HALF A CENTURY AFTER EMMETT TILL, BIGOTRY ISN’T JUST FOR “BUBBAS” ANY MORE
Fifty years ago this past Sunday, the brutal slaying of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicagoan visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, laid bare the raw savagery and blatant disregard for decency and law that permeated the Jim Crow South. When Till's mother insisted on an open casket funeral and Jet magazine published photos of his horrifically bludgeoned face, complete with bullet hole and missing eye, outraged Americans, white and black, began mobilizing for what became an all-out assault on the southern racial system. "[O]nce they saw his body in that casket,” Charles Tisdale, a black journalist who covered the case recalled, “people said the South's got to change.”
Tisdale's allusion to the largely southern focus of the animus generated by the Till case was right on target. Across the nation, many seemed to ignore the United States flag posted in the Delta courtroom where Till’s subsequently self-confessed slayers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury despite a substantial body of incriminating evidence to the contrary. It was far easier, even reassuring, for whites in the rest of America to see the racism of white southerners as a regional peculiarity than to acknowledge their own tragic, longstanding indifference to both the plight of more than 10 million of their black fellow citizens in the South and the far from ideal and equitable conditions confronting those who lived elsewhere as well.
Scarcely a decade after Till's death, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally on the books, the campaign against subtler, defacto forms of discrimination began to spill across the Mason Dixon line. The hostile, rock-throwing reception accorded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he led a march for open housing in Cicero Illinois, the warm response of many northern whites to the crudely coded racial overtures of George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, and the vehemence of anti-busing protesters in Boston should have served notice that bigotry wasn't just for Bubbas anymore, and probably never had been.
Yet in 1986 a stunned New York mayor Ed Koch reacted angrily to the racially motivated beating that led to the death of a young black man in Howard Beach, Queens, by insisting that one would normally “expect this kind of thing to happen in the Deep South.” Meanwhile, a Queens paper characterized the incident as “The South Rises Again.” These were hardly the last attempts to set white racism in a regional context and then wonder aloud how it had somehow seeped out of the southern muck and infected respectable, enlightened communities as far distant as New York or California.
Some nineteen years later, two well-publicized and apparently racially inspired white on black assaults, one in Brooklyn and, more notably, another in Howard Beach, have marred this New York summer. The lawyer for the alleged victim in the Howard Beach attack reportedly expressed astonishment that “here in New York we have to live with lynch mobs,” the implication being that such behavior might be less surprising had it occurred way down you-know-where.
Much like many white southerners a half-century ago, in 1986 some Howard Beach residents bitterly resented external critics and “outside agitators” like the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose attempt to lead a march in the community elicited a hail of garbage and verbal abuse, in a scene a local reporter found “as vile and hateful as the ugliness witnessed on the steps of Ol’ Miss” in 1962. Still the perpetrators were brought to justice then, and there is no reason to think that the alleged attackers in either of the two more recent cases will escape the same fate if the evidence justifies it.
Nonetheless, one wonders whether things might have turned out differently here and in many other northern cities had more people heeded the words of New York’s Rabbi Edward Klein, who pointed to blighted neighborhoods, suburban segregation, and simmering racial tensions in his own backyard and warned in October 1955 that for all it revealed about the genuine horrors of the South, the Till atrocity did not mean that “we in the North” should “take to our souls the unction that our house is in order.” In any event, although they hardly have reason to gloat, those southerners who still seem hard pressed at times to convince other Americans that the South has changed in the last fifty years will surely find some irony in editorial and political assurances that the most recent Howard Beach assault will be handled appropriately “because New York has come a long way since ’86.”
James C. Cobb is the author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005). He is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia
Another Racist Finds Himself Behind Bars ... So?
By James C. Cobb
Mr. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of Hiwstory, University of Georgia, Athens. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2005).
