Eyes on Racism, Part 3

George C. Wallace
George C. Wallace.

Eyes on Racism, Part 3 (Konch, Winter 2008)

“It really shook me and the people of Alabama.” – Governor George C. Wallace

Eyes on the Prize producers were especially eager to talk to George Wallace (1919-98), the most famous opponent of the civil rights movement. During Wallace’s first three years in office (1963-65), Alabama became the site of some of the most dramatic battles over civil rights: the Birmingham demonstrations, the integration of the University of Alabama, and the Selma campaign. It took months for Callie Crossley to get Wallace to agree to an interview. After many rebuffs, she got in touch with one of the governor’s fundraisers, and it was that contact who finally persuaded Wallace to go on camera.

Crossley broke with the production team’s usual practice of letting the episode’s white producer (in this case, DeVinney) talk to old segregationists. She did that because she had worked so hard to set up the interview and was determined to conduct it herself.[1]

The interview took place in the state capitol building, and Wallace was clearly enfeebled by the 1972 assassination attempt that had left him partially paralyzed. In fact, the governor’s poor health would lead him to announce his retirement less than a month after his interview with Crossley. Wallace also suffered from severe hearing loss, which required the producer to shout her questions.

Crossley began by asking the governor to describe segregation in the pre-Brown South. He replied that “it was not an antagonism towards black people, and that’s what some people can’t understand.”[2] In Alabama, he explained, “white and black have been together for so many years that their problems are small compared to some of the other parts of our country.” Crossley replied “Okay” in a low, disbelieving voice and moved quickly to Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address. In a scenario repeated throughout the discussion, Wallace tried to cut short questions about the most offensive aspects of his record.

Crossley: You’ve heard the famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” . . .

 Wallace: (Interrupting) Yes, uh . . .

Crossley: Now let me ask the question.

The producer wanted to know if the governor intended his speech to be an act of defiance against federal law. Wallace acknowledged that he was wrong to say those words: “I shouldn’t have made any such statement as that, frankly, because I knew even myself that [segregation] was not going to last forever and it shouldn’t last forever.”

The governor then brought up his “stand in the schoolhouse door” opposing the integration of the University of Alabama in June 1963. He defended that action by noting that his confrontation with federal authorities ended without violence, unlike the integration of the University of Mississippi the previous year. In Mississippi, segregationist rioters killed two and injured dozens.

Wallace blamed the unrest in Mississippi on troublemakers from outside the South: “What the good people of Mississippi did not anticipate [was] all these folks from all over the country, all these hate groups in [the] Nazi Party, et cetera, coming to that city and almost destroying that great university.” In Alabama, on the other hand, his police “arrested a bunch of those kind of folks from California.”

The governor noted that he made a televised address during the integration dispute, in which he told all unauthorized persons to steer clear of the university campus. Wallace boasted to Crossley that after his speech, “even the Ku Klux Klan leader got up and said, ‘Governor Wallace says, “Stay away.” He’s gonna raise the constitutional question for all the people of Alabama.’”

Though it was not widely known at the time of the interview, keeping the KKK in line was easier for Wallace than he let on. The Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, was a close, secret Wallace advisor who received a salary from the state highway commission.[3] But the governor’s most remarkable assertion about the integration of the university was his claim that the entire dispute was a matter of timing. “We were going to integrate [the university] the next year anyway,” he explained. “We wanted to set the timetable, and we were very upset at the federal government trying to set the timetable . . . They said, ‘No, you integrate this year.’”

Crossley moved on to some questions about Birmingham, and Wallace brought up the Klan’s bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, in which four young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) died and 20 other churchgoers were injured:

The church bomb was, I said the man who—people who—did that ought to burn the bottom of the electric chair out. It really, it really [sic] shook me and the people of Alabama for somebody to have done what they did in that regards [sic].

In 1963, Wallace’s remarks had been quite different: “I deplore violence. But who started all this violence? There’s [sic] a lot of agitators and the Communist Party mixed up in this picture.”[4]

The governor’s 1986 tough talk on the bombers is also belied by the fact that in 1963 his state police undermined the investigations by the FBI and the Birmingham police, elements of which were evidently serious about catching the culprits. With great fanfare, state police officers arrested five suspects in the case, including Robert Chambliss, who would in 1977 be convicted of murder for the bombing. But in 1963, prosecutors did not bring any charges other than possession of an illegal quantity of dynamite—a misdemeanor. The three suspects who were convicted received $100 fines and suspended sentences. Their convictions were later overturned on appeal, but the arrests achieved two goals for Wallace: he gave the impression that he was actively pursuing the case, and the FBI and local police investigations were undermined.[5]

Wallace’s handpicked director of state police, Colonel Al Lingo, worked closely with the KKK in orchestrating the show arrests. According to a Birmingham police memorandum from that time, Lingo held a meeting in his Birmingham motel room on the night that his officers arrested the bombing suspects. Present were Wade Wallace, a relative of the governor, and a number of Klan leaders, including Robert Shelton. The same report specifies that Chambliss was arrested “in a joint operation” by a state investigator and a KKK representative who had been present at Lingo’s meeting.[6]

Chambliss and the other leading suspects in the case were members of the Cahaba River Boys, a select Klan “action group” with ties to Shelton and his Birmingham Klan chapter, Klavern 13.[7] It is unknown whether Wallace ever asked his advisor Robert Shelton about the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, but Shelton continued to serve as an advisor to the governor for a number of years thereafter.[8] During Wallace’s four gubernatorial terms, no one ever did “burn the bottom of the electric chair out” for killing those four girls, and only one of the bombers, Chambliss, went to prison.[9]

The day after the church bombing, Dr. King put the matter bluntly:

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

In the interview, Crossley was equally direct: “Martin Luther King said at that time that he felt—he blamed you for [the bombing]. He said you were responsible for that because of your words, and what you said had created an atmosphere.”[10] Wallace interrupted and his voice became much more agitated and angry: “Now listen, you know, you all come to me, but who is it I spoke like? I spoke like Lyndon Johnson spoke . . . [Senator J. William] Fulbright of Arkansas spoke the same way.” After listing other politicians who voted against civil rights legislation, Wallace came to the point:

I have never made any statement that offended black people, unless I said in those days I was for segregation. I never made any statement about inferiority or anything [of] that sort. I don’t believe that. I was born and raised among black people and they’re my friends.

Wallace then brought up the fact that black voters had supported him in the 1982 general election (when his opponent was Republican Emory Folmar, who was considered by many to be a representative of the extreme right). He argued that “if I had said anything that as [sic] the eastern press said I had . . . no self-respecting black would ever have voted for me.” Crossley tried to turn the conversation back to 1963.

Crossley: I think what [King] meant by that was, not you personally, but in the manner in which you spoke led other people sometimes to interpret that in a violent way, because they . . .

Wallace: (Interrupting) I spoke my—vehemently against the federal government, not against people . . . I never expressed in my language that [sic] would upset anyone about a person’s race. I talked about the Supreme Court[’s] usurpation of power. I talked about the big central government. Isn’t that what everybody talks about now? Isn’t that what Reagan got elected on?

Of course, overt racism had been a staple of many of Wallace’s 1960s speeches. In 1964 for instance, he told an audience at Harvard that African Americans were unfit for higher education because they were “easygoing, basically happy, unambitious, incapable of much learning.”

The main writer of that speech, and also of Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address, was Asa Carter, the leader of an Alabama Klan group known for unparalleled brutality. Carter’s followers participated in a riot that ended the first attempt to integrate the University in Alabama in 1956, and they were also responsible for a series of attacks on the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham civil rights leader, and his wife.[11] In 1957, six members of Carter’s group kidnapped and castrated a black man[12] in an initiation rite.[13] The victim survived, and in 1960, an Alabama court convicted four of the perpetrators and sentenced them to 20 years in prison.

In June 1963, just three months before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Wallace made his first appointment to the parole board. Two weeks later, in an act of extraordinary leniency, that panel reversed its 1960 decision and waived the requirement that the four men serve one-third of their terms before becoming eligible to apply for parole. [14] (Except for one who died in prison, all the convicts in the case ultimately received early parole in 1965.)[15] Coupled with Wallace’s close relationship with Shelton, the board’s decision to hold early parole hearings in the castration case was precisely the sort of signal that led Klansmen to believe that they had carte blanche to carry out acts of terror.

