Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I were driving south on Interstate 65 in Alabama when we decided to stop for breakfast in Montgomery. The exit we took happened to be just north of the intersection with U.S. 80, the “Selma road” to locals.
A state police cruiser stopped outside the restaurant. Its occupants entered the restaurant and took a booth near ours. One of the officers was white, the other, black. Their interaction was pleasant, comradely.
We could not help but take notice. We of course talked about “how far we’ve come” since civil rights advocates marched that Selma road toward “bloody Sunday” and into history in 1965.
Today is the 50th anniversary of “bloody Sunday.” Selma is celebrating the Jubilee with ceremonies and speeches. Yesterday, Barack Obama, the finest presidential orator since Lincoln, delivered one of his best speeches there. The march is not finished, he said, but we have made progress. We need to make still more.
When Obama was elected in 2008 many people who get paid to pontificate in print and on the air declared it was the beginning of a post-racial America. They were wrong. Latent racism actually emerged from hiding when he entered the White House and has seeped back into the fabric of our lives.
Fear feeds racism. The Ku Klux Klan recruited members by kindling fear of white women being raped by “niggers,” of black men taking our jobs because they were willing to work cheap, of blacks “moving in next door” to us. When brown people struck unprecedented terror into our hearts on 9/11, our elected representatives began the still ongoing process of repealing the Bill of Rights, and our politicians kindled new fears of all people of color. Black, brown, yellow, whatever tint, people of color once again became “them” to the white-skinned “us.”
We began to militarize our police, equipping them ever more with the tools of war. We are seeing a rebirth in our police forces of the same racism that motivated a cop nicknamed “Snake” to murder innocent blacks in Detroit in 1967 in what came to be known as “the Algiers Motel incident.” Only the names have changed. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.Tony Robinson. Young, unarmed, black — and dead.
So much for post-racist America.
“We have to recognize,” Mr. Obama said yesterday in Selma, “that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
He mentioned the recent Department of Justice report on the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. “The report’s narrative was woefully familiar,” he said. “It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
“If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better. . .
“We were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it. . .
“ . . the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. . . . we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
A century before Selma, an American president’s words and the way he spoke them saw this country safely through a great civil war, freed the slaves and guided the United States to “a new birth of freedom.” Words a biographer called “Lincoln’s sword.”
Has the century and a half since then warped us so as a people; has greed and cynicism so gripped the political processes here; have we dismissed our better angels and become inherently so evil that “We” don’t give a damn about this country’s sacred promise? Is Obama just a good talker and Selma just another dirty little now mostly black southern town? Do enough of us even care?
I wonder what ever became of those two state policemen in the cafe in Montgomery. I wonder what they would say today.