Thursday, March 09, 2006

'A Conscience With a Lens' and a Government in Search of a Conscience

The Washington Post has an appreciation of photographer/writer/movie director Gordon Parks, who died earlier this week at age 93.

The article tells the story of an assignment Parks got from LIFE magazine in 1968:
For its March 8, 1968, issue, Life gave Parks both pen and camera. He went to Chicago and stood on a street corner, checking the light. He held nothing back.

"Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself," the photographer wrote in introducing his photo spread. "You are weary of the long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. . . . My children's needs are the same as your children's."
Think about those words as you read about what's being said about the ongoing community argument about whether to name a major street after Dr. Martin Luther King.

I am not saying that this issue has been handled in the most effective way by Lafayette Parish Council members Chris Williams and Louis Benjamin. But, politics and government are not just about personalities. Elected officials, by default, represent something larger than themselves. They represent the people of their districts. People who don't live in their district may or may not like them, but they are the elected representatives of those people.

Likewise, people cannot punish the elected representatives of citizens without punishing the citizens themselves.

Clearly, part of the dynamic of this discussion has been a decision by the white members of the Council and the Parish President to refuse to name a street after Dr. King as a means of punishing Williams and Benjamin for what those other leaders deem to be the personal failings of the two African American representatives on the council.

It sounds suspiciously like the white elected officials are saying that the real offense of Williams and Benjamin is that they "don't know their place" or some other relic of the Jim Crow era.

Regardless of whatever anyone thinks of Council members Williams and Benjamin it would be good to keep in mind that they are not just individuals, but the elected representatives of their districts.

Whatever cost the white elected leaders of this parish believe they are making Williams and Benjamin pay will be borne not just by those representatives and not just by their constituents. The cost of this intransigence and petty racism masquerading as a debate over council procedure will be to undermine whatever veneer of progressivism locals try to attach to the community through things like investments in technology.

Parks wrote: "Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself." The other seven members of the Lafayette Parish Council and the Parish President should keep that thought in mind when this issue comes up again on March 21.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I have no idea what the motives of the white council guys are. Personally, I think all 9 of our councilmen should either: 1) Be locked into a room with each other and not allowed to come out until they can get along or 2) Be sent to opposite corners of the parish and we bring in 9 new, MATURE officials

My letter in the Times basically summed up the whole ordeal like this: Either have the people who own homes and businesses on Willow St., or whatever street will be changed, to vote or get a petition together, that way the people who would incur the costs for address changes and business advertisment would be the ones voting on the issue; or wait until the new I-49 corrador is built (probably the year 2100 the way our planners conduct business) and name the freeway after MLK, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, etc. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that people think council members, none of whom would incur any of the costs, should decide the issue themselves.