I have always had a soft spot for Clark Griswold. Maybe because I am Clark Griswold. The extremely talented Harold Ramis began chronicling Clark’s adventures through the minefield of American family life with the 1983 classic Vacation. And for those of you who are sympathizing for Steve seeing himself as the hapless American father, remember that in Vacation Clark got to sleep with Beverly D’Angelo and skinny dip with Christie Brinkley. Not to mention having Wally World opened wide for just his family. Those facts justify Clark’s indefatigable optimism; in the land of opportunity things usually work out for the best if you just have the perseverance to see things through. Clark’s sunny outlook reflects mine own.
That optimism flows in large part from the land where I was lucky enough to be born. I have never confused America with utopia, but I have always been confident that under the Stars and Stripes the good outweighed the bad by a larger margin than any civilization ever conceived.
Vacation and Clark came to mind over the past few weeks as we found ourselves at each other’s throats with race as the reason. The Griswold’s first stop on their American adventure was East St. Louis. For those not familiar with the geography, East St. Louis is in Illinois, across the Mississippi river from downtown St. Louis in Missouri. East St. Louis is almost entirely African-American and one of the poorest cities in America. To many, East St. Louis has one redeeming feature-a stunning view of the Gateway Arch, the country’s largest monument and symbol of our westward expansion. Of course the wide expanse of water that the Arch covers symbolizes different things to different people. In St. Louis the river remains a line of demarcation, opportunity on the West bank and struggle on the East side.
You probably remember the scene: Clark inevitably takes a wrong turn and steers the ultimate white-bread family into the ultimate ghetto. We focus on Clark as the protagonist and his dopiness is on full comedic display. But the gag relies on a racist’s dream display of the worst type. East St. Louis is full of black people; ergo the town is full of pimps, street smart con men and thieves. The Griswolds barely escape with their lives and without their hubcaps. Before his too early passing, Ramis expressed regret about the scene’s inclusion in the movie. The scene can still make you laugh, but if it is not an uncomfortable laugh, you have not been paying attention.
The juxtaposition becomes more troubling when considering East St. Louis’ history. Exactly 103 years ago today, East St. Louis lay in ruins, with hundreds dead as the result of a three-day racial pogrom. From a macro perspective, the riot had been building for centuries; from the micro perspective, St. Louis in particular had been a tinderbox waiting for a flame all year.
A World War raged and America had to that point been more of a beneficiary than anything else. There is money to be made in war and American industrialists smelled that money. To make things, particularly in the early 20th century, one needed labor. The cheaper the better. That need conflicted with the burgeoning labor movement. St. Louis was a major manufacturing hub and 1917 saw repeated labor strikes. The manufacturers’ answer to demands for a living wage was to hire black workers who were too close to the starvation line to be so demanding. To make matters “worse” from the established workers’ point of view was the fact that after the strikes settled, the owners kept many of the African Americans employed, working side-by-side with the white workers who saw only that their wages were lower than they should be and that their neighbors were unemployed because of the interlopers.
Violence was the sure result and riots first happened in May, precipitated by a local lawyer who ended an oration to a gathered crowd with a sentence that is both weird and too often true: “As far as I know, there is no law against mob violence.” The governor called in the National Guard, order was restored and an uneasy truce prevailed. Sentiments remained inflamed and rumors were the order of the day, particularly the old trope of black men and white women. As that particular July 4th approached, many residents of East St. Louis believed that the holiday would bring renewed attacks.
That belief gained credence when a Model T rolled into East St. Louis on July 2, bearing armed white men who fired indiscriminately into the homes of black residents. Two white policeman and an accompanying journalist responded to a request to investigate. Apparently mistaking the second Model T for the first, someone “returned fire” and killed the two officers. The city exploded.
Vigilantes stormed East St. Louis intent of solving the “Negro problem.” The Guard was called in again, but this time the commanding officer took the position that he had no orders other than being there; his men simply stood by as the mob shot, stabbed and bludgeoned any black person they could find. When the residents retreated to their homes, the fires began in an attempt to burn them out. Thousands escaped over a bridge. The vigilantes soon enough blocked access to that retreat and many of those remaining resorted to hastily constructed rafts or just desperate attempts to swim the Mississippi river.
Josephine Baker was to become an international renowned performer famous for her refusal to perform for segregated audiences. On that day she was terrified teenager praying to survive:
As an aside, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King asked Josephine Baker to become the face of the movement. Ms. Baker declined, citing the need to keep her family safe. Most assumed that the violence that ended Rev. King’s life motivated that decision. I imagine, however, that Ms. Baker had other horrors in mind.
For some unknown reason, a group of guardsman finally had seen enough and dispersed a group attempting a lynching; law and order slowly returned. The town, however, lay in ruins, as did the dreams of a better life that so many residents had started to see come true with the factory jobs that had come their way only months earlier. July 4, 1917 was no time to celebrate anything, even as the President was insisting that America would make the “world safe for democracy.”
The riots occurred 66 years before Clark Griswold rolled his green station wagon into East St. Louis. In truth, there were people sitting on the porch steps of the real East St. Louis who had lived the events of 1917. Is it surprising that the scars run so deep? Worse yet, the East St. Louis riots presaged the resurgence of the Klan and an intense racial divide that left millions of American citizens not just economically disadvantaged, but afraid for their lives if they dared to vote, ask for a decent school for their children or a job that was something other than menial labor. Is it surprising that the scars run so deep? The law basically sanctioned this oppression until at least the mid-1960’s and many-even today-will ignore the law in favor of custom. Is it surprising that the scars run so deep?
Every year, I celebrate this holiday with a reminder of American greatness; it is my method of giving thanks. This year presents such a challenge; our lack of “unitedness” is self-evident. The battle fostered by our original sin has erupted again with fury. The ruins of East St. Louis stand as a testament to the fact that similar battles can transform from tactical struggles for power into chaos fueled by nothing but rage with no good coming from it. We are dangerously close to that tipping point.
More than anything else, the knee on George Floyd’s neck reminded me that the our central concept and most “self-evident” truth, that all men are created equal, is still a dream deferred.244 years later.
But I am Clark Griswold and despite the injustice, the rage and the loss of rationality, I remain an irredeemable optimist about America. Our founders were flawed human beings but so are we all. What set those founders apart, the essence of their brilliance, lies not in the creation of a perfect and just society but in giving us the tools to build that more perfect world. Today of all days our focus needs to be on what will be accomplished as the moral arc of America bends towards justice.
I know all this is easy for me to say because I have not suffered. If my sentiment rings hollow to some, so be it and my apologies. All I can say is yes, I realize that Clark and I do not have to live in East St. Louis or the many towns and neighborhoods that bear the scars that run so deep. I can only tell those who do live there that “all men are created equal” is my dream too. Together we can get there, apart the river will always keep us from getting home.