But it may happen regardless – in 2017 – and in a Facebook post or video-stream near you.
The late poet, author, activist and song man Gil Scott-Heron once wrote about the juxtaposition of real-life political and social protest happening against the backdrop of commercialized television broadcasts featuring ads for toilet bowl cleaner and breakfast cereal. He marveled at how the TV news coverage of the protests, which often amounted to life-or-death situations fueled by urgency, anger and social unrest, were periodically interrupted by the care-free, almost utopian white-bread environments framing the TV ads.
He put this observation to paper in a poem that later became his signature tune, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a spoken-word rap by Heron written and recorded in 1970 and ’71 that had all the satire and wit of a well-crafted hip-hop song long before the genre was even a thought in our minds.
Indeed “The Revolution,” with its inclusion of popular commercial brands, big-named movie stars and news personalities, and famous pop-culture slogans, foreshadowed hip-hop as we would know it nearly a decade later. In the song, Scott-Heron referenced brands like Coke and Listerine, mocked several slogans of the day (the “dove in your bedroom,” the “tiger in your tank” and the “giant in your toilet bowl”) and called out TV shows he thought to be patronizing to blacks, like “Julia” – the first network TV series to feature a black woman in the lead role (Diahann Carroll).
All of those things were satirically described in the song as examples of what the “revolution” would not do or be.
The gifted Scott-Heron managed to capture in just three minutes and seven seconds the spirit of an ongoing fight for justice by an oppressed race of people who were less than a decade removed from the passage of two landmark pieces of legislation meant to tip the scales: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter is arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation in America’s history as it pertains to the protection of American Citizen’s right to vote regardless of race. The former was itself legislation that purported to provide equal protection under the law for people of varying backgrounds, including sex, national origin and religion, but most notably for the times – people of color. It was a law that had been met with strong opposition from the start by some of the government’s most influential leaders of the day, including the late Senator Strom Thurmond who, some years earlier, was attributed this quote: “all the laws in Washington…cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
And Thurmond, who certainly wasn’t alone in his thinking, might have been right.
Despite the passage of the law, social change was slow in coming (or not coming at all in some views), which created an urgency for the minority rights cause that saw it splinter into two main factions: the more passive, non-violent Civil Rights Movement and the more aggressive Black Power Movement. Although the two were interconnected, with leaders sometimes straddling both efforts and each having overlapping goals, it was the latter – with its more revolutionary ideas of economic independence, self-determination and (sometimes) separatism for blacks that fueled the revolution to which Scott-Heron alluded in his most famous recording.
Imagine those times. On one end of the spectrum, you had people of African descent whose main goal was to enjoy the economic, educational and social freedoms afforded others in a country they didn’t choose and whose history had denied them those rights for centuries. On the other end, you had lawmakers like Thurmond who (his own bedroom liaison aside) believed the very notion of mixing the races was reprehensible. Indeed, in his fervent opposition to it, he had referred to the Civil Rights Act – designed to end legalized racial segregation in America – as “unconstitutional.”
In just a few short days, the nation’s 45th president will be taking the Oath of Office, swearing “to the best of his ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Donald J. Trump will then be handed the keys to the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW where he will at once become the most powerful man in the free world. It’s a transition of power that is perhaps more socially important – from a civil rights perspective – and more polarizing (from a number of perspectives) than any other in American history.
If you don’t believe so or have lived under a rock for the past several months, consider the following:
The next president – a Republican and reality TV star whose political history only dates back to 2015 when he announced his candidacy – will be taking the White House keys from Barack H. Obama, a Democrat and the nation’s first black president. Setting aside their partisanship and obvious racial backgrounds, the two could not be any more different, whether it be in their leadership and communication styles or their main constituencies.
With Obama’s exit will be the departure of his cabinet members, some of whom will be written about in black history books, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the nation’s first African-American woman to hold the nation’s highest law enforcement office. The importance of Ms. Lynch’s role in U.S. law enforcement cannot be overstated. She is the Chief defender of the Constitution and in her particular case, Ms. Lynch’s position and tenure have been further heightened in significance as she has seen the nation through several highly publicized and very divisive issues in the past two years involving law enforcement and race (and most recently even election politics). Indeed, her 2015 swearing-in ceremony came amidst protests of the police-involved killing of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray just 45 minutes away in Baltimore.
Ms. Lynch will presumably be turning over her office to the president-elect’s nominee for AG, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions, whose confirmation is all but a certainty, has been criticized by many blacks for his alleged stance on minority issues. Historic civil rights leaders, like Representative John Lewis (D-Ga) criticized the Alabama senator for “reprehensible” actions that served to do harm to black people.
None of this was helped by the president-elect himself, who criticized (via a tweet) Rep. Lewis as “all talk, no action or results” after Lewis himself attacked the legitimacy of the incoming leader’s presidency amidst allegations of Russian interference with the election last November. Trump’s reactionary attack on the Civil Rights icon (who famously shed blood for the movement decades ago) was later defended by vice president-elect Mike Pence in a Fox News interview as his Twitter-happy future boss merely “defending” himself. Pence later expressed hope that Lewis would reconsider his announced decision not to attend the Trump inauguration.
