In his New York Age column in 1934, my father wrote, “President Roosevelt in an address to more than 50,000 persons on Memorial Day, denounced three groups as those capable of retarding the country’s progress.”
He then quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1934, titled “The Selfishness of Sectionalism Has No Place in Our National Life.”
“These groups are those who seek to stir up political animosity or to build political advantage by the distortion of facts; those who, by declining to follow the rules of the game, seek to gain an unfair advantage over those who are willing to live up to the rules of the game; and those few who, because they have never been willing to take an interest in their fellow Americans, dwell inside of their own narrow spheres and still represent the selfishness of sectionalism which has no place in our national life.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
My father continued: “These groups, optimistically observes the President, ‘grow less in importance with the growth of a clearer understanding of our purpose on the part of an overwhelming majority.’
“Obviously, Negroes might wish they could subscribe to the Chief Executive’s optimism, but existing conditions are hardly conducive to such. With unyielding prejudice of the South not content with its morbid environment but rearing its head in the allegedly democratic North, Negroes fail to observe to an appreciable extent the decline of those whites who represent the ‘selfishness of sectionalism.’” Ebenezer Ray
Ebenezer used FDR’s words as a jumping off point to talk about just why black Americans might be less optimistic than their president. He cited as examples the barring of blacks from the House Restaurant in Washington, DC. and the refusal of Blumstein’s, the largest department store in Harlem in his day, to hire “Negro” clerks, despite the fact that 75 percent of their patronage was from blacks.
This column came up while I was searching my father’s writings for some Memorial Day wisdom.
Things have changed. Many of those who have witnessed an African American family residing in the White House for the past eight years might find it hard to imagine that black folks were once barred from eating in the House of Representatives dining room.
Harlem now has Magic Johnson movie theaters, Starbucks and a Whole Foods, who hire plenty of black folks and other people of color, even as many of those workers are being priced out. Earlier this week, Michael Henry Adams, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, titled, “The End of Black Harlem,” in which he examines the gentrification that has rendered this cultural Mecca increasingly unaffordable to those who have made it their home for decades.
But some themes in Roosevelt’s Memorial Day speech, are frighteningly resonant. Far from Americans gaining a “clearer understanding of our purpose,” as the president put it, those who represent “the selfishness of sectionalism” appear to be gaining ground. The presumptive Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump, epitomizes those who “seek to stir up political animosity or to build advantage by the distortion of facts,” while his supporters “dwell inside of their own narrow spheres.”
Ebenezer likely thought FDR’s speech did not, in today’s parlance, “go hard enough.” But perhaps the president was trying to appeal to his country’s better nature.
That’s what presidents do.
On Friday, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and delivered a speech reflecting on the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell,” Obama said. “We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.”
Obama went on to say: “My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family – that is the story that we all must tell.” Barack Obama
We must not surrender our ideals to those who distort facts to gain unfair political advantage or dwell inside their own spheres.