26 June 2003

Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox: Now As Dead As Their Philosophies

Editorial note: I have edited this piece since it first appeared in light of the deaths of Lester Maddox and Maynard Jackson.

People who know me will tell you I do not like to be mean-spirited. I classify myself as an optimist, and even those people with whom I strongly disagree about almost everything, I find I can get along with them in most cases -- and I try to find and capitalise on what I see as the good in them.

This is a bit of a challenge when you are talking about a couple of good ol' boy segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Lester Maddox, but I'll give it a go nonetheless.

In a strange kind of way, I can see where Strom and Lester were coming from most of their lives. Perhaps that's because I grew up around a lot of Southerners though I feel quite detached from them, or maybe it was the timing of my life, growing up as I did in the heart of the civil rights movement both in time (the mid-to-late 60s) and location (mostly Atlanta, Alabama and North Carolina).

Through my mother, I met and knew some of the notable figures of the Civil Rights movement; I knew Lester Maddox quite well, and we frequently socialised with him at his (second) Atlanta restaurant, the Pickerick. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer in the late 70s and closed his restaurant, we naturally assume that would be pretty much the story on him, but as he did all his life, he outfoxed us all; he went to the Bahamas for some experiemental and presumably illegal sheep-brains-injection treatment and miraculously recovered (and lived another quarter-century, as it turned out).

There's not much to say about Lester Maddox that can't be looked up in a history book. Like Thurmond and others of that ilk, you may not like their views but you could be damn sure you were getting the real, unfiltered man when you talked to him. Maybe that's why I strangely miss these guys -- they were the last of the honest-and-proud-of-it politicians. No waffling with these guys, though ironically they both "waffled" on the biggest position of their lives -- but they did so honestly and humbly, like Alabama Governor George Wallace. Their version of "remorse" for their segregationist past may have been pretenious and condescending, but it was all they knew how to do and they came by it sincerely, not via their finely-honed senses of opportunism.

If I had to put one word to the life and mind of Lester Maddox, that word would be "crafty." When he was in the thick of the civil-rights struggle he balanced his position with the will of the public by declaring that he would serve blacks at his (original) Pickrick restaurant -- if they came in on a unicycle with an pickaxe handle balanced on their heads (a trick he could do). And when some of them did, he kept to his word and served them as honoured guests with not a hint of prejudice. It may have been a strange sort of chivalry, but at least he had some.

When the tide turned and his outlook was put out to pasture, Maddox spent his requisite time "in the wilderness" and returned with a sincerely-changed heart. I had my doubts when I first met him, but he won me over. That's not to say that he ever really understood blacks or the black experience, but he did grasp the injustice he had doled out and he was sorry he had done so. When he opened his second restaurant, if he came up to a black family's table and asked them how it was and they said "it was just Pickericking," he would pick up the entire tab, or so the story goes. He used to autograph pickaxe handles and got rich serving fried chicken and watermelon (of all things). After his reformation he was careful to treat his black employees and customers fairly, and he won a lot of goodwill in the process -- a real-life Grinch story, in a way.

Thinking about Maddox and his passing reminded me of the important people of that era who has also touched my life. Again through my mother, I met and got to know Jimmy Carter and his family (she was friends with "Miss Lillian"; Alabama Governor George Wallace; Colonel Harland Sanders of KFC fame (she turned down jobs caring for both of them). I have in my life also met (briefly or socially) MLK compatriots such as former Atlanta Mayors Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Julien Bond and Rev. Hosea Williams. When I was a teen, I even appeared in a film about the assassination of Medgar Evers -- playing a junior Klansman! So in a funny way, whenever one of these figures dies -- regardless of which side of the race debate they were on -- I feel a small part of myself dies with them.

From the time I was very young, I've always felt that I was as close as a white guy could be to "colour-blind" when it comes to race. I certainly have my prejudices (everybody does, don't kid yourself), but I try to apply them to people's behaviour or intelligence or lifestyle rather than their skin colour. So, for example, I'm much more likely to sneer at some poor white trailer trash than I am a working-but-poor black family. Some would say (and I might agree) that this sort of prejudice isn't any better than racial prejudice. So I work on it, and I try always to remember that even the dumbest, hickest, most racist, fascist, homophobic sports-loving fatso sonofabitch probably has some knowledge, insight or skill that I do not possess and could benefit from.

