I’ve been watching Stanley Nelson’s stunning film “Freedom Riders,” which premiered on PBS May 16, something that’s been on the to-do list since mid-May.
The film examines in painful detail events in the deep South during May-November 1961when civil rights activists, most black but some white, risked their lives to test and defy Jim Crow travel laws still in effect there despite court rulings that had outlawed racial segregation in interstate travel.
This was a crucial turning point in the American civil rights movement, but as a high school sophomore in southern Iowa, distressingly unaware in retrospect on many fronts, it wasn’t something I thought much about at the time. It did affect the way I thought about the South and still do, however, especially Alabama and Mississippi.
The timing is interesting, too, since we’ve had another go-around on the editorial pages of Chariton newspapers about President Barack Obama during the last couple of weeks, causing me to wonder (not for the first time) just how much power racism still has in Iowa and elsewhere (it’s always useful to remember that racism is not a regional phenomenon).
I tend to think that nearly all of the outright vitriol directed toward Obama can be tracked to the fact that many white folks, viewing black, still see red.
This does not mean that there aren’t many issues involving the president’s policies and agenda worthy of debate --- just that race really isn’t a factor.
The latest go-round here began as they usually do with comments by newspaper publisher Dave Paxton in his weekly column. Paxton, who lives in Albia but inherited managership of the Chariton newspapers some years ago, doesn’t like the president --- and says that frequently, usually in inflammatory ways. He doesn’t like LGBT folks, liberal Christians and Democrats in general either.
Paxton tells us quite often that he loves black folks, however, and perhaps he does, but many of his comments about Obama imply otherwise and edged this time as they have before close to racism with unnecessary and unverifiable allegations about the natures of the president’s parents, one black and the other white, and meanderings into the old mixed-race minefield.
Those comments merited a brief rebuke from Elaine McCullough, a good old liberal warrior who once edited the Chariton papers, then a thoughtful letter from Fred Steinbach, suggesting that discourse would benefit from civility. Fair disclosure: I consider both friends.
The letters in response to Elaine’s and Fred’s (the publisher remaining aloof, sort of) included the overstatement that Obama was “the worst thing that ever happened to America” and a suggestion that Fred perhaps didn’t belong in Chariton and shouldn’t have moved here in the first place (If you’re from Lucas County you know that anyone named Steinbach “belongs” here). One of the letter-writers doesn’t live here; I didn’t recognize the other’s name.
Paxton occasionally mounts his “freedom of the press” high horse when challenged, and of course he’s right --- he has the freedom to write whatever he chooses to, short of verifiable libel; the questions are whether he should write it and whether he has the best interests of the community he serves in mind when he writes so abrasively and apparently with so little thought.
A good many Lucas Countyans, including me, are so accustomed to Paxton we don’t take what he writes seriously --- or even bother to read a column past the first paragraph (he writes well and can churn out an interesting column, but once you know the direction he’s headed in many cases there’s no reason to read farther because you’ve been there before).
Or we’re afraid that if we speak up that he’ll take out after us personally, which he’s been known to do; or after an organization we represent, which so far as I know he’s not done.
It’s an interesting situation and I’m going to start paying more attention. If you don’t speak up, after all, you become complicit.
If you’d like to watch “Freedom Riders” online, you can do so at the film’s Web site, which is here.