Last night the New Orleans Human Rights International Film Festival opened with the excellent documentary, Freedom Riders. I can’t say how pleased I was to see this important piece of Southern civil rights history explored so fully and so well. The film focused on the Freedom Rides, where black and white students took buses into the Deep South together to challenge segregation laws in 1961, initially orchestrated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The film evoked the fear, courage and uncertainty of the Freedom Riders, and examined the dynamic between activists, leaders and the government.
I can sum up the lessons as such: activist lead, and when they win, leaders follow and then take credit for what happened. The film looked at the tension between Freedom Riders and the Kennedy Administration, showing the administration’s transformation from uninterested enablers of Southern racism to champions of the freedom riders, of course after the riders repeatedly forced the administration to take action or suffer the consequences in terms of worldwide bad PR. It also showed a timid Dr. Martin Luther King, who tried to talk the Riders out of their action, and at one point declined to join them on the buses.
This sort of bottom-up history is critical to understanding the way that social movements really work, because in the retelling, the “leaders” – whether in government or the movement – will take credit for things that they were forced to do by the movement.
I have fewer positive things to say about the discussion before the film. It was great to see actual Freedom Riders from New Orleans discussing their experiences. However, where the discussion turned to the present, it fell short. It is important to point out that racism still exists in the age of Obama. However we are in a different era today than 1961, and inequality has persisted long after the end of de jure segregation. The dominant discussions about oppression in our present era, based entirely on race without mentioning class, and specifically the intersection of race and class, are disingenuous.
There is a lot of pressure on us white anti-racists to not talk about these things. However, ultimately we writers and activists have a responsibility to our communities, white and black, to talk about what is really going on.
The black political class in New Orleans today acts more out of class self-interest than the interests of the masses, black and white, and such a race-based dialogue gives them cover. The largest example is that the majority of black politicians were complicit in the dismantling of public service institutions and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of mostly black residents of this city after the storm. All Nagin had to say was “Chocolate City” and his collusion with white politicians and business leaders was forgotten. All City Council members had to do was be black, and they turned out black votes, without any real accountability for what they had done and not done.
It can be argued that in a majority white state and with institutional forces arrayed against them, black politicians often have little choice but to acquiesce. But most black politicians in this city, just like white politicians, aren’t even trying.
There are exceptions, and exceptional moments. I recall State Rep. Charmaine Marchand leading meetings of Lower 9th Ward homeowners to advocate for the return of their neighborhood (something I did not see many other black elected leaders do), and every now and again black politicians sponsor promising legislation.
But most of the time, the blackoisie actively sells New Orleanians, black and white, down the river, and has for some time – just like white politicians do. Such sell-outs are not limited to politicians, and it was interesting to see some (though not many) of those individuals present at the screening, like radio personalities from a certain black radio station which gives Entergy Corporation, their funder, space to spread lies about their nuclear program. The radioactive waste from Entergy Corporation reactors will be around for hundreds of thousands of years. When it gives cancer and birth defects to future generations, it will not first check to see if they are black or white. And if current inequities continue, they will more likely than not be black.
It is not as though these things have never been discussed, in fact, only a few years after the Freedom Riders the battlegrounds became class and race. We see a Martin Luther King who is assassinated at the moment that he talked about economic rights for black Americans in the Memphis Sanitation Strike. We see the rise of militant movements, some of whom, like the Panthers, were explicitly focused on the failures of capitalism. The Panthers had no truck with black capitalist oppressors; even here in New Orleans much of their conflict was with blacks who preyed on the black community.
I do not accuse the panellists at the film of race essentialism, merely that this talk was an extension of the failure to talk about something that legitimately is more complex and nuanced than simple race. However, a pattern of race essentialism dominates contemporary dialogue about these issues in New Orleans, and by doing so sets us back fifty years. This is why so many contemporary discussions of race in New Orleans fall flat, such as Lance Hill’s failure to explain post-Katrina racial issues to white audiences. If what we hear sounds inaccurate and incomplete, it is because it is.
Even in the early 1960′s, more advanced thinking was being put forth by intellectuals, black and white. I encourage anyone to read Frantz Fanon’s writing about the post-colonial bourgeoisie in Wretched of the Earth (1961) and tell me what this says about the black political classes in New Orleans. Fanon literally says that the post-colonial bourgeoisie must be eliminated because it serves no purpose and holds back progress. Draw your own conclusions.
American capitalism can accommodate civil rights, and it can accommodate token black leaders. Real emancipation of the black masses is another matter. The long ride, for all of us, is far from over.