Nathan Phillips, right, is seen drumming in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a widely-seen and widely-condemned incident in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2019. Still image

Kevin Abourezk: America still seems divided by race and politics

By Kevin Abourezk

Two images, separated by decades and countless landmark moments in between – America’s first black president, the desegregation of our public schools and the election of America’s first Native congresswomen.

In the 1957 photograph, a black teenage girl carries books as she walks past a crowd of people. Behind her, a white teenage girl is snarling, nearly every tooth in her mouth visible, as if she’s about to attack the school girl.

The black teenager is Elizabeth Eckford, and she is about to become one of the first black students to enter the first desegregated school in the South. The teenager behind her is Hazel Bryan, and both girls are 15 years old.

The second image is from just a few days ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In that image, an older Native American man is singing and drumming. He stands face-to-face with a teenage white boy who is smiling as his classmates laugh and shout.

Looking back on the iconic 1957 photo, it seems easy to make pronouncements about what the photo said about race relations in America at the time.

Looking at the photo and video taken Friday, it’s not as easy to do so.

With the ability of nearly every cell phone-carrying person to capture an event, the Friday encounter has become a case study in the power of perspective.

Like so many people, when I first saw the footage of Nathan Phillips facing down one of the students from Covington Catholic High School, I felt outrage.

The clip showing the 64-year-old Omaha Nation man pounding a drum and singing, his face just inches from Nicholas Sandmann, the student from Covington Catholic. The two stare at each other, Sandmann smiling and wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, as Phillips sings the American Indian Movement song, an anthem for Native people’s efforts to secure their civil rights. In the background, more students can be seen laughing, chanting and videotaping the encounter.

To many, the scene has come to symbolize America’s growing political and racial divide – the boy’s smile the face of white entitlement, the Native man’s voice the song of the disenfranchised.

But then other footage began to emerge, offering alternate versions of the encounter between Phillips and Sandmann.

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They show the Native man walking up to the crowd of Catholic students and stepping toward Sandmann with his drum in hand. They show a group of Hebrew Israelites – black people who consider themselves descendants of ancient Israelites who adhere to Christianity and Judaism – yelling profanities and insults at both the students and the Native activists.

The students, seemingly incensed by the insults of the Hebrew Israelites, chant a school song and yell insults at the religious extremists. Into this seething cauldron of competing ideologies and bruised egos comes Phillips and a handful of Native activists and supporters.

And while it was initially easy to say the students’ reaction to Phillips was one blatant mocking and smug disrespect, even the harshest critics of perceived white entitlement surely must consider the possibility that the Covington students’ reaction to Phillips was more a product of their inflamed state of mind than of outright racism.

So where is the truth in the now countless videotaped versions of the event last week? It is an elusive question with an even more elusive answer.

Indeed, maybe even the 1957 photo showing Bryan shouting angrily at Eckford as the girl walks to school isn’t as simple as it seems. Bryan has claimed she never felt hatred toward Eckford. She claims she only wanted attention and to be recognized by her peers that morning.

She and Eckford even briefly became friends many years after the incident, though they parted ways when Eckford began to believe Bryan had never fully taken responsibility for her actions on that day in 1957.

A statement posted by the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School in Kansas on January 22, 2019, cites threats of violence against the school after the widely-seen confrontation between students there and Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder.

Just hours after the Friday incident in Washington, the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, condemned the behavior of the school’s students, though the diocese later eased its stance on the incident, saying it would investigate the matter and take “corrective action” if necessary.

For his part, Sandmann has said he never felt hatred toward Phillips or the other Native activists and that he stood his ground and smiled as Phillips sang because he was hoping to defuse the situation.

“I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict,” he said in a statement. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”

In an interview Monday night, Phillips told Indianz.Com that he approached the Catholic students because he also was concerned that tensions between them and the Hebrew Israelites might boil over into violence. He said the Hebrew Israelites had called the Native activists “sell-outs” but the Native people kept their distance from them and left them alone.

By comparison, the Catholic students – who vastly outnumbered the handful of black religious zealots – took a more confrontational approach after the Hebrew Israelites began insulting them, Phillips said.

