Thursday, February 25, 2010

Here’s to you, Harry T. Moore

About five years ago the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about Harry T. Moore, who, with his wife Harriette, was murdered in 1951 by white bigots who placed a bomb under his house in Mims, Florida.

OK, nobody was ever convicted of this double murder, so how can I identify the race or attitude of those who committed the crime? I just can. And I am willing to be sued by anyone who, on behalf of white bigots everywhere, feels they have been grievously wronged by this accusation.

One of the great social victories of the past fifty years has been the transformation of attitudes, particularly in the South, to the point where racists have to dissemble and hide behind double talk in order to avoid disgrace.

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s my high school friend Tom would spend summers in Oxford, Mississippi, and he would tell me about radio ads he heard there in which white politicians pandered for votes by promising, if elected, to keep “the Coloreds” in their place.

In the late 1960s, when I was in college in New Orleans, I earned some pocket money by substitute teaching in Jefferson Parish. That parish (they don’t have “counties” in Louisiana) had been forced by federal law to integrate its school system, and as they complied, they “resegregated” the schools along gender lines, sending females to one campus and males to another. I think a lot of the bigotry then and now has to do with fear of sexual interactions.

In those days you could dial a telephone number in New Orleans and get a recording by the White Citizens Council that warned against “the mongrelization of the races” that was taking place as a result of civil rights legislation. My friends and I passed the number around thinking the phone message was hilariously asinine. We were mostly a white bunch and I wonder if the humor would have been suffocated by the awfulness of the mentality behind the recording had we experienced the kinds of things Harry and Harriette Moore had to face.

Back to the Sentinel article: Once I read it, I was so inspired by the Moores’ courage and sacrifice that I clipped the accompanying picture of Harry and have had it on my desk ever since. I am drawn to people like him who know what is right and just keep doing it even when their lives are in jeopardy. Here’s the picture.

At the time I thought it was a dreadful injustice that Harry Moore remained such an obscure figure, despite his work and his heroism. But now his place in history may be ensured after all. A big step in the right direction was made by Tallahassee writer Ben Green whose book, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr, came out in 2005. I only learned of Green’s book last week when he was on campus at the invitation of our own Professor Julian Chambliss as part of the Jack Lane Colloquium series. I also learned at that time that a Harry T. and Harriette V. Memorial Park has been established in Mims. It’s on my list of places to visit in the near future.

I’ve always been interested in why people do the things they do; that’s why I got into anthropology. Part of the answer, of course, is culture. What you learn from the people around you results in your speaking a certain language with a certain accent and so much else about your beliefs and behavior. But why, given that I spent my late childhood and teenage years going to segregated schools in a small southern town steeped in bigotry, did I always sympathize with the civil rights activists? Not all of my classmates and neighbors did – that’s for sure. My attitude must have something to do with culture. Maybe it was a consequence of the fact that my parents were northerners or that my father (in particular) was so serious about fair play.

I could make the question bigger and ask, “Why have Northerners been somewhat less attached to hard-core bigotry than Southerners over the past couple of centuries?”

Obviously Yankees were not sprinkled with some kind of pixie dust that made them morally superior to Southerners on this issue. Probably the best answer has to do with material factors:

1. Cotton and tobacco grew better in the South than in the North.

2. These particular crops can be very profitably grown if a legal-political system can be put in place that allows working people to be forced into slave labor.

3. People who benefit from such a grossly unjust system while claiming to be “freedom-loving Americans” or “good Christians” have to heavily delude themselves about racial differences in order to live with the contradiction.

4. Voila! Heavy-handed bigotry takes root.

There are no doubt more sophisticated explanations for all this, but I may have to wait for some more Jack Lane Colloquia to get them.

In the meantime we still have an awful lot of white conservatives, not all of them Southerners, denouncing “big government” just as the slaveholders and their neighbors did when Abraham Lincoln, used “big government” to force private entrepreneurs in the Deep South to give up slavery. These contemporary anti-big-government people rarely acknowledge any racist motivations behind their politics. They also seem to overlook the obvious connection between the slave-holding regions of the Old South and “red-state” voting patterns of today. In other words, the self delusion lives on.

