Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Historical Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement from 1960-1964

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1964

While the non-violent movement for civil rights started in the 1950s, it was during the early sixties that non-violent techniques began to pay off. Civil rights activists and students across the South challenged segregation, and the relatively new technology of television allowed Americans to witness the often brutal response to these protests.

By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to push through the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. This timeline of the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement reveals just what an impressive number of historic events happened between 1960 and 1964.


On February 1, four young African-American men, students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College, go to a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sit down at a whites-only lunch counter. They order coffee. Despite being denied service, they sit silently and politely at the lunch counter until closing time. Their action marks the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, which sparks similar protests all over the South.

On April 15, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee holds its first meeting.

On July 25, the downtown Greensboro Woolworth desegregates its lunch counter after six months of sit-ins.

On Oct. 19, Martin Luther King, Jr., joins a student sit-in at a whites-only restaurant inside of an Atlanta department store, Rich's. He is arrested along with 51 other protesters on the charge of trespassing. On probation for driving without a valid Georgia license (he had an Alabama license), a Dekalb County judge sentences MLK to four months in prison doing hard labor. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy phones King's wife, Coretta, to offer encouragement while his brother, Robert Kennedy, convinces the judge to release King on bail. This phone call convinces many African-Americans to support the Democratic ticket.

On December 5, the Supreme Court hands down a 7-2 decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case, ruling that segregation on vehicles traveling between states is unlawful because it violates the Interstate Commerce Act.


On May 4, the Freedom Riders, composed of seven African-American and six white activists, leave Washington, D.C. for the rigidly segregated Deep South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), their goal is to test Boynton v. Virginia.

On May 14, Freedom Riders, now traveling in two separate groups, are attacked outside Anniston, Alabama and in Birmingham, Alabama. A mob throws a firebomb onto the bus that the group outside Anniston is riding. Members of the Ku Klux Klan attack the second group in Birmingham after making an arrangement with the local police to allow them 15 minutes alone with the bus.

On May 15, the Birmingham group of Freedom Riders is prepared to continue their trip down south, but no bus will agree to take them. They fly to New Orleans instead.

On May 17, a new group of young activists join two of the original Freedom Riders to complete the trip. They are placed under arrest in Montgomery, Alabama.

On May 29, President Kennedy announces that he has ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enact stricter regulations and fines for buses and facilities that refuse to integrate. Young white and black activists continue to make Freedom Rides.

In November, civil rights activists participate in a series of protests, marches and meetings in Albany, Georgia, that come to be known as the Albany Movement.

In December, King comes to Albany and joins the protesters, staying in Albany for another nine months.


On August 10, King announces that he is leaving Albany. The Albany Movement is generally considered a failure in terms of effecting change, but what King learns in Albany allows him to be successful in Birmingham, Alabama.

On September 10, the Supreme Court rules that the University of Mississippi must admit African-American student and veteran James Meredith.

On September 26, the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, orders state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering Ole Miss's campus.

Between September 30 and October 1, riots erupt at over Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi or "Ole Miss."

On October 1, Meredith becomes the first African-American student at Ole Miss after President Kennedy orders U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure his safety.


King, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organize a series of demonstrations and protests to challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.

On April 12, Birmingham police arrest King for demonstrating without a city permit.

On April 16, King writes his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he responds to eight white Alabama ministers who urged him to end the protests and be patient with the judicial process of overturning segregation.

On June 11, President Kennedy delivers a speech on civil rights from the Oval Office, specifically explaining why he sent the National Guard to allow the admittance of two African-American students to the University of Alabama.

On June 12, Byron De La Beckwith assassinates Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi.

On August 18, James Meredith graduates from Ole Miss.

On August 28, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is held in D.C. Around 250,000 people participate, and King delivers his legendary "I have a dream" speech.

On September 15, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed. Four young girls are killed.

On November 22, Kennedy is assassinated, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, uses the nation's anger to push through civil rights legislation in Kennedy's memory.


On March 12, Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam. Among his reasons for the break is Elijah Muhammad's ban on protesting for Nation of Islam adherents.

Between June and August, SNCC organizes a voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer.

On June 21, three Freedom Summer workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman--disappear.

On August 4, the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman are found in a dam. All three had been shot, and the African-American activist, Chaney, had also been badly beaten.

On June 24, Malcolm founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity along with John Henrik Clarke. Its aim is to unite all Americans of African descent against discrimination.

On July 2, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in employment and in public places.

In July and August, riots break out in Harlem and Rochester, New York.

On August 27, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDM), organized to challenge the traditional state democratic party that had excluded African Americans, sends a delegation to the national Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They ask to represent Mississippi at the convention. Offered two seats at the convention in turn, the MFDM delegates reject the proposal.

On December 10, the Nobel Foundation awards MLK the Nobel Peace Prize.

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1963-1964:

1963: The defining year of the civil rights movement

Fifty years on, we look back at the year that signalled the beginning of the modern era

by Gary Younge
The Guardian
6 May 2013


On 28 August, in the shadow of Lincoln's monument, Martin Luther King announced to the March on Washington during his famous "I have a dream" speech that "1963 is not an end, but a beginning". For legal segregation, it would turn out to be the beginning of the end. The year started with Alabama governor George Wallace standing on the steps of the state capitol in hickory-striped trousers and a cutaway coat declaring: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever." The civil rights leadership was ambivalent about the suggestion of a national march and President John F Kennedy was focused on foreign affairs. Within a few months Alabama would become internationally renowned as policemen turned dogs and high-pressure water hoses on children as young as six in Birmingham. Civil rights leaders were running to catch up with the militancy of their grassroots activists and the Democratic House majority leader told Kennedy: "[Civil rights] is overwhelming the whole programme".

This phase of civil rights activism did not start in 1963. Far from it. Until that point there had, of course, been many fearless acts by anti-racist protesters. On 1 February 1960, 17-year-old Franklin McCain and three black friends went to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, and took a seat. "We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done. The worst thing that could happen was that the Ku Klux Klan could kill us … but I had no concern for my personal safety. The day I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration," he told me.

But in 1963 the number who were prepared to commit such resistance reached a critical mass. "In three difficult years," wrote the late academic Manning Marable in Malcolm X, "the southern struggle had grown from a modest group of black students demonstrating at one lunch-counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century".

The pace and trajectory of these changes were global. Two days after McCain's protest, British prime minister Harold Macmillan addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town with an ominous warning: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent," he said. "Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact." As the decade wore on, that wind became a gale. In the three years between Macmillan's and King's speeches, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika and Jamaica all became independent. "The new sense of dignity and self-respect on the part of the Negro," King argued in a 1960 essay, The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness, was due in part to "the awareness that his struggle is a part of a worldwide struggle".

Civil rights protestors are attacked with a water cannon. Photograph: Getty Images

In the US in May, events in Birmingham were transformative. The New York Times published more stories about civil rights in those two weeks than it had in the previous two years. Televised scenes of children campaigning against rigid segregation, being bitten by Alsatians and knocked off their feet by water fired with enough power to rip bark off a tree caused international outrage. Before, only 4% of Americans thought civil rights was the country's most pressing issue; afterwards it was 52%. According to the Justice Department, in the 10 weeks before King's "I have a dream" speech there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests. "Birmingham became the moment of truth," argued Bayard Rustin, who organised the March on Washington. "Birmingham meant that tokenism is finished. The Negro masses are no longer prepared to wait for anybody … They are going to move. Nothing can stop them."

The march for jobs and freedom in Washington, which had aroused precious little interest just months before, now became the order of the day. It was a bold initiative. At the time marches in the capital were rare and this one was not particularly popular. A Gallup poll just a few weeks before the march revealed that 71% of Americans knew about it and of those only 23% were favourable while 42% were unfavourable, 18% thought it wouldn't accomplish anything and 7% thought it would end in violence. Kennedy, who was trying to get civil rights legislation through Congress, tried to talk them out of it. "We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the capitol," he said. Union organiser A Philip Randolph, who had called the march, told him: "The Negroes are already in the streets. It is very likely impossible to get them off."

