HOPE AND HISTORY
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”
For March, 2019, Women’s History Month, here is a celebration of three great American women whose lives intertwine—two at the beginning and one at the end: Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Eighty years ago, on Easter Sunday April 9 in 1939, something happened and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? The voice of the century, contralto Marian Anderson, gave a concert on the National Mall—only it wasn’t supposed to be on the National Mall—it was supposed to be in Constitution Hall. But something happened, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? The Daughters of the American Revolution—the DAR—got wind of it and let the producer know that Ms. Anderson could not perform in Constitution Hall—because she was the wrong color. Constitution Hall had an unwritten sign in front of it that said “Whites Only.”
Then something else happened, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt got wind of it and resolved to intervene on behalf of the better angels of our nature. She contacted Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and they put their heads together to find an alternative venue for her concert, one that would symbolize what Marian Anderson’s voice represented to them—the spirit of racial integration, not division. They wandered around the National Mall—much like Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also from 1939—until they found themselves in front of the Lincoln Memorial. There it was—the perfect place for Marian Anderson to stand and give her Easter Sunday concert. No one had ever given a concert there before—indeed no one had ever done much of anything there before. But Lincoln’s magisterial presence was waiting for Anderson—as it was waiting for Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—Frank Capra’s most idealistic portrayal of American democracy—was banned in Hitler’s Germany, in Mussolini’s Italy and in Franco’s Spain—the trifecta of fascism—and in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Ironically, it was premiered in Constitution Hall on October 17, 1939. Even more ironically it started shooting on April 3, 1939, on location in Washington, D.C., just one week before Marian Anderson’s concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial—a fact Frank Capra must have known and whose significance he would have appreciated in planning his moving shot of Jefferson Smith surveying the Memorial. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes it’s a place, as Seamus Heaney’s poem says, where hope and history rhyme.
Twenty-four years later, August 28, 1963, hope and history rhymed again. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of the same memorial Eleanor Roosevelt had enshrined for Marian Anderson, and Frank Capra, and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. First Lady Eleanor, known as a traitor to her class, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris in 1948, put her own personal stamp on the 16th President of the United States—making him a symbol not just of the preservation of the union, but of freedom itself. Forevermore identified with Old Abe were the most prominent black singer and the most prominent black preacher of the century.
Then Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR. And that’s when a Star Was Born. Hope and history may never rhyme again, but it happened once—nee twice—and that was enough.
Eleanor didn’t live to see the fulfillment of her dream—she died November 7, 1962 in Hyde Park. But neither is that the end of the story. August 28 came around again, forty-five years later, when the first black candidate for President of the United States was nominated by a major political party—Barack Obama, whose Audacity of Hope speech took place August 28, 2008. For the third time, hope and history rhymed.
But why was August 28 chosen for the auspicious date? Because something happened on that date, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? Not the March on Washington—though it did. No, eight years before the Great March—August 28, 1955—and the reason it was chosen in 1963. A fourteen year-old black boy was murdered in Money, Mississippi. His name was Emmett Till. Bob Dylan and Len Chandler wrote a song about him—The Death of Emmett Till. He was murdered for looking at a white woman. It is now 64 years later, and no one has ever served a single day in prison for his murder. Here are Dylan’s haunting and in the end prophetic lyrics:
THE DEATH OF EMMETT TILL by Bob Dylan music by Len Chandler
‘Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason but I disremember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street.
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood-red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie,
He was a black-skinned boy, so he was born to die.
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains; your blood must refuse to flow,
For you to let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
Look carefully at that last verse’s reference to “that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan,” and how it “still lives today,” not in some vague Dylanesque line of poetry, but in a clear black-and-white photograph of the current Governor of Virginia (D) when he was in his Orwellian 1984 medical school yearbook and shot in blackface or a KKK robe and mask—he won’t say which. He has tried to obfuscate in every way possible what he thought to be a humorous portrait of his graduation—representing Virginia’s inglorious past—and recent site of the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer by a car as a murder weapon at a neo-Nazi rally in 2017. There is no end to the racism, and a president who can blame both sides—the racists and their victims—with moral equivalency.
Emmett Till’s mother held his funeral in an open casket, because she wanted America to see what they had done to a black boy, down in Mississippi. One of those who saw was Mrs. Rosa Parks, who also lived in Chicago. The sight of his disfigured face is what inspired her to refuse to move to the back of the bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama after a long hard day’s work from which her “body was tired, but my soul is rested.” The local pastor, 26-year old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Montgomery Bus Boycott which followed. Eight years later, on the same date Emmett Till had been killed, August 28, he would tell America about a dream he had, one that began with a line from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,”—“from every mountainside, let freedom ring”—the song Marian Anderson opened her concert with, eighty years ago.
Had he lived, MLK would have turned 90 this year. On the National Mall, he did.
Hope and history rhymed again.
Folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 AFM; Ross may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org