This stereotype of sixties youth as
progressive and permissive...
most young people in the nineteen
sixties did not march for civil rights
or protest the war in Vietnam. They
had no sandals to autograph.
Like young people in any era, most
of them were like their parents.
Louis Menand, “Been There: The
Presidential Election of 1968”
come out the front door of the house I rented, turn and walk along
its length, on a sidewalk heading down toward the main strip
McFarland Boulevard. If not in a hurry to get to the McFarland Mall,
about two blocks away, I’d look to my left, toward a house, a
distance from the pavement, mostly shielded by shrubbery and trees.
Sometimes I’d see a hand waving. I’d wave back. Always,
always take a quick glance at the large flag. Red, white, and blue.
The flag of the Confederacy.
I’ve not lived in Chicago for
almost two decades now and wasn’t present for a chunk of years
after 1972; however, I remember Governor Dan Walker, the man so
corrupt, Daley didn’t support him. Walker ran against Paul
Simon who many considered a more thoughtful Democratic. Walker
decides he wants the popular vote, so he walks across Illinois and
sleeps at farmhouses. As good a spectacle as the ones Trump stages
today in cities and towns comfortable with the idea of white
Walker is pending prison time when
he signs up to run another term in 1976.
So Old Man Daley points to Secretary of State Michael Howlett. The
Republican James Thompson. The powerful Machine that Democratic
presidential candidates in the past could rely on to get the job
done, failed to deliver the state to the Democrats. I voted
for Thompson. So did a lot of Democrats and Blacks, in an attempt to
defy the Machine. A no-win situation in the end for blacks and the
poor in the city of Chicago. A lesson in electoral politics for me. I
remembered marched in downtown Chicago and rode the bus to
Springfield a few years before as a fifteen year old. And now I’m
voting, playing the game, accepting the system’s rule, one way
or the other.
Walker is eventually sent to a
Federal “farm” of sorts—a Federal prison—ending,
at least temporarily, according to The New York Times, his
“lavish” suburban lifestyle.
is nothing more than the expansion of corruption.
More than a decade ago, having just
returned from teaching at Alemaya University and at Addis Ababa
University in Ethiopia, a then friend advised that I go south to the
campus where, decades before, she completed her undergraduate degree.
Try an all black college! Independent, financially as well as
politically, (and cardiologist don’t come cheap), I found
myself applying to teach at a black Presbyterian college in
I couldn’t miss the framed
face of the white Presbyterian founder of the campus. He’s to
be reckoned with, for sure. Aside from the fact that I’m a
socialist, a black feminist, anti-imperialist, I’ve been a
recovering Catholic since eighth grade (1968). I’m not
religious. At this campus, however, it was mandatory to attend
church services held on the campus. All employees and students
in attendance! It turned out to be as frustrating an experience as
the one I encountered in Wisconsin. For one, the campus was literally
across the railway tracks that divided then the poor (mainly black)
from the average (mainly white) citizens of Tuscaloosa. At times,
most times, I felt as I was assigned to teach high school literature,
and not in my area of expertise. I was assigned to teach early
American literature (1620-1776
instead of 1900-1945). Teach the colonizers, that is, the thoughts of
the Puritans, Captain Smith, Robert Beverly, Cotton Mather, and
company—and without reference to any critical discourse!
the English department, I was mildly surprised to find a good many
white faculty. My office was next to another new faculty, also
a black woman and middle-aged, and both of us had doctorate degrees.
Yet, we were often called “Mrs_____” or “Miss_____”
while the white tech worker across the hall from us was called
“Dr________.” I don’t think he even taught a course
there. I was assigned a textbook and told to just get to it!
Not long after the term began, a
black woman poet and feminist from late 1960s and early 1970s era,
who had no idea who I was, didn’t want to know my background,
political or personal, announced that she didn’t vote for me!
Big smile from the “sister!” Of course, the two of us
were not alone in the hallway. She had her audience of colleagues.
Such was the atmosphere underneath the facade of unity. It wasn’t
politically sound to identify with an outsider when you need to score
points in order to maintain the cash flow, I suppose.
The then black male president was
fired in 2013. But in 2003, I not only looked out of place and also
sounded like one of those black militant troublemakers from Chicago.
