Friday, January 13, 2012

It wasn't just about lunch counters

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday in 2012, its hard for me to grasp that we're even having conversations with those who call themselves liberals or progressives and think we should consider the ideas of a presidential candidate who's position is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional.

It seems a little history is in order.

When we talk about the Civil Rights era, we often refer to sit-ins at lunch counters and boycotting bus companies. We frame the Jim Crow era as being about restrictions on where Black people could/couldn't sit, which water fountain they could/couldn't drink out of, where they could/couldn't go to school, etc. That was certainly where many of the lines were drawn. But it isn't the real story.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of what Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were all about was written recently by a Daily Kos diarist, Hamden Rice.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn't that he "marched" or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south."

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don't know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves what that looked like.

I'm sorry if that is harsh or disturbing. But its the reality of what we're talking about.

Since Rice describes what was happening with a word that now has some meaning for the rest of us in this country...terror, it reminds me of something Tim Wise wrote a few years ago during the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that "everything changed." To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.

This is what James Baldwin was talking about in his classic 1972 work, No Name in the Street, wherein he noted:

White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded–about themselves and the world they live in. White people have managed to get through their entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac.

So lets call it like it really was...the Civil Rights Act was an answer to the terrorism being practiced by white people in the Jim Crow South. That someone like Ron Paul would say it is unconstitutional is madness. To suggest that we should simply look past Ron Paul's views about it is madness. And to "white-wash" it all as being about where someone sat at a lunch counter is part of our blindness.


  1. Smartypants you are one smart cookie and thanks for telling it like it was. This is one powerful post and I am going to share it everywhere I can.

  2. Bless you for this. Sober reading that should be a must read for all folks.

  3. Yes indeed. And I think people don't realize how bad it was in certain regions of the country, either. I'm white and grew up with a black family who lived in a tiny, backwater area of Louisiana. And what Jim Crow REALLY meant to those of us living in the Deep South was constant, pervasive fear that at ANY moment, ANY white person could decide to harass, rape, beat, kill, or FRAME (VERY common) any black person and there would be no available legal protection or recourse. THAT is what kept terror and rage in the hearts of black people (and in the hearts of white people who loved them because we faced retribution for the sin of being "nigger lovers"). At ANY moment, a black person could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all of us were simply helpless to stop it. Black people were simply FUCKED. Period. In the backwater South, in many ways, being black during Jim Crow could be worse than slavery, because black folks became "expendable" in a way they never were when they were at least considered white owners' property. Yeah, white folks. That's some evil, EVIL thinking that's very, very hard for "good" white Americans to consider these days. It was terrorism, pure and simple. There's no way to comprehend or attempt to minimize the evil -- "oh, that was so LONG ago" -- of the conditions back then. But it *wasn't* that long ago. As MLK and American civil rights activists helped all the world see, de jure ending of Jim Crow didn't come close to ending de facto Jim Crow, especially in the South. Oh, and in that backwater part of Louisiana I mentioned? I was there just a few weeks ago. Jim Crow terrorism still lurks *today*. No, it *wasn't* all that long ago, and enablers like evil fucker Ron Paul (as FAR from a goddamned "peacenik" as a human can be) help to keep Jim Crow alive and prowling in backwater, forgotten places of Louisiana.

    For fuck's sake, prominent (professional left) progressives need to stand up and YELL (a la Tim Wise) "Hell NO, we won't consider anything Ron Paul has to say about ANYTHING, and Glenn Greenwald, David Sirota, and Matt Stoller can shout 'hypocrites!' all they want while taking a long walk off a short fucking pier!" FUCK those guys.

    :: takes deep breath ::

    Thanks, Smartypants. Sorry for all the profanity.

  4. Buelahmo

    No need to apologize for you language - at least not to me. I totally get it. And you nailed it.

    Thanks ABL!

  5. This is a great post. I live in the south, Americus Ga. We get along as far as working togerher, but it's still segregateded. We have a private school that opened in response to integrating the schools. It's alive and well here. I almost panic to here people claim states rights it's scary.

  6. Mrs. Battle

    What you and Buelahmo remind us about is that there are elements of this story that are present - not just history.

    Thank you.

  7. Smartypants, I swear, you have outdone yourself, again! You express my African-American feelings better than I can. Thank you for taking the time to think, research, and write.

    I'm sixty-five and southern reared. I thought things were getting better until the reactions to our first black president.

    Makes me want to sing Marvin's song with one sad word change: Ah, mercy, mercy, me. Ah, things [just] like they use to be..."

    You probably catch hell for your thoughts, but I am sure you are earning a diamond-studded crown. I, for one, thank you.

