The White House Butler

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish.

A few years ago, we met Ruby Bridges, now a lovely and inspiring adult, who was the six year old girl in pigtails and a white dress, marched to first grade in New Orleans by four U.S. Marshals in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting. Ruby’s parents anguished and fought over sending her to school. Most of us could not have done that. I silenced my objections to something that happened in a West Virginia public school – I silenced my objections when other parents told me that the superintendent was vindictive. Not with my six year old girl. But Ruby’s parents, in an act of courage that should never have been necessary, sent her to meet the rage of an angry crowd trying to block her path to first grade in a formerly white school. Similar scenes of courage took place all over the segregated South. The kids, at the schools, the lunch counters, the Freedom Rides and demonstrations were endangered and the parents were threatened with loss of their livelihoods or run out of town.

And all of that was necessary. I was at the March on Washington we just celebrated. Living in D.C. that summer, I just walked over. But all of us were important in creating the crowd that amplified King’s words. He did not get covered when he spoke at my college. They didn’t cover him when he described his dream in Detroit. What it took, not only to cover his words but to change the politics of this nation, was violence. And King knew that, knew that he would have to prepare his nonviolent demonstrators to take life-threatening abuse and lead them into the face of violence, fire hoses, police dogs, bombings and murder, knew that what he needed to change the politics of race in this country was to put the vicious and violent faces of the people who were running and terrorizing the South on our television screens. Only then did the rest of the country understand the moral issue, demand change and applaud the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

Most of us don’t see the face of evil and then only when it is directed at ourselves. For all that a few prominent African-Americans have made it to the top in this country, much of Black America has been economically isolated as business develops in the white suburbs; they’re arrested and incarcerated for infractions that wouldn’t be pressed against others; and they’re left largely hopeless in ghettos deserted by banks, business, and city administrations intent on demolition rather than employment. To paraphrase Thomas Hardy, the world in its cruelty has not finished its sport with our African-American brothers and sisters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 3, 2013.

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