Tuesday, September 28, 2010

morality is a mule

The New York Times reported earlier this month that one of the most celebrated photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, Ernest C. Withers, was actually an FBI informant.
On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that showed Mr. Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. It was an astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, whose previous claim to fame had been the trust he engendered among high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Dr. King.


Although Mr. Withers’s motivation is not known, Mr. Garrow said informers were rarely motivated by the financial compensation, which “wasn’t enough money to live on.” But Marc Perrusquia, who wrote the article for The Commercial Appeal, noted that Mr. Withers had eight children and might have struggled to support them.
The lack of any reaction among those not old enough to have participated in the movement themselves is a damning indictment of our society's sense of history.

On the one hand, many clearly see the political gains that resulted from the struggle to be pre-ordained. This bodes ill for those who hope to secure the rights of non-documented laborers, gay and lesbians who wish to serve in the military and/or adopt children, any many other marginalized groups. Why do we need to lift a hand to ensure social justice? These things just happen.

Another perversion of hindsight is that the enemy of change came in the form of chaw-chewing, pot-bellied, pasty-faced Southern sheriffs calling grown men "boy" and lecherously ogling African-American women; sure, if you live in the world of "Mississippi Burning" (or even, heck, "A Time To Kill"), but the reality is that the camps of "us" and "them" are far blurrier than we like to admit.

Through rose-tinted glasses, segregation was an unmistakable evil, its elimination an inevitable historical correction. Those who equivocated, opposed, or undermined the progress of history are the enemies of all that is good.

But in the event, things don't ever shake out that clearly.

Desegregating Southern society had the potential to undermining a large black middle class that had developed as an unintended byproduct of "separate but equal." It was a group largely destroyed by integration -- and nothing of its ilk has ever arisen to take its place. There were plenty of people who wanted to protect the status quo rather than cast in with a bunch of Communists and degenerates.

And there were plenty of people -- like, apparently, Ernest Withers -- who used the agitation of the time to make a quick buck off the strife between those who wanted change and those who wanted things to stay just the way they were. Withers had access to civil rights leaders, and the federal government was willing to pay for that access.

It doesn't make him evil, merely human. And it's a reminder that human motivations and allegiances are almost never as clear-cut as we wish they were.

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