Too many observations. Too many questions. So I wasn’t
surprised when the black conservative, middle-classed, capitalism’s
admiring upholders serving as administrators thought it was time I
should return north.
But I did as much “field work”
as I could during my time there. I couldn’t help but notice how
many street signs bore some version of George Wallace’s name.
It currently seems as if the George
Wallace of his prime years as the Democratic Governor of Alabama has
not only returned but has taken over the White House, appointing to
advisory positions and offices and even the Supreme Court, any and
all who will shout with him unabashedly, “Segregation now,
segregation forever!” No longer is he or his supporters limited
to standing at the front door of Foster Auditorium at the University
George never died. What permitted
him to be George Wallace was just waiting.
On the weekends, I am at the
University of Alabama since I’m a full-time faculty member at
the campus across the railroad tracks. I’m permitted to use the
services of the library. Things are cleaner here, shinier than they
are in that other part of town. Tourist to Tuscaloosa come here. The
Crimson Tide play here. Here too is where Wallace stood, mean faced,
staging a spectacle for the world to see as two blacks Vivian Malone
and James Hood, accepted at the campus, tried to attend on the first
day of classes. Fellow Alabamians cheered Wallace and jeered them.
And even in 2003, forty years later, I didn’t see where I had
anything to cheer about.
So there are versions of Wallace’s
name attached to streets and avenues. Lurleen Wallace, one of his
wives and former governor of Alabama herself between 1967-1968, has a
street named after her. If Wallace is not attached to a street sign,
then the name of the deceased University of Alabama coach, Paul Bear
Bryant is. Papa Bear.
Sometimes, I’d compare notes
with an older black taxi driver. In fact, he was the one
and only taxis driver at the time, operating his own vehicle. A
really good guy. Sharp. Knowledgeable.
What’s this all about? I asked
him, finally. What’s with these street sign names? Some, a
version of the George while others, Bear Bryant?
From the back seat and, looking at
him in the rear view mirror, I could see him smiling—as if to
say, you caught that, huh?
“Oh, yeah.” He turned
his head slightly to the right of him: “And they even think
Elvis is coming back!”
I started to laugh, the response
seemed absurd. But I quickly realized laughter wasn’t
appropriate. Mr.________ didn’t intend to joke about his
observations, in a world that was all too familiar to him. Outside,
the people—pedestrians, drivers, store clerks, bankers,
dentist, young, old, male, female, neighbors, white—suddenly
appeared more real to me than they did before. I had Mr.______’s
eyes now. I imagined the good citizens bracing themselves. Waiting.
Meanwhile, back on campus, I have to
pretend to be praying and mouthing the words to hymns I have never
heard before. At home, in the evenings, I spend time prepping to
teach the value of the Puritan spirit in American literature. Don’t
dare speak out and call the prevalence of white supremacy a reality
operating to maintain the silence.
Louis Menand, The New Yorker,
reminiscing too. In “Been There, The Presidential Election of
1968,” January 8, 2018 issue, he recalls his father and him, in
the basement of their home, watching Lyndon Johnson deliver his
famous speech. Menand watches his father, a liberal and anti-war
activist, as he stands with his back to the television, while father
and son listen to those words, “I will not seek and I will
Menand writes about what happens
It’s 1968. There’s
Eugene McCarthy, Humphrey, and Robert Kennedy. In the streets,
there’s Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, and blacks, too, on
another side of the streets after the assassination of Dr. Martin L.
King, April 4, 1968.
America pauses. Even liberals pause.
In more than a hundred streets, writes Menand, black American
protest. Some died. Some 20 thousand are arrested. On their
televisions white Americans didn’t see people angered at the
injustice of it all. White America saw “disorder.” As he
explains, “large numbers of white Americans did not interpret
this disorder in terms of social justice. They interpreted it as a
breakdown of civil society. The rioters were not black or white; they
were arsonists and looters (who happened to be black).”
In this atmosphere of heightened
fear, came stop plugs, promising calm.
So in the South rose George Wallace,
a screaming defender of white supremacy while Nixon presents himself
as a candidate, favored by white Americans because “favored for
what they might have worried were not such respectable reasons.”
In a 1968 poll, Menand writes, only
three percent of voters who objected to Johnson’s policy in
Vietnam “were also sympathetic to antiwar protesters.”
