The most pivotal scene in our nation’s recent civil rights history was not as some would assume, electing the more qualified, younger and dynamic presidential candidate (of a different party than George W. Bush) who also happened to be half African, – but it was, in fact, the self-proclaimed Tea Party protesters hurling racial epithets at members of Congress.
Let me explain: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was a Freedom Rider in 1961. He was beaten bloody by police on several occasions. Those doing the beating likely used epithets to add some insult to injury. As a then speaker and representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was just an uppity young black male and the cops were just the establishment shielded by 100 years of the rest of the county looking the other way. Civil Rights was not as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently described “the most radical social experiment in modern times.” It was a bloody war with years of carnage to battle crippling institutionalized racism. A time when the law was segregation; blacks were “equal” just separate.
Plus, with all this talk of the biblical (meaning ancient) definitions of marriage, people of mixed races couldn’t legally get married in some states in this country until the aptly named Loving Decision was handed down by “activist judges” on the Supreme Court in 1967. They ruled unanimously in favor of a Virginia couple whose bedroom had been intruded in on by police who then arrested them for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. Their sentences were commuted on the condition they leave the state. As many have pointed out President Barack Obama was born in 1961 and if his parents happened to live in one of the several anti-miscegenation states they could not have been legally be married at the time.
And of course women were not allowed to vote nationally until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. And as much as homosexuals are discriminated against today, up until 2003 sodomy laws in some states criminalized homosexuality. “Created equal” didn’t just happen once the Declaration of Independence was approved.
So after a year of rigorous debate over health care reform, a year of sound bites and selling points and hysteria, at last the whip count was in and there was going to be a final vote in the House. A small group of irate protesters were at the Capital. En route to hear the President’s speech on Saturday at the Longworth House office building, the aforementioned civil rights champion now Congressman Lewis was called “nigger,” as was Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina. Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an out gay man was called “faggot” by the crowd. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was degraded on signs (to less outrage mind you).
What it pointed out wasn’t that progress is stagnant, because those words exist and are still in use, what it pointed out was how far we’ve come: Those who used to be the victims of legalized racism, homophobia and sexism are now lawmakers. The words once used against the powerless by the authorities are now the desperate yaps of the outer perimeter.
The Tea Partiers’ smears are like a war wound that doesn’t cause disability just aches every so often to remember the fight. But most importantly, those middle-aged puffy white people screaming insults at members of Congress are a specter of the past. They’re the civil disobedience equivalent of a telegram. Their vocabulary is clearly analog.
The battle cry for the Tea Parties has been that members of Congress need to listen to the American people. But to an observer of the people walking past jeers, members of Congress are now more than ever, the American people.