Thursday, June 23, 2011

Such Is The Duality of The Southern Thing

I'm working on one of my insanely long posts, where I try to stitch together a lot of scraps that don't seem to mix. It'll probably take a few days, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post some of the bits and pieces, or at least related items, as a sort of Coming Attractions. Or maybe pieces from the cutting room floor.

Up today: Three of my favorite subjects -- history, politics and music.

The Drive-By Truckers have been one of my favorite bands for years, and their third studio album, Southern Rock Opera, is a masterpiece, a concept album of related songs, on the surface about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but underneath a Bildungsroman (for younger readers, that's a fancy -- but useful -- German literary term for a novel about a person moving from youth to maturity) about what it's like to be a white boy from Alabama, with its complicated heritage of racism, class prejudice, and kickass music.

One of the odd gems of the album is actually two songs blended into a unit -- the recitative “The Three Great Alabama Icons” followed by "Wallace," a gloriously angry and funny song that cheerfully envisions George Wallace in hell.

George Wallace's power era was mainly the 1960s, and he died in 1998, so maybe a little introduction is in order for younger readers. If you think of the '60s as an era of hippies, and civil rights marches, of increasing openness in society, and experimentation in design and the arts, you'd be partially right. But the '60s belonged to George Wallace as much as the hippies, artists, and pacifists. Maybe more so. At the moment, there is certainly more of his legacy in our politics than theirs.

"The Three Great Alabama Icons" gives a great introduction to Wallace, and why he is both important, and one of the more disturbing figures in American history, but I want to add a few details.

He first ran for governor in 1958, speaking out against the Ku Klux Klan. This was brave, but not likely to make you popular in Alabama in late '50s, and he lost. Vowing that he would never be "outniggered" again, he ran a second time in 1963, as a fervent segregationist, and won. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed that he would fight for "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and he seemed to keep the promise a few months later, when he tried to stop African-American students from enrolling at The University of Alabama.

In 1954, the Supreme Court had handed down its landmark decision in the Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. That meant that The University of Alabama could no longer legally refuse to admit black students, although it did everything in its power to fend off integration until 1963, when a federal judge ordered three African American students admitted to the university.

That's an important thing to remember when you study history: A law means very little unless you have the will and the means to enforce it.

In an act of political theater -- trying to make Alabama voters, and racists across the country, think he was one of them -- he stood in the doorway leading to the university's registration office, flanked by armed Alabama state troopers, and, with television cameras rolling (as he knew they would be), he gave a speech about how the federal government was usurping "states' rights."

That would be the state's "right" to discriminate against some of its citizens. Almost fifty years later, you'll still hear politicians use that expression, "states' rights." It still means the same thing. There are still politicians for whom George Wallace remains a role model.

Anyway, once the cameras were gone, Wallace stepped aside and allowed the students to register. It wasn't a defeat for him. He didn't care whether the University of Alabama was integrated. In his heart, he may actually have approved. He got what he wanted -- publicity. Not just Alabamians, but the whole country, on national television, had seen him as the face of opposition to integration, the image of white resistance to black aspirations.

In 1963, that was something to put at the top of your political résumé.

Later that year, Wallace sent state police into several Alabama cities to keep schools from opening, because the federal government had ordered the schools desegregated. At least one person died in the resulting civil disturbances.

In early September, 1963, he told a reporter for The New York Times that in order to stop integration, Alabama would need a "few first-class funerals." A week later, four children died in the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham.

In 1965, demonstrators marched three times from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capitol, to demand that the governor protect African Americans attempting to register to vote. George Wallace called the planned marches a threat to public safety, and said he would take all measures necessary to stop them. He did, and this is what happened:

Governor Wallace was not happy with the nationally televised images of that police riot, but his sympathy was not with the people who were brutally beaten. His only concern was the event's potential to tarnish his image.

Nevertheless, he continued to believe that there was a political career to be made out of racism, and he was right. He served as Governor of Alabama, on and off, until 1987.

And his success was not limited to Alabama. In 1968, he ran for president as the American Independent Party candidate. He got 13.5 percent of the popular vote, and 46 electoral votes. It was the first time a third party candidate had actually won any states since 1948, when Strom Thurmond also ran a racist campaign as the candidate of the "States' Right Democratic Party" (more commonly known as the Dixiecrats) and carried 4 Southern states with 39 electoral votes.

More importantly, when he saw Wallace's growing success, the winner of that 1968 election, Richard M. Nixon, adopted what was called the "Southern Strategy" -- appealing to racism in the south in order to win what had traditionally been Democratic states. It worked. The south has voted almost solidly Republican in presidential elections since 1968, and appeals to racism have played a large part in that. George Wallace didn't win the election, but to some extent his ideas did.

In 1972 he ran again, this time for the Democratic Party nomination. He was a major candidate, winning primaries in North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Tennessee and Florida, but ended his campaign after an attempted assassination, which left him paralyzed for life.

Later in his life, when history had already turned against him, and overt racism fell out of fashion, George Wallace renounced his own racist past, making it clear that he'd never really believed the things he'd said, he just said them to win votes. He told his story as one of redemption -- times had changed, and the very embodiment of Southern racism had seen the error of his ways. Much of the press bought it.

The problem with that narrative is that he obviously knew that "error" in 1958, when he ran as a somewhat progressive gubernatorial candidate. He just chose, for ambition's sake, to pretend he didn't know it. And in the process, he fed racism, he told racists that they were right, that they were "the good people" who Northerners and "liberals" and "pointy-headed intellectuals" were trying to oppress. He helped make racism an acceptable belief, and an acceptable political strategy, which helped keep racism alive.

And in the process, people were brutally beaten. People died.

So, what's worse, a moronic racist who doesn't know any better, or a smart one who uses racism to further his own ambitions?

The Drive-By Truckers have an answer to that, and it's one I agree with. (I've posted the lyrics to "Wallace" after the video because Patterson Hood is a great writer, but not exactly a great enunciater.)

Performed by The Drive-By Truckers
Written by Patterson Hood

Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay.
When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates, I'd like to think that a black man stood in his way.
I know "All should be forgiven", but he did what he done so well.
So throw another log on the fire boys,
George Wallace is coming…George Wallace is coming.

Now, he said he was the best friend that a black man from Alabama ever had,
And I have to admit, compared to Fob James, George Wallace don't seem that bad.
And if it's true that he wasn't a racist, and he just did all them things for the votes,
I guess Hell's just the place for kiss ass politicians who pander to assholes.

So throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay.
I know, in the end, he got the black people's votes, but I think they'd still vote for him that way.
Well now, Hell's just a little bit hotter, 'cause he played his hand so well.
Well, he had what it took to take it so far,
Now the Devil's got a Wallace sticker on the back of his Cadillac.

1 comment:

Domenico Maceri said...

Alabama continues its arch-conservative politics. The governor recently signed what is the harshest law against illegal immigrants. One of its features is prohibiting the kids of undocumented workers from attending school, which, goes against federal law. I guess, the struggle between state and federal rights continues.