The events depicted in The Best of Enemies take place in 1971, at the peak of the American Civil Rights Movement. Almost half a century later, are there still Civil Rights battles left to be fought?
We invite you to read, discuss, and contribute your thoughts.
Our lead contributors will stay the same, and new comments will be added daily.
The National Guest Contributors
Dr. Rex Ellis, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian Institution
How do we reconcile what we believe, with what we feel, when the two are at odds with one another? How do we change attitudes, values and beliefs that have taken a lifetime to fashion? What do we do when the answers that are given, and the explanations that are forwarded about our racial past and present, even when our comfort level with the ones saying it are high, just don’t do the trick? What happens when the questions that remain–even though they have been resolved by smarter people than us, don’t provide solutions we’re willing to commit to? What if our tug-of-war as a nation, still puts us on a side of the political rope, that we’re comfortable with, even though we might not be on the most “politically correct side?” What if we think it is our right, in this land of the free and home of the brave, to disagree even if it causes dissent, discord and violence? Isn’t that our right as Americans? Isn’t that what motivated the revolution that made us a nation to begin with?
But for those of us who take our doses of history with a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon, it is race that continues to be deeply rooted in our collective psyche. And its discussion, will continue to be part of the crucible that will determine how our nation connects to its future, as well as, learns from its past. It will continue to define our relationship with increasingly diverse cultures of new Americans, and these communities will continue to define who we are as Americans, and how we treat each other.
No, we are not in a post racial society. Not even close. If the recent election taught us nothing else, it is that we are a nation divided. But there is hope (I refuse to believe there is not).
For me, it lies in the few fleeting weeks after 911—almost a memory now. That day suggested a new definition of what it means to be an American. It was a day that reminded us all that we may have come in on different ships, but that we are in the same boat now. The terrorists did not separate us as Americans. They saw one America, and one route to their collective hatred. It was a root that included us all. And the ways we rallied around each other, supported each other, cried with each other, and saw each other, forever changed that day…or so I thought.
Eric Deggans, TV/Media Critic, Tampa Bay Times, and Author Of Race-Baiter
The most obvious answer to that question lies in the area of gay rights. Though some resist the comparison, gay people’s struggle for marriage equality and the right to adopt children echoes the classic civil rights struggle for black people to live, vote and work as white people do, or the suffragette movement allowing women to vote, work, marry and own property as they choose.
As I note in my new book Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, the modern civil rights struggle involves rooting out the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices used by modern media to galvanize audiences at the cost of harmony across race, gender, class and cultural lines.
In a world filled with media, the modern civil rights struggle focuses on ensuring that powerful outlets treat everyone fairly and don’t build fortunes on demonizing groups the way Fox News Channel once unduly focused on the New Black Panther Party or Rush Limbaugh castigated Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke.
At a time when social media has turned nearly everyone into a brand, keeping big media’s playing field level for everyone may be tough as passing a new version of the Civil Rights Act.
Mark St. Germain, playwright
The battle for civil rights that takes place in BEST OF ENEMIES not only continues today but the battlefield has gotten bigger rather than smaller.
Many prejudices haven’t been eliminated but only kept more hidden.
In the last election it was clear for all too many voters that President Obama’s race was a voting issue. People voted against him – and for him – because of his skin color.
Crusaders for African American rights have been joined by an army of others,
Champions for Gay Rights, Gender Equality Religious Tolerance and Economic Equality. Add to those are Advocates for ending discrimination against Arab-Americans, Immigrants and Native Americans. The list goes on and will grow, not diminish.
In the “Best of Enemies” the character of C.P. Ellis, white, describes his prejudice against Ann Atwater, who is black.
“ I knew I was better than her. Turns out what I didn’t know is that she’s somebody trying to help her people the same as I’m trying to help mine. People who don’t have much. Lower class. I figured out this much. Folks don’t stay upper class unless the rest of us are underneath them. And as long as we keep fighting each other they know we’re going to leave them alone to run things the way they always have, looking out for themselves and nobody else. And that’s not right. It’s not right.”
Prejudice feeds off insecurity, a need to feel superior to someone, anyone, who you can convince yourself is inferior to you.
Will this misguided impulse for self-defense ever fully vanish? I doubt it. What we can do is to aware of it, vigilant, and be sure we look deeply into ourselves before judging the motives of others.
