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On Language, History and Values

On Language, History and ValuesIt is, perhaps, fitting that in the same year that we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the participants, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, has also published her eagerly anticipated memoirs. Height, after all, has had personal meetings with every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was sitting inches from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. She has traveled the world to advance the causes of social and economic justice, and has always spoken eloquently of the collective strength and the dignity of every individual. Her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir  (Public Affairs, 2003), is an absorbing read, a special view of our nation’s history.
If you know Height, to read her book is to hear her speak. If time has robbed the 91-year-old of some of her once-inexhaustible vigor (and her schedule puts some folks half her age to shame), it has not dulled her intellect, nor softened that steel trap also known as her mind. She remembers everything, from her first meeting with fellow activists Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, to the speech competition she participated in as a teen-ager.
Given Height’s rich history, it is amazing that she didn’t make the rounds of all the morning television shows as soon as her book came out in June. But while some of us are absorbed by Height’s historical viewpoint, others are unconvinced of its relevance. And still others view history through a prism that is skewed by the biases they bring to the table.
History is written from the perspective of the victor, not the vanquished, through the prism of those who run the world, not of those seeking to change it. The lesson was reinforced for me just a few days after the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Height appeared on CNN’s “Capitol Gang” (Aug. 30). After she had a one-on-one interview with co-host and Wall Street Journal’s executive Washington editor Al Hunt, the “gang” opined about the interview. Co-host and nationally syndicated columnist Bob Novak brought every one of his biases to the table.
Hunt referenced Novak as the only one of the “gang” that covered the March on Washington, and asked him to comment on his interview with Height. His reply, as printed in a CNN transcript, “We were not so much impressed by Dr. King’s speech as the fact that it was nonviolent. Everybody was terrified. There was a lot of violence in the civil rights movement. There was a lot of riots in years to come. And everybody was terrified this was going to be a very violent situation. It wasn’t. And everybody said, ‘Oh, thank God. These people were very well-dressed, they were very nice.’ “
What’s wrong with this perspective? I don’t have enough space to address the condescension implicit in Novak’s description. The greater historical inaccuracy is implicit in Novak’s discussion of the “fear” of violence. If there was violence in the pre-1963 civil rights movement, it was the violence that blew up churches, killed four little girls, beat college students at lunch counters, or Fannie Lou Hamer in a Mississippi jail. A quarter of a million people came to Washington before the days of the “Black power” movement, before the founding of the Black Panther Party, before people sang songs like “revolution has come, time to pick up the gun.” The civil rights movement of the 1958-1963 period was modeled on Gandhi’s movement, nonviolent at its roots. The only violence came from resistant White people who could not stand to see folks integrating schools, boycotting busses, sitting at lunch counters, registering to vote.
If Novak was afraid of violence in 1963, he must have been afraid of the rabid White people whose integration mantra was “over my dead body.” Forty years after the March on Washington, folks like Novak are still trying to rewrite history, and the tragedy is that there was no balance in that conversation, no one to pull Novak’s coat and remind him where the violence was coming from in those days. His comment after Height’s appearance was a stern reminder of the high-stakes game some people lose when they allow others to interpret their history.
This is why Height’s book is so important: She refutes the violence that Novak’s language embraced and writes of the resistance she faced when developing a program, “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” where Black and White women traveled to Mississippi to bring women there together. Height’s memoirs have no harsh edges, not even when she writes of injustices that she has encountered.
The last word about language and power, then, belongs to Height, who writes, “Unless we acknowledge that racism exists, we will never eliminate it. Language is such a carrier of values that there is a tendency to state problems in a way that makes us feel comfortable. In today’s world, the word diversity is widely used. Unless we deal with the underlying problems of racism and sexism, diversity will have little meaning. If people define racism as only certain personal attitudes, then the only solutions they will seek are various ways of changing these attitudes. If, on the other hand, racism is seen as pervasive, fundamental and systemic, then the solutions sought will be different and deeper in character.”

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