Winter 1969, Boston. I was driving a cab at night, while attending Harvard Divinity School. I had run through some scholarship and loan money, and needed cash. But I also thought it would be a good experience for a wannabe writer.
When I turned my cab onto St. James Street downtown and saw the kid in front of the Greyhound Bus depot signaling for a taxi, I knew my time had come.
It was nighttime in Boston, the winter of 1969. Cold. Icy. I was a Harvard graduate student with a pregnant wife. We needed money, and the cab companies always needed drivers. The cabs were junk heaps, the pay was lousy, the darkened city was a jungle. But the jobs were there, and so was I. And so, at that moment, was the kid, turning up the collar of a thin jacket against the bitter wind.
It was only about two-thirds of a block from the corner to the bus station, but in the few seconds it took to drive that distance, I went through a whole internal dialogue, something like this:
BOLTON, Miss.— It was here, in this majority-Black town of 441 people, that Representative Bennie G. Thompson attended a segregated junior high school. It was where his father spent a lifetime working as a mechanic and paying taxes, but never enjoying the right to vote. And it was where the future congressman, in the early 1970s, campaigned for mayor while packing a gun, after receiving threats from white people loath to give up their political power.
So it came as little surprise, to those who know Mr. Thompson well, that he was quick to mention Bolton, Miss., after gaveling to order the first hearing of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” said Mr. Thompson, the committee chair. “I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021.”
Jamelle Bouie is rapidly emerging as one of the more acute and important members of the rising generation of New York Times columnists. His career has followed a different track than previous generations of Timesmen, among whom almost all roads to the paper led through Harvard Yard.
Instead, after the University of Virginia, Bouie blogged his way into and through The Nation, The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, and Slate. And after a stint in Washington, he left the Beltway to make a home back in Charlottesville. There he caught the last stand of one of the larger statues of Robert E. Lee, and its removal from a downtown park. It was a dramatic departure, but the resistance to it, as Bouie makes clear, is far from over.
The view of America he shares from this perch next door to his alma mater and well inside the not-quite-but-pretty-Deep South is repeatedly trenchant and revealing and feels prescient.
In the excerpts here he combines alarm and historical depth to sum up the arc of my public life, and the gloomy prospects that beset its denouement, building from a question provoked by an unguarded moment when a reactionary Senator spilled the beans about the American right’s larger agenda:
How Are We Still Debating Interracial Marriage in 2022?
My fate was heavily shaped by a small card that came in the mail in late September 1965.
That card, and fate, are back on my mind now, 57 years later.
I was in Selma, Alabama when the card arrived, still working with the civil rights movement. A few weeks earlier the endurance, courage and determination of the Black people of Selma and many other places in the South had been vindicated by passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Not to ban the slogan. But to close it like a book, and put it on the shelf with others that have been read, which delivered value, and have become part of a reference collection.
In the almost sixty years since I was drawn into racial justice work, many such slogans have come and gone: like best-selling novels, page-turners in their day, then outpaced by new events, new stories and new mottos.
When I came along, it was all “Desegregation,” “integration,” “civil rights,” and “We Shall Overcome.” Back in The Day, they were stirring, often thrilling, and not a few sanctified with the blood of martyrs.
They didn’t disappear either. But they were elbowed aside, particularly by “Black power, just as ”Negro,” a term of respect which Dr. King spoke with pride til the day he died, was replaced by “Black” (which in turn is now jostling with “people of color”). And there have been many others.
For that matter, there was a long succession of similar mottoes before my time, going back over 250 years:
Among Friends there were manumissionists, such as John Woolman, urging owners to free enslaved individuals; then anti-slavery advocates, succeeded in the 1830s by abolitionists, radicals who aimed not so much at individuals as at the slave system.
After the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction, there was a long slow progression through guarded euphemisms like “Intergroup relations“ and “human relations” toward the more candid “inter-racial cooperation;” but not until after victory in World War Two did “human rights” enter the discourse.
Some of these terms receded because they were shown to have downsides: “Black Power!” centered African-American agency and justified anger; but it was vague about concrete goals, and some of its advocates slid into the dead-end of violence.
Today, many pretend not to notice, but “anti-racism” carries issues of its own:
It’s negative, against, against, against. There was a season for that, after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. But again, to construct justice, concrete goals are required.
It has become a coalition-buster, in a time when knitting together often fractious groups with similar needs and aspirations has never been so urgent.