Perhaps for that reason, Wallace was eager to turn the discussion away from the topic of the Birmingham bombing. He stayed on the offensive when Crossley tried to break in and his voice took on a desperate tone. Wallace again brought up the fact that Lyndon Johnson had been a segregationist while in Congress, before becoming an effective sponsor of civil rights legislation as president.

Wallace: You see, you keep coming back to me, but Lyndon Johnson has filibustered and talked more against civil rights bills than I ever did in my whole, entire life.

Crossley: Let’s . . .

Wallace: (Almost shouting) Yet you rehabilitated him. You rehabilitated Fulbright. You rehabilitated, rehabilitated [sic] all these other distinguished, fine Americans [who] had no hatred in their heart[s] for any man because of color. But you won’t rehabilitate me.

Crossley: I will, governor [laughs].

In this exchange, Wallace closely resembled his old campaign persona. He became more animated, poking the air with his index finger, and his voice took on a more rhythmic, oratorical cadence. Just before delivering the climactic line, “But you won’t rehabilitate me,” he flashed his trademark sneer. And he wasn’t finished.

Wallace: I can—listen—tell you this and you must put this on your program. I—do you have a [sic] honorary degree from Tuskegee Institute?

Crossley: No sir, I don’t.

Wallace: I have an honorary degree from the—from Tuskegee Institute, and that’s the most renowned Negro college in [pause] black college, if you want to say it, in the world.

Crossley proceeded to Selma. She asked if black citizens were “freely able to vote” in 1965 Alabama and Wallace responded: “Oh yes. Black people were allowed to vote, except they had, you know, you had to be able to read and write your name.” He did concede, however, that “there were some discriminatory measures passed by other folks regarding voting, not by myself.” Discussing the Selma marches, Wallace made the two statements that appeared in the episode. The first pertained to Bloody Sunday:

It was something that happened that, that [sic] enraged me because I didn’t intend for it to happen that way. [Cut] But I didn’t want them to get beyond that point where there was [sic] some people that told me there might be some violence.

The second dealt with Wallace’s request that President Johnson take over responsibility for protecting the march to Montgomery:

We got a report—how much it would take to guarantee absolute protection for everyone—and we didn’t have the resources. So I called on President Johnson in Article Four, Section Four of the Constitution to send us troops to help maintain order.

Wallace’s claim that he halted the march out of concern for the demonstrators’ safety differs sharply from the reason he gave at a meeting with state legislators back in 1965: “I’m not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.”[16]

Likewise, most of the evidence indicates that Wallace had approved the tactics employed by his troopers that day. After Bloody Sunday, New York Times reporter John Herbers cited “a reliable source” who said that the decision to use clubs and tear gas against the demonstrators had been worked out in a meeting in the governor’s office. The same article quoted Selma mayor Joe Smitherman as claiming that the troopers’ actions were “in complete accord” with Wallace’s instructions.[17] A federal court later ruled that Wallace was responsible for the Bloody Sunday attack and that the “general plan as followed by the State troopers in this instance had been discussed with and was known to Governor Wallace.”[18]

It appears that Wallace did attempt to keep the two most violent lawmen—Jim Clark and Al Lingo—away from the scene, which suggests some desire to moderate police tactics.[19] Even so, it was ridiculous for the governor to claim to have been shocked by what his men did, since brutal assaults on black demonstrators, or African Americans who just happened to be nearby, had been a constant feature of his troopers’ modus operandi. That is especially true in this case, given that the march itself was a protest against a police riot by state troopers in Marion, Alabama, during which one of Wallace’s officers shot and killed a black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson. That story appeared in the episode and, combined with a great deal of violent footage from Bloody Sunday, it made the governor’s excuses sound all the more feeble.

Reverting once again to 1960s form, Wallace complained that the northern press overplayed the Selma story. He presented himself as a courageous underdog who stood up to snobby northern reporters:

It’s always been that way about the South . . . we have been a nation of rednecks and low-brows, and I stood on my own on Meet the Press and Face the Nation, Issues and Answers with the toughest folks that [have] been on television. They think they’re smarter than anybody else.

It was a familiar boast, but on this occasion, he included African Americans in the equation and gave the story a happy, Sun Belt ending:

I’m proud of the fact that I’m a southerner. I think if you look at what happened to us after the War Between the States, with no Marshall aid or Lend-Lease . . . that the black and the white people both suffered, but they all joined together and hung on until now we are part of the Sun Belt . . . [the] envy of the free world.

When Crossley turned the conversation back to Selma, Wallace nearly shouted that he had told Major Cloud to “do nothing that would stir up any trouble there. Just don’t let anybody attempt to hurt anyone.” An estimated 50-100 marchers required treatment for various injuries and/or tear-gas inhalation,[20] but Wallace told Crossley that “not a single person was harmed to the extent of having to be going to the hospital. There was no violence, beatin’ people down.”[21] Wallace’s plaintive tone distinguished his account of Bloody Sunday from Jim Clark’s. The two men’s remarks about that event were equally deceptive, but while Clark made his claims with brazen smugness, Wallace spoke with an urgency that suggested a man desperately trying to make his statements true.

An exchange near the end of the discussion encapsulates the governor’s representation of his past. He and Crossley had been talking about the changes the South had undergone in Wallace’s time.

Crossley: This is a change for the better?

Wallace: Oh, it’s certainly for the better. I recognized it was going to be for the better after the first year I was governor. I did object to some of the ways they wanted to artificially go about it by busing people back and forth, which was opposed by black and white alike. I’m still proud that I have an honorary doctorate in [sic] Tuskegee Institute, the most renowned college of—predominant[ly] black college in the world.

Crossley had expected Wallace to try to exculpate himself but was “shocked from the very first question” by his outlandish answers. “You have to be able to acknowledge what was clearly on the tape,” she says with a laugh. Was Crossley angered by Wallace’s sarcastic question about whether she had an honorary degree from Tuskegee? “The only emotion I had was frustration,” she explains. “I couldn’t break down the wall he had effectively built.” Crossley contrasts Wallace’s interview with Jim Clark’s, pointing out that while Clark lied repeatedly, he at least gave an honest account of his views on African Americans and the civil rights movement. “Jim Clark was very clear about how he felt. I appreciate that,” she said.[22] Wallace, on the other hand, had evidently concluded that his honorary degree from Tuskegee and electoral support from black voters had erased his previous offenses. He seemed genuinely perplexed that anyone would dwell on his racist actions and that even his political heir in the White House would want to conceal his debt to him.

It is now commonplace to see George Wallace as a man whose wounds caused him to reflect on and regret his past misdeeds. Today, images of the attempt on Wallace’s life, or of the wheelchair-bound candidate greeting black voters, appear as often as footage of the stand in the schoolhouse door. Likewise, John Frankenheimer’s 1997 made-for-television movie, George Wallace, ends with a scene of reconciliation at Dr. King’s old church in 1979, in which Wallace apologizes for his past actions—something that did not occur during the governor’s real-life visit to the church.[23] The man who appeared before Eyes on the Prize cameras was the real George Wallace, a man who showed more emotion when complaining about his damaged reputation than when discussing the horrific events of 1960s Alabama. Wallace’s performance overwhelms any sympathy the viewer might feel for him because of his infirmities and it puts a new light on claims that he felt remorse for his actions.

The series

It is easy to wish that Blackside producers had been more aggressive when questioning southern politicians. Reviewing a transcript of her conversation with Jim Clark, Prudence Arndt had a similar feeling. “I think I was too easy on him,” she says.[24] However, that sentiment must be balanced against Callie Crossley and James DeVinney’s enthusiastic reaction when they saw the interview footage and realized that Clark’s cold, unrepentant words made the perfect narration for one of the most dramatic scenes of the civil rights movement.[25] The producers’ non-confrontational approach persuaded a remarkable number of old segregationists to go on camera and speak bluntly.

Likewise, DeVinney points out that one reason Hampton and his staff rejected a more 60 Minutes-style approach was because they knew that countering each segregationist lie would require a great deal of stock footage and screen time. They feared that such an approach would marginalize the stories of movement activists.[26] Crossley adds that one reason why she let Wallace say all he wanted was because she knew that the entire interview would be available some day, and she did not want to give him cause to end it prematurely.[27] In that sense, the makers of the first Eyes on the Prize series self-consciously created a study of the 1980s as well as the period between Brown and the Voting Rights Act.

