Obama, the Rev. Wright and the legacy of Emmett Till
The recent uproar about Barack Obama’s former pastor has pushed a very explosive issue into the presidential campaign. The issue of our country’s history with regard to race is one that Sen. Obama literally embodies in his physical being as well as various political stances he has taken.
I’m responding to the attacks that he has endured because of the statements made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama has pointed out the failures our nation has made in trying to live up to the words in the Declaration of Independence that state that "all men are created equal." I am mentioning these events to give a more complete background to the Rev. Wright’s comments from his pulpit.
From his perspective, America is not always able to deliver on some very important issues, and the effect on him over time is to become enraged and at times to overreact. The wonderful thing about life in America is that we can address and remedy even the worst of problems when the collective will of our nation comes into play. The civil rights movement would never have achieved what it did if this were not true. That potential gives us the hope that Sen. Obama so articulately identifies as the force that can bring us together to effect positive change. I, for one, hope that people will unite and work together to make sure that the unfortunate events of the past do not kill the positive potential of our future. Together we can make the dreams of the Founding Fathers a reality for all Americans.
An example of this situation can be seen in the mess that developed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. Racist policies that were in place in the 1920s and '30s caused a hugely disproportionate share of grief to fall on the shoulders of the black residents of New Orleans. The decision to build homes in an area that is 12 to 15 feet below sea level, immediately adjacent to a lake and also located on a shoreline that sees hurricanes every hurricane season, could only be seen as wishful thinking. This disaster was bound to happen whenever a hurricane hit the coastline somewhere near New Orleans. A direct hit wasn’t even needed to inflict damage.
The incompetence and unpreparedness of the authorities who were supposed to do something about the disaster were seen by blacks as racism pure and simple. But actually the folks at FEMA were trying to straighten out a situation created by racist policies put in place 80 or 90 years ago. Again and again these situations rear up and bite us all and create more bitterness and distrust between different sectors of Americans.
The Rev. Wright suggested in one of his sermons that AIDS was intentionally allowed to infect people because it would probably do most of its damage in the black community. White Americans see this viewpoint as racist paranoia. But black Americans remember the Tuskegee experiment, when black men who had syphilis were left untreated intentionally so the progress of the disease could be studied by government doctors. This actually happened, and its memory has caused a collective distrust of doctors in the black community for which white Americans cannot see any rational basis. Again we are stuck with dealing with the evil deeds that were done before many of us were born.
Many of those situations were created by the response of the people of the old Confederacy who used the law to attempt to permanently ensure that blacks would never be able to achieve equal treatment in any of the Southern states. The failure of Reconstruction to secure the human and civil rights of black Americans is the real problem at the root of the lingering racial tension in America. Southern citizens wanted to make sure that no black person could rise up from the poverty and ignorance that had been imposed on them from the days of slavery. Violence was a key component in enforcing the Jim Crow laws. Between 1889 and 1918, 2,522 blacks were lynched in America, and nothing was done about it. I can remember [ed note: warning, gruesome] the picture of Emmitt Till, who was murdered in 1955. There was a trial of those accused of the killing, but an all-white jury acquitted the accused in very short order.
The people of Mississippi were very defiant in stating how sure they were that the accused would be found "innocent," which was what happened. Soon after the verdict came in, the murderer sold an article to Look magazine that gave the details of the kidnapping, torture and death of Emmitt Till. The white people of Mississippi had nothing to say at that point, and the rest of America seemed to shrug off the results as a quaint episode of Southern life. Contrast that scenario with the response to the murder of Nicole Simpson. When you do that you will get a sense of why black Americans are so paranoid about the actual reality of equal protection under the law. Just last week the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of a black man who lost his case in court because the prosecutor succeeded in his plan to eliminate all blacks from the jury. The O.J. trial was mentioned during the time the case was in front of the jury.
White Americans could not consider the reality of police brutality against blacks. It took the Rodney King incident to start any real change in attitudes on that subject. If Rodney King had tried to accuse the cops who beat him of brutality, he would have gotten nowhere. He was, after all, a large black man with a criminal record who was undoubtedly breaking the law. No white jurors would consider taking his word over the testimony of the cops. The only thing that changed the situation was an undeniable videotape that proved to anyone with any common sense that the beating was way beyond a routine traffic stop. It doesn’t surprise black Americans that DNA testing has uncovered dozens of unjustly convicted black prisoners. The faulty eyewitness testimony that figured so prominently in the conviction of these men is another symptom of racial divide. White jurors are too often comfortable with doubtful testimony if the accused is black. Prosecutors can make their careers by keeping those dangerous black thugs off the streets. Justice falls by the wayside in far too many cases.
Undoubtedly, black Americans have had the worst time of any ethnic group in trying to benefit from that concept. The vitriol in the Rev. Wright’s words is a direct result of what he sees when he reviews how that has played out throughout the history of this country. This is not to say that there has been no progress made in those situations, but sadly that progress has been too often slow and grudgingly acquired. Because of the nature of the problems, which in many cases were started in the 19th century, Americans in this day and age have to pay for issues that they didn’t cause and shouldn’t have to fix. But nonetheless we are stuck with the tab.
Photos, from top: Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright; credit: Trinity United Church of Christ and Associated Press. Emmitt Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley; credit: Chicago Tribune.