“Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.”
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones …”
She is a woman of impressive personal dignity, down to earth and friendly, yet unmistakably one of those natural aristocrats who expects to be respected. The daughter of a prominent businessman in her north Georgia hometown, she went to college in Atlanta where she met her husband. He became a lawyer and an influential political leader — he is now a superior court judge — and she remains active in civic organizations in her retirement.
For the organizers of the Atlanta Olympic Committee, Marilyn Arrington was clearly a woman whose assistance should be solicited. And when her Olympic duties brought her back to her hometown in 1996, my editor at the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune sent me out to interview the lady. The assignment was an honor, and I was eager to accomplish it well, given both the importance of the subject and the fact that our publisher was keeping a keen eye on our Olympic coverage.
So I interviewed her, and soon discovered that this eminent lady had been one of the foot soldiers of the civil rights revolution. Her father had been the local agent for Atlanta Life Insurance, which made him a de facto leader of Rome’s black business community. And when, as a Clark College undergraduate, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and began participating in sit-in protests against segregation in Atlanta — well, this caused some consternation with her father.
Mrs. Arrington’s father was part of an informal group of civic leaders who met regularly in Rome. These men, black and white, were part of a community effort to ensure that whatever the outcome of the struggle then underway, no damage would be done to the peace and prosperity of their town. In an era of extreme tension, this was a difficult task — history books now are studded with the names of towns where such efforts failed, or were never undertaken — and the young Clark student’s activism made her father’s labors all the more difficult.
How would it look, after all, if she were arrested among the protesters at the all-white lunch counters in Atlanta? His daughter, a “troublemaker”? This would be a disastrous revelation, considering the prevailing mood in her north Georgia hometown. And so an agreement was reached between father and daughter: When the police showed up, she would leave when asked, leaving others to be arrested in the ritual of civil disobedience. This was acceptable to her SNCC comrades, who assigned her to what she described more than three decades later as the “go squad.” By design, sit-in demonstrators would be divided into two groups — most on the “go squad,” who would obey the police order to leave, and a relative few on the “stay squad,” pledged to leave only in handcuffs.
This go/stay division was part of the careful orchestration of the sit-in protests that I’d never heard described before, and it occurred to me — as Mrs. Arrington told her story with my tape recorder rolling — that her position with the Olympic committee was far from being her greatest claim to historic distinction. Memories of that 1996 interview came to mind Wednesday, after Attorney General Eric Holder denounced America as “a nation of cowards,” afraid to talk about race.
With so many problems afflicting America today, especially with the economy in crisis, what purpose was served by Holder’s remarks? Trillions of dollars in asset value were wiped out by the collapse of the housing “bubble” and the ripple effects of that collapse have shaken financial institutions worldwide to their very foundations. It hardly seems a convenient moment for an angry racial harangue from the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
Particularly odd was that Holder chose to deliver his lecture in the middle of Black History Month, when America’s school children are annually immersed in the subject of race. Originally conceived by pioneering scholar Carter G. Woodson as a means of inspiring black youth by celebrating the accomplishments of overlooked achievers, in recent decades Black History Month has been hijacked by those who view the story of African-Americans not as one of hard-earned progress, but of perpetual victimhood and permanent grievance.