Viewed from that long perspective, these interviews belie sharp distinctions between the Old South and the New. Pritchett and Wallace successfully negotiated the post-segregation political world without ever facing their pasts. Clark is the odd one out. He neither hedged his bets, as Pritchett did, nor rose high enough to build a strong statewide or nationwide political base, as Wallace did. And he held office in a county where African Americans made up about half the population. These interviews vividly show the easy transition from “segregation forever” to the more subtle form of racist politics that followed the civil rights gains of the 1960s. After the segregationists retired, the game became still easier for new race-baiters like Trent Lott, whose careers started too late to include a stand in the schoolhouse door—or a punch on the courthouse steps.

[1] Crossley, interview.

[2] All references to George C. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview refer to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320456, Container numbers: 26616, 26617) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 001142, Container numbers: 11309, 27516). Interview conducted by Callie Crossley, March 10, 1986.

[3] Carter, Politics of rage, 300.

[4] Time staff, “Where the Stars Fall,” Time, September 27, 1963, 17.

[5] Carter, Politics of rage, 189-92.

[6] A photocopy of the document appears in Elizabeth H. Cobbs / Petric J. Smith, Long time coming: an insider’s story of the Birmingham church bombing that rocked the world (Birmingham, Alabama: Crane Hill Publishers, 1994), 203. See also McWhorter, Carry me home, 547-551.

[7] Cobbs / Smith, Long time coming, 90.

[8] Carter, Politics of rage, 281, 342.

[9] Ibid., 139, 188-193, 300.

[10] A film clip of Dr. King’s quote appeared in George Wallace: Settin’ the woods on fire, Part 1 of 2 (The American Experience series, Public Broadcasting Service, 2000).

[11] Carter, Politics of rage, 107; Stephen Lesher, George Wallace: American Populist (Reading, Mass.: William Patrick, 1994), 263.

[12] The victim of the attack subsequently moved away from Alabama and avoided media appearances. Due to his apparent wish to avoid public attention, and the social stigma that accompanies someone who has suffered such injuries, I decided not to state the man’s name.

[13] Marshall Frady, Wallace (New York and Cleveland: Meridian Books, World Publishing Company, 1968), 173, 148; Dan T. Carter comment appearing in George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, Episode 1 of 2.

[14] William Bradford Huie, Three lives for Mississippi (New York: WCC Books, 1965), 12-21.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stephen L. Longenecker, Selma’s peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and civil rights mediation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 173; Carter, Politics of rage, 247.

[17] John Herbers, “Selma’s Moderate Police Give Way to Troopers,” New York Times, March 9, 1965, 23.

[18] In his ruling, Judge Frank Johnson also said that Lingo and Clark were “acting under instructions from Governor Wallace.” Quoted in Garrow, Protest at Selma, 111-12.

[19] In his Eyes on the Prize interview, Wallace claimed that he had explicitly ordered Lingo not to go to Selma that day. Charles Fager corroborates that account in his book on Selma, writing that a few hours before the incident on the bridge, Major John Cloud of the state troopers and Dallas County Deputy Sheriff L.C. Crocker had told Wilson Baker that Lingo was going to pick up Clark at Montgomery airport when the sheriff returned from an appearance on a television news show in Washington, D.C. They also said that Lingo was supposed to “keep [Clark] busy until the whole thing was over,” which of course would have meant keeping Lingo away as well. But Lingo ignored Wallace’s orders, going to Selma anyway and sending a car to bring Clark. Clark arrived just as the march was reaching the bridge. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview; Fager, Selma, 1965, 91. See also the interview with Wilson Baker in Raines, My Soul is Rested, 201-03.

[20] In the New York Times, Roy Reed wrote that 17 marchers received treatment for various injuries and that 40 required treatment for inhalation of tear gas. Later, Time Magazine placed the number of marchers who were hospitalized at 78, Newsweek reported that 17 demonstrators were hospitalized for “fractures and other serious injuries,” while “70 more were treated for cuts, bruises, and tear-gas after-effects.” Surveying contemporary accounts in his 1978 book, scholar David Garrow wrote: “Estimates of the total number of injured ran as high as ninety to one hundred.” Roy Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes,” New York Times, March 8, 1965, 1; Time staff, “Civil Rights: The Central Point,” Time, March 19, 1965, 24; Newsweek staff, “An American Tragedy,” Newsweek, March 22, 1965, 18-19; Garrow, Protest at Selma, 76.

[21] Wallace repeated that claim almost verbatim in an interview with his official biographer in 1990. Lesher, George Wallace, 347, 549, n 99.

[22] Crossley, interview.

[23] Carter, Politics of rage, 462-63, 467-68.

[24] Arndt, telephone interview with the author, June 15, 2004.

[25] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Crossley, interview.

Eyes on Racism, Part 2

Dr. C.T. Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma, Alabama
Dr. C.T. Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Eyes on Racism, Part 2 (Konch, Winter 2008)

I don’t think I ever lost my temper.” – Sheriff Jim Clark

The final episode of the first Eyes series, “Bridge to Freedom,” dealt with the Selma campaign and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Motivated by the fact that less than 2% of Selma’s voting-age black residents had been allowed to register to vote, John Lewis and SNCC began a campaign of protests in 1963, joining local activists from the Dallas County Voters’ League. In January 1965, Dr. King and SCLC joined the effort, prompting new media interest. Selma city officials like Mayor Joe Smitherman and Wilson Baker, the town’s public safety commissioner, hoped to use Pritchett’s low-key law-enforcement tactics on protesters, but the focal point of the demonstrations was the board of registrars at the Dallas County courthouse, which fell under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Jim Clark.[1]

A stereotype of the thuggish southern lawman, Clark possessed a savage temper and a range of Pattonesque uniforms. He and his volunteer posse were an intimidating presence in Dallas County, and Governor George Wallace also deployed them on missions in other Alabama localities. In June 1963, they stood with Wallace “in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama and, later that same year, they joined state troopers in a series of attacks on black demonstrators in Birmingham.[2]

On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when state and county lawmen savagely broke up the first Selma-to-Montgomery march, Clark’s mounted posse charged the demonstrators, beating them with bullwhips while Clark shouted: “Get those goddamned niggers! And get those goddamned white niggers!”[3] But the moment for which Clark is best known occurred a few weeks earlier, when the Reverend C.T. Vivian, a member of SCLC’s executive committee, confronted the sheriff on the steps of Dallas County courthouse. Vivian criticized Clark for barring black voter registrants and he compared the sheriff’s tactics to Hitler’s. Clark responded by charging down the stairs and punching the minister in the face. His mouth bleeding, Vivian yelled back, “You beat people bloody so they will not have the privilege to vote!” and the sheriff ordered him arrested.[4]

National outrage about the events in Selma crystallized support for the Voting Rights Act, and in 1966 Jim Clark became one of the new law’s first casualties. He entered the race for governor, but dropped out after George Wallace (who could not legally succeed himself) announced that his wife would seek the office. Clark then campaigned for re-election as sheriff, and even hosted a (sparsely attended) barbecue for black citizens, but Wilson Baker defeated him in the Democratic primary, thanks to overwhelming support from newly registered African-American voters.[5] The loss effectively ended Clark’s political career,[6] and he later worked various jobs, including one as a mobile-home salesman, his position at the time of his 1986 Eyes on the Prize interview.[7] Clark died on June 4, 2007.

Crossley and DeVinney also produced the Selma episode, and DeVinney spent a great deal of effort trying to get Clark to grant an interview. When the ex-sheriff finally agreed, the producer discovered that his schedule prevented him from meeting Clark on the proposed day. DeVinney therefore asked Prudence Arndt, a white associate producer on two of the series’ other episodes, to fill in for him, using his list of questions.[8] Blackside staffers worried how Clark might react, given his violent behavior during his law-enforcement career. “Prue was a little scared of him,” DeVinney recalls.[9] Arndt says that she made sure to bring an all-white crew and she also dressed conservatively and upscale, because she expected the ex-sheriff to have old-fashioned ideas about proper dress. However, she felt out of place when she and her team arrived at the poor neighborhood where the former sheriff lived in a small mobile home.[10] Clark was dressed casually and the crew had difficulty fitting their equipment into the trailer.[11]

The former sheriff remained calm and polite throughout the interview, never raised his voice, and even smiled at the camera when it zoomed in close while setting up for each take. Arndt started with some general questions, asking Clark to describe race relations in Selma during the years before 1965. He replied that “there was no discontent on the part of either [race] as far as we could tell,” and he blamed the demonstrations on the usual suspects: “outside agitators.”[12] Clark patiently explained that the voter-registration campaign was unnecessary because “blacks were allowed to vote . . . when they could qualify.” He also claimed that the conspiracy of civil rights agitators included not only the press, but also his long-time rival, Wilson Baker of the Selma city police. Clark said that Baker had breakfast with Dr. King every morning during the voting rights campaign and that they “laid out the day’s program for what they were going to do and how they were going to do it.”

