Barry’s Blog # 227: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Three of Four

Conflicting Images of the Other in the South

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?

A: I don’t know and I don’t care!

The old joke comes close to explaining the stunning combination of racial animosity and innocent ignorance that white Americans accepted as reality in the early 1960s. Only about 6% approved of interracial marriage, while 84% were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity. 

Even though anti-segregation protests had been happening for years, most whites had been unaware of a national movement for racial freedom until most acquired televisions. Rather abruptly, it seemed that by sitting in at lunch counters across the South, the Other was stepping in from his and her internal exile, demanding to sit at the same the table as the master. Insisting that neither freedom nor equality was possible without the other, the Civil Rights Movement defined freedom in terms of inclusion. But for Southern whites (and later for Northern whites as well), inclusion meant something that absolutely threatened their myth of innocence: meeting the Other on equal terms.

Are you old enough to remember those “black-and-white” photos and newsreel films of the demonstrations and attempts to desegregate schools? Find some videos online and notice several things. First: the dignity, determination, religious fervor and conservative attire of the African Americans. Second: the presence of northern whites accompanying them. Then, as the camera pans back, we comprehend the broader context: hundreds of local whites, brought to the scene by the possibility of seeing or participating in violence – with fury or fear on their faces.

We see the burning crosses, the police dogs and the fire hoses. 3fa7aa2fcd1f5620c09ce94f6ea6ee7d Civil rights

But we also see leather-clad toughs and housewives in high heels taunting the marchers with astonishing profanity.

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What we don’t see is the 350-year legacy of fear that turned working-class whites and blacks into adversaries. We don’t see the religious conditioning that divided whites internally, against their own bodies. We don’t see the heritage of alienation that required the construction of an entire race of scapegoats so that whites could cling to their privilege and their innocence. 660cfe378ff2771182ec515625b8057c

Still, the demonstrators are merely sitting quietly, singing or marching in silence. Why is there such rage on the white faces? Certainly, blacks are demanding equality and whites fear some economic loss. But furious, violent, out-of-control rage?

Perhaps it is because the blacks aren’t “shuffling and jiving,” lowering their heads or stepping off the sidewalks to let them pass. Perhaps because they are no longer presenting the false persona of childish or contented servant. Perhaps it is because some are looking the whites directly in the eye for the first time in anyone’s memory, refusing to call them “sir.”

I propose that then (and, sadly, 60 years later) the whites, whether “crackers” or prosperous shopkeepers, were facing a profound dilemma. They could no longer successfully project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they faced an Other who was themselves.

In another context, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

…and they searched his prison

but could only see themselves in chains.

White violence wasn’t merely intended to disrupt the marches. Here is the secret: the whites were trying to incite the blacks into retaliating in anger, to move their bodies, to dance, or at least to lower their heads. They were hoping to provoke them into re-inhabiting the psychic space of the Other, so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of self-awareness. Whites were desperate to remove it from their own shoulders and place it back where it belonged.

But how could they do that when (a few years later) blacks were chanting, “Black is beautiful?” If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen? And if the citizen has his innocent persona stripped away, what then rises to the surface? How could it not be self-hatred? Rather than facing it, Americans have long learned to channel their darkness into religion, substance abuse, consumerism, race hatred and a unique capacity to seek out and enjoy vicarious violence.

The miracle of the early 1960s is not the legal freedoms and voting rights won by African-Americans, but the fact that they could hold so much hope amid such hatred without retaliating. The movement eventually failed when they could no longer restrain their own rage within the ritual container of pacifist religion and finally struck back.

Langston Hughes wrote,

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

So much had been promised – even poor families now had TV and could see what the Good Life appeared to be – and so little was delivered. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed because his other war against Vietnam was bankrupting the nation. Historian Milton Viorst wrote, “…rising expectations prevalent in the mid-1960’s had transformed everyday discontent into an angry rejection of the status quo.”

After the Watts riots of 1965 a phrase that perfectly articulated the return of the repressed – Black Power! – first appeared. stokely-carmichael_051111  In 1967 (ironically the same year that the Supreme Court finally struck down the last Southern laws prohibiting interracial marriage) blacks rioted in 23 cities, leaving scores dead and thousands arrested.

Once Blacks refused to submit, two things resulted. First, many others – students, women, Native Americans, Latinos, prisoners, disabled people, environmentalists and gays – also rose up. 1968 was a surreal explosion of televised war carnage, anti-draft demonstrations, political assassinations, ferocious riots and mayhem at the Chicago convention.

Secondly, public opinion, which had solidly favored civil rights, began to change. TV showed not only the rage but also ecstatic images of blacks looting only blocks from the White House. Violence was familiar, but this was new: the internal Other would no longer serve as primary victim of American violence. The white middle class was losing jobs and feeling disenchanted, exhausted, victimized and vulnerable to reactionary backlash.

Hollywood saw the opening and responded with vigilante movies (starring Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris) in which solitary redeemer-heroes, in an old mythic format, took matters into their own hands and cleaned up the urban chaos with brutal violence. Everyone knew what “urban” meant. And everyone was familiar with the mythic themes that the film Fort Apache, the Bronx invoked.

Conservatives, also seeing an opening, were quick to perceive class differences between white anti-war activists and returning soldiers, as well as the police they were fighting. When the National Guard exploded in violence at Kent State in 1970 (few even noticed the black students killed a week later by state police at Jackson State College in Mississippi), the public was outraged at the students, not their killers. Viorst writes that many rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last…the students deserved what they got.”

“The act” was the murder of the children – white, educated – in a nationally televised, ritual sacrifice of a new scapegoat. Enough youth had rejected American values so completely that, to the shocked elders, it seemed that they had become the Other. They were acting “just like blacks,” and this, finally, was unacceptable.

Although America had been killing the children in Vietnam for years and in the ghettoes for generations, here was an unmistakable response from their elders: Your purpose is to be like the fathers, or to die. Shortly after Kent State, while students were striking at 450 campuses, thugs attacked peaceful demonstrators while New York City police watched.

Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA poised with a knife over Isaac.

The myth of innocence had weathered a series of terrible shocks, but its image of the internal Other had survived. Whites no longer perceived blacks as discreet, religious, non-violent saints who were shaming America into remembering its values. They were now dashiki-wearing, long-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists who ruled the city streets at night – “Black Panthers.” And the panther was Dionysus’ animal. The Black man once again carried the projection of America’s Dionysus. And one could well ask, Did the South actually win the Civil War? 

Read Part Four here.

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