Monday, January 19, 2009

Post Racial? Try in 50 Years

The wrinkly guy with the crinkly smile was inspiring on the Harbor this afternoon. We rolled down to the JFK Library for the forum featuring Roger Wilkins, hosted by Callie Crossley.

Wilkins — Pulitzer winning journalist, civil-rights dissident within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, author, professor and keen observer — looked rather glum, but burst with insight, wit and excellent mimicry. At 77, he's still not ready to give up or give in.

For many in generations after his, Wilkins' repeated admission that he remains a patriot can seem odd. He grew up in a segregated South. Yet, with a father who replied to his statement that his dream of being a train engineer was reserved for whites with saying that yes, it was unfair, "and you must fight against that your whole life." Then he was active in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, even risking his life in the 1967 riots to analyze who was shooting at whom in Detroit. Then he was the sole high-ranking black person acting as the conscience and scold to Presidents and his Attorney General boss.

He has taught college and says he tells his students how lucky they are. When a black student questions that, he has them imagine being born in poor and static areas of Africa or Asia. While he never expected to live to see a black President, man or women or of any color other than white, he looks for the continued advancements. He is not one who thinks that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous dream is manifest in Barack Obama.

From his sprightly stride onto the stage, Wilkins seemed dolorous, perhaps filled with the unpleasantness of the past. His long face seems to bear wrinkles like tree rings, immutable and showing the weight of nature. His mouth was down in the corners, making a sad mask.

The trappings accentuated the sober tone. In what must have been bow to the Kennedy 1960s, the stage had three Danish modern pieces, two arm chairs and a low table, all of blond wood. Two cobalt goblets completed the serious scene as the only objects in sight.

Crossley too seemed all too dour. She is famous for her appearances of WGBH's Greater Boston Beat the Press, as well as her Eyes on the Prize background. She is sort and round, holding her papers with written questions close like a hedgehog ready to lead the discussion. This looked like very serious business.

Wilkins' appearance is a mask though. He can be quicker, more clever and jollier than other scholars or writers. One flash of recognition was how his sudden, full smile looks like Jimmy Carter's, from the delighted grin to the climbing cheek bones to the squinting eyes. He's someone who likes to laugh and make others do the same.

While I am just young enough to be his son, I share with Wilkins some history. I too grew up in a segregated South. While white, I worked and protested for justice and equality. He held important positions, I was just a student, then journalist, and the editor of a weekly black newspaper in a Southern state capital. I also lived in one of the New Jersey cities that exploded in riots and troop occupation in 1967, and worked bringing in food and other supplies to the riot area. He's a hero and macher and I a bit player, but I recognized some of his experiences and have a real sense of the times.

When it came to the pending Obama inauguration, Crossley and the audience of perhaps 200 wanted to hear his sense of what it all may mean. Quickly and first, he tried to dispel the notion that a mixed-race President equals a post-racial America. "I don't think the United States is going to be post-racial for another half a century. It's too deep in the culture."

It's a relay, a long distance relay.

Yet, he did note that during the campaign and after the election, he found many white people had some positive relief and personal change. He had long seen that many people of all races were unhappy with race relations in the country. Obama's campaign and victory have given "them a place to plug in" to making changes, personally and more broadly. Looking further ahead, he added that many white people "after the Obama thing is over, will feel more at ease with African Americans.

He shared the increasingly common trepidation that we have become so disheartened by the enormous problems from the past eight years. The danger that he too sees is that people may think that Obama is magic and can affect massive changes instantly, in war, in the economy and in other conditions that took eight years or decades to create.

Yet, Wilkins said that Obama "has all the tools to be a successful President. " Wilkins hopes that we recognize how huge the problems are and that as Obama says, some will take years to correct or reverse.

Crossley referred to Wilkins' efforts in the 1960s, as well as those of his famous uncle Roy, of Dr. King and others. She asked how true the cliché that Jesse Jackson's two unsuccessful runs for President enabled the Obama victory. Here, Wilkins showed refreshing humility, saying he was proud of the 1960s spirit and accomplishments. Yet, he noted that he had finally realized that what at the time he thought was a sprint to equality and fairness was really "a relay, a long distance relay."

His generation played its role and had breakthroughs, but those where just stages. Likewise, alluding to Jackson, he said he was really glad he had run for the highest public office. Yet, "When the butterfly is on the wing, the caterpillar is no longer needed."

Wilkins was also a charming clown with a keen ability to mimic. He did a fine Jack Kennedy, inspiring the young administration leaders, as well as an angry Bobby berating Wilkins for daring to criticize the slowness of civil-rights legislation. His best was surely a Detroit black radical who had been a basketball-court chum. When Television as they called the motormouth scolded him at a huge public meeting for not favoring guns for black self-protection, the confrontation from over 40 years ago was apparently fresh enough for Wilkins to imitate the tirade down to the inflection of "Brotha Wil-keeeeens..."

More seriously, he spoke of his personal drive for public service and personal integrity. He said that he was unsure whether he believed in an afterlife. However, he is descended from generations of slaves. He has long tried to keep his perspective of not only what his father taught him about fighting for what's right, but what those ancestors who did not know freedom would think if he every met them elsewhere. He imagines them asking, "What did you do with your freedom, boy? I have to defend what I did with their hopes and aspirations."

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