Those numbers include the writer’s own liberal and antiwar
And then there was Goldwater, writes
Menand. Never far away. Americans reminded themselves of his
opposition to Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. No one wanted to
appear to oppose civil rights or the civil right’s movement.
Instead, make the “the Democratic Party take ownership of it.”
But, as Menand recalls, even the Kennedys saw the peril of
identifying with Dr. King and the link between the anti-war and
anti-poverty. So the country’s attention turns away from
Vietnam, civil rights and poverty. Crime is the issue. “Crime
is wrong and criminals should be punished,” Menand explains.
But for some, the marginalized, the
outsider, the dissent, the expendable, Menand need not explain what
has been visible since the early 1970s as it is audible now. “Crime”
is the Mexican rapists, the Arab, the Muslim, the Honduras mother,
the Haitian father. Of course, the black teen, the Indigenous male.
Reflection on the spilled blood of millions—kidnapped and
exploited Africans, disappeared Chileans, Philippines, Vietnamese,
Koreans, North American Indigenous populations—all this
determination to remain at the top of the food chain, in control,
manipulating hearts and minds, disappears behind the cruel rhetoric
of “crime.” Punish the majority of humanity—for
In 1968, Menand writes, Wallace won
“a third of the vote” in Wisconsin; and in Maryland, he
won “more than forty per cent of the vote.” Voters
dropped Wallace, however, once he choose the former general, Curtis
LeMay as his running mate but not before one reporter described the
Wallace-LeMay “phenomenon” at Madison Square Garden as a
“white, blinding vision.” The reporter continues: “[T]hey
all hate black people, all of them...They’re all afraid, all of
them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The
whole United States is Southern! Anyone who travels with Wallace
these days on his Presidential campaign finds it hard to resist
arriving at the same conclusion.”
You can tap on it, but how do you
justify turning away?
We haven’t come far, from
Wallace to Trump, as Menand suggests. A good many young people pulled
the lever for Wallace, he writes. Just as educated white women cast
their vote with Trump. In the month leading to the presidential
election in 2017, the discussion of the election between my GP and me
ended with her admitting she would vote for Trump and, further, she
couldn’t believe I wouldn’t vote for a white
supremacist! Even Trump the misogynist would receive her vote.
It’s not the presidential
election, but it’s the people, Menand surmises. It’s the
people - “and most people do not change much over time.”
And neither does an unresolved issue at this country’s core, he
So the unthinkable happens in 1968.
Richard Nixon wins the presidential election, writes Menand. “It’s
hard to believe that twelve million people consciously embraced
liberalism in 1964 and consciously rejected it four years later…
we thought that racial injustice and American exceptionalism were on
history’s dust heap, only given a last breath by the election
of Nixon in a crazy and fluky election year.”
And he poses the rhetorical: Where
are all those white liberals who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and
This demographic has gone anywhere,
Menand. Back in 2008, they had waited for someone like Obama to come
along and keep them from reflecting on their past and present effects
of white supremacy on humanity.
That America suffers, as Menand
writes, “under a delusion,” isn’t hard to
contemplate—if we have a citizenry willing to do so. Menand
writes that folks like him thought that discrimination laws would end
discrimination. They that the 1960s youth who protested marched for
civil rights or protested the war in Vietnam. Now he realizes that
most of those young whites were “like their parents.”
Like his parents. They went home, terrified of protest, terrified of
any challenge to the system that has been historically, socially,
culturally, and politically beneficial to their and their families
Citing the 2014 study by political
scientists Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, Menand points to the divide
between the “civil-rights movement” and the
“countermovement.” The latter could be described as
“anti-integrationist” movement in that it includes
racists, but “it also includes many white Americans who
acknowledge the principle of racial equality but resist involuntary
race-mixing, people who accept and even defend de facto segregation.”
You can hear the echo that never
dies: Segregation now! Segregation forever!
I’m not sure I see where the
country is now as a place its never been. I can’t just shrug my
shoulders and move on. Some days I wish I could. But not really. Not
after all these years. Not after all the intimate and social
backlash. Some day history will reckon with blacks who bowed to the
insufferable white supremacy, capitalism, in order to be in the good
graces of the disingenuous white liberals.
And there’s my neighbor (no
different from the current ones), waving beside his Confederate flag
back in 2003. He knew his fellow citizens would come through. Sooner
rather than later.
No more waiting for Elvis now!