Coming close on the heels of the Senate apology for failing to pass one of the three anti-lynching measures laid on its doorsteps by the House between 1920 and 1940, the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County Mississippi marks another chapter in an ongoing drama of expiation and attempts to right some of the racial wrongs of the last century. In the space of a decade or so, we have seen successful prosecutions both of the murderer of Medgar Evers and two of the men who were responsible for the deaths of four children in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Not only did then president Bill Clinton apologize for American participation in the slave trade during what some critics called his “contrition mission” to Uganda in 1998, but a host of bankers, businessmen, and university presidents have also expressed regret for their institutions’ historic links to slavery. The next installment in this saga is unfolding even now with the reopened investigation of the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.
It’s a bit hard to fathom this apparent dawning of the Age of Atonement and Apologia in an era when social consciousness and sensitivity otherwise seems decidedly out of fashion. To some extent it may be simply a matter of timing. After all, the absence of any statute of limitations on murder means little if the search for the murderers leads only to the cemetery. It may not have escaped your notice that those convicted for their long-ago crimes against humanity are at best long in the tooth if not lacking in teeth altogether. After he was finally convicted at age 71 for a crime committed nearly four decades earlier, Birmingham church bomber Bobby Frank Cherry’s four life terms were over in thirty months, and this week’s sentencing of the eighty-year-old Killen to what amounts to sixty years in prison is a classic example of the grand, but substantively empty gesture. A cynical observer might even point out that assigning specific guilt and imposing largely symbolic retribution on octogenarian killers amounts to states and communities shifting some of their collective culpability onto individual sinners before it’s too late. Killen’s supporters charged, with some justification, that prosecutors had shown him guilty of nothing more than being one of a number of Klansmen in Neshoba County at a time when Klan activities were not only common knowledge but openly condoned by quite a few. The same could be said of Leflore and Tallahatchie counties over in the Delta, where local whites and, apparently, even some blacks, clearly knew a great deal more about the slaying of Emmett Till than they were willing to share with authorities. Regardless of age or infirmity, the individuals responsible for these heinous acts should be held fully accountable, but the very length of time that it has taken to bring them to justice surely convicts as much as it exonerates the communities where there crimes were committed.
Although heightened political sensitivity to historic black grievances is testimony to the long-term significance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the rapid expansion of the black electorate has also left many whites feeling anxious and defensive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mississippi, where only 7 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in 1964 when the Neshoba County murders occurred, as compared to more than 70 percent today. That Mississippi’s Trent Lott, who would probably be more excited about exhuming Strom Thurmond than Emmett Till, was among the fifteen or so non-apologizers for the Senate’s inaction on lynching was hardly surprising, but even Lott’s supposedly more moderate colleague Thad Cochran must have seen the prospect of more white votes lost than black votes gained and withheld his sponsorship as well. Certainly, Cochran’s explanation that he did not feel compelled to “apologize for something I did not do” was pointedly out of sync with his earlier co-sponsorship of bills offering apologies to American Indians and to Japanese-Americans placed in interment camps during World War II.
Elsewhere in the South and throughout the nation, however, most Senators, could clearly see little downside in a largely symbolic act that cost them nothing politically.
Symbolic politics can have real power and meaning, but it can also substitute style for substance. To their credit, southern business and development leaders have thrown their support not only to punishing those guilty of racial oppression but to removing public sanction from the Confederate flag and other perceived reminders of that oppression. Still, it is far cheaper, both economically and politically, to acknowledge and bewail the manifold sins of the past than it is to seek actively to redress the consequences of those sins for the present. Neither convicting the half-dead perpetrators of old atrocities, nor apologizing for tolerating such actions, nor discarding the symbols associated with them is going to make a single child’s diet more nutritious or his or her school any better. Prosecuting Edgar Ray Killen and seeking the whole truth about Emmett Till might suggest that Mississippi is no longer what it was, but if such deeds are to have lasting value, it will be not as ends in themselves but as long overdue beginnings toward making Mississippi what it should have been all along.