Arndt slowly worked the conversation toward the subject of Clark’s own actions, and her first question on that score dealt with one of the many scenes where the sheriff drove protesters away from the courthouse by hitting them with his billy club. When asking her question, Arndt indicated that she had seen footage of the event. “When those teachers marched to the courthouse and the cameras were filming,” she began, then lowered her voice as she came to the point, “as you pushed [local activist] Reverend [Frederick] Reese down the steps, can you give me your explanation or description of that whole incident?” “I did not move until I had a lawyer there to advise me on it,” Clark replied. “They were creating a breach of the peace.”

He pointed out that the board of registrars was not in session that day (it rarely was in session) and that Reese and the others had wanted to go in anyway. (They wanted to sign the book in the registrars’ office to indicate that they had been there.) “They insisted on coming in and I [pause] tried as easy as possible to push them back.” Clark added that a school-board official who was also a lawyer told him to do it, and when Arndt asked why he did not simply arrest the demonstrators, the ex-sheriff’s story took on a familiar ring.

Arndt: Why not arrest them?

Clark: I don’t know. That was his decision.

The former sheriff’s account of his attack on Reverend Vivian was the one segment of the interview to appear in the series. It provided a memorable look into the depths of rage achieved by a segregationist in the face of public criticism by a black man, and Clark’s calm manner made his remarks more disturbing. The lines that appeared in the final episode are in bold. A shot of the sheriff punching Vivian was cut into the middle of the interview footage.

He started shouting at me that I was a Hitler, I was a brute, that I was a Nazi—I don’t remember all, everything he called me—and I did lose my temper then. And it seemed that a red skim came over my eyes and the next thing I knew, he was on the, at the bottom of the steps, picking himself up and that the deputies helped him. I don’t remember even hitting him, but I went to the doctor and got a [sic] X-ray and found out I had a linear fracture in a finger on my left hand.

Arndt replied: “Wow. Do you feel like he pushed you into this situation?” Grinning, Clark answered: “Very definitely, yes. He pushed me into it . . . I just don’t even remember hitting him.”

Clark’s bizarre account of his arrest of Amelia Boynton is even more telling, offering a graphic example of the segregationist view of African Americans as filthy and immodest: “Amelia Boynton led the group to the courthouse and directed them to come inside and to take over the offices and to urinate on top of the desks and throw the books on the floor.” The former sheriff adopted a somber demeanor and a low voice when he concluded, “I was forced to arrest her.” A news crew filmed the incident and the footage (which appeared in the series) shows Clark manhandling Boynton and forcing her to run to the police car. However, Clark argued that film can be deceiving:

She was a tall woman, the best I remember, but it may look like she was a tiny woman from the angle of the cameras, and that I was taking advantage of her. But there was no violence there at all . . . I just laid my hand on her shoulder.

Arndt allowed Clark’s mendacious tales to follow their own course, before moving on to the next topic with a quick “okay.”

A key question is whether Clark realized how much his conduct helped the civil rights movement. In January, 1965, during the early days of SCLC’s effort in Selma, the organization’s leaders considered moving the site of their campaign to another town in Alabama or Mississippi, but when Clark’s violent arrest of Mrs. Boynton made national news, they decided to stay put.[13] Shortly after that incident, Rev. Ralph Abernathy joked that the Dallas County Voters’ League should induct Clark as an honorary member.[14] Following the sheriff’s assault on Rev. Vivian, a Newsweek commentator wrote that Clark “has been almost the ideal patsy for King’s demonstrators in Selma. At various times he has been goaded into using his club and his fists but never his head.”[15]

Arndt diplomatically broached the topic of whether Clark knew that he was a valuable poster boy for the movement. The ex-sheriff tried to forestall the whole issue with another blunt denial.

Arndt: Did you ever feel as if you, had you only not lost your temper at crucial moments, could have held things together?

Clark: I don’t think I ever lost my temper, except the time with, oh, [the] C.T. Vivian incident.

Arndt’s standard response of “okay” carried a stronger note of surprise than usual.

In an attempt to be affable, Clark tried to put a humorous spin on the story of his arrest of marcher Annie Lee Cooper. During a demonstration in front of the courthouse, Clark elbowed Cooper hard in the course of his usual crowd-control exercises and she responded by hitting him. Clark and two of his deputies subdued the woman and the sheriff beat her with his club. Discussing the incident with Arndt, he claimed that Cooper hit him in the head with a purse that contained a horseshoe, but contemporary press accounts state that she simply punched him.[16] When Clark concluded by saying, “From then on, I wore a hard hat,” Arndt responded with a nervous-sounding laugh.

By the time the discussion turned to the Bloody Sunday attack on marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Clark’s lies had lost any capacity to surprise. He claimed that demonstrators assailed the state troopers with “ice picks and straight razors and, and [sic] one of them even had a piece of glass. I don’t know why.” Arndt knew that contemporary news footage contradicted Clark’s account, but she did not challenge him on it. She had considered setting up television and video equipment so that whenever the old sheriff made a claim about an incident, she could ask him to watch the footage and give a running, on-camera commentary. She ultimately rejected the idea: “I knew we’d lose the interview if we brought in a tape.”[17]

The most direct confrontation came when Arndt asked Clark about his use of cattle prods on marchers. He said that the practice was more humane than using nightsticks, and that anyway the prods his officers used were much less powerful than a standard cattle prod. Arndt broke in: “But you’re still using something that’s used against animals against people.” Clark calmly replied: “No, these were designed for use against people. They had only two batteries, where the ones they used against cattle have six, seven, eight large flashlight batteries.”

Probing once more for any sign of remorse, Arndt asked if Clark had “any regrets about how law enforcement was handled during that whole period, [by] you personally as sheriff? ’Cause there’s so much, so many [sic] times when things broke out of control.” The phrasing, especially at the end of the question, was thoroughly neutral and offered Clark a chance to show regret without accepting full blame for his actions. Yet he did not soften:

My only regrets were that they did get out of control sometime[s], but basically, I was under orders from the laws of the state of Alabama and the constitution of Alabama to enforce the law, and to use what force was necessary to do it. And if they didn’t obey lawful orders, then I had to take further action.

Clark’s stance was typical of segregationists interviewed for the series: he stuck to his old position and tried to talk away the evidence. The most striking aspect of the discussion is the ex-sheriff’s gentle tone, which he maintained even while using the most inflammatory language. He was not worried that viewers would think that he was a racist. Rather, he was concerned about the long-standing impression that he was a stupid hothead whose outbursts furthered his enemies’ cause. This time at least he would keep his cool. It was as if the sheriff had finally, two decades later, decided to use Pritchett’s methods. However, in the one segment that appeared in the series—Clark’s description of his attack on C.T. Vivian—his calm tone merely intensified the scene’s chilling qualities.

[1] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 35-45.

[2] McWhorter, Carry me home, 433-34; Carter, Politics of rage, 126-27.

[3] Charles E. Fager, Selma, 1965 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 94.

[4] Clark actually struck Vivian twice during their confrontation. He hit him in the stomach with his billy club some time before punching him. C.T. Vivian, telephone interview with the author, January 11, 2004.

[5] David Garrow, Protest at Selma: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1978), 187-88.

[6] Ibid., 187-89, 304, n44.

[7] Prudence Arndt, interview with the author, May 19, 2004.

[8] Ibid.; DeVinney, interview, April 6, 2004.

[9] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[10] Arndt, interview, May 19, 2004.

[11] Ibid.

[12] All references to Jim Clark Eyes on the Prize interview refer to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Containter number: 26701) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 001142, Container numbers: 11308, 27513). Interview conducted by Prudence Arndt, February 19, 1986.

[13] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 42-43.

[14] Fager, Selma, 1965, 26, 31, 34; Raines, My Soul is Rested, 200.

[15] Kenneth Crawford, “Right to Vote,” Newsweek, March 1, 1965, 39.

[16] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 45-47.

[17] Arndt, interview, May 19, 2004.

Eyes on Racism, Part 1

Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia
Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia, 1962.

In 2004, when I was working part-time at Washington University Film & Media Archive, I researched and wrote a piece on the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. The materials that went into the making of the program are housed at the archive. At the time, those items had not been studied by researchers. I decided to write about the Eyes producers’ dramatic interviews with three segregation-era officials: Chief Laurie Pritchett, Sheriff Jim Clark, and Governor George C. Wallace.

