Civil Rights In The Popular Culture

Civil Rights In The Popular Culture

By Julian Bond

Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 1-2, 4-7

It was a familiar story with a different twist. On October 3, 1991, members of a white sorority at the University of Alabama attended a campus mixer dressed in blackface, basketballs stuffed in their shirts to imitate pregnancy.

The predilection of Southern white men to dress in black-faced drag had been appropriated by their sisters. Whatever advance against gender stereotyping of bigots this episode may reveal, these Tuscaloosa students were living a minstrel ritual over 150 years old. A century and a half before Amos and Andy, black-faced whites drew humor and instruction from imitations of blacks.

As apologies and a protest march followed public exposure of the Alabama incident, it became one of

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several that demonstrated how pervasive racial imagery in our culture remains. “It is racism,” one white student told the New York Times, “but I don’t think they planned it to be racist.”

On Halloween eve, a white student appeared at a Harvard medical school costume party dressed as Clarence Thomas–in blackface and black robe. A black student asked him to leave, and when he didn’t, gave him a wound requiring eighteen stitches to close.

The students at Alabama probably didn’t plan their actions to be racist; something in their lives and culture, something in their history, instructed them that pregnant black women were figures of fun, and no harm was intended to anyone.

The Atlanta Braves intended no harm either with the “tomahawk chop.” “We’re just having fun,” said one fan. But two teams in Atlanta’s baseball history presaged this year’s slur—the Atlanta Crackers, and the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Southern Negro League. It’s surely no accident that the most offensively named football team–the Redskins–is located in a Southern city, or that the team was the last in professional football to hire a black player.

In our daily lives, other mixed messages are broadcast, absorbed, interpreted, and recast. They come, as we do, from a history of stereotypes and inequality, and they blend media and movement, race and reality, culture and civil rights.

* The author of the sequel to Gone With The Wind found it easiest to dispense with black characters; dialect might be offensive, she said, and it was best to dispatch Mammy to an early grave.

* Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the leading warrior in our cultural/political battles, fights funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for photographs featuring frontal nudity of black men, leaving many to wonder whether Helms’s objections are a psychological fig-leaf intended to cover natural endowments he finds threatening.

* One of this season’s most critically acclaimed television shows–“I’ll Fly Away”–is set in the period of great hopefulness in race relations, the late 1950s, just before the activist civil rights movement exploded on the South and nation. The hero’s name–Forrest Bedford–is taken from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the muleskinner who was the leader of the original Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere on television, the 1990s racial scene is primarily an occasion

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for sit-corn laughs, with jolly, tubby blacks screaming at each other in ebony imitations of the established genre.

* White Southerners fare little belier than blacks; “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” the “Andy Griffith Show,” and “Green Acres” have been updated to “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade.” Indeed, “I’ll Fly Away” is descended from the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird.” But in today’s incarnation, a passive voice has been given the black character, acknowledging today’s sensibilities and the disproportionate number of blacks who watch television.

* At the July 4th dedication of the new civil rights museum in Memphis, the master and mistress of ceremonies were chosen not from that movement’s rich history of heroes and heroines, but from the world of television. Waving to the crowd, Cybil Shepherd, a Memphis native, and Blair Underwood from “LA Law” basked in the spotlight on the platform, while Daisy Bates watched the proceedings from a wheelchair. Underwood took pains to assure the audience he was sympathetic–“I understand the movement,” he said, “I’ve made two movies about it.”

Against this cultural background, mixed messages also unfold in our political lives.

* On November 9, 1991, the white voters of Louisiana almost elected Nazi Republican Klansman David Duke as governor. Pre-election public opinion surveys revealed that most Louisianians knew his past and did not care.

* The week before, the voters in Mississippi chose a clone of David Duke as governor; Kirk Fordice railed against quotas and called for repeal of the Voting Rights Act. His ad against welfare closed with a photograph of a black woman with a child; something in his culture told him that picture would speak what even he dared not say out loud.

* A series of books and other tracts, written by white neo-liberals, blame blacks and pushy women for the demise of liberalism in the United States. They argue these groups have asked too much too often of our society-anti-black backlash isn’t bigotry, they proclaim, but simply a clash of values between unfair preferences and old-fashioned meritocracy, between a pro-black and pro-female preference present and a 100 percent white male quota past. This lament is quickly oozing into the national political discourse, but unlike David Duke and Kirk Fordice, its proponents are too ashamed to make their argument explicit. Southerners will recognize a familiar cast to this debate; much like the Southern moderate’s position on civil rights in the 1960s, these new

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Bourbons argue that attacks on racism undermine good will and provoke racist reaction.

