Who Tells the History
Fifty years after Selma, justice needs renewing.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge gleamed in the afternoon light when President Obama spoke there on March 7 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Yet Transportation for America includes it on a map of America’s 70,000 structurally deficient bridges. Completed in 1940, it is named for a former U.S. Senator who was a Confederate general and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
The back side of a billboard welcoming Obama featured one from admirers of Klan founder and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Beneath an equestrian portrait of Forrest was the slogan, “Keep the skeer on ‘em.” Thus as we honor nonviolent resistance, others wax nostalgic about lynching.
Obama did not mention the Forrest billboard but did mention last week’s Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Department. He said that while the report shows that the fight for justice is not finished, America has made a lot of progress. He cited advances not only by African Americans but also by women and gay people. “To deny … this hard-won progress … would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
Obama tacitly rebuked the right wing’s patriotic posturing by celebrating the reforming impulse: “It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed … that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.”
The DOJ report, however, is sobering. Think Progress writes, “[O]fficers approached black men and women without probable cause. Officers worked with the courts to issue egregious fines and fees to boost city revenue, at the expense of individuals who could not afford to pay them and were subsequently thrown in jail. Police also used excessive force with impunity.” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III responded by denying widespread civil rights violations.
In his speech, Obama alluded to the fact that voting rights were weakened when the Supreme Court overturned Section 4 of VRA in 2013, after which Alabama passed new voting restrictions. Thus we face a chore we thought finished, as with a neglected bridge. GOP lawmakers attending the Selma commemorations praised Bloody Sunday veteran Rep. John Lewis, but showed no interest in his bill to restore VRA.
A century after D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was screened in the White House by President Wilson and used by the Klan for recruitment, Ava DuVernay’s Selma takes the perspective of those who risked all to win equality for their people. Some have trashed her masterful, nuanced, and stirring film as unfair to President Johnson. This ignores the January 1964 White House meeting reported by historian Nick Kotz, at which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s aide Cartha DeLoach gave Johnson aide Walter Jenkins a summary of an incriminating tape of Dr. King (like a tape shown in the movie). Jenkins told DeLoach he would share the material with the president, and suggested the FBI leak it to the press.
The real resentment appears to stem from DuVernay giving LBJ only a supporting role. The Selma campaign was Johnson’s idea, former LBJ aide Joseph Califano ludicrously asserted. DuVernay had the temerity to put black people at the center of their own narrative.
As with black history, so with gay history. On March 6, the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. (of which I am secretary), dedicated to archive activism for LGBT equality, submitted an amicus brief in support of marriage equality to the Supreme Court. It was written by the group’s pro bono counsel, McDermott, Will & Emery.
Mattachine President Charles Francis states, “It is an eloquent legal analysis of a federal ‘culture of animus’ that persecuted gays and lesbians through sixty years and seven Presidencies...with archival documents linked into the brief itself. The brief begins with Hoover’s ‘Sex Deviate Program.’”
We must be bold enough to tell our own histories, even as we strive to listen more faithfully. The president reminds us, “America is not some fragile thing.”