Still, the march drew 250,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom were white and was deemed a great success by many. King's speech – which received no mention in the Washington Post the following day – would eventually become its most celebrated articulation of the period. "That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height," wrote James Baldwin in No Name in the Street. "And could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."

It did not take long for the realities of southern bigotry to deflate the mood. "There was no way we could have known then that that afternoon would represent the peak of such feelings, that the hope and optimism contained in King's words would dwindle in the coming years," wrote Congressman John Lewis; "that in a matter of mere days after he stepped down from that stage a bomb blast in Birmingham would kill four little girls and usher in a season of darkness for the movement and for me."

Gary Younge's The Speech, The story behind Martin Luther King's Dream Speech, will be published in August

1963: the defining year of the civil rights movement

Ari Berman On Why the Major Core Demands of the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom Remain More Important, Relevant, and Necessary Than Ever

Time to March on Washington—Again
Fifty years after King’s historic march, the struggle for racial justice faces unprecedented challenges.

by Ari Berman 
August 14, 2013

This article appeared in the September 2-9, 2013 edition of The Nation.
Demonstrators hold signs during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963

They carried signs that demanded “Voting Rights,” “Jobs for All” and “Decent Housing.” They protested the vigilante killing of an unarmed black teenager in the South and his killer’s acquittal. They denounced racial profiling in the country’s largest city.

This isn’t 1963 but 2013, when so many of the issues that gave rise to the March on Washington fifty years ago remain unfulfilled or under siege today. That’s why, on August 24, a broad coalition of civil rights organizations, unions, progressive groups and Democratic Party leaders will rally at the Lincoln Memorial and proceed to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the march and dramatize the contemporary fight. (President Obama will participate in a separate event commemorating the official anniversary on August 28.) The Supreme Court’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act in late June and the acquittal of George Zimmerman less than three weeks later make this year’s march “exponentially more urgent” with respect to pressuring Congress and arousing the conscience of the nation, says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, a co-sponsor of the march.
“The main themes will be voting rights, state laws like ‘stand your ground’ or local laws like stop-and-frisk, and the whole question of jobs and union-busting,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, who convened the march along with Martin Luther King III. “Fifty years after the original march for jobs and justice, we have a new version of the same issue.”

In 1963, current Congressman John Lewis—who nearly died marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama—was the youngest and most radical speaker at the March on Washington. When Lewis returns to the Lincoln Memorial to address the rally on August 24, he will be the only surviving speaker from that historic afternoon. “We have come a great distance since that day,” he said recently, “but many of the issues that gave rise to that march are still pressing needs in our society—violence, poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights and the need to protect human dignity.”

When it comes to voting rights, seven Southern states have passed or implemented new restrictions that disproportionately target people of color since the Court’s Voting Rights Act ruling. This follows a presidential election in which voter-suppression efforts took center stage and blacks waited twice as long as whites to vote, on average. On a more structural level, one out of thirteen African-Americans (2.2 million people) cannot vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws—four times higher than the rest of the population.

When it comes to the criminal justice system, there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, according to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the population but made up 55 percent of shooting deaths in 2010. Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, “people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

When it comes to the economy, the black unemployment rate (12.6 percent) is nearly double that of whites (6.6 percent), almost the same ratio as in 1963. The average household income for African-Americans ($32,068) lags well below that of white families ($54,620) and declined by 15 percent from 2000 to 2010.

These jarring statistics show a clear need for a twenty-first-century civil rights movement. “After the march, my hope is we will see more people going home being committed to doing work in their communities,” says Judith Browne Dianis, co-
director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization in Washington co-sponsoring the march. The Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina, the sit-ins by the Dream Defenders in Florida and the spontaneous rallies in 100 cities following the George Zimmerman verdict are evidence of a new wave of civil rights activism. “We’re seeing the civil rights movement rise again,” says Browne Dianis. “People understand that we have to get back to organizing and movement-building.”
For many years, civil rights organizations like the NAACP focused on building institutional power through litigation, lobbying and voting. Though they accomplished a great deal—we now have a two-term African-American president, after all—there’s a growing realization within the civil rights community that the protests and civil disobedience that defined the movement of the 1960s are once again essential to draw more attention to contemporary problems. “I wish this activism had more outbursts than just in North Carolina and Florida,” says civil rights veteran Julian Bond. “You wish it was twenty times as great, but to see these things that are going on—it’s exciting. These tactics are tried and true. They’ve worked in the past, and they’ll work now.”

Yet while the civil rights coalition is more diverse than it was in 1963—now including supporters from women’s rights, environmental, pro-immigration and LGBT groups—the funds are scarce today, even as the needs are growing. The declining strength of organized labor, which has accelerated following the passage of anti-union laws in GOP-controlled states since 2010, has drained the coffers of the organizations most accustomed to mobilizing masses of people. “The movement is more financially
strapped than it has been in modern memory,” says Jealous.
Another daunting obstacle for the civil rights coalition is the right wing’s success in promoting the notion that historic remedies for centuries of discrimination, like the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, are no longer needed. “One of the great difficulties we have in helping people understand where we are on civil rights today is the desire of so many people to fix the civil rights movement in historical amber and visit it like a museum, without honoring that movement by being dynamically engaged in the principles that the movement stood for,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another co-sponsor of the march.

At a recent congressional celebration of the 1963 march at the US Capitol, for example, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell reminisced about attending the march as a young civil rights activist, and House Speaker John Boehner introduced John Lewis. But when Senate majority leader Harry Reid denounced the flood of new voting restrictions in places like North Carolina and Texas following the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision and called for a congressional fix—to great applause—McConnell and Boehner remained pointedly silent. “Boehner turned to McConnell with a questioning glance during the applause,” reported the Associated Press.

“You cannot, on the one hand, celebrate the march like John Boehner did, but then undermine what the march stood for, which is jobs and justice,” says Sharpton. “You can’t take a movement and say, ‘I celebrate the drama, but I don’t agree with the content.’”

At the same time, some progressive skeptics of the Obama administration believe the current civil rights leadership is too timid and cozy with those in power. Talk-show host Tavis Smiley predicts the new march will sidestep issues, like systemic poverty and the escalation of drone strikes, that King would have confronted were he alive today. “We’re going to get a lot of platitudes, a lot of great stories, a lot of endearing moments,” Smiley says. “But at the end of the day, we won’t even scratch the surface of the issues King was trying to get us to wrestle with.”

The radical politics of the 1960s civil rights movement, including those of its most mainstream leaders, is often glossed over in contemporary remembrances of pivotal anniversaries. Professor Cornel West, a caustic critic of this year’s commemoration, calls it the “Santa Clausification” of King. Many people also forget just how controversial the march was in 1963, both among the public and inside the civil rights community. Some thought it was too radical. President Kennedy asked the leaders to cancel the march. Lewis’s speech was censored to placate the archbishop of Washington. Bayard Rustin, the veteran socialist and civil rights activist who organized the event, was ostracized within the movement because of his homosexuality. Others thought it was too tame; Malcolm X dubbed it the “Farce on Washington.”

Despite all the criticism, the 1963 march remains a singularly important event in American history: the first time the country really understood what the civil rights movement stood for. The effect was greatest on the marchers themselves. “Many of the people at the march had never been to Washington before,” says Bond. “It was evidence to them that they had done something great and that great things would follow.”

Fifty years later, “there is, unfortunately, too much parallel between now and then,” says Jealous. “This is a moment for all of us to be rebaptized in the struggle.”