This is true not just for folks in Mississippi but for Americans as a whole, of course. One of the most encouraging aspects of the general public’s reaction to the Senate apology, the Killen trial, and the re-opened Emmett Till investigation is the sense that these events are national rather than regional in import. Not long ago the South was a place where men like Edgar Ray Killen and Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam (the acquitted, then self-confessed slayers of Emmett Till) strode boldly about among people who not only knew what they had done but in many cases admired them for it. Today’s South is no racial paradise, but by most standards of measurement, it is the nation’s most educationally, residentially, and politically integrated region, so much so that it has for some time been the destination of choice for relocating African Americans. Since the Civil Rights movement surged across the Mason-Dixon line at the end of the 1960s, conflicts over integration and discrimination in jobs and housing have made it clear that “the race problem” is, and always was, not just a southern burden but a national one.
If the distinction between southern and national is neither particularly valid or helpful, the same is true of efforts to separate the past from the present. From the New York Times to the Neshoba Democrat, journalists and other observers repeatedly used the word “closure” as the anticipated result of Killen’s conviction. The naiveté of such expectations is apparent in the words of civil rights activist Anne Moody, who recalled that in addition to “hunger, hell and the Devil,” at age fourteen the murder of Emmett Till brought into her life the new and more terrible fear “of being killed just because I was black…. I . . . was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn’t have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn’t know what one had to do as a Negro not to be killed.” Whatever may be learned by reinvestigating Till’s murder, there will be no closure for Moody or any other southerner or American, black or white, touched either by its immediate impact or its significance across two generations. As William Faulkner clearly understood, because there is no real separation between “Was” and “Is” the responsibility for a past that we did not make and cannot undo is not ultimately ours to reject unless we are willing to abdicate our responsibility for the present as well.
ATLANTA: What is it?
City seeks new slogan, but it's sure to mean 'show us the money'
James C. Cobb - For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 15, 2005
The recently announced "Brand Atlanta" campaign's search for a more effective marketing slogan for the city reflects the longstanding association between Atlanta's identity and the pursuit of somebody else's money. It has been almost 120 years since that silver-tongued scamp Henry Grady delivered his famous "New South" address to a bunch of rich Northern investors. Speaking at Delmonico's restaurant in New York in 1886, Grady presented Atlanta as "a brave and beautiful city," rising Phoenix-like from the ashes, and served notice that the Yankees were more than welcome to invade the city again, armed this time with capital rather than cannons.
Atlanta's willingness to reinvent itself for every moneyed suitor who came along was already obvious to W. E. B. DuBois in 1903 when he compared the city to "Atalanta," the mythical maiden who lost her virtue when she lingered over golden apples laid in her path by a wily lover in hot pursuit. DuBois warned that Atlanta might well meet the same fate because of its "dream of material prosperity as the keystone of success."
Some 60 years later, even "The City Too Busy to Hate" bespoke a place where doing the right thing was more of an economic decision than a moral one.
The "too busy to hate" moniker gained more than enough traction to reinforce an already-established perception of a city whose location in the South was a mere accident of geography. Even DuBois had described Atlanta as "south of the North, yet north of the South," and in 1934 a noted historian observed that rural Georgia had "little tangible connection" with Atlanta, and "the city is quite evidently not proud of Georgia."
This tension between where Atlanta was and how its leaders wished it to be seen was glaringly apparent a decade ago in the attempt to sloganize Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. This search produced a flood of suggestions from the Henry Grady-ish "Atlanta: From Ashes to Axis" to my personal favorite, the more candid but less inspiring "Atlanta: Not Bad for Georgia" to the also accurate but decidedly unpoetic "Watch Atlanta Transmogrify."