Then, even more troublesome has been its impact on too many progressive whites. It has exacerbated our most self-defeating feature, the penchant for circular firing squads. I have seen way too much of this even in my small corner of the “progressive” subculture, liberal Quakers.
Because discomfort, anguish and other psychological distress is sure enough what I felt after spending an hour with one of the most successful teachers I ever had, Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark.
It was December 9, 1964. Mrs. Clark was then a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s executive staff, his inner circle. She had an office in his headquarters suite in Atlanta.
I was a brand-new recruit, called a subsistence worker, earning the grand wage of $25 per week.
I had told Dr. King’s chain-smoking office manager, Randolph Blackwell, that I was a writer, who could churn out copy on demand. I had done that in college back in Colorado, for the yearbook and the campus newspaper.
Blackwell said they needed some copy churned out, to keep up with the hurly burly of news.
On Meeting Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark─ Atlanta, December 9, 1964
On Meeting Mrs. Septima Poinsette Clark─ Atlanta, December 9, 1964
I sit down quietly in the chair, The older woman smiles and light
Reflects off frame glasses and gold rose earrings, the voice
Is like, is like the whisper of tires on a faroff nighttime highway Or maybe that of a Negro woman of sixty-six
Which it is.
She inhales to speak, I raise
My fine young journalistic pen, prepared to summarize Her story into ink traces,
To finish my entry blank in the Biographical Sweepstakes: “Tell us, in 150 words or less,
The substance of her life”; I am, of course, confident─
The smile fades back into equilibrium, and she says calmly: “My Father was a slave.”
I see, yes─the pen moves to the paper: M-Y-F-A-T-H-E-R-W-A-S-A-S-L-A─
Ahh, ha ha ha,
No, something isn’t quite right, She didn’t even blink.
Hands quiescent in her lap My Father─
Breathing is regular My Father─
You see, my father was a normal, middle-class guy like every- body else,
You understand that don’t you Mrs.–
My Father was
Yes, Yes, I know, but surely you can understand the difference was only superficial, just an accident of history that yours happened to be
─a slave (why in hell won’t she blink)
Well it was his own damn fault, wasn’t it─after all he must have known the Truth, because
My Father was
The Good Book, you know, says that
Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you─
Say that’s kind of a clever twist there Mrs.─ Ahh, ha ha ha. …
Lay down your pen and sniffle for shame, boy─ You there, the intellectual snot-nose,
Mucus running from your pen and you With the cheek to call it ink.
But then, you have been to a university
and so of course you know all about slavery
You even wrote a thousand-word paper on it (for extra credit, that is)
“… basically a part of the economic system, the indispensable
Of cheap labor for the harvesting of the cotton crop.. ”
But you missed the chapter in the non-required readings about
how to face a calm old woman who can look you in your smooth white face and say
And not even blink you say could you talk just a little slower please ma’am
I didn’t get that last part your father was a what
Just like my father except for one or two of those little accidents of History, heh heh
My aren’t we an educated magnanimous liberal christian, boy─ Go to the rear of the class, get out the dictionary and look up
the following six words,
then write for the next three hundred years after school is
out on the new whiteboard with the black chalk the following sentence which you may have run across some where in your supplementary extracurricular living:
My father was not a slave, That’s it, only at the end,
Put a question mark.
SELMA STREETS – February, 1965
by Charles Fager
Here along the Selma streets Old men like tree stumps, Young men like defaced pillars,
Whiskers and hair grease and dirty overalls, Keeping impassive hopeless vigils,
Fraying edges on society’s old, but not discarded clothes.
I spring upon them, a dangerous animal, Dressed in new overalls and enthusiasm, Hands full of transmigrated dynamite caps:
ONE MAN-ONE VOTE the caps read,
They offer no resistance when I pin the explosives on reluctant lapels, But then, of course, they never have.
“Come on down to the courthouse, come on come on… Nobody’s gonna hurt ya………………. ”
I’m right of course, nobody’s ever gonna hurt them anymore, but that’s not what I’m talking about, not even what I’m thinking….
