Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold

Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.**

I remember very distinctly my best friend in one elementary school grade – six or seven – trying to explain one day what it meant to be Jewish. Being brought up in a generally secular household, one with a slight, faded Protestant tinge, that notion of grand otherness, of another culture, a whole other world to which I was not privy, was just beyond me. What difference did it make, anyway? Just throw the ball, or lend me your homework, let’s go catch frogs in the creek…

I didn’t get it that there was something outside the collective “us” on the playground. Culture, religion, even skin colour didn’t matter when it came to an impromptu game of British Bulldog, catch, or a contest of marbles at recess. I didn’t understand that there was any sort of otherness that could spark even mild animosity, let alone lead to segregation and violence.

Sure, we had differences. Kids on their block and our block were at war with kids on ours over who could use the field by the creek in the afternoon. That grade and our grade were locked in dire competition over gymnastics. Those kids at that end of the street had fancy bicycles, so kids at our end with beaten up, used bikes couldn’t ride with them. That cub pack wasn’t as good as our cub pack. This day camp was better than that one. His comic book collection was better than anyone’s. Micro-ideologies, all, but not based on overarching adult concerns like race.

Kids, I suppose, have to be taught to hate, have to be taught intolerance, fear and loathing. Otherwise we never feel it. It’s not in our genes. And in our household, those lessons weren’t in the family curriculum.

I don’t think I was naive. It just wasn’t in the upbringing to be racist or bigoted. My parents didn’t ever, in my hearing, say anything about race, religion or colour. I think they were colour blind, racially speaking. They were artlessly apolitical.

Differences, if any, were just that: different. Not better, or worse. Cool, in many ways. A black classmate-friend from Trinidad or Jamaica was cool because he used words in ways I never knew, pronounced them in wonderfully odd ways (and his parents had a piano before anyone else in the neighbourhood I knew).

An Italian kid, who vacillated between friendship and being the class bully, let me into the back of his parents’ grocery shop where I saw all sorts of neat things that I never knew happened in the front. We traded baseball and hockey cards. My first girlfriend, at the tender age of 10 or 11, was Catholic.

It was, like most postwar Canadian suburbs, mostly white, with a strong British/Scottish undercurrent, but it had a mix of others who fled Europe after the war – Polish, Italian, French, Greek – and those who came from the colonies as the Empire closed down. Rhodesia, Tanzania, Jamaica, Hong Kong… and we all swam in the same pool every summer. We all played pick-up baseball and hockey together. We all stormed ice forts with snowballs in winter, and played cowboys and Indians in the fields in summer.

There was a bigger difference between boys and girls than between boys of different colour or religion. Gender mattered a lot, especially as puberty approached. Can’t tell you what their parents thought about it all, just what we felt as kids. ***

The suburbs were a mixing pot and, as far as I can remember five decades later; none of the kids felt estranged, segregated or belittled by any social, racial or cultural differences.

Perhaps that’s only because I was not brought up to see those differences, and I didn’t see their personal angst. Or perhaps it’s because we fit in so well, I never experienced anything similar. But I also can’t recall teachers pointing out any differences, either.

Still, I saw it on the TV news, how those differences mattered to others; Walter Cronkite explaining why another riot had broken out, why another peaceful march had been turned violent when counter-protesters armed with rocks and baseball bats attacked. Watts. A city in flames. Snipers. Angry crowds throwing rocks at firemen, driving off those trying to battle the blaze that threatened the rock-throwers’ own homes… crazy.

It all ran counter to what our teachers were filling our heads with, that stuff about democracy, freedom, responsibility, rights… didn’t they matter in America? Or just in Canada?

Canada mapWhat was Canada anyway? To a kid it was a blotch on a map full of mysterious names, pictures in a geography book of wheat fields, mountains, fishing boats and Eskimo (today’s Inuit). And the inevitable Mountie in red uniform. It was too vast to comprehend. Winnipeg is how far away? Where is Whitehorse? What is a province?

Our world, our Canada, was a small land bordered by a dozen streets in any direction (and some farmer’s fields, with cows, still within walking distance, for a few years anyway). Canada was the playground, the creek, the schoolyard, the pool, the corner store that sold candies three for a penny… nationalism, patriotism are just more of those things you have to be taught later in life.

America, a place that existed in TV-land, was all this violence, these demonstrations, the war footage. And Ed Sullivan. Mitch Miller. Mickey Mouse. Roy Rogers. The Lone Ranger. I Love Lucy. Gunsmoke. The Three Stooges. And Saturday morning cartoons. Our neighbours who came to our aid in WWII, who fought with us against the enemy, whose might turned the war in our favour. Best friends. Somewhere south of us, way past where the creek ran. Too far to walk to.

Conflicting images of violence and jollity. How could a country that made I Love Lucy or the Three Stooges be the same one where police beat non-violent marchers with batons? I hadn’t leaned the word “schizophrenic” then.

The TV news showing the clashes in America were like watching a clash in Afghanistan today. Or Egypt, Turkey – some place distant, on the other side of the world, if not another planet altogether. Some place that didn’t play by the same rules, a violent, dangerous place. Way past the schoolyard.