Many feared from the get-go that this search for a slogan was likely to culminate in the verbal equivalent of the insipid Olympic mascot "Izzy," best described as the unwanted offspring of an ill-advised liaison between a California Raisin and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Izzy's proponents insisted that he/she (at birth the politically correct mascot was also "genderless") would grow on folks, but many in the multitude of detractors objected to Izzy primarily because his/her regionally neutral nerdiness seemed to reflect a desire to minimize public association of the Olympic host city with the South. Sure enough, the eventual slogan of choice, "Atlanta: Come Celebrate Our Dream," was so geographically unspecific and Izzy-esque that cynical observers suggested replacing it with "Atlanta: It's 'Atnalta' Spelled Backwards" or "Atlanta: Where the South Stops."
Frankly, it's difficult to see how the current "Brand Atlanta" campaign can yield much beyond another such "bland Atlanta" characterization. In its natural habitat, where it serves as a means of making distinctions among people and places, identity is, at best, a mixture of reality and perception. Once identity is turned into a commodity, you can forget reality. It's all about perception and the marketing thereof. Reality is almost always too troubling, contradictory, or just plain complicated to sell really well, and, for better or worse, Southern identity is nothing if not all of these.
There surely are folks who come to Atlanta both to search for Miss Scarlett and to pay homage to Dr. King, but that demographic doesn't seem to promise a big enough payoff to make much of a blip on the bling-bling screens of the city's movers and shakers.
Better to steer clear of such things and drop $15 million on an effort to contrive something at once distinctive and generic, what one of the local marketing gurus calls a contemporary "collective personality" for a place that never had one in the first place and certainly doesn't have one now.
Ultimately, of course, the success of this effort will be calculated not according to the accuracy or authenticity of its product, but in terms of the stacks of hundred-dollar bills that the slogan du jour seems to pull in. It's too bad reality isn't part of the equation. I think "Atlanta: It's all About the Benjamins" has a really nice ring to it.
James C. Cobb is the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This article is adapted from his upcoming book, "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity" (Oxford University Press, $30), which will be published in September.
As biz basks in Hotlanta, folks feel chill
James C. Cobb - For the Journal-Constitution
Tuesday, April 5, 2005
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce Web site gushes that the
just-completed session of the General Assembly was
"extra-extraordinary" for the state's "business community."
Indeed, like their role models in Washington, on their maiden
legislative voyage, our Republican leaders in Hotlanta seem to have
relied on Calvin Coolidge's assertion that "the business of America
is business" as their primary navigational principle. Among other
things, our lawmakers made it harder for regular folks to win damage
claims against health care providers and other businesses, file
class-action suits, or appeal operating permits issued to
environmentally suspect industries. Too many people made too much of
a stink over a plan to make mega-handouts for new industries even
more secretive than they already are, but the legislators did manage
to sweeten an already sugary pot with some additional incentive
Although the pro-business types backed off on a proposal to
eliminate corporate income taxes, they did manage to scale them back
to the tune of about $1 billion over the next decade. Finally, lest
socially conscious employers be tempted to set a bad example, the
General Assembly forbade municipalities to give preference to
contractors who promise to hire people at more than the legally
stipulated minimum wage.
If business and industry seem like the big winners after this year's
legislative scramble, they weren't exactly hurting before it.
Despite the lingering image of Dixie as a place where farmers still
call the shots, over the last half-century, no part of the country
has been more attuned to the needs of American capitalists.
In a ranking last fall based on the ease and cost of operation in
each state, a poll of corporate real estate execs placed Georgia
second only to Texas in terms of the overall attractiveness of its
business climate. All told, the old Confederacy accounted for seven
of the top ten slots in the survey.
Given the Chamber of Commerce's insistence that "as business
prospers, employees and their families prosper," one might expect
that capturing the heart of corporate America would translate into
prosperity, health and happiness for those fortunate enough to live
in one of these pro-business states. One would be wrong, however.
