Sunday, March 21, 2010

Faith, Hope and Courage: Health Care Debate Shows Just How Quickly America Can Tap Into Its Shameful Past

On March 7, 1965, Rep. John Lewis led a march with the Rev. Hosea Williams and around 600 civil rights activists in what was supposed to be sojourn from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march, in large measure was a response to the brutality that African Americans were facing at the hands of whites, especially in the American South. This wanton violence was personified with the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a Alabama state trooper. Jackson was unarmed and shot twice trying to protect his family from being beaten by cowardly officers. Jackson died in Selma from his wounds on February 26. Such a heinous crime cried out for action. 

The air across America was growing ever thick and tense with the pungent order of racial hatred. You must remember too that the assassination of Malcolm X occurred on February 21 of that same year. Thus, Lewis and other civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that they must respond.  Having a march, they believed, was their best opportunity to bring attention to the continued injustice facing African Americans, and also show a sign of resiliency and strength of purpose. To accomplish this task it would take an enormous amount of faith, hope, and courage.

The marchers never got to their destination. They were stopped right at the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state and local law enforcement were there to stop the protest. The assembled police ordered Lewis, Williams and those with them, to turn around and proceed back to their churches. They refused. What happened next can only be explained as pure terror, fueled by irrational notions of race superiority and fear.

The "authorities" were on foot and several were on horseback. Recalling the clash with police Lewis lamented, "I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us--the clunk of the troopers heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses' hooves hitting the the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, 'Get 'em! Get the niggers!'"

Men, women, and children, regardless of age, were severely beaten by the police assembled and the event was later known as "Bloody Sunday". Not only were the protesters and police there, but media crews caught the entire event on tape that the rest of the world saw the next day.

Yesterday, a similar type of incident occurred. While the physical aspects were thankfully not repeated, there were specters of what many post-racial enthusiasts thought had long been wiped from the American psyche with the election of President Barack Obama. Just like old diseases that come back with new strains so too does racial hatred, ignorance, fear and intolerance. Members of the Tea Party movement gathered on Capital Hill to let lawmakers know exactly how they felt them and their proposed bill. Rep. Barney Frank was called a "faggot" and Rep. John Lewis called "nigger" at least fifteen times, by his account (see CBS story). These slurs were the cement the held together loud, vehement, and nasty verbal attacks against these congressman as well as others.  

Healthcare reform has certainly become a personal issue. It has once again brought out the worst in America. The way that some Americans demonstrate their displeasure with the health care bill is not only infuriating and disrespectful, but completely antitehical to the Constitution that so many of these less than sane folks claim to love and are allegedly willing to die to protect. They might need to read it again.  These inexcusable actions build on the "You Lie!" vitriol screamed out by Rep. Joe Wilson during President Obama's State of the Union Address. Such situations are bitter reminders of a not so distant past.  A shameful and inhumane past that too many Americans want to forget or at least not talk about.

A dear colleague posed the question to me this morning in response to news of Reps. Frank and Lewis, "How much of the public outcry--and perhaps that's too light a term--against healthcare is about President Obama's race...and not his politics?"

I posted the question to Twitter and immediately got a response back from a politician running for office in North Carolina.  "None," was his response to the race question, as if race has nothing to do with the situation. I'm not so naive.  My rebuttal mentioned that I think he and many Americans underestimate the power of race in this debate. As a matter of fact many of them are preying on the same fears that men like Gov. George Wallace, "Bull" Connor, and now Glen Beck use to control those weak of mind and foolish in spirit. 

Race is still in issue, I'm afraid to say. However it should not be, no in this debate. I wonder what would if Clinton had gotten this far with health care reform if racial slurs, etc., would be as rapid as they are now?  The reality is that race functions in this debate to muddy the waters of political discourse, when the real issue is class conflict, or likely class deterioration.  The insurance companies, like Wall Street, need to be regulated in a way that allows for fair compeition, but also protects the consumer.

In the wealthiest nation on the planet (and likely the most indebted) it does not make any sense that we have to go to such lengths to get something done that can help everyone.  President Obama mentioned that this health care bill is far from perfect, but it is a beginning. I agree.

One need look only as far as struggle for equality by African Americans to understand this. During the second half of the twentieth century, we were still fighting for freedoms that should have been guaranteed us after the end of the Civil War.  However, democracy in theory and in practice are two different things.  Forty-five years ago this month, white males armed with batons, clubs, and tear gas beat and brutalized American citizens who chose to act and work toward holitic freedom.

While they marched, other American citizens--men, women and children, filthy from waddling in the muck of bigotry and carrying the vile reek of insane conceptions of white supremacy, shouted slurs and epithets at the marchers just as members of the Tea Party hurled at congressmen yesterday. Iroinically enough, what we are seeing is like the next generation of "Bloody Sunday" historical actors. Like Civil War reenactors, they gladly put on the uniform of decent and armed with a jaded dogma that reinforces the same type of white nationalism that continues to keep this nation from being what it could be, and keeps many of them from living out the American dream they fantasize about.

Maybe despite the virulent tone of agitation, faith, hope and courage will win out on Capital Hill as congressmen vote on health care reform.  Regardless, let yesterday's attacks be reminders of what American is--an imperfect union.


Anonymous said...

This is a strong piece. Of course, the agitators try to cloak their racial actions by evoking the 1st Amendment and protecting " REAL American rights". I hope, I think, I feel, most Americans can see through their hatred and fear tactics.

Mohamed said...

It maybe a strong piece but not an accurate one. Its not about Obama's race as much as its about mass immigration. It has to do with people thinking the country is changing its ethnic identity and thereby its culture and future.

But one question.

Why is it OK for Blacks to have an ethnic identity and promote their ethnic interest but not Whites?

Why is that we don't make the same demands to japan, Togo, Ghana, Argentina or Israel than we do to America? Why is it wrong for a nation to have an ethnic identity like most nations around the world but not for European societies?

Isn't that racism also? Anyways most societies in the world are deeply ethno-centric and racially minded. It does not mean that it means supremacy and persecution. But like many Balcks, the author can not get over the past. And Whites know this and know there are deeply historic grudges against them. They fear what the future will bring to them when they lose power and become much more vulnerable to the other ethnic groups many of them still carry this deep historic sense of anger and grievance.

This author proves it.

Jewels said...

Nice post. There is nothing about this incident that surprises me. I think I am more angry that, again, many people refuse to own up to or even recognize that this underlying tension exists. Tea Party defenders are trying to say 1) it didn't happen, 2) it was a liberal infiltrator, or 3) so what?

Seriously? It has become increasingly obvious that people can hide their self-righteous anger amongst their bigoted beliefs and cloak it in 'differences of opinion'. Why won't they simply condemn this behavior? Why are they more angry that people are accusing them than angry that it happened? Why can't they stand on their principles and not resort to vitriol? At least they do it in public and not under white hoods.

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