Cue the music…
Church blew up in Birmingham
Four little black girls killed for no goddamn good reason
All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name.
A whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass
Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame
Patterson Hood “Ronnie and Neil”
Klanwatch : Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice by Bill Stanton
“An insider’s account.. describes how attorney Morris Dees and other Klanwatch workers took on the Klan and brought its members to justice, enduring intimidation, death threats, and other dangers.”
This book isn’t a collectible to most people. I think most people believe we’ve moved past it. (We haven’t; we still have huge active Klan populations – the one in Indiana, for example, boasts subgroups in 20 states and 5 groups in Arkansas boast subgroups in 11 different states). It should be a collectible, and it is to me, just like the DriveBy Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera. I can’t bear to price it to sell.
And before we go to South bashing, let me tell you. When I was in grad school one of my colleagues was from Affluenza’d SoCal. His first job was at Alabama State University, a HBC, in Montgomery. I asked him how he was managing with the racism in Montgomery. He loved his job and had no issues on that front. But he also said, so wisely- California has racism too. It is just less honest. At least in the South it is out on the table. So it is painfully visible, but guess what? When it is obvious there is a problem, you can work to heal it. Here in California, where we are all so liberal and ‘we don’t have those kinds of problems’ (yes, we certainly do, but) we can’t heal.
That said… Alabama and Montgomery bear a heaping share of the pain, harm and guilt of oppressing abusing and dehumanizing generations of Africans brought here by force and their African Americans descendants. Interestingly though, Alabama seems also to have done a better job healing.
I lived, worked, and birthed then raised my little one in the Montgomery Alabama area for 8 years. Segregation is alive and well, let me tell you. I am not saying it isn’t racism, but I know for sure it is definitely economic segregation and definitely it is the man or the system that works so well for whites making sure the poor stay poor and the largest percentage of those who are struggling are African American. At the same time, my dear friend’s darling little daughter is on a cheerleading squad with 7 little African American girls, they are completely flippin’ adorable and love each other like sisters, and race is absolutely a non issue.
Montgomery is big enough to have a few public goods that are available to all- a decent library with many branches, an art museum, a beautiful park and community gathering place for big events down by the river, a minor league baseball team and solid churches. It is big enough that it has the problems of a real city- violent crime, poverty, inner city type neighborhoods and schools, and such.
It also has the problems of a small town- cultural isolation, having to drive to see a decent concert, that sort of thing. But it is also small enough that people can grow to know and care about each other personally regardless of skin color. Everyone who is anyone is some sort of activist or professional working for the public good of all in the community, not just one race. The legacy of The Good Work is carried on and some heroes of the civil rights era were still living and working hard during the time I lived there.
I worked passionately for equal education and for the betterment of the teachers, families and students in the public school system, through my position as a librarian in a public library on the Southern Boulevard, epicenter of so many of those social problems. I had come to see so many inequalities, such as the poor quality of the public schools, mainly used by – Surprise! Little African American children- as Civil Rights issues thanks to the amazing work of the Southern Poverty Law center.
In Montgomery, where White and African American populations are about 45%-55% respectively, most normal people are forced to deal with people of the opposing skin color on a daily basis. Local and state government employees are probably pretty equally from both communities (although we have to be honest- we don’t see too many people of color in positions of higher authority. But they’ll get there).
And in Montgomery, as in much of the South, the requirement to greet and treat each other with respect and acknowledgment of the other as a human being is, at least in public, absolutely IRON CLAD, no ifs ands or buts. Any disrespectful or hurtful actions and language from or among children is knocked right out of them; adults call each other ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ or in practicing Christian circles ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ without the least humour irony or sarcasm.
Some might say that is just life in the South, but I think it is particularly strong in Alabama. It arises from the scars of wounds from two recent epochs in Southern history: First there was post civil war occupation by Northern military forces and the influx of ‘right thinking, liberal’ opportunists, gold-diggin’ ‘carpetbaggers.’ Later and more painful in a brief and hard won peace came the events of the Civil Rights area which horrified normal decent people of both colors.
“Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth
But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn’t around
Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit…
I believe people are so polite because the spectre of having society torn apart by such ugliness hovers quite near. Alabamans will generally put aside petty differences and put on their kindest manners and work very hard at community building to keep that evil at bay.
One of the crowning jewels in Alabama’s legacy of positive social change is the Southern Poverty Law Center. Klanwatch is one of its programs. I am proud to say I have met SPLC’s founder, Morris Dees, who lives in a cool but quite modest home in Old Cloverdale where we spent so many hours with so many friends. I knew him as the man who broke the Klan. I don’t think many people know what this meant.
In a landmark case, a judge made the hatemongering Klan pay a 7 million dollar settlement to the mother of a young man who had been viciously murdered by a few Klan members. For the first time, an entire organization was responsible for making reparations for the crime, even though it was committed by only a few members. To put it mildly, that sure put a kink in their tail and curtailed the criminal behavior of its members considerably.
Some people like to be snide about Morris’ Dees previous incarnation as a direct mail marketer, or about his personal life, or the size of the SPLC Endowment, which dollars, as one clueless (white) guy put it, Dees should stop hoarding and start feeding hungry people, making the world a better place by funding grants or projects to directly help those in need. That evening Dees answered the heckler kindly. He said, we are always potentially a lawsuit away from being forced to close our doors. We have to provide for its future so we can continue what we do. I wholeheartedly agree.
So… this book is about something Alabama can absolutely be very proud of. The Cradle of the Confederacy is also the Cradle of Civil Rights.(I can’t be the first person to say that, right?) The awareness that Civil Rights really matter has spread so that American society grows in our awareness that the rights of women, gay or transgendered people, parents, children, people who are vulnerable because they are cut off from or simply do not have supportive families or are institutionalized- the elderly, orphans and foster children, are in danger all the time. So the pain endured by Alabama’s citizens not been in vain. We cannot bring back those who died at the hands of the Klan, vigilantes or so-called law enforcement, nor end the grief of their loved ones… but we do know that from the seeds of that pain sprang healing and stability and willingness to prevent it happening again in much greater proportion.
Darling Alabama, there are many things about you that I do not miss, but I will love you for so many reasons, forever.