The other day a preacher said something really dumb about a famous, deceased African-American.
Aha! I bet I got you! You thought I was referring to Al Sharpton's eulogy of Michael Jackson, didn't you?
No, that's not what I'm talking about. I'll admit I'm first in line of the people who think the wall to wall coverage of Michael Jackson's death is over the top. Furthermore, when I hear people argue that Jackson was the greatest entertainer ever, I think about how sports is entertainment, and then I wonder if you could make the case that Jackson wasn't even the greatest African-American entertainer of the past three decades whose first name was "Michael" and whose last name begins with "J." There are a lot of us more thrilled at memories of seeing Michael Jordan dunk than Michael Jackson moonwalk.
But any complaint that Reverend Sharpton's speech exaggerated Jackson's significance is undermined, ironically enough, just by noting the venue in which he gave it. How many memorial services do you see held at the Staples Center?
Here are the specific words of Sharpton's that have caused a stir:
"Because Michael Jackson kept going, he created a comfort level where people that felt they were separate became interconnected with his music. And it was that comfort level that kids from Japan and Ghana and France and Iowa and Pennsylvania got comfortable enough with each other until later it wasn’t strange to us to watch Oprah on television. It wasn’t strange to watch Tiger Woods golf. Those young kids grew up from being teenage, comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the President of the United States of America."
I'm not sure any of that is over the top. As someone who was twenty-one when MTV went on the air, I remember that after it had been on a year or so there were howls of protest that all the videos featured white performers. As I recall it, one of the responses to such criticism was that MTV was simply responding to demand; it was the white acts that were popular among the target audience of the fledgling network. With the benefit of nearly three decades of hindsight, I think we can see that this argument was uncomfortably close to the remarks by some southern restaurant owners in the early sixties--the "we can't serve Negros because our white customers won't like it" standard.
Then Michael Jackson started putting out videos. They were in heavy rotation; you couldn't watch MTV for more than an hour and a half without seeing Jackson dancing and singing to "Billie Jean" or "Beat It." And yes, there probably are some white people now in their forties who looked beyond race at least partly because of Jackson, and who therefore didn't feel at all odd pulling a lever marked "Obama" last fall.
So who is the preacher I mentioned in the first line, saying something really dumb about a famous, deceased African-American?
It's the evangelist Peter Marshall from Texas. He's part of a panel of "experts" appointed by the Texas Board of Education to make recommendations for new social studies curriculum standards for the state's public schools. According to the Dallas Morning News:
"[Reverend] Marshall... questioned whether Thurgood Marshall, who argued the landmark case that resulted in school desegregation and was the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, should be presented to Texas students as an important historical figure. He wrote that the late justice is 'not a strong enough example' of such a figure."
Thurgood Marshall argued thirty-two cases before the U.S Supreme Court, winning twenty-nine of them. He is, next to Martin Luther King, the most recognizable person involved with the Civil Rights movement, which was clearly the greatest American social accomplishment of the twentieth century. He couldn't get into the University of Maryland Law School because he was black; he nevertheless wound up not just a lawyer, but a justice on the highest court in the land. When you enter his name at amazon.com, you get over 6500 results. That's not a strong enough example of a historical figure?
I think Reverend Peter Marshall isn't a strong enough example of an expert to serve on the Texas committee.