United Health Foundation rankings show Georgia and the South's six
other top-ranked climates for business accounting for six of the
nation's eight-highest high school dropout rates (we take a back
seat to South Carolina), six of its twelve-highest infant mortality
rates, and four of its nine-highest incidences of infectious
disease. Although Georgia ranks eighth and fourth, respectively, in
the latter two categories, lest our business climate appear to be
infected by the virus of fiscal liberalism or even compassionate
conservatism, Georgia stands an unrepentant fiftieth in public
health spending per capita in the United States.
Before they go online to praise our legislators for turning Georgia
into a corporate capitalist's dream come true, maybe the good folks
at the chamber and their eager-to-please pals in the General
Assembly can take a crack at explaining the striking association
between an apparently robust business environment and a decidedly
frail social one. Otherwise, I might begin to fear that if this
state's climate gets any balmier for business, at some point a lot
of other folks might find it has become altogether too frigid for
> James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at
the University of Georgia.
NOT THE CHURCH BUT THEIR CHURCH
The lawyers who are trying to convince the Supreme Court that the historical importance of the Ten Commandments justifies their placement in public buildings and spaces may have a point, but only in the broadest, most abstract sense. The actual words and actions of those who are pushing local leaders into constitutionally dubious and sometimes expensive positions on this issue reveal a very different motivation for putting the commandments in government buildings and facilities. In fact, it seems that a letter that I wrote to the Hartwell Sun last October after the Hart County Commission voted to allow “Ten Commandments Georgia” to place a copy of the commandments in our courthouse might actually apply to a lot of places:
“When I was a little boy, my mama, who taught Sunday School in Hart County for well over half her life, used to tell me the parable of the Pharisee and the publican that Jesus used in trying to get through to a group who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Wanting to be sure that everyone in the temple knew of the godly life that he lived, the Pharisee actually used his prayer to praise not God, but himself, bragging about his large tithes and frequent fasting and ostentatiously thanking the Lord that he was not a sinner like others in the temple, including the lowly, corrupt publican tax collector. The publican, meanwhile, stood “afar off,” and daring not even to look upward, beat upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It should be especially noteworthy that Jesus explained that it was not the Pharisee, but the publican who “went down to his house justified . . . for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
I couldn’t help but think of this parable when I read of the circumstances surrounding our County Commission’s vote to authorize the placement of a copy of the Ten Commandments in our courthouse. In this case, a group of overproud and overbearing zealots has succeeded in intimidating our Commissioners into taking an action about which several of them clearly had grave and justifiable misgivings. In fact, although the sense of immediate physical menace may not have been as great, this incident strikes me as not all that different from what happened a few years back when an angry mob bullied the same body into shelving a land-use planning initiative that our county so obviously needed.
I was not surprised that one of the Commissioners admitted that he had capitulated on the Commandments for fear of being called a “heathen,” because the crowd he was dealing with usually gets its way by threatening to condemn anyone who dares to believe and behave differently than they do as an infidel. In reality, posting the Ten Commandments in the seat of local government is not about encouraging people to lead a moral and upright life so much as a way of serving notice that, around here, there is only one definition of such a life and anyone who wants to think or act otherwise can expect no more than second-class citizenship at best.
The issue here is not even so broad as “separation of church and state,” for those, including one county commission candidate whose ads say as much, who want to destroy this principle and bring the two together aren’t really talking about the Church, but their church. What they seem to envision is not a formal marriage between the state and organized religion in general, but a shotgun wedding between government and a particular set of fundamentalist beliefs, which, while not necessarily peculiar to any single denomination, are far from universal throughout even the Christian world.
Regardless of the setting, I know that my mother would have been pained to see this manipulative perversion of the Christianity that she not only professed but practiced every day of her life, and I am absolutely certain that she would not want me simply to stand by while the place she loved with all her heart was taken over by a bunch of latter-day Pharisees who have no thought for the interests of anyone who does not share their self-righteous and intolerant agenda. She believed Hart County was better than this, and so do I.“
I can only hope that the good justices in Washington feel the same way about America as a whole.