I had studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of resistance to integration. Also, my parents had been supporters of George Wallace, so I had insight into the appeal that he held for too many Americans.

I submitted the article relentlessly, from the Atlantic to the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. No one was interested. Finally, I hit upon the idea of sending the piece to Konch, where it was accepted and appeared in the Winter 2008 issue. I noticed the article was no longer available online, so I decided to re-post it in three parts.

Eyes on Racism, Part 1 (Konch, Winter 2008)

On March 10, 1986, Callie Crossley, a producer of the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary, took her film crew to Montgomery, Alabama to interview Governor George C. Wallace. Once the nation’s leading opponent of integration, Wallace had won a fourth term as governor in 1982 due to the support of 90% of the state’s black voters.[1] Crossley, who is African American, asked Wallace some of the most pointed questions he ever faced on camera, and she was keenly aware of the symbolism inherent in their meeting. “I felt very connected to all the people that he’d had a thumb on,” she recalls.[2]

Interviews with segregationists played a large role in the making of Eyes on the Prize, which first aired on public television in 1987 and has become one of the most celebrated documentaries. The series garnered numerous honors, including a Peabody Award for the initial six-episode broadcast, which dealt with events from the 1954 Brown desegregation ruling to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.[3] A theatrical release of the documentary received an Academy Award nomination.

The program offered an unflinching look at the struggle against segregation and included accounts from previously unheralded activists, such as Unita Blackwell of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Fred Leonard of the 1961 Freedom Rides. Another veteran of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond, served as narrator. The first Eyes series also included many clips from producers’ interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, but obtaining those interviews often proved a difficult task. Old segregationists were likely to view any documentary on civil rights with hostility and racial and geographic differences exacerbated the problem. Henry Hampton, executive producer of the series, was African-American and his production company was based in Boston. However, each of Hampton’s production teams included a producer who was white. (In order to incorporate different views into the filmmaking process, Hampton appointed teams headed by two producers, making sure that one was black and one white, that one was a man and one a woman.)[4]

Callie Crossley’s interview with George Wallace was the exception: ordinarily, it was the episode’s white producer who interviewed southern officials. All-white camera crews were also standard practice in such cases.[5] Even so, the name of Hampton’s production company (Blackside) posed a problem when corresponding with racist politicians. Producer James A. DeVinney says that in such cases, he preferred to use the address of WGBH-Boston, the public television station for which Blackside made the series, rather than the production company’s own address.[6]

The Eyes team’s correspondence with former Alabama governor John Patterson shows how hard Blackside staff worked to obtain interviews with enemies of the civil rights movement. Patterson had good reason to decline to answer questions about his tenure as governor. He had won that office in 1958 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1961 he had refused to protect the Freedom Riders from mob violence. The ex-governor rejected an initial interview request, but associate producer Prudence Arndt wrote Patterson again, promising a non-confrontational approach:

We have no intention of recreating any tired images of Southern politicians as one-dimensional characters. This would serve neither history nor journalism . . . Our interviews are neither “live,” i.e. we can stop the cameras whenever necessary, nor adversarial (as in “60 Minutes”).[7]

In addition to Governors Patterson and Wallace, Eyes on the Prize producers succeeded in gaining the participation of a number of southern mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, and leaders of the White Citizens’ Councils. Only small clips of any interview appeared in the final program, while the raw footage in each case often ran 30 minutes or more. The complete interviews remained in Hampton’s possession until his death in 1998. Hampton’s trustees donated his archive to Washington University in St. Louis. The donation included all film and audio from Blackside’s various documentaries,[8] along with staffers’ research notes and other written records.

An implicit element of confrontation makes the interviews with enemies of the movement especially interesting. More importantly, these discussions are barometers of change. How had these men’s attitudes evolved in the 20+ years since the struggles over integration? How did their accounts of their actions compare to the facts, and what did they hope to gain by going on record again? James DeVinney points out that Blackside producers made a point of trying to keep discussion focused on events that took place within the scope of the series,[9] but the idea of the New South—a mix of “Sun Belt” economic growth, the rise of more moderate southern politicians in the 1970s, and attempts at racial reconciliation in cities like Atlanta—hangs over these conversations.

Ronald Reagan’s two electoral victories cast a long shadow in a different direction. As historians such as Dan T. Carter have pointed out, Reagan not only opposed all major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, but he also built his presidency on the foundation laid by George Wallace’s campaigns. Much of Reagan’s language on race and civil rights was derived from Wallace, especially the longtime segregationist rallying cry of “states’ rights” and his deceptive, racially charged stories about “welfare queens.”[10] During his first term as president, Reagan opposed the Martin Luther King holiday bill and also tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act before finally giving in to Congress on both issues.[11] Work on Eyes on the Prize proceeded in 1985-86 amid fresh reminders that resistance to the civil rights movement was not merely a historical issue.

Of the interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, three stand out because of the subjects’ different roles during and after the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Given his high profile, George Wallace is an obvious choice. As police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett blocked Martin Luther King’s efforts to desegregate that city in 1961-62, but later became chief in High Point, North Carolina, where he integrated the police force. Jim Clark, the one-time sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, led the opposition to the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign and saw his political career end when he was defeated for re-election the following year.

“It sort of surprised Dr. King.” – Chief Laurie Pritchett

In 1961, before the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, civil rights activists attempted to use nonviolent direct action to integrate Albany, Georgia. Led by Charles Sherrod, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated the effort, joining with local black community leaders such as Dr. William G. Anderson to form the Albany movement. In December 1961, Anderson persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Albany. King was arrested while leading a demonstration and thereafter he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became fully committed to the campaign. Enforcing the city’s segregation laws was the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett.

Under Pritchett, Albany police showed more restraint than other southern lawmen when dealing with demonstrators, though there were numerous reports that Pritchett’s officers committed off-camera violence against protesters.[12] In July 1962, a local court convicted Dr. King and his chief lieutenant, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, of disturbing the peace. The two refused to pay their fines and each received a 45-day jail sentence. Two days later, some local businessmen paid King and Abernathy’s fines secretly and Chief Pritchett released the ministers against their will.[13] A week later, the city secured a federal injunction against further demonstrations, but a higher court quickly vacated that ruling pending further hearings. King and Abernathy led another demonstration and were again arrested and jailed, along with 26 others.[14] In early August, the two leaders were released from jail again, this time because the judge suspended their sentences.[15]

Chief Pritchett’s low-key brand of law enforcement prevented any televised incidents that might have galvanized national support for the campaign. With the demonstrations losing numbers and momentum, Dr. Anderson announced that the Albany movement would henceforth emphasize voter-registration rather than direct action. King and the other SCLC leaders left the Albany campaign soon thereafter.[16] SNCC continued local protests, but on a smaller scale than before.[17] Integration proceeded gradually, assisted by a new round of federal court orders. In the national press, however, the story was simply that King had failed to desegregate Albany.[18]

In 1966, Laurie Pritchett left Georgia to become chief of police in High Point, North Carolina and presided over the integration of that city’s police force. He retired in 1974, amid allegations that he allowed illegal gambling. However, a subsequent investigation failed to substantiate those charges.[19] Pritchett died in 2000, but at the time of his Eyes on the Prize interview in 1985, he was living in High Point. James A. DeVinney (who is white) was the producer who questioned the former police chief, and the resulting episode (Episode 4: “No Easy Walk”) paired the Albany story with an account of the movement’s successful 1963 desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

The show’s Albany segment featured three selections from Pritchett’s interview. In the first two clips, the old chief explained how he responded to a tip from federal authorities that Dr. King would soon be arriving in town:

I did research. I found his method was nonviolence, that his method was to fill the jails—same as Gandhi in India. And once they filled the jails, we’d have no capacity to arrest and then we’d have to give in to his demands.

I had set [sic] down and took a map and went, fifteen miles, how many jails was [sic] in a fifteen-mile radius? How many was in a twenty-mile radius? On up to maybe a 50- or 60-mile radius. And I contacted those authorities. They’d assured us that we could use their facilities, and we had, when the mass arrests started, we’d have marches and there’d be 200, 300—at one time there, I think we had almost 2,000—but none in our jail.

The third clip addressed Pritchett’s tactic of releasing King and Abernathy.

Pritchett: I knew that if [Dr. King] stayed in jail, we’d continue to have problems, so I talked to some people. I said: “We’ve got to get him out, and once we do, I think he’ll leave here.” An arrangement was made. Frankly, I don’t know who the man was that paid the bond [i.e., the fine].