Our Community Contributors of Sarasota-Manatee
Carolyn Mason, Sarasota County Commissioner
Sadly, my answer is, yes. In a community, a state and a country so progressive, and so ahead of the “curve”, we are still battling this multi-headed monster.
In my beloved Sarasota, where I was born and raised, in the areas of law enforcement, housing, and some jobs, we fall woefully short of the mark of equal rights and true inclusiveness. Contrary to popular belief, in my beloved Sarasota, there is still the existence of a “Mason/Dixon line, Fruitville Road, where people of color were not welcome when I was a little girl. The mindset exists still today on both sides of that imaginary line that has very real consequences, vivid memories for some and is still a huge barrier.
In my humble opinion, the way we right this long-standing overturned ship is to begin open, honest dialogue. That dialogue has to be ongoing, though, and will be painful sometimes. But I believe we will learn a lot and be able to move forward in a positive manner. My experience has taught me that in problem solving, if we ever stop the dialogue, we’re sunk. Along with that dialogue, we also need to experience each other’s culture and learn from those experiences.
The Honorable Larry Eger, Public Defender
I don’t agree that 1971 was the peak of the civil rights movement and am puzzled that we would wonder , 50 years later if there are any civil rights battles left to be fought ? To me , the battle over civil rights began when we drew our first breath and will end only with the extinction of the human race.
It is by our very nature that this struggle and conflict continues and will continue as we define and redefine who we are.
There will never be a time we can declare victory in this war , only individual battles that are won or lost. The choice , as I see it , is to decide if we want to be participants or bystanders in this struggle , but we can never escape its impact.
Dr. Ed James II, Executive Producer and Host of Black Almanac, ABC 7
The history of Blacks in this community is a complex, engaging and thought-compelling history, a history of Holocaust and enduring hope; of oppressive treatment and yet an unaddressable desire and demand for freedom. Sarasota was 20 years late in recognizing Brown v Board of Education, and even now too many of our children labor on the bottom rung of the achievement gap; thus it is, of necessity, a history of an unfinished struggle for a consciously lived freedom and substantive justice in a land that promised freedom and claimed justice.
Racial justice will not be achieved by symbolic placements of Blacks and others in visible, but ineffective places, and no amount of the manipulation of multiculturalism, diversity and people of color language and literature can substitute for a substantive racial justice. For in many, if not most, cases those references have become little more than ways to claim us present although we’re absent; formally included, although effectively excluded; and given honorable mention, although less than honorably marginalized. It is as if the civil rights revolution passed us by. We all must continue a collective effort to find solutions to combat inequality for Sarasotans of color.
Howard Tevlowitz, Director of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee
In one word…YES.
Mark St. Germain’s play is set in an environment where explosive language and inflammatory issues were prevalent. Although we have made many strides in racial and religious understanding, the way we use language today impacts individuals, communities, and nations and is need of special examination.
I’d like to focus on two areas – the spoken language and the written language.
The Holocaust was a seminal moment for the Jewish world. The Holocaust began with a spoken word. Spoken words then became printed which then became state policies. Those words – “death to the Jews,” brought the civilized world to the abyss.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, what have we learned?
Not a lot. Genocide has not stopped. Hate language has not stopped.
In our global community, this is no longer an American issue, it is a world issue.
The Honorable Judge Charles E. Williams
In order to answer the question presented we must consider the actual definition of Civil Rights. Black’s Law Dictionary defines Civil Rights as: “The individual rights of personal liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and by the 13th, 14th,, 15th, and 19th Amendments, as well as by legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. So many times when we think of and hear the words “Civil Rights” we think literally in terms of Black and White. We see the black and white images of the television reports of those times. The images of Bull Connor, Selma, fire hoses and snarling dogs, marches, and citizens trying to exercise their right to vote and being turned away. These images shape our early understanding of Civil Rights. However the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is an evolving document. The definitions of the terms written and consented to many years ago by white male landholders, some of whom owned slaves, words describing liberty, freedom, privacy, assembly, and what constitutes a citizen, have a much broader definition these days. We must ask ourselves the following questions in the context of today’s definitions of “Civil Rights” and the question presented for consideration;
- Have we all secured the unfettered right to vote as citizens in this country?
- Have men and women achieved equality in opportunity?
