There is very little moralizing going on in Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Just cold facts. I walk through the exposition. Read city ordinances implementing Jim Crow laws. Browse newspapers from the 50s and 60s. Watch documentaries and interviews. It’s all there: separate movie house entrances, bus boycott, integrating schools and universities, restaurants sit-ins, voting registration, marches, police actions. From tragic events in Selma to grotesque banning of a kid book on the grounds it presented white and black bunnies playing together. And yet it’s so hard to imagine this was happening. So recently. So near. I should not be surprised. I’ve read about it. I watched Spike Lee movies. But somehow all these photographs, newspapers and recording make it very real and very moving.
Strangely the most telling interview is with a white lady from a so-called society. She tells us she does not think of herself as prejudiced or bigoted. She does not spew racial hatred (there are plenty of other documents with that). She recalls the story of the Unicef’s sponsored drawing competition that happened to be won by a black kid. His family is not allowed to see the winning drawing because it’s hosted in a white only library. But the story she tells does not shock her. She thinks that the system is OK because one phone call is all that is needed to arrange a special, after hours permission for the kid and his mother. In a short interview she manages to quote all possible racial stereotype you can think of. All in a very civilized, calm and patronizing manner. I think this is a key, this is your silent majority - not Ku Klux Klan but normal people who just do not see any connection between their views and actions (or their non-action) and church bombings.
I heard once about this experiment. You divide people into two groups. You ask one group to wear some kind of marker on the sleeve. You ask them to live together for a some time without other preconditions. It happens sooner or later, but it always happens: one group starts discriminating against the other. First it’s quite benign: name calling, restricting access to some places, ensuring different seats in a cafeteria. It turns to psychological terror, then intensifies to physical abuse.
This is how our brains are wired. We like to belong, and once we belong we try to make sure that the group we belong to is superior. Our potential ancestors without this feature died without reproducing. We see this story repeating itself in real life: Nazi Germany, Rwanda genocide, Abu Ghraib prison, segregated South.
Skin color, religion, nationality - anything can be used as a marker of distinction. It’s not enough to say some other group is different or slightly worse. This is just how it starts. We do not easily give up a comfort of thinking of ourselves as good people. And since we are good our hate has to find a reason. We need to convince ourselves that others - whoever the others are - are worth less, are less human to be deserving our respect. To justify inequality we start this self-propelling mechanism: the more we hate, the less human is the object of our hate, and the easier for us is to hate it. And while we are doing that our mind makes it easy for us to think about ourselves as moral, good and just.
When the disenfranchised begin to demand their rights they are told they really want unjustified privileges. When they start demonstrating, the public accuses outside agitators. When blood is shed the people who are desperate enough to risk their life are blamed for it. This is a common scenario. I recall socialist government using this language in Poland in the 80s. I see echos of it in current same sex marriage debate.
The BCRI acknowledges the universality of civil rights movement. The exposition concludes with tableaus from Darfur, Tiananmen, South Africa and of course Poland’s Solidarity and Round Table. This is where I feel proud for a brief moment. Before feeling sad and angry again.
The BCRI is a stern reminder: it’s easy to pervert those self-evident truths. It’s not unthinkable for a judicial branch to engage in hair splitting used to justify unjustifiable laws. It’s not that difficult to feel morally right and be deadly wrong.