DeVinney: But it was done at your request?

Pritchett: Yes, it was done at my request, and it sort of surprised Dr. King. This is one time that I—the only time I’ve ever seen when he seemed where he didn’t know which way to go.[20]

On camera, Pritchett appeared relaxed and cordial. James DeVinney was taken aback by the ex-chief’s genial demeanor. “I had to sit there and keep looking at my notes,” he remarks. One of the main subjects in DeVinney’s notes was Pritchett’s claim that he employed nonviolent tactics. Sheriff’s officers in the surrounding county jails beat a number of Albany demonstrators so badly that they required hospitalization.[21] Likewise, in an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Albany SNCC-leader Charles Sherrod reported that he had been “slapped nearly unconscious” by a deputy at the jail where Pritchett sent him, and he poured scorn on the chief’s reputation as a moderate lawman:

Some people say Chief Pritchett was nonviolent. How could a man be nonviolent who observed people being beaten with billy clubs? One young lady was dragged up the steps of the courthouse . . . by her hair. Another man, Reverend Samuel Wells, was dragged into the courtroom by his gonads . . . I just don’t understand how they could come up with this, but it has been the case.[22]

In his Eyes interview, William Anderson offered a more favorable view of Pritchett, saying that “most of us who got to know him closely . . . got the impression that he was a sensitive man.”[23]

Talking to DeVinney,[24] Pritchett inadvertently bolstered Sherrod’s case when he said that he developed his program of police nonviolence after he found out that Dr. King was coming to town:

After learning this [King’s nonviolent strategy] and studying this research, I started orientation of the police department into nonviolent movement [sic]: no violence, no dogs, no show of force, even took up some of the training the SNCCs originated there, like sitting at the counter and being slapped, spit upon.

DeVinney drew out the implications of Pritchett’s statement.

DeVinney: You trained your officers in the nonviolent technique when you knew King was arriving. Does that imply violence in—within the police department before that?

Pritchett: Oh, no . . . We would not have any force, that didn’t mean that we used force on the police department. It was just a method of showing them that if they were arrestin’ somebody, encountered with somebody, and if they were spit upon, they would not lose their cool, so to speak.

When pressed once more about the charge that there was police violence during the Albany movement, Pritchett replied that he did remember one instance, an attack on a local activist. “Camilla, Slater King’s wife,[25] went down [to a jail in a nearby county] and while she was outside the fence—she was pregnant at the time—one of the deputy sheriffs of that county did kick her. It was an unfortunate thing that happened.” Pritchett added that when he heard about the attack, he apologized to the victim and her husband. However, he did not tell DeVinney that Camilla King lost her baby as a result of the assault.

The final cut of the episode did not mention that incident or Charles Sherrod’s blunt account of abuse, the latter of which appeared in Blackside’s published volume of interview excerpts,[26] but DeVinney and Callie Crossley (the other producer of that episode) undercut Pritchett’s claims in other ways. The final program included stock footage that showed the horrendous conditions in the jails, and in one piece of film, Dr. King stood outside a jail and talked to civil rights activists being held inside. The prisoners told King that guards had crammed 69 of them into a cell designed to hold 10.

Despite his zealous opposition to the Albany movement, Pritchett repeatedly told DeVinney that he was not a segregationist, merely a conscientious law enforcement officer:

I did not disagree with [King’s] motives or his objectives—it was his method. I believed in the courts; he believed in the streets. So I’ve never been classified as a segregationist, and not as a [sic] integrationist. I was [an] administrator of . . . Albany Police Department.

It was a convenient distinction, but it was belied by the fact that, after the Albany campaign, Pritchett repeatedly went to Birmingham to advise Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor on how to defeat SCLC.[27] Likewise, the more Pritchett bragged about his measures to keep the city council from having to give in to the demonstrators, the more he undercut his claims of neutrality. Regarding the release of King and Abernathy, he remarked:

After it was all over, we discussed this, and [King] told me, he said, “This is one time, not only did you out [non-]violent me, but this is one time you outsmarted me” . . . It was a shrewd move, but it accomplished what we wanted to do.

During the interview, Pritchett also allotted himself a larger role in the battle against the movement than he had claimed in previous years. The ex-chief’s remark that it was his idea to pay King and Abernathy’s fines differed from the account he gave an interviewer a decade earlier: “I was not instrumental    . . . I sat and observed.”[28] While boasting to DeVinney, Pritchett claimed that he “never did look upon [King’s departure] as a win or loss,” but his other remarks made that one ring hollow. When the producer asked why there was so much resistance to integration in Albany, the ex-chief slipped even further back into his old role as a segregationist official:

We didn’t—when I say “we,” myself and the city council, and the mayor—did not want to be forced into doing something by force, intimidation. And this is, in one sense, is [sic] what it was. We were intimidated; we were threatened

That clip was the only other part of the interview to appear in the series: producers used it in the “teaser” at the beginning of the episode.

Pritchett’s portrayal of Albany resembled his depiction of his own actions. The chief was eager to show that the town was a progressive urban area and to distinguish events there from the worst of southern resistance to integration. He offered an interesting twist on the old southernism about “outside agitators,” drawing a sharp line between the sophisticated white inhabitants of Albany and white troublemakers from more rural areas. When DeVinney raised the issue of the Ku Klux Klan, Pritchett noted that he had banned Klan meetings within city limits, leading that group to hold its anti-integration rally some 500 feet outside town boundaries.

When Pritchett told how he warned Klan-leader Robert Shelton to stay out of Albany, his voice became more emphatic than at any other point during the interview: “[I] told him, ‘You cannot come in this town.’” Summing up that episode, he said: “we did not enforce the law one-sided. We enforced it, we tried to equally keep the whites and the, and so to speak, the rednecks down.” The former chief pushed his assertions about Albany’s urbanity to bizarre lengths, even trying to deny that the town’s politicians were segregationists: “It wasn’t that the city officials of Albany were segregationists. We had a Catholic mayor; we had a Jewish judge . . . We were a metropolitan city, so to speak.”

Pritchett preferred to see the integration battles in Albany as a genteel affair, and accordingly, he had words of high praise for Dr. King, calling him a “great man” and remarking that “one thing that I regret about all of this is Dr. King was killed in Memphis. He did not fulfill or see the fulfillment of his dream.” Of course, such comments were rare among southern officials from that era, and they prompted the interviewer to ask some unusual questions. During a discussion about the freedom songs that came out of the Albany campaign (Pritchett said that he owned an album of them), DeVinney impishly asked the former chief to sing one of them, intending to cut that clip together with footage of one of the Freedom Singers performing the same song. Pritchett would not play along and today DeVinney says, “That was a cute idea that probably deserved not to work.”[29]

Pritchett differed enough from other southern lawmen to make a favorable impression on some of his opponents. SCLC’s Reverend Andrew Young wrote that during his visits to see Dr. King in Albany jail, the chief often expressed misgivings about his role in enforcing segregation and “apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong in the eyes of God.” A few years later, when Pritchett applied for the job in High Point, Young recommended him to black community leaders there.[30] During his Eyes interview in Atlanta, William Anderson heard from DeVinney that Pritchett was also in town to be filmed. Anderson came back later to see the ex-chief. The two men hugged and went out to dinner, along with their wives. “I thought, this is just getting too weird for me,” DeVinney remembers.[31]

Among opponents of the movement, Pritchett was the most eager to appear in the series and clearly wanted publicity. “Laurie Pritchett was thrilled to be interviewed. He couldn’t wait,” remarks Callie Crossley.[32] Pritchett’s Eyes on the Prize appearance allowed him to achieve the share of fame that he wanted. The program showed how the chief’s tactics succeeded in thwarting the desegregation campaign. Also, Pritchett came off as morally superior to his Birmingham counterpart, the uncontrollably violent Bull Connor—even if the episode did cast doubt on the Albany lawman’s claims about his methods.

Pritchett’s attempt to blame Albany’s racism on rural outsiders did not fare so well. The episode did not include the “redneck” quote, but it did highlight the chief’s hand-in-glove relationship with the virulently racist rural sheriffs who housed his prisoners. Pritchett also failed to settle the contradiction between his professions of regard for Dr. King and his pride in blocking the civil rights leader’s campaign. His closing remark to DeVinney was true to form. “Frankly, I was hoping that [King and SCLC] would accomplish what they were doing,” he said. Cracking a slight smile, he added, “but after they left Albany.”

