Monday, January 18, 2010

The Color of History

by Will Moredock

What is the lesson of history ignored?

January 18 was a beautiful day for a parade – 60 degrees and blue skies. A perfect way to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday.

I watched the annual King Holiday Parade from the front porch of my apartment, as it wound its way through my neighborhood.  It is a little ritual I have enjoyed since I moved to Charleston eight years ago.  I still get that childhood excitement that comes from hearing the bass drums and brass blasting on the street and there were several high school bands in this parade, delivering lots of verve and volume. There were also the floats and  convertibles bearing beauty queens, politicians and television personalities, who waved enthusiastically at the crowds along Sumter Street. A motorcycle club and a Corvette club cruised by with their respective machines. Churches and civic organizations were recognized with their floats or just pickup trucks with signs on the side. It was a wonderful  moment of Americana, the kind of moment that has almost been lost in 21st century.

Toward the end of the parade, I was drawn by the excitement from my porch to the street. As in the past, when I watched these King Day parades, I found myself almost the only white person in sight. It was a painful reminder that MLK Day may be a national holiday, but King himself is a hero to very few white people.  For them, the holiday to his honor is nothing more than a day to sleep in or go to the mall.

It reminded me of a Fourth of July some 15 years ago when I happened to be in my small hometown in the Upstate. I attended the celebration on Main Street and it looked and sounded much like the event in my neighborhood last week – bands and floats, politicians and beauty queens. They even fired the ancient cannon in the city park! It was a wonderful sight.

But there was something sadly missing. The throngs lining the street were all white. The occasion was as segregated as church on Sunday morning. Of course, there were no signs saying “Whites Only.” There didn't need to be. Blacks understood that the Fourth of July was not their holiday. The Declaration of Independence, establishing America's freedom from Britain, didn't do a damned thing for the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in bondage in this newly free nation.

Occasions such as these – joyous public events in many ways – only emphasize the deep divisions which still trouble our nation. In fact, it is as if we were two nations – black and white – each with its own heroes, its own history, its own holidays.

That could not have been more clear than at that same hour in Columbia, where thousands were gathered at the Statehouse to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. This is a battle that has been going on for decades and I will not rehash it hear. The presence of that flag on

sovereign state property is an affront to black people and those who deny that it has nothing to do with  slavery live in a delusion. (I find the statue of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, just a few yards from the flag, to be at least as offensive, but that is fodder for a future column.)

As for blacks, who have been organizing and protesting against the flag for years, their anger is understandable, but any reasonable person knows that removing that scrap of cloth from the front of the Statehouse will not improve the lot of a single black person in this state. What would improve the lives of black people would be to redirect the energy and anger that has been directed at the flag, and focus it on the pathologies that cripple the black community today. The plague of illiteracy, truancy, teen pregnancy, illegitimacy, drug abuse and violence holds back black people far more than any flag. The flag is only a reflection of attitudes and attitudes are what hurt people – both white and black attitudes.

Ultimately, there must be some acknowledgment by both sides that the other has suffered great historic pain. White people lost a war a century and a half ago that they cannot get over. Black people have endured more than 300 years of slavery and segregation.  Our histories are not the same, but they are part of a whole. One cannot be told without the other. When blacks and whites can appreciate and respect one another's history, maybe then we can finally heal this wounded land. Until then, we are two separate nations living side by side in the same country.

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1 comment:

  1. You speak an unfortunate truth. I agree with your thoughts and ideals. The only reason that I stumbled upon this article, is that I was attempting to prove to my white manager that MLK day is indeed a national holiday. Both black and white america have some "waking up" to do if this country as a whole is to move forward and rightfully claim our spot as the greatest nation on earth! I will continue to look for your future articles and may God bless us all.