Indeed, many lawmakers have announced that they will not attend the inauguration in the wake of Trump’s reaction to Lewis. It’s a significant protest of an inauguration marking a transition of power that will come only days after the nation celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., probably the world’s most well-known Civil Rights leader. The symbolism of this protest of Trump’s pending presidency cannot be overstated.
But never mind all the criticisms of the president-elect himself that accompanied his successful election campaign. Even if the allegations against future chief law enforcer Sessions are remotely true, then the transition between Obama-Trump and Lynch-Sessions alone illustrate an almost schizophrenic radical social shift for a country that only eight years ago was celebrating the nation’s first black president and seemed (at least symbolically) to be turning the corner after decades and centuries of an ugly racist history.
The timing of these events and issues, coupled with the environment that has been created by Trump’s election and many blacks’ reaction to it, couldn’t be more startling in its irony. And these events have conspired to make this era ripe for the type of protest so eloquently captured in song by Gil Scott-Heron so many decades ago.
Think about it: none of the post-Civil Rights era presidential transitions have divided the races (and religions), polarized political parties and had as much vitriolic rhetoric as this one has. Not even during Scott-Heron’s most creative artistic period, which came during the war-torn era of Richard Nixon, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and during the height of Black Power activism, did the kind of sociopolitical conflict exist that the anticipation of the new Trump administration has brought about even before it starts. It’s an incredible story that writes a new chapter almost daily, with African-Americans (and many others) watching and scrutinizing the president-elect’s every impulsive tweet and political move…and understandably so.
If ever there was an era of politics that called for a “revolution” the likes of which Gil Scott-Heron spoke/sang, this one would be as good a candidate as any.
But the pending White House occupancy by Trump may only be the tip of the iceberg and is but one outcome of the fear-based movement that put him there. Many of the signs were brewing during an Obama presidency that saw racial tension in the U.S. rise to its most publicized (if not highest) levels since perhaps Scott-Heron’s era. Only the manifestation of those issues has taken on a slightly different face in the 2010s than it did in the 1960s.
For example, in many people’s minds, the kind of violence that marred the freedom and equality movement of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s has been replaced by the well-publicized clashes between law enforcement and young blacks of the current day. Likewise, the separatist views that were expressed by ’50s and ’60s-era politicians like Thurmond have been replaced by conservative-owned, politically biased media (like Fox News and Breitbart News) and their portrayal of blacks’ protests against today’s social injustices as mostly violent, totally unfounded and categorically unfair to the nation’s law enforcement officers.
Indeed, terms like “nationalist” and “alt-right” have replaced “white supremacy” and “racist” and have been used in attempts to normalize the behavior and views of those people who harbor them, including – allegedly – some people in very high places in the coming presidential administration, like the former leader of Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon, who many minorities fear will bring white nationalist and divisive views to the White House as the new president’s chief strategist when Trump takes office. To many of the concerned, the white sheets and hoods that were so visible in the 1960s have been replaced by three-piece suits and ties. Only now, the racist and xenophobic views that were once considered reprehensible and often held in secret are now fair game on social media and even in supermarket lines.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s has been likened to the “Black Panther Party” of the 1960s and ’70s and even labeled by its staunchest critics as “terrorist” and “communist.” The Black Panther Party itself was considered an “enemy of the U.S.” and was often targeted by the FBI under then-Director J. Edgar Hoover.
And then there’s the social standing of poor blacks in America, which many contend didn’t improve even during the eight years that President Obama held office. Poverty and lack of education have led to increased violent crime rates in some of the country’s major cities. And many people of color have always held that the disproportionate rate of black incarceration in this country is the result of targeted law enforcement and is this generation’s “Jim Crow.”
Some African-Americans assert that the economic chasm between poor blacks and their white counterparts only widened during the Obama administration (a notion reinforced and leveraged by Republicans), leading many socially “woke” blacks to believe that Obama was a pawn who merely used minorities to put him in office (and that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have been any better). Indeed, the outgoing president has been the target of criticism by some black leaders who feel he hasn’t done enough to improve the situation of minorities.
And there lies the most interesting comparison between this era’s social climate and that which fueled Scott-Heron’s “Revolution.”
The 1960s saw similar differences of opinion about the effectiveness of that day’s black leaders in furthering the cause for black equality. Dr. King’s more peaceful earlier messages – the ones that are often played during commemorations of his birthday – seemingly conflicted with calls for more aggression by others, like John Lewis’ successor as Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael. Mr. Carmichael’s messages about the need for black power grew increasingly aggressive as the ’60s progressed. Even the SNCC – a key Civil Rights organization – eventually replaced the “Nonviolent” in its name with “National” as the group questioned the effectiveness of peaceful protest. Carmichael ultimately became a target of the FBI along with the Black Panther Party (of which Carmichael was named an honorary leader in the late 1960s).