[1] Dan T. Carter, Politics of rage: George Wallace and the origins of modern American conservatism, Second Edition (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 464.

[2] Callie Crossley, telephone interview with the author, May 19, 2004.

[3] Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Six episodes). Produced by Blackside, Incorporated for WGBH-Boston. Creator and executive producer: Henry Hampton. Original airdate: 1987.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Prudence Arndt, interview with the author, May 19, 2004; Jo Ann Mathieu to John Horhn, October 24, 1985. Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9970.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Prudence Arndt to John Patterson, January 27, 1986. Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9938.

[8] The interviews were shot on 16-mm film with audio recorded separately on ¼-inch tape. The archive does not currently possess equipment that can play the ¼-inch audio. However, it is possible to make a transcript from audiocassette recordings of the original audio, and then (after some lip-reading practice) to use the transcript to follow along with the silent footage.

[9] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[10] See Carter, Politics of rage, 471-74; Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 55-59, 62-66.

[11] Charles W. Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981, 416-418 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1982); Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 2nd Session, 1982 (C.Q. Inc., 1983), 374-76; Kathryn Waters Gest (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 98th Congress, 1st Session, 1983 (C.Q. Inc., 1984), 21; Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 58.

[12] See page 6.

[13] David J. Garrow, Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986), 202-04; Taylor Branch, Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 601-07.

[14] Branch, Parting the waters, 616-621.

[15] Stephen B. Oates, Let the trumpet sound: The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 197-98; John A. Ricks III, “‘De Lawd’ descends and is crucified: Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Georgia” in David J. Garrow (ed.), We shall overcome: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Volume III (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carson Publishing, 1989), 986-993; Stephen G. N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The struggle for racial equality in Georgia, 1940-1980 (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 141-48.

[16] Garrow, Bearing the cross, 215-17.

[17] Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 152.

[18] Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 160-199; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 216-17; Branch, Parting the waters, 631; Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn (eds.), Voices of freedom: An oral history of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), 111-14; Oates, Let the trumpet sound, 189-199. See also Jason Sokol, There goes my everything: White southerners in the age of civil rights, 1945-1975 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 64-83.

[19] Kelly Hall, “Colleagues recall former police chief,” High Point Enterprise, November 14, 2000, online edition: http://www.hpe.com/2000/11/14/news/1114news7.html.

[20] This article follows the convention of deleting incomplete words and expressions such as “uh” or “um.” The only exception is when someone is interrupted after saying “uh” and the word is preserved to show that they had not finished speaking.

[21] Branch, Parting the waters, 614-16, 622-24; Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 151; Zinn, Southern Mystique, 174-79.

[22] Charles Sherrod, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9101). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, December 20, 1985.

[23] William G. Anderson, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9074). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[24] All references to Laurie Pritchett Eyes on the Prize interview pertain to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 26663) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 320446, Container number: 11530). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[25] The Kings of Albany were no relation to Martin Luther King.

[26] Hampton et al., Voices of freedom, 107.

[27] Pritchett, Eyes on the Prize interview; Diane McWhorter, Carry me home: Birmingham, Alabama: the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 339-41, 431-33.

[28] Howell Raines, My soul is rested: Movement days in the Deep South remembered (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 362.

[29] DeVinney interview, April 7, 2004.

[30] Andrew Young, An easy burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 178.

[31] James A. DeVinney, telephone interview with the author, April 6, 2004.

[32] Crossley, interview.

Expand Civil Rights Laws to Include Social Class

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

In 2013, I researched legislative means of dealing with class bias in everyday life. This article was the result.

Expand Civil Rights Laws to Include Social Class (Razorcake, June 20, 2013)

America is dying of inequality. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that “the income share of just the top one half of the top 1 percent grew from 5.39 percent of the nation’s income in 1979 to 13.37 percent in 2010.” CEPR found that “the share of the bottom 90 [percent] fell from 67.65 percent to 53.74 percent,” during the same period. The Great Recession spawned by the financial crash has officially ended, but upward redistribution of wealth is still the order of the day. Stock prices are reaching new highs, amid crushing poverty, joblessness, and debt. The social divide will only get worse unless government ends right-wing austerity policies, which make everyone but the rich pay for the crisis caused by the rich.

We will not reverse the decline and fall of the American people until the people understand how the wealthy exploit them every day. Many activists, journalists, scholars, and filmmakers are working to show Americans in vivid terms just how they are being cheated. But the propaganda efforts of corporate media have been very successful, particularly in convincing the public that “freedom” means unregulated corporate power. Also, economic relationships can seem impersonal, causing many Americans to believe that inequality is beyond human control.

Fortunately, the Civil Rights Movement created a framework for understanding the problems we face, as well as a means of addressing them. Americans may not yet fully grasp the workings of economic exploitation. But, thanks to decades of civil rights struggles, nearly everyone is familiar with the concepts of prejudice and discrimination. And that is the essence of our economically divided society: prejudice and discrimination against those who are not wealthy or of high social status. Civil rights laws have proven effective against unequal treatment based on race, sex, religion, and national origin. We must expand those laws to prohibit unequal treatment based on social class.

Concepts of class are so backward in America that we lack even a proper term to describe class prejudice. Words like racist and sexist are commonplace, but what do you call a rich person who hates working-class people or even middle-class ones? The usual term is snob, which suggests an annoying but harmless character who frets about the placement of salad forks at a table setting. An alternative, classist, is too similar to other words, especially when spoken. The term I use is class bigot, and I find myself using it a lot. Likewise, when police or other authorities target people based on race, religion, or gender, we call that racial, religious, or gender profiling. Hardly anyone talks about social profiling, but it happens all the time.

Can civil rights law transform our class-ridden society? To answer that, we’ll need to review some history. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1868) mandates that “No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Along with the Fifteenth Amendment, which protects voting rights, the Fourteenth was meant to guarantee equal status for black citizens in the aftermath of the Civil War.

However, racists disregarded those guarantees, especially in the former Confederate states. It was not until the 1950s and ’60s that the federal government intervened decisively to enforce the Constitution. Citing the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregated public schools in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress added new weapons to the fight against injustice: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result was remarkable, if incomplete, progress toward an integrated America.

The Civil Rights Act remains the basis for a wide range of legal protections. Title IV of the Act forbids educational discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” Title VII deals with employment and includes provisions against unequal treatment due to sex, in addition to the categories mentioned in Title IV. Title VI applies the Act’s regulations to government agencies that receive federal funds.

Congress has expanded the scope of this legislation since the 1960s. For instance, the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibit sex bias in education, closing a loophole in the 1964 Act. To enforce these statutes, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a Civil Rights Division and there is also a Commission on Civil Rights. Private citizens can sue in federal court when they believe their lawful rights have been violated. But discrimination based on social class is the defining evil of the age and it is currently beyond the reach of our legal system.

Admittedly, class is a less obvious identity than race or sex, but identities rooted in religion or national origin are not always obvious and those are covered by civil rights legislation. And, admittedly, not all provisions of civil rights law could apply to class. For instance, it is illegal to make decisions on loan or rental applications based on race. Obviously, it is not feasible to institute a blanket ban on discrimination by class in such cases, because that would prevent lenders and property owners from checking applicants’ incomes or credit histories.

The key distinction here is between interactions that are determined by a person’s financial standing (such as purchasing, borrowing, and leasing) and those that are not or should not be (such as law enforcement, public safety, education, and employment). In the latter category of interactions, it is wrong to discriminate against citizens merely because they possess less wealth or occupy a lower social status. But, all too often, that is exactly what occurs. Let’s look at some examples of class bigotry in action and consider whether improved civil rights legislation could help.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Sadhbh Walshe showed that U.S. courts are rife with class bias. She cited studies of non-felony criminal cases, which demonstrated that courts treat defendants more harshly if they are unable to pay bail. When defendants are locked up pending trial, prosecutors have the upper hand and are likely to offer more punitive plea bargains.

When a legal-aid organization in New York City started posting bail for impoverished misdemeanor defendants, the situation changed dramatically. “Over half of their clients’ cases were thrown out by the prosecution, and not a single one of the remaining clients took a disposition that involved any jail time,” Walshe wrote. “That small amount of bail money posted on their behalf was, literally, the price of their liberty.” A 2010 study showed that 87% of non-felony defendants in NYC who were assigned bail of $1,000 or less were unable to pay it. It is no exaggeration to say that, in such cases, courts are deciding guilt and punishment based on social class.

