Only a pawn in their game

Medgar Evers. Legacy.com

In a recent tweet, pithy and to the point, Dr. Oni Blackstock reminded us that: “Intersectionality is not just the concept of intersecting identities. Intersectionality is specifically about the intersection of marginalized identities and how intersecting systems of oppression serve to further marginalize and disempower.”

I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that, except perhaps to say that marginalisation is more indiscriminate than we imagine, and sometimes mocks the categories and identities that we set up.

On the 12th of June 1963, WW2 veteran and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered outside his own home in Jackson, Mississippi. He was buried with full military honours in Arlington Cemetery, on the 19th of June. His murderer, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, evaded punishment until 1994, when he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 2001.

Bob Dylan commemorated the murder of Medgar Evers in his song ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’. In order to make it a piece of social commentary, however, he fictionalised and anonymised his murderer. He did so to remind us that systems of oppression do not simply exert oppression, they also contain it. The ‘poor white’ of Dylan’s ballad is at the bottom of the social heap, but his marginalisation within the system means that he can be easily recruited as a foot soldier in the exertion of that external oppression – the familiar concept of victim becoming victimiser.

Though the message of the song was specific to the era of Civil Rights protests, it has new resonances now. The concept amongst the resurgent nationalist and supremacist right, that they have been forgotten and pushed to the back of the queue, may be more tenuous than it was back in the days of “poverty shacks,” but the rhetoric of the powerful – the billionaire and Eton-bred politicians – has been tailored to incite them to push back at the advances that the likes of Medgar Evers died in the struggle for. This is something we need to keep in mind.

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