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Business Casual: Keeping The Faith

Fortunately, most people living in the South these days have no memory of the “white only” signs on water fountains and restrooms that once were commonplace. And the idea of complicated and humiliating registration procedures (counting jellybeans in a jar or naming all the counties in your state, for instance) for African Americans seeking to exercise their Constitutional right to vote seem as distant as horse-and-buggy transportation, if considerably less benign.

The televised commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches a few weeks ago, led by President Barack Obama and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, served as a reminder of how bad things once were and how much they have changed.

And yet, just as you were feeling warm and fuzzy, ready to lapse into complacency, a video clip surfaces showing a poisonously stupid bunch of fraternity partiers in Oklahoma chanting racist garbage.

If you are looking for irony, this happened on the same day, pretty close to the same time, that Obama, Lewis, 100 members of Congress and others – including the daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the segregationist’s segregationist – walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was beaten by state troopers when he attempted to lead the march a half century ago.

Hearing the partygoers’ chanting done in such a light-hearted manner is especially chilling set against the backdrop of young people dressed for a special occasion.

These are privileged college students, people who know – or ought to know – better. They are well-educated and in the process of becoming even more so. 

These are not underprivileged or economically oppressed people who have been manipulated into thinking others are taking what is rightly theirs. They did not grow up poor and ignorant in segregated times. Most of them were born in the mid-1990s and would probably have to have the term “Jim Crow” explained to them.

Of course, the president of the University of Oklahoma acted promptly to condemn and punish – two of the instigators were expelled within two days of the video’s appearance. The fraternity was kicked off campus. The national Sigma Alpha Epsilon organization was swift in dissolving the chapter and striking its members from the rolls. University students, faculty and coaches spoke out against the racism and its perpetrators.

Predictably, the two ringleaders issued apologies. Maybe they wrote them, maybe someone else did it for them. But apologies, effective or not, were called for. Real harm was done.

Among the consequences of the incident is that it calls into question the idea that things can and do improve. Are we just kidding ourselves when we delight in pronouncing our children and grandchildren colorblind? Is it all hopeless?

In this frame of mind, I went to hear Lewis speak just days after the Selma commemoration. He told of growing up in rural Alabama and how he used to preach to the chickens on his parents’ farm. And how the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to “get into some good trouble.”

He spoke without bitterness of the events of “Bloody Sunday” 50 years before, even recalling a conversation with his colleague Hosea Williams as they approached the bridge and were looking into the depths of the Alabama River. “John, can you swim?” Williams asked him. “No,” Lewis said, “can you?” “A little,” was Williams’ answer.

When marchers were confronted by the head of the Alabama state patrol and told to turn back, Williams asked if they could have a moment to pray. The answer was an order to the troopers to charge – and they did, brandishing their nightsticks. Lewis was struck and knocked unconscious.

He contrasted this with the recent commemoration and the honor of introducing the first African-American president. “I am blessed. I am blessed to serve in Congress,” he said. “I am blessed to be an American.”

There is work still to be done in what he calls the struggle of a lifetime, but there is no time to be wasted. “We don’t have time to be bitter, don’t have time to be hostile.” And, offering hope to anybody inclined to be discouraged, he said, “Anyone who thinks things haven’t changed, come walk in my shoes.”

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