It is a poignant coincidence to me that America’s first black president is leaving office in the same week that we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. Since that bleak morning in November when I awoke to the news that a child-molesting pervert with a fourth-grade mind would be our next president, I have pushed out of my mind the fact that we would soon lose one of the most elegant, most erudite, most sophisticated presidents we’ve ever had.
For the first time in my life I have grown personally fond of our president and I think it’s because of an experience in my childhood that has resonated throughout my life.
It was in May of 1963 when I saw Bill Hudson’s iconic photo of Bull Connor’s cops using German shepherds to attack 17-year-old Walter Gadsden during a civil rights march in Birmingham, Ala. The photo was first published in the New York Times, but it was later broadcast on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. There was also film of the same protest, with protesters being assaulted with fire hoses and police dogs. From that day forward, Walter Gadsden has represented black America to me – an innocent black kid grabbed by a powerful white man to be fed to a dog.
The image hit me particularly hard because my father was a policeman. In fact, with his sunglasses on, he looked a lot like the cops in Hudson’s photo. I made my dad assure me that he would never use a police dog on a scrawny black kid who was just standing around watching people trying to get the right to vote. He told me those men disgraced the badges they wore.
At about the same time an incident at school gave me a peculiar insight into the plight of the oppressed. My father wasn’t just a small-town cop, he was also an outspoken advocate for the victims whose assailants he jailed and testified against, only to see justice perverted by people who had money. It frustrated him to no end that there were two kinds of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor. At school I was “that dumb cop’s kid,” ostracized and demeaned because my father took seriously his charge to serve and protect all of the townspeople, regardless of their wealth or poverty. When I tried to defend him, I was knocked down and pummeled. When I went to my teacher, she sent me to the principal’s office for fighting. When I tried to explain, the principal told me I should stop making trouble. Then he gave me two days of detention.
In that moment, standing in the principal’s office with schoolyard dirt ground into my shirt and blood on my lower lip, I understood oppression. I didn’t think of it in those terms, but I knew how it felt. I was being blamed for being beaten up. The bullies on the playground could do with me whatever they wanted because I was a “troublemaker.” There was no place to turn. There was no safety. There was no one to protect and serve me. Fear and despair don’t know skin color; it feels the same no matter who you are.
It just wasn’t right.
Those experiences, and others like them, made me the liberal I am today. And on January 20, 2009, when Barak Obama took the oath of office, I felt like Walter Gadsden had, at long last, transcended that awful day in Birmingham. Bull Connor was long dead. The schoolyard bullies were defeated; the indifferent authorities were forever invalidated.
Over the past eight years, our president has been vilified by the very worst people in America. Their vile insults have been almost relentless, from Mitch McConnell’s vow to work relentlessly against the president to the bigots who blame a black man for the divisiveness they have fostered.
As bad as things got, however, I always believed that the people who suck life out of the world and vomit hatred back into it were having their last wicked say before finally dying off forever. We’d elected a black president. Twice. Surely that must mean that we’d turned a corner. Yes, there were ignorant bigots who hated that there was a nigger in the White House, but they were gasping their last fetid breaths.
And then … well, and then Trump happened. But still, as bad as he is, at least Obama was still the president for a little while. At least grace and class and real love lived in the most important house in America, for just little longer.
But on January 20 that will change, and now I have to actually face that fact. And it feels awful. I feel like I’m headed back to the principal’s office with my face hurting and my self-worth in tatters. It feels like, again, the powerful and the indifferent and the hateful and the arrogant and the utterly unworthy have won just because they’re richer and bigger.
This time, of course, it’s different. This time I’m not powerless. I am a journalist and the First Amendment is still the law of the land, and I intend to spend some part of every single day saying, relentlessly, tirelessly, ceaselessly: This isn’t right.