Sunday, September 15, 2013

Empty Gestures and Photo Ops

Fifty years ago today they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Four little girls were killed.


I've written about that twice before, though neither time was the bombing (a terrorist act, a hate crime, perpetrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan) and it's immediate aftermath my subject.

The first time, it was to talk about Chris McNair, the father of Denise McNair who was killed that morning.  He is, by all accounts, a man of uncommon decency.  Rather than be embittered by his loss, he became an agent of healing in Birmingham.  Two years ago, when I wrote about him, he was 85.  And he was beginning a 5-year stretch in the federal pen for corruption.  He was hoping for some mercy in the form of a pardon from his Barakness, a man who has revealed himself to be singularly unmerciful and unforgiving.

The second time, it was to talk about an empty congressional resolution.  Give, posthumously of course, Congressional Gold Medals to the four girls.
Because of their "extraordinary sacrifice."   Which I suppose it was, since they died.  And their murder - a hate crime, an act of terrorism - did in fact jump start Congress into actually passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was one hell of an achievement.
It is right that they should be remembered.  As a constant prick on our collective conscience.  We did this to them.  But we did it to countless others, too.  We're big on hatred and violence.
Because really, they didn't sacrifice.  Oh, they gave their lives.  But it was unwitting.  They were part of a ritual they didn't know existed and weren't aware of while it was happening.  And, of course, they had no idea that anything - good or ill - would follow.
If there was a sacrifice, it was by the murders, the terrorists.  Not a sacrifice to the gods but to hate.  Not to end suffering, not to propitiate, but as a promise of more to come. 
There was, I noted, a disagreement among the surviving members of the girl's families.   Sarah Collins Rudolph, the then-12-year-old sister of Addie Mae Collins, didn't want the medal.  Rudolph lost an eye and was nearly blinded in another in the bombing.  No medal she said.  She wanted reparations.
"I am not going to go get the (medal) until justice has been fulfilled," said Rudolph, now 62, during an interview on Friday at her home in a Birmingham suburb.
Same for Fate Morris, the brother of Cynthia Wesley who wants not only reparations but also for his sister to be remembered by her actual name, Cynthia Morris.

The McNairs, on the other hand (remember Chris, agent of healing) they liked the resolution.
"We feel that this honor given by Congress means that our great country recognizes the sacrifices made for freedom in our country," said Lisa McNair, 49, the sister of Denise McNair.
Well, as Diane McWhorter says in an essay in today's Times, they got the medals.

Sarah Collins Rudolph showed up.  Back in May, when Obama signed off on the congressional resolution, she didn't attend the ceremony.
I’m letting the world know, my sister didn’t die for freedom. My sister died because they put a bomb in that church and they murdered her.
But as it turns out, she did go and collect the medal at the official ceremony last week.  Chris McNair was there, too.  No pardon for him, but he had qualified for a new Justice Department program offering a few aging souls "compassionate release."  Fate Morris was there, too.  And so was Diane Braddock, sister of Carole Robertson.  Nominally, they were the focus.  Rudolph, as the fifth victim, was asked to stand.

But the official photographs and the report?  There's John Boehner handing out the medal.  And next to him Mitch McConnell.  And there's Harry Reid and Nancy Peolosi.  And Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.  The resolution honoring the four heroic girls (heroism of a peculiar sort - not because of who they were or what they did but because they were random victims of hatred and terrorism and racism) passed both houses of Congress unanimously.  Why not?  It was cheap.  A bit of self-congratulatory theater.

When the girls were killed, it helped prick the conscience of a nation that still had one and pushed Congress toward enacting the Civil Rights Act.  No cheap medal that.

Congress could, if it were so inclined, honor the memory of those girls by holding the hearings and making the findings to reinforce the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court just did its best to gut.  It could actively embrace equal opportunity and recognize that class division is a bad thing.  It could advocate for the poor rather than the rich.  It could eliminate the war on black people drugs.  There is much that it could do.  I won't be holding my breath.  

McWhorter writes,
We are understandably drawn to cheaper correctives: posthumous pardons for the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama; plaques at the Birmingham city hall dedicated, in August, to Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, two other black children killed by whites on Sept. 15, 1963. If the structural changes achieved by these symbolic gestures are roughly none, their appeal is that they also cost nothing. To wit: the Congressional resolutions conferring the medal last spring passed unanimously.
When she talks about what "cost nothing" she really is speaking of dollars and cents, as her piece makes clear.  But cash is only part of it (a real part, but only part).  What's needed is action rather than "symbolic gestures" by a government that has no interest in more.

Fifty years ago today, in an act of hatred and violence and terrorism, 19 sticks of dynamite were planted and set off at the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Four girls were killed in the explosion.  Some 20 others were injured. 

The medal is gold.  Embossed with a picture of the church on one side and pictures of the girls on the other.  Is it petty to think that maybe they could have done more?
 

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