Today’s Republicans & 1960s Segregationists: Peas in a Pod

As a native Southerner, I’m sensitive to signs that current politics is mimicking the period of segregation and Jim Crow laws. I started noting three years ago that the rise of Donald Trump and his Republicans seem to have taken us back 60 years in time, to the days before the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s.

What has really riveted me is the similarity between so many of Trump’s followers and the supposedly “moderate” white Southerners back then. Most white Southerners who preached the gospel of “segregation today, segregation, tomorrow, segregation forever” would have recoiled at being labeled racists. Segregation, they would say, was a perfectly legitimate institution, one that served the interests of both blacks and white.

And those white Southerners declared they were appalled at the violence being wrought in the name of segregation. “Why,” they would say, “I have nothing to do with the killings, the lynchings, the bombings, the beatings. I condemn those acts being committed by extremists like the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Councils, the crazies. I’m just for segregation. I don’t condone violence.”

This mentality lives again in the hearts and souls of Trumpist Republicans. I call them the tut-tut Trumpists. Trump says or does some despicable thing—like bragging about sexually assaulting women, using racist slurs, kidnapping thousands of children, calling foreign countries shitholes and a female a dog, praising neo-fascist marchers in Charlottesville—and Republicans, say, tut-tut, he shouldn’t have said or done that—and go right on supporting him.

Paul Ryan is the champion practitioner of this hypocrisy. Accompanied by Georgia Republicans and, apparently, a goodly proportion of the pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Citizen, I have been reminded of a voice that expressed these thought with much more insight and eloquence than I can muster, during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. His name was Eugene Patterson, then the Executive Editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, where he wrote a signed newspaper editorial every day for eight years. He and the AJC editor and publisher, Ralph McGill, were two of the loudest denouncers of segregation and Jim Crow at a time such views could get you killed. (See “The South and the Southerner,” by Ralph McGill, foreword by Eugene Patterson; and “Ralph McGill, Reporter,” by Harold H. Martin.)

In 1963, a bomb went off in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a hub of civil rights activism, killing three 14 year-old black female children and one 11 year-old. Patterson wrote a classic commentary exposing without mercy the complicity of all pro-segregation white Southerners in this horrific crime.  On the anniversary of the bombing, the SPLC re-issued Patterson’s words, noting “they could almost apply to the circumstances we find ourselves in today.” My only footnote: strike the word “almost.”

–Tom Barksdale 9/17/18

‘A Flower for the Graves’

By Eugene Patterson – September 16, 1963

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner – you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We – who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We – who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We – who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We – the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition – we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.

He didn’t know any better.

Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.

We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.

We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.

We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.

Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.

We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.

The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.

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