Ari Berman also wrote about North Carolina’s new voter-supression legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

About the Author

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation.
Also by the Author

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Gary Younge On The Real Historical Meaning and Significance of the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and Dr. King's 'I Have A Dream' Speech

The Misremembering of ‘I Have a Dream’

Fifty years after the March on Washington, Dr. King’s most famous speech, like his own political legacy, is widely misunderstood.

by Gary Younge
August 14, 2013      

This article appeared in the September 2-9, 2013 edition of The Nation.

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington. (AP Photo/File)

Adapted from The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream, by Gary Younge. (Haymarket Books 2013)

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium on August 28, 1963, the Department of Justice was watching. Fearing that someone might hijack the microphone to make inflammatory statements, the Kennedy DOJ came up with a plan to silence the speaker, just in case. In such an eventuality, an official was seated next to the sound system, holding a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which he planned to play to placate the crowd.

Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.

Central to that repackaging of history is the misremembering of King’s speech. It has been cast not as a searing indictment of American racism that still exists, but as an eloquent period piece articulating the travails of a bygone era. So on the fiftieth anniversary of ”I Have a Dream,” “Has King’s dream been realized?” is one of the two most common and, to my mind, least interesting questions asked of the speech; the other is “Does President Obama represent the fulfillment of King’s dream?” The short answer to both is a clear “no,” even if the longer responses are more interesting than the questions deserve. We know that King’s dream was not limited to the rhetoric of just one speech. To judge a life as full and complex as his by one sixteen-minute address, some of which was delivered extemporaneously, is neither respectful nor serious.

Regardless, any contemporary discussion about the legacy of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech must begin by acknowledging the way we now interpret the themes it raised at the time. Words like “race,” “equality,” “justice,” “discrimination” and “segregation” mean something quite different when a historically oppressed minority is explicitly excluded from voting than it does when the president of the United States is black. King used the word “Negro” fifteen times in the speech; today the term is finally being retired from the US Census as a racial category.

Perhaps the best way to comprehend how King’s speech is understood today is to consider the radical transformation of attitudes toward the man who delivered it. Before his death, King was well on the way to being a pariah. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him as a favorable one. Life magazine branded his anti–Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church “demagogic slander” and “a script for Radio Hanoi.”

But in thirty years he went from ignominy to icon. By 1999, a Gallup poll revealed that King was virtually tied with John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein as one of the most admired public figures of the twentieth century among Americans. He ranked as more popular than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill; only Mother Teresa was more cherished. In 2011, a memorial to King was unveiled on the National Mall, featuring a thirty-foot-high statue sited on four acres of prime cultural real estate. Ninety-one percent of Americans (including 89 percent of whites) approved.

This evolution was not simply a matter of ill feelings and painful memories eroding over time. It was the result of a protracted struggle that sheds light on how the speech for which he is best known is today understood. The bill to establish King’s birthday as a federal holiday was introduced just a few days after his death, with few illusions as to its likely success. “We don’t want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this,” said union leader Cleveland Robinson at a rally with King’s widow in 1969. “We’re just sayin’, us black people in America just ain’t gonna work on that day anymore.”

Congress would pass the bill, but not without a fight. In 1983, the year Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed Martin Luther King Day into law, he was asked if King was a communist sympathizer. “We’ll know in thirty-five years, won’t we?” he said, referring to the eventual release of FBI surveillance tapes.

* * *

The country’s acceptance of King came with its eventual consensus—won through mass marches, civil disobedience and grassroots activism—that codified segregation had to end. “America was like a dysfunctional drug addict or alcoholic that was addicted, dependent on racial segregation,” says Clarence Jones, who wrote the draft text of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “It had tried other treatments and failed. Then comes along Martin Luther King with his multistep program—recovery, nonviolence, civil disobedience and integration—and forces America to publicly confront its conscience. And that recovery program enabled America to embark on the greatest political transformation in history.”

By the time white Americans realized that their dislike of King was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. They embraced him because, in short, they had no choice.

The only question remaining was what version of King should be honored. To remember him now as a leader who sought greater government intervention to help the poor, or who branded the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” as he did at Riverside Church in 1967, would sacrifice posterity for accuracy. He did stand for those things. But those issues, particularly at a time of war and economic crisis, remain live, divisive and urgent. To associate him with them would not raise him above the fray but insert him into it, leaving him as controversial in death as in life.

But remembering him as the man who spoke eloquently and forcefully against codified segregation presents him as an accordant figure whose principled stand rescued the nation in a moment of crisis.

“The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” says King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding, who drafted the Riverside Church speech. “People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work. Our country has chosen what they consider to be the easier way to work with King. They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him, and he was connected to it. But they are not ready to really take on the kind of issues he was raising even there.”

Instead, the country has chosen to remember a version of “I Have a Dream” that not only undermines King’s legacy but also tells an inaccurate story about the speech itself. King made explicit reference in his oration to both the limits of legal remedy and the need for economic redress to confront the consequences of centuries of second-class citizenship.

“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” he said (emphasis mine). “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

“We refuse to believe,” he said later in the speech, “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

No reasonable reading of this can limit King’s vision to just that of doing away with Jim Crow. Only by willfully conflating codified segregation with racism, and ignoring not just what King had said elsewhere but also the ample contrary evidence in the speech, could one claim he was arguing that the answer to America’s racial problems lay in merely changing the law.

* * *

When it comes to assessing the political content of the speech, the distinction between segregation and racism is crucial. To the extent that King’s words were about bringing an end to codified, legal segregation, then the dream has been realized. “Whites Only” signs have been taken down; the laws have been struck. Since 1979, Birmingham, Alabama, has had only black mayors. If simply being black—as opposed to the historical legacy of racism—was ever the sole barrier to economic, social or political advancement, that obstacle has been officially removed.

But to the extent that the speech was about ending racism, one can say with equal confidence that its realization is not even close. Black unemployment is almost double that of whites; the percentage of black children living in poverty is almost triple that of whites; black male life expectancy in Washington, DC, is lower than in the Gaza Strip; one in three black boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to prison; more black men were disenfranchised in 2004 because they were felons than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly secured their right to vote.

Many of the images King evoked in his dream refrain were simple—“little black boys and black girls [joining] hands with little white boys and white girls”—even if descriptions of how we might reach that promised land  were intermittent and vague. (“Go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana…knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”) But the speech was clearly more about wider racism than just segregation. By fudging the distinction between the two—or by actively misinterpreting them—it is possible to cast racism as an aberration of the past, as the Supreme Court effectively did when it gutted the Voting Rights Act this past spring. Only then can the vast, enduring differences in the material position of blacks and whites be understood as the failings of individuals rather than the consequences of ongoing institutional, economic and political exclusion. Only then does the emphasis on a single line of the speech—in which King aspired to see new generations who would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—make any sense.

This particular misreading is most glaring today in discussions of affirmative action. King was a strong proponent of taking race and ethnicity into account when making appointments for jobs and for college admissions, in order to redress historical imbalances. “It is impossible to create a formula for the future,” he wrote, “which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”

Yet the right has come to rely on the “content of their character” line to use King as anti-racist cover for its opposition to affirmative action. In 1986, Reagan said: “We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas. We want a colorblind society. A society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by ‘the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”

Such distortions in turn explain the ambivalence voiced by those like Harding and a significant element of the black intelligentsia when discussing “I Have a Dream.” It’s not the speech itself about which they are reticent, but rather the way King has been co-opted and his message corrupted. King’s elevation to a patriotic mascot praising America’s relentless and inevitable progress to better days often rankles.

* * *

So when it comes to divining the meaning of King’s speech, there is substantial disagreement. Ironically, given its theme of racial unity, those differences are most pronounced in terms of race.

