When the Truth Gets in the Way of the Story You Want to Tell
There’s a fascinating episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast that looks at the issue of truth and how we tell it. In the episode, Gladwell explores the history behind a statue in a park in Birmingham, Alabama that has come to be among the most iconic images of the civil rights movement. It’s called “The Foot Soldier of Birmingham” and shows a fearsome looking white police officer turning loose a ferocious wolf-like beast upon a defenseless young black protester. The sculpture was the creation of an artist named Ronald McDowell and is based on a photo taken by Bill Hudson at a protest in Birmingham on a spring day in 1963. It captures in a visceral and devastating way the malevolent racial injustice of the American south at that time. The only problem is that the moment the sculpture is based upon seems not to have happened. At least not that way.
Gladwell starts with the boy in the picture, Walter Gadsden. Turns out, he wasn’t really interested in the civil rights movement. He wasn’t at the protest because of any allegiance to or interest in the civil rights movement. He was skipping school and was curious about the spectacle. The next day, when his parents saw the picture in the paper, they were mostly angry at him for being downtown when he should have been in school.
In subsequent interviews with Gadsden, it’s remarkable how he stubbornly and simply refuses the narrative that his interviewers quite clearly want him to confirm—that of the courageous young civil rights activist who was the victim of white hatred. At the time of the interview, he doesn’t even seem to have much use for the movement or think it brought his family much benefit! He thinks it was full of “crooked people.” And as for the moment in the photo itself, Gadsden says that he and the police officer kind of just randomly bumped into each other while he was trying to leave the area and that the officer, far from being an aggressor, was trying to hold back his dog. Unsurprisingly, Gadsden has little admiration for the statue itself. He says that it doesn’t look like him—the boy in the image looks younger and “blacker” (more “African”) than he is. Gadsden even relies on some awkward stereotypes of “Africans” (bigger lips) that no doubt made the interviewers squirm.
In sum, an iconic statue based on one of the most famous photos of the civil rights movement seems in truth to have been based a moment where a white cop tried to restrain his dog from attacking a black bystander who didn’t have much use for the civil rights movement. Gladwell summarizes by saying that what Gadsden’s interviewer expected was “a heroic civil rights veteran; what she got was a grumpy old man still wedded to the oldest most awkward of black prejudices.”
Even the most cursory glance at the photo alongside the statue would seem to confirm Gadsden’s version of events (if you want to compare larger versions of these two images, check out the Revisionist History site). In the statue, the cop is more sinister looking, the boy smaller and more vulnerable, the dog bigger and more vicious. In the photo, you can see the cop pulling back on the leash while in the statue there’s a healthy amount of slack. The boy in the photo even seems to be leaning on the cop for support. All in all, it seems like what Gadsden said it was—a more or less accidental, if uncomfortable encounter between a curious bystander and a flustered cop and his dog in a general scene of stress and chaos. But that wasn’t the story that the artist wanted to tell. He wanted, in his own words, to tell a story about “nonviolence” and “power imbalance.” And so this is the story he told.
Of course, I desperately hope it goes without saying (but probably doesn’t) that none of the preceding is a commentary on the civil rights movement as such. And it certainly doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of awful stories of power imbalance and heroic nonviolent resistance. The story that “The Foot Soldier of Birmingham” tells was true all over the place in the 1960’s American south and it’s still true all over the place today. But it didn’t tell the truth of that particular moment. And by failing to tell the truth of that moment, I think it tells a very important truth about who we are as human beings and why we tell stories in the way that we do.
Put simply, we don’t like complicated stories. We like our stories cleaned up and sanitized and well tailored for public consumption. We like heroic knights vs. evil villains. We like incorrigible racists and bigots vs. tolerant human rights champions. We like credulous believers vs. rational freethinkers and medieval jihadis vs. freedom fighters. We like damned vs. saved and lazy welfare sponges vs. hardworking taxpayers. We like sinners and saints and darkness and light and red and blue and black and white. And if reality doesn’t serve up the story that we want? If the truth turns out to be a bit blurrier and more inconvenient than we’d prefer? Well, we’ll just tell the story how we want to.
This is who we are and this is how we tell stories. It just is.
There are three sides to every story, the saying goes. Yours, mine, and the truth. Poor truth, so eagerly and easily trampled over in our desperate attempts to confirm the narratives we prefer. Sometimes the truth is simple. Sometimes the lines are clean between good and evil. Indeed, the civil rights movement as a whole is one of these historical moments. But far more frequently the opposite is true. Usually, the truth is hard and ugly and unwieldy and embarrassing and prosaic. It doesn’t sell well and it doesn’t lead to easy and self-congratulatory memes that curry favour on social media.
The truth is… complicated. Just like we who try to tell (or avoid) it are.