Lee Daniel’s new film, “The Butler,” with its masterful performance by Forest Whitaker, is a powerful and timely reminder of America’s all-too-recent struggle for civil rights and what it meant in the everyday lives of black Americans. Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who served seven US presidents, the movie also captures the generational stress inherent in any social revolution. We see the all-black staff serving the White House dinner table while black and white students – including the Butler’s son – are insulted, spat on, and beaten during a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Building an inclusive democracy is a long and difficult work. It may involve protests and civil disobedience, but it also needs people like Eugene Allen who are simply willing to go to work every day and be excellent at what they do. It also requires intelligent strategies, coalition building, and careful, unglamorous efforts to address specific policy issues.
The story of the neighborhood where my family has lived for more than thirty years is a testament to this kind of steady, persistent process of relationship-building and targeted action.
Known as the Carillon, it was one of the first Richmond neighborhoods to experience desegregation and today it is notable for the diversity of race and income levels among its residents. Drawing on numerous interviews and historical documents, long-time resident Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary has researched and published a fascinating history, going back to the days when slaves worked the fields here.
The Carillon Civic Association (CCA) was formed in 1968, one year after the first African Americans moved into the previously all-white neighborhood. Its first goal was to counter the scare tactics of real estate agents who were encouraging nervous whites to sell and move out.
Harold Marsh, an African American lawyer whose brother was to become Richmond’s first black mayor, had recently bought a house in the Carillon. He took part in the early CCA organizational meetings which, as O’Leary reports, sometimes ran from 8 pm to 1:30 am. A white resident recalls, “Harold led the way in teaching us what it was like to be a black man in Richmond. We were young then and full of energy, and we thought we could make a difference in a city of segregated neighborhoods.”
Beyond becoming good neighbors the CCA leadership was serious about changing discriminatory policies. They filed complaints and contacted the U.S. Justice Department about dual, race-based listing of housing ads in the Richmond newspapers. By the summer of 1971, this system had ended. CCA activists were also prominent in founding Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), which is dedicated to fair housing, to changing attitudes about integration, advising potential homeowners, and enforcing the law.
An “Arts in the Park” festival was launched in 1972 as a collaborative neighborhood project. Today it draws well over 100,000 visitors to see the work of 450 artists from all over the United States. Fees paid by the artists generate significant funds for the CCA which has made grants to more than 130 organizations in the city.
“Hard work,” writes O’Leary, is a phrase frequently used by CCA members in describing efforts over the years to stabilize the neighborhood and bring about policy changes.
Which brings me back to the “The Butler” and the unmatched example of grace and courage shown by African Americans in working for peaceful and sustainable change in the face of state-sanctioned violence and persistent discrimination. In the words of one of the Freedom Riders whose bus was burned by a white mob, “Our only weapon is love.” It is a model for those who are impatient for justice in many parts of the world, including those now crowding the squares of Cairo.