In 1982, Meryl Streep stared in the film Sophie’s Choice, playing a survivor of Auschwitz. Sophie, the mother of two small children, boy and girl, unfortunately lives in Poland when Hitler decides to invade the country. Lebensraum. “‘I want to be a prophet once more today,’” Hitler tells the German parliament in 1939 (Bloodlands), so those sufferers of his fascist pogrom, be damned! The Jews must be annihilated! And since some 98% of the Jewish race lived beyond Germany’s borders, “most of them in Poland and the western Soviet Union,” Hitler considers the presence of Jews a good excuse to march and collect land on the way to the east.
Sophie and her children are along the way toward a fascist victory. She and her children aren’t Jewish, but she is swept up along with her children and taken on a train to Auschwitz. There, standing before the entrance, she encounters an SS doctor. He notes, no doubt, her blood hair.
The doctor’s grin fills the screen. He looks closely in her eyes. Is she sufficiently terrified?
The viewer knows. Sophie suspects. She clutches the little girl in her arm and with the other hand, holds on tighter to the boy. The children know too. There in the dead of night, standing in one of the lines among so many others, is Sophie and her children. All alone.
Sophie tries to smile. The doctor seems to move in closer to Sophie’s face. He speaks to her, and she speaks back in German. She’s nervous, but it’s perfect German. But what does this matter to the smirk-face that fills the screen.
The SS doctor has an agenda!
The smirk-face speaks. She has to pick one. Not one apple on a cart, not one question on a test, not one street to walk down. Pick one child! Pick one child—to turn over to him! Now!
The screen fills with Sophie terrified face. She seems confused and not so confused. She’s shaking her head in disbelief. Maybe he thinks she’s Jewish. She’s not Jewish. She speaks German.
Choice one. “‘Bitte?’” I can’t!
She can’t! She can’t! She can’t! And the girl we see in her arms, the little girl sharing the screen with her mother is lifted away from her mother. Screaming mother and screaming, the victims of those bound to fascism.
Fascism was a real thing in the United States long before Hitler’s rise to power. Not semi-fascism! Not just participants at fascist rallies, carrying Nazi flags, and saluting still photos of Hitler. Fascists had a long history of targeting their "enemies" in the United States from the beginning. Democracy didn’t sit well in the US ever since Indigenous people stood to impede the way of “progress.” Kidnapped and shipped to the New World, Africans and their descendants would ensure “progress” for the “superior” race.
Americans were “well aware of the actual ‘anti-Negro’ activities taking place’” in 1922, writes historian Sarah Churchwell. The poet T. S. Eliot wished the Southern Agrarians good luck in returning the South to the good old days when Negroes were in the fields and not walking free on American streets. Lynching, in the meantime, would just have to do!
While many in the press, including President Harding, condemned the practice of lynching to force Blacks to submit to a state of invisibility, the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill “still had a hard time in Congress,” writes Churchwell. The anti-lynching bill offended Southern Democrats. Not a single legislation will be enacted if the bill passes the senate! Two hundred anti-lynching bills followed. All were defeated.
The US senate imagined an America in which Blacks, accepting the ideology of white supremacy, would just march themselves back to the plantations!
Instead, on June 14, 1922, Black Americans marched in Washington DC. A Silent March on Washington is what it’s called. A march to protest, as the Boston Globe points out in an editorial, “the right to lynch” Black people in America! The pushback continues. Eight years later, three years before Hitler takes control of the German government, some 7,000 American Fascists stage a parade in Atlanta, writes Churchwell. The American fascist carry banners reading, “‘Back to the cotton patch, N-----.’” “‘It needs you; we don’t!’”
A year into Hitler’s reign, in 1934, American fascists, some 20,000 strong, calling themselves “Friends of New Germany,” rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Many cheer Hitler.
That year, the Daily Eagle’s headlines, “‘Americans, Awake! Your indifference to this Nazi menace might result in almost anything,’” called attention to the lovers of fascism in America. Nonetheless, lynching continued.
A Black man is given a choice, help load the mutilated body of the child onto a truck so the murderers, grown men, can take it to the Tallahatchie River for disposal. Or else… And the child? Emmett Till. Fourteen years old. Tortured in a Mississippi barn.
Despite bombings of homes and places of business, the Civil Rights Movement refuses to choose between fascism and democracy. Terrorism picks up steam. Majority Black towns become white over night once Black residents, driven to run out of town, leave what they own behind. Others are murdered trying to escape torched homes.
By May, 1963, democracy takes to the streets. Black children, singing and clapping as they march though Kelly Ingram Park near the 16th Baptist Church, encounter the iron fist of police commissioner, Bull Connor, and his foot soldiers. Law enforcers and vigilantes are armed with dogs and fire hoses. Imagine the grin on Connor’s face as he watches grown men tearing the skin of children who are simply demanding the right to make democracy more than a slogan.
On September 15, 1963, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Black children are in the basement, preparing for Sunday school. It’s not long after the federal government orders the desegregation of Alabama’s schools.
Right-winged politicians, Evangelical leaders, educators, judges, and a good many Americans would prefer the complete disappearance of an American history that suggest the country’s likeness to that SS doctor in Sophie’s Choice and his ideological principles. Even before the chanting and saluting at Madison Square Garden, keeping the ideology of white supremacy alive was very much a goal for the “patriotic”! And “patriots” such as Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton, and Bobby Frank Cherry carried out their role in the plan to keep white supremacy alive.
Fifteen sticks of dynamite! Not just to inflict injury or death but to terrify a whole people! To terrify enemies! Grown men, so childlike with their strange ideas! One of them calls, warning parishioners: Fifteen minutes. Ten minutes. But how are the adults at the church to know?
At 10:19 am, the parishioners heard the blast. Some twenty are injured. Some experience life-changing injuries. In the basement, near where the bomb was set, the rescuers locate the bodies of four children. One had a concrete slab embedded in her head. Innocent and playful. Children.
Addie May Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11.
It’s not only in the movies.
According to the New York Times, Chambliss wasn’t convicted until 1977, 14 years after that September day in 1963. He’s sentenced to life but dies in prison in 1985. In 2000, thirty-seven years later after the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church, long-time suspects, Blanton and Cherry are finally held accountable for the devastation to lives. Black lives.
Doug Jones, former US Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District, recalls watching Blanton as the man showed no remorse, “no acceptance of responsibility.” He never bothered to reach out to the families of the girls killed.
No, it’s not only in the movies.