* A small group of black male academics, in a black-faced Iron John male bonding ritual, chant in unison that affirmative action produces racism, rather than being a reaction against it. Their reward is admission to a charmed circle of success and undeserved preference on op-ed pages, television interview shows, and in newspaper book review columns.

* The news media reports that black-on-black tribal violence continues to plague parts of Africa; in Eastern Europe, “ethnic conflicts”—never “white-on-white violence”–are to blame.

* The President of the United States announces that a proposed law that was a “quota bill” yesterday is not a “quota bill” today. The only change was in the quota of Senators which would vote to uphold the President’s promised veto. That quota shrunk when they discovered the White House had been lying to them–and the American people–about what the bill would do.

* A Supreme Court nominee who had demanded judgment on the basis of his character–not his race–raised the race shield by describing himself as the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” No one stepped forward to remind the nation that no black man was ever lynched for molesting a black woman, or to ask whether his accuser might not have been the victim of a “high-tech rape.” Art immediately imitated life as television’s “Designing Women” based an episode on the characters’ reactions to the clash between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and while in real life Clarence Thomas wins, on television it is clear that Anita Hill was triumphant. Or at least in the small screen’s fiction she was believed.

Color shapes our culture, and culture shapes our politics, and in turn our politics shape our culture. Presidents Bush and Reagan borrow their best lines from movie scripts: “Make My Day” and “Read My Lips.” In so doing, they try to assume the persona of the characters who spoke these lines, the lone warriors fighting to protect a soft world that has surrendered to the others, to women, to minorities.

I teach college students a course on the history of the Southern civil rights movement. They come to the class with preconceived ideas–some true and some not. They know women played a larger role in that movement than most history books admit–they not only know Rosa Parks but also Jo Ann Robinson and Ella Baker–and they know many of the men in the movement wanted women kept comfortably in their place. They believe Malcolm X played a larger personal role in the South than in fact he did. While his politics informed and changed the movement, Southerners almost never saw his person, but my students want him to have been there at King’s side.

They get their information from their culture, from newspapers and magazines, from rap music sampling and celebrating Malcolm X, from new and critical histories of Martin Luther King, from seeing women swell mass meeting crowds and Daisy Bates facing down the President in “Eyes on the Prize,” from other documentaries

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like “We Shall Overcome,” from movies like ‘The Long Walk Home” and “Glory” and even the awful “Mississippi Burning,” from television mini-series like “Separate But Equal.”

A few years ago, the popular culture discovered the civil rights movement, as it had earlier discovered the war in Vietnam. Both have by now become profitable nostalgia franchises, enriching their exploiters while impoverishing our history. The lessons we are taught–in superficial treatments of the struggle for human rights–is that a war was fought against racism by noble white Americans and the good guys finally won. Just as today the music of the 1960s sells raisins, the myths of the sixties sell movie tickets.

Over the last few years, nearly thirty movies and television shows have focused on the sixties movement. Their heroes and heroines are Klan wives, FBI agents, Northern summer student volunteers, white Southern college coeds and Northern campus-bound radicals, nearly everyone except the black men and women who lived and died in freedom’s cause. These shallow treatments of America’s finest hour are a reflection not of the movement but of their makers’ world, a world where only white men control the process of production and ensure their product perpetuates the supremacy of white America. In these productions, whites fight and win the war–blacks are empty shadows barely seen.

Now two other movies introduce new audiences to two mythic figures from our past. Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” will teach Americans–especially young Americans–more about these two icons of the sixties than a thousand biographies or a thousand history books. Both Stone and Lee are master publicists. Both know there is an unsatisfied hunger for examination of the sixties era. Another movie planned on Martin Luther King will focus on an interracial romance from his university years; this failed romance, the movie will argue, was the fuel for his dedication to equal justice.

There are some exceptions–veterans of the early 1960s voting drive in Mississippi have contracted with a Hollywood producer to create a movie based on their experiences, and they have veto power over script and theme written into their agreement. In “The Long Walk Home,” Hollywood successfully captured the private conflicts behind the highly publicized Montgomery Bus Boycott. Former SNCC worker Endesha Mae Holland (now Dr. Holland of the State University of New York) has written a play, From the Mississippi Delta, based on her life in the movement.

