Albert J. Raboteau on how the civil rights movement changed minds – including in his own experience.
The significance of the marches – this hearkens also back to the abolitionist movement, that one of the things about Selma and the resulting marches, or Birmingham and the Birmingham movement, was that they displayed on nationwide TV the brutality of white racism against the bodies of black people. So when the beating at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was shown on television, it interrupted on one of the major networks a showing of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. How fitting. And when people see images – pictures or live images of the water cannons turned on children, or the police dogs biting unarmed protestors, what happens is people say, “Is this America? How can this happen?” And then, you know: “What can be done about it?”
So these iconic moments were important in terms of creating an awareness of the ongoing evil of racism, and showing how it calls into question our national identity – the notion of our exceptionalism. Yeah, America is exceptional all right, it beats its black people; it sends police dogs to attack unarmed demonstrators, and water cannons to knock over children. So to see what’s going on stirs up the conscience, and creates the possibility of a movement for change.
When I was seven and eight years old, I took piano lessons from a white woman piano teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And this was during the period of the Little Rock, Arkansas integration of the schools. And one day, we had finished the lesson, and she turned to me and she said, “I want to apologise to you”. You know, I’m seven or eight years old, I said, “For what?” She said, “For what my people are doing in Little Rock, Arkansas.” And that’s the effect of people actually seeing and empathising with the sufferings of others.