The Butler and Racial Discrimination
American Negroe Slaves of the Deep South; hopelessness and poverty was their lot.
Slavery dates back as old as History itself - but that doesn't make it right.
In the newly released movie, The Butler, the leading character’s father is shot dead by a plantation owner. That was in 1926. It was also in the ‘Deep South’ of the United States of America – Alabama. This was racial prejudice heartland. Yet nearly forty years later in 1963, whilst my wife and I lived in Madang in Papua-New Guinea, a man deliberately shot and killed a New Guinea native in very similar circumstances. I know, because the man who did the shooting told me himself. Moreover, wife backed up his story. He’d shot the man dead for not obeying an order. That was at a plantation somewhere in the Madang area. Oh, and would you believe it: we discussed this over a few beers in my lounge room. He was under open arrest at that time.
Unpaid labour - slaves in the 'Cotton Fields' of the Deep South
Some people are still regarded by their rulers as expedable.
I came to meet this man and his wife when we invited them to dinner at our place. They were in temporary accommodation next door. It was temporary because the normal occupants had ‘gone South’ to Australia for a two month holiday and the authorities, realizing the house was remote (We lived seven miles out of the main township) had decided to put this man there pending his trial for murder. There was no way of escaping from Madang. The roads led nowhere. The only way in and out of town was by air or ship. His main concern was he’d be sent to Australia for his trial. He knew they’d be far tougher on him in Australia than in Papua-New Guinea.
Arab Slavers still ply their despicable trade in the Middle East
Justice Papua-New Guinea Style in the 1960s.
As it happened, he was convicted and sentenced – in a court in Port Moresby, apparently. I don’t know whether it was downgraded to manslaughter or not, but there being no creditable witnesses – that is, people who could speak English – it is likely it was. It would have been a matter of his and his wife’s accounts of what happened. He was a white man of course. Everyone else on that lonely plantation were blacks. But even I was rather chagrined to learn that for his crime he’d been sentenced to only two years on a road gang. Not only that, he was to serve his two years as the foreman of that a road gang, supervising the dozen natives under his charge. Pretty cushy punishment for shooting a man dead, I reckon.
They didn't call it slave labour but that's what it was.
So much for racial discrimination – it was still blatant even in the 1960s in a ‘protectorate’ being administered by the Australian Government. But there were all sorts of shennanigans going on in P/NG in the 1960s. The use of virtual ‘slave labour camps,’ (payment only in board, food and tobacco) as tribal chiefs were bribed into letting groups of their young men go away to work on rubber, coffee and copra plantations far removed from their own tribal areas. Take a Papuan to the Sepik and he cannot escape. He is surrounded by his enemies. He just has to serve out his six month or twelve month indenture until that old DC3 which took him there is ready to take him out again.
The port of Zanzibar was a slave port for a long time
Slave markets still exist but they don't get much puplicity
In the Middle East it was every bit as bad in the 1960s. It probably still is bad. I recall a friend of mine who was, at that time in the Royal Navy, saying that his ship would occasionally be deployed to stop by a certain island in the Red Sea to release negroe slaves who had been taken by Arabs across to this island to be sold to buyers from Saudi Arabia. Of course, they knew that within hours of their ship leaving, the trade would continue.
Australian Aboriginal Soldiers - Good enough to fight.
America has made progress...but it's been awfully slow
So, compared with the places mentioned above, America has made progress. In the movie, The Butler, things moved forward slowly and at great resistance from the status quo. The changes were hard-won every step of the way. But we have a least reached a point now where a half-Negro half-white (I’m told his father was black, his mother white) has made it to America’s top job: the President of the United States. Barack Obama has, I think, brought something unprecedented to one of the First World’s most conservative nations. For make no mistake about it, the USA is conservative in many ways.
To tell another story which surprised me when it occurred…
After the great American Civil War the majority of American Negroes were not considered equal of Caucasians. Menial jobs were the norm
Good enough to work with: not good enough to socialize with. Armed Foreces prejudice.
In 1958 I was a young sailor in the Royal Australian Navy. I was a radio operator and, at that time, was working at the shore station HMAS Kuttabul from which radio communications were relayed to and from naval ships coming in and out of Sydney Harbour. This also included warships of other nations. Over the radio I and my fellow radiomen had worked many an American ship using our Morse circuits. The giant aircraft carrier, USS Bennington, the heavy cruiser USS Canberra (named in hour of our own ship was sunk by the Japanese in World War Two) On this particular instance we’d been busy with a US Coastguard vessel. I think it was called the South wind.
"I don't drink with those guys."
