Back to Browsings

Off to the Races

March 1, 2022

With much talk in the air about Critical Race Theory, I’ve thought back to the day I heard and saw on our black-and-white TV, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, broadcast from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was August 28, 1963, just before I was to begin the ninth grade. As with many, the following sentence has stuck in my mind across the years: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It called for a sort of “color blindness,” the notion not received by those who turned fire hoses on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marchers in March of 1965. Today, the fire hoses of media contempt and cancellation are turned on the proponents of “color blindness” as they’re charged with indifference to the special plight of blacks. 

My parents were all on board with the civil rights movement, and we kids were involved in campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial candidates standing against the segregationist Dixiecrats—folks personified by Democrat Governor Orval Faubus, who called out the National Guard to block the access of Negroes (the term of dignity back in the day) from entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School. Little did I suspect that King’s statement of the ideal would fall on such hard times in the intervening years. The devolution from MLK to Ibram X. Kendi has prompted me to study up on the matter and begin work on a book I tentatively call I Heard a Dream. I’ve been collecting books right along, and I’ve turned to local libraries for others. Here are brief items from four I recently checked out from the Nashville Public Library.

Good Trouble: Lessons from the Civil Rights Playbook, by Christopher Noxon:

Rosa Parks is a household name, and, indeed a street name, as in Rosa L. Parks Boulevard here in Nashville. At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan’s Greenfield Village, I’ve boarded the very bus where she took her stand (or, rather, seat) and heard her name mentioned repeatedly in the various media, including the movie Barbershop, wherein “Eddie” (Cedric the Entertainer), had this to say,

There are three things that Black people need to tell the truth about. Number one: Rodney King should've gotten his [behind] beat for being drunk in a Hyundai in a white part of Los Angeles. Number two: O.J. did it! And number three: Rosa Parks didn't do nuthin' but sit her Black [behind] down!

Not the sort of reverential treatment we’d expect, but one that’s echoed to some extent in Noxon’s book:

Rosa Parks, with her granny glasses and her soulful stare, refusing to leave her seat on the bus. Getting hauled off to jail, prompting outrage, protest, boycotts, and within a year . . . The entire civil rights movement. As origin stories go, it’s got everything) . . . The other thing about the Rosa Parks story? She wasn’t the first black bus passenger to say, “No way, I’m not moving.” Two other women had the same experience on the same bus system in the same year—eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith and fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin. Both were handcuffed and locked up after refusing to give up their seats to white passengers . . . And thirteen years before that, Bayard Rustin was arrested for refusing to budge on a segregated bus in Kentucky. So why does every schoolkid in America know about Rosa Parks but not about Claudette Colvin or Mary Louise Smith or Bayard Rustin or the streetcar protests? Colvin was an outspoken, pregnant teenager. Smith was a poor girl from the country whose dad was a drunk. Rustin was a gay former Communist. Rosa Parks was none of that. She was a secretary at the NAACP, and while her arrest wasn’t planned, she was everything her bosses were looking for: She was dignified, middle class, and respectable. Would the movement have accelerated the way it did with Claudette or Mary Louise or Bayard out front? It’s hard to know—I hope so. They all faced the same oppression, and they all deserved to be remembered for their bravery. Even today some people resent how Rosa became the standard-bearer. One day in Selma I met a woman named Olla Fitts Moore. It always bothered her that Rosa “got all the glory.” “They put her out front just ‘cause of what she looked like—that’s what the white man did in discriminating against us. That don’t seem right. You being pretentious.” It’s troubling to think of leaders of the movement treating injustice like showbiz. Still, someone needs to carry the banner, and as much as we’d like to believe social justice crusaders are above base superficialities, Rosa Parks was undoubtedly right for the role she played—just as Sheriff Jim Clark was just the sort of racist hothead civil rights leaders needed when they chose Selma for their next big action—proving that in movements (just as in show business): Casting is key.

