The Help, Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Death Penalty


The film version of The Help and the inauguration of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offers an opportunity to evaluate history and contemporary politics.

  • From the Association of Black Women Historians, an An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

    During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

  • In Dangerous White Stereotypes, Patricia A. Turner is gentler but still poses important points:

    It is unfair to the filmmakers and cast to expect a work of fiction to adhere to the standards of authenticity we would want for a documentary. But we also recognize that precious few works of art tackle the Civil Rights era, and what people coming of age in the 21st century learn about this era often stems from fictive rather than nonfictive sources.

    Forty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by tens of thousands of black domestic workers to the National Mall in Washington to demand economic justice, it is not all that difficult to render black fictional characters with appealing attributes and praiseworthy talents. What is more difficult to accomplish is a verisimilar rendering of the white characters.

    This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.

    There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not. . . .

    Cultures function and persist by consensus. In Jackson and other bastions of the Jim Crow South, the pervasive notion, among poor whites and rich, that blacks were unworthy of full citizenship was as unquestioned as the sanctity of church on Sunday. “The Help” tells a compelling and gripping story, but it fails to tell that one.

  • After a previous post discussing Cornel West’s Dr. King Weeps From His Grave, the article on “Dr. King’s Dreams” provides a picture of what King was doing in the last years of his life:

He moved to a Chicago slum, and in the tradition of Martin Luther, who nailed to a door the views that sparked the Protestant Reformation, he placed demands on the City Hall door: for unions to account for their hiring, for banks to adopt fair mortgage policies, for the city housing authority to increase the supply of low-cost housing, and for other powerful institutions to do their parts.

He later proposed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” calling on government to spend $100 billion over the course of a decade (the equivalent of $650 billion now) on assistance for housing, employment and education. The Chicago campaign of peaceful protests was met by angry mobs — hurling rocks and shouting slurs. The effort sputtered.

  • Also in a previous post, I was taken to task by a commenter for saying “old-fashioned racism” is still present in death penalty cases. A new study on The Military and the Death Penalty indicates that is exactly what is happening:

    Minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites — after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race — to be sentenced to death, according to a forthcoming study co-written by David Baldus, an eminent death-penalty scholar, who died in June.

  • And on a related note, interesting “Room for Debate” on How Can Courts Trust Eyewitnesses?

    If only our memories were as accurate as they feel. A crime victim might stand behind the one-way mirror and, with total confidence, point to a suspect in a lineup. But total confidence is not the same thing as being right. Indeed, DNA exonerations have shown time and again that a reliance on eyewitness identifications can send innocent people to prison, or death row.

  • These articles help update the section on Racism and biological anthropology and see also Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

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