In a Gallup poll taken in August 2011, the month the King memorial was opened, a majority of blacks said they believed both that the government has a major role to play “in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups” and that “new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks.” The figures for whites were 19 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Conversely, over half of whites believed that civil rights for blacks had “greatly improved” in their lifetime, compared with just 29 percent of blacks. Whites were almost six times more likely than blacks to believe that Obama’s policies would “go too far…in promoting efforts to aid the black community,” while blacks were twice as likely as whites to believe they wouldn’t go far enough. Other polls show that whites are four times as likely as blacks to believe that America has achieved racial equality. In short, as the racially polarized responses to George Zimmerman’s acquittal revealed, black and white Americans have very different lived experiences. While the de jure enforcement of segregation has been banned, the de facto experience of it remains prevalent. Any journey through a US city, where widely recognized geographical boundaries separate the races, will bear this out. Blacks and whites are less likely to see the same problems, more likely to disagree on their root causes, and unlikely to agree on a remedy.

“For those who concentrate so much on that one line about ‘the color of their skin’ and ‘the content of their character,’” says Harding, “I wonder how, with the resegregation of our schools and communities, do you get to know the content of anyone’s character if you’re not willing to engage in life together with them?”

There is pretty much only one question on which the views of black and white Americans do coincide, and that is whether they believe King’s dream has been realized. Whenever this question has been asked by major pollsters over the past seven years, the discrepancy between blacks and whites has rarely topped 10 percent. If they agree about the extent to which the problems King invoked have been solved, but disagree on what they are, the inevitable conclusion is that, even as they listen to the same speech, blacks and whites hear very different things.

* * *

It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create.

Nor is there anything to suggest that view would have been much altered by the presence of a black man in the White House. The claim that Obama’s election has a connection to King’s legacy has some substance. As Obama himself has often conceded, his election would not have been possible without the civil rights movement, which created the conditions that allowed for the arrival of a new generation of black politicians. But the aim of the civil rights movement was equality for all, not the elevation of one.

There’s no questioning the symbolic value of electing a black president. Yet the fact remains that African-Americans are no better off materially as a result, even if they may have been worse off had he lost, and that the economic gap between blacks and whites has grown under his presidency. The ascent of America’s first black president has coincided with the descent of black Americans’ standard of living. Reasonable people may disagree on the extent to which Obama is responsible for that. But the fact is undeniable.

Symbols should not be dismissed as insubstantial, but they should not be mistaken as substance either. The presence of underrepresented people in leadership positions only has any significantly positive meaning if it challenges whatever obstacles created the conditions for that underrepresentation. To believe otherwise is to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities, whereby a system looks different but acts the same.

In the final analysis, to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general, and the dream sequence in particular, are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreamed of a better world where historical wrongs had been righted and good prevailed. That is why the speech means so much to me, and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.

* * *

I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, at a time when idealism was mocked and “realism” became an excuse for capitulation to the “inevitability” of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the left as well as the right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers.

True, we can’t live on dreams alone. But the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral center and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible at any given moment.

In the summer of 1963, with a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable and pragmatic. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan, laid out his case for tougher legislation, or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.

Instead, he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether building the world he was describing was a Sisyphean task or merely a Herculean one, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with the power to act on it. In so doing, he showed it is not naïve to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?

Ari Berman writes that, fifty years after King’s historic march, the struggle for racial justice faces unprecedented challenges.

Gary Younge August 14, 2013   |    This article appeared in the September 2-9, 2013 edition of The Nation.


About the Author

Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi) and Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press). He is also a contributor to The Notion.
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Martin Luther King Jr.'s impassioned civil rights speech, delivered during the March on Washington and widely regarded as one of the greatest American speeches ever made:

I Have A Dream

Speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
August 28, 1963

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guarranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, nad the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, whem we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Sustained Capitalist and Racist Assault On Detroit, Michigan And Its Lethal Consequences

Detroit Residents on Bankruptcy -We Have No Democracy!
15 August 2013
By David Bacon, 
Truthout | News
(Photo: David Bacon)

DETROIT - On July 18, 2013, Kevyn Orr, the city emergency manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, declared Detroit bankrupt under Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code. According to official accounts, Detroit is $18.5 billion in the hole, making this the largest of several recent bankruptcies declared by US cities and counties.

In theory, such a declaration means that all the city's creditors will suffer and will have to accept only a fraction of what they're owed. But when a bankruptcy judge decides who will have to make sacrifices, those making the most painful ones will be Detroit's 21,000 retired city employees and its 9,000 current ones.

"Everything they've been promised, both contractually and kind of a social contract, is being pulled out from under them. It's morally indefensible," Michael Mulholland, vice president of Local 207 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees told journalist Jane Slaughter. "I was told if I worked here I'd have a steady job and in my old age not be in poverty." Mulholland's pension as a retiree is $1,600 a month, not an income that can support a family, even in a city like Detroit, where housing prices have plunged.

The Detroit bankruptcy, while huge, is the latest of several that have had their sharpest impact on city workers. The city of Stockton, California, declared bankruptcy two years ago. In a court settlement this month, it forced its 1,100 retirees to accept a lump sum of $5.1 million to compensate them for canceling their previously guaranteed medical insurance. If each retiree gets an equal share amounting to $4,636, it would buy health insurance for only a year or two at current prices. In the US, there is no national health service, and people must buy insurance to pay the cost of medical care.

Huge US corporations have a long history of trying to shed obligations for pensions and health care for retired workers. In the most recent case, the Patriot Coal Company, created by mining giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, declared bankruptcy while corporate creators continued to amass large profits. Patriot is responsible for the pensions and health care for 23,000 retirees and dependents who previously worked for Peabody and Arch before the spin-off. The new company says it can't sustain the payments for the benefits workers earned over years of labor in the mines.

While cities like Stockton and Vallejo in California have used bankruptcy law to accomplish this same end, legislators in Michigan have gone one large step farther. Michigan first passed Public Act 101 in 1988, when Democrats still controlled the legislature and governor's office. It allowed temporary emergency control of cities but barred canceling the contracts or benefits of employees. Then Public Act 72 in 1990 allowed the appointment of emergency managers to take control of school systems.

Finally, in 2011, Republicans took control of the Legislature and governorship. They passed Public Law 4, which was much more radical and gave virtually unlimited powers to emergency managers appointed by the governor. Those managers could completely displace elected local city councils, mayors, school boards and other public bodies. Newly elected Gov. Snyder then ended collective bargaining rights and employee status for almost 26,000 child-care workers belonging to the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Schools in Highland Park and Pontiac have had three emergency managers, and one manager in Highland Park has been indicted for embezzling. In Benton Harbor, the emergency manager sold off the sports arena built with $55 million of public funds to a developer for $583,000. He even barred the mayor from entering his own office. In Hamtramck, the financial manager stopped paying the mayor and City Council and told the council members to stop meeting. In Ecorse and Highland Park, financial managers made major layoffs to the fire and police departments, outsourcing many jobs to neighboring cities.
In Detroit's schools, part of the agenda has been privatization. By the end of the 2009-10 school year, 50,139 students (36 percent) in Detroit already were attending charter schools. Robert Bobb was then brought in from Oakland, California, as emergency manager and unveiled a plan to covert an additional 41 schools (30 percent of the district) serving 16,000 students into charter schools. Bobb's plan was linked to the Deficit Elimination Plan - an agreement he made with the state. It required the district to close 70 schools over two years and raise class sizes to 60 students at the high school level.
(Photo: David Bacon)

Voters rebelled and repealed Public Law 4 in 2012. The legislature grew even more radical, however, passing a law forbidding contracts that require union membership as a condition of employment (a so-called "right to work" law) then passed Public Law 4 again in a slightly modified form, as Public Act 436.

In March 2013, Snyder appointed Orr as Detroit's emergency manager. And on July 18, Orr forced the city into bankruptcy. City unions charged that he was unwilling to negotiate with them about the move and that his assistants would simply show them PowerPoint presentations during meetings in which they were supposed to bargain.

