Before I left my house to walk to my polling spot this November Election Day, I put on this button that says, “Birmingham 1963 Foot Soldiers Reunion: Inspired by What We Did for Ourselves – And the World.”
I rode a bus to President Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009 with some of those ordinary but heroic men and women called Foot Soldiers, who as children had taken part in the 1963 demonstrations during the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.
The button reminds me that they, and thousands of others I don’t know, paid a heavy price just so that they and I — we — had basic civil rights, including the right to vote. After 50 years, it sounds bizarre that people who looked like me were denied the voting right and other rights due to any U.S. citizen, particularly in the larger Southern society, just because of skin pigmentation.
As I’ve stated in other blog posts, I grew up in the very cross-cultural 80s where I listened to every music artists from Cyndi Lauper, Steely Dan, The Police (LUV Sting) and U2 to Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays, Michael Jackson, Prince, Sade, M.C. Hammer and Whitney Houston. My schools were mostly integrated, from grade school to college (more so at Alabama than at Auburn, where I spent my freshman year). I never felt uncomfortable about being black. Diversity was not a mere word, but the world I inhabited.
So when I developed an interest in learning more about Civil Rights history, and Tommy Wrenn, one of the original organizers of the 1963 Birmingham Foot Soldiers, told me that racism was insanity, I really thought he was over the top. Didn’t he know that was ancient history, I thought. Surely our society has gotten past all that.
After riding with the group to Washington, D.C. and seeing the installation of America’s first person of clear African descent in the White House, I felt our country had finally matured and the sickness of racism was finally cured. Heck, hadn’t even George Wallace repented of his pro-segregation ways?
How foolish I was!
From Day One, those who opposed President Obama vowed to do everything they could to block any effort he might make, this despite the fact that our country was facing a potential Great Depression. Rush Limbaugh bought TV time to say he wanted the President to fail, apparently not caring that his failure would be our failure.
That was bold and bad enough.
When the President used the GOP’s own proposals as starting points for compromise, I saw the opposition wasn’t truly fighting over principled differences. It was a naked, cold-hearted calculation to torpedo all efforts to sink the President’s potential for success, and thus, his chances for a second term.
What unhinged his opposition and tore off the mask was the Democratic Congress’ work with the President to create the nation’s first ever universal national healthcare policy, now dubbed Obamacare (despite the fact the Affordable Care Act is like a federal replica of then- Gov. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts law).
This galvanized the fledgling Tea Party in 2010. Ostensibly, the party was about controlling runaway government spending. I actually support smaller government and sound fiscal policies that keep America’s powerful economic engine humming.
But in the end, it descended into the “Party of No” that took hard-line stances against ANY TAX of any sort, despite the fact that 30 years of trickle-down economic theory simply DOES NOT WORK (except for the top tier of wealthy Americans who made a mint during that time). They tried to balance the resulting revenue deficit on the backs of the poor and middle-class by cutting services that were even more necessary as the country faced worsening economic conditions.
I’m not saying that all people who dislike the President and genuinely disagree with his decisions are doing so because they hate the fact that he’s African American. But I am not naïve, either.
People, we are dealing with a VERY ugly spirit that divides and conquers people on nominal outward appearances that have no bearing on a person’s worth. The negative energy it creates does such lasting psychological and societal damage that it can no longer be tolerated.
My friend Mr. Wrenn, who has gone on to glory, was absolutely right: racism IS insanity, a disease of the mind that is psychotic and pathological. Its extreme forms cause delusions of grandeur (or, in the case of oppressed groups, delusions of inferiority) about one’s own racial group, and present a clear and present danger to anyone outside of it.
We have watched this mental condition wreak havoc on our world long enough. Those folks 50 years ago who got sick and tired of being sick and tired over oppressive racist tactics prayed, then went to work to combat it. Their strategy seemed to work. Apparently, it only masked the symptoms and didn’t cure the problem.
Last week’s activities brought this all home to me.
Wonderful speakers at Vulcan Park’s Teaching 1963 Symposium on Thursday reminded me again of the spiritual power of my forbearers’ soul force. They spoke of those who refused to bow to racism (like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whom Dr. Wilson Fallin praised during his talk) or refused to allow it to shape their destinies (like Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, whose mother told him to “suck it up” when he faced racism).
Yet many of our young people don’t know this history, or most any other aspects of American history, education professor Dr. Susan Seay told me at the event. People who don’t know who they are, or who don’t understand how they got to the present situation, often are doomed to repeat past mistakes.
For instance, Amendment Four on today’s ballot removes racist language from a law created in 1957 to counter federal court rulings to end segregated schools. But it doesn’t remove the law’s intent. That left some speculating if amendment wasn’t some back-door attempt to re-institute racist policies that re-creates separate and unequal schooling in Alabama (probably not, but then some GOP legislation has turned out to be Trojan horses infected with the racism virus). Amendment Six is essentially the Alabama GOP leaders’ rejection of Obamacare.
On Friday, I met Bryan Stevenson, recipient of this year’s Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. His amazing work to free wrongfully-imprisoned people and create a fairer penal system is itself a continuing civil rights battle.
Later, I watched actor Bill Duke’s amazing documentary “Dark Girls,” where grown women, and even a little girl, talked in anguish about feeling unpretty because of their dark skin. Racism – especially internalized self-hatred in blacks themselves who taunt darker-hued family members, classmates and neighbors – made these women completely unaware of their own beauty and worth. It was heart-wrenching to see that little black girls and boys today still reject black dolls in favor of white ones, which they believe are more beautiful, smart and worthy, simply because they are white.
The success of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement of 1963 made me believe it was OK to let our guard down because racism had been eradicated, like polio or something, and now we could get on with the healing process. But I failed to remember that, just as those Foot Soldiers are alive, so are some of the people who opposed them, sometimes violently. Unless they’ve had a change of heart like Gov. Wallace did (see this wonderful piece by his daughter today), the disease is still alive and kickin.’
Last night, for instance, a friend took a picture of a lynched Obama effigy with the n-word on it, displayed at a gas station on U.S. 280. At today’s polling, one friend said she was pressured to show a photo ID, even though it’s not required by law (potential voter repression). Another said she could literally see the body tension and look of hatred that a woman directed at her as they stood in the voting line. Fortunately, another woman who apparently saw the nonverbal exchange engaged my friend in casual conversation to ease the situation.
So, it seems, the struggle against racism’s insanity continues. But the beautiful antidote is a combination of determination to stand against it, prayer and lots of patience and love, not more hatred. Those of you who agree, say amen!
Happy Voting Day!