What is there to be said? Other than, of course, every day is Groundhog Day now.
Six Of One
Half of us believe this is a white supremacist nation, with dark-skinned people facing a daily Sisyphean battle. The other half flat-out doesn’t see it.
Take a wild guess which demographics align themselves with what side of that debate.
Both Sides Now
The Loved One and I watched a pretty decent historical movie the other night, All the Way. It’s the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency set against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle. LBJ’s campaign slogan in 1964 was “All the way with LBJ!” Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston stars as LBJ and, as if I needed to tell you, he nails the very complicated, multi-layered Texan. One day Cranston’ll be cast as god and he’ll nail that role as well.
Anyway, the narrative shows LBJ cajoling, sweet-talking, bullying, pontificating, and outright lying his way to getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a very unwilling Congress. Cast as the antagonist is Frank Langella as Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, whom LBJ calls, affectionately, Uncle Dick.
Langella’s Russell comes across as a stately old sage, hidebound, sure, but really not a bad guy. There’s a scene in the Senate lounge where a few other southern senators are grousing about how passage of the Act would annihilate the Democratic Party and ensure the election of Barry Goldwater that coming November. One of the senators drops the N-bomb and Langella/Russell reams him: Don’t ever use that language in public again or else “they” will use it as ammunition against us, calling us uneducated beasts.
Sure, the movie portrays Russell as a major hurdle before passage. Yet LBJ is able to bring him around and persuade him to bring along the other southern senators. As such, there’s almost a sense of pity for Russell in the movie, as if the poor old bird’s time is passing and even he can see the new world opening up in the United States.
In a lot of ways, it’s a mirror of the way a lot of southerners like to see their side of the Civil War. Aw, hell, we weren’t bad guys! All we wanted to do was preserve our genteel way of life, our culture, our pride. Y’all didn’t need to burn our cities — we’d’a come around eventually.
Langella as Russell is pictured in one poignant final scene, in his kitchen, wearing his bathrobe, hanging up after calling LBJ to congratulate him on his historic landslide election victory. Russell looks sad and old, a relic of the past. You almost want to hug him and tell him it’ll all be okay.
Problem is, Russell was a force for hatred and fear throughout his career as a senator. Case in point: I’m reading a book called 1940, the story of that year’s presidential election and the tug of war between American isolationists and those who foresaw the coming apocalyptic battle against Fascism and Nazism. A younger Sen. Richard Russell makes an appearance in the book. It turns out he was mighty active in — and on the wrong side of — yet another minority issue.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews were desperate to escape Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Most of them wanted to come to America where they were certain safety and relief awaited. There’s an anecdote about a packed ocean liner full of German Jewish refugees at anchor in the Atlantic off the New York/New Jersey coast, waiting to be allowed into the US. The Coast Guard had been dispatched to surround the liner to make sure no one jumped off the ship and swam to these shores. Eventually, the liner was denied entry to any American port and so had to turn back for Europe. Many of the people on board resettled in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they were ultimately rounded up by German occupiers and sent to concentration camps.
And who do you think was one of this holy land’s leading figures in keeping the Jewish refugees out? Why, it was Georgia Senator Richard Russell, good old Uncle Dick, that stately sage. He railed almost daily against “aliens” and immigrants and asylum-seekers who were sure to weaken and taint this blessed nation.
I make a lot of excuses for American historical figures who fostered and nurtured our white supremacist society. I like to point out that the likes of Washington and Jefferson were children of their times, that we can’t really expect them to have been as enlightened as we are in 2017. They were, I like to argue, progressive for their day.
Yet there were those who happily went far beyond their peers in matters of hatred. Andrew Jackson, for example. And George Armstrong Custer. The entire Confederate States of America. George Wallace and Bull Connor.
Now add to that list the respected and venerable Richard Russell. Hell, half the country is named after him. There’s the main Senate office building in Washington, DC, the southern regional USDA headquarters, Atlanta’s federal office building, a dam and lake on the Savannah River, a Georgia airport, a now-decommissioned US Navy submarine, various parkways and byways, elementary, middle and high schools galore, piles of college campus halls and auditoria, and there are statues of him all around the Peach State.
Yes, he did some notable things that benefitted the citizens of this nation — provided they were white. I won’t present a laundry list of them because his honorers have done a bang-up job doing that. But until we recognize the evils he perpetrated, we’ll only ever have half a picture of him.
Funny thing is, that’s pretty much an epithet for almost every white man who ever held office in these United States.
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