White Americans and the Civil Rights Movement

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People might get tired of stories about my father Ted and his summer in Mississippi. They might roll their eyes when I, once again, write about how he faced hostility and the KKK during his time in the places that have become legendary for their ferocious efforts at silencing Black voices and votes.

There are many out there who never heard of my father, but who are doing their damndest to make sure that people like him are silenced and forgotten. They are doing this because they have fallen victim to a disease that some call tolerance, others deride (justifiably) as “wokeness,” and still others call a reimagining of history.

To paraphrase Orwell, it is actually the “stopping” of history. And it is already leaving a brutal scar on the landscape of humanity.

Last week, in Burbank, Calif., a school district decided to ban the teaching of certain books that were considered offensive, demeaning and a source of what has come to be known as “microagression” against students of color. While the books themselves will still be available in school libraries, teachers have been told to “pause” their instruction, effectively consigning those books to the intellectual ghetto where only racists and the uneducated live.

And here’s a list of the books that will be “paused:” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Cay,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Roll of Thunder,” “Hear My Cry” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Some of the books were targeted because they included the “n” word, which apparently traumatized some middle school students in the district (despite the fact that they can hear it on a loop in rap songs and other cultural phenomena). That, however, is a traditional argument against certain pieces of literature which generally gains little traction in academic communities.

Another reason that some of the books have been sidelined is because they focus on white children learning about racism from wise elderly Black men, something that apparently offended the ban-seekers because it makes people of color supporting characters in their own stories. That is also a specious argument, since the wisdom imparted to the white children stems from the racism experienced by their teachers.

But the most troubling case deals with “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a book that not only won the Pulitzer Prize but was voted the most-loved American novel in a 2018 PBS competition “The Great American Read.” Outside of my father, that book is the single most important reason that I became a lawyer. And I am not alone. Generations of men and women entered law school in the shadow of Atticus Finch. So the suggestion that it should be banned, or even “paused,” is anathema.

It is also a sign of the perilous times in which we find ourselves, a “mockingbird” in the coal mine if you will. The main reason that people are beginning to openly object to Harper Lee’s masterpiece is because it places a white man at the center of the race narrative, turning him into its righteous hero.

Black Americans and their white allies have started to push back against the idea that white folks played a major role in the civil rights movement, and are reframing the struggle in terms that place Blacks at the center of events. And of course, there is nothing wrong with that given the towering figures who did populate the movement, people like Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, Cecil B. Moore and Malcolm X.

But does that mean we ignore the allies, people like the two young Jewish boys who shared a grave with a Black coworker in Philadelphia, Miss.? Does that mean we ignore the martyrdom of Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered while driving some Black friends back home after attending a civil rights rally in Alabama? Does that mean we ignore the teachers and preachers who marched arm in arm with their Black sisters and brothers across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, down the streets of Selma, into the jails of Birmingham and to the steps of the courthouses in Hattiesburg and Jackson?

When the movie “Mississippi Burning” came out almost 20 years ago, there were complaints that it glossed over the contributions of Black Americans in the struggle for civil rights. Fair enough. Tell that story.

But in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter uprisings, there has been a movement to amplify Black voices by marginalizing white ones. Allies have been told “thank you, but we got this now.” And that is a deliberate slap in the face to people who bled, fought and died for rights that are still hanging in the balance, people like my father.

So let’s make sure Atticus Finch is still hailed as a hero, not sidelined as an extra in the struggle for equality. To do otherwise is ignorance at best, bigotry at worst.

Copyright 2020 Christine Flowers. Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at [email protected].

Christine Flowers is a Philadelphian who loves the Eagles but can leave the cheesesteaks. She writes about anything that will likely annoy the majority of people, and in her spare time practices immigration law (which is bound to annoy at least some people.)