I’m not trying to indict all Southerners or all conservatives here. But I am good and tired of people on the political right who, with barely concealed prejudices, claim to be arguing for some worthy ideal like “freedom” as they attack those government programs that have brought some measure of fairness to what once were grossly racist institutions.

I believe things have improved on the anti-racist front, though clearly not enough. So for now, as the battle continues, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a word of thanks to Professor Chambliss, to author Ben Green, and, above all, to the indomitable spirit of Brother Harry and Sister Harriette Moore.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But Offisuh, Ah did'n see the solid whaht lahn.

This morning I offered to forgo my customary walk and drive Darla to campus. She hates driving so much that in gratitude she asked, “Why would you do that, Husband?” Of course the only answer I could offer was, “Because I have a capacity for self-sacrifice that others can hardly comprehend.” I think I may have overplayed my hand.

But actually, I never minded driving. In my youth I sometimes imagined that if the academic thing didn’t work out, I could become a long-haul truck driver. I sort of liked the idea of seeing the country and, what with Dylan, the Dead, Clapton and other greats on my portable cassette player, I figured I could get by fairly well coasting through Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, or Dripping Springs (aka Drippin’ Sprangs), Texas, listening to my favorites. These are real places that I remember driving through when I lived out west.

I think guys take to driving more easily than do femmes, and this is partly because of a unique quality prominent in many young male drivers: idiocy. Just speaking for myself, I can say that I am embarrassed about some of the dumb things I did in my younger years when my car was above all an instrument of power and independence to me. The absolute dumbest move I can recall happened on Route 90 in the Florida panhandle. Interstate 10 had not been built in the 1960s when I was going to college in New Orleans, so I would take old Highway 90 on my way home in those days. One time, I think it might have been Easter break, I was driving at night on it with my friend Jay and his roommate in the car. They were both New Yorkers.

Since 90 was a two laner, I got stuck behind a slowpoke and decided I would break out and pass him or her when the first opportunity came. But no obvious opportunity appeared because an endless series of hills obscured my line of sight. So, I calculated that I could pull out and pass when I could see no oncoming headlights rising over the next hill. Pretty soon I made my move and pulled out, but I quickly got back in my lane when oncoming headlight beams suddenly became visible over the crest of the next hill. Then there came the flashing lights on the Highway Patrol car that had been right behind me all the while.

OK, so I was pulled over and got a ticket (deservedly) from the friendly but otherwise merciless officer. When the transaction was over, my two New Yorker friends started laughing at me. “I didn’t know you could speak southern!” said Jay. Apparently I had slipped into Florida dialect in a Stockholm-syndrome kind of reaction as I pleaded my case to the patrolman. I had not been aware of my own strategic, yet futile, linguistic code switching. So I learned two lessons that day: As much as I liked driving cross-country, I clearly had the capacity to kill myself (and others) doing it; and, I can actually speak country-southern style if I need to. So I guess I have to face the fact that I really am part redneck, even though my early childhood was spent …. in New Jersey!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

J'Accuse! (Sort of)

These days I'm busy writing an anthropology article for a conference, so I'm not spending time updating my new blog. But I thought I could at least offer an "oldie" from about a decade ago, an article I wrote for The Ledger in the spring of 2001 when George Bush's character flaws seemed merely a joking matter rather than the recipe for full blown disaster that they turned out to be.

My article appeared in the New York Times-owned Ledger on May 17, 2001. Interestingly, exactly ten days later in the actual New York Times, Maureen Dowd published a piece featuring a number of similarities to mine. Dowd's article has a sleeping George Bush suddenly sitting "bolt upright" when he is visited by a tall, craggy ghost who chides him for his failings. I'll post first my article and then an excerpt from Dowd's.

How Would Bush Explain Self to Lincoln?
By R.L. Moore
The Ledger, May 17, 2001

President Bush’s coy and reticent approach to governance has led to some wild speculations about the key events that are shaping his political philosophy.

In order to add to these speculations, I offer the following account of a White House incident reported by my associate, Carson Fulano. The incident occurred in the middle of the night one week ago when President Bush was awakened in his bedroom by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.

President Bush is said to have sat bolt upright in bed exclaiming, “Wow! A ghost! And one who was a president just like me, except in the 18th century!”

“Nineteenth century, “corrected Abe.

“Whatever.” Dubya replied. “Anyway, why are you here?”

