01/20/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Shoring the Levy of Civil Rights

On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a re-post from a friend reminded me what Dr. King actually did. The original post was a very well written piece from Hamden Rice from 2011. A primary point here is that we have an amnesia about what life really was like before civil rights, allowing Fox News pundits to crow about reverse discrimination and the Republican National Committee to tweet out thanks to Rosa Parks for ending discrimination.

I was born in the midst of the civil rights movement, so life in the Deep South was changing quickly for that and other reasons. In the early 1960s, Florida was, I like to say, still in the South, with clear racial divisions in every town and a thoroughly subjugated "Negro" population. Negro was the nice term my elders used, along with "coloreds" and a litany of outright slurs including "tar-baby" and "jigaboo." I hope this does offend people--these are not my words, but they are still in use, and to deny that risks a return of the old inequality.

I knew the attitudes of the Old South fairly well. The Klan was still very active, and my father knew many of them, including the Orange County sheriff. One never saw the African Americans (I'll return to that term now, though I am still never sure what is best) unless they were laborers or maids in your house or a nearby grove, or if you simply saw them while driving past a rural shanty town. What I did not know in my youth was the extent of the violence. I simply thought the scarcity of African Americans was an effect of where they lived or some natural force that kept the races apart, not a desperate attempt to avoid the lynchings and rapes that were still fresh wounds in their psyches, and still possible if a white person was offended or just got the urge.

Mr. Rice reminds us of that other lived experience, the constant dread and terror of forceful and absolute segregation. He reminds us that Dr. King was a major motivating force in getting the African American communities and individuals to stand up to the intolerable conditions. And he reminds us that the cost was not only Dr. King's life, but also many others, and many beatings and jailings and burning crosses on the lawns along the way. There were sympathetic white people, to be sure, but they could go home and be generally safe as they slept.

I must say, still spending time in parts of the South, that the new civility is a thin veil. The US is not nearly post-racial, or we would not have gerrymandering congressional districts and ID laws, not to mention Trayvon Martin's death. We would not have grossly dissimilar rates of incarceration and wage inequity. We would not have conservatives who make it their mission to impeach or at least thwart the black president, even if Obama is half-white (that is even more offensive, by the way). These are the result of centuries of collectively created worldviews, so entrenched in our societal narratives that African Americans themselves show prejudice and fear toward images of black men in psychological experiments.


So yes, let us all celebrate our progress on this day honoring Dr. King. Let us not forget, however, the conditions that mandated his actions, because too few people remain who speak out, and they are too easily dismissed by a media system slanted toward the amnesia. And let us not slumber silently as the state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and Congress actively undo what was so hard-won. The tide has turned, unbelievably, against civil rights in North Carolina, in Texas, and throughout the old slave states, including my native Florida, and each restrictive law requiring a particular ID that is hard to get, each erosion of women's reproductive and health rights, each redneck wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, "It's a White House, Nigger!" chips at the levy protecting us all. If we are not all truly equal, as we march our military out in the name of freedom and democracy, then what are we but hypocrites afraid to look ourselves in the eye? We're better than that, if we remember the truth.

Thank you Graham Sale for permission to use your cartoon.