Anticipating what was to come, lawyers representing public union pension funds went to court to enforce a provision of the Michigan Constitution. It says, according to Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, that the governor can't "diminish or impair pension benefits." Hearing that the judge was about to make her ruling invalidating any pending bankruptcy, Snyder and Orr declared bankruptcy a few minutes before she acted. The judge condemned the move, because it gives all authority to a bankruptcy judge and removes review by the normal court system. "It's cheating, sir, and it's cheating good people who work," the judge told Brian Devlin, assistant state attorney general. On July 23, however, the state Court of Appeals granted a motion by Attorney General Bill Schuette to stay Aquilina's order to stop bankruptcy proceedings because they violate the state constitution.
Veteran Detroit Congressman John Conyers, one of the most progressive in the House of Representatives, said the judge's ruling mandated congressional hearings to determine whether Snyder and Orr were misusing bankruptcy to slash pensions and medical insurance. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), called for Detroit to be provided federal aid like cities recovering from natural disasters. "Some want to unfairly make city workers and their pensions the scapegoats, but they are not the problem," she said.

In another lawsuit, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made an even deeper challenge to the emergency manager law. In US District Court, it charged that the law discriminates against African-Americans. More than half of Michigan's 1.4 million black residents live under rule by emergency managers - which effectively nullifies their right to vote. By contrast, only 1 percent of white residents live under managers.
(Photo: David Bacon)

That disparity is a result of Detroit's history and its consequent financial crisis. The city shares a common history of the devastation of its industrial base with most of the largest US cities. To a greater or lesser degree, they all have suffered the same fate. If Detroit's is deeper than most, it is in large part the result of its past as one of the most heavily industrialized places on the planet.

In the 1930s, the Ford River Rouge plant alone, in nearby Dearborn, employed more than 100,000 workers. Counting their families, direct employment at the plant supported perhaps half a million people. And for each assembly plant job, four or five more were created in parts plants, or in the businesses serving the needs of the workers. Those workers had families as well. One plant gave work and life to well over a million people, at least.

"The Rouge" was just the largest of many auto assembly factories in the metropolitan area. Detroit was a monoculture growing one crop - cars - and its workers were among the most skilled anywhere.

Detroit grew to be one of the country's most African-American cities as well, at one time rivaling Washington, the Chocolate City, in the size and demographic weight of its black community. That also was a product of the auto industry, which together with the Midwest's steel mills, drew people from the South in one of the largest internal migrations of modern times.

From 1940 to 1943, more than 200,000 migrant workers made their way to the city. Many blacks and whites from the South took with them the South's racial attitudes and even racist organizations. Because that tension was used to set workers against each other and make the organizing of unions in the factories difficult, the union had to find ways to bring workers together. One was the celebrated "checkerboard marches" of the 1930s, where vast parades of workers were organized in such a way that black and white workers alternated in their ranks, walking beside each other in a show of racial solidarity.

Black workers, however, were given the dirtiest, lowest-status jobs. Rapid migration resulted in extreme housing shortages. That, plus rampant discrimination and segregation, led to tension between white and black residents. In June 1943, the tension exploded in the Detroit Race Riot, which lasted for three days before federal troops restored order.

(Photo: David Bacon)

By 1950, many union members believed in workplace integration but still lived and socialized in segregated neighborhoods. White residents worried that black newcomers would harm property values. Black families had to fight racial covenants, redlining and hostile neighbors. Many white residents fled to segregated suburbs in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

During the 1960s, racial tension grew. On July 23, 1967, a police raid on an after-hours bar triggered one of the biggest riots in American history. Conditions in inner-city plants were the worst in the industry. Black and white workers often felt neglected by union leadership. A new generation of militant black workers organized the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and accused Chrysler of recruiting common labor from the black ghetto while going to white suburbs to recruit supervisors and skilled workers. Its efforts collapsed in 1971, but the turmoil it created forced companies to hire more black foremen and the UAW to hire more black staff members. Many local unions elected black presidents.

Migration took place also from Mexico and the Middle East. The first wave of Mexicans went into the plants in the 1920s. They were then caught in mass deportations that shipped them back across the border in 1930, often in railroad cars. Yet thousands returned to Detroit as soon as they could. Some families, like that of Elena Herrada, came back as early as 1932. When they returned, she said, some families realized that their children actually were American citizens - babies who had been born before their parents were deported.

Then another wave came with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 - part of a migration that totaled more than 8 million people over the next 15 years. "There wasn't anybody new here for a long time, until NAFTA," Herrada told journalist Julie Bally.

People came from the Middle East as well: first, a wave of Chaldeans (from what later became Iraq) and Palestinians before World War I. Then Yemenis came right afterward, with another wave from Lebanon and Syria. Today people from the Middle East number over 300,000 in Detroit and perhaps half a million in Michigan.
(Photo: David Bacon)

"Everywhere in the country and in the world, people left their beloved homelands to try their luck in this cold, faraway place where all you had to do was be willing to work," Herrada wrote in 2009. She is a member of the Detroit School Board and one of the most vocal opponents of the bankruptcy. "Whether one came from the segregated South, post-revolutionary Mexico, Europe, Kentucky or the Virginia mines, everyone who came here was ready to work. And there was plenty of work to go around."

They were the base of the United Auto Workers and helped create a union culture with deep roots. "We grew up walking every picket line in town, whether my parents worked there or not," she remembers. "We took food to strikers, talked Union at the dinner table, and to hear my family tell it, the working class would save the human race."

Active UAW membership peaked in the 1970s at 1.5 million, falling to 540,000 in 2006. After the restructuring of the automobile industry from 2008 and 2010, UAW membership fell to 390,000, with more than 600,000 retired members.

Today most of Detroit's auto plants are closed. Jobs that paid a wage that allowed parents to send their children to college disappeared as auto manufacturers moved production to countries with wages that don't allow such "luxuries."

"All that is gone now," Herrada mourned. "No longer is longevity rewarded; older workers are run out, replaced by employees who must work for less. Two-tier contracts are the rule now, not the exception. Older workers in high-wage industries under collective bargaining agreements are an endangered species. They will not reproduce. They are nearly extinct."

And today a greater percentage of African-Americans are part of the population of Mississippi (in the heart of the deep South) than any other state, as the great migration reverses itself and people leave Detroit and other cities in the north to go back to the land where their ancestors were owned as slaves 150 years ago.

By the 1950 census, Detroit's population had reached its highest point - 1,849,568 people living within the city limits, with many more in Flint, Dearborn and the other satellite auto towns around it. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimates Detroit's population today at much less than half - 772,419 - and says it has lost 2,000 residents each month since downsizing began in the 1960s.

(Photo: David Bacon)

Just from 2000 to 2010, Detroit lost one-quarter of its population; 273,500 people. After New Orleans, which lost 29 percent of its population in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Detroit's 25 percent loss is the largest percentage drop in the history of an American city with more than 100,000 people. Ten years ago, Detroit was the tenth-largest city in the country. Demographers at the Brookings Institute now believe it might be the 18th. That's the smallest it's been since 1910, just before the automotive boom brought millions of well-paid jobs and turned Detroit into the Motor City.

In 1960, Detroit had the country's highest per-capita income. Today, while Detroit makes up only 23 percent of the metropolitan region's population, it is home to nearly half of the people living in poverty. Median household income for Detroit residents ($26,098) is less than half that of residents in the suburbs ($54,688), and 52 percent of that of US residents generally ($50,221).

Another consequence of the crisis was the concentration of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Arab-Americans in Detroit's urban core, while more affluent white people left for the suburban areas that surround it. Half of Michigan's black population now lives in the city of Detroit. In the suburbs, only 9.6 percent of residents are black.

