June 10, 2009, was supposed to be a regular day of writing, with the occasional television appearance thrown in. But I was really looking forward to the evening debut at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum of “Anne & Emmett,” a powerful one-act play written by Emmy-nominated journalist Janet Langhart Cohen and produced by her husband, former secretary of defense William Cohen. It is the imagined conversation between two victims of hate: Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who died in one of Adolf Hitler’s death camps, Auschwitz, and Emmett Till, a black boy murdered by two white men in 1955 for whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss.
James W. von Brunn would stop the show. The 88-year-old white supremacist chose that afternoon to open fire in the lobby of the museum. Stephen T. Johns, a security guard there for six years, was killed. Von Brunn died almost seven months later at a hospital near his North Carolina prison.
But the show finally did go on. Last week, “Anne & Emmett” was performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District. “Anne” and “Emmett” tell their stories. They talk about their childhoods and what their lives were like. And they talk about their murders and the cloud of hate that not only made their killings possible but also condoned them. And throughout the retelling and reliving of their experiences, “Anne” and “Emmett” do something I wish more of us would do. They listened to each other. By listening to each other, they saw the parallels in their experiences, the hate they faced and the suffering they endured.
Only by listening to each other will the reconciliation and healing we desperately need as a nation be possible. But the news of late shows how far we are from achieving that (utopian?) goal. We have Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.), a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, who feels no need to discuss his views on race despite the revelation that he and his family rented a hunting camp widely known as “Niggerhead.” It is widely believed that Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) declined not to make the run himself because he could not find a way to talk convincingly about race given his past statements on the civil rights movement and white citizens councils. And Herman Cain (as well as some of his most ardent supporters) uses accusations of racism as a weapon against those trying to hold him accountable for the sexual-harassment allegations against him. What Cain and his supporters are doing does nothing to advance the goals of healing, understanding and reconciliation.
Cain and others claim that liberals can’t stand a strong, conservative black man. That they are threatened by one who thinks for himself. One who has left the so-called Democrat Plantation. No, Mr. Cain, what folks can’t stand is a person so woefully unprepared for the task of running for president, let alone being president, demanding that he not be held to the highest standards.
“Libruls” and others once cast their eyes on another strong, conservative black man. A man with a sterling reputation, a record of proven leadership and bipartisan appeal. A man people wanted to make a historic run for president 15 years ago but who opted not to in part due to concerns for his safety. A man who would have given the popular President Bill Clinton a run for his money. That man sat in the row in front of me at “Anne & Emmett.” His name is Colin Powell, retired four-star general, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former secretary of state.
Powell embodies everything Cain is not. That the former Godfather’s Pizza chief is a front-runner for the nomination shows how far the GOP has run off the rails.