I’m in the midst of reading a riveting book about race and Mississippi titled, “Sons of Mississippi.” The author, Paul Hendrickson, selects a Charles Moore photograph of seven Mississippi sheriffs standing at Ole Miss when James Meredith was trying to integrate the school in 1962. The man are all clearly anusesâ€”anxious to beat the snot out of the uppity Negro who dares violate their sacred institution. In the book, Hendrickson tries tracking the sheriffs down to see how, 40 years later, they feel about past actions.
Again, it’s riveting materialâ€”and the more I read, the more I see parallels to today’s political climate across America. In and of themselves, the seven men were pretty ordinaryâ€”small-town, blue-collar law-enforcement officials who desperately wanted to feel important. Yes, they mostly hated blacks, and desperately wanted any civil rights efforts to be suppressed. But they were, beyond all else, cowardsâ€”men who could talk trash and pose menacingly as a collective group, where they were protected by the safety in numbers. Place them face to face, in a sound-proof room, with a Meredith or MLK or Malcolm X … they certainly cower. It’s how the bigots and small-minded among us usually work.
Now, I’m not saying this is the same thing. Really, I’m not. But the current texture to what is being said about Barack Obama feels very, very Ole Miss, 1962 to me. I’m not talking race, specifically, but the power of fear generated by a mob of boobs influencing an even larger mob of boobs. Just two days ago, Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida GOP, issued a statement saying that Obama, in planning on giving a speech to the nation’s schools, was trying to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” This came before Greerâ€”or anyoneâ€”had even seen Obama’s speech, which is supposedly a rallying cry for today’s students to work hard.
Not all that long ago, the president of the United States addressing kids was considered to be (gasp!) a good idea. Even though I consider George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to be two of the worst leaders we’ve ever had, I would have never criticized either for telling student to go hard … to work, work, work … to strive for decency … to embrace life. Hell, it’s probably something our elected officials should do more often. But, again, this isn’t about right and wrong or up and down. It’s about fear; about a small group of conservatives seeing that the best way to tear down the Democrats is to tear down their dark-skinned, funny-named leader. It’s about questioning whether he was born here; about calling his health care ideals socialisticâ€”all the while praising other universal programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. Men like Jim Greer certainly know Barack Obama isn’t a socialist (and if you think he’s a socialist because he supports a government health-case option, go here and read carefully). This goes without saying. But men like Jim Greer also know that many, many, many boobs out there will fall for it; that they fear the president and will buy whatever cheap suit is on sale.
In the 1960s, anxieties and hostilities ruled much of the nation, as a band of conservative “leaders” developed their so-called Southern Strategy to accomplish their goals. So what if it meant dividing a nation? Lying? Misleading? Typecasting and stereotyping? So what?
It’s 2009. Times change. But not much.