JAMES C. COBB IS SPALDING DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR HISTORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 9, 2003 Sunday Home Edition
SECTION: @issue; Pg. 7D
LENGTH: 900 words
HEADLINE: Miller's beef about Dems, South is too lean
BYLINE: JAMES COBB
SOURCE: For the Journal-Constitution
For a guy who was actually there, Sen. Zell Miller apparently has forgotten or, worse, revised key moments in Southern politics during the past 40 years. In his "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat," Miller also seems to have constructed an image of the Southerner that ignores tens of thousands of people who actually voted for Miller these many decades.
Let's look at the fate of the facts in Zell's hands.
Miller points out that in 1960, Georgia gave John F. Kennedy a higher percentage of its vote than he received in his home state of Massachusetts and argues that had he not been assassinated, Kennedy "could have carried Georgia a second time."
Whoa there, senator! First, unlike Georgia, Massachusetts was a two-party state in 1960 and had gone nearly 60 percent for Eisenhower in 1956. As for Kennedy's showing in Georgia, let's keep in mind that in 1960 JFK didn't exactly have a stellar record on civil rights. In fact, despite Kennedy's highly symbolic phone call to Coretta Scott King while her husband was in the Georgia State Penitentiary, Atlanta's black precincts actually went for Richard M. Nixon that year.
A few years later Kennedy had sent troops to Oxford, Miss., and Bombingham and pressed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Had he lived and run again, Kennedy would not have benefited in Georgia from the opposition to the Civil Rights Act voiced by a certain congressional candidate in 1964. Ironically enough, that same candidate --- one Zell Miller --- is now accusing some of President Bush's Democratic critics of "demagogy pure and simple."
We don't know what "could" have happened in 1964, but we do know what did. South Georgia, for example, which had given 73 percent of its vote to JFK in 1960, gave 62 percent to Barry Goldwater four years later.
Not only do we know what happened in 1964, but we also know why. The white Southerners who abandoned the Democratic Party in 1964 didn't leave because they thought the Democrats stood for "big government" or high taxes or were "too liberal and beholden to special-interest groups."
Most of them left because the Democrats finally stopped just talking about civil rights and actually did something about it. Not only did they leave because of race, but, although few will admit it, it is because of race that, in presidential elections at least, they show no real sign of coming back.
Contrast this with the behavior of black voters, who, in the years since 1964, have never failed to give the Democratic Party less than 83 percent of their vote. Here in Georgia, when Al Gore's brain trust wrote the state off in 2000, black voters turned out in large numbers to clip Bush's coattails a bit and help to ensure that Miller, the junior senator from Georgia, didn't have to bother himself with a runoff campaign.
By no stretch of anybody's imagination is Zell Miller a racist, but like many contemporary commentators, when he refers to Southerners, what he really means is white Southerners. Otherwise, why would Miller insist that "obviously, Southerners believe the national Democratic Party does not share their values" when black voters are far and away the South's most loyal Democrats?
Miller makes much of the Democrats' failure to win a single Southern state in 1972, 1984, 1988 and 2000. But in truth, they could have swept the South in all but the latter contest and still lost, just as Bill Clinton could have gone 0-fer in Dixie in 1992 and 1996 and still have been elected. I fail to see why a Democratic Party that writes off Southern whites is any less "national" than a Republican Party that, despite a little lip service, effectively does the same to African-Americans all over the country.
Miller's profile of the Southern voter --- white, conservative, suspicious of government programs and guidelines, sensitive to condescension --- takes no apparent account of black voters, who are not so troubled by what Miller calls "big government" and "too liberal" policies. Nor does Miller's sketch include the hordes of Northern white in-migrants who, while often conservative, are generally less likely to get as exorcised as some members of the Southern right over issues such as gun control or legal abortion.
