2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

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