“To cleanse history in the name of a false patriotism that celebrates a new illiteracy as a way of loving the United States is a discourse of anti-memory, a willful attempt at forgetting the past in the manufactured fog of historical amnesia.”
— Henry Giroux
I tried! In my capacity as a member of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Board of Directors (CCR), I traveled to Selma on Friday to attend the induction of Arthur Kinoy and William Kunstler, two of the founding lawyers of CCR, into the Selma National Voting Rights Museum. And even though I knew that I would have to endure Obama’s presence in Selma on Saturday, my plan was to stay in Selma until Sunday to catch up with friends and participate in the peoples’ crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
But I never saw the sun come up in Selma. Before Air Force One ever entered Alabama airspace, Obama’s presence overshadowed the commemoration. In conversations on Friday, I heard over and over again about how Obama was coming to town to symbolically “close the circle” on the struggle for voting rights. And though it shouldn’t have, I could not shake the deep sadness that I felt every time I heard this and similar comments from so many of my people who still had so much invested in this cheap pro-imperialist hustler that after the induction on Friday I found myself on Highway 80 heading out of Selma toward Montgomery.
I made the right decision.
Obama’s presence on Saturday severely crippled most of the people-centered discussions and activities that were scheduled for that day. And as the master propagandist that he is, he gave a magnificent performance blending themes of “American exceptionalism” with the black middle-class version of black history and black struggle to give an emotionally charged twist to an otherwise trite and familiar narrative of racial uplift and progress toward a more perfect union.
In fact his performance was so effective that very few seemed to remember that just two days before the Selma speech his Department of Justice announced that it would not indict the Ferguson killer-cop Darren Wilson.
And none of the mainstream commentators seem to notice the irony in President Obama proclaiming progress toward a more perfect union the morning after another unarmed black teen was gunned down by a cop in Madison, Wisconsin and that Selma and the civil rights movement reflected the importance of non-violence as a principle to resolve social conflicts, while 600 members of the 173rd Airborne were in the air traveling to Ukraine to train the neo-Nazi Ukrainian national guard to wage war against their own citizens.
Malcolm X once said that the black freedom movement wasn’t integrated by white liberals and their Negro collaborators but was instead infiltrated. That programmatic and ideological infiltration was on full display in Selma on Saturday. In the 1950s and 1960s, the political and ideological space was created for liberal infiltration because of state repression in the 1950s. A major target of the post-war national security state in the 50s was the radical black movement and individual black radicals. Dozens of radical black activists were prosecuted, jailed, forced out of the country or confined to a form of national house arrest by having their passports seized. Some of the more prominent names associated with this repression included W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, William Patterson and Paul Robeson.
However, radical human rights organizing and resistance continued, especially in the South. Building on the work that took new organizational forms in the 1930s, a solid social base of organized resistance was established that, while it suffered in the repressive environment of the 50s, nevertheless, provided the social base for what was renamed as the “civil rights movement” reflecting the growing hegemony of more conservative elements of the black freedom movement that started to garner more liberal institutional support.
The elevation of Dr. King after he was chosen by labor leader E.D Nixon to be the face of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s bus boycott and the subsequent creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that provided Dr. King a broader organizational base was facilitated by powerful white allies. Dr. King and SCLC didn’t just give voice to ongoing struggles throughout the Southern region but in many cases they were grafted onto some of those struggles that had a more militant, independent working class social base and set of objectives. And while the racial caste system mitigated the disperate class perspectives and interests within the movement in the 50s and early 60s, the experiences of the Lowndes county Black Panther Party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the influences of Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams and the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) as well as other radical black organizations, progressively sharpened the class and programmatic contradictions of movement by the mid- 60s.
It was precisely the intensification of the black struggle for democratic and human rights that resulted in the state concession reflected in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. But it was the systemic contradiction of ongoing colonial/capitalist reality of the black poor and working classes in the South and the urban areas where blacks had migrated during the second great migration that facilitated the explosion in Watts just five days after the passage of the VRA. The rebellion in Watts was the first in over three hundred urban rebellions that would take place over the next few years.
This was the context that facilitated the placement of Dr. King and SCLC by powerful elements of the ruling elite on front of, and in some cases on top of work being carried out by local organizations, including attempting to displace the national influence and work of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Today Barack Obama in his role as the President of the U.S. and chief spokesperson for the white ruling class, and as a representative of the “new” black professional-managerial class, has been assigned the task to explain and legitimate the ongoing subjugation of the black poor and working class five decades after the reform legislation of the 60s.
The speech in Selma, with all of its pro-“American” and settler colonialist sentimentality was delivered with a world audience in mind. Its ideological objective was to counter the idea of an irreconcilable black opposition by co-opting black resistance and imposing a conservative meaning of black oppositional politics.
The presence of George Bush and the imagery of Bush and Obama with the masses of black people behind them as they jointly crossed the bridge was meant to symbolically close any gap between the policies of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ that may have existed in the imagination of people outside of the U.S. related to black people and their loyalty to the U.S. state.
The message that Obama’s speech was meant to convey was that despite killer-cops, mass incarceration and grinding poverty no one should be confused: you will not split black folks away from the state because these black folks belong to us.
And judging by the paucity of criticism or even discussion of the Department of Justice’s decision last week not to indict Wilson and the unrestrained praise of Obama’s speech in various black media outlets, it is once again mission accomplished for the propagandist in chief.
Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. He is a contributor to “Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.AjamuBaraka.com