In October 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the city's unemployment rate was 27 percent. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, however, argued that this number was an undercount, because it doesn't include people who have given up looking for work or those working part-time jobs because they can't find full time ones. He said that one of every two working-age Detroit residents was unemployed or couldn't find enough work to support themselves. In any city with high unemployment and precarious jobs for those working, an economic downturn wreaks much more havoc than it would in a more stable community. The Detroit News estimated that when the current recession began, Detroit's official unemployment rate jumped 7.2 percent in one year.
(Photo: David Bacon)

High rates of unemployment, in turn, produce widespread poverty. Michigan, even counting communities far from Detroit that aren't as affected by the decline of the auto industry, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Detroit ranks last in median family income, per capita income and the number of families and individuals living below the poverty line. During the past decade, median household income dropped by 31 percent, and the region around the city by 24 percent.

To a large degree, the public sector became the major employer in the absence of industry. More than a quarter of the city's workers are employed in health, education and social assistance, more than twice the number in any other cluster of occupations. Those jobs, however, are heavily dependent on the tax base and vulnerable to economic downturns that erode tax revenues. A lower percentage of people work in management and professional positions than any other city in the Great Lakes region.

The declining tax base eroded the ability of the city to supply basic services, and it can no longer maintain and manage its public works, its water system, its buses or its parks. Detroit Public Schools lost half its students in the past decade, a rate even faster than the loss of population generally. Only 65 percent to 70 percent of high school seniors make it to graduation, according to the Detroit Literacy Coalition.

The DLC has trained more than 200 tutors at the Detroit Public Library to help people learn to read. Dreams of better jobs, however, have to contend with the deterioration of the city in which students have grown up. Detroit occupies 138.7 square miles of land, with 375,000 homes. While there are plenty of apartments, the city was one of the places where the postwar dream of the single-family home was realized by large numbers of working-class families. Today 66,000 properties are vacant, with 78,000 in foreclosure, amounting to 30 percent of the city.

So many homes lie vacant that proposals have been made for 20 years that the city wall off "dead zones," moving out the residents and demolishing their homes, and supplying city services only in the remaining populated areas. 

Meanwhile, Orr has announced that he plans to sell major Detroit assets, including Belle Isle Park, the largest public park island in the country, and the huge Water and Sewage Department, as well as cutting almost half the city's street lighting. Rumors in the city say its world-famous art museum, with murals by Diego Rivera and paintings by Picasso, also is up for sale.

(Photo: David Bacon)

In addition to challenging these plans in court, protest demonstrations and civil disobedience are spreading. Four community leaders were arrested as hundreds of others disrupted an April City Council meeting, charging that they were turning over control of city finances to a law firm tied to the banks holding the city's loans. One of those arrested was Herrada, a former union organizer among cafeteria workers. "We should oppose the emergency manager at every turn," she said at a meeting of the Detroit library commission. "We have no one but ourselves to depend on and our own resources to fight with."

On  July 4, 2013, a long line of marchers showed up at the swank Cadillac Hotel, where Orr has been living since arriving in Detroit. The marchers demanded independence from city managers. One of them, Elder Helen Moore of the Keep the Vote No Takeover Coalition, founded in 1999 to combat the takeover of Detroit Public Schools, said, "There is no reason to celebrate the Fourth of July, because Detroit is not free. We have no democracy. Our school system has been practically destroyed by state takeovers. We are crying out today for freedom for our people, black, white and Latino. We don't do second-class citizenship very well."

"When you hear that the service is terrible in Detroit," Herrada laughed in a telephone conversation with Truthout, "imagine us raising our collective glass in cheer, because we did not come here to serve anyone."

The photos accompanying this article were taken by David Bacon in auto plants in Detroit and around the country.  They are reproduced here to acknowledge the importance of their work in building Detroit and other cities, and the physical and mental effort expended by millions of people in these factories. These workers created the enormous wealth of this industry, yet the communities where they labored are often now in ruins because the plants have closed, the jobs taken elsewhere.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, "Illegal People - How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants," was just published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Armond White, Harry Lennix, and Richard Lawson On the Cinematic Vapidity, Historical Distortions, and Melodramatic Banality Of 'The Butler'


Guest blog: "Black filmmakers give us terrible images and messages. I reject them wholesale -- our creations must have beauty"
Black Entertainment Depicts a Stream of Craven and Depraved Sociopaths - Let's Reclaim It
By Harry Lennix
August 15, 2013

On a late October afternoon about two years ago, my wife and I were driving down a quiet Houston street on a rare visit with family when we witnessed a moment of joy that drew our attention: a man of about 30 years, hoisting his giddy 4-year-old son upon his strong shoulder in the fluttering shadows. They shared a splendid moment in each other’s company, very probably unaware that we were observing. The boy and man of the moment were black.

The strange thing is, we knew with absolute certainty that such occasions are commonplace in black communities. I see them; I know them. Healthy, loving, altogether ordinary black fathers and sons go to my church and walk my streets.

The only place I never see normal black folks represented is in the increasingly popular films (and reality shows and music) being masqueraded as indicative of the Black Experience. A troubling stream of craven and depraved sociopaths and psychotics haunt the environs of black entertainment. The doom these figures inflict upon their familiars is taken for granted as a natural condition of our people.

These images and messages do not represent the predominant experiences and nature of my people -- and I, for one, want it as widely known as possible that I reject them wholesale.

I take no part with, nor give any corner to, those who keep us in bondage as a function of these images. I reject the reduction of the traumatized but decent people I know as marginalized slaves and menials. Equally bankrupt are the media offerings that show us as sanitized and shallow beyond recognition -- devoid of serious concerns outside of those that are worthy of soap-opera treatment.

I do not wish to infringe upon the rights of any artist or private citizen to make whatever statement they wish. It is my intention to help open up an entire universe of actual, real-life, human people who more than “happen” to be black -- rather to those who are black on purpose -- for whom black is “The New Black.” To expand the accounting of a people who have dimension and meaning in their lives so that they are presented in a way that is true to them as individuals. It is my hope to reveal that in this age of increasing means of distribution, when we have a golden opportunity to redefine the images of black people. It is my argument that the common view of Black Life is too often abstracted and perverted, so much so that it has become the received version of the truth -- and that such received information is literally and figuratively killing us.

A reasonable parallel lies in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This famous thought experiment starts with the condition of bondage: several prisoners are compelled by chains to look only straight ahead. They are presented solely with the image of shadows cast upon the wall by a fire, and the actors who move between it and the prisoners. But even after they are freed and allowed to see the actual people projecting the shadows, the prisoners continue to accept the shadows as reality.

This is exceptionally apropos of the state of blacks in film. Our shadows are accepted as reality. The troubling realization for me is that we are, ourselves, the agents who are the cause of the shadows, the prisoners compelled to accept them, and the very shadows on the walls.

With greater frequency black filmmakers are saying terrible things about the inhabitants of Black America. While viewing a black film of the recent past (choose your own), I saw black women weeping their eyes out, scene after scene, abused and victimized by black men in a relentless parade of misery. What joy, I wondered, is to be found in this? Even in pathos, of course there is release. But surely there is a difference between pathos and sadomasochism.

Ironically, very little of artistic merit or craft is to be found in the dramatically bereft constructions of the other variety of black movie. Many of these projects feature very talented and attractive casts, slick direction, and high production values. The subject matter is seldom of great ambition or depth. They are designed to please the broadest possible demographic of black ticket buyers. Most of this work is innocent and innocuous enough, and thank goodness for this alternative. That stipulated, it would be less than honest to point to but a small few of these as artistically satisfying.

There appears to be a formula at work. On one side, form follows function: entire histories are corrupted, twisted fantasies concocted, so that the filmmakers can elicit the baser instincts of an audience. Then there is the inverse where function follows form: gorgeous people in thinly dramatic situations, scarcely requiring craft and imagination to execute.

