American Racism and Anti-Racism

James Blue wanted viewers of his film to see and experience the contradictions between the reality of racism in the United States and the promise of racial equality made by the Constitution. The August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom presented both a condemnation of American racism and a celebration of America’s anti-racist potential.

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A woman carries protest signs.

Marchers carry signs with the slogans “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom” and “We Demand An End To Police Brutality Now!” Still from The March by James Blue (1964).

Contradiction: the setup

The March forthrightly identifies America’s racist founding and the continuing abuse of its African American citizens. James Blue, in his narration states

 Three hundred and fifty years ago the white man came to America, and 350 years ago the Negro came to America. The one came as master; the other as slave.

And Martin Luther King’s explicitly condemns the racism faced by African Americans in Mississippi,

a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression

and Alabama,

 with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification

The March pairs the realities of racism with the opportunity afforded by the US Constitution for citizens to protest:

The Constitution of the United States guarantees every American the right to protest peaceably. Two hundred thousand Americans, then, were going to use this right (James Blue, The March)

The film also assumes that whites can and will support anti-racist values and polices. Early in the film, the Rev. Edward S. Williams (who is off camera) states

We’re not gonna fight our white brethren with malice, nor are we gonna fight them with any falsified stories, nor are we gonna fight them with hatred. But we’re gonna fight them with love. When they hate us, we’re gonna absorb their hatred in love. When they speak against us, we’re gonna speak things of love toward them. We are not gonna let their hatred turn us around, but we gonna love them on every side.

Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for and developed this approach, observing that African Americans

must not … distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

King had faith that one day

we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual

Free at last! Free at last! 

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream”)

That day seemed far off in 1963, and it still eludes us today.

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The American contradiction

The August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a response to America’s racism against its African American citizens. As one sign in the image at the top of this page illustrates, police brutality was a major problem at the time, as it still is today. Many hundreds of African Americans were subjected to physical violence at the hands of the government and private citizens.

A photo of the text of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial, with eagles, wreaths, and palm branches carved in low relief at its sides.

The Gettysburg Address inscribed on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Wknight94, 2011.

Yet the African Americans who participated in the March also saw the promise of racial equality in the United States Constitution and in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. They knew that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments advanced equality by outlawing slavery, protecting the rights of all citizens, and guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote. Marchers hoped that Congress would use its power to pass civil rights legislation that would give Black Americans equal access to jobs, education, and public services.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and James Blue’s The March capture America’s contradictions on the issue of racism and the effort made to work through these contradictions. As Gary Wills has written, Abraham Lincoln rewrote the Constitution with his November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address when he declared that all humans are equal and, with the Emancipation Proclamation, freed enslaved people.[1] Both James Blue, in the narrative that he wrote and delivered for his film, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., allude to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. In so doing, they acknowledge the anti-racist principles built into the American Constitution in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights. Blue and King explicitly call out the existing violations of these principles with the ongoing system of Jim Crow, segregation, and state-sanctioned violence against America’s Black citizens.

America remains in a state of contradiction between its professed principles and practices on the matter of race. Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her highly regarded history of the United States, writes:

And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.[2]

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People walk along a train platform; one waves a banner with the slogan "Freedom."

Still from The March by James Blue (1964).

Filming contradiction

James Blue, in filming the March on Washington, used a conceptual frame designed to capture contradictions. In a 1963 interview, James Blue explained his philosophy of film making, which centered on capturing contradictions on film:

It seems to me that the poetic quality of the film, as well as its authenticity, is going to come from a deep respect one might have for the people and their surroundings, trying to see how they operate together and how they contradict each other. It’s a surrealistic kind of thinking, if you want, where you find things that are juxtaposed in nature, in relation to the people had thought of it, a kind of meditation on a landscape, or a paysage.[3]

Lepore the historian and Blue the filmmaker recognize that the aspiration King sets forth in his “I Have A Dream” speech is profoundly different than the present reality of racism. Many misunderstand King’s speech as a declaration that the US has solved its race problem or that it should ignore race in pursuit of a day when his “four little children will … live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King, in this speech as it is edited by Blue, makes clear that he condemns “Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.” Blue, in his narrative, accurately reports that

By the end of August 1963, in some places of the United States, a Negro could not go to school where he chose, eat where he wished, build his home where it pleased him, or find jobs for which he was qualified. He had been insulted, beaten, jailed, drenched with water, chased by dogs. (The March)

The March explicitly recognizes the ongoing racism in America and pairs it with what Blue saw as a solution: interracial collaboration seeking to realize America’s anti-racist principles.

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A cropped image of people holding hands to form a chain.

Still from The March by James Blue (1964).

Two historical forces: racial progress and racial regress

When viewing The March, it is good to keep in mind the insight offered by one of the best contemporary writers on issues of race, Ibram X. Kendi:

But what if there have been two historical forces at work: a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism? What if President Trump does not represent a step back, but a step forward?

Americans have been well-schooled in racial progress. That progress has been real over the course of history, and to deny its forward march is to deny all the successes of courageous activists who challenged slavery, and who are challenging segregation and poverty and the 45th president today.

But to deny the forward march of racism is to deny the successes of American racists. We have paid less attention to the progression of racism that often follows racial progress: how the law, the lyncher and the creditor replaced the master, the whip and the slave patrol in locking black people into destitution to white exploiters.[4]

In The March, Blue portrays both historical forces at work.

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References

[1] Garry Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

[2] Jill Lepore. These Truths: A History of the United States. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

[3] “James Blue (the Olive Trees of Justice).” Film Comment 1 (1963), 3-4.

[4] Ibram X. Kendi. “Racial Progress Is Real. But So Is Racist Progress.”New York Times, Jan 22, 2017, SR4.