“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.
Most Americans over age 30 have little idea how the teaching of history has been perverted by the damaging attitudes Shelby Steele examined in his 2007 bestseller, White Guilt. And because history has been hijacked by grievance mongers and guilt-trippers, most Americans under age 30 have absolutely no idea of what a triumphant tale our nation has to tell, including stories like the one told by the distinguished lady from the Olympic committee.
Every February, America’s children are taught about the fire hoses and police dogs turned upon anti-segregation protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, but no one ever seems to point out that such incidents were the exception rather than the rule, even during the height of the struggle over civil rights in the South. The comparatively peaceful end of Jim Crow in Atlanta and other communities, made possible by cooperative efforts of responsible leaders both black and white — of this, our nation’s children have been taught nothing at all for the past 20 years.
However painful our history has been and whatever our problems of race relations today, our children deserve better than to be deluded by the narratives of guilt and grievance that have come to dominate the teaching of American history. No other nation on earth has done more to advance the cause of liberty and justice, and yet — so far as our children learn during Black History Month — America is nothing but chains and whips and Bull Connor’s police dogs.
What happened? This question has long troubled me. Just a kindergartner during the watershed year of 1964, when passage of the Civil Rights Act wrote the obituary of Jim Crow, I grew up in a time of comparative racial tranquility in the South. No “incidents” disturbed my youth attending the recently integrated schools of Douglas County, Ga., nor did any racial conflict mar my years at Jacksonville (Ala.) State University.
By the 1990s, however, one could scarcely ignore the signs of deteriorating race relations in America. The 1987 Tawana Brawley controversy and the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York; the 1991 Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles; the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 — you could turn on CNN any night and watch racial anger unleashed with hideous consequences.
What went wrong? I put this question to Mrs. Arrington that afternoon in 1996. Our interview had ended; the tape recorder had been put away. This was not a reporter’s question, but rather an earnest hope that someone who had served as a soldier in the civil right revolution might offer insight into the causes of the apparent backsliding. Expecting her to identify a recent source of these woes, I was surprised by her answer.
“It seems to me it was around 1965 or ’66, when Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and that crowd came in,” she said, referring to militants who captured the leadership of SNCC. “They kicked the white people out of the movement and started talking about ‘black power’ — everything was ‘whitey this’ and ‘whitey that.’ … It was never the same after that.”
While Mrs. Arrington was the first to share that historical perspective with me, she was not the last. Over the years, many others who were active in civil rights during that era — including conservative author David Horowitz — have related similar stories. Tragically, because the black-power militants of the late 1960s allied themselves with white radicals who subsequently burrowed into academia to begin their “long march through the institutions,” it is their “whitey this, whitey that” guilt-and-grievance narrative that now dominates what young Americans are taught about our nation’s racial past and present.
Drugs, crime, educational failure, rampant illegitimacy — the real problems affecting millions of black people today — are not the issues the attorney general refers to when he denounces America as a “nation of cowards.” But these issues loom large for Judge Marvin Arrington every day in his Atlanta courtroom, as he faces a sad parade of young black criminals who shun honest opportunity and instead prey upon their own community.
Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver once famously observed, and the tragedy enveloping so much of black America today might well be viewed as a consequence of the wrong turn that Marilyn Arrington described.
Stokely Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Toure in tribute to two notorious African dictators, and died in 1998 after bizarrely claiming that his fatal prostate cancer was the result of an FBI plot against him. H. Rap Brown changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, and ended his career as a “community organizer” by shooting to death a black sheriff’s deputy in 2000. Such are the villainous examples emulated by the violent young criminals who pass through Marvin Arrington’s courtroom.
Our latter-day Pharisees presume to lecture us about race while doing nothing to address real problems affecting ordinary Americans. Like the corrupt leaders of Israel whom Jesus condemned two millennia ago, these Pharisees expect to be praised and admired for displaying their hypocritical self-righteousness as they stand in judgment over a nation they mislead and betray.
Woe unto them and woe unto the nation that follows such wicked leadership.