Civil Righting

February 25, 2018

IMG_0552I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.

IMG_0557The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)

IMG_0554There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.

IMG_0559The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.

IMG_0556The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.

IMG_0571There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.

IMG_0566This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.

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The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)

IMG_0567Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.

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The New Deal Is Old Again

October 28, 2016

img_0077We went up to Poughkeepsie (that name always makes me think of THE FRENCH CONNECTION) last Saturday to attend a glorious wedding, but first we took a side trip to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Hyde Park. The library is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The math doesn’t seem to work, does it? That’s because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no idea that he would serve a third term as President (he claimed he hadn’t even decided to run yet, but playa hataz on the right didn’t believe him) so construction began in 1939 and the facility officially opened on June 30, 1941, barely five months before the event that would determine the second half of his service as POTUS.

These days you need to hold up on the museum until your complete term is finished. Pubs wanted to make sure there could never be another wildly popular progressive like FDR: their solution was a Constitutional term limit. But liberals can’t really complain. Absent the 25th Amendment, Ronald Reagan might well have been re-elected way past his sell-by date. He would almost certainly have won a third term in 1988, yet even Reagan might not have been able to beat Bill Clinton four years later. His poignant letter to the nation (“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”), bravely acknowledging and declaring his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and giving a Reaganesque boost to research efforts, came in November 1994, and presumably he had already begun showing symptoms in public. The public would be unable to ignore the President’s illness.

img_0062I’ve been to a few of these POTUS museums — keep in mind that the primary mission of each one is not to preserve history but to make the boss look good — and FDR’s is right up there with the best of em. It’s not rickety at all for something that’s older than I am, and the display technology is fairly up to date: rear-projected video, sleek design, intuitive self-guidance. It’s clearly been modernized over the years, making the contemporary Roosevelt items look even more historic. My favorite display was a mockup of a typical Thirties blue-collar household ready for a Fireside Chat: clothes hanging from a line, the radio a centerpiece of the room. You’re invited to sit down at the table on the “set,” choose a Chat, and take yourself back in time.

This great cultural remove, the many titanic developments that separate us from the imaginary family in that room, struck both of us independently as we realized how eerily similar we are, all these years later. Too easily we tend to call this or that event “unprecedented.” Man, just about everything is precedented.

img_0059Historical events can appear inevitable in hindsight, but they weren’t at the time. People who agree with SCOTUS Justices Scalia and Thomas call themselves “originalists” and like to base their opinions on “what the Framers intended.” But a Broadway frickin musical gets closer to the actual atmosphere. The Framers were a bunch of argumentative partisans looking out for their own personal interests and pocketbooks, and they didn’t intend anything as a group. The Constitution wasn’t written on stone tablets by Jesus. It was hammered and pleaded and compromised into shape, and ratification was a series of bruising battles. The resulting document was the best these flawed people could do — and note that it was almost immediately amended ten times because some states demanded it.

img_0061Well, Roosevelt’s presidency was no less of a struggle. Despite being dealt the worst hand of any successor in Presidential history (Barack Obama received the second worst), FDR went to work almost immediately to move the dispirited country forward again. All these dopes who say, “on my first day in office, I’ll…” to get cheers from the cheap seats should be awed by what President Roosevelt accomplished in his first 100.

img_0056The first thing that struck us is that, much like today, Roosevelt had plenty of powerful opposition even though the country had officially grown desperate. (At least he was white, so he had that goin for him.) Private industry didn’t want to take the rap for the Depression, so the New Deal was roughly derided as Commie incursion by a volatile group of nay-sayers. That display up there on the first 100 days rightly concedes that some of FDR’s early proposals were failures. But at least he got the needle moving in the right direction — yet he was dogged at every turn. Even as war clouds darkened, isolationists begged to keep our concentration inward. Some were morally against war, others were morally against any disturbance to the fragile return of profit, and some farseers realized that grand-scale war could itself be very profitable, but that’s another story. The Orc hordes currently arrayed against President Obama (and almost certainly massing against a potential President Clinton) are nothing new — even today’s shameful level of disrespect has at times been seen before — and the most active, significant administrations have still faced constant braying from the other side.

img_0073“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” said Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the second thing we noticed was that luck plays an outsized role in any Presidency. FDR had a giant bit of good fortune on the horrible day of December 7, 1941. He had long understood that Hitler was the greatest worldwide danger, but there was a strong resistance to the US entering the war (some still remembered the trenches and mustard gas of the previous Great War). Then came the brutal surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. War with Japan was declared by an inflamed Congress — and the Axis’s Tripartite Pact meant that Germany and Italy were also at war with the US. So, only a week after the “day which will live in infamy,” Congress declared war with Germany without a single dissenting vote, and FDR had the authority he knew was necessary all along. He was lucky. The Axis did the work for him.

It’s easy to imagine the heated fervor of the time for anyone who lived through September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. Though we didn’t go so far as to set up internment camps for Muslim-Americans (some Americans wanted to; a few still do), the neocons in the White House saw a similar galvanizing opportunity. They could re-draw the map in the Mideast on the back of a national frenzy for revenge. The real motives for their warmongering (oil? strategic military bases? gargantuan wartime profits?) may never be known for sure, but we do know they were almost peeing themselves with excitement over an American presence in the region while the country rattled its sabers alongside them. Hence the tepid, nearly nonexistent opposition to the Patriot Act, George W. Bush’s warmaking power, and the hamhanded invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to the homeland whatsoever.

Face it, Americans frighten easily. Look at the overblown Ebola scare of 2014, during which I recall a sitting Senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, actually staring into a camera and warning, “We’re all gonna dah!” (Never mind the genuine scourge in Africa.) We as a nation have a knack for setting calamity aside when it happens far away, but when danger threatens at home we freak out. It happened in 1941 and it happened again sixty years later. That quaint little room with the radio has faded into history, but the thing is, history keeps repeating itself.

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