    1. I've been listening to Marvin for the last month grieving the loss of such truth-telling before his time and preparing for that to come.

    2. I live in South Africa (white, female) and came across your blog by accident. OMW! What an eye opener!

  8. eve

    I am humbly grateful to you for that.

    And no - I catch no real hell.

    And if I did, what you just said would more than make up for it.

  9. Samrtypants, Tell the TRUTH and shame the devils. A most cogent and powerful telling it like it was and still IS. Thank you.

  10. What would anyone gain by going back to this?

  11. William,

    How did anyone gain from this in the first place?

  12. Thank you for this, and also - SERIOUSLY. I put some blame on the woefully pathetic curriculum in history classes in US schools (but certainly not all) for the fact that so many people these days are just totally ignorant about what it was like back then, the horrors and strife and struggle of the lives of POC. They really think it was just about different water fountains and maybe a confederate flag here and there. Bull-fucking-shit.

    I'm through the first two books of Taylor Branch's incredible trilogy about the Civil Rights movement and MLK, and even someone like me, who took pains to try NOT to be ignorant, took classes on the history of race relations, read books on the subject, etc...even I have just been floored by the intricate details of just how incredibly brutal and difficult it was. And when assholes, like a certain crotchety old bastard running for President, are so dismissive of it and think we didn't need a Civil Rights Act...well, let's just say that I like MLK's idea of nonviolence but it gets reeeeeally hard to stick to it then...

    Sorry for rambling. Thanks again for this post.

  13. When will you get tired of being painted as owed so much for something that happened not to you or your parents even but to 3 and 4 even 5 generations back from the good life you live in the best country in the world? Never I'd guess.

    1. And when will deficient humans like you ever develop a working brain pattern that will enable you to read what was written and get it into your thick fuciking skull that it is not about reparations, that it didn't happen yesterday and that this post wasn't about unfounded grievances but about living history? Never, I guess...

      And yeah, shout out for being a bitch ass coward, anonymous...

  14. Mo'nin, Ms. Pants

    The comment above mine, jussst in case from time to time you've wondered, is why it is SOOO helpful and important that you write what you do.

    And, clearly, yes....there will be those, regardless, who just refuse to attempt to understand (and, just in case anonymous would like to respond, there are a plethora of indignities based solely on skin color that many people, including myself, have and continue to endure in this "good life" of ours).

    Sent this to my pastor. And, I believe that, if you look at who some of the commentariat are that are also appreciative of what you are doing.... Well....

    THANK YOU, as always, from, as an esteemed older gentleman in my neighborhood whose leaves I raked called me, one of "Martin's boys" (Morehouse '73).

  15. Hey Blackman,

    So good to hear from you.

    On the post above by "anonymous", I always wonder whether to ignore, delete or respond to something like that. My feeling is that we're not communicating on the same plane. And so I wonder if there's any point to it.

    But the truth is, it only serves to demonstrate the James Baldwin quote...still true as ever.

    I'm having mixed feelings about your neighbor's salutation. On the one hand...what an honor! On the other, I'd call you one of "Martin's men."

    1. Sorry, smartypants; but I pretty damn tired of that sort of person and tired of trying to rise above it all the time. I hope you can understand

    2. Not to worry LAC. I TOTALLY understand!

  16. I understand what you're saying, Ms. Pants. And, I take your compliment, and would from most people, as such and just as you are saying it(indeed, over-all, the "boy/man" rule is always in effect).

    But, this black gentleman has seen 85 come and go. I canNOT tell you how grateful he was for such a simple kindness. This is one of those situations where it was well understood exACTly what he meant and, therein, it came to be that we blessed each other. Now, the other thing...

    It's your blog. Over at Ms. Chip's (where you are DEARly loved and have come to pretty much be required reading), she just, still quite tactfully, imo, put the hammer down. My response, for me, would be about all I'm gonna do. There's responses based in genuine disagreement, like John's, and then there's responses...

    Which is why what I said is all I'll do.

  17. Thanks for the opportunity to think this through out loud a bit...

    I LOVE what Ms. Chips is doing over at her place. Some days its all that keeps me going.

    I feel like this place is a little different though. I guess one of my (sometimes naive) dreams is about being able to spark heated but respectful conversation. I've deleted some comments that included name-calling. The one above comes pretty close.

    But I also worry about all of us retreating into our safety zones of like-minded folks. I know you share that concern as well.

    I appreciate your short but to-the-point response to anonymous. I literally couldn't think of a place to start.

  18. LAC

    I got email notification of 2 comments from you and when I came to respond, I don't see them. Please know that I didn't mess with them. I have NO idea what happened.

    1. Oops, now I see. They just added the "reply" function to commenting and I didn't see them up there.