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.

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