Boston, Mass.–It’s a wonder, the speed with which a commemoration of the life of Rosa Parks and a celebratory reenactment of a march led through Boston by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 could be morphed by (still just a) Senator John Kerry into a mere footnote on his own failed political struggle last year. Nevertheless, this was the all-too-real scene at the First Church of Roxbury on Sunday.
#ad#For those unfamiliar with Boston’s geography, Roxbury is one of the tougher sections of town. During the 2004 Democratic convention, for example, one of the only major events held there was the Hip-Hop Summit, which featured Senator Maxine Waters shaking her rump, but few other…dignitaries. It’s slowly getting better, thanks more to encroaching developers than social engineers, but it’s still a rough area.
In other words, it’s not the sort of place where the kids walk around looking bemused. Yet it would be difficult to find another word to more aptly describe the looks on these tough-as-nails gangster-chic youth’s faces as hordes of middle-aged unreformed hippies and starry-eyed college kids poured out of the Roxbury Crossing subway station onto Malcolm X Blvd.
It was the sort of crowd so enthralled by their own benevolence as to listen in rapt attention while the statement of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union–Official Tagline: “We Want Safety for the Children! Keep the Union Drivers!”–on the day’s festivities was read and took it seriously enough to cheer loudly when the letter called for ending the occupation of Iraq. Many attendees were festooned with stickers provided by the Anti-Defamation League which read, “I March Because It Matters.”
After delving into the prerequisite non-John Kerry related items in the first 30 seconds or so–the struggle for civil rights in the 50s and 60s, lynching, tear gas, Bull Connor’s dogs–the Massachusetts senator got down to business.
“No matter what we say our principles are, no matter what we define this nation as being, there are those who throughout our history that have stood in the way of the full implementation of those principles,” he said. “And still today they stand in the way. And you have to march. And you have to fight. And you have to stand up like Rosa Parks and [Rep.] John Lewis [D., Ga.], to make sure we do what’s right in this country. That’s what this is about.”
While Kerry did not directly say who “they” were or “what” they were standing in the way of today, the crowd seemed to intuitively know it was “Republican voters” and “his presidency,” respectively.
“We had sent 40,000 lawyers out into the streets to try and get America to do what’s right,” he continued, speaking to quite possibly the only segment of the American population that actually believes 40,000 lawyers showing up somewhere is anything but an unmitigated disaster. “Let me tell you, we have spent billions of American taxpayer dollars in order to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. We ought to be spending more on it right here at home.”
Other speakers were happy to keep the dour outlook train chugging along. Deval Patrick, a former counsel on civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice (back when “the civil-rights division of the Justice Department was still in the business of civil rights,” he quipped to hearty applause) who is now apparently itching to take on Governor Mitt Romney in 2006, was but one of many.
“You all have to know how much remains to be done,” Patrick said. “If you wonder how much, just remember Bush vs. Gore when the Supreme Court–not you, not us–decided who the president of the United States would be.”
It’s really fairly amazing the sort of ovation Democrats can still pull out of that line after their 2004 loss. It’s as if this victimology has become so central to the core identity of the Democratic party they cannot let it go.
Congressman Lewis took it a step further during his speech when he addressed Kerry from the podium, declaring, “I voted for you for president and you should have been president. A lot of us still believe that you won.” And while no one can ever cast aspersions on Lewis’s heartrending tale of growing up under segregation or impugn his bravery during the civil-rights era–he was hit so hard in the head with a police baton during the march from Selma to Montgomery that he was very nearly killed–some of his words on Sunday were troubling in their lack of scope.
“My generation would never, ever have taken what people are taking today,” he contended at one point. “We are too quiet in 2005.”
Are racial tensions really that much worse today than in 1965? It is difficult at times to fully grasp why a group ostensibly gathered to celebrate the victories of the civil-rights era spends nearly the entirety of that celebration almost reveling in how little they believe has actually been gained. The idea of America as a banana republic seems to be the only thing that can assuage the pain of losing an election.
“Forty years after the civil-rights filibuster was broken in the United States Senate and the Civil Rights Act was finally signed into law; 40 years after the Voting Rights Act, we are still living in a nation where too many of our fellow citizens are hassled, harassed and even denied the right to vote,” Kerry said, for example. “That has to stop now.”
In the prepared remarks provided to the press (and which hardly resembled Kerry’s actual speech at all), the former Democratic presidential nominee allowed that America “was and still is a great nation. But”–and you knew there had to be a “but”–”when we fail to protect the right to vote, our nation becomes less great, less capable of doing great things, and worst of all, less free.”
This is fairly magnanimous stuff for John Kerry. It let’s us know he’s finally accepted his loss, but also serves as a friendly warning that if we want this to remain a “great nation,” we all better vote the right damn way next time.
–Shawn Macomber is a writer living in Boston. He runs the website www.returnoftheprimitive.com.