Like Miller and a lot of other Southerners, black and white, I have long since had a gut full of the arrogant self-righteousness of many Northern liberal Democrats, and I certainly don't fit Howard Dean's stereotype of "white folks in the South who drive pickups with Confederate flag decals on the back." (The sticker on my pickup says, "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Jimmy Buffett.")
Miller scoffed on "Meet the Press" that Dean "knows as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday," but Dean is right on the money when he says that working-class Southern whites "ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don't have health insurance and their kids need better schools, too."
Dean is also correct in observing that his party can win in the South only if "white working families" join "African-American families . . . under the Democratic tent." Unfortunately for the Democrats, one of the key figures who could help to make this happen is no longer under the tent himself.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
February 23, 2003 Sunday Home Edition
SECTION: @issue; Pg. 1E
LENGTH: 782 words
HEADLINE: SOUTHERN IDENTITY: On flag, look ahead, not back
BYLINE: JAMES C. COBB
SOURCE: For the Journal-Constitution
If Gov. Sonny Perdue's aim is truly to be an "instrument of reconciliation," holding a popular referendum on one of the most divisive issues in the state's history seems a mighty peculiar way to go about it.
Anyone who pays much attention to black-white interaction in the South is likely to note that leaders of both groups find it easier to agree about programs for the present or plans for the future than on the meaning of the past and the ways in which it should be represented.
A couple of years ago, the old civil rights battleground of Selma, Ala., seemed to be making real progress when it elected James Perkins Jr. as its first African-American mayor. Perkins' promises to promote racial harmony immediately ran into a major obstacle, however, in the form of a dispute over the placement of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest on city property. Such examples of controversies about the past derailing efforts at biracial cooperation abound throughout the old Confederacy.
The division most likely to result from a referendum on the Georgia flag is obviously racial, but that won't be the only one, by any means. This issue is certain to highlight the differences in status, outlook and interests between the white folks with spiffy new metro-suburban addresses and those who have roots in places such as Rock Branch and Junction City.
The hard-core flaggers in the countryside couldn't care less about an NAACP boycott, but the commercial and professional types in Atlanta aren't exactly spewing defiance. At the very least, the flag vote and the yearlong prelude to it may put some serious stretch marks on the unlikely blue-collar/white-collar coalition that put Perdue in office in the first place.
The governor may have appeased some voters with his referendum recommendation. But my guess is that, on balance, his decidedly un-Trumanesque, "the buck stops over yonder" effort to dump the toxic byproduct of his political opportunism in the Legislature's back yard hasn't garnered many new friends in that body.
One thing is certain: if a referendum is scheduled, the prospects for any legislative attempt during the next year to address such realities as abused children, mounting joblessness or struggling schools will be freighted one way or another by where its sponsors stand on the scrap of cloth that hangs over the state Capitol.
Regardless of the outcome, will a referendum actually change the implications of that scrap of cloth for any of those who have been fighting about it all this time? For that matter, how much real consensus can we reasonably expect in a society where two groups have experienced a common history in such different ways?
By themselves, neither the Confederate carving on Stone Mountain nor the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change could adequately symbolize Atlanta. Yet together, in juxtaposition, they seem to me to do the job fairly well.
For Georgians and all Southerners, black or white, the greatest practical hope of healing or at least minimizing their divisions lies in learning how to disagree about the past without losing sight of their common stake in the future.
One key to this may be avoiding bitter confrontations about historical symbols in which neither side has room for compromise or the option of a dignified retreat. In such showdowns, the group with the superior clout is too likely to use brute political or economic force to impose or defend its particular version of history to the exclusion of any other. Power over the past, after all, is but a reflection of power over the present.
The Perdue camp does not see its proposed referendum as a prelude to such a winner-take-all, my-way-or-the-highway affair because it is to be officially "nonbinding."
Despite such weasel-wording, it remains to been seen whether the Legislature would dare treat a statewide popular vote in favor of changing the flag as anything other than a mandate. If not, and a clear majority of voters opt for the post-1956 banner, will there be any real choice for them other than running up the same flag that has been a fairly constant source of rancor and dispute for nigh on to 15 years?
