Sun, Aug

Charleston: The Fourth Civil Rights Era?

GELFAND’S WORLD-"You've got to go." That was the message the Charleston killer gave to a woman that he did not shoot, presumably so she could pass it along to a shocked community. The words were prefaced with a standard racist screed that has been recited for a hundred years by the KKK and its cousins: "I have to do it. You rape our women and are taking over our country …" 

The reaction to the murders was swift, if surprising. Suddenly, Republican politicians agreed that it was time to remove the old Confederate Battle Flag from official structures. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, joined U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott in calling for the removal of the flag from the state capital. Down in Mississippi, there were calls for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag, and in Alabama, the governor had Confederate flags removed from the capital grounds. 

We can speculate as to whether these acts of seeming contrition are heartfelt or hypocritical. Perhaps they just represent political realism. The Governor of Alabama said as much when he pointed out that he has a lot of difficult governing to do, and he can do without the kind of distraction engendered by the Confederate flag. If it's just political realism, even that is a good thing. 

It was not always so. A few years ago, I visited a Civil War battlefield site. At the gift shop, the clerk put my book purchase in a bag and added, without extra charge, an American flag and a Confederate flag, complete with a stand to hold them upright. The addition of the competing flags as free souvenirs was standard practice at the time. 

That was then. As of this week, the National Park Service will no longer feature Confederate flags as standalone items. The Park Service is joined by Walmart, among other major retailers. It's been a groundswell of symbolic change, and it's only taken a few days. 

There has been a lot of commentary on the flag issue, with a lot of people on the liberal side pointing out that this action, as pleasing as it may be, does not address the entrenched racism that shows itself in so many other ways. 

We have lots of clues about continuing racism. It's been ten months since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And more recently, we have observed the less lethal, but still morally offensive attack on African American teenagers who tried to visit a public swimming pool in Texas. 

The issue that ought to concern us is what happened after these events. In each case, the angry far-right wing found its voice in attacking the character of the targets of these police actions. These attacks came incredibly quickly. Often enough, they were made in the absence of evidence. 

We had a similar storyline in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Even though Zimmerman was not a police officer and his story was dodgy at best, the racial animosity of the Trayvon Martin attackers was astonishing in its malice. 

The evidence is unequivocal that we have a lot of racists in the United States, and that for the most part, they self-identify with a distorted and perverted wing of the conservative movement. More sensible conservatives may wish to point out that the left has had its own extremist wings, such as those who continued to defend Stalin's crimes. They are correct to do so, but the analogy is weak in terms of American political history. Stalinists were always on the extreme flank of a small minority. White racists were at one time the governing coalition in the American South. They maintained rule by voter suppression and a particularly violent form of domestic terrorism. 

And yet . . . 

And yet, the Governor of South Carolina, the place where the Civil War started, took a significant step into the future this week. She found the political need to end the official celebration of the Confederacy's most blatant symbol. The fact that high officials of Alabama and Mississippi followed suit almost immediately is of great importance, as it signifies that times have changed. 

Is this the fourth great civil rights era of our history? It's never quite clear while it's happening, but we may have reason to hope. There were anti-slavery campaigns going back to the 1700s and continuing through the run-up to the Civil War. There were post-Civil War movements. And then there was the period that our current media like to call "the civil rights era," by which they mean the period from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, and which peaked during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. 

The now semi-officially proclaimed civil rights era built on the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and continued with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed. The case of Loving vs. Virginia in 1967 invalidated state laws that prohibited interracial marriages. It's sobering to consider that Mildred and Richard Loving had been sentenced to a year in prison by the state of Virginia for the crime of marrying each other, and that it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court overruled this class of statute. 

So here it is, half a century later, and the civil rights battle is still on. What seems to be different is that even in the deep south, it is becoming less and less acceptable to be open about racist sentiments. They still exist, and we notice them on talk radio and on the comments sections of internet sites. Our language has added the term "dog whistle" to indicate the sort of comment that is not overtly racist, but is understood by racists as confirming their position. Terms like "welfare mothers" and the more recent use of the term "thugs" are understood to represent members of minority ethnic groups. Rush Limbaugh used to get off on mispronouncing the name of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a particularly insulting way. 

Yes, we have racists and bigots here. And yet, times change. The past few years have yielded up a remarkable switch regarding the legality of same-sex marriage. Half a century of government enforcement of fair housing laws and anti-discrimination rules in hiring have had an effect. It's not the color- and gender-blind utopia that idealists sought in those 1960s era battles, but there have been significant changes. 

We could be a little less serious and refer to the rise of the Southeast Conference in college football as a direct result of that 1960s civil rights era, even though the modern day racist will find this thought painful. Yet there it is, a demonstrable fact that goes back to Bear Bryant and John McKay arranging to end segregation in southern football by scheduling a game between Alabama and USC in 1970. 

There is obviously a long way to go, and there is obviously a wing of American conservatism that will continue to resist. There will be angry, evil individuals such as the Charleston murderer, although we can hope that they become fewer and that they fail to carry out violence against their fellow Americans. But the lowering of Confederate flags throughout the old Confederacy, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, shows that times may change slowly, but they change. 

What I think we are seeing here is not so much a sudden, dramatic shift in American attitudes, but rather the effects that have been accumulating over the past 50 years. Two generations of children have been growing up in an era of desegregation, and even if they are not quite so intermixed as visionaries hoped for in 1965, at least they are growing up in a culture where it is no longer socially acceptable to be openly racist. 

So perhaps we can interpret the taking down of the Confederate flags as both the result of accumulated change and a signal that more change will come. There is a certain amount of momentum associated with this, even if the immediate act is merely symbolic. 

Historians have calculated that what used to be called lynching -- a euphemism for the public celebration of racial murder as a terror tactic -- happened far more often, and to far more victims, than we thought. At least that has changed. What the Charleston killer engaged in was a latter day attempt at a lynching, and he has found himself without the support of the wider community. We should be thankful for at least this one small thing, as overdue as it is.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch.)




Vol 13 Issue 52

Pub: Jun 26, 2015