Abe explained that he wanted to see how the Republic was faring. “I have always believed,” he said, “that our great nation was destined to be blessed with leaders of increasing wisdom and magnanimity as the American people refine the machinery of democracy.” Then, looking closely at President Bush he asked, “What do you see as the basis of American freedom?”

Dubya: “Well, I believe freedom means less government.”

Abe: “But you do understand, do you not, that democracy is a quality found in government and not in private enterprise?”

Dubya: “What I understand is that we need to get the government off our backs. So I have a plan to weaken the government through privatization. For instance, I plan to privatize operations right here in the White House.”

Abe: “Are you saying you want to get the government off the back of the White House?”

Dubya: “Sure. Why not start at the top? We have found a corporate donor who will pay for all White House operations. This will save the taxpayers a bundle and Mr. Cheney says we’ll soon get used to the name ‘ExxonMobil White House.’”

Abe: “It may be that there is a profundity to your thinking that I’m failing to grasp. Perhaps you can tell me what great crisis you have faced that forced you back on the resources of your own character?”

Dubya: “Well we had an exciting election last year. Brother Jeb and I both showed we have character by being brave enough to stand up to the voters of Florida.”

Abe gave young Bush a solemn, disapproving look, so Dubya quickly spoke up: “Come on, Top Hat, you have no idea what it’s like to be in a tough election. At one point I even had to round up a gang of Republicans to harass the ballot counters in Miami, just to make sure democracy didn’t get out of hand. I mean, what would you have done?”

Abe: “Not that.”

Dubya: “But I wanted to be president. How could I let a bunch of ballots stop me?”

Abe threw another dark look toward young Bush and was about to speak when Dubya again piped up: “Anyway Old Timer, one thing you can say about my character is that I understand the meaning of the word generousness. All the guys who gave me money to run for office are getting paid back handsomely through my tax cuts.”

Abe: “So you see the office of the president as an investment opportunity?”

Dubya: “Well, yes. Is that wrong?”

Abe: “I always thought that my first duty, after preserving the union, was to see the needs of our most distressed citizens. Does your tax plan do that?”

Dubya: “You sound kind of liberal, Top Hat. Are you sure you’re a Republican?”

Abe: “Well, I…Oh, never mind. I’ve seen enough to understand what’s going on here. I’ll depart now, but I’ll come back in about four years.”

Dubya: “Don’t rush off, Scarecrow. I want to explain what I’ve done to change the environment.”

A mournful sobbing is heard that gradually fades into the background.

Dubya (to himself): “Boy that old dude is sure hard to please. There must be a Republican ghost from the past who would appreciate what I’m doing. But who could it be? Whoever he is, I wish he’d pay me a visit.”

Concerning other ghostly appearances in President Bush’s sleeping quarters, I can only say that my office has received reports of a second visit within the past few days. I have been unable to determine who that ghost was, though he reportedly got along extremely well with President Bush who addressed the visitor as “Shadows.”

Immediately following that second visitation, President Bush declared that the GOP had outgrown its title as “the Party of Lincoln.” From now on the official designation will be “the Party of Nixon.”

Now, here is an excerpt from Dowd's May 27 New York Times piece, which she titled "No Whiff of Poof." In Dowd's article the ghost is Bush's grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush, who appears just as "W" is “safely tucked away in the Aspen cottage for his nap.”

A deep voice pierced his pout.
"George," the voice intoned, "you know I always leave the room when anyone utters a vulgarity."
W. shivered. He recognized the Brahmin tones and unmangled syntax of his late grandfather, Prescott Bush, who always made him wear a tie at dinner. The craggy 6-foot-4 specter was frowning at him from beneath bushy eyebrows. He looked like a Roman senator, his gray hair swept back in a pompadour style and parted in the middle. He wore a double-breasted gray suit and shoes polished to a high shine.
Prescott Bush was just as full of Episcopalian rectitude as a ghost as he had been as a Connecticut senator and Wall Street banker.
W. reflexively bolted upright, hiding his plastic cup of Cheez Doodles under the covers.
"George," Prescott said, "we need to talk about noblesse oblige."
W. got squinty. "That's near Sierra Leone, right?"


Coincidence or "the sincerest form of flattery"? You decide.