Columns » Max Brantley

Along the civil rights trail

by

comment

A convergence of events in recent days signaled again how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in civil rights.

Donald Trump further diminished the U.S. presidency with coarse remarks about his aversion to non-white immigrants of modest means. The press and his defenders were reduced to quarreling about whether he'd referred to struggling foreign lands as shitholes or shithouses.

Whatever the terminology, Arkansas Republican politicians — particularly U.S. 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton — if they didn't lie for the president, sympathized with what they believed Trump was trying to say. It wasn't pretty. In brief: Send us your rich, your talented, your white Norwegians, yearning to breathe in a place without universal health care, paid maternity leave, universal higher education, tiny defense expenditures, and nondiscriminatory social policies, and with an overabundance of gun crime.

The Republican efforts to wrap themselves in Martin Luther King Jr. rang hollow, if not nakedly hypocritical. Cotton, the meanest of Trump's anti-immigrant allies, actually distributed a tweet quoting King on his desire to open the doors of opportunity for all children, regardless of color or creed. This from a man wanting to send Salvadorans and their children back to certain death after decades of productive living in Arkansas. From a man who joins Trump in seeking a bar to entry based on religion and economic status and to toss out thousands of children who've known no home but the U.S.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, too, lauded King for fighting for equal justice for all. This from an elected official using tax money to litigate here and across the country against equal justice. She would punish immigrants, deny women full medical rights, legalize discrimination against sexual minorities and support law that is resegregating public schools.

Governor Hutchinson took credit, rightly, for signing the law that finally ended the state's embarrassing dual observance of the birthdays of King and slavery defender Robert E. Lee. But he deserves "credit," too, for supporting racially discriminatory voter ID law and all the same laws Rutledge defends, with their discriminatory and divisive outcomes.

Also within the last week, a Kansas junior college reported that its black players were the object of racial taunts by fans at a game at North Arkansas College in Harrison, a city trying to distance itself from a past as a town where black people were warned of the dangers of being present after sundown.

The state used King Day to tout its participating in a national effort to market historic sites of the civil rights movement as tourist attractions. These include Little Rock Central High. The school where federal troops were needed to allow entry of nine black students is steadily becoming an all-black and brown high school, along with the rest of the school district, thanks to societal forces and the Walton-financed charter school drive. The Waltons are peddling statewide school "freedom of choice" no less segregative today than it was when employed as a resistance PR tool by the segs in the 1960s.

By all means, bring on the civil rights trail. A dose of history might prevent repetition of the past. On the other hand, the rise of Trump, his support in Arkansas and his endorsement — both tacit and full-throated — by elected Republican officials, might lead you to believe the Civil War never ended. It seems the Trumpian battle against "political correctness" was really a battle cry for a return to the open racism, exclusion and discrimination that was law and fact in Arkansas in the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s.

A place where the majority yearns openly for the old order might — rather than inspire a Norwegian to move here — cause her to conclude Arkansas worthy of the description Donald Trump bestowed on Haiti and Africa.

Add a comment