Lisa and I went with another couple to see “Selma” last night. Despite some minor historical inaccuracies (our friends, who have been there, told us that the optics of the Nobel Prize ceremony were all wrong) and some major ones (the depiction of Lyndon Johnson as a feckless, reluctant leader, when he was in fact an active collaborator with King, has been widely criticized), the film is a powerful reminder of how difficult and violent the struggle was for the rights we now take for granted.
The movie should also remind us that those rights are fragile, and that the fight for them is never really over. The early scene showing the impossible gauntlet that would-be Black voters had to run in order to take part in elections must give pause to anyone who thinks that today’s voter ID laws serve any other purpose than suppressing minority voting.
A society that respects and nurtures equal rights for all also depends on honorable public officials, from local elections clerks to Supreme Court justices, who are devoted to the broader public good; today we may not tolerate politicians as sleazy as George Wallace or police as openly thuggish as Sheriff Jim Clark, but we should be just as wary of slicker politicians who blithely embrace laws that turn back the clock on civil rights, and be just as alarmed by unnecessary police violence against minorities.
The Texas I grew up in was as fully segregated as the Alabama of “Selma,” and even though King’s struggle was concentrated in the Deep South, as my friends and I grew older we began to understand how deeply ingrained racial separatism was in our own state.
When the call came for people to come to Selma for the march, some of us, high school seniors about to graduate and eager to enter the bigger world, hatched a short-lived plan to join it. The only problem was that our parents, who understood the real potential for violence far better than we did, wouldn’t let us go. My mom and dad, always cautious, also worried about what a possible arrest might do to my recent acceptance to the University of Denver and the scholarship that went with it. A chance to be a part of history thwarted!
As a young kid, I was oblivious to the issues of race and equality that would occupy more of my imagination as I grew older. Waco seemed somehow apart from the great struggle that was taking place in other parts of the country. Although the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in 1954, Richfield High School had no Black students by the time I graduated in 1965. In fact, a lawsuit was filed in 1974 over the failure of Richfield to integrate its 11th and 12h grades! So much for “all deliberate speed.”
In coming stories, I’ll be writing about these issues, but I don’t want to give the impression that Sleeper Ave. is going to be an ongoing political statement. What I’m doing here is a creating a chronicle of life as I experienced it growing up; most of my memories involve much more mundane and benign matters. The civil rights struggle was a small part of that history, but it was an important one, as “Selma” reminded me.
The next story, about a small but funny (in retrospect) humiliation in kindergarten, has nothing whatever to do with any broader social issue. Come to think of it, in today’s litigious world it might have been a cause for a lawsuit, but back then it was just another learning experience.