So far, I've not been able to rid myself of all prejudices -- but as I get older I find that I am slowly but steadily improving on my humility, which makes up for a lot of those prejudicial weaknesses IMHO.

Strom Thurmond is one of the few people I came to really hate on an individual level, for a number of reasons -- he was one of those rare breed of men who not only fed on racial hatred, thrived on it, but was proud of it. And though in the public's eyes he may have "reformed" with the times and learned to accept black people, I've met too many of those old-time good ol' boy racists to be fooled -- Thurmond learned to tolerate blacks, but (not so) secretly, he never accepted them as equal with whites.

But the reason I came to loathe him was not really his fault per se -- it was misdirected anger at the people of South Carolina who kept re-electing the man at least 25 years beyond the time he really could do them any good. Even in his prime, he was a backwards, knee-jerk, furriner-hatin', mean-spirited bastard of a conservative congressman (and that was before he became a Republican!) and he only got worse as the 70s ended.

But then he became a doddering, manipulated tool of the far-right lunatic wing of the GOP. And the voters let him do that. Shame on him, and shame on them. If you're going to elect a conversative Senator, go ahead -- but at least elect one that can make his own decisions.

On the other hand, there's no denying that Strom Thurmond saw -- and was part of -- an awful lot of American history. Leno-esque lame jokes about how he only just missed the signing of the Constitution aside, Strom Thurmond was in Congress for 48 years, from 1954 on. He was a political enemy of Harry Truman, single-handedly opened the South up for the Republicans to creep in (a malady that grows worse with each passing day), and served in political office through five major wars and ten presidents. He was alive when the Wright Brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, not far from where he grew up. I'm sorry, but you just have to admire that.

Thus, as a piece of living history, I'm sorry he's gone. And despite my strong disagreement with his views, I'm sorry his 100th birthday party was ruined by that ass Trent Lott. I would have loved to have met Strom Thurmond and asked him about his life, about how a solidly progressive FDR Democrat turned into a far-right conservative, about the tragedy of the loss of his first wife, about becoming a father again at such an advanced age (oops, turns out he fathered a black baby in his youth! OMG, what a frickin' hypocrite!). Mostly I wish I could have asked him about all the incredible sights he had seen in his life, but of course the time for that was probably at least 20 years ago if not more. His aides operated him like a puppet the for at least the last 10 years of his Senate career.

In many ways I feel like I got some insight into Strom's worldview by knowing Lester Maddox reasonably well. They really were two examples of a breed of Southerner that is now (at last!) passing into memory. That civil rights figure and exact opposite Maynard Jackson should happen to pass away the same week would probably be considered "uppity" by them if they were around to comment. :)

I was in Atlanta when Maynard Jackson became the first-ever black mayor. Though I was too young to fully appreciate his first term's accomplishments, I got two other chances -- he was re-elected twice, skipped a couple terms on behalf of his pal Andrew Young, and returned for a final term in 1990.

What Jackson will be primarily remembered for is his aggressive use of his office to dismantle the good-ole-boy network of city government contracting. He insisted on helping black-owned businesses get some of the pork that Atlanta handed out, even in partnership with white-owned businesses, and thus introduced a model of affirmative action in government hiring that has gone on to become the de-facto standard of government contract-awarding today. And though the current system still has problems and abuses, it opened the door for a lot of successful black- and minority-owned businesses to succeed. The black, hispanic and single-female middle class in this country owes a lot to Maynard Jackson.

What I remember most about him is that he was a larger-than-life figure (over 300 pounds most of his adult life) who was both extraordinarily positive and happy, and an untiring advocate for Atlanta and her people (of all races). He was absolutely convinced that Atlanta was the best city on earth, full of the finest people -- and this from a man who was in office during two of Atlanta's darkest moments: the child-killing spree of Wayne Williams, and the bombing of the Atlanta Olympics (he was instrumental in having brought the Olympics to Atlanta during his final term of office). His belief in Atlanta as a underrated major metropolis was infectious, and helped bring the major airport, Olympic renovations and a significant raising of Atlanta's status as the major hub and capitol of the South to it.

Love em or hate em, all three of these men played major roles in shaping the destiny of America in the 20th century. Few among us will ever get that kind of opportunity. Their loss is -- without question -- bittersweet.

No comments: