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Commentary :: Politics : Race
Looking into the DNC 'Round August
28 Jul 2008
The 1960s civil rights movement is that period of “the struggle” which, because of age and family situation, the junior senator from Illinois was absent. This has been a source of tension between the candidate and the “sit-in” generation. Obviously those intangibles, those jokes, those habits and recipes passed down in the average African American household differ from those in the Senator’s youthful world and this, apparently has raised speculation as to his, well, culture. It’s noted that many black opinion maker and elected officials, including Cong. Lewis came late to ‘house Obama’. But August is coming, again…soon. And then Mr. Obama may well reach and ring as he appears capable of doing.
'round august
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

As it turns out, more than the occasional storm visits and electrifies us in mid summer. What we see in that season, and what we know about it can be pretzel like and perhaps transformational.

This season, many anxiously await an August political convention at which most surely an African American will emerge, for the first time, as the presidential nominee of a major party. This may well be such a time the scholar James MacGregor Burns reached toward when he wrote, “Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. Leadership”, he continued, “is still in its infancy, and we’ve only just began to explore follower-ship.”

In another August, during the sweltering season of 1955, young Emmett Louis Till of Chicago, summering in Mississippi, was murdered. Shot in the head, the 14 year old’s eye had been gouged from it’s socket and his body tossed into a river, anchored by a cotton gin tied about him with barbed wire. He was black, and he’d violated some code by making a child’s sound to a white woman. His killers came for him in the night with their vague unsubstantial passions, and when the photo of his mutilated body appeared in the media, I sought to sleep with the lights on for a very long period of time.

On yet another August afternoon in 1963, a youthful southern Black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped to the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began his remarks. “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity”, he said. By the time the blazing sun began it’s descent, casting late afternoon shadows through the stone garden resting places of Arlington and Northern Virginia, King’s “I have a Dream” oration had red-lettered the day. Bob Dylan was there. Lena Horne was there, as was Paul Newman, Heston, Brando, Josephine Baker and many more, “fresh from narrow jail cells.” I recall the occasion, sitting on my grandmother’s floor captivated by the totally awesome black man on the black and white television screen. It’s stayed in my memory more than the cold day in January on which we celebrate him, and more than the day in April when we winch.

About forty years to the day of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I covered a crowd of a few thousand gathered in the nation’s capitol to recall, reflect, and attempt the resuscitation of a coalition of activists with diverse causes and agendas…some then on life support…others now gone. Julian Bond, a former Georgia State Legislator and current Chair of the NAACP was there, and shared with me that he, “had the best job of the day…”, serving up cold soft drinks to the celebrities. “I got to keep my arms, up to the elbows, in ice cold water for the better part of the day’, the graceful Bond recalled.

Forty years in some genres can be quite awhile, even a life time. Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison never saw forty. Neither did the vast majority of those whose birth names are etched into the black marble slabs of the Viet Nam Memorial abutting the site of the demonstration. Yet the enthusiasm and sense of determination of those gathering in renewal, provided a delicious bite of promise and piece of the dream.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

The August 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” came on the heels of bloody engagements through out the well as economic violence in northern cities. There were calls for passage of the then pending Civil Rights Bill, desegregation of schools and housing, job training and elimination of racial discrimination in hiring, among other issues. The March had been initiated by A. Phillip Randolph, a labor leader and vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Randolph was joined in his effort by the leadership of five major civil rights organizations in the United States. Whitney Young, National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality(CORE); John Lewis, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and King, Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). This was the so-called “big six”.

The 40th anniversary gathering found a loose knit coalition somewhere in the area of 100 groups, with Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King, III, front and the point of being almost apologetic, if not determined. He appears sincere in more than a Promethean fashion. African American males coming of age can rarely afford the Holden Caufield experience, even when those with middle-class parents find that preferable to the fraternities of Crips or Bloods and how they roll. Those around King, III, or ‘tre’ as he’s called by friends, couched the anniversary as an event bringing together the Sit-in generation and the Hip-Hop generation…a kind of Baez or Mahalia meets Grand Master somebody. The later being that “Joshua” generation, that crew the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois and presumptive Democrat nominee for President, Barack Hussein Obama, speaks of. Those with years in the trenches eerily attempted to balance the need for increased voter registration with its established rich legacy. However Rev. Jesse Jackson, himself a former MLK lieutenant, in comments to a gathering of SNCC veterans bristled, “I’d rather have an old Thurgood Marshall than a young Clarence Thomas”. It was a somewhat awkward time for the Rev., as he moved about the gathering like the uninvited guest in ‘Swan Lake’. News of his ‘love-child’ had just become public and that didn’t sit so well with many there. Transference of the movement was not the order of the day, and recent stinging comments by the Rev. Jackson about Mr. Obama reflect much the same for now. At best, it’s hardly a welcome aboard theme.

Recently, Bernice and Martin King III filed a lawsuit against their brother Dexter in which they call him on mis-management of monies from King, Inc., as well as taking money from the Coretta King estate. Tragically the disintegration of the personal is matched by that of the “dream”. To boot, America is at war on two fronts with so-called “evil-doers”, and with itself, openly, in many of our urban areas. Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner-City Studies Professor Robert T. Starks recently wrote, “Guns are as accessible as illicit drugs in our neighborhoods. Our young people are angry, hostile, and filled with resentment because they have nowhere to turn. They are full of pain because we have failed them.” But then there’s that “hope thing”…August waits in the wings.

Perhaps Mr. Obama provided a tantalizing preview of this August with his address to a mega crowd of Berliners. “I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city. The journey that led me here is improbable. My mother was born in the heartland of America, but my father grew up herding goats in Kenya. His father - my grandfather - was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.” He continued, “Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan become the heroin in Berlin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.”

Barack Obama, like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, graduated from Harvard Law School, and like that Governor and others, has emerged as part of a cadre of young, articulate and well educated African-Americans currently seeking and achieving high political office. Cory Booker, a “Yalie and Rhodes Scholar is now Mayor of Newark, NJ. In Tennessee, Former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. (D-Tenn.) lost a close race for U.S. Senate seat. The Republicans trotted out Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele as a strong contender for the U.S. Senate there. Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s Secretary of State, was the Republican standard bearer for Governor of that state, as was former NFL star Lynn Swan in neighboring Pennsylvania. Yes, there were some loses. Yet there appears a paradigm shift in the political genre. All have “cross over” appeal, code for white folks will vote for them. This is not to say the veterans of earlier phases of “the movement” have been rendered obsolete. Remember ‘Aluta Continua !’. The Reverend Jackson, to some, can be like a former lover who wants to leave behind underwear or pajamas to be remembered by. You really don’t wanna say yea, it’s cool.

At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, former SNCC activists came together to review their expectations in 1963 and compare the struggles of the time. John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia, and the sole survivor of the big six, was joined by Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a former delegate from the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the current delegate from the District and others. ‘Bearing Witness to a Dream Deferred’, the forum was titled. Cong. Lewis (D-Ga.) now serves on the Democratic Steering Committee but as a young student participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides and endured savage beatings from racist mobs. Cong. Lewis is the real deal. “Young Black men and women, young people, young children 7 and 8...9, 10, 11 and 12 years old were being arrested, jailed. Bull Connor, the police commissioner used the dogs and fire hoses on people”, a visibly moved Lewis spoke. Medgar Evers was assassinated...and then you had President Kennedy speaking to the nation...when he said the issue of race is a moral issue. On June 14, 1963 I was elected chair of ...SNCC. Eight days later I was invited to a meeting here in Washington at the White House....and it was in that meeting A. Phillip Randolph...spoke up and said, ‘Mr. President, the Black masses are restless and we’re going to march on Washington’. And you could tell by the very body language of the President that he didn’t like what he heard. He started moving in his chair, one side to the other side, and he said ‘Mr. Randolph, if you bring all of these Negroes to Washington, and all of these Negroes in the streets, we will never be able to get a Civil Rights Bill from the Congress’. Mr. Randolph responded, ‘Mr. President, Negroes are already in the streets”.

