Friday, September 16, 2016

Brooks on Civic Religion: The Radio Yerevan Joke

Update at bottom 9/17
Camilla Williams (1919-2012), first African American to receive a regular contract with a major opera company (the New York City Opera, in 1946), who sang the national anthem at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 27 1963.
From David Brooks, "The Uses of Patriotism", New York Times, September 16 2016:
Martin Luther King Jr. sang the national anthem before his “I Have a Dream” speech and then quoted the Declaration of Independence within it.
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Dr. King sang the national anthem before his "I Have a Dream" speech and then quoted the Declaration of Independence within it?

Answer: In principle, yes. But

  • first of all it was not before his speech but before Roy Wilkins's speech, since Dr. King was the third speaker, after Wilkins and John Lewis; 
  • second of all, it was the soprano Camilla Williams who principally sang it, standing in for Marian Anderson, who was delayed in some kind of traffic issue, and while there is no evidence that Dr. King did not sing along, in the traditional ritual of the American Civic Religion, hand on his heart, there is considerable evidence that nobody else did, in the extant video of the occasion, where Dr. King is never on camera but literally nobody other than Williams herself is seen to sing, no one at all puts hand to heart except for one man on the dais, hastily and looking a little guilty, during the applause afterwards, and most of the audience doesn't even stop talking, though the performance is pretty stunning, so it is more than likely that Dr. King wasn't singing either; and 
  • third of all, Dr. King's references to the Declaration of Independence were not wholly respectful within the terms of the American Civic Religion—
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
But he did refer in the great peroration to a de facto national anthem, calling it a lie and calling America less than great, and suggesting that he wasn't yet ready to sing it at all, until some day in the future:
the day when all of God’s children (Yes, Yeah) will be able to sing with new meaning: “My country, ‘tis of thee (Yeah, Yes), sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. (Oh yes) Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride (Yeah), from every mountainside, let freedom ring!” (Yeah) And if America is to be a great nation (Yes), this must become true.
But if you want to think Dr. King was more comfy and polite and really kind of conservative in a pleasing, liberal way than the 49ers quarterback kneeling, and a great example to our teenage protesters of the American Civic Religion where everybody is so nice you practically want to dunk them in Ranch dip, you just go right ahead.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

And Update (via Loomis, in a post you also need to read) from a letter of Dr. King's from Birmingham Jail, April 16 1963, on nice "moderate" white folks and their sensible advice on what kind of action is appropriate "to protest systemic racism": 
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

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