45 years ago, as a 17 year old high school senior, I cringed as I saw the pictures of civil rights marchers being brutally beaten and having dogs set upon them by police officers in Selma, Alabama. It was a defining moment for me, and, I suspect, many other Americans. It was already well understood — or so I thought — that our country suffered from major problems when it came to racial injustice. We’d already seen baying mobs of bigots blocking the way of some frightened kids trying to register for classes at an Arkansas high school, already seen four young girls murdered in a Ku Klux Klan church bombing, already seen Freedom Riders beaten and killed while police were mysteriously absent or stood by and watched.
But seeing the police themselves do the beating sent a chill through my 17 year old heart. As a juvenile delinquent who’d often butted heads with our local police, I harbored few illusions about cops, yet I was still young and naive enough to believe that when the chips were down, they could still be counted on to intervene on the side of the weak and the victimized. Yet here they were behaving more viciously than the thugs they were supposedly protecting us against.
The Selma marches seem also to have been a great turning point; later that year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson and the South, many parts of which had black majorities, would never be the same again. Among the marchers who were beaten and clubbed that day was John Lewis, who for the past 23 years has been a US Congressman, and who, on the eve of last year’s inauguration, told a visitor to the Capitol, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
Today, across the Capitol, Lewis and several other Congressmen were accosted by an angry mob, spat at, and called “niggers.” The Congressman took it in better stride than I would have, not even choosing to press charges against his assailants. Who or what brought on this bout of retrograde racism? Why, it was the increasingly ubiquitous teabaggers; their beef with Lewis and other member of the Congressional Black Caucus — in addition to their skin color — was Lewis’s support for the health care reform bill.
I don’t think anyone — at least anyone outside the Fox News orbit — thought of the teabaggers as paragons, either of intellect or virtue, and certainly it wouldn’t be fair to brand the whole movement with the bigotry of a few of its more vociferous members, but today’s events removed any doubt that there’s a particularly ugly streak running through the tea party phenomenon. From the start I’ve seen parallels with the 19th century Know Nothing movement, but there are some uncomfortable echoes of Weimar Germany as well. Fox News personality Glenn Beck, who’s been alternately surfing the waves and stoking the flames of teabagger resentment, likened the tepid health insurance reform bill to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, claiming that universal health care (would that this bill provided any such thing!) would destroy us as a nation. He also stated that the only institution we could still trust in this country was the military, which sounded like a none too subtle hint that perhaps the army would have to step in to restore the inalienable rights of the insurance companies.
Seriously, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or pack my bags for Canada.