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Est. April 5, 2002
July 19, 2018 - Issue 751

Waiting for Elvis

"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 of Alabama."

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”

I 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.

They’re still here.

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 supremacy.

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.

Progress 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 Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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!

In 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 of Alabama.

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, Critic-at-Large, is 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 not...”

Menand writes about what happens next.

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 parents.

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 existing!

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 adds.

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 2012?

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 survival.

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! Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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