Remembrance of things past. Before the Beatles, before Woodstock, in
the 50’s and 60’s of an Elvis Presley era, I remember a hot Texas summer
night – no air conditioner, no TV, Hank Williams on the radio (the original,
not the ‘junior’) with sporadic news of civil rights demonstrations in the
South, interweaving with the chink-chink of the country music sounds. Let’s
say it was 1959, 1961, or some such year.
I was just a kid as I recall my uncle saying something to the effect that he
wished he could go to Alabama, Mississippi, or wherever disturbances were
happening at that moment. He was a bit agitated about it. I knew something
about those demonstrations, reading of them in Life magazine, that visual
surrogate for those of us who didn’t have a TV.
Palin. I don’t have a clue.
It was the pictures I recall the most: The hate on the face of Sheriff Bull
Connor, the rigid face of Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway
confronting the Attorney General of the US at the University of Alabama.
These searing images were matched in intensity only by the terror on the
faces of a row of black children walking to their first day in a
desegregated school in Mississippi. A tough job, but somebody had to do it –
and the children did it.
I was very moved by those pictures and, because no one ever talked about it
in my house, I assumed everyone else felt the same silent outrage. They
didn’t. My uncle didn’t. I quickly realized that when he said he wanted to
go South, this hot-tempered Cajun meant he wanted to kick some
African-American ass (he used a more quaint term). These sentiments were so
commonplace they were totally unremarkable in my childhood neck of the
That was then, this is now. Now…we have a candidate for the President of the
United States saying that he vows to ‘whip’ Obama’s ‘you know what.’ We have
a Vice Presidential candidate saying ‘I am just so fearful that this is not
a man who sees America the way you and I see America.’ Care to spell that
out? At the rallies in which these sentiments were voiced, no one calmly
questioned ‘what exactly do you mean by that?’ The response instead was a
raucous ‘kill him,’ ‘treason.’
Language matters. An article in last month’s New York Times reminds
us that in the South of the past, certain words were commonly used and
understood as codes for vilification and license to violence. Last month,
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland from Georgia, described the Obamas as ‘uppity.’ When
challenged on this usage later, Westmoreland backpedaled by saying that the
dictionary definition carried no racial meaning. Strictly speaking, true.
But that word has a meaning and force that every person in the South knows.
The dictionary meaning may be neutral, but the colloquial connotation has
always been crystal clear.
The term ‘uppity’ was applied to black people who were confident and
articulate in things that mattered. It was a potent word and handy
incitement for lynchings, burnings, and other assorted southern amusements.
The accumulated intensity of that word sparked a race riot in Tulsa,
Oklahoma, in 1921, in which a white mob nearly eradicated the most affluent
black community (Greenwood) in the US.
It gets worse: In Sarah Palin’s convention speech, she used an unattributed
quote from the late, fake-populist journalist, Westbrook Pegler. Since the
1930’s, Pegler had been known as an unabashed anti-semite and racist. So
much so that he was bounced from the Journal of the John Birch Society in
1964 for alleged anti-semitism. That’s so far out you can’t even see it.
In the 1960’s, Pegler had a wish for then presidential candidate Bobby
Kennedy: ‘Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful
of brains in public premises before the snow falls.’ And it was so
accomplished before the snow fell, in June 1968, although not by a ‘white
patriot of the Southern tier.’ Shouldn’t someone have told Palin about
Pegler? Would it have mattered to her if they had?
And then there was the man in the audience last week at a Johnstown,
Pennsylvania, rally, grinning as he held up a stuffed monkey doll with an
Obama bumper sticker wrapped around its forehead. CBS News caught this one
‘What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in
American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred
and division....’ This is the recent opinion of John Lewis, Congressman from
Georgia. He should know something about verbal and physical abuse in that
‘destructive period in American history.’ His skull was fractured by police
while on the now infamous Selma, Alabama, freedom march in 1965.
Are these recent campaign antics trivial? David Gergen, the soul of moderate
concerned journalism, remarked on ‘all this anger out there… There is this
free-floating sort of whipping-around anger that could really lead to some
violence. I think we’re not far from that.’
Foreseeing such, America’s Homeland Security Secretary, after consultation
with Congress, gave Obama Secret Service protection earlier than any other
presidential candidate in American history, some eight months before the
first Democratic primaries.
Remembrance of things past – America’s ‘60’s. Now, the story of O, the
stories of all the O’s. In order to get through this difficult period in
American campaign history without incident, those in positions of leadership
have to say ‘enough’ to the language of threadbare disguised hatred and
violence. It’s appalling, dangerous and beneath us.