On not being in Selma March 2015

I’m a northern white liberal myself. I’ve more or less accidentally ended up living and working and breathing the furtherance of interracial understanding in the corner of America where I find myself. I kind of wanted to go to Selma.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes, but now I’m glad I didn’t participate in that orgy of unseemly self-congratulation. The enthusiastic righteousness of some of my erstwhile classmates and faraway Facebook friends is giving me hives: lapping up the sweet cream of being on the Right Side of History, flocking in fake marches and reveling in photo ops with picturesque heroes, taking selfies alongside the decorous survivors of the speechless dead.

It’s like a revival meeting where the saved gather together to smoke the hallucinogenic drug of spiritual complacency.

Where are the raucous ones who are still alive and still poor? Where, in all of this, is honor given to the wackos with bad hair, bad teeth, and cheap clothes, shouting angrily about today’s ongoing inequities? They’re not gone! I’ve seen them at gatherings of those who remain on the wrong side of the lines drawn by police, economics, reporters, and the Secret Service agents around the President.

These firebrands are the ones for whom assimilation was never the goal. They didn’t put themselves on the line so they could be allowed to wear suits and to follow some neutered program about when to talk, how to talk, or what to say. Where we’ve gotten to, we would never have reached without them. Now they face a more potent enemy than violence: they are ignored or disdained. As they were before the brief spasm of violence against activists made the news in the mid-1900s; as they have been since. It angers me to see feel-good liberals drawing away from the unassimilated soothsayers. Is it really true that the unforgivable sin is to not want to be middle-class?

My fellow white liberals, Selma 2015 is just a happy dance in one spot. We’re going to need firmer footing for the journey forward than is found in this morass of self-congratulation. We need brasher guides than these tidy ranks of survivors and the embalmed hippies singing 60s songs — last century’s warriors. Jumping on the easy, obvious, well-sponsored bandwagon at this late date doesn’t make our generation into any new band of warriors, either. The message of those who are dead and gone, and of those who live on in uncelebrated struggle, is that the people who grew up in a safety zone can accomplish nothing from inside it, even though — maybe because — it is largely in our minds. We are not really marching until we venture beyond that zone, to risk losing our job or getting tear-gassed or looking foolish, without knowing in advance which of those will happen. Selma in our souls should carry each one of us to a place where we struggle to fathom the strangers around us.

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