In October, 1962, Mrs. Goode’s third grade class at Houston’s Longfellow Elementary School filed out of its classroom in “the shacks,” temporary wooden structures used to relieve overcrowding. We were headed for the playground when a couple of jets roared overhead. I’ll never forget that moment, because I turned to the boy behind me in line and mumbled, “Is this it?” By “it” I meant an expected nuclear attack.
These were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were getting drilled daily in the “duck and cover” routine. Any minute, we believed, deadly atomic bomb missiles from not-so-very-far-away Cuba would rain down upon our little heads. We were told to protect those little heads by getting on our knees under our desks, bending down and covering the backs of our necks with our arms and hands.
The memory resurfaced as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro swapped meaningful signals of détente lately. Of course, Fidel tried to toss cold water on the prospect. History, I think, is just one damned intransigent old fool after another.
Recent events, especially here in the South (or, Southwest as I prefer to call my home), got me thinking. Have I come unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade? Am I just reliving the forever moments of the early 60s, or is it that some things never change?
Some are talking once again of states’ rights and secession. Castro is castigating us. It’s true that brown-skinned Muslim terrorists have taken the place of brown-skinned communist Cubans in the national nightmare. But once again we’re scanning the skies for signs of murderous designs on our little heads.
We have a brave new president, just like we did back then. Of course, Obama’s victory has many on the right dressing up like Vonnegut’s American Nazi propagandist, Howard W. Campbell. Watch the ’72 film version of Slaughterhouse and tell me Campbell doesn’t remind you of Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.
Maybe the rest of the country is less alarmed at these portents. Just yesterday the New York Times reassured us of a “rising sense of racial optimism.” I’m not so sure. Here’s an ominous item from the September 16, 1962 New York Times:
In Mississippi, a major test of state vs. Federal power was shaping up. Gov. Ross R. Barnett invoked the doctrine of “interposition” to prevent a Negro, James H. Meredith, from entering the University of Mississippi this week under a Federal court order. The doctrine, which has been brushed aside by Federal courts, holds that a state has the power to “interpose” its sovereignty between the Federal Government and the state’s citizens.
And here’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2009, just a couple months after the inauguration of President Obama, endorsing “interposition” or nullification of the U.S. Constitution if a state doesn’t like a federal law or action:
I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
There’s considerable national talk that a declining Republican Party has been cornered in the racist South. I think that’s dangerous talk. Those bigoted Southern governors of the ‘50s and ‘60s faded to infamy. But an opportunist Republican Party picked up the bigots’ flag and carried it on to decades of national dominance.
I want to give a warning like Vonnegut’s unstuck-in-time Billy Pilgrim gave about the plane crash he could see in his own future. Unless we want to risk a national rebirth of the Republican “Southern Strategy,” we’d better use our resources – from the national Democratic Party, the House and Senate campaign committees, the netroots and every other institution we can call to battle – to diminish the power of the angry white, right South.
If the rest of the nation turns its back on the South, content to enjoy a brief respite from the fanatical insanity of the right, it is only inviting a return of that insanity. It might be that domestic race relations won’t be the very center of a new Republican Southern Strategy. It might be true that much of the country is, finally, entering some kind of post-racial era. But there’s a latent power in fiery, regressive Southern Populism. Don’t discount it. It will find its way.
We have a responsibility to continue the fight for justice and freedom in every part of the nation, even though we might be tempted to mock loony talk of secession and walk away. That’d be irresponsible and shortsighted, too. Texas will get four or five new congressional seats out of the next census, while some safe Democratic districts in the north and Midwest will be lost.
So it goes.