GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 18, 2013

Midweek Musings: Film spotlights quest for equality

Midweek Musings
Rev. Art McDonald

---- — I’m not much of a moviegoer, just ask my wife.

I’m too fussy, selective; I want to be assured that the 21/2 hours spent in such a confined space is going to be worth it. Problem is, another person’s lens on what makes a great movie might not be your or my lens. So I’m picky.

Concerning the recent movie “The Butler,” I think I picked pretty well.

If you don’t know the story, it’s based on a real life person, an African-American fellow who served in the White House as one of the butlers through seven or eight presidencies, beginning with Ike in the 1950s and ending during Reagan’s time in the latter part of the 1980s. It’s an incredibly compelling story of an individual but also a wonderful historical view of the struggle for civil rights in a very contentious period in our history.

We get glimpses of sit-ins at lunch counters in the 50s, through the civil rights’ struggle and Dr. King as well as the Black Panther Party reaction in the 60s, right up to the ongoing struggle for equality in the 80s and beyond.

For me one of the most memorable scenes has to do with the wages paid to the butlers (all of whom are Black) and the other African American employees in the White House. Early in the film, the protagonist, played by Forest Whitaker, entered the office of his boss and made the point that the Black employees were making less than their white counterparts; he thought they should receive a raise.

Each time he did this over the years, he was told he could look for other employment. Each time he left rather meekly and dejected.

Finally, sometime in the 1980s, after again raising the issue and being rejected, before leaving the office he said something like: “very good sir, I’ll let the President (Reagan) know your answer.” As you can imagine, his boss was flabbergasted by the fact that the butler had the President’s ear. What a moment!

I saw this movie on the same day that Dr. King’s “Dream Speech” was remembered - 50 years ago that day. Although most remember that speech and its legacy as a call for civil rights and integration, the actual title of the march was: “Jobs and Freedom.”

The march was organized by many and led by Bayard Rustin and the great African-American labor organizer, A. Philip Randolph. Somehow, over the years, the “jobs” part, the emphasis on economic justice and equality, got lost, until, of course, Dr. King went to Memphis in 1968 to support the garbage worker strike for fair working conditions and better pay. And, of course, that’s when he was killed.

Just in these past weeks —coordinated with the anniversary of King’s “Dream Speech,” low-income and poorly-paid (mostly minimum wage)— workers staged a 1 day boycott of many big name retailers who pay minimum wage or slightly above, a wage that very few can live on and support a family. The struggle goes on.

On the North Shore, through a faith-based community organizing group, ECCO, and across Massachusetts, a multi-faith and multi-organizational effort has begun to get on the ballot an increase in the minimum wage from its current $8 to $10.50.

We are attempting to gather thousands of signatures and get the issue on the ballot for 2014, unless — and that’s the hope — the Legislature actually deals with this and puts forth a bill to accomplish this initiative. If we are successful, it will be one more piece of fulfilling the “dream” so powerfully articulated by one of our greatest religious figures in modern times. May it be so.

So go to the movies when you are able; take a risk (I’m speaking to myself as well!). It can be a great way to spend a few hours.

Rev. Art McDonald is pastor of the First Universalist Church of Essex.