Another radio operator, Mac, and I had befriended the radio operators on the South wind. This was done quite informally, of course. It had all been done by Morse code interchanges. We then arranged to meet three radiomen off the South wind to ‘show them the sights’ Three Americans were supposed to show up. Their names from memory: Hal, Frenchy, and…uncertain, but I’ll call the third man, Henry.
We were to go down to the wharf and meet these three as they stepped off their ship. We waited and, sure enough, Hal, arrived.
“I’m Hal. Glad to meet you guys.”
Introductions were made.
"Right, man. Where we off to?”
“Hang on. We’re got to wait for Frenchy and Henry.”
“Oh, no, fellas, they won’t be coming. It's just me. Frenchy…well; he’s an ‘Injun Joe – a Red Indian, man. And Henry’s a nigger. I don’t drink with those guys.”
Well, there you have it. Three men doing identical jobs in one small ship. But only one felt he was good enough to step ashore with a couple of white Australians. Or that is how it seemed to me. Very disappointing. But a real ‘eye-opener’ to the way Americans felt about each other as late as the late 1950s. Racial prejudice was rife in their armed forces.
Martin Luther King Jr addressing the great rally in Washington DC
Even one simply discriminative slight hurts, imagine getting them all of your life and being told you've got to put up with it.
Okay, so this is history. Have I ever been discriminated against in a way that really hurt? Only once. And it is mild compared with what so many have to put up with. It happened when my wife and I tried to book into a motel in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales way back in 1961. The motel owner would not let us in. Vacancy sign was up. Plenty of space. No other cars in the car park.
“You’re not coming in here!”
“You’re not welcome here. Seen the likes of you before. No Army personnel here. Clear off!
“But I’m not in the Army.”
“Yeah…Well, I don’t believe you. I know a serviceman when I see one.”
As it was I’d been out of the Navy for around two years. Perhaps the woman proprietor had noticed my sailor tattoos. Perhaps it was just certain mannerisms that gave me away as having been in the armed services. Whatever it was she was adamant. And when I complained to her burly looking husband appeared on the scene ready throw us off if we refused to go.
Army General Colin Powell
Non-descrimmination must be back by the Laws of the Land
If I felt bad about that one and only incidence of blatant discrimination, imagine how those who have to put up with this incident after incident, day after day, year after year. Imagine how they must feel. Imagine how it must feel to know such discrimination is enshrined in the laws of the land in which you live!
It is probable that we will always have some racial discrimination…in fact many types of discrimination that de-values other human beings. But we should at least be working on it in every part of the world to see that it is never, ever supported by Law
When do personal preferences become discrimination?
Outright discrimination might not be rife to this extent in my own country, Australia, but there is still plenty of prejudice. I recall a Lebanese neighbor of mine a few years back telling me when I made a casual enquiry about one of her son’s romances with an Australian girl.
“Oh, I got rid of her. My boy will be marrying a good Lebanese girl.”
My immediate thought was. “Right. You come out to our country. You settle here. You accept all the advantages and freedoms but you’re too good to allow your family to marrying into an Australian family. The hide of you!” Of course, I did not tell her how I felt about that remark. Why get off side with people because of their views. Still, it rankled.
Now, I hear some of discrimination coming back from the very people the Australian Government has allowed to settle here. If they run a shop, it’s one price for people of their own ethnic background, another for other peoples. A few more percentage points are loaded onto the buyers who are not of the same race. You could call it favourtism. Or you could call it Racial Discrimination.
United States of America's President, Barack Obama
We all need to expand our circle of self-interest. We're all citizens of the one earth
Will it ever change? Will people ever get to treat all others the same way? We know that each of us has a “Circle of Self Interest.” We’re at the centre of it. Our own family forms the next circle outside of this. Our own relatives and close friends the next circle outside of this one. The next circle might be people living in our street, then our suburb, then our city…and so it goes on. There’s a disaster in our city and five people are killed or seriously injured. It makes the television news that same night. But if 5,000 have their town devastated in, say, Argentina, or the Ukraine, it doesn’t get a mention.
“A hundred and seventy people killed in air disaster in Istanbul.”
“Any Aussies among them?” This generally one of the first questions asked by our news presenters.
“Right. That’s okay then…” or words to that effect. The news items is quickly dropped.
Oh, how we favour our own. Oh, how people of other races are virtually of little account unless they affect us in some direct way. As I asked before, Will it change? I hope one day that it does. But at time of writing I think such changes are a long, long way ahead.
The Butler is a marvelous film. I was certainly moved by it. As a movie it brings a strong message not only to the citizens of the United States of America but to everyone on this great planet of ours. It tells us so much about human behavior. It’s a great story; a true story. It is splendidly acted by its lead roles. Go see it. It truly is a great movie.
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