The Power to Despise
Today one year after the passing of John Lewis I remember childhood travels from Minnesota to the South. I remember many were by train, but some were by the family car. Invariably it seemed to be a Ford Wagon or some other version like a misspelled star system.
As we approached Kentucky, I knew even as a child of eight or nine years old that the world changed as we crossed from southern Ohio into Kentucky.
We seemed more cautious in 1963 as we drove into Kentucky and Tennessee. I saw the strange mixture of plasticine Howard Johnson signs proclaiming that it had a guest swimming pool.
I saw the poorest of the poor with hillside houses and crazy quilt driveways carved from the sides of small openings in the Appalachians.
What was this wilderness, I thought. It was as deprived of luxury and creature comforts as any ghetto or Southern Black enclave. It was as removed from the Great Society or the illusion created by the “Donna Reed Show.”
It was the America that existed no doubt since the end and before the Civil War — poor Appalachia and its southern white population that became as much the stuff of cinematic caricature as did Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best and Amos and Andy.
These were the folks the post-war boom inside America had left behind on the sides of those lonesome Tennessee hillsides to listen to country music mixed in with Black Memphis blues by Elvis Presley.
Yet, as Black Americans (like John Lewis and Julian Bond) struggled openly against a long-entrenched system of the racial divide, they sat watching in fear of perhaps losing what they had been given as a compensation for wretchedness. The power to despise.
This power would fuel massive resistance against the Brown decision and its almost forgotten mandate of public school integration in a barely moving forward march.
Even the master judicial politician, Earl Warren, was cautious in declaring a remedy for over six decades of an official policy of “separate but equal.”
Thus, there would be far more deliberation than speed as America lumbered toward a modicum of official equality.
Yet, on these hillsides and hollows were Americans who were simply poor. Who simply went to schools with the least resources and the greatest needs.
Yet, in 1955 through 1963, political leaders in the South didn’t offer them a Second New Deal. Only later, would Lyndon Johnson, himself once an East Texas poor boy attempt the War on Poverty.
But, in the main, white southern politicians offered something else: the same menu of race-baiting and the very easy claims that these same poor whites had but one thing to protect: their privilege of separateness. Their power to despise.
By 1968, Johnson had been swallowed up by the War in Southeast Asia. Meaningful programs like HeadStart, that would advance the cause of both white and Black children alike would become a part of a GOP counterinsurgency movement under another banner: law and order.
Nixon himself knew better — he had been Eisenhower’s Vice President. But he needed to shore up his right-wing from the appeal of George Wallace and the hangover felt by Goldwater acolytes. No liberalism now.
The simplest thing for America to do was to continue dividing. To tell those people living on the hillside that their problem was “outside agitators” and their leaders.
The simplest thing was to lie.
-Albert Turner Goins