Americans have their fair share, and then some, of unflattering stereotypes. Many of the more viscous ones involve race, as you can’t wage a war against people who live among you for centuries on end without getting a few pangs of conscience if you forego such mental accessories. Growing up in the right part of the country, you pick up a slightly different set. The nasty things you learn about black people remain, but to them you add a separate set about Southerners. Southerners, always white, have never forgiven us for waging war on them and winning. They want their slaves back. In every closet one finds a white hood, on every hill a burning cross. “In the land of cotton,” as their song says, “old times are not forgotten.”
All of this ignores that rather vicious racism of the rest of the country. White terrorists destroyed Tulsa’s prosperous black community in 1919, one of those events we obscure by calling it a race riot. They engaged in similar violence fifty years ago this weekend, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Selma’s sheriff tried to turn out every white man in the county, like a proper slave patrol, and attacked six hundred peaceful protesters. They have a different way of doing things, down there. So different, in fact, that it just doesn’t count when white Americans elsewhere do the same things. The white South had a violent campaign against the advance of civil rights back in the 1950s and 1960s. Boston did in the 1970s.
Much of the white South has done better, sometimes much better than the rest of the country, in the fifty years since Selma but some white residents work hard to keep the old stereotypes alive. Via Kevin Levin, I learn of a group calling itself The Friends of Forrest. They put up a billboard to mark the fiftieth anniversary of white terror on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Forrest as in Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry commander, slave trader, and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Admiring a Confederate military figure in itself seems dubious to me, but Forrest? Short of actual violence, I don’t know how one could better live down to the stereotype.
Forrest’s friends had their billboard erected right at the foot of the bridge, where everyone coming to the anniversary festivities from Barack Obama on down could see it. They could not have picked a more perfect place, time, or way to tell us all about themselves:
Welcome to Selma. Skip the Civil Rights stuff and come see our Confederate history. Forrest’s motto, “Keep the skeer on ’em” applies equally well to his career before, during, and after the war. His friends’ adoption of it and placing it on a billboard standing over the site of a conspicuous act of white terror frankly beggars belief. As a billboard, we can’t dismiss this as a relic of an older time. A modern group put it up, not people long dead. They today admire the slave-trading, USCT-massacring, Klan-founding Forrest who kept the scare on. They welcome anyone else’s effort to do the same.
Back in grade school, I read that the Klan terrorized black Americans by riding around looking like ghosts. In the late 80s, you could read that in textbooks in Michigan. They left out how the actual “scare involved people whipped, beaten, shot, and hanged from trees. If we have made many gains, then we have not left behind all those who fought against them. Fifty years ago, black Americans marched for voting rights. Now Alabama and many other states, including my own, have embarked on a campaign to roll those rights back. They too keep the scare on. They have less famous friends of Forrest among them, like former Selma councilman (elected in 2000, not 1965), who described the anniversary festivities this way:
“It’s going to be nothing but a nigger street party,” Sexton said, using an epithet still heard on the streets here. He went on to describe participants in the march — both the one in 1965 and a reenactment this Sunday — with a torrent of vulgarities.
Councilman Sexton used city funds to put up a monument to Forrest. The people who paid for the billboard?
Forrest’s most passionate friend in Selma is Pat Godwin, known here as the Wizardess, who calls the 1965 voting rights march “the mother of all orgies,” and tells telephone callers in a chipper voice, “We can’t take your call right now, there’s a war going on!”
I suppose someone else laid claim to the Grand Dragon nickname. Plenty of Americans, in all corners of the country, still see the world that way. Others, likewise in every section, do not. If we wish to congratulate ourselves for the latter, we should not also forget the former. They’ve proven often enough quite capable of waiting patiently and then striking back when we think our work finished.
Update: Please see here for a correction and clarification for this piece. Neither alters the main thesis, but an error is an error.