But as change continued to be slow in coming, even Dr. King’s messages became more strident in tone as the decade progressed, most notably in his 1967 speech, “The Three Evils of Society,” where he spoke of “the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism” as being the “plague of western civilization.” Similarly, as issues of race became front and center during his presidency, President Obama was also forced to become more vocal about the issues affecting people that “look just like (him)” in recent years.
Those three sicknesses of which Dr. King spoke in that 1967 speech – racism, excessive materialism and militarism – are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. Regarding the issues of race, the country has never fully escaped the clutches of bigotry, instead enduring it as the nation seemingly takes a step back for every one or two it moves forward. As for excessive materialism, the nation’s poorest continue to suffer as those in power continue subsidizing corporate interests at the expense of working class people – ironically the same working class people who put the next president – this nation’s richest ever – in the White House.
As for militarism, it’s difficult to pinpoint where Donald Trump stands from week to week (except for his tough talk against terrorist organizations like ISIL). But the president-elect had already gone on record – albeit via a highly publicized tweet on Dec. 22 – about the need to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, before issuing an apparent about-face in statements attributed to him by a British newspaper just three weeks later on January 16. He has also seemingly forged a liaison with the Russian leader (President Vladimir Putin) most recently criticized for an overly aggressive conflict with neighboring Syria.
The prospect of war has never directly benefited the causes associated with blacks in America. In fact, war protests often went hand-in-hand with black activism as organizations like the SNCC vigorously condemned the Vietnam War. Many African-Americans view foreign wars as a way for America to assert her power over nations whose primary inhabitants are people of color.
And so it was back in 1967 that even Dr. King spoke of the need for a “radical revolution of our values” as he lamented those three evils. A few years later, Gil Scott-Heron’s call to arms spoke of an unspecified revolution, one that was nonetheless real and one whose context would not be accurately captured by network TV with its scheduled commercial interruptions and larger-than-life fictional personalities.
Gil Scott Heron isn’t alive to talk about it now, but it seems we are living in a time that screams for another non-televised revolution, perhaps more so than at any other time during the past 45 years. Only now, instead of that revolution competing for our attention with “Green Acres,” “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hooterville Junction,” whose then-relevancy Scott-Heron so adamantly protested, those shows would be replaced by the “Modern Family,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Real Housewives of (insert city)” of today.
So just what would (or does) today’s revolution look like? Scott-Heron’s 1970 version described former National Urban League leader and late civil rights activist Whitney M. Young being “run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.” The Nation’s outgoing First Lady, Michelle Obama, herself a revolutionary of sorts, is a graduate of his namesake Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, located mere minutes from where I type this in Chicago. She has been an outspoken opponent of some of the behavior attributed to the incoming president (particularly regarding women) and could easily be seen leveraging her position to further causes that are important to her after her days in the White House are over.
Scott-Heron also rapped that the revolution will have “no slow motion or still life of (the late NAACP Executive Director) Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving for just the proper occasion.” Accordingly, today’s revolution might not include footage of black comedian (and Wilkins’ fraternity brother – and mine) Steve Harvey sharing the podium with president-elect Trump after a meeting in which they joked about “golf scores” and then discussed incoming HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson and the Trump administration’s desires to “help with the situations in the inner cities.”
And as Scott-Heron put it, “women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on ‘Search for Tomorrow’ because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.” Similarly, maybe people won’t care if Cookie and Lucious Lyon finally get back together on TV’s “Empire,” because they’ll be on Twitter or Facebook monitoring Trump’s every move and everything his pending ’empire’ purportedly stands for – lest he denounces those things himself (something that doesn’t seem likely).
Gil Scott-Heron’s account of the revolution was brought to us on a 45-revolutions-per-minute (rpm) vinyl record just over 45 years ago. Now, on the brink of the nation’s 45th president taking office, the world will be watching, tweeting, posting and streaming as protests loom in Washington, DC and elsewhere – from activists of many types, including women and minorities who felt disenfranchised by the Trump campaign rhetoric.
However, in fairness to the incoming president, No. 45 did tweet this week that we should celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for “all the wonderful things he stood for.” I guess that’s a start.
No wait, maybe the meeting with superstar rapper Kanye West was a start. Or maybe it was the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson, who is African-American, as HUD Secretary.
Or maybe it was his less-than-convincing disavowal of the white supremacist or alt-right group from which his chief strategist hails. Heck, Trump has been more strident in his tweeted criticism of the Saturday Night Live skits hilariously portraying him, or the proven civil rights leader that is U.S. Rep. John Lewis, than he has those groups.
By the way, despite Trump’s tweet to the contrary, John Lewis has been about both talk AND action over his storied 50-year career as an activist. And despite what Trump thinks about SNL, those skits featuring Alec Baldwin are indeed hilarious.
But don’t hold your breath, the revolution won’t be featuring any of those either.