- Are the rights of gays and lesbians secured or addressed appropriately by the law?
- Is the promise of America guaranteed to all citizens within our borders?
- Has America eliminated barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, and sex in achieving the American dream?
- Are the poor, disabled, and the homeless guaranteed basic liberties in this country?
If the answer to the above questions are yes then we can say with great pride that the battle for Civil Rights is thankfully over in this country. If even one of the groups mentioned above still lacks the protections of our great Constitution we should be inspired and gather strength by the words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Those words carried the hopes and dreams of a soon to be reunified and changing America. The words recognized the past but more importantly charted the future and told us there was much work left to be done. Thus the question again, ”Is the battle won?”
ADD YOUR VOICE TO THE DISCUSSION
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8 thoughts on “The Best of Enemies Discussion”
Thank you, Mark
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You have touched som fastidious factors here.Any way keep up wrinting.
I think one important factor that led to the reconciliation and freindship of C.P. Ellis was the fact they realized they HAD to work together for the sake of their children. It began as two armies determined to hold their ground, but led to the realization there was common ground. Both had upper classes above them that kept power in the city by burning off the anger of the lower income families by setting them against each other.
To know the reality of your attitudes on race you have to engage with people of another race. C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater were forced to do this face to face. When you put a face to what you fear, suddenly it becomes less frigtening. Even human.
Mark St. Germain, Playwright, Best of Enemies
It is altogether obvious that there are still civil right battles left, but the play not only frames the racial aspect of this tension, it also engages the economic root of it as its ultimate principle to overcome. Pointedly, we are reminded that in Europe there also were white slaves from ancient to modern times, but their existence is dependent, especially these days, on black market structures servile to an economic elite that supports them. Just as the white indentured servant way back then was replaced by the more cost-effective African slave, so it was for the poor in America competing with immigrant waves for the pittance of opportunity and labor. All meanwhile the great concetrations of capital fiddled with politics or took to financial speculation abroad instead of investing on the nation that helped them build that capital.
Certainly, the slave culture of the colonies is the one that created a myth to support its business model, but the KKK (racist culture) helped endure the real damage done to a people’s labor value and education potential/opportunities. Ultimately, the plight of the white and black poor is what this racially charged play frames for us. The plight of C.P. Ellis, Union representative, ostracized from a racist labor hierarchy in a small-town dynamics, only to join his fellow men in negotiation with real capital and production.
I agree with Dr. Fagin, in that “EDUCATION” is key, but equality must be the very ground base to begin to value a man or woman’s labor. Education should be what builds/gives more value to labor, not what grants the dignity of survival in a society.
Submitted by Dr. Helen Fagin:
“I read all the statements included in the post-play discussion and, as in any such contoversial and painful social issue, I feel that the question should be asked, not as much whether or not we have gone a long way in fighting prejudice in America, but to focus our energies and attention on reversing young peoples’ mindsets into raising their children in a prejudice-free home, community, church or any social environment. The obligation must rest with the present generation of parents, teachers, clergy, all leadership in all professions to deal with the issues of inequality as an immoral, uncivilized, and inhumane activity. EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION!!!”
This play Best of Enemies is a wonderful way to educate, or remind, how recent desegregation actually was. Having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s, I had no idea that when I was born in 1971, segregation and extreme racism existed. In fact, I was shocked to discover just last year the reason I grew up in Florida as opposed to my birthplace of Baton Rouge, Louisiana was that our next door neighbors – the KKK – had threatened my parents that they were going to burn our house down because we were friends with a black family. This set in motion my father seeking employment elsewhere, landed a job at NASA and we moved to Cape Canaveral. To me this kind of thing happened a long time ago…but as this play demonstrates, this was a fairly recent and significant chapter in America’s history.
Outstanding theater! Racism does still exist especially in the over 65 age group demonstrated by President Obama being trounced in both national elections in this age group. Given Sarasota has 1/3 of the population in this age group(more than any city) and an FST audience predominantly in this age group, FST is to be applauded for its courage to enlighten. Maybe old dogs can learn new tricks.
Thank you Florida Studio Theatre for bringing real life situations to the stage. This play makes us confront our feelings, examine them, and hopefully, where appropriate, work towards changing them. My granddaughter, on her computer home page, has the following quotation by Carl Rogers, which I believe is profound: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”