Herman Cain opened himself up to uncomfortable, personal questions when he went on a tour to promote his new book, which promotes his run for president. In the book, he explains in detail why he chose not to get involved in the 1960s civil rights movement, depite being a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta between 1963-1967.
I want to make it very clear that it involvement in the civil rights movement should never be a litmus test for office, much in the same way military service in Vietnam used to be a litmus test for national, male politicians. No black man or woman who was an adult between 1955 and 1970 should be required to reveal their involvement in the civil rights movement, nor should it be expected or assumed that they were involved simply on the basis of their skin color. Everyone had reasons for speaking out or remaining silent, and a lot of it had to do with geographic location and income.
No one should have to be interrogated about what they did in the 1960s. That is, unless they are running for president and bring it up themselves.
Lawrence O'Donnell went straight for the jugluar in his interview with Herman Cain last week. Mr. Cain, in his book, tells the story that while he was in high school, his father advised him not to get involved in civil rights rallies, marches, petitions, or other public events. For everyone who lived through that era in the south, getting involved was assuming at least some risk, be it legal, professional, or in some case, physical. I would agree that a black teenager being arrested in 1962 or 1963 Atlanta would not have been easy to shake off. I don't judge Herman Cain's reasons for not getting involved.
But I do think it is appropriate to ask Mr. Cain about 1963 if he himself brings it up. In his book, Mr. Cain writes:
On a day-to-day basis, because the civil rights movement was a few years in front of me, I was too young to participate when they first started the Freedom Rides, and the sit-ins. So on a day-to-day basis, it didn't have an impact. I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble--I didn't go downtown and try to participate in sit-ins. But I well remember, as a young teenager, seeing signs printed in large black letters at the fronts of buses: "White seat from front, colored seat from rear." One day when I was thirteen, my friends and I were riding home from school in a half-empty bus--this was at the time when the civil rights movement was just getting off the ground and some police officers were just looking for a reason to shoot a black person who "got out of line." So, counter to our real feelings, we decided to avoid trouble by moving to the back of the bus when the driver told us to. By that time, the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides had kind of broken the ice, even though things hadn't fully changed. So we saw it every day on TV and read about it in the news. Dad always said, "Stay out of trouble," and we did.
That passage almost makes it seem as if Mr. Cain would have gotten involved in sit ins and protests if he wasn't so young at the time. However, Mr. Cain was 19 years old and in college during Freedom Summer. He must have been surrounded by fellow students who were involved. So if he agreed with ending segregation and discrimination, why didn't he step forward just a little when history came knocking on his door in Atlanta in the mid 1960s? He wasn't in a northern city. He wasn't overseas. He was living near the epicenter of a movement that changed this country and opened the door for him to run for national office.
Now if I were interviewing Herman Cain here, I might start the line of questioning with something gentle like, "Did you ever consider participating in a civil rights event while at Morehouse?" Or I might ask if he had friends who did. Or I might ask if he ever regreetted not getting involved, especually after the Freedom Summer of 1964, which was a media breakthrough for the movement. But that's why I am not an aggressive journalist. That's why I don't have Lawrence O'Donnell's job. Civil rights era questions at 07:20:And if you thought O'Donnell was blunt and to the point, check out Martin Bashir laying a massive smackdown on CNN International (H/T We Are Respectable Negroes).
For all the shit Democrats have had to go through after volunteering their service and putting their asses on the line (both Al Gore and John Kerry volunteered for Vietnam and skipped the draft lottery process), should the news media be giving a pass to candidates who almost boast about sitting out opportunities to put themselves on the line?
It is obvious that the book passage (which seems very random, sandwiched betweeen other little stories from Cain's teenage years) was meant to reassure the GOP and potential voters that he is not a rebellous black man. He's no community organizer. He never flirted with liberation theology or black power. He's a corporate manager. And he is runnign to protect corporate interests. The GOP need not fear the color of his skin. They'll just have to put up with his volunteer peanut gallery (which can be heard in the O'Donnell interview videos).