Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Most Whites Saw Civil Rights Not in Terms of Black Liberties, but As a Loss of White Freedom": White Southern Response to Civil Rights Act and "Religious Freedom" Debate Today

Read Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 (NY: Knopf, 2006) as the 2016 elections approach, and the parallels between then and now shout to be noticed. There's a clearly discernible line from the period of white Southern reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century, and the political culture of the U.S. in the early 21st century. 

This is yet another election cycle in which we're being told — we've already been told this meme ad nauseam for years now — that there's an angry, aggrieved silent majority out there, seething to tear things apart, because they've been badly served by an economic system that prioritizes the needs of the rich, with "government" aiding and abetting it. In political essay after political essay during this election period, we've been told that it's improper to notice the way in which those who are said to be aggrieved are, quite noticeably, disproportionately white working-class people and not brown and black ones.

We've been told — and we've been told this for years now by the media and political commentators — to act as if race has nothing to do with that seething anger that we're instructed to take seriously, because it's said to come from the belly of the "silent majority." We're being told this — and isn't this astonishing — even as Donald Trump campaigns for the highest office in our land by employing every grossly racist trope he can lay his hands on, as the media keep right on telling us that Race Is Not a Thing.

Here's Sokol on what Lester Maddox, the racist owner of the Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta who refused to serve black patrons and eventually became governor of Georgia, was all about:

Maddox positioned the government as the aggressor and white southerners as victims. The Civil Rights Act gave that brand of "victimology" more resonance, and brought it close to home. A similar appeal carried George Wallace to national political fame, and different forms of it helped Richard Nixon and eventually Ronald Reagan ascend to the presidency. While those powerful politicians did not wield ax handles, they donned various cloaks of "white rights." The "forgotten Americans" and "silent majority" became national forces. The roots of these movements found powerful expression in white resistance to the Civil Rights Act (pp. 226-7).

Sound familiar? Lift this passage out of its historical context and apply it to the 2016 U.S. elections, and you'll see that the very same language of faux victimology — aggrieved working-class people, forgotten Americans, silent majority, for whom it's never about race — that fueled Maddox's "white rights" movement in Georgia is continuing to fuel political leaders like Trump today. How can the white Southern response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not be significant, not deserve remembering, at a moment in American culture at which the cris "All Lives Matter! or "White Lives Matter!" are being mounted with ever more shrill vehemence to counter the claim that this culture repeatedly runs roughshod over black lives as if those lives count for nothing at all? (See Charles Pierce's illuminating comments on this topic at his Politics blog today.)

In case your memory of the specifics of Lester Maddox's story has grown dim, here's a sharp reminder of who he was and what he did from Sokol's book:

If Lester Maddox was largely unknown outside Georgia, he quickly made a name for himself. On the afternoon of July 3 [1964], three black theology students walked toward the door of Maddox's Atlanta restaurant, the Pickrick. Maddox informed them that the restaurant was closed, and the men replied that they would come back at 5:30. Maddox and his customers were ready when they returned. Pistol in hand, Maddox stood outside the doorway and told the men to leave. A crowd of diners congregated outside, each gripping ax handles that had been purchased in the restaurant. A little boy shouted, "I'm gonna kill me a nigger." The black men retreated to the safety of their car, and as they drove away, Maddox swung an ax handle at the Oldsmobile (p 183). 

This was the opening salvo of Maddox's war against the Civil Rights Act. As Sokol also reminds us (p. 184), Maddox was a deeply religious man who had aspirations to be a preacher, who was prone to cite the bible to support his belief that racial segregation is divinely ordained. As did his fellow restaurateur and fellow segregation activist Ollie McClung Sr., Lester Maddox (and millions of other white Southerners) had sincerely held religious beliefs that God wished for the races to remain separate, and that the Civil Rights Act was an attack on religious freedom: Sokol writes, 

Both men saw themselves as champions of freedom, and both thought the civil rights movement – specifically its landmark Civil Rights Act – imperiled their vision of the American dream. Millions of other white southerners agreed (p. 182).

Sounding every bit like the U.S. Catholic bishops today, with their Fortnight for Freedom nonsense that is a rallying cry to religion-based discrimination against women and LGBTQ citizens, Lester Maddox and his counterparts organized marches and movements to rally Americans around the notion of freedom — freedom to discriminate in the name of God. At a huge Fourth of July rally in Atlanta in 1964, Maddox declared, "America will triumph . . . . Freedom will prevail." In a July 11 announcement for the Pickrick in the Atlanta Constitution, he wrote, "Should I go to jail . . . it won’t be Lester Maddox going to jail, nor just the Pickrick closing . . . . It will be freedom and liberty being placed behind bars for LIFE" (p. 185, citing Atlanta Constitution, July 4, 7, 11, 1964).

The following year, in August 1965, Maddox led a march down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street protesting the Civil Rights Act and declaring, "This is a march for freedom!" (p. 232). As Sokol points out,

Maddox came to master most all of the arguments against the Civil Rights Act; he was the very champion of "white rights." The hundreds of ads he ran in the Atlanta Constitution through the 1960s had reached a fever pitch by the time he stood trial in 1964. One July 18 ad drew together many of Maddox's arguments and tactics. He opened by thanking those who called, wrote, or patronized the restaurant, and thereby supported his family’s effort to "remain FREE Americans and protect our 'Civil Rights' " (pp. 225-6, citing Atlanta Constitution, July 18, 1964).

As Sokol also notes, 

Most whites saw civil rights not in terms of black liberties, but as a loss of white freedom (p. 216).


The Civil Rights Act served as a rallying point for assertions of white freedom. The new law wrapped together concerns about black protest, the federal government, and states' rights with worries about freedom and "whiteness" (pp. 224-5).

And so when George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama in 1963 and delivered himself of his famous declaration that he stood for segregation now, segregation tormorrow, and segregation forever, it was freedom he claimed to be serving:

Today I have stood, where Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland . . . we sound the drum for freedom . . . . In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever (as cited, p. 249).

Just as the U.S. Catholic bishops claim to be fighting for an embattled religious freedom today as they continue their war against the right of women to have contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans under the Affordable Care Act and against the right of gay citizens of the U.S. to civil marriage . . . . As I say, draw a line between now and then, between Lester Maddox in the 1960s and Donald Trump (or the U.S. Catholic bishops) today, and you'll see that there are clear historical precedents for what is happening in American political, cultural, and religious life in 2016, and what took place following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The photo of Lester Maddox running off black patrons trying to eat at the Pickrick restaurant in 1964, as he brandishes a pistol, is from an AP file photo.

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