In an August 1, 1967, column about President Johnson’s speech on the riots that referenced “’the conditions that breed despair and violence” and “ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs,’” Lawrence noted that on the same day college-educated Hubert G. (Rap) Brown, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, addressed a rally in Washington, where he called on his listeners “to prepare for the ‘black revolution.’” Lawrence noted, “In commenting on the recent killing in Plainfield, N.J., of a white policeman who was shot, stabbed and beaten to death, Brown said this was a ‘beautiful’ example of black people controlling their community.” Lawrence asked why such inciters to violence had not been punished. At a time when even the Gannett Newspapers still published a Bible verse on their editorial pages, Lawrence noted that the President had called for a day of prayer but had not criticized the violation of the Commandments not to kill, steal, or covet, nor condemned the exhortations to violence.
For those who may have been suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement to begin with and of such ironically named groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the riots confirmed their beliefs.
Yet, in 2008, forty-one years later, descendants of the 1960s utopians, remain true believers. In a guest editorial on May 19, a parent of a kindergartner at Franklin Montessori school (a new program at my riot-torn high school alma mater), Santosha Kuykendall, writes, “My daughter does worry primarily about the prospect of being kicked or insulted on the school bus. This worry complicates her school experience and has the potential to diminish her enthusiasm for school.”
But Kuykendall, who is white, writes in the same editorial, that as a result of attending this school, her daughter displays, “a curiosity about American society and government, and a belief in racial justice so profound that she skipped around and shouted for joy when she heard a news announcer declare Barak (sic) Obama the winner of a primary.”
Back in Atlanta, on May 21, I heard an interview with an historian born in 1969, Rick Perlstein, on NPR. In his new book, “Nixonland,” Perlstein attributes the polarization in American politics to President Nixon. Nixon’s 1968 political commercial slogan, “The first civil right is the right to be free from domestic violence,” is diagnosed as fear-mongering. But Perlstein notes that the Watts riots took place five days AFTER the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other affirmative laws like the Open Housing Act—that followed on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that people would demand an end to the rioting is seen by Perlstein as “backlash.” In other words, those who did not get with the program and support even higher taxes for such things as new public housing that was vandalized before it could even be completed were responsible for the political polarization we have today. Nixon, according to Perlstein, exploited their “fears and anxieties,” which in his estimation were irrational.
Over at the New Yorker, in an article in the May 26 edition, George Packer uses Perlstein’s new book as a launch pad into his own analysis titled “The Fall of Conservatism.” He travels to Inez, Kentucky, where Johnson declared his “war on poverty,” and quotes an unnamed “aging mine electrician” eating lunch at the Pigeon Roost Dairy Barn. I think he picks him out because he uses the word, “colored”:
“’He [Obama]’s Muslim isn’t he?’” (derisive shrieks as the double French vanilla cappuccinos are sprayed out) “’I won’t vote for a colored man. He’ll put too many coloreds in jobs. Colored are OK.—they’ve done well, good for them, look where they came from. But radical coloreds, no—like that Farrakhan, or that senator from New York, Rangel. There’d be riots in the streets, like the sixties.’”
“No speech, on race or elitism or anything else, would move them [such people],” Packer laments. Some just can’t be enlightened.
But I think that this “aging mine electrician” displays a lot more understanding of history than the self-satisfied Generation X “historian” on taxpayer-supported radio talking in those condescending tones I’ve heard too many times at academic conference panels on “social justice.” The mine electrician has a point: How much different is the recently deposed Obama spiritual advisor Reverend Jeremiah Wright from H. Rap Brown?