The Persistent Taint

Salim Muwakkil

Former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen was formally charged with the murders of three voting rights volunteers in 1964.

This is the time of year when the subject of race is almost mandatory for a black commentator. The period between King Day in late January and the public recognition of February as Black History Month offers an opportunity to obsess on race without guilt. 

I’m tempted to skip the subject, just to confound expectations. But the topic is too serious.

Many white Americans already are convinced the problem of anti-black racism is a relic. The Republican Party encourages this belief because it opposes, on principle, the kinds of compensatory programs needed to mitigate the consequences of racism.

The Democratic Party became an ally of civil rights during the 60s, but has been in slow retreat ever since. Some would say there’s a good reason for that backup: LBJ’s 1964 election was the last time the Democrats carried the white vote.

The retreat picked up steam during the 2004 campaign, when the Democratic presidential candidate seemed allergic to any direct reference to black folks, the party’s most faithful voting bloc. What’s more, the issues of most consequence to African-American voters (mass incarceration and its attendant dislocations, soaring rates of unemployment, growing homelessness of black families, lack of medical insurance and care, crumbling schools, etc.), received scant attention in campaign rhetoric. 

This lack of attention to racial issues is not just a problem affecting the nation’s two major political parties. Race has faded into the background as an issue for most Americans, including progressives. 

The masses of African Americans are faring badly. A recent analysis, State of the Dream 2005,” by United for a Fair Economy reveals the depth of the economic crisis in black America. Ultimately, all Americans are paying for the continuing waste of human resources that we blithely countenance, not just in diminished economic growth, but also in increasing civic enmity.

But as denial so pervades our culture, most of us are barely aware of the varied manifestations of slavery’s crippling legacy. One current story in the news offers a fine example of this denial process.

Last month, Mississippi authorities arrested Edgar Ray Killen for orchestrating the 1964 abduction and murder of three voting rights volunteers, one of the most infamous episodes in the volatile civil rights struggle four decades ago.

Killen, a 79-year-old preacher and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was formally charged with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The public mood surrounding this retroactive police action has been downright triumphant. And while I too cheer justice’s belated arrival, I fear this rush for self-congratulation has a downside; it serves to strengthen Americans’ reluctance to confront our racist present.

In current media accounts, Killen’s hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., was identified as an odious symbol of racism for African-Americans. But most of those accounts failed to note that the infamous town was also the launching point for the 1980 campaign of presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan.

Reagan launched his campaign in a rousing speech touting states’ rights,” a term that had been a Southern euphemism for white supremacy since the days of the Civil War. His advocacy of states’ rights from a podium in Philadelphia, Miss., sent a powerful message to white Southerners.

This symbolic gesture of solidarity with segregationists was part of the GOP’s Southern Strategy,” a plan initiated by Richard Nixon in 1968 to attract Southern whites by appealing to their segregationist sentiments and racial biases. But when Reagan died last year, few mainstream accounts mentioned his penchant for racist pandering.

So now, most Americans will consume media stories about Killen and never learn how the famous murders — and the racist spirit they symbolized — helped transform segregationist Dixiecrats into Republicans. 

It’s easier to cheer Killen’s arrest than to examine how the GOP’s cynical plan to exploit Southern racism succeeded. The current Republican strategy to carve a national electorate out of conservative red states is deeply indebted to the Southern Strategy.” By pandering to persistent biases, exacerbating cultural divisions between so-called common folk” and the pointy-headed” liberals who control the Democratic Party, and disparaging welfare state” government programs, today’s GOP is replicating Nixon’s tactics.

Few progressive analysts have weighed in on this point. Even Tom Frank — whose book What’s the Matter with Kansas is one of the most insightful examinations of the GOP ascendancy on the market — gives race short shrift.

In a society dependent for so long on racial slavery and color hierarchy, racist attitudes have become so deeply embedded they are easily ignored. Even during Black History Month.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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