“Their response was to retaliate and answer hate with hate,” he said.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Nathan Phillips on #MAGA Encounter

As he looked at the growing crowd of students and chaperones, Phillips said he began to recollect the jeering faces of white people from past encounters between white people and Civil Rights activists.

He thought of the 1963 encounter between Tougaloo College Professor John Salter and two of his students – one white and one black – while sitting at a lunch counter in a Woolworths in segregated Jackson, Mississippi. In that photo, men pour condiments on the professor and his students while others smile and laugh.

And Phillips thought of young Elizabeth Eckford walking into Little Rock Central High as Bryan sneered behind her.

In that moment, Phillips said, he decided to defend the religious extremists’ right to free speech by approaching the Catholic students. But before he did, he grabbed what he considers an instrument of prayer.

“You know, that drum is an instrument to talk to God,” he said. “It’s an instrument of healing.”

As he waded into the crowd of students, he said the students began turning their anger and insults at him, yelling “Build that wall” and making tomahawk chops with their hands. And, he said, they began to mock his song.

Eventually, he decided to continue walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but Sandmann blocked his path and he found himself face-to-face with the grinning teenager. He kept singing, hoping his song might ease tensions.

His song finished, he turned and walked away.

When video footage of the encounter went viral, Phillips found himself at the center of a contentious debate over race relations and, later, what some consider deceptive media coverage.

Even many Native people have taken the stance that the cause of the public outcry over the incident is unfair media coverage, some going so far as to say the liberal media has intentionally attempted to spin the story to demonize a group of Catholic high school students and portray their behavior as indicative of the biases and prejudices of the conservative right.

While I can’t defend every media outlet and how they covered this event, I can say I approached the story initially using the only evidence I had of the incident – the first video clips showing the face-to-face encounter between Phillips and Sandmann.

And as each follow-up video clip showing the incident from different angles was published, I tried to adjust the narrative I was presenting to reflect the new information.

As a 20-year veteran journalist, I tend to resist attempts to demean the media as intentionally deceptive because I know telling stories inevitably involves framing an event through the lens of available evidence and willing subjects. As reporters, we only know what we are told and shown.

When it comes to reporting public incidents, such as the one that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial last week, we typically have access to the same information as the public.

And I think it’s disingenuous to blame the media for its initial reaction to the first video clips. Who among us can say we weren’t outraged when we saw the grinning face of Sandmann and the laughter of his classmates as they faced Phillips?

Dr. Martin Luther King delivers his famous "I Have A Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Photo: Rowland Scherman / U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service

Reporters are human, too. Most of us got into this business because we want to make a difference, to help people by bringing the light of journalism to the dark corners of the world.

By and large, journalism pays little, but I also believe it is one of the most powerful forces for justice in a free society.

While I can’t defend all media outlets, the best purveyors of the American narrative have altered their coverage of Friday’s encounter as new details have emerged.

They’re doing the best they can, given the information available to them.

So who is to blame for Friday’s clash of cultures on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?

Honestly, I don’t think anyone is to blame, because I don’t know that anyone acted out of pure hatred.

I think the students were incensed over the insults hurled at them by the religious extremists and turned that frustration toward Phillips and his fellow activists, and maybe they weren’t completely wrong to do so. Phillips understood the potential impact of his actions. Indeed, he said he stepped forward in defense of the religious extremists’ right to free speech.

That said, I think the students’ reactions to Phillips were unfortunate, and no amount of newly revealed footage can refute the students’ awkward attempts to sing along with the Native elder or to dance to his music rather than to simply stop and listen to his song.

And maybe that’s the only real regret I have, that Phillips and Sandmann couldn’t have met in an America undivided by race and politics, in a land transformed by the lessons of its past.

Maybe such a meeting is still possible. Indeed, Phillips has offered to visit Covington Catholic High School to discuss issues of race and diversity.

But should such a meeting take place, it seems true healing can only occur when both sides take responsibility for their roles in the conflict that led them there.

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