On July 2, 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States, signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It was a turning point in American history, not the end of the long struggle for equal representation under the law, but a major move forward in an ongoing struggle. On national television, he addressed the nation to discuss the import of the evening’s events.
“The purpose of the law is simple: It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public. . .”
Countywide Community Development Corporation out of Navassa, in Brunswick County, will commemorate the landmark legislation with “Celebrating the Dream: 50-Year Commemoration of Signing to the Civil Right Act of 1964.” Events include the opening of Willie Cole’s installation “School Pride: The Eastern NC Story” at the Cameron Srt Museum (see page 15). But on Tuesday, July 2nd, the LBJ Presidential Legacy Awards Luncheon will honor Civil Rights pioneers past and present. One of such includes Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” who will speak at the luncheon.
Walker’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner has been the subject of much controversy locally. Brunswick County Commissioner Pat Sykes led the charge to have “The Color Purple” taken out of the AP English curriculum and its access restricted in the school libraries. In late January, the Brunswick County School Board voted 2-3 not to restrict its access. Walker indicated her awareness of the situation.
“The book has been banned a lot,” Walker concedes. “I guess it was surprising that people were still at it, and I’m sorry it’s in North Carolina, which I always thought, for a southern state, was progressive and forward-moving.”
Then she learned about the recent rollback of gains for people of color and women in NC. Like many of our state’s residents—and others across the country—Walker has been impressed by protests to earn back equal rights.
“I am so moved by the Moral Monday Movement,” she admits. “I saw a segment about the gatherings and the people rising. Whenever that happens, I feel so gratified for humanity because that is our only hope for humanity.”
“Moral Mondays” is a term used to identify the grassroots protestors that meet on Mondays at the North Carolina General Assembly. They speak back to the legislation passed and signed into law in 2013, including repealed voter rights, public education cuts, regressive taxes aimed at the poor, social and health programs cut, weakened environmental defense, and restricted women’s access to healthcare. As of the beginning of the 2014 short session, over 900 people had been arrested for civil disobedience at our state’s capital. Walker is not alone in her admiration for the protestors.
“Let it be well-understood that we will not accept being mistreated,” she says. “That people think they have so much money they can buy and sell us—we will not accept it. It shows us what can be done. Even if we fail temporarily, it is only temporarily.”
Just as the battle over “The Color Purple” appears to be winding down, another book challenge has emerged in Brunswick County: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Frankie Wood, of Ash, NC—though a great-grandmother—has no children in Brunswick County schools. Yet, she called for the book to be immediately taken out of the schools and their libraries. Wood objects to its profanity and discussion of masturbatio—topics not so different from “The Color Purple.” Folks have complained about Walker’s use of profanity, depictions of violence, rape, incest, and a very unfavorable depiction of white people during Jim Crow. It challenges people emotionally, socially, racially, sexually and spiritually.
“It feels like I am being deeply engaged in a readership that feels threatened by a possibility of seeing the world a different way,” Walker says. “That is OK with me because who hasn’t read something that has pushed many buttons? The first response is fright. Who wants to change? Change is a part of growth. I have waited many years for people to read the novel for what’s actually in it, rather than what they have heard or is in the first five pages.”
The same sentiment can be applied to Sherman Alexie’s writing in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Censorship still has a stronghold on the ways people often think.
“I think Indians are probably not expected to be speaking—they thought they killed all of them,” Walker responds. “I think for some people in the US, whenever an Indian speaks it’s shocking they are still here, and doubly shocking they have an opinion and they relay it. The myths that people are attached to about Native Americans and what happened to them has unraveled.”
Walkers expresses that a better way to approach the challenging and uncomfortable voice is to sit and listen, rather than shout down the unwanted.
The organizers of “Celebrating the Dream” have expressed a hope the Walker and members of the Brunswick County Board of Education can meet during her visit here. But Walker remains pretty zen about the criticism of “The Color Purple.”
“My response has been almost no response to a lot of criticism—to a lot of people’s commentary about this book,” she states.
It’s my offering; if you want it, I am happy for you—it’s a gift for you. If you want to read something else, then read something else.”
LBJ Presidential Legacy Awards Luncheon, with speaker and author Alice Walker
Wilmington Convention Center
515 Nutt Street
Wed., July 2nd, 12 p.m.