Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Point of Reflection

I was thinking about Barack Obama's presidential campaign recently.

Well, scratch that. What I really was thinking about was the similarities between Obama's campaign and the Civil Rights movement. I would never compare the two events, but they are definitely linked in some interesting ways.

Recently, I 've been binging on non-fiction books, and I'm currently immersed in David Halberstam's The Children a massive tome discussing the work of the early organizers of SNCC. It's a topic I'm somewhat versed in having read two of Taylor Branch's three books on Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

What I've found extremely interesting about the book, well besides once again reading about a distant cousin of mine who was a minor celebrity in the Civil Rights movement, are the portraits it contains of some of the current movers and shakers in the black community back when they were young. James Bevel, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, Julian Bond and countless others are discussed in great detail.

Where Branch used his books to provide a step-by-step accounting of everything that happened during the movement and told his tales in a bland style, Halberstam provides detailed profiles of these leaders complete with enthralling family histories. It also doesn't hurt that Halberstam's prose is his strength, while Branch's strength was obviously his skill as a researcher. It's amazing to have these scions of the Civil Rights movement come to life, and it's incredibly enlightening to compare their college-aged personas to the people they are today.

One of the most consistently fascinating figures is John Lewis, the current United States Congressman. I'd heard about the amazing abuse Lewis endured to advance the Civil Rights cause, but this book not only recounted those ordeals, but also painted a poignant portrait of the inner spirit that drove Lewis. It is humbling to see his commitment to the movement.

Many of you may remember that during the Democratic primary campaign, Lewis was initially a supporter of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. It was only after intense criticism from the black community that he changed allegiances. I don't know Mr. Lewis, so I won't speculate on his motivations for supporting Clinton, but the way he dealt with the controversy, and way many people dealt with him, bore some resemblance to the power battles in the Civil Rights movement.

Lewis initially presented his support of Clinton as a point of individual loyalty. In contrast, his critics presented it as an example of unacceptable Uncle Tommin'. At the time when these charges were being leveled against him, I found myself agreeing with Lewis' critics. How could this black man not be appalled at the racism that Clinton and her supporters harnessed to attack Obama? How could he be so comfortable on the wrong side of such a crucial issue?

Hindsight is so very illuminating.

As I consider the book, I am reminded of how life slowly, but surely, changes us. Our priorities shift and our thoughts on what actions are right, wrong, prudent and foolish change as we gain more experience and more fear. It's much easier to judge someone, to label and denigrate them, when you have failed to grasp the totality of their journey.

As I read about the early lives of these Civil Rights veterans, I get a fuller picture of why some of them have succeeded and why some of them have failed over the years. With that picture, I get an appreciation for how difficult live is, how hard it is to hold on to youthful visions of who you will become and what values you will hold.

Over the years, the Civil Rights movement has received the same white-washing as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the result has been that many of us have an unhealthy idea of what the movement really entailed. It was not a magical moment when black people graciously put aside their many differences and were consistently united under one purpose. No, the movement was just as full of jealousy, anger, hubris and mistakes as our lives today. The black people of that time were gifted and strong, but so are modern black people. Our problem is not a lack of ability, but rather a lack of faith and vision in ourselves.

Obama's campaign was an example of what younger black people, along with other concerned citizens, could do to effect a change that few thought possible or prudent. Just like the Civil Rights movement, young and old had to work together to achieve a common goal, but was it most assuredly young people whose initial belief spurred action.

When you combine the faith and energy of young people with the experience and resources of older people, it's possible to do amazing things. In fact, the disparate qualities of the young and old reside within each of us as individuals, and when we combine them internally their is no limit to what we can accomplish.

Quite an interesting idea, don't you think?



MacDaddy said...

Yes. Fascinating.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

Lewis dont get the props he deserves - i will always remeber his bloddy head on that pic in selma

MacDaddy said...

It's so funny. I just wrote a post suggesting that, in order to really appreciate Sen. Obama's climb to the presidency, we need to read or re-read black writers or writers who have been speaking about the courage of blacks from the older generation whose courage and dignity resulted in the outcome of Obama getting elected.

Lolo said...

I read that Lewis came to more closely consider Obama upon reflecting on how it affects his grandchildren. If that is true, that that was the weight that tilted him into reconsidering the validity and strength of Obama's candidacy, then it is an example of your post.

I do understand and share the distaste for "transactional politics" but I also understand and have been witness, victim and beneficiary of it. We all have. It's the nature of checks and balances, voting blocs and lobbying. It was the cudgel that was carried softly, but definitely there, by the civil rights movement.

Lewis and so many unsung others literally risked their lives and bear the scars of those years. For that alone, I pay respect and take a moment before I presume just what was in it for them.

the uppity negro said...

I'm not at all diminishing the character that is John Lewis...please don't think it that...I definitely wonder how many of people in my generation would let a state trooper crack their skull and not fight back.

That being said...

I think the problem with a John Lewis mentality is that it rests on the laurels of old and relies on a cultural capital that's not compatible with my generation. I'm not convinced that a John Lewis mentality allows one to pass on the wisdom without reaching back to the modern civil rights era.

Honestly, street committee said that various black ministers were threatening to back Rev. Markel Hutchins down here in Atlanta who's FOOLFEST down here as opposed to John Lewis in his race this fall if he didn't switch his support to Obama.

I think it's a drawback of the black community that we have the older folks resting on the laurels of the modern civil rights movement and harping on old techniques and ideals that worked for the world of the 50's and 60's but have negated to take into account the zeitgeist of the 21st century. It's a new ball game.

And if I can be brutally honest, attending the funeral of a John Lewis and most certainly that of Andrew Young will not be a sad day in my life.

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