This past week witnessed the deaths of three prominent Southern politicians from years gone by. Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson was best known for helping to advance the political fortunes of African Americans. The other two, former U.S. Senate powerhouse Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and the flamboyant ex-governor of Georgia Lester Maddox, have been remembered -- perhaps to excess -- for their outdated stands on racial integration. To top it off, these deaths brought out the essence of good taste and moderation in the most famous Southern politician in decades -- Jimmy Carter -- as he paid his respects to all three.
These events shed new light on the results of our recent polling in the Deep South's second-largest state, Georgia. In a survey conducted late last year, we asked residents of Jackson and Maddox's home state if they were tired of constantly reading and hearing about race relations. Over 70 percent said yes.
I suspect the questions would be answered much the same in other states where racial issues dominate the press, but not the minds of their residents. As evidence, look at last week's hazy decisions on affirmative action by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices said some forms of racial preference are acceptable in the formation of admissions policy at the nation's universities. But the issue sparked little discussion on the water cooler circuit.
The lives and deaths of Jackson, Maddox and Thurmond illustrate the differences between today's social and political landscape and that of the Civil Rights era, a time that was complicated, controversial and more inflexible than anything we see now.
Thurmond was perhaps the strongest national symbol of the segregationist position during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. But those who seek to paint him in their convoluted headlines and bios as a "former segregationist" missed the point. Thurmond's apology and actions over the decades that followed those turbulent years more than satisfied the terms of a mea culpa. The overwhelmingly bipartisan affection demonstrated by his Senate colleagues should be enough to symbolize his greatness.