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02 August 2013

Everything's Comin' Up Selma...As Usual

The cheapening of the civil rights' movement.

By James Taranto

Florida is the New Selma, and not for the first time. On a visit to Tallahassee Tuesday, Jesse Jackson "used the phrase 'Selma of our time'--a reference to civil rights marches in Alabama that helped prompt change in the 1960s," the Miami Herald reports.

By way of explanation, the paper quotes an earlier, ungrammatical comment the septuagenarian would-be provocateur made last month on CNN, where he "talked about an economic boycott to 'isolate Florida as a kind of apartheid state given this whole stand your ground laws.' "

It isn't the first time Florida has been the New Selma. As National Review's John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru noted fully one-eighth of a century ago, George W. Bush's thin margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election won the Sunshine State that designation as well. But if Florida is the New New Selma and was also the Old New Selma, there have also been other New Selmas over the years:

Houston was another Selma, too, back in March, when [Jackson] was fighting to preserve two race-preference programs (Houston Chronicle, March 11). A few months before that, the New York Times reported on Jackson's efforts to win more lenient treatment for students who were being punished for fighting at a high school in Decatur, Illinois: Decatur was just like, you guessed it, Selma (December 12, 1999). In February 1999, Jackson found Selma in, of all places, Riverside, California, after an accidental police shooting. That's four Selmas in less than two years.

Compiling a complete list of New Selmas would be a worthy project for some blogger. But Jackson's Selma fixation is especially ironic in light of a March 1988 quote we found. At that time Jackson was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Don Wycliff, a member of the New York Times editorial board, penned an enthusiastic commentary titled "The New Jesse Jackson":

"We the people cannot move forward by looking backward," he said. "We must forgive each other, redeem each other and move on to a brighter tomorrow." The lines were part of his standard speech in the days leading up to Super Tuesday.
They always came after he recounted a visit to Selma, Ala., where, Mr. Jackson said, the Mayor acknowledged he was "on the wrong side of history" on March 6, 1965 [sic; actually March 7]. That was Bloody Sunday, when the Alabama State Police ran riot over civil rights marchers in the climactic episode of the voting rights campaign. But that battle is over now, Mr. Jackson continued, and it is time to "forgive . . . redeem . . . move on."

So 23 years after the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, it was time to move on--but now that another 25 years have passed--and, by the way, a black man has made it to the White House--everything's coming up Selma. 

Jackson is not alone in seeking to trivialize civil-rights history. As Commentary's Seth Mandel noted the other day, Rep. John Lewis--who suffered a fractured skull when a racist mob beat him on Bloody Sunday--in 2008 scurrilously likened the McCain campaign's criticism of Barack Obama to the Birmingham church bombings. Lewis has a long history of similar comparisons, and his undisputed heroism 48 years ago does not excuse his inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric.

Some of the efforts to evoke the civil-rights movement today are downright laughable. The Washington Times--in a story reporting that the Smithsonian Institution is trying, no joke, to acquire the sweatshirt Trayvon Martin was wearing when George Zimmerman shot him in self-defense--reports: "The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open in 2015 and will display objects related to the Civil Rights Movement, such as the handcuffs used to restrain Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr."

Was Gates arrested at Selma? Unlikely, since he was 14 at the time. It's a safe bet the event in question is the one that happened in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009, when Gates was trying to break into his own home and a passerby mistook him for a burglar and summoned police. This column sympathized with Gates. But to characterize the kerfuffle as "related to the Civil Rights Movement" is ludicrous. The civil-rights movement had reached its culmination 44 years earlier, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Up in Connecticut, the New Haven Register noted in an editorial the other day that "Gov. Dannel Malloy and an array of public officials and community leaders stood together recently in a public condemnation of the emergence of a KKK chapter." The Ku Klux Klan, it seems, is menacing Nutmeg Staters by . . . "distributing leaflets"!

This column certainly has no truck with the KKK, though it seems to us that in this day and age mockery is a more effective tack than condemnation. Then again, humor can be hazardous to a politician, so we totally understand why Malloy struck a serious tone.

And the Register's own attempt at jocosity proves rather ham-fisted:

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, called this "putting a pink-collared dress on a pig." That's an insult to pigs. In fact, an Emory University research project that made headlines Monday found that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs and other domesticated pets. The hatred spewed by the KKK is not found in your average dog or barnyard animal.

For an example of how to do it right, see our 1999 report on a KKK "rally" in downtown New York.

The Register, however, wasn't joking when it claimed in the same editorial that "the same basic message that the KKK has promoted for 148 years is embraced by the likes of Ted Nugent, Fox News, Ann Coulter . . . and members of our own community commenting on stories on the New Haven Register's website."

That's a slander against Coulter, who recently wrote a sensitive column about the difficulties of being black in America. It's also a slander against Fox News, though not atypical of the mainstream media's treatment of upstart (or formerly upstart) competitors. Nugent, a rock star with a deliberately provocative shtick, hardly seems worth taking seriously enough either to attack or to defend. But the Register's editorial denunciation of its own customers seems an odd rhetorical strategy, not to mention a poor business decision.

Even more bizarre, two days later the paper's "group editor," Matt DiRienzo, published a signed piece in which he repeatedly both apologized for and reaffirmed the editorial's invidious comparison:

We did not intend to compare Fox News specifically to the KKK and we should have done a better job clarifying that. . . . It was a poor choice of words that created an unfortunate comparison between Fox News and the KKK. We're sorry for that. . . . We stand by our criticism. . . . There's no comparing Fox News and the Republican Party to the KKK, and we were wrong in making that connection. But it is mind-boggling that they would help legitimize and give voice to people who are reading from their syllabus.

The headline reads "Editorial on Nugent, Fox News Opens Conversation About Race." But it's less like a conversation than a tennis match in a tiny court inside Matt DiRienzo's brain.

Meanwhile, an editorial in today's New York Times identifies what the headline calls "The Next Civil Rights Frontier":

The case involved a child who was anatomically female but began to identify as a boy at an early age, assuming a male first name and wearing boys' clothes. By the end of fifth grade, the student's classmates accepted the transformation, but the school district would not let the matter go. Despite warnings from experts that the student should be treated as a boy in all settings, school officials singled him out in ways that brought unwanted attention and made the gender transformation much more difficult.

The child's parents filed complaints with the Justice and Education departments and the school district was forced to settle.

It does sound as if school officials treated the child with undue cruelty, and it's possible the "experts" are right as to what is the best--or anyway the least bad--way of accommodating somebody who suffers from such a disorder. But Jesse Jackson's Selma fixation looks all the more absurd if this is what now passes for "civil rights."

Then again, maybe the New New New Selma will be a little boy who insists that his name is Selma.


Speaking of Selma…

‘What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation…This young man named Barack Obama…came over to this country. He met this woman…(who) had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided…it might…be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what HAPPENED (PAST TENSE) in Selma, Alabama… So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama.’
- Barack Obama
 4 August 1961: Barack Obama’s birthday

7 March 1965: First Selma March

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