I think the psyche of the South for a man my age carries with it a fading memory of the shame and bitterness of being a son of a conquered nation. My father’s elementary school classes had annual field trips to the Confederate Memorial — a marble double arch inside a small chain-link fence — in Robinson Springs, AL. The names of the dead remain on the aging marker under the damp shade of broad oaks, but the field trips have ended. There is so much more to Southerners than the civil rights struggle. Still, I cannot help but think of that time in my childhood when I sat playing and listening to the adults discuss riots and changes. I remember hearing emotion that in retrospect was fear that their culture – upon which hung their daily lives – was in upheaval. I never heard in my family any of the blind hatred that must have led to the bombings and murders, but I know it was common in the South, manipulated by big business that wanted to control the labor market. It’s still there, as are those evil people who would manipulate lives for profit.
Around Christmas I was riding down an old back road through Elmore County where my parents were born and raised and I started thinking about my family, the people I knew as a child or learned about from stories. Both my grandfathers were successful men, one a farmer, the other a brick mason/subcontractor. The Caton side (bricklayer) came from Red Level with an eighth grade education and was able to send my father – the first person in our family to graduate college — to Auburn. My grandfather and his three brothers (one of whom also sent his son to Auburn) grew up laying brick together and told amazing stories full of wonderful wind-in-the-hair wildness. These people had a fearless wit and a healthy dose of irony. Here is an example of such a story: “Me, Willis and Roscoe were doing a job at the base in Pensacola and were sitting in a bar. Three Yankee sailors walked in and yelled, ‘Where’s all the whores?’ Willis yelled, ‘You Yankees married ‘em all.’ We had to fight our way out of the bar.”
On this drive I passed picked-clean cotton fields and lone chimneys where houses once stood. The old, curvy road has a bend as gentle as a meandering stream as it runs through the fields, over railroad tracks and beside the woods. As I passed the Confederate Cemetery where my grandmother used to take my brother and I when we were children, I remembered sitting around campfires in the middle of the night listening to the men’s stories carried on frozen breath as dogs barked and tracked opossums and raccoons.
There were long hours spent in the swift wild of a creek while my mother, her two sisters and my grandmother talked. They taught me how to cook, especially how to make cornbread dressing, which I still do every thanksgiving. These people were wise and hard working. And they helped people in need. Both my grandfathers worked with African American men and were forever helping them if trouble arose. I can remember the laborers showing up on Sundays with their wives at granddaddy Caton’s house to get the rest of their pay. They stood there on the bare, sandy yard under the pine trees while he retrieved the cash he held back on Friday so there would be some left for the wives to buy groceries.
Of course, the paternalism described here smacks of willful ignorance. And all of us then – and now – are culpable for not acting to correct something so obviously wrong. Keeping a safe distance and offering tacit approval for terrible acts is egregious.
My family – like most families — wanted to live their lives, raise their children and leave the world better than they found it. But they hardly had a chance to do that within a culture of fear and hatred first manipulated by wealthy slave-holding landowners and then by conquering industrialists. These creators of that sick culture are not smarter than the rest of us. Their vast wealth and power funds the overwhelming message that is screamed from television and streamed on computers. More subtle with practice, the torrent is constant and numbing. It enables evil people like George Wallace, who for his political benefit, helped create an environment where murder in the name of prejudice seemed justifiable.
A friend reminded me recently of a troubling interview with the late Lee Atwater, the Machiavellian chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1989-1991, and this quote from a story in The Nation:
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, state’s rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
These tactics have never been more evident than during the last presidential election. And the question remains: Who makes such evil profitable for soulless people like Wallace and Atwater? And what can “We the People” do about it? The struggle for civil rights points the way to the larger issue of liberty and freedom for all of us. What should the phrase “We the People” mean to Americans? It must mean that the power and purpose of our government is “the people.” If we want our freedom to be more than an illusion we must be willing to fight for it. We are in a desperate battle for our very souls, and without a collective will expressed by common people through their government, we will lose our freedom, our humanity. We will all be slaves.
What happens then to the good done by those who fought and died in the civil rights struggle, to the legacy of those I visit in my mind on that winding road?