Walter White

We recently published Walter White, Thomas Dyja’s incisive look into the career of “Mr. NAACP.” Press for the book has included a piece in the Wall Street Journal, tying White’s story to Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. I’d like to add that over the course of the campaign, Obama occasionally passed close to White’s historical orbit, and I think these moments prove the complexity of the political side of the civil rights struggle.

Well back in the campaign season, before Paris Hilton’s introduction into national politics, both presidential hopefuls spoke before the NAACP. Given in what would come to be a short respite between the primary and general election campaigns, when both candidates were still tweaking their pitches to the general electorate, a speech to the NAACP made for an odd sounding board. For John McCain this largely meant clearing the air with a constituency he was never going to win (witness his death-defying skirting of the MLK Day vote in the second half of the speech). Obama, meanwhile, took the license to draw a straight line from the organization’s struggle through his own transformational candidacy:

It is always humbling to speak before the NAACP. It is a powerful reminder of the debt we all owe to those who marched for us and fought for us and stood up on our behalf; of the sacrifices that were made for us by those we never knew; and of the giants whose shoulders I stand on here today.

They are the men and women we read about in history books and hear about in church; whose lives we honor with schools, and boulevards, and federal holidays that bear their names. But what I want to remind you tonight—on Youth Night—is that these giants, these icons of America’s past, were not much older than many of you when they took up freedom’s cause and made their mark on history.

Obama then listed some of those giants: Dr. King, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Julian Bond. He plants the NAACP firmly in the civil rights actions of the 60s, which works because generally the civil rights narrative centers on this era. Obama’s speech expands on this identification to anchor his campaign in a generational history. By focusing on one generation and the youth of its leadership, Obama both asserts his campaign’s capacity for concrete social change and establishes a standard for his youthful volunteer base. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted at the time, media outlets—more concerned with the candidate’s Cosby-esque line of cultural rebuke—largely ignored the speech’s generational message.

Based on the content of his speech it is not surprising that Obama didn’t mention Du Bois or, oh…let’s say, Walter White. An attempt to sink his narrative wholly into a heritage as large and complicated as the NAACP’s only dilutes his analogy. What’s interesting is that Obama does not ignore White and Du Bois, or Jackson and Sharpton for that matter, as much as he sets them aside. He’s subtly engaging the Association’s past struggles over its strategic vision (the Harris Plan against the Margold Plan, power politics against activism) and judging what to do with limited resources in the present moment. Obama does have an opinion on these things, and even though his thoughts on matters of civil rights are on a different frequency than the media’s tuned to, they can find their way into a story.

The week leading into the election, Drudge pushed an Obama interview that ran on NPR in 2001. The next day a version of Drudge’s “the Warren Court was not radical enough” story ran in the Wall Street Journal. The mini-controversy—based on willing misinterpretation—is not so important for our purposes as to how Obama looks at the civil rights movement’s relationship to the court. Transcription via Jake Tapper:

One of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still stuffer from that.

Compare that sentiment to this, from Walter White:

The new plan, developed by [James Weldon] Johnson and the Committee on Negro Work within the Garland Fund, called for a series of legal challenges on a slate of issues, including unequal apportionment of school funds, residential segregation, and Jim Crow travel accommodations. Named the Margold Plan after Nathan Margold, the New York attorney who researched and plotted the strategy, it mapped a path through the American legal system that would lead, decades later, to an end to segregation.

A $100,000 grant, filed for “only two weeks after Black Thursday,” underscored the importance of the program. White staked his legacy on the Margold Plan. And while the cause was still thirty years from the sort of grassroots organizing that Obama is talking about, White’s critics within the Association at the time—like Du Bois and Roy Wilkins—pushed for greater involvement in matters of economic justice. Near the beginning of his NAACP speech, Obama approvingly quotes Dr. King, calling economic justice “the inseparable twin of racial justice.” Based on his familiarity with the legal strategy behind the Margold Plan, as he lays out in his NPR interview, it is hard not to see the consistency in Obama’s view of the civil rights narrative.

I should stress that of course political strategies are contingency-based, and that Obama and Walter White are not in direct conflict. A large part of what Obama’s saying is that the success of the Margold Plan has exhausted the legal avenue for reform (for the time being) and that resources should be allocated accordingly. White played an integral part in a complicated history, and Obama is sifting through that history, following threads. I find it interesting how far those threads can lead back.



Rediscovering War and Loss

December 1, 2008

Remembering SamIvan R. Dee’s new release Remembering Sam: A Wartime Story of Love, Loss and Redemption by David Everitt is a touching memoir that traces the story of his mother Sylvia’s marriage with her first husband, Sam, a World War Two soldier who was killed in combat. The story of this first love reemerged through the surface of memory in 1999, after the death of Sylvia’s second husband, Everitt’s father. Writing about this personal material is a first for Everitt, who wrote A Shadow of Red, about the1950s blacklist in radio and television, and it seems as though everyone – including celebrities like Barbara Walters and Jenny McCarthy – seems to be trying their hand at penning personal stories for the world to read. Writers like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have established their successful careers by writing humorous accounts of real life events.

In the prologue of his book, Everitt explains how he found a bundle of letters Sam had written to his mother. His father had preserved the letters as a part of a family archive, and because those records existed, it was possible to finish the work his father had started. “I had been a working writer for years,” Everitt explains, “and the experience had trained me to research and assemble a story. Even if the books and articles I had written had been far removed from myself and my family, my background had prepared me, it now seemed, to do something much more personal.”

This story is not personal for only Everitt and his family, however. Though the events in the book took place over 60 years ago, Remembering Sam is all too relevant; Sylvia’s situation is similar to those of many today as more and more men and women are sent over to fight the war in Iraq. Kristin Henderson, author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, relates to the struggles Sylvia went through:

“The real life experience of Sam’s widow is every military spouse’s worst nightmare.  As I read her story, the fear and sadness I felt while my husband was in Iraq welled up all over again, even though he’s now safely home and I had thought I’d put it behind me.  Remembering Sam is a moving reminder that while the technology of war may change, the human experience remains the same.  It’s also a cautionary tale-like the WWII generation sixty years ago, a lifetime of the after-effects of war still lie ahead of us.”

Everitt’s book serves as a reminder that when there is loss, hope for a new beginning is just around the corner.