It is my contention that there is a third way: The practice of aesthetics implies the necessity of a drive toward natural instincts and refinement through study. Aesthetics concerns itself with cravings, yes, but also with taste. Where aesthetics are applied to broad comedy, profound tragedy, or that vast sweep of the in between, we have seen a long history of great cinema and theater.

Despite my many failings in my artistic pursuits, I have always been too burdened with respect for aesthetics to do less than endeavor to these ends. That when entertainment is destructive of these ends, it can no longer be deemed “art.” It may, instead, be seen as pandering -- an appeal to the lowest common urges: the creation of objects of pity and derision. Objectified, ignored, appeased.

In a rueful observation made in the Chicago Tribune, HL Menken once opined: “No one in this world -- ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

I guess that gets proven just about all the time. But that does not negate the possibility that those who strive toward a higher standard are consigned to the breadline. It seems to me urgent, now more that ever before, to start providing at the very minimum an alternative view.

To this end, I join the artists and liberated people who paved the way, who held the line on the basic understanding that our solemn duty is to insist that art is always a celebration of life. We were taught that in creating art, our creations must have ease, form, beauty, and entirety.

At the time of this writing my company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), is on the precipice of releasing our first film. It is called “Mr. Sophistication.” We are proud of the film and we definitely hope that you will see and enjoy it. It is something that we poured our best efforts into, and have aspired as much as we might to refine its form, beauty, and entirety. As for the ease of it all – well, that’s a lot more complicated.

We are especially thrilled at our cast: Tatum O’Neal, Robert Patrick, Paloma Guzman, Gina Torres, Richard Brooks, to name a few.

“Mr. Sophistication” is Ron Waters, a comedian who has a second shot at making a first impression. To do so, he needs to work in Los Angeles. While there, he has to confront the same crises of character that derailed him the first time. Along the way, he has some laughs, quite a few drinks, and an occasional life lesson.

Our goal for the film is to entertain. Notwithstanding the opening paragraphs of this writing, we do not claim that the film is panacea for all the ills that beset the downtrodden. No single film could ever be. This is our first foray into the world of film production, and we feel that it is part of our duty to show, rather than merely lament, the qualities that have come to define “black film.” If you will, it is the cinematic equivalent of a hoist upon the shoulder in the late Houston sun.

It is, of course, a typical response to decry the easy categorization of “Mr. Sophistication” as a “black film.” Let us then reclaim the definition of “black.” The ownership of the word once belonged to a people who declared their power and beauty to the world. Those who claimed the word viewed it with pride whereas some of their ancestors strongly eschewed it. The word eventually came to define an entire movement.

There are still echoes of it out there. And thank God there are still those who use the mediums available to them to create great art. To them belongs the future, should they only take the initiative to reclaim the present. And, please God, in reclaiming the idea of “black.”

After all, everything cool and edgy in our collective experience now is said to be the new version of black.

Frankly, I’d settle for the old kind. It beats the heck out of sitting chained up in a cave.

Harry Lennix is an accomplished film, television and stage actor who played General Swanwick in Warner Bros.’ summer blockbuster “Man of Steel” and stars on the new fall NBC series “The Blacklist” with James Spader. His several film credits include “Ray,” "Get On the Bus", “State of Play” and the “The Matrix” trilogy. His most recent film, “Mr. Sophistication,” will be available on VOD Sept. 6, and he’s near completion on “H4,” a film version of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.”    


Run, Forest, Run
Aug 13, 2013
City Arts

Civil Rights history gets trivialized in Lee Daniels’ The Butler'

“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” says Clarence Williams III, instructing his waiter-trainee on the etiquette of black servitude in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s a funny line for this film since director Lee (Precious) Daniels always makes a big noise when he enters a room–this time releasing a film with his own name in the title same as Fellini’s 8 ½ or Tyler Perry’s Diary of Mad Black Woman no less.

How Daniels asserts/inserts himself into his films is crucial to the failings of…oh, let’s just call it The Butler. While Daniels purports to make a biography of Cecil Gaines, a Black Southerner who went from picking cotton in Georgia to serving as butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations, the film primarily displays Daniels’ opportunism. Taking advantage of our strange, polarized political moment, The Butler only makes noise about race–simplifying the history that Gaines lived through from Jim Crow to 2008–implying that Gaines’s story prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama. So soon after Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln, another foreshortening of American history.

The Butler’s major malfunction is its inexact parallel to Obama’s own biography; Gaines’s suffering through the post-slavery experience is completely different from Obama’s story. Daniels feeds the marketable concept that Gaines’s very particular sojourn represents the entirety of Black America’s struggle for equality. He distorts Gaines’s private life into a national epic, making him an emblem rather than a character.

Everyone here, from limousine liberal parade of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to the various Presidential caricatures (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman), look like waxworks. From the beginning, Forest Whittaker plays the title role as a gaunt, wizened symbol of oppression and endurance–a Morgan Freeman figure of quiet dignity and rectitude. His wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons (David Oyewelo and Isaac White) seem like appendages rather than family. Gaines’s estrangement from his world suggests a reverse Benjamin Button aging through decades, keeping quiet during eras of social turmoil. He—and this film–most resembles Forrest Gump, that symbolic idiot savant witness to social progress he played no part in.

The Butler is unconvincingly noble–without even that streak of psychotic behavior in the ridiculous shit pie scenes of The Help. Gaines is always crotchety and proper, leaving dirty-minded resilience to Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr in scene-stealing supporting roles–they’re surrogates for Daniels the salacious auteur who’s uninterested in what propriety and self-control mean.

Instead of a freaky-deaky view of the Civil Rights Movements’ behind-the-scenes hook-ups (even Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waves quotes Martin Luther King defending masturbation as a great release), we get an Obama-ized tale of Gaines as a dogged, enigmatic paragon. Rectitude as political caution was better dramatized in Brian Helgeland’s far superior Jackie Robinson story, 42. But this film is so solemn and disingenuous it neglects its opening thesis: Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong never confess what it feels like to make a room “feel empty” (although Whitaker’s zombie performance inadvertently gives an inkling). They trade the existential torment of self-abnegation (refuted by decades of Hollywood’s servile-yet-impudent stereotypes) for the cliche of long-suffering martyrdom. (Daniels lacks the talent to show what being close to power feels like.)

A more credible film would consistently portray the advice of Gaines’s father “Don’t lose your temper with the Man. Dis his worl’; we jus’ livin’ in it.” The Butler will feel inauthentic to most Americans who painfully, cagily work menial jobs; it is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment.

Daniels’ key trope is the presumptuous montage: Lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s contrasting formal White House dinner parties–pseudo-political juxtapositions that would make Eisenstein wince. Daniels uses montage for sensationalism–not feeling or politics. The entire film exploits subtle and overt American racial violence. The first striking image poses a lynching next to the American flag. Such cheap, Spike Lee rhetoric trivializes history. The 1929 flashback to Gaines’s mother being raped and father being killed isn’t just horrible, it’s an infuriating simplification: The son’s modern attitude shows ignorance of Southern custom; pressuring his father (“Pop, what you gonna do?”) is what gets his Dad killed. When titles say “Inspired by a true story” it merely means an anachronistic fantasy of Black American history adapted from Wil Haygood’s propagandistic Washington Post article (“A Butler Well Served By This Election”) celebrating Obama’s inauguration.

This fantasy includes casting Mariah Carey as the mother defiled and made crazy by the puzzlingly pretty white plantation-owner (Alex Pettyfer) and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s horny, boozing then devoted wife. Only Oprah–in a role better suited to Mo’Nique–could act self-righteous about committing adultery (dismissing her “yellow ass” lover). Oprah’s not a character but a Black Womanist Figurehead which places this film far outside the artful realm of Jonathan Demme’s magnificent Beloved. The subplot of Gaines’s conflict with his politically-wayward son merely extenuates the story without delving into the father’s painful, necessary political reticence. Worse, it misrepresents what Lorraine Hansberry explicated about the Black generation gap in A Raisin in the Sun.

