Today’s news media are suckers for feel-good stories. Last week we were
treated to two of them. First, there was the dog who fell overboard from its
master’s boat, then managed to swim five miles to an island, and was later
reunited with his family.
Then there was the precious story about a lovable 72-year-old Ku Klux
Klansman who, after forty five years, was reunited with one of the victims of his
racist violence. As far as I’m concerned, the wrong dog fell overboard.
Unbelievably, Elwin Wilson has become a media darling, much like Joe the
Plumber, except that Joe never savagely beat black people.
Nevertheless, good old Elwin made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit with
Congressman John Lewis, and apologized for his Klan activities, which included
smashing Lewis’ face during a 1961 Freedom Ride. ABC’s Good Morning
America was there to chronicle the landmark meeting, and so were journalists
from throughout the country who wrote of Wilson in heroic terms.
Pardon me for a moment while I throw up.
Hey folks, this is the guy who hung a black doll from his driveway to
intimidate African Americans. He also brutally beat a seminary student, routinely
threw cantelopes at passing black children, and severely injured a little
African American child with a jack handle.
So why the hell is everyone buying into Wilson’s high-profile apology?
Perhaps because we are living in the Age of Obama, where some African-Americans
believe it’s OK to turn the other cheek when it comes to past violence by
whites. But one black legislator told me privately that apologies such as
Wilson’s are merely cosmetic. In his mind, they are neither genuine nor
substantive. I’m also surprised that we as a nation, and the media in
particular, have such short memories, because we’ve seen it all before.
After a lifetime of spewing hate speech and defying federal court orders to
integrate his state’s schools, Alabama Governor George Wallace finally made
peace with those he had treated so badly. It didn’t hurt his cause any that
he had been the victim of an assassin’s bullet while once running for the
Presidency, so his wheelchair-bound apology gained him sympathy among black
voters, many of whom supported his bid for another term as Governor.
Wallace is the man who once proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow, and segregation forever.” His fiery rhetoric sparked violence,
including bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, which killed four
little black girls. It’s no wonder that, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King
referred to Wallace as “the most dangerous racist in America”. Even John
Lewis, the man who recently forgave Elwin Wilson, said of Wallace, “George Wallace
never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun. But he created the climate and
the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who
were simply trying to exercise their Constitutional rights”.
Senator Strom Thurmond was also dangerous. In 1948 when President Truman
was on the verge of moving the nation toward integration, Thurmond ran as a
third party candidate under the Dixiecrat banner. Though he lost the election,
he accomplished his goal, which was to forestall the civil rights movement.
Thurmond’s hold over Southern legislators hamstrung Congress and the
President for nearly two more decades. Time lost. Lives lost. Thanks Strom.
And thanks for softening your image on race relations when you reached your
80’s and 90’s. You became the poster child for good old boy contrition, and
the media bought into your act.
And then there was Senator Robert Byrd who waited until he was old and
entrenched in power to apologize for his support of the Klan. Said Byrd, “I know
now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I can’t erase what
happened.” That’s true, you jerk, but you could have come clean about your
past, and then resigned from the Senate. That would have been an apology
of substance. Instead, you orchestrated an atonement that helped you get
re-elected, and endeared you to the Washington press corps.
And that brings us back to the esteemed Elwin Wilson. During last week’s
media circus, Wilson explained his racist acts of violence, by saying, “I
guess it was just the crowd I ran with”. The crowd? Wilson was a grown man
when he was beating up on defenseless children, not some teenager who liked to
roll the neighbor’s yard at Halloween. True enough, Wilson was born into
hate. His grandfather, father, and brother were all active in the KKK, but
that still doesn’t excuse him from having made bad choices. Some things a man
just knows are wrong, and throwing jack handles at black children is wrong at
any age, on any planet, in any era. Still, Congressman Lewis and other
African Americans accepted Wilson’s better-late-than-never apology. Men like Lewis are rare.
I just couldn’t be that generous with my forgiveness.
I recall interviewing Darryl Hunt shortly after he was released from prison
after having served nearly twenty years for a crime he didn’t commit. I
told him that if I were he, I would be filled with hate for the whites who
rushed to judgment.
But Darryl explained that he had found God and was blessed with the love of
a good woman. He was at peace with those who had perpetrated his wrongful
arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. Darryl accepted monetary reparations,
but he also accepted some cosmetic apologies. I would have accepted the
former, and rejected the latter.
Following his savage beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police, Rodney
King asked the public, ”Can’t we all get along?” I’m sure that’s
why Darryl Hunt didn’t go on a shooting spree following his release from
prison. And I’m sure that’s why John Lewis accepted Elwin Wilson’s disgusting
So if brave black men like Hunt and Lewis are too diplomatic to say the
right thing, let me say something for them, and on behalf of Southern white males
who despise racism. To you Thurmonds, Byrds, Wallaces, and Wilsons of the
world, let me just say from the bottom of my heart, “Screw you guys and the
horses you rode in on!”
My words for the media are almost as harsh. You guys who make sympathetic
characters out of old racist crackers, are irresponsible, and I’m ashamed to
share the same profession with you. Stick to glorifying dogs who swim back
to their families, and resist the urge to do human interest stories about men
who are anything but human.