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September 16th, 2011

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02:57 am - Excellent article about Dr. King and the Old South
I just read a brilliant and disturbing essay about Dr. Martin Luther King and the pre-civil rights South. I knew all these facts, but had never looked at it in this fashion before. This makes jackasses like Glenn Beck attempting to co-opt Dr. King's legacy look particularly horrifying. Here's the heart of the article. This essay is particularly disturbing because all this was happening just 50 years ago:
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn't that he "marched" or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south."

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don't know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I'm guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing "The Help," may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the mid west and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of "assault," which could be anything from rape to not taking off one's hat, to "reckless eyeballing."

This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father's memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparent's vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.
In any case, when you see Southern conservatives celebrating the old South, these horrors are exactly what they are celebrating.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 16th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. It's helpful to be occasionally reminded how bad things were and how much better they've got...and also to be reminded what white privilege can mean. The privilege not to fear for your life, based on the whims of emotion of a stranger whose culture bears all the power.
[User Picture]
Date:September 16th, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for posting this. What a magnificent article.
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
What a wonderful article, thank you. I'm going to link to it in my classes, my students need to see this.
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2011 05:12 am (UTC)
That sounds like a truly excellent idea.
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2011 04:05 am (UTC)
Excellent article!
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. As a white person born after the civil rights movement, I cannot possibly have any idea how bad things were back then. This post fills in some of the gaps in my social studies classes, going beyond slavery and segregation.
Date:September 17th, 2011 11:49 pm (UTC)
Let me add to the group hug. Great article, indeed.
Date:September 18th, 2011 02:32 pm (UTC)
thank you for posting this
[User Picture]
Date:November 2nd, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC)
Reading this reminded me of an art exhibit I saw recently at LACMA: Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud. Powerful and disturbing, but necessary so folks don't forget that this wasn't so very long ago or so very far away.

Edited at 2011-11-02 10:41 pm (UTC)

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