Thursday, September 09, 2010

An Emerging Civil Rights Narrative

During my visit to Chicago Boyz, a couple of commenters brought up civil rights. We were discussing, among other things, Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington. That rally was on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Beck claimed that choosing that date was coincidence.

What the commenters had to say was new to me: The civil rights struggle is a victory for all of us, we all deserve credit, because if Southerners hadn’t gone along with it, it would never have been accepted. I agreed that it was a victory for all of us, but I think there are differential amounts of credit to be assigned. The Freedom Riders and many others risked their lives; people like me who stayed home and supported them in other ways don’t get the same credit. Even less so the girl with the ugly expression in this famous photo.

One of the commenters offered up a very softened version of the history: We in the south were not living up to our ideals. The civil rights workers pointed this out to us, and we changed our behavior. I’ve shortened that even further; his later post showed that he’s got more detail to the story, and I’m not going to parse it in detail.

Haley Barbour has his own narrative of the civil rights movement. Eugene Robinson finds it severely wanting, mendacious even.

There was a subtheme at Chicago Boyz that it was Democrats who were the Southern segregationists, and therefore the Democratic Party continues to bear that stigma. This ignores the recent history of that area’s party affiliations and the outcome of Democratic Southern President Lyndon Johnson’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he recognized would damage the Democratic Party in the South. The sad thing is that, in its origins, the Republican Party was the only party willing to take an anti-slavery position.

There are a couple of things that could be happening here, neither excluding the other. It could be that Southerners want to come to terms with the civil rights era and are beginning to face up to that history. It could also be that there is an attempt afoot to appropriate the narrative so that the South can remain blameless and, perhaps, victims.

I’d be pleased if Southerners were coming to terms with their history. We need a reconciliation among the various factions, and developing a narrative that doesn’t depend on stock good guys and bad guys would help. But the cautions on that are that the narrative needs to stay with the facts of history, and all parties need to be involved. So far, the effort to develop a narrative seems to be within the Republican/Tea Party only. I conflate the two, because it seems to be coming from both.

We need to keep an eye on this, encourage reconciliation where it exists, and slap down the lies.


foxmarks said...

No, you’ve missed a point.

The Democrats explicitly do not bear any stigma for their party’s lead role agitating against the Civil Rights Act. And concurrently, the Republicans, who supported the Act and the movement have been demonized in contradiction to the historical record.

Lexington Green suggested Beck’s Restoring Honor rally was in part to reclaim the triumph of civil rights for all Americans, both the now-reformed Democrats and the consistent Republicans. And even more so for the descendants of both who continue to suffer or receive false credit.

What either party did in 1960 or 1860 has little relevance to what they are up to now. You supported that notion with your assertion that all the evil Democrats became Republicans. Party identity has more to do with status signaling than honoring history.

Cheryl Rofer said...

[For those who didn't check out Chicago Boyz, foxmarks is continuing that discussion.]

I don't believe that there are idealized entities called "Democrats" and "Republicans." If there were, I would be a Republican for their role in ending slavery and for their liberal internationalism of the 1950s and 1960s. I do think that our two political parties contain multitudes - of people with sometimes strongly differing opinions.

So the Dixiecrats of the South were opposed to civil rights. I think that is the point that you are making foxmark, in your first sentence. But it was a Southern Democratic president, highly skilled in the ways of Congress, who twisted arms and got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. He recognized that the Dixiecrats would feel this was a betrayal and predicted that they would become Republicans. He was right.

Some Republicans supported the Act and the movement. That was before the doctrine of "just say no," so it was possible to negotiate within Congress. Wikipedia has the totals. Many Republicans did indeed support the bill. In the South, a few Democrats supported it, but no Republicans.

I think that Beck's rally is much more problematic than you make it, foxmark. Racist sentiment has been clearly expressed by Tea Partiers. That needs to be unambiguously repudiated by the Tea Party and Republican leaders.

So I agree that the parties' positions today are the main concern, although history tells us how they came to those positions.

And we see that today African-American and Hispanic support for the Republicans is minimal, probably the lowest it has ever been. That most likely has to do with more recent Republican party opposition to legal expressions of equality and the recent hysteria about immigration.