History flows on like a river: Sometimes the movement is peaceful, other times, it rages and destroys. Often the surface seems serene, but sometimes dangerous snags, currents, and creatures lurk in the murky depths undetected by those of us observing from the shore. It is usually wise not to wade into such conditions. However, if we see a ship capsize and people drowning, should we dive in to attempt to save them?
That situation seems to describe the conflict the US is feeling over Syria. Can we learn anything from the past?
We recently saw The Butler. For me, it was like reliving more than 50 years of my life. I will be interested to learn what younger people think of this movie, as they did not live during these turbulent times of conflict here and abroad and within families.
The movie starts with a scene of cotton being harvested by black hands in Tennessee. Cecil Gaines who eventually becomes a butler in the White House, is a boy. He witnesses the horrible abuse of his mother and the murder of his father by the white landowner's son. The mother of the rapist takes Cecil into the house. She is as helpless as a woman as the black laborers are. She teaches Cecil to read, illegal at the time, and to serve in the mansion “properly,” which is the foundation of his future.
Cecil Gaines (played by Forrest Whitaker) served as a butler in the White House for eight presidents. During his 30 years of service, major events changed the US, and Cecil was witness to history.
Meanwhile, Cecil and his wife, Gloria, played by Oprah, live their private lives experiencing the effects of the racial attitudes and the war in Viet Nam. On the surface, their lives are pleasant, but conflicts erupt between them as the nation erupts in conflicts over civil rights and the war in Viet Nam.
The film incorporates actual film footage of those events that lead to America today. It begins with the Republican convention when Ike, the war hero, is chosen as the Republican candidate for president (1953-1961). It replays the Civil Rights marches and the venom and violence as Eisenhower sent troops to enforce integration of the Little Rock schools in 1957. I will never forget seeing on TV, James Meredith walking onto the campus at the University of Mississippi, in 1962, and being blasted by firehoses, and as his body was pushed across the ground by high force water, police dogs snarled and snapped at him. It was a terrible shock to my North Dakota sensibilities to become aware of what went on in the south.
I read Black Like Me written in 1957 to inform myself. I was sickened at what lurked in the mud of America. Then I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley published in 1962. His description of the first little girl’s tiny foot stepping out of a car to brave the snarling, cursing mob of white “mothers” broke my heart. Steinbeck had set out to rediscover his America. He had written sympathetically about working people during the drought and depression. Now it was after WWII and he wanted to know who we had become. He was so sickened by the hatred he discovered during integration that he cut short his journey of discovery and returned to New York, saddened and discouraged.
In 1968 the Democratic Convention was held in Chicago. LBJ had declared he would not run again, and Hubert Humphrey was chosen. Anti-war protestors showed up and were faced with 11,900 Chicago police, 7,500 Army, 7,500 Illinois National Guard, and 1,000 Secret Service. The riots were terrible and the movie shows it all. Meanwhile, Cecil serves faithfully as one son is repeatedly arrested for marching and protesting and another goes to Viet Nam.
The assassinations of JFK (1963) and Bobby Kennedy (1968), of Martin Luther King (1968) and of Malcom X (1965) all preceded the violence in Chicago. The film inserted into The Butler brought back the sick feelings I had during these events. How we endured so much tragedy is testament to our strength as individuals and as a nation.
The audience re-experienced the horror of the JFK assassination. Jacky in her blood soaked suit as LBJ was sworn in, and the photos of little Caroline and John John saluting as his father’s coffin went by, still break our hearts. If you are old enough, you may also remember the muffled drums and the beautiful stallion, the caisson, the beautiful stallion Black Jacki, with the boots backwards in the stirrups. Who could forget that day!
A little chuckle passed through the viewers as LBJ showed the scar from his appendectomy and his beagles. Honestly portrayed were the crude vocabulary of LBJ and Richard Nixon, as well as the Watergate break in. During the shameful days of the Nixon Administration, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and went to jail. Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, kept calling the press and urging further investigations into the Nixon creeps, but the press dismissed her as “a drunk.” John Mitchell was later disbarred and Watergate vindicated at least some of Martha’s accusations. But a film can only show so much, so events surrounding the Mitchells and Agnew were not part of this movie as they did not touch the life of the butler, Cecil Gaines.
The resignation of Nixon was another sad and painful time for the nation, but our system worked and that restored our faith in government---for a time, at least.
Two of my major memories are the sad, sad eyes of Pat Nixon, and the intelligence of Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas as the House Panel began investigating whether Nixon should be impeached. He resigned, rather that face that humiliation. He was later pardoned by Gerald Ford.
Ford also faced an attempted assassination by Squeaky Fromme, one of Charles Manson's murderous cult.
Footage of the hostage crisis and gas shortages during the Carter days were included as well. I recently read an article by Robert Parry in Consortium News, “A CIA Hand in an American Coup?” stating that some members of the CIA have now admitted to undermining Carter in 1980 by sabotaging negotiations, and arranging for the 52 hostages held by Iran to be released as soon as Reagan took office. Is it a coincidence that George H.W. Bush was Reagan’s VP and under Ford had headed up the CIA for about a year? I have discussed this article with three friends: one, a self declared conservative says the CIA isn’t smart enough, and two progressives state they always sensed dirty dealings during those events.
Reagan also was shot in an attempted assassination by John Hinckley. More violence; more insanity. Will we humans never learn peace?
Through 30 years of tumultuous history, Cecil Gaines served, one of the silent, invisible people who make things convenient, easy, gracious for others.
But as time and the river flows, Cecil heard what the “important people” said, heard them when they were noble and when they were dishonest or crude or cruel. Those times changed him---changed America. Changed me.
The brain is our personal camera and recorder. The emotions are also stored so that we may learn from the past. As the river flows and meanders, let us not pollute it anymore, and let us be aware that there may be unseen dangers beneath the surface.