Emily Dickson’s famous line, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” could have had the film “The Butler” in mind. I didn’t know very much about this movie when I found my way to my seat in that darkened theatre. But I was in for a surprise. Before our eyes there unfolded really a mini-history of the civil rights movement in our time. Having lived through those pre-integration days in Georgia—I felt being pulled back into a story—much of which I had forgotten. I went to an all-white public school(s)—I went to a lily-white Baptist Church—I traveled to Birmingham to an all-white college. The only black faces we saw were Rivers the old janitor and the black woman who cleaned our dorm.
Down in Montgomery just a hundred miles away history was breaking open a whole new chapter in all our lives. But during the Bus Boycotts, the Freedom rides, the bombing of Dr. King’s house in Birmingham I was mostly ignorant. I was busy learning how to be cool smoking cigarettes, looking for girls and hoping to pass my subjects. I do remember picking up a copy of Stride Toward Freedom where Martin Luther King told of the Bus Boycotts. I do remember the first black person I ever met on an equal level way up in New Jersey where I worked as a camp counselor. I remember thinking he seemed just like us. We could even kid him about his blackness and he could kid us about our Alabama whiteness. We stood on equal footing and I was pleasantly surprised.
But civil rights did not really sink it until years ago when I began to see injustice on every corner of this country. I knew so little about the wonderful black woman who kept my brother and me and had to leave her seven children at home. I never wondered why Shine, our aging shoeshine boy didn’t get another job. Nor did I know that across the street in the mill the black faces could only clean toilets and sweep under the looms—never coming close to what the white workers made—and that was a pittance itself.
But slowly my eyes were opened. At Seminary I did hear the great King speak one morning in our chapel. The President was almost fired for that invitation. But I still remember something big and important began to dawn on me when Dr. King said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” I shook his hand that morning. And every time I heard him speak I always felt like I had to get up and do something. And so when I was called to my first church I preached about justice knowing full well there was not a black face within ten miles of my rural church in Western Kentucky.
And so when I saw this remarkable film, “The Butler” last week it took me back, way back. Lee Daniel’s the Director told this moving story slant. We look through the eyes of a black little boy in the South who grew up under the terror and violence that so many black folk faced then. This black man grew up and finally landed a job as a White House butler in 1957 (Which was the year I finished college.) He served eight Presidents over three decades. Forest Whitaker is marvelous in his part as the Butler. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife in a fine understated way. Why, I forget she was Oprah. But the film grabs us by the heart and leads us through that turbulent time through the life of the Butler and his family. I won’t spoil the movie for you. But I would say I recommend this film to everybody. Young folk would learn a lot about the early days of the movement. Older folk will be reminded of all sorts of things we forgot.
I appreciate Mr. Daniel’s and his crew in making this splendid movie. As the film ended and we sat there in the darkness I felt myself wiping away the tears. Tears that recalled injustice—tears of thanksgiving for how far we have come. Tears for how far we still need to go.