As Todd Gitlin has written, the 1960s were Years of Hope, Days of Rage. They were also years of intense and passionate involvement in causes their participants knew

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were just and right. Most of these productions miss that. They miss both the justice of the cause and the evil and breadth of the opposition. With few exceptions, the movement on film is seen as aberrational behavior, triggered by some incident that propels a sleepy black population into action.

Writing about Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer said: “his people have never revered him as a figure of the past, but as the personification of the future.”

The views of heroes past we get are seldom predictive of what our common future might be. Instead, they are rosy, flawed visions of our past. Our heroes are summoned to celebrate a mythic yesterday. We cannot see in them a prescription for tomorrow.

The 1960s decade was a successful mass mobilization against entrenched racism, and later, against imperialism. Racism’s legal standing, in public accommodations and the ballot box, was eradicated rather quickly. But if its legal grip has been broken, its psychological and cultural grip remains strong. Race and racial prejudice remain the greatest determinants of life chances in our society today. They decide our political behavior as well.

But just as the culture carriers have absorbed the movement, so has the rest of the nation. In my lifetime, I have seen a proliferation of “rights” movements which now embrace the majority of the American people. Today, through administrative order, court decision and legislative act, the protected classes extend to nearly all Americans, including men over forty, white ethnics, the aged, short people, the chemically dependent, the left-handed, the obese, and members of all religions. We need to examine how the road to civil rights became so crowded, and what the consequences are.

There is something seriously wrong when the claims of the descendants of property sold in the African slave trade are held equal with the claims of short, chemically dependent, left-handed white men. Retiring federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. of Alabama understands this. He told a commencement at Boston University years ago: “Religious differences, race differences, sex differences, age differences and political differences are not the same. It is no mark of intellectual soundness to treat them as if they were. Moreover, if the life of the law has been experience, then the law should be realistic enough to treat certain issues as special; as racism is special in American history. A judiciary that cannot declare that is of little value.”

A culture which cannot declare that is valueless too.

The recent series of elections–from Louisiana and Mississippi to Pennsylvania–have lessons for us all. Ninety-five percent of blacks voting in Philadelphia voted against Richard Thornburgh because he was the man who helped Ronald Reagan and George Bush fight civil rights laws in court and argue against quotas in the court of public opinion. Thousands of white voters in Mississippi and Louisiana voted for fascist candidates because they ran race-baiting campaigns.

There is much in our past and present worth examining and celebrating, in our culture and our politics. There are, in our history, great lessons of success as well as failure. One unexamined area of the sixties past is the break-up of the progressive youth movement, which foundered on the rocks of race. Many of us recall an understanding then that the mission of white progressives was to work and organize against racism in white middle-and working-class constituencies. That effort obviously didn’t get very far; the lack of success stemmed at least in part from lack of commitment.

Today’s excessive victim-blaming stems, in part, from deeply rooted doubts about the premise of equality itself. If that is so, perhaps we need to draw new lines in the dust. Those who want to dispense with equality except as a fond remembrance should declare themselves and stand on their convictions. At least then we will know who stands for what.

In today’s political and cultural formulations, our riotous past has created an uneasy present where Americans believe strange things: that the anti-war movement created disengagement from overseas entanglements, not the war itself; that powerful black militants, not entrenched white racism, created racial preferences; that the women’s movement, not an economy that forced women into work, threatened the traditionalist family; that pushy women and aggressive blacks pushed America into decline.

These are the lessons too many Americans have learned from our past or absorbed from the culture. We’ve forgotten that the movement created culture too. The Free Southern Theater brought Godot to Greenwood and put Purlie in a real cotton field. The Mississippi Freedom Summer schools found poetry in black school children. The movement’s music now inspires everywhere from the dismantled Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square. And the movement’s vision resounds everywhere.

We examine ourselves more today than I remember our doing in the past. We deconstruct texts and lives, looking in the entrails of the movement for some connection to the present, but except for imitations of life, we find few.

There is a challenge–for scholars, students, for the ordinary women and men who made the movement then and who make it now–to hold on to and uplift the lessons of the past. Our task is to see that the best of our people and their culture–not the worst–is preserved, celebrated, imitated and expanded now and in the future.

Julian Bond, formerly of Georgia, now writes, lectures and teaches from his home base at American University in Washington, D.C.