an ironic term, whitewashed. Few realize how radical King really was. He was radical enough to believe in and try to create a beloved community in which all people could live in peace and harmony. We may tell ourselves this is what we all want, but our history indicates this is far from the pursuit of the American Dream, marinated as it is in solipsism and radical individualism. What may be surprising to some is that after King delivered his most revered address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, he was labelled “the most dangerous Negro” in America by the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division.[1] Anyone who has ever heard or read the speech would be hard pressed to find much in it very dangerous, unless you are invested in the idea that equality and brotherhood are dangerous.

In the 1960s George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and Presidential candidate, announced his support for running over protesters along with his call for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He also pronounced the Civil Rights Movement a “fraud” and a “hoax.” Richard Nixon invented a war on drugs to criminalize black opposition to his presidency.[2] Right wing politicians and groups were busy trying to associate the Civil Rights Movement with international communism.[3] White clergymen responded to civil rights protests by denouncing King and urging black citizens to “unite locally in working peacefully” to solve racial “frictions.”[4] As if such a thing were possible in the Jim Crow South. In the 1960s America’s cities were aflame with riots ignited by incidents of brutality against the black community. White Americans looked on in horror as political leaders denounced the riots while at the same time remaining silent on the systematic cruelty that enflamed them. The fires were eventually quenched, but the cruelty remained.

In 1968 two black athletes: John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised black-gloved fists as the Star Spangled Banner played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in what came to be known as the Black Power Salute. They were protesting racial inequality and injustice in America. They were vilified. They were ousted from the Olympics. Their medals were taken away from them. Their careers were ruined. Family members were harassed.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a hero to most. The Civil Rights Movement is seen as a great victory in America’s quest for its potential. White racists are roundly condemned. White moderates who urged caution and patience are viewed as timid and ineffectual. Even the action of Carlos and Smith is considered, in hindsight, heroic.

But the problems that instigated unrest in the 1960s have not gone away. In the 1960s Civil Rights activists used the tools of technology to draw attention to blatant racial injustice. The nation condemned those those injustices, but the racist poison that animated them continues to work under the surface today . This is not hyperbole or conjecture. There is plenty of solid evidence to identify and prove systemic racism. And new technologies can now bring to light what has long been accomplished in secret. Smart phones with video capabilities now catch racists in the act and publish it on social media, where it provides, as coverage of the Civil Rights Movement did, undeniable evidence of atrocity.

The response to demands for equal justice is essentially the same today as it was in the 1960s. Those who stand up for equal rights are painted as agitators, disloyal or worse. They are told they have a right to protest, but only if it doesn’t inconvenience or offend me. I am familiar with a clever cartoon that shows a historian in his study speaking to a younger student saying, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; but those who remember the past are doomed to watch others repeat it.” As a historian I can see society assuming patterns as if they were formulaic. Perhaps they are. In context, it is astonishing to watch people on the one hand revere the Civil Rights movement and its leaders and on the other condemn today’s Civil Rights activists.

The question is, who was on the right side of history? Was it Nixon, Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and the John Birch Society? Or was it Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith? In the Twitterverse I ran across this thought provoking tweet: “[I] Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘If I was alive then, I would’ve…’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.” There is a right side of history. It is the side, not of law and order, but of justice. Are you on it?

The man who raised a black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games

You’re probably not familiar with the name John Carlos. But you almost certainly know his image. It’s 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and the medals are being hung round the necks of Tommie Smith (USA, gold), Peter Norman (Australia, silver) and Carlos (USA, bronze).

[1] Charles Blow, “‘The Most Dangerous Negro’,” New York Times, August 28, 2013, accessed September 24, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/opinion/blow-the-most-dangerous-negro.html?mcubz=1.

[2] Frida Garza, “Nixon advisor: We created the war on drugs to “criminalize” black people and the anti-war left,” Quartz, March 23, 2016, 1, accessed September 24, 2017, https://qz.com/645990/nixon-advisor-we-created-the-war-on-drugs-to-criminalize-black-people-and-the-anti-war-left/.

[3] Rachel Tabachnik, “The John Birch Society’s anti-civil rights campaign of the 1960s, and its relevance today,” Political Research Associates (January 21, 2014): 1, accessed September 24, 2017, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/01/21/the-john-birch-societys-anti-civil-rights-campaign-of-the-1960s-and-its-relevance-today/#sthash.YNZP9OPe.dpbs.

[4] Statement by Alabama Clergymen, in the Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle Encyclopedia, accessed September 24, 2017, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/clergy.pdf.

 

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