As one gets along in years — and by this I am referring to anyone older than 30 — one of the chronic complaints is about one’s memory. On the one hand, we have lots of machines — smartphones, GPS — that make us feel that memory is not as necessary as it once was. So what if you can’t remember the name of the original member of the Rolling Stones who died in 1969. That’s what Wikipedia’s for.
At the same time, lack of memory has a certain discombobulating effect, particularly when it seems to stem from the sheer rush of change. It is hard to remember what we once knew, much less keep a sense of perspective, when we feel like we are constantly on the downhill side of a giant roller coaster, whooshing past one major development after another on a track of unending 24/7 news cycles.
History ain’t what it used to be, in part because the speed with which we are moving forward makes the past recede that much quicker in our rearview mirror.
And that is only heightened for our children, who have lived through several technological revolutions and dozens of other upheavals before they reach adulthood.
All of which is to say that when I saw the recent hit movie “The Butler,” I appreciated the unexpected benefit of recovering some memories. Following on the heels of more than a week of commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, “The Butler” provided in fictional, and somewhat melodramatic, form a cinematic context for understanding why the 1963 march and Martin Luther King’s historic speech were such a big deal.
For those of you who have not seen it, “The Butler” is about Cecil Gaines, the son of a black southern field hand who grows up to serve seven presidents as a White House butler. (It is loosely based on a true story.) The film gives us a window on the last century of challenge and progress in race relations in America, providing a scrapbook of images of what our country was like not too long ago.
The film traces the first part of the tale through Cecil’s courage and resourcefulness as a black man living in a world controlled and dominated by whites. Then it sketches rapidly some of the key events of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the experiences of Cecil’s son, Louis, who plays a kind of black Zelig: Louis with the lunch counter sit-ins, Louis with the Freedom Riders, Louis with Martin Luther King, Louis with the Black Panthers, Louis in the fight against South African apartheid.
It seems hard to believe that it was really not that long ago when allowing black children to attend school with white children, much less date them, was a big deal. It was not that long ago when “coloreds” had to use separate bathrooms and separate drinking fountains. It was not that long ago when people were martyred for challenging this status quo.
One of the most powerful scenes was a portrayal of the efforts to integrate a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Young black students sitting quietly, politely, resolutely, at the whites’ only counter being subjected to a torrent of abuse and violence.
Memory is a powerful tool. It reminds us of where we have been and of where we do not want to go again. Human nature does not change. We remain capable of great acts of humanity and great acts of inhumanity. Memory provides the warning track for us when we are in danger of the latter.
That’s why it is important that we not forget what segregation was like, just as we must never forget the Holocaust or the Soviet pogroms. It is critical that we not forget how easy it is to transform fear and ignorance into hate.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.