By R.L. Witter
His name is befitting. Jonathan Capehart dons his cape of logic, intelligence, and civility to combat racism, ignorance, and injustice everywhere through his writings in The Washington Post, his regular appearances on MSNBC, and his podcast, Cape Up. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has also reached near iconic status on Black Twitter with his quick, snappy comebacks and eloquent, thought-provoking commentary delivered via tweets in 280 characters or less (or multiples thereof).
While some saw the announcement of Capehart being the keynote speaker at the historic Bethany Baptist Church’s MLK service as an opportunity to star gaze, those in the know were filled with excitement at the prospect of seeing Capehart “Cape Up” live and in person.
His friendly demeanor and easy smile belie the deep reverence that fills him when the topic of civil rights is mentioned. His voice rises and falls; it trembles and resonates as he discusses the historic issues that are somehow
and sadly, still all too current and topical. “All these people going to see Marvel movies and superheroes—yeah, I would love it if Bethany Baptist, New Canaan, Ebenezer, or 16th Street Baptist Church took on the superhero mantle and said, ‘We’ve got a strong history here,’” he mused. “‘You can squeal about Thor, Aquaman, and all these people, but let me tell you about this person and this heroic thing this person did.’” And he comes by both his reverence and knowledge honestly. Last spring for three months his Cape Up podcast featured a nine-part series called Voices from the Movement,
which spotlighted nine civil rights-related stories or individuals “to sort of remind people that people forget,
His friendly demeanor and easy smile belie the deep reverence that fills him when the topic of civil rights is mentioned. His voice rises and falls, it trembles and resonates as he discusses the historic issues that are somehow and sadly, still all too current and topical.
there are living beings who lived this stuff who are still with us, who have stories to tell. So, if anyone wants to get a sense of who I am or my reverence for these people, listen to those nine episodes,” he explained. “To be able to sit there with Clarence Jones—I bet a lot of people don’t even know who Clarence Jones is. Well, Clarence Jones was Dr. King’s personal lawyer. He’s the man who visited King in the Birmingham jail and smuggled the letter out. To be able to sit there and talk with him… he [Jones] said, ‘I went to the jail because I needed to talk to Martin about getting these kids out of jail and he kept handing me these scraps of newspaper with all this writing and I kept saying ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s talk about this,’” Capehart explained like a patient, but excited teacher. “He [Jones] couldn’t have cared less about those papers that every time he went to visit, Dr. King was giving him. And it wasn’t until — I think it was Rev. Wyatt T. Walker who got the notes typed up — that he [Jones] sat down and read it and said, ‘Oh my God! This is amazing!’ THAT MAN IS STILL ALIVE.”
Where as a journalist he has to be mindful of partisanship and perceived biases, as a student and aficionado of history and the civil rights movement, his passion comes across as both genuine and abundant. “Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, STILL ALIVE! To sit across from her and listen to her talk about what it was like to integrate a school—the hatred she faced—and how she’s still dealing with it all these decades later, “ he
continued. “It’s amazing to hear their voices talk about these things, to sit across from history. I interviewed Congressman John Lewis, who we’re now all praying for. I’ve had the honor of walking the Edmond Pettis Bridge with
him three times. There are no words to describe what it
Last spring for three months his Cape Up podcast featured a nine-part series called Voices from the Movement which spotlighted nine civil rights-related stories or individuals “to sort of remind people that people forget, there are living beings who lived this stuff who are still with us, who have stories to tell.
was like, especially that first time. Being there with him… trying to visualize what he saw that day—the policemen on horseback and all the people behind him and then to be rushed by law enforcement and clubbed in the
head,” his voice softened and he paused for a moment. “And here we are decades later and I’m standing on that bridge with him. Not a direct descendant of him like a bloodline descendant, but an historical descendant. And now imagine young people, telling them, ‘You do realize, you have in your community and in your lives your own John Lewis; your own Minnijean Brown Trickey; your own Rosa Parks. People who lived it, thought it, and might not talk about it. But imagine what would happen if you just sat down and asked.”
At the time of our interview, Capehart had yet to pen his remarks for the Bethany Baptist service; but the wheels were already turning and the yet-to-come clicking and clacking of his fingers on the keyboard were almost audible. “So I view my role in my remarks is to walk us through where we are now and how the representation of Dr. King is something we need to remind ourselves of and get back to and be mindful there are millions of
people around the country working so hard to make sure we get back to a period in this country where we all know it’s not perfect, but it was damn near more perfect a few years ago than it is right now—” he paused to “excuse” his language. “The role Dr. King played in holding a mirror
up to the nation about what it was doing to its fellow citizens, about hollering the words of those documents back in the faces of the power structure and asking, ‘How can you swear allegiance to these words when there are millions of people who don’t have the right to vote; who are being lynched, maimed, and murdered for even attempting to live up to these ideals?’”
He concluded thoughtfully, putting things into a personal and yet universal perspective: “I think younger generations have to understand as bad as things are now, my 78-year-old mother and her whole generation have
seen a lot worse, and we cannot forget that. But it could get worse. And so we have to be reminded of the moral leadership and courage of Dr, King and all those regular folks who literally put their bodies on the line so you can sit where you’re sitting, I can sit where I’m sitting; and remember rights, privileges, freedom, and democracy require vigilance, require protection, and require everyone to do their part to ensure our rights and freedoms are maintained.”