The governor may sincerely believe that the best way to deal with old wounds is to open them up and pick at them, but personally, I think the good old healing hands of time are the indicated treatment in this case. If that doesn't work out, we can always take just a fraction of what the flag referendum would cost and send a nice check to Oral Roberts.
James C. Cobb is the Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South at the University of Georgia.
posted by JC at 8:43 AM
Friday, March 04, 2005
THOUGHTS FROM FOLKS WHO HAVE THE GOOD SENSE TO AGREE WITH ME
A natural selection: intelligent design
By Edward J. Larson
August 26, 2005
THE MODERN neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has taken it on the chin recently. Public opinion surveys suggest that only about one in 10 Americans believe that life developed through purely natural processes, without divine assistance, as evolution posits. Over the last year, state and local school boards across the country have decided to open their biology classes to supernatural explanations for life. A few weeks ago, President Bush added his voice to the chorus, saying schools should teach intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution.
Americans simply don't find Darwinism very appealing. According to modern Darwinists, random genetic variations chosen in a survival-of-the-fittest process created all living things, even humans — with nothing guaranteeing our emergence at the top of the heap. Darwinism is not a comforting world view for conscious, egotistical beings like us.
Humans are mammals with a sense of purpose. That is our nature. Many theories of modern science have challenged our sense of purpose. Astronomy has moved us from the center of a finite universe to the periphery of a minor galaxy in a vast and expanding universe, which may itself be only one of many universes and merely a blip in time that came from and will return to nothingness. Geology and paleontology have pushed back our origins beyond any meaningful comprehension. Darwinism leaves life itself to chance. No wonder people rebel against such ideas.
Intelligent design, despite its proponents' claims to the contrary, isn't modern science. It's part of that rebellion against it. Scientists look for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Their best explanations, if they survive rigorous testing, become scientific theories.
Intelligent design, in contrast, is a critique of all that. Its proponents may challenge the sufficiency of evolutionary explanations for the origin of species but they have not — and cannot — offer testable alternative explanations. The best they can offer is the premise that, if no natural explanation suffices, then God must have done it. Maybe God did do it, but if so, it's beyond science.
This is where lots of people would like to be: beyond science. According to doctrinaire Darwinism, we arose from the muck by chance, we struggled to exist, we will return to dust and probably everything that can remember us or be influenced by our efforts ultimately will end. Intelligent design, on the other hand, posits that we came from a designer who transcends nature's limits and offers us hope that we will live beyond those limits.
It should come as little surprise which of these alternatives many Americans choose to believe and want to teach to their children — especially if they're handed reasons to doubt Darwinism by credentialed scholars such as those in the intelligent design movement. President Bush wants schools to offer hope for eternity alongside Darwinism. People prefer purpose in their origins; they see purposefulness in nature. No wonder they want it taught in their schools. But that does not make it science.
Science is a particular way of looking at natural phenomena. It seeks testable, repeatable — and therefore exploitable — explanations. That is why science is valuable. It tells us how to use nature. What we know about evolution allows us to combat pathogens by discovering ways to disable or eliminate them. What we know about evolution allows us to understand ecological relationships and preserve habitats. What we know about evolution allows us to explore genetic relationships and push the frontiers of biotechnology.
Whether or not we like science, we need it — and the theory of evolution is part of the package. Modern biologists looking at nature through the lens of Darwinism have transformed our lives through breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and genetics.
As a critique of science, intelligent design could have a place in the classroom too — but not as an alternative to the theory of evolution. Rather, good biology teachers could use issues raised by the intelligent design movement to help their classes better understand Darwinism.
In the end, science students must learn how to see nature as scientists see it. Anything else would be … purposeless.
EDWARD J. LARSON is a historian of law, science and medicine at the University of Georgia. His book, "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion," won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1998.