[This exploration of the nature of race and racism in American society, as seen in the context of personal experience, social science, and spiritual tradition, was given as a talk to students and some faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling. Rabbi Liebling is director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and a member of the Board of The Shalom Center.
Editor’s note: As a non-profit, Tikkun does not take stances on candidates or political parties during election periods, but our authors and readers are welcome to do so! Henry Giroux is one of the most creative theorists on the Left these days, so it is an honor to publish him here. Donald Trump and the Ghost of Totalitarianism
Henry A. Giroux
In the current historical moment in the United States, the emptying out of language is nourished by the assault on the civic imagination. One example of this can be found in the rise of Donald Trump on the political scene. Donald Trump’s popular appeal speaks to not just the boldness of what he says and the shock it provokes, but the inability to respond to shock with informed judgement rather than titillation.
The imposition of the “desire for mutual recognition” as the universal that ties us all together in common humanity onto the description of every social phenomena is ahistorical and undialectical—it fails to account for the concrete particulars of time and space that give exercises of social power a particular spin and story.
The “Tragedy of Selma?” you might ask. Wasn’t it a triumph for the civil rights movement? Did it not lead to further advances in that struggle? And if you are referring to the movie, is it not a triumph as well, getting a film that portrays one of the signal struggles of the Movement during the 60s with such searing honesty, no holds barred in dealing with the “Which side are you on?” question, applied to this event? Well, yes, the Selma March was a triumph for the civil rights movement. It played a very important role in getting/helping Lyndon Johnson to support what became the Voting Rights Act. (More on the “role-of-LBJ” controversy later.) It did lead to further advances in that struggle. The movie is a triumph as well, a brilliantly staged and acted docu-drama which, among other things, uses the real Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL as the setting for the real march that took place across it in 1865. (One has to wonder if the photographer, Peter Pettus, see above, was a relative of Edmund Pettus.)
Ironically enough, the bridge is named for a Confederate Brigadier General, who later, operating out of his law office(!), became the leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in Selma and went on to become a U.S. Senator from Alabama. This is particularly ironic in the context of the Voting Rights Act and the struggle to enact it. The Ku Klux Klan was founded very shortly after the end of the First Civil War by an association of ex-Confederate generals, planters, certain Democratic politicians, and other white leadership who wanted to return the civil society in the South as much as possible to what it had been before the First Civil War, with the exception of not having the institution of chattel slavery in place. (On the Klan, see also pp. 425-44 in Prof. Eric Foner’s magnum opus,Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Harper and Row, 1988.)
One of the principal objectives of the Klan, from the earliest days of its founding, was to prevent the newly freed slaves from the exercising the right to vote that had been granted to them by the 14th (1868) and 15th(1870) Amendments to the Constitution. The language of the latter is particularly instructive: “1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” But with the power first of the Klan, with the ever-spreading denial of the vote to African-Americans, and then with the institution over a period of some years of what was called the “Jim Crow” laws by the Democratic Party in the South, African-Americans were indeed systematically denied the right that had being guaranteed to them by the 15th amendment.
Thoughts about the greatness of Selma, truth, black and white unity, King and the clamor of racist patriarchs… by Alan Gilbert
The movie “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, is a subtle, restrained account of a period of the most extreme American violence against black people, focused on the leadership and struggles of Martin and Coretta King as well as the many who joined them in Selma and around the country. The experience DuVernay conjures, for instance, the horrific shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in a restaurant in Selma, his father’s grieving at the coroner’s office, Jimmie’s body seen through the glass and King’s compassion, is alive today in the movement Black Lives Matter! about the murders of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin… ***
The director sought to capture many people from the civil rights movement. In immersing herself in the words of the time and employing extras from Selma today, she aimed to find the truth and did. For the movie vividly captures the greatness and difficulties of the mass nonviolent civil rights movement, the most admirable way of doing social change that America, along with Tolstoy and Gandhi, has yet given to the world (John Brown is, in certain ways, a greater figure than King; King in the final two speeches, one to John Doar, a Johnson attorney, and one at the state capitol in Montgomery, both written for him by DuVernay, insists “Mine eyes have seen the glory.” There is a resonance of King’s last speech in Memphis about longevity and the mountain top as well as of the original song, the marching song of the North in the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body lies a mouldering in the grave” (the words were written over by Julia Ward Howe – the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was largely fostered to tame the memory of John Brown – but the original power still lives in them…)
Much pivots today on whether mass nonviolent campaigns from below, revealed in this film, offer a way out for a humanity threatened by endless war and climate change. ***
Coretta speaks of the death that was always near. DuVernay, in the second scene in the movie, follows the little girls accompanied by a boy on the steps going down to the Church basement in Birmingham, talking about their hair and the last talking about how Coretta King does hers…
DuVernay is an extraordinary film maker, and this is a woman’s (and a documentarist’s, a psychologist’s) way of seeing these moments of terrible violence.
Returning to face the violence at the root of a nation state connects the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. By squarely turning to face how the past lives in the present of both countries, we can move toward reckoning with the root cause of racialized violence in both the Israel and the United States.
My approach and Somerson’s should be two examples of dueling alternatives on the American Jewish Left, hopefully beyond the Left, in search of both a correction (tikkun) and a conclusion (siyum) to the injustices of one people dominating another.
Including Heschel would not diminish the film’s emphasis on the centrality of African Americans in the civil rights struggle, but it would have lent the film more historical accuracy, not simply about one man but as a representative of the role Jews played in the freedom struggle and as a reflection of the Civil Rights movement’s inclusiveness.
The actions of police officers aren’t supposed to be governed by fear. But Darren Wilson’s were. Wilson’s actions, however, weren’t “his actions,” but rather an outcropping of what theologian Sarah Drummond aptly calls “an epigenetic, cellular memory of loss and its resultant need for a scapegoat.”
For Whom the Bell Tolls
by John Donne and Reginald Lyles
Reginald W. Lyles is 1. the Senior Advisor for public safety to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan; 2. a retired career law enforcement officer (Command level); 3. a 30+-year Deacon of Allen Temple Baptist Church – one of the largest African-American churches in the country; 4. and a recent Master of Community and Leadership Divinity graduate and Bible Scholar Award-winner of the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Deacon Lyles teaches, trains and advises churches, governmental, and non-governmental organizations locally and across the country on public safety and civil and human rights. No man is an island,
Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
I say to many of my American Jewish colleagues who have justifiably marched and even been arrested protesting the death of Eric Garner; where are you when similar injustices occur against Palestinians like him all the time? Where were you when you saw similar acts of violence in Five Broken Cameras?