A finger bone. A bit of body ash. A piece of the True Cross. A single beard hair. Virtually every religious movement has its relics. The ancient Jews had the bones of Joseph, and later, a sample of manna, that mysterious substance that fed them through their forty year trek in the Canaanite desert. The ancient Athenians had the bodies of Oedipus and Theseus. Buddhists had all manner of pieces of the Buddha, despite his distaste for any sort of religious veneration. Even the iconoclastic Muslims have relics of the Prophet, including his cloak, sword and a hair from his beard. Christianity produced a veritable industry of relics, especially in its Roman and Orthodox branches. Political movements produce their relics too: Stalin, entombed in glass and South Carolina’s Confederate Relic Room come to mind. (I’m not comparing the Daughters of the Confederacy to Stalinists. Or maybe I am.) Relics serve, for believers, as a way of remembering those who have gone before, offering homage for their faithfulness and the truths their lives revealed.
The American Civil Rights Movement, that long struggle against the legacy of slavery and racism produced its share of relics, too. The civil rights movement was, at its best, a religious movement, calling Americans to repentance for the creation of a society both separate and unequal, which eventually tore down the barriers blocking the way for people who are not of European descent. Its triumph is most notable in the ascension of an African American to the Presidency. It has its relics as well, one of them being the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Calling the NAACP a “relic” has become quite fashionable on the hysterical right. They mean that there is no longer any need for such a thing as an organization that advances “colored people.” But I use the term in its religious sense: the NAACP, reminds us that there was a time, not so very long ago, when black Americans were second-class citizens, when there was a need for an organization to actively call for their advancement. We gaze upon their story, and we remember.
And here’s the strange thing about relics: they have no power in themselves. They are just memory devices, mnemonic tricks, to keep us from forgetting the story of the relic. That’s why the NAACP still has power in a time when a black man is President, when young black or Hispanic or Asian Americans can truly become anything they choose to be. It’s why, when the NAACP passed a resolution condemning racism in the Tea Party movement, it set the punditsphere all a-Twitter. Everyone clearly remembered the time of legal racism in America, and whether one agreed with the Tea Party or the NAACP, no one wanted to go back there.
It’s why the Tea Party Federation yesterday excommunicated Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams after the overtly racist “Letter to Abraham Lincoln” post appeared on his blog. No political movement which expects to be taken seriously in America can allow itself to be racist, whether in appearance or intent. The majority of Americans are not racists, nor will they support political movements which are, no matter whether they are “right” or “left.” This is a good thing, and the Tea Party Federation should be commended for it. Whatever racist elements have glommed onto a movement which is ostensibly about the size and role of government need to be expunged, decisively and quickly. Because America has changed.
One need not be a supporter of South Carolina’s Nikki Haley to rejoice that a woman of Indian descent has a pretty good chance to inherit the Governorship of our state. One need not be a small government libertarian to be glad that Tim Scott, a black man, trounced Paul Thurmond, scion of South Carolina’s one-time Dixiecrat Governor, in the GOP primary for the 1st Congressional District. Both Haley and Scott have a lot of convincing to do before liberals will come over to their side. But liberals should be delighted that they are there. For their racial background will eat away at what remains of the poisonous Dixiecrat legacy. The backwoods bigots, who don’t want a “raghead” or a “n—–” in the Governor’s Mansion or in Congress, now find themselves further marginalized. The Democrats long ago abandoned them, and now, the GOP will have to as well.
Relics, to an unbeliever, may seem like silly superstition. But listen carefully, and their story can still work miracles.