Living in Philadelphia is a kick for an American historian. I’m especially a sucker for the city’s 4th of July celebrations. This year’s program at Independence Hall emphasized the importance and complex history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The topic is a good reminder that there is still “so much to do,” as singer-songwriter Ben Taylor reminded the crowd enjoying the festivities.
Mayor Michael Nutter noted during his speech that 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg. The Emancipation did not end slavery, but it shifted the war from a fight to save the union to a struggle to end slavery, thereby bringing the United States closer to the ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. The 13th Amendment put a legal end to slavery in the United States, but the fight for racial equality continued. Underscoring that point, Mayor Nutter noted that 2013 also marks 50 years since the murder of 4 girls in a terrorist bombing at the 9th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That event and the civil rights protests that followed were an important turning point for the modern Civil Rights Movement, eventually leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Philadelphia invited the Mayor of Birmingham, William D. Bell, Sr. to read the Declaration of Independence at yesterday’s 4th of July ceremony. Mayor Bell also road on a float carrying images of significant civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and the iconic Rosa Parks in the city’s Independence Day parade.
“Yes, the country has come a long way,” I thought to myself. But, of course, as a historian I should be more careful. A conversation I overheard between a mother and her teenage daughter ended my complacency.
“Mom, who was Rosa Parks?” the smartly-dressed light-haired teenager asked her mother.
To my surprise, the 40-something white middle-class mother dismissed the question by shrugging her shoulders and replying, “I don’t know,” and apparently, didn’t care.
Flabbergasted at the response by a woman who I assume had at least graduated from a U.S. high school, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was tired, hot, or simply distracted. Smiling, I offered, “You probably remember that Rosa Parks was the brave woman in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 that refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. There is a statue of her in the U.S. Capitol.”
The woman’s only grunted and my friendly reminder didn’t seem to stimulate any memory of Parks’ story in the daughter either. Is it possible that these 2 middle-class white Americans had never heard of Rosa Parks? I hope not.
Historical memory is fleeting, but more important, forgetting the past can be hurtful. A blog post in today’s Salon.com by Dr. Brittany Cooper makes my point. An Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Dr. Cooper wrote about her experience this week while boarding a flight to Louisiana to visit relatives over the 4th of July holiday. A woman Dr. Cooper describes as white, middle-class, and a mother traveling with 2 sons sat down in the next seat. In such close quarters, Dr. Cooper innocently read the last few words of a phone text the woman sent to a friend, “on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me.”
It’s hard for me to imagine the pain and anger Dr. Cooper must have felt seeing those hateful words. Professor Cooper composed herself and decided she had to say something. She created a posting on on Facebook, then called up the post. Holding back tears, Dr. Cooper quietly showed the woman the FB posting and said, “I just want to let you know that your words were hurtful. And I hope you don’t pass that kind of ignorance down to your beautiful boys.” The woman did not apologize and instead only offered a curt reply, “I don’t.” Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere, Professor Cooper reached her destination without further incident or exchange.
As a historian and a white woman of a certain age, I’m appalled at the behavior of both mothers. Recent events in the news add to my dismay. It is indefensible for any American to argue that it is excusable for the Food Network’s, now former celebrity, Paula Deen to use the “n” word because of her “cultural heritage.” I am also troubled at the Supreme Court’s decision ending the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act because it is no longer necessary. Both issues may seem insignificant to many Americans. To the contrary, on this holiday marking the 237th birthday of the United States, no American should be willing to accept excuses of cultural heritage, indifference, ignorance, or mission accomplished for behaviors and policies that are discriminatory and hinder the rights of anyone.
As singer-songwriter Ben Taylor reminded the crowd at Independence Hall on July 4, 2013 in Philadelphia, there is still “so much to do.”