We The People, We Shall Overcome, Yes We Can!

Sunday Morning Breakfast, Horace Pippin, 1943

Sunday Morning Breakfast, Horace Pippin, 1943

Sunday Morning Breakfast, painted in 1943, in oil on fabric, by Horace Pippin is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum. This newly acquired artwork marries modernist abstract design with an evocative, but simple narrative in a scene drawn from the artist’s childhood memories. It is a fine example of African-American domesticity, for which he is best known.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the national holiday set aside for the remembrance of the man and his acts. It is a cold day, but also a bright day here in Saint Louis. I re-watched Selma last night, the story of the fight for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Led by King, the story centers on the lead-up to the march from Selma to Montgomery. The cast led by David Oyelowo (King) portrays a virtual who’s-who of American Civil Rights leadership. In the movie, the political tactics employed by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the white reaction to these tactics form the central story of the movie. King’s personal life is also a major theme. Some of the violence of that time is terrifyingly portrayed. What we don’t see or rather hear are any of King’s lofty speeches, I was surprised to learn. Director Ava DuVernay was forced to paraphrase many of those iconic words that are owned by the MLK estate, those words had already been licensed to a potential Spielberg biopic. Selma was critically well received, except for at last year’s Oscars. Snubbed, it received only one Oscar for the song, Glory. This year, in true Jim Clark fashion, the Oscars have doubled down and nominated no black artists.

Glory mentions Saint Louis by way of Ferguson and not in a good way. The Michael Brown shooting was a tragedy here that should have acted as a wakeup call for Saint Louis, instead, it sparked a national debate. Black men are still being shot by the police, at an alarming rate, at least now though many more incidents are being scrutinized and not just hushed-up and swept under the rug as they once were. I imagine though that just like Selma, over fifty years ago any change for the better is not so much a reflection of anyone’s change of heart, but is due as much from the introduction of video. Any change for the better is still good, no matter how it is wrought. It is a cold, but sunny MLK day here today. Let’s pray that this sunshine portends brighter days to come.

Living the Dream

A Mockingbird

A Mockingbird

The title of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has very little literal connection to its plot, but it still carries a great deal of symbolic weight. In her book that connection boils down to one scene, where Atticus explains to his son, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit them, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Similarly, my photo of a mockingbird relies upon that same symbolism and likewise has little to do with the rest of this post. Mockingbirds are best known for the habit of mimicking the songs of other birds and the sounds of other animals. Maybe this is what makes them precious or as Lee’s Miss Maudie asserts, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.” 

Like Mockingbird, Selma is also in Alabama. In all of the hub-bub of our frenetic weekend I totally spaced on President Obama’s commemoration of the Selma March, fifty years ago last Saturday. I watched it later online and you can also, here or you can read the text of the speech here. I was greatly moved by Obama’s speech, which is one of his best ever. I think he really hit it out of the park with it. It was so much more than a commemoration of just “Bloody Sunday” or even the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. It was highly patriotic and a great liberal manifesto.

One of this speech’s aspects that the pundit class has lit itself up with is its supposed partisanship. Last month former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani launched a rather crude attack on Obama’s patriotism and part of this speech was devoted to the President’s answer. Obama isn’t an à la carte patriot as others would have him. He is not afraid to criticize that which he loves, he finds America neither faultless nor broken, but longs for, strives for and expects to have “A just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America.”

From the Declaration of Independence to today, he put Selma on a continuum. One that has shown social progress over the years, but one that has much work left to do. He raised Ferguson as an example that more work is still needed, but he also used the country’s response to Ferguson as a sign of our progress, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.” Near the end of his speech, in a neat bit of wordplay, Obama ties together the history of our country’s moral imagination, from our founding fathers, to the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, to today.

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We the People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can!