On Sunday, Joe Biden went to church in Birmingham, Alabama. There he addressed a storied black congregation, in a seat of the civil rights movement, in what was once the most racist city in America. It was a moment.
Biden spoke softly, passionately and personally. He is better at set speeches than debates, where he is sometimes rambling and incoherent. He appreciates words – a lost art in public life – crafted for him by wordsmiths.
Biden addressed a country riven by race, which never goes away. In fact, it gets worse as authorities arrest young black men, redraw electoral districts and erode labour rights won with blood in places like Birmingham.
Hate crimes are rising. Attacks on blacks, Jews, Latinos and Muslims are common. The president traffics in coded language that is racist. He speaks like a white nationalist.
As others who remember the movement, Biden watches with horror. He cannot believe a president who could refer cavalierly to “both sides” in Charlottesville in 2017 with equal praise or condemnation.
Biden thinks this is a watershed, the benighted presidency of Donald Trump, what Biden calls “a battle for the soul of America.” He asks: “Who are we? What do we want to be?”
Biden spoke from the pulpit of the 16th Street Baptist Church on the 56th anniversary of the bombing the killed four girls preparing for Sunday lessons. Black America was in revolt that spring and summer, when the movement marched on Washington and set cities aflame in the South.
In September 1963, Birmingham was ground zero. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized mass protests and wrote the imperishable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Led by the swaggering Bull Connor, the city police responded to the protests with water cannon that could rip bark off a tree, and snarling dogs baring their fangs. Hundreds filled city jails, including children.
The images repulsed President John F. Kennedy, who understood, as he had not before, what was happening in the freedom struggle, which he had come to see as more of a moral than legal question. He introduced the Civil Rights Act, which in 1964 would become among the landmark laws in the republic’s history.
The triumphalist view of the movement suggests that the problem was fixed with the law, which said that blacks could vote, eat at lunch counters, sleep in hotels and attend integrated schools. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was seen as confirmation of a country that had finally overcome its past.
But Biden knows that isn’t so. As he says, “Hate hides, but doesn’t go away.” It is in everything; if there isn’t slavery or segregation today there are its ugly descendants: racial profiling, judicial inequity, voter suppression.
Some societies get beyond their atrocities – South Africa, Germany – or at least they try. The United States has not. It has never had a reconciliation commission. It has never issued an apology for slavery. It has never paid reparations, now the subject of study by a congressional sub-committee and an issue among Democratic presidential contenders.
To the contrary, some states continue to honour the generals and politicians of the Confederacy, insisting their cause was noble. They don’t fully recognize the savagery of slavery to the black underclass.
Generations ago, towns and cities raised statues to these “heroes,” seeking to write a sentimental alternate narrative of the “War Between the States.” Until recently, the Deep South thought that celebrating Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson was fine.
In Mississippi, outside the capital of Jackson, a large man-made reservoir where the murdered Medgar Evers used to fish is named after Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor. A space centre is named after Sen. John Stennis, another rock-ribbed racist.
Would we tolerate Lake Saddam Hussein or the Herman Goering Art Gallery? Theirs were crimes of a different scale, yes, but the point remains: The United States has never even had this conversation. It’s in denial.
Led by Democrats this stormy political season, perhaps Americans are ready to discuss the demons of their past.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
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