Of late, Hollywood has reminded us of that myopic vision, narrowing after World War II. We forgot the liberating armies in Europe and on islands in the Pacific were snapshots of those back home, their skin color, dark to light, their bravery unimpeachable.
When baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s story “42,” (his uniform number), was brought to the screen, we saw prejudice rear its head as fans yelled the “N” word at Robinson, the first black player on a major league team.
A few Brooklyn Dodgers players refused to take to the field with him and opposing teams cancelled games. On a dramatized road trip, the movie captured the owner of a small town gas station refusing Robinson the use of a restroom.
An African-American player could not stay with his teammates in hotels and eating on the road meant food on the bus for Robinson.
Robinson, his wife, Rachel, and their children were one family among thousands who heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech at the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
The scenes from that day flooded our television screens this past week as the 50th anniversary of the speech was replayed, poetry from the mountaintop, and a reminder that King’s oft-quoted words were not in the original text of his speech, but came to life as gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, shouted, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”
He did. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Sadly, we cannot claim peace and love at that table. When asked in polls, twice as many African-Americans witness biased treatment by police and the courts as white Americans. Half feel their voting rights are at risk.
Granted, there are no more “We Do Not Hire Blacks” signs hanging in shop windows, and restaurants, (are there still lunch counters?) serve customers regardless of race.
No one is shouting racial epithets at the starting running backs on the University of Alabama’s football team, African-Americans all and born athletes. And, in a small social victory, it is no longer acceptable to tell racist jokes at gatherings. That heart surgeon standing nearby is likely a top-of-his-class African-American doctor who never read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Hollywood’s latest attempt at dramatizing the struggle for equality is “The Butler,” a story of an unschooled son of slaves, brought into the big plantation house as a servant, later doting on a line of eight sitting presidents in the White House.
The film disguises big-name stars as presidents, turning Oprah Winfrey into a character actress in her role as the butler’s wife. “The Butler” over-reaches in cameo roles, but is saved by hard truths, footage of black and white students, treated as pond scum in a lunch counter sit-in and film of dogs and fire hoses set on demonstrators in Alabama.
The burning carcass of the Freedom Riders’ bus is treated with the same reverence as a state dinner at the White House where the black staff is paid less than the white-skinned folks working there.
“The Butler” is a story of the reckoning of generations as a father serves white presidents while his sons fight for integration and in Vietnam.
I want my college grandchildren to see the movie, yet I dread the bigotry and ignorance holding them captive as the film unfolds.
Speaking truth to power meant blood on the streets, shed by black and white Americans. Though the theology of the civil rights movement was non-violent, students and other believers risked their lives and jobs to tear down a wall of discrimination.
Today, we remember them and the sacrifices they made.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.