Civil Rights Roundtable Reflection

The night of the March on Washington, a remarkable conversation occurred. Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Joseph Mankiewicz, James Baldwin and David Schoenbrun sat down together to discuss race in America. When this was filmed, all of these men were influential. Over the course of time, most would become cultural giants. You can find the story for the 30-minute film here, and view it for yourself below.

After reviewing this short film half a dozen times, I have the following takeaways:

*It’s possible for people to talk about intense things without interrupting each other for 25 minutes… The discussion is 30 minutes long, and the moderator has a difficult time making sure panelists didn’t talk over each other during the stretch run. But contrast the respect with which these men sat down and had a civil conversation over intense subject matter with how conversations over this subject matter are broadcast today. The conversation really could have used another 30 minutes, and I wonder if it didn’t come unhinged slightly at the end because people knew that time was running out. Whatever the case, it is a good model for us to follow in conversation with each other.

*The road from awareness to action to woke can be long. Heston spoke some about this progression when he talked about how his activism at one point had been limited to discussions at cocktail parties. This evolves into his involvement with other movie stars in some aspects of planning The March on Washington. Even then, I get the feeling listening to this that there is still room for growth in his understanding of the struggle and the path forward. I said it before and I’ll say it again…not everyone can wake up woke. If I say it a third time, I might have found myself a catchphrase.

*All Lives Matter Isn’t New. Much of the dustup in the video revolves around disagreement over how to describe the Civil Rights crisis. While there is pushback at the idea of presenting the crisis under a broad umbrella (aka All Lives Matter), there is also an articulation of how different Civil Rights struggles are united. Specifically, the way in which Native Americans are treated is brought up at one point. This is a struggle that Dr. King spoke of at length, in addition to speaking out against the Vietnam War. What King understood and tried to implement with The Poor People’s Campaign was that there is strength in solidarity for vulnerable people of different backgrounds. But he also understood that the specifics in regard to different contexts that made groups vulnerable had to be spoken about and addressed with specificity. The generality of “All Lives Matter” is similar to generally describing the Civil Rights crisis as the American problem. While the sentiment is true, that use of language is dismissive and distracts from concrete, strategic action.

*I Am Not Your Negro is going to be goodIf you haven’t heard of the film yet, you should circle Feb 3 on your calendar. It adds footage to an uncompleted work by James Baldwin, which “was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.” The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, and has received rave reviews in prescreenings. The work in question was written more than 15 years after this discussion, but you can see how Baldwin is articulating some of those points even at this early stage.

Finding interviews and speeches from the Civil Rights era has become one of my new hobbies. There is a lot available to bring written words to life from authors and preachers that I have sitting on my bookshelf. If you find something good, feel free to shoot it my way. I’d love to check it out.