Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Monday, October 24, 2016

Here we go again. Same stuff, different day. Deja vu all over again.

A monthly New York newspaper, The WestView News, uses an objectionable headline (“The N—-r In The White House”) on a piece in its July edition, which argues that much of the shrill hatred toward President Obama is rooted in racism. Not surprisingly, the headline gets more attention than the argument.

Then on Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder again blames “racial animus” for some of the more strident opposition to the president. “Not true,” says Rush Limbaugh. “Not constructive,” says Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). Because apparently they believe that when a president’s mere election or re-election stirs the opposition to demand impeachment, secession and revolution, or to scream, “I want my country back!” or to call that president a boy, an ape or a subhuman mongrel, or to refuse to accept an ordinary birth certificate as proof of citizenship, that has absolutely nothing to do with race. Happened to Ronald Reagan all the time, right?


There is, by now, something depressingly rote about this dance of accusation and denial. I might not have even bothered writing about it, except that John Seigenthaler died of cancer last week and that seems to demand it. His 86 years stand as proof that we are capable of better and that, while some of us refuse to see what others of us find glaring, none of us is doomed to denial. Blindness is a choice.

That Seigenthaler made a different choice is evident in the arc of his career — Robert Kennedy’s emissary to the South at the height of the Freedom Rides; knocked senseless by KKK thugs when he tried to rescue two black women during a Klan riot; reporter and editor for The Tennessean newspaper in his native Nashville, who championed racial equality at a time when it was dangerous for a white man to do so; journalistic icon who brought reporters of color into a monochromatic newsroom.

The thing to understand is that none of that moral heroism was predictable or preordained. After all, he grew up as a white child of white privilege in the segregated South. Yet, somehow, Seigenthaler was able to make himself see what people around him could not.

For decades after, he wondered why he didn’t do so sooner. As he movingly explained in the 2011 PBS documentary Freedom Riders, “I grew up in the South, child of good and decent parents. We had (black) women who worked in our household, sometimes surrogate mothers. They were invisible women to me. I can’t believe I couldn’t see them. I don’t know where my head or heart was. I don’t know where my parents’ heads and hearts were, or my teachers’. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid, I guess, of change.”

How he overcame that defect, I have no idea. But that he did suggests others can, too. And that makes his legacy one of hope.

That hope is sorely needed. Not just because of the way we regard a president, but also, and more importantly, because of the way we regard a woman applying for work, a man boarding an elevator, a boy in a hoodie, people just trying to live lives.

When the history of this era is written, it will recount how so-called conservatives gave aid, comfort and intellectual cover to the ugliest of human impulses under the guise of political debate. People will wonder how we could have seen all that ugliness without seeing a thing, how journalists could have been silent and supine to the point of malpractice in the face of such obvious and monumental misbehavior.

It’s a certainty that makes John Seigenthaler’s life seem all the more … singular. Yes, that life proves blindness is a choice.

But it proves vision is, too.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • Dominick Vila

    We need more Seigenthaler’s, not because most American haven’t been able to realize how pervasive racism, and every other form of discrimination is, but because of the way he articulated this issue and his commitment to do something to end a legacy that should be confined to the history books. Sadly, what we have witnessed since the election of President Obama is that racism is alive and well in America. Yes, most Americans don’t share that sentiment, but there are still enough bigots among us to embarrass our country, denigrate our claims of freedom and democracy, and make a mockery of our purported Christian values and practices.
    The insults directed at President Obama have absolutely nothing to do with performance or achievements. If that was the case he would have been placed on a pedestal by now. There is very little ambiguity when people call someone of a different ethnicity an ape, a “boy”, and other expressions of racial hatred that ought to belong in the past. Yes, we need more Seigenthaler’s. Who knows, if there were some our so called “liberal” media may just remember what journalism is all about.

  • TZToronto

    “We Shall Overcome” isn’t just a song for black people. It’s for everyone. For Seigenthaler it meant overcoming the blindness he had practiced until he saw the light. Seigenthaler freed himself from the bigotry around him, and he put his life on the line to do it.

  • Independent1

    What’s truly sad and unfortunate, is the racism shown to Obama has robbed America of what may have been; Barack Obama may well have been the best President our country has ever had. Despite the 24/7 opposition from the GOP, he has accomplished far more in the past 5 years than any president in my memory other than FDR. The list of his accomplishments are truly noteworthy; but how much more could he have accomplished had the GOP made even the slightest effort to help him move our country forward?

    Sadly, we’ll never know; and the American people will never know either just how much the GOP has kept each of them from attaining in their futures which could have been so much better than they may otherwise attain to given the GOP’s opposition to his presidency. And this is unfortunate too, that millions upon millions of Americans will never realize just how much has been taken away from them, because a political party decided to do everything in its power to dumbdown our nation in an effort to make our first president of color fail.

    • jointerjohn

      Moving forward is the last thing the GOP wants. They want the country dialed back to their distorted and sugar-coated image of the 1950s. They have demonstrated they are willing to remain in a constant state of tantrum until that happens. Happily, it never will.

      • Ford Truck

        No, they want the country dialed back to their distorted and sugar-coated image of the 1850s – when the Kochs could have bought Barack. Now the only people the Kochs can buy are other Republicans!

  • charleo1

    The thought had occurred to me, if the Conservative Right worries about the history they are creating, as they prepare to file the first lawsuit ever against a President. The first African American President. How will that be perceived by generations of Americans in the future? Plus, all that has cascaded since the election of this President. Elected on the heels of The Bush years? One of the most disastrous Presidencies, it could be argued , of all time. So what of all the hoping, “he,” fails? The vowing, the solemn promise to end this particular Presidency, as no other? As a singular goal, in a single term? The wild, crazy, talk continues, on into that dreaded second term, with as much venom as the first. And that much anticipated, and baseless, lawsuit? What about that? As the unprecedented wall of ideological, and illogical, and fact-less, and expected as the sunrise. Up will rise the obstruction from the Right, for no other reason than to obstruct. Each issue opposed as if it was the battle of Armageddon, and the great Apocalypse itself, all rolled into one. As if to attempt to somehow erase, what they see as the tragedy of all tragedies, the horror, of all horrors. The election, the Presidency, that may be yet erased. If all evidence that it happened at all, can be somehow, perhaps thru some as yet undiscovered mechanism, gloriously repealed! But race my friends, they’ll tell you, has absolutely nothing to do with it!

  • Barbara Morgan

    I never meet John Seigenthaler but feel I know him because of having the privilege of reading his editorials in the Tennessean for many years and watching his TV show on PBS called Word on Words. He had authors come on the show and discuss their latest books with him, they were all kinds of authors fiction, History. current affairs etc and all races. Even if he disagreed with what an author had written he was always nice and professional to the person. He didn’t call people names like some TV hosts now days and he always knew about the book and author on his show. Reading his editorials and watching him on that show it is hard to believe that he was ever any where close to being any kind of a racist even after reading what he said in the above article. Especially since I grew up in the segregation time pre civil rights in a small town in Tennessee and saw some racism.But never saw bad racism , not that racism is ever good, until I was 9 and visited relatives in Ohio and found that some small towns had laws forbidding blacks from living in them, coming into before sunrise and had to be out of town before sundown or they would be arrested. With his passing we have lost an great worker against racism and intolerance in this country.