There were two Americas, it seemed; one in the news, the other in the more benign scheduled TV programming. Were people rioting while Ed Sullivan was on, rather than watching Elvis or The Beatles perform? Did they stop to watch Bugs Bunny on Sunday? For a kid, it was a quandary, a conundrum I couldn’t resolve.

Reading about those times now is both fascinating and uncomfortable. Were people really like that, just a few decades ago? Apparently so. Or does it seem more violent, more agonized in Perlstein’s telling than it was in actuality? The selective lens of hindsight focusing on just the foreground of his vision?

The era was turbulent, especially for America, with a combination of events and issues colliding: the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, free speech, the rise of the uber-right to wrest control of the conservative (Republican) agenda, the Red Scare, Johnson, Nixon, Goldwater, Reagan, Wallace… Perlstein covers it all, covers them all, albeit with his own, personal slant and passion, a writer born of Boomer children and looking back at his parents’ era with a mix of fascination and disgust.

I have to be careful not to get swept away in his vision, and try to balance it with other views. Is he truthful? Objective? Not sure. It’s a riveting account, an epic, either way. One that makes me want to delve deeper, once finished (update: I also read his book, Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater; another terrific history of the era).

Not everyone likes Perlstein’s work, of course. The New York Times Sunday Book Review panned it back in 2008, the reviewer writing,

The cumulative effect of carelessness, solecisms and rhetorical fireworks is to make Perlstein seem eager to portray the years and people about whom he is writing as even wilder and nastier than they were. Which is especially unfortunate because he has a gift for penetrating judgments, for example, that Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California because he provided “a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn’t seemed like voting issues at all.”

The Atlantic was lukewarm, but overall laudatory:

Now Perlstein has produced a sequel. If Before the Storm was a near-masterpiece, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which covers the turbulent years from Goldwater’s defeat to Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory, is merely a great success. It labors under handicaps his first book didn’t have: whereas Before the Storm dealt with a circumscribed and neglected moment (who remembers Dr. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, or the presidential boomlet for William Warren Scranton?), Nixonland tackles the most obsessed-over era in recent American history. Any book that rolls Woodstock and Watergate, the death of RFK and the Tet Offensive, Jane Fonda and George Wallace, and a cast of thousands more into a mere 800 pages or so is bound to sprawl and sag a bit, to rush too quickly through some topics and linger too long with others.

Even so, Nixonland reads marvelously. Perlstein has the rare gift of being able to weave social, political, and cultural history into a single seamless narrative, linking backroom political negotiations to suburban protests over sex education in schools to the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde.

The Satirist added,

Reading Nixonland often resembles reading the news of the period on the internet (or on microfilm). Perlstein selects the most telling articles and quotes from them liberally, to add an extraordinary level of detail to his narrative…

In any case, Nixonland features many hilarious moments, whether the target is Nixon (his social awkwardness, his mendacity); the shallow opportunism of politicians of either party, or even idealistic excesses of the New Left. When the story is tragic, such as during the riots or the Vietnam war, it remains equally exciting.

Nixonland sets a high bar for popular history.

But I’m only partway through it, so I must read on. Any book that makes the reader think so deeply, ponder events, life, politics and society, is always worth reading, regardless of whether you agree with the author’s conclusions.

* My first political memories go back to the 1960 presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. It was all the talk in the schoolyard. My best friend – my next-door neighbour – and I took opposite sides; him for Nixon, me for Kennedy and we “debated” against each other in childish parody of the real debates. I also remember watching Diefenbaker (Canada’s own Nixon it seemed at the time, but it was just the jowls…) and Pearson debate on TV. Our home was cheerfully non-political, but you couldn’t escape the news. I did, however, find books in the school and public library about politics that I brought home to read. I remember getting into a clash with some classmates in my first year in high school because I read about Communism at a time when the Cold War was in full bloom.

** By the mid-60s, I had become more politically aware, but would not really grasp all the issues or pay attention to the events, elections and the movements until the late 60s, when I headed to university. There everything boiled and bubbled to the surface and I became, like so many young people at the time, politicized, polarized and angry enough to learn protest songs on my guitar… I cast my first vote in the 1968 federal election. Perlstein was born a year after that.

*** I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it; I know discrimination and racism existed then, as they do now, in Canada. But we never suffered the same sort of coast-to-cast unrest in the 1950s and 60s as America did (not until Idle No More, would we see anything similar). Black Canadians have suffered here from bigotry. However, we seem to have legislated integration sooner. Ontario’s 1944 Racial Discrimination Act “prohibited the publication and display of any symbol, sign, or notice that expressed ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination.” Yet the first black Canadian elected to a Canadian Parliament (Leonard Braithwaite, the Liberal member for Etobicoke, Ontario, in 1963) was more than 100 years after the first black American was elected to public office. Aboriginal Canadians still continue to struggle with discrimination and many of the same issues – poverty, jobs, education, opportunities, inequality, housing – that created the Civil Rights movement for black Americans. No, Canadians are far from perfect with regards to equality and racism, but I think many of us try hard to be. I love living in a broadly multicultural society.

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  1. Down South

    I read Perlstein’s book when it came out a couple of years ago. Certainly, it could have been better with improved fact checking and some selective editing in terms of its length. Hope to read his book on Goldwater at some point and await his next book on Reagan in the 1970’s. He has captured the crackup of the American Democratic party between 1964 and 1972 pretty well.

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