Inside the numbers: Race

Posted: Jul 01, 2003 12:00 AM

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and the flamboyant ex-governor of Georgia Lester Maddox, have been remembered -- perhaps to excess -- for their outdated stands on racial integration.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.

Less obvious was the redemption of Lester Maddox. In an interview for this column just a year and a half ago, Maddox said he didn't have a "racist bone in my body." He also said that if his actions had hurt anyone's feelings, it was unintended and would cause him great pain. Where Maddox and Thurmond differed -- for better or worse -- was in Maddox's refusal to view as wrong his defense of what he believed to be his right to keep segregated a restaurant he owned in the early 1960s. He saw the matter as a defense of his "personal property rights" in a day when, sadly, few eating establishments in Georgia would serve blacks.

In Maynard Jackson we have a symbol of the progress blacks made in politics and business during the turmoil of the '60s and '70s. That's when Jackson became the first African-American mayor of a major Southern city. Jackson parlayed that position into a career as one of the nation's most influential Democratic leaders.

Despite the significance of these men's lives and the eras in which they lived, it's clear from our survey that most who live in places like Georgia have seen and heard too much in the media about race relations. That doesn't mean most of them don't care about issues like bias or bigotry. Indeed, there are forms of discrimination against all types of Americans. Today, the largest minority group in the United States is Hispanics. They have their own struggles as they seek social and political recognition.

The easing of the tone on race relations was nicely embodied in the quiet actions of former President Jimmy Carter this past week. Rather than grandstand, Carter spoke eloquently of Mayor Jackson at the viewing of his body at the Atlanta City Hall. And in an act of grace, he tenderly gave comfort two days later day to members of the Maddox family in a private meeting at the Georgia capitol. He did this, despite Maddox's well-known and outspoken resentment of Carter for his having embraced Maddox to get elected as Georgia governor, only later to move far beyond the shadows of the Old South as president.

Carter's ability to rise above memories of the past and his refusal to capitalize on the loss of a leader reflects his wisdom and understanding that while racial issues are important, they should not obscure the dignity of those who pass away. As our polling indicates, I think readers sometimes would like to read about forgiveness, instead of yet another round of racially charged language at inappropriate moments.