Last year, I attended the ACLU’s annual meeting held at the Temple in Atlanta.
Long ago, I had read about the 1958 bombing of the Temple and why it was bombed. Jacob Rothschild was the head rabbi at the time and a very prominent leader in the fight against segregation, racism and bigotry. Attending the Temple event got me to reminiscing about the bad old days in Georgia and the South.
In Sept. 1963, just 57 years ago, four young girls were murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Twenty other people were injured.
Less than a year later, my liberal Jewish/Italian family moved from a hard hat area of New York to Cartersville, GA. Back then, Cartersville was not the thriving exurb on the expressway that it is now. At the time, Cartersville was a sleepy little textile mill town, about an hour from Alabama or Atlanta by state roads, with more in common with the former (including 100% segregated schools).
It was the old South. Not only were my brother and I the only Jews in the high school, I was the only one in the Senior class not born in the region. I was a fish out of water, dressing, acting and sounding differently than all of my classmates. And, I had typical NYC bravado. So, even though I had one of the top SAT scores in the high school, I ended up hanging with the toughest kids in town versus the smartest.
I did things that I’m not proud of. To get along, one of the things that I as a 16-year-old learned to ignore was open, blatant racism against blacks. When other kids used the “n” word, I knew that it was wrong (and something that I would never say myself). But I said nothing to remand them.
Eventually, I went to UGA and then GSU. Along the way, I married a very progressive Georgia peach (whose ancestors had fought for the South) and subsequently I finally learned that not every WASP born here was racist.
The South was changing. After graduation, I worked for the poverty program trying to right some of the wrongs done to low income Southerners, especially blacks. I eventually went to work for the state when Jimmy Carter was Governor, becoming Director of Health Planning for Georgia. I wanted to be a part of the New South, a phrase which was used frequently at the time.
Jimmy was elected President, a high point. But then he lost to Reagan, destroying both my idealism and desire to work in the public sector. My wife, three children and I left Georgia when I became a very successful corporate nomad in 1981. I subsequently lived in Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas and finally California. But, all of my three children and eight grandchildren still lived in the South. So, in 1997 we bought a lake home in rural Georgia.
However, between 1981 and 1997, I noticed that Georgia seemed to be going backward in many areas. The confederate flag still flew over the statehouse. Instead of being more accepting and inclusive, it was more divided with many of the natives resenting newcomers, especially immigrants. Many Democrats who were white still acted like Dixiecrats.
In the last few decades since, the state has gone from blue to red. However, many of the same folks just changed parties (Dixiecrats, like former Gov. Deal). Plus, it has become fashionable in the GOP (formerly my party) to use “code words” that are racially loaded versus saying the “n” word.
And, the desire to eliminate poverty and suffering under Jimmy’s tenure as Governor no longer existed. Now, the dominant party appears to be much more interested in right wing cause célèbre like ending all abortions and keeping Confederate Monuments to the “War of Northern Aggression”. Or, making sure that people can use their religion as an excuse to openly discriminate against gays.
Demographically, Georgia is rapidly changing in favor of the Democrats. In my opinion, Stacey Abrams, an African American, would have won the last election if not for Kemp’s questionable, self-interested deletion of a half million people off the voter rolls.
I’m hoping that I live long enough to once again see the New South become a commonly used phrase in Georgia.