Saturday, February 13, 2021

the last book I ever read (Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, excerpt thirteen)

from Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.:

As I walked through the Birmingham airport, I couldn’t help but think of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the courageous minister and SCLC co-founder who led the Birmingham movement. Shuttlesworth’s courage and faith were the stuff of legend. He survived beatings and stabbings and multiple assassination attempts while working to bring equality and justice to Birmingham. Images of him being viciously attacked by white racists came to mind as I collected my bags. So did the dogs and fire hoses Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed on children in Kelly Ingram Park in May 1963. I thought about the monuments to heroes like Reverend Shuttlesworth and to those heroes of the civil rights movement like Dorothy Counts in Charlotte or the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas that fill the southern landscape and are now integral parts of civil rights movement tourism. The monuments memorialized the movement and the heroism of the people. But as I walked through the airport, I couldn’t square the meaning of their sacrifice with the reality of America today. I imagined Shuttlesworth confronting Donald Trump and chuckled to myself.

In I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Baldwin returned to Birmingham to witness the trial of J. B. Stoner, one of the men who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 and killed those four little girls. Another one of the bombers, Bobby Cherry, had years earlier been part of a mob that attacked Shuttlesworth and his wife when they tried to enroll their children in a newly integrated Birmingham school. Shuttleswortth told Baldwin that much more could have been done if the country had held the men to account at the time of the murders. The trial was a bit too later, and the symbolism, even if justice was served, wasn’t enough. “I think, first of all, it’s a miscarriage of justice. Not to have tried somebody at the time …. It would have slowed up the climate of violence,” Shuttlesworth told Baldwin as they walked down the steps of the courthouse. Leaving the airport, I thought of what Baldwin said in the film about the monument to Dr. King in Atlanta and wondered if it applied here: if these gestures, these memorials, aimed to make the past unusuable, and if there was “nothing you can do with that monument.” The airport was nice, though.

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