“Yeah, OK (they don’t say Boss Man or Mr. Charlie (thank God?)), sure, “Ah’ll be downnere inna fewww minuss, sure
“Inna fewww minussa, sure “Inna feww, sure
Heads nod, graying whiskers flicker in and out of shadow, but the eyes say Go away go away, please now just go ahead on away;
The eyes look around me, over, beside, through, but not at, because I don’t Really exist, can’t exist, mustn’t exist (I’m thinking about
socioeconomic factors, the effects of a political aristocracy,
the philosophy of dynamic nonviolence and, of course, the existential value of
the local Negro religion, yes, professor, you see, as I explained fully in the footnote on page 47 of my thesis and as we can clearly see from MacElvain’s quite valuable remarks on the subject……….. ).
The walk back up to the listonclay cafe seems longer than when I came down the street, perhaps because the ragged lines of men (Children of what God?)
The sure, yeah OK men still are standing there, New buttons still offending their lapels,
Eyes still looking, perhaps now a bit more carefully, over, under, around and through,
Then at me when I’m past, but I see them doing it (go away go away go away) Words to an unsung spiritual, prayer of the nonchurchgoers, the Movement of Those no longer able to move.
Into the cafe, darkness and dirt, filthy flannel figure bending
Across the counter, observing the half-full beer glass as if
It held the answer and maybe it does; I spring again FREEDOM NOW button poised “Come on down to the courthouse fella, come on come on,
Nobody’s gonna hurt ya, whattsa matter, are ya afraid of losing your job–
(I am of course ready with my arguments to show that one must have courage, one must not be afraid to risk everything, one must)?”
But when he turns these eyes upon me (not over, under, around or through) and whispers, says, “Ain’t got no job,”
And turns back to the more understanding beer glass, Filthy flannel in the dark and dirt,
Only my mouth continues, throwing up a smokescreen until I can
Get away, away, get away quick, outside and past the
Dying tree stumps, defaced and crumbling pillars,
Glances at the periphery accusing me: you there, boss man,
How do you, O young white man of faith, deal with the substance of Things Hopeless, the Evidence of the Things that are Seen;
But I just walk on in my new overalls, and think of socioeconomics, And don’t say anything.
UNTITLED – SELMA, MARCH 1965
The trooper car is, of course, waiting when you get back to your car:
“Hey you” (flashlight beam, reflections off uniform brass, neck hairs fluorescent in headlight glare) “where you think you’re goin?”
To freedom. To heaven (to hell?) To anywhere. To–
“To the church.” (clear your throat quickly so your voice doesn’t falter) Yes, of course: to the church.
“Lessee your identification and the registration on that car… ”
Pull out the wallet and start the charade, let them examine your driver’s license etc., with extreme and exaggerated care, of course they have to get on the radio and check the car out through
Birmingham, outside agitators are an unsavory lot and it’s more than likely stolen;
But while you’re standing there, looking carefully off down the
nighttime street, notice the other trooper looking at you intently, intently:
“Where you from, Charles?” (listen to the question: something rings in it besides antagonism, there is more than one query in the words; look up at him quick, how can you answer without exposing the concealed questions?)
“Well (you want to say give me thirty seconds to think over my answer(s) at least)–“
“What,” interrupts the other trooper, “does that button mean?” and he points:
GROW--white letters on black background, Get Rid Of Wallace, what else, but you won’t say that, you don’t need to get beat up tonight, and besides you know that he asked it because he too heard some (not all) of the other questions
in his partner’s voice; so you have to answer him satisfactorily without letting it tear down the little bridge the other has extended.
“Well GROW refers to the philosophy of the whole movement
…” etc., etc., and so on, it’s hard, but the other trooper is still peering so the bridge is still there.
“MmmminmHhmmmm,” the questioner says; he of course
knows what it really means, but your straightfaced baloney throws him temporarily off balance.
Silence in heaven (and earth) for the space of about half an hour (minute). Then–
“Where’d you say you were from?” Listen again:
“Well, I was born” (yes I hear you) “and then we went” (can you give me your hand?) “and after that we” (just for a moment) “when I finished college–“
He nods a little and you know he heard; so did the other, and his guard is up:
–“Why don’t you get a good job back where you came from, and quit messin’ around down here?”
It was too good to last……. Just try to retreat with dignity and
without burning the bridge’s remains….
“Yeah, there’s other ways to settle this than in the street,” the other, his guard also now up, joins in. . .
There isn’t any answer for this, so just look down at the muddy street.
He hands you back your license and finishes up the charade: “Tell your boss to get some identification on this car, and we’re
Not letting anybody into the church. Only the sheriff could do that.”