Daniels panders to the hip-hop attitude that Black youth know more about survival than their hard-working ancestors. The scene of Gaines driving through urban chaos in response to MLK’s assassination is as phony as the riot scenes in Dreamgirls. Pandering to history and violence lacks the politic detail of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther; this more resembles Tarantino’s unrealistic s&m circus Django Unchained. These discomforting prevarications are angled toward Obama's “Tonight is your answer” election speech—turning historical pain into shallow, maudlin victory. Daniels’ tendency to falsify Black American experience and then exploit it is as offensive as Spielberg-Kushner’s factitious Lincoln. A more personally honest, openly licentious fantasy would be more interesting. Now that he’s played his Obama card, I’m sure Lee Daniels’ Satyricon will come next.

Harry Lennix Takes On 'The Butler' - Says Lee Daniels 'N*ggerfies It,' Calls It 'Historical Porn'

JULY 11, 2013
SHADOW AND ACT: On Cinema of the African Diaspora


First some background...

Several months ago or so, I did an interview for another site with actor Harry Lennix, who all of you know, and was seen this summer in Warner Bros' huge Superman reboot, Man of Steel. But the interview wasn't about that; it was instead about Harry's upcoming indie projects, like the fascinating Mr. Sophistication, directed by Danny Green, in which he plays a Richard Pryor-like self-destructive comedian attempting a comeback, and his all-black version of Shakespeare's Henry IV, called H4, which has just finished post-production. And both of those are on top of 6 other pictures he's completed that are scheduled to be released next year.

Knowing Harry personally for many years, we really had more of a conversation than an interview; he is, as always, up front, totally honest and says exactly what he thinks. And that is so refreshing, considering how most people in the business are reluctant to speak out on anything, or be opinionated.

However, when the interview appeared on the other site where it was posted, it was severely edited, to put it nicely, and a lot of what he said was cut out, evidently fearing that Harry had stepped on some toes. Especially what Harry said about black imagery in the media and, in particular, Lee Daniels' upcoming film The Butler, with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, about the long-serving butler who worked at the White House - a film that's currently in the middle of a court battle over the title, between The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros.

As you can read below, Harry is not too thrilled about the film:

Which leads me to asking do you constantly have to think about the image you are portraying as black man every time to do a role?

"I think about it every day and any time that a role is offered, and believe me lots of crummy roles are offered. But at this point people know better than to mess with me with a lot of these things. For example Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “niggerfies” it. He "niggers" it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well... historical porn. I refused."

Well that’s not good.

"And people want to see these images so they’ll say things like: “It’s a very difficult movie to look at, but it’s great movie.” That’s a contradiction in terms. That’s a paradox. It can’t be that it’s a great movie, but it’s difficult to look at. You know what I mean? (laughs) Why would you put these images out there? But clearly the critics, many of them, love to see this kind of material and love to see us in these types of roles."

Because it feeds into…

"Because it feeds into the great lie that is being perpetrated by the most important medium, the most powerful export that the United States has to offer which is entertainment. The most powerful tool that they have and it has kept us in a place, men in dresses and things, raping their daughters and things. While any sort of aberrant behavior happens in any community, it has become normative in black cinema that we are these bestial, deprived people, and I refuse to play with that."

Well just keep fighting the good fight.

"I’ll never take part in it. They can kiss my ass (laughs). But it’s not going to happen."

That's my man Harry telling it like it is.


'The Butler' Doesn't Do It

The Weinstein Company


There's a lot of indicating going on in The Butler, Lee Daniels's sorta-based-on-a-true-story historical drama about a longtime White House butler and the tumult of the civil rights struggle. As is the trouble with so many biopics, films that often play like hurried slideshows of a life, The Butler attempts to infuse every scene with Importance and Meaning. To that end, five past U.S. presidents each get a scene talking specifically about race issues, while our hero, played by Forest Whitaker, does his quiet work around them. For a melancholy Eisenhower, played by Robin Williams, it's the matter of school integration. Kennedy (a better than expected James Marsden) frets about the injustices suffered by the Freedom Riders and their allies. Johnson, given charming good-ol-boy bluntness by Liev Schreiber, vows to fix the whole dang mess. John Cusack, doing a surprisingly understated Nixon, dirtily strategizes about courting the black vote. And Reagan, mostly bungled by an oddly accented Alan Rickman, mulls over the civil rights crisis in South Africa. Each scene is a little package presentation about the respective presidents' stances on civil rights, meant to inform us while briskly moving the story along.

But instead they do the unfortunate work of reducing the long, painful struggle to a series of soundbites. There's nothing particularly informative or dramatic about Danny Strong's script or the way Daniels stages it. Neither insightful documentary nor compelling fiction, The Butler spends most of its time in the dreary middle lands of corny reenactment, pointing and pointing and pointing at flat moments meant to be profound, moving, enlightening. Whitaker does lovely work throughout, but his character, Cecil Gaines, spends most of the movie passively receiving all this canned history. He's ultimately a cipher, bobbing along in a broad simplification of American history like Forrest Gump, only without all the endearing goofiness and homey sayings.

Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) goes through all his "necessary" phases too: from smart and rebellious youth to radicalizing college student to courageous Freedom Rider to angry Black Panther to earnest adult politician. His arc feels very programmatic (and was invented for the film), Daniels and Strong articulating the civil rights struggle in its most basic terms. The history of the era only feels vital when Cecil and Louis are together and fighting, the father whose job it is to be invisible clashing with the son who wants to be seen. In one tense, engrossing scene, a reunion dinner is ruined when Louis's (and his Black Panther girlfriend's) obvious disdain for his father's relatively bourgeoisie, unquestioning life sends Cecil into a rare rage. Daniels is much better when he's closing in on the personal, the domestic texture of the larger political landscape. But alas he keeps pulling back and in strides another famous person who sorta looks like an old president to let us know where we are in the story.

The film is indeed full of famous people — aside from those I've already mentioned, there's Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow butlers, a wordless Mariah Carey as Cecil's traumatized mother, Terrence Howard as a ne'er-do-well neighbor, Jane Fonda commanding attention as Nancy Reagan — but certainly none is more famous than Oprah Winfrey. (Unless you're a Swiss boutique clerk, at least.) Winfrey plays Cecil's wife Gloria, and unlike most of the other familiar faces who quickly glide by and disappear as history marches along, she's really in the movie. Oprah's proven herself a capable actress in her few roles over the past thirty years, and handles a lot of heavy lifting proficiently. She boozes, she grieves, she seethes, she sobers up. She's good in the film, but like so much of the other bold-name casting, it unfortunately reads distractingly like a gimmick. It adds to the sense that The Butler is a message more than a movie.

One well-conceived sequence weaves together shots of the White House staff preparing for a fancy state dinner and a lunch counter sit-in that turns violent. Gleaming silverware is straightened and plates rotated just so as Louis and his friends are beaten and have hot coffee thrown in their faces. It's an effective, if a bit obvious, juxtaposition and hints at a movie Daniels could have made. It's a rare moment in The Butler when anticipation for the next famous face or Big Moment dissipates and we are instead truly startled and horrified by the injustices, and stirred by the bravery, of the fairly recent past. It's been a long time since we've had a good movie about this defining (and not-really-over) part of our history, and there are teasing moments in The Butler when I thought we might be getting just that. But for all the beauty in Whitaker's precise, restrained performance and the array of talent that surrounds him, the movie leaves little impact.  Strangely for a Lee Daniels movie, it's too polite, too much an attempt at universal appeal in all of its sentimentality. I t's inoffensive, but if it weren't for all the star caliber, you wouldn't even notice it in a room.