Saturday, January 20, 2007

Racism lives, but influence weakens as time goes on
By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Tuesday, Jan. 16 2007

Sitting atop the domed, 29-story Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse downtown, Ray mocked the group marching down Market Street on Monday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"We shall ovahcoooommeee. We shall ovahcome, sum da-aaaay!" he sang in a gravelly voice.

Ray absolutely abhors this time of year, when everyone reminisces about King and the civil rights movement. The whole thing repeats in February, during Black History Month, with recollections of slavery, the Jim Crow era, black folks' progress and highfalutin, politically correct talk about "race.

"Yuck! He hated it. All of it. Well … maybe not all of it. Some of the images remind him of his glory days, back when he was stronger, when he influenced most Americans. Heck, some of the "Negroes" even carried protest signs with his name on it: "End Racism Now!"

Ray — he never liked the "ism" at the end of his name — remembered the power he wielded more openly then. It was he, in fact, who told police to unleash slathering dogs and powerful skin-shedding water hoses upon marchers. Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace's declaration in 1963, "Segregation today … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever," were Ray's words. It was he who, in 1964, persuaded Mississippi Klansmen to beat, then fire bullets into the bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — three naive civil rights activists who thought they could defeat him.

"Whoop, whoop," Ray shouted triumphantly about his past from his perch on high, before lapsing into a violent coughing spell.

He's getting up in age. These days, Ray vacillates from feeling a renewed strength to being sick, weak and obsolete. Is he dying? Sometimes, Ray isn't so sure.

He knows he isn't as popular as he used to be. There was a time he could walk around naked and bare, emboldened by a prideful Southern history and fueled by Northern fear.

Ray has to be more subtle, more discreet now. It saps a great deal of his strength to dress up as a banker, Realtor, employer or cop. He renews himself by hanging out near jails and courthouses, where a fear of criminals in black skin often still trumps equal justice.

Sometimes when his spirit is drained, he particularly enjoys watching "brother shoot brother," those who have digested his venom.

"Keep marchin'! Y'all never gonna beat me," Ray shouted at the King Day celebrants.

He recognized a feebleness in his centuries-old rant. Such weakening had become more evident since 1955. That's when an unassuming seamstress, Rosa Parks, challenged Montgomery's segregated public transit rules. Ray expected Negro grumblings when Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat. He didn't, however, expect the full-fledged protest, led by that uppity King, to incite the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. scared Ray then. He still does.

"That King fella and his nonviolent ways changed everything," Ray remembered, shaking his head in disgust. But he'd taken him on anyway. If not for television blasting biased images into everybody's homes, Ray still believes he could have defeated King and his ilk.

"No matter what I threw at him, he just kept comin' and comin' and comin'," Ray spat.

The chants and songs faded as marchers headed into the distance. Ray stood, shaking his fist, cursing maniacally. He again doubled over, coughing, wheezing, feeling dizzy and weak.

"This is it. I'm dying," he thought, feeling frantic. He fell backward, catching himself before sliding off the building. Oddly, he felt better, as though the stainless steel of the dome itself had given him strength.

"Keep marchin'," he moaned weakly. "Y'all never gonna beat me."
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