Say Their Names: How Black Live Came to Matter in America, by Curtis Bunn, Michael H Cottman, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, and Keith Harrison

In contrast to the winsomeness of Rosa Parks, we find a let-it-all-hang-out persona in many of today’s “civil rights” leaders. Certainly the rappers have done their part to coarsen the language as they “keep it real” in their jeremiads. And this book supplies us another sampling of nastiness, wherein Spike Lee manages to drop eight F-bombs in a spoken paragraph, a feat the authors of this book found acceptable and, perhaps, impressive:

Filmmaker Lee vehemently complained in 2014 about the attitude of wealthy white neighbors flooding his Brooklyn community and disregarding the established culture. During a Black History Month appearance at the Pratt Institute, he laid out his concerns and ire in no uncertain terms: 

“Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?” Lee said. “The garbage wasn’t picked up every [MF] day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. [Public School] 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. [Now], [w]hen you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something” . . . Then comes the [MF] Christopher Columbus Syndrome . . .You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing [MF] African drums in Mount Morris Park for forty years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house nineteen-[MF]-sixty-eight, and the [MF] people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He doesn’t every play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the [MF] house in nineteen-sixty-[MF]-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the [F] outta here! Nah, you can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and . . . like you’re [MF] Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.”

Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West, by Keith Ryan Cartwright: This is a fascinating book, with a foreword by Danny Glover. It covers a host of personalities and developments, from the emergence of a black rodeo in Harlem to the enlistment of black stunt riders for the movie industry.

His [Tex Williams’s] granddaddy, Morgan Williams, was a working cowboy and is believed to have been among the original Black cowboys who pushed cattle up the Chisholm Train from South Texas all the way to railroad in Kansas. His daddy, Collie “Big Preacher” Williams, was also a working cowboy, who saddled up at 4:00 a.m. every morning. Tex started riding in the saddle with his daddy at three years old, learned to ride on his own at four, and in high school, he became the first Black cowboy to win a Texas high school rodeo title. Williams won the bareback title in 1967, as a junior and then won two more championship buckles—bareback and bull riding—a year later as a senior. However, he never once competed in his hometown of El Campo because even though public schools were integrated in 1964, that never happened in Wharton Country, Texas, until almost a decade later. There simply was no accountability. Black teens in all sports, including rodeo, which is an individual sport and actually not affiliated with the school system, were told they could not compete, and there was nothing those kids, including Williams, could do about it.

Williams’s performance was “colorblind,” in that it was answerable to the same clock that ruled his white counterparts. And by that clock, he was awesome.

After willing a state title in 1967, Williams became the first African American to compete at the national High School Rodeo Finals, in Elko, Nevada. He rode bulls, bareback, steer wrestled, and was the runner-up for the all-around title even though “They kicked me out of the bull riding because, in Nevada, only seniors could ride bulls.” He didn’t win the steer wrestling, but he “threw one down” in a record time of 3.1 seconds. 

To put that in perspective, the fastest time recorded in the event, nationwide, in 2020, was 3.0, matching a record set in 1986 and equaled in 2001.

Just out of high school, Williams found himself as a draftee in basic training at Fort Polk, on his way to Vietnam. There, at a rodeo in nearby Leesburg, LA,  he encountered stiff opposition to participation in a rodeo. Same old same old, even for a young man about to put his life on the line for his country.

Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America, by Keith Boykin. Boykin’s a CNN political commentator, was a White House aide to President Clinton, taught in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia in NY and at American University in DC, and cofounded the National Black Justice Coalition. Here he demonstrates the sort of thoughtful thinking that passes for wisdom in the Ivy League (Columbia). Never mind Ben Carson as HUD Secretary and federal district judge appointments in South Dakota (Moorer), Virginia (Alston and Young), Florida (Smith), Texas (Pulliam and Brown), North Carolina (Myers), Oklahoma (Jones), and Michigan (Davis). Never mind that, as WSJ columnist Jason Riley (a black man) observed, Trump’s economic policies raised the fortunes of black Americans. Trump’s a racist all the same, as are many of his followers (whether outright or “adjacent”), and our nation needs to be rid of their “troubling presence.” Whew!

In the same way I knew in my bones as a college student that the old white Southerners I served at the clothing store in Georgia did not miraculously abandon their racist beliefs when legal segregation ended. I also knew that seventy-four million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 would not experience some transformative epiphany when Joe Biden, or any other Democrat, took office. If they weren’t all racists, they were at least racist-adjacent in their willingness to prioritize some other alleged political objective above the offense of Trump’s racism. Those voters and their children and grandchildren would remain a troubling presence in American for decades to come.