It is that period of “the struggle” which, because of age and family situation, the junior senator from Illinois was absent. This has been a source of tension between the candidate and the “sit-in” generation. Obviously those intangibles, those jokes, those habits and recipes passed down in the average African American household differ from those in the Senator’s youthful world and this, apparently has raised speculation as to his, well, culture. It’s noted that many black opinion maker and elected officials, including Cong. Lewis came late to ‘house Obama’. But August is coming, again…soon. And then Mr. Obama may well reach and ring as he appears capable of doing.

The romantic tradition which tends to surround and enfold revolutions and movements have taken a pass in the ameri-politic where issues of race are concerned. Drs. King and Dubois come nearest to touching the garments of Fanon and Césaire in engaging the philosophical and moral effects of subjugation and alienation of American Blacks. Such thought and rationalization escapes the imagination of the average American of color, leaving only a gaping hole of scared emotion. There are few alcoves waiting for busts of our heroes right now.

During a walk, Rep. Lewis shared his concerns over the current state of the republic. “We need to pick up where Dr. King left off, and that is to humanize the American economy to meet basic human needs of our people. People need a little better of an income, people need jobs. Too many people are losing jobs. A large segment of the population is under paid, some receiving starvation wages, they’re not receiving a livable wage. That’s what we need to take care of”.

Today, most of the pieces of Dr. King’s dream lay in jangled heaps across the land. Perhaps it is because of the close configuration of class and promise. The current Secretary of State is a black woman. The governors of both Massachusetts and New York are black. The head of Time-Warner is African American as are a host of corporate directors and so-called “public intellectuals”. And then there’s Oprah, and Tiger, and LeBron, yes? Yet King’s “dream” remains just that...largely unfulfilled, in spite of now Nobel Laureate James Earl Carter, his grits and grins, our collective collision with the Clintons, and the current phenomena of Citoyen Obama.

A Pew Research Center survey reflected that blacks were, “less upbeat …than at any time since 1983.” That survey went on to say “The most newsworthy African American figure in politics today – Barack Obama – draws broadly (though not intensely felt ) favorable ratings from both blacks and whites. But blacks are more inclined to say that his race will detract from his chances to be elected president; whites are more inclined to say his relative inexperience will hurt his chances. Overall”, the study pointed out, “only 44% of African Americans now foresee an improved life for black people in this country compared with 57% who did so in a 1986 survey.” But the feasts of a new August are upon us.

In his, “Notes on the House of Bondage”, James Baldwin lamented on being, “reduced to the present Presidential candidates.” “These entities”, he wrote of the Democrat and Republican Parties, “are Tweedledum and Tweedledee as concerns the ways they have been able, historically, to manipulate the black presence, the black need.” Baldwin continued, “The elders, especially at this moment of our black-white history, are indispensable to the young, and vice versa.” This is as relevant, if not more so than when crafted in 1980, and failure in realization can only deepen the distress and fault lines of the current condition.

There is linkage and lesson running from August 1955 to August of 2008. It’s whimsical and profound and, O.K. and transformational. The ‘elders’ need not see Sen. Obama as a fool on the hill or magus, improvising and riffing that ‘bring people together’ thing. Many Americans, albeit nervously, have found a redeeming something with this new, exotic, avant-garde candidacy which gives voice to the notions of some of the nations founders as well as to it’s martyrs. This August calls to Mr. Obama to be Janus like, contemplating what is behind while looking toward the new. This August transition and transformation can join hands and the “skinny kind with a funny sounding name”, must leave neither colon nor semi-colon in his discourse.

Jeffery McNary is an author/writer living in Cambridge, MA.

Copyright by the author. All rights reserved.
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