In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.
The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.
All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.
Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.
While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t. Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.
We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.
In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.
Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.
I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?
What if today we are all just like them?
And so the color line remains.