Attending The March on Washington film Festival here in DC has provoked lots of memories and reflection. The Festival presents films on civil rights related subjects over a period of several days. It challenges participants to think about our nation's history of struggle for civil rights in relation to subsequent events such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, police chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore, and the alleged jail suicide of 28-year-old Sandra Bland following her earlier arrest by police for a traffic infraction.
The Film Festival additionally takes place among other real-time events occurring internationally and domestically. President Obama's recent conclusion of a nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, Boko Haram continued terrorism in Nigeria, the killing of five persons at a Marine Recruiting Station in Chattanooga, TN, and the contest among presidential Democratic and Republican primary candidate are unavoidable "media background music."
An important "sidebar "event for me, however, while here in DC, was the opportunity to meet with James Comey, director of the FBI. Walking into the building for my meeting, with the name of J. Edgar Hoover emblazoned above the entrance, was a "head trip" for me. Then, meeting and speaking face to face with the director during the same day as events of the March On Washington Film Festival was an experience of special personal irony.
Most of the events depicted in the films about the civil rights movement presented by the Festival occurred during the years J. Edgar Hoover was director of the Federal Bureau of investigation. Under presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Hoover had to be dragged kicking and screaming to exercise efforts to protect civil rights activists from racist inspired violence by the Ku Klux Klan. His principal concern was to conduct 24/7 telephone wiretaps and telephoto surveillance of the activities of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and some of us who worked closely with him.
My recent meeting with the FBI director was prompted by an earlier speech he gave at Georgetown University, Feb 15th, 2015. That speech, which can be accessed here was an extraordinary for a Director of the FBI to give on the current issue of the relationship between the police with various African-American communities across our nation.
Among other things, he said:
"(A)ll of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups. It was unfair to the Healy siblings and to countless others like them. It was unfair to too many people.
I am descended from Irish immigrants. A century ago, the Irish knew well how American society -- and law enforcement -- viewed them: as drunks, ruffians, and criminals. Law enforcement's biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicles we use to transport groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the "paddy wagon."
The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans. That experience should be part of every American's consciousness, and law enforcement's role in that experience
-- including in recent times--must be remembered. It is our cultural inheritance.
There is a reason that I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI's interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's approval of J. Edgar Hoover's request to wiretap Dr. King. It is a single page. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is "communist influence in the racial situation." The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.
One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either. So we must talk about our history. It is a hard truth that lives on."
When I first read this I thought I had died and went to heaven. I could not believe what my eyes were showing to me.
Among some of the things I said to the Director was that I thought the time was propitious for him, in conjunction with various local police chiefs around the country, to initiate an effort of outreach to black churches and credible community based organizations to rebuild trust within such communities with their police.
Anyone who has any knowledge about persons living within African-American communities today knows that our communities are the ones most in need of effective non-racist police protection. (The reasons for this are beyond the scope of the discussion in this blog, at this time.)
Why did I suggest to the director of the FBI that he be proactive and reach out to leaders of African-American churches? This is because I believe the role of the black church, following the race-based murder of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina black church provides a unique opportunity and potential "in real time" for healing between local police, nationwide, and African-American communities.
Can anyone doubt that the power of the grace, love, and forgiveness from the families of the victims who were killed at Emanuel AME ignited the enduring power of nonviolence and religious spiritually based love? It was THIS power of the forgiveness and love expressed by the families of the victims that turned around "the hearts and minds" of a significant number of white people, Republicans and Democrats, on the issue of race-based hate. How long this will last, we don't know.
But, just as the demonstrations in Birmingham Alabama in April of May 1963 and the subsequent March on Washington of 275,000 people at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in August of that year raised the moral question of what kind of America do we want our nation to be on the issue of how black people are treated by white people as a consequence of their white segregationists upbringing, the killing of nine innocent people attending church in Charleston, poses the same question: What kind of country will stand by without moral outrage at such an act?
One of the issues that most concerns me is whether African-American and white political leaders understand the significance of what occurred in Charleston, South Carolina. A unique national opportunity continues to exercise a qualitatively new kind of leadership in our efforts to build relationships of trust and respect between African-American and white brothers and sisters.
In this connection, I am reminded of a passage from President Lyndon Johnson's speech when he introduced The Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a joint session of Congress:
"At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government -- the Government of the greatest Nation on earth.
In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our country.
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to solve that problem."
If anyone doubts the uniqueness of a national opportunity for racial reconciliation then go back and look at and listen to the 44th and first African-American President of the United States speak and then sing, "Amazing Grace" as part of his eulogy to pastor and South Carolina State Senator Pinckney, one of the Emanuel nine shot to death while attending a weekly Bible Study. This, again, was another experience where I thought I had died and gone to heaven to witness something I would never, or could ever, expect to experience in my lifetime.
If not now, when?