Posts Tagged ‘Civil Rights Act of 1964’

UNITED HOW?

I’m a citizen of the United States of America but have trouble defining United. As—when—the coronavirus pandemic winds down, how will Americans define the word?

During Congregation Sherith Israel’s Zoom Shabbat service last Friday night, Rabbi Jessica Graf asked what will our country be like post-COVID-19. It’s a good bet we’ll be facing a great many changes no one could have imagined as we rang in 2020.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Over the near-244 years of our national existence, some Americans have interpreted United as the bond between semi-sovereign states joined mainly by the need for a common defense. After all, the British returned to our shores in 1812. Beyond that, they see fifty states marching to their own drummers.

United still inspires debates about the Constitution regarding the extent of powers granted to the federal government and those not and so left to the states. States’ rights advocates long have sought to tilt the balance from Washington to state capitals. Their political ideology supported segregation for a century after the Civil War until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states’ rights advocates continued to resist Washington’s imposition on their “way of life.” Many still do.

Other Americans take a broader view of United, promoting legal and ethical standards that transcend state boundaries. They want to give Washington increased latitude, particularly to protect minorities.

The coronavirus pandemic has heated up this conflict. Responses have varied from state to state. That’s understandable. New York City, population 8.3 million, is not Deaf (pronounced Deef) Smith County, Texas, population 18,700. In a nation as large and diverse as ours, state and local initiatives proposed by people who know the territory may work faster and better. But guidelines put out by the White House then ignored by the Oval Office in its zeal to open the economy should still be something that, forgive the pun, unites us.

The pandemic will end. Many people are, or soon will be, proposing specifics either to retool America or leave it the way they found it. Or take it back to the time of their grandparents. Any discussion must first address our interpretation of United.

Does our cherished freedom—if we know what that means—demand that states go their own way even when, in many cases, they ignore sound public health policy or privilege some citizens over others? Should states refuse to follow directives from Washington not because they’re wrong but because they fear the “slippery slope” leading to the erosion of “freedom”? If so, can states match the power of the federal government to anticipate and mitigate public-health challenges, stimulate the economy and support the unemployed?

In essence, are we “one nation under God”? (Does God have anything to do with it?)

I’m skeptical that enough Americans will pull together rather than separate themselves by region, state, county, city or town, even neighborhood. As the late House speaker Tip O’Neill (1912-94, Dem.–Mass.) famously remarked, “all politics is local.” I get that.

But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, “To bet against the human tendency to relapse into old bad habits is foolish. Tragedy tends to foster expressions of idealistic unity that prove fleeting.” I get that, too.

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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

America generally accepted racism in 1871, even though the Civil War had ended six years earlier. A century later, bigotry stood officially condemned. Yet prejudice had its champions. Today, those champions have champions. 

On Laura Ingraham’s February 20 Fox News show, author/journalist Raymond Arroyo rebutted the furor resulting from the resurfacing of a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne. The Hollywood legend friends called Duke told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” 

Arroyo claimed that Wayne shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Ingraham agreed and likened protestors to the Taliban and ISIS, who “don’t want any vestige of what was.” 

So, what “was” in 1971? Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier. Although millions of whites fought desegregation and equal rights, America officially took a new stance towards racial equality. It was inevitable. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against the concept of separate but equal schools. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Before and after that decision, thousands of black Americans died for our country. Theircountry. 

Educated and responsible citizens? In the ’60s, I viewed my fraternity brothers Paul and Bob, my officer candidate school buddies Kent and Cliff, and L.M., starting center on the Fort Sam Houston post basketball team I coached for two seasons, as more than well-educated to the point of responsibility. Exemplary African Americans? No. Exemplary men.

Duke Wayne’s comments become more reprehensible because he stood as a symbol of American manhood. The symbol was false. His real name? Marion Morrison—although that’s not an issue. Until about the time of Wayne’s comments, Hollywood required actors to adopt short, Anglo-Saxon sounding screen names. These often mollified moviegoers uncomfortable with seeing “foreigners” on the silver screen. (Blacks played maids and train porters, Asians maids and gardeners.) Tinseltown disguised Jewish stars like Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfruend), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and Judy Holliday (Judith Tuvim).

Wayne’s heroism? Celluloid myth. He played courageous cowboys and World War Two servicemenas an actor. During the war, the military rejected him because of his age and status as a father. To Wayne’s credit, that dissatisfied him. He made USO tours and visited wounded veterans in hospitals—worthy endeavors but hardly on a par with those who endured combat.

In the post-war years Wayne, a conservative, vociferously supported the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC blacklisted many Hollywood actors, writers, directors and others for liberal and/or communist sympathies during the Depression years. It destroyed careers, damaged lives. 

Laura Ingraham’s giving a pass to John Wayne’s racist views helps maintain an environment of hatred that over the past three years has crawled out from the shadows. Recently, an Alabama newspaper editor called on the Ku Kux Klan “to night ride again.” And federal agents in Maryland arrested a white-supremacist Coast Guard officer with a large arsenal of weapons. They accused him of plotting to kill Democratic members of Congress, television journalists and others. 

Should today’s racists be exonerated because their views reflect those of a supposedly cherished—and deeply flawed—past? Should their views be accepted because they match those espoused by a current self-proclaimed hero who also never served in the military? The Laura-Duke hate story deserves no love.

For a detailed look at Washington’s Hollywood purges, read Victor Navasky’s 1980 National Book Award winner, Naming Names.

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