Progress is not totally forward - Keith Roulston editorial
Watching what’s happening in Florida and other southern U.S. states these days makes it possible to wonder if anything ever changes, all the while living with the reality that the Americans, only relatively recently, elected their first Black president.
Watching the efforts of Ron DeSantis to restrict teaching, and even reading, about injustice to Black Americans because it might adversely affect white citizens, and watching governors of other southern states rush to follow his example, is really discouraging to those of us who have lived through so much American history.
In her new book The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States and the first Black president, recounts living through so much of the change. Her grandfather grew up in the south when Black people were shot for trying to show up to vote.
When Barack’s white mother married a Black African man in Hawaii in 1961, it was a mixed marriage not allowed in 22 U.S. states. It wasn’t until Michelle Obama was 10 years old that American women were allowed to use a credit card without their husband’s permission.
She was one year old when John Lewis, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders participated in the March of Selma, Alabama. Demonstrators looking to win the right to vote for Black Americans were beaten by a vicious, racist sheriff and his men and state troopers on March 7, 1965. But the determined marchers reorganized and tried again. Some 25,000 people joined them and they marched from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery. They marched to ensure that African Americans could exercise their constitutional right to vote — even in the face of a segregationist system that wanted to make it impossible.
Obama writes that Dr. Martin Luther King said: “I know that you are asking today: ‘How long will it take?’ Not Long.” She asks how long is, “Not long”?
I’m older than she is. I remember those frantic days of the 1960s when white students were being arrested in U.S. states for joining their Black colleagues in sitting at “whites only” counters in southern coffee shops.
I’m currently rereading Toronto-born film director Norman Jewison’s autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me and came across his story of travelling through the southern U.S. immediately after World War II while still dressed in his Canadian Navy uniform and, in one case, bringing a bus trip to a halt because he, innocently, sat in the Black section of a bus. Perhaps it is his traumatic response to this trip that led to his directing such anti-racist films as In the Heat of the Night and
A Soldier’s Story. During filming of In the Heat of the Night in 1966, Black co-star Sidney Poitier would only participate if the movie was shot north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Most of the movie was shot in a remote corner of Illinois, close to Missouri and Kentucky.
Recently I rewatched the 2014 movie Selma and saw not only the re-enactment of battle between marchers and police at the bridge in Selma, but the quieter incidents like the Black woman who tried to register to vote in Selma and had to “prove” her intelligence by guessing correctly the number of jelly beans in a tall jar.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnston, a southerner himself, ended the long battle by stepping in with federal legislation to ensure Blacks could vote and attend the same schools and universities as whites. For a long time, things seemed to improve.
Ironically, while the election of Barack Obama seemed to indicate victory had been won, it also spurred a reaction among Republicans. His presidency had barely begun when the “Tea Party” movement was hatched in right wing opposition.
Things got worse after the election of Donald Trump, who had a history of blaming innocent Black New Yorkers for the attack of a white woman in Central Park, accused Obama of not being born in the U.S., supported Ku Klux Klan demonstrators and opposed Black demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police. Even out of office as president, he can still raise demonstrations with his racist remarks today.
And so, six years after the election of Trump, 14 years after the election of Obama that seemed to put an end to racist strife in the U.S., racial tension seems higher today than could be imagined.
Progress is not straight forward. It took the deaths of 620,000 people in the U.S. Civil War to abolish slavery, then the south found ways to prevent Blacks from voting. A century later the civil rights movement fought a long battle for Black rights. Now, after the election of the first Black President, the resistance continues.