The bail issue is a question of court procedure and therefore violates the principle of “equal protection of the laws” at its most fundamental. But when judges and prosecutors use non-felony defendants’ poverty as a means of extracting a guilty plea or imposing a harsher sentence, there is currently no recourse. That is because, unlike race or gender, class is not a category that triggers legal protections. We should amend the law to fix that.

Class bigotry poisons justice by other means as well. There is no better illustration of that than the contrast between law enforcement’s harsh measures against ordinary citizens, such as peaceful protesters, and its refusal to take action against Wall Street criminals. The country is still suffering from the effects of the financial crisis, which was caused by fraud. Banks issued home loans at inflated prices, often knowing that the borrowers would not be able to keep up payments. Then the banks created worthless securities out of those loans and sold them to unsuspecting customers around the world.

In fact, the banksters-in-chief at Goldman Sachs were so sure that the price of their securities would collapse that they bought insurance on them even after they sold them. When the inevitable crash came, no one at Goldman Sachs was punished. Instead, the company received taxpayer-funded bailouts, both directly and from another bailed-out firm, American International Group (AIG), which had insured those fake securities. “At least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman,” financial journalist Matt Taibbi reported.

Many other financial institutions, including foreign ones, benefitted from bailouts in the form of direct government payments, special credit arrangements, or guarantees. A 2011 report by the government’s General Accounting Office put the price of the Federal Reserve Board’s corporate welfare to leading banks at $16 trillion. (America’s Gross Domestic Product, the value of all goods and services in the country, stands at about $15.7 trillion.)

The people were not so fortunate: the economic disaster resulting from Wall Street’s scams inflicts new casualties every day. Since the taxpayers saved the banks and their stockholders, punishing the banksters who caused the crisis is literally the least the government can do. Taibbi sums up the matter with this question: “We couldn’t find a single person on Wall Street to do even a day in jail for losing 40% of the world’s wealth in a criminal fraud scheme?”

The crimes didn’t stop after the bailouts. Wall Street made a fortune off toxic mortgages, so the next step was to profit from the houses themselves by repossessing and reselling them. There was only one problem: the banks had cut up the mortgages and spread the pieces across different securities. That tactic helped the scam artists cover their tracks, but made it practically impossible to establish ownership of any individual mortgage. Wall Street bosses came up with a solution to that problem: perjury. They presented fake mortgage documents in court. William Black, a former federal regulator, told Democracy Now! that “what [the bankers] were doing was lying systematically to the tune, typically, of the large places, of 10,000 times a month.” They were “committing felonies that would lead to people being made homeless in America.”

Not satisfied with that, the banks also repossessed homes of buyers who were legally entitled to refinance. In some cases, they seized the houses of people who were not behind on their payments or who were military personnel on combat duty, and therefore supposed to be protected from foreclosure. The list of banks involved in illegal dispossession includes Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

The Obama administration and officials in 49 states took up the issue, reaching a settlement with the banks in 2012. Most victims of illegal foreclosure—about 80%—will receive compensation of $300 to $1,000. No, that is not a misprint. The settlement grants immunity to the banks, so the only choice given to those who lost their homes unjustly is take it or leave it.

Under today’s laws, if the Ku Klux Klan threw African Americans out of their homes, not only would the Klansmen go to jail for it, but they would be forced to return the stolen houses. If the government cut a deal with the KKK granting immunity to the group’s members and allowing them to pay practically nothing, the evicted residents could sue the government for racially discriminatory law enforcement. They could also obtain a court injunction preventing the corrupt bargain between politicians and Klansmen from going into effect.

Victims of the real-life illegal dispossession case should have the right to sue. Government officials acted with gross bias toward the too-big-to-fail banks and their too-rich-to-lose stockholders. The main difference between the hypothetical Klan example above and the actual banker home-theft case is that the bankers’ thugs don’t wear sheets. Let’s expand civil rights law and create a remedy for wholesale property theft by the wealthy, one that applies even when political figures and prosecutors are too cozy with the social elite to care.

Speaking of which, in February, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized government officials’ eagerness to reach settlements with posh criminals rather than prosecuting them. At a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee, Warren asked a panel of federal regulators to tell her “about the last few times you’ve taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial.” None of the panelists could cite a single case. Warren pointed out the contradiction at the heart of American “justice.” “There are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial,” she said. “I’m really concerned that too big to fail has become too big for trial.” If you doubt that Warren is right, I recommend that you repeatedly watch this clip from that hearing, alternated with footage of police brutalizing protesters.

Class bias is a matter of life and death. In its annual “Death on the Job” report, released in April, the AFL-CIO presented statistics on work-related deaths, including those from disease caused by exposure to dangerous materials at work. “Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail,” the report stated. “During this time there were more than 390,000 worker deaths.” That amounts to one month of jail time per 4,382 workers killed.

Compare that to government officials’ response to terror attacks. In that case, they are so aggressive that they don’t think twice about violating civil liberties. There is a gross imbalance in the way American government responds to threats against its citizens’ safety. When the issue is foreign-based terrorism, our gung-ho authorities refuse to stay within their constitutional limits. But when workers die needlessly on the job, the authorities do nothing. The politicians, prosecutors, and many of the regulators are more concerned about corporate profits than workers’ lives. How long before al-Qaeda leaders figure out that if they want to kill Americans with impunity, they can forget about making bombs and just open unsafe factories in the U.S.? Restoring balance to law enforcement will prove a big job, but we can fight against death at the workplace by using amended civil rights law to hold corporate and government officials accountable in court.

Improved civil rights legislation would end many other destructive inequities. So-called “right to work” laws, which effectively prevent union organizing, would finally become illegal, simply because they are discriminatory. Stockholders and other business owners are allowed to form groups for collective bargaining: those groups are called corporations. Created by the state, corporations let business owners take advantage of a wide range of privileges, including tax breaks and the ability to walk away from certain debts. Permitting business owners to organize for their interests, while denying workers the same right, is the definition of unequal treatment.

If class becomes a category of civil rights law, it will allow us to combat social elitism in higher education. The percentage of working-class students at top universities is far below the level that would trigger widespread outrage if any other group were so systematically excluded. Many leading colleges openly admit that they grant enormous admissions preferences to “legacies,” children of rich graduates. In a 2009 book, two sociologists, T. J. Espenshade and A.W. Radford, published data showing that leading colleges penalize working-class white applicants. The deafening media silence that has accompanied that revelation should end with a legal challenge.

When offering examples of how civil rights legislation could apply to class, I glossed over one problem for the sake of clarity. I depicted the courts acting to enforce the new law, rather than resisting it. Actually, civil rights laws are under fire and conservatives on the bench are doing much of the shooting. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering suits aimed at eliminating race-based affirmative action and key elements of the Voting Rights Act. Even if those efforts fail, the fact remains that racial segregation is on the rise again in America’s schools and neighborhoods. We need to build a powerful coalition to defend existing anti-discrimination laws. Broadening the definition of civil rights to encompass social class would help that effort by giving more Americans—specifically, economically disadvantaged whites—a stake in this crucial legislation.

Corporate attacks on the lives of everyday Americans are successful because working-class people are often divided by race and sex. Under our unreformed class system, the quest for racial and gender diversity entails discriminating against working-class white men while continuing to privilege rich white men. Liberal college administrators may not acknowledge that, but the targets of their class bigotry are fully aware of it. Likewise, working-class women understand that “affirmative action for women” normally applies only to bourgeois women. Campaigns for equality should unite excluded groups instead of setting them against each other.

This plan to include class within the scope of civil rights law belongs at the center of the progressive agenda. It offers a comprehensive solution to the problems of our unequal society. Just as important, it will strengthen and focus demands for change by prompting Americans to think systematically about the role of class in daily life.

Eminent Class Bigots: Tad Friend and The New Yorker, Part 2

My last post detailed the bigoted writing of Tad Friend. Descended from generations of East Coast, Ivy League preppies, Friend found himself writing for New York in 1994. He surveyed America and decided that “white trash” were destroying society. The magazine published his bizarre conclusions and Friend moved up to The New Yorker four years later, where he remains.

Even in 1994, it was obvious that our national decline was due to a rapacious elite: bankers, executives in the energy and weapons industries, and the upper echelons of the investor class. So I found it remarkable that Friend could affix so much blame to people at the bottom of the social scale.

Had he targeted women or minorities in the same manner, his article would not have been published in New York. If it had somehow made its way into the magazine, Friend and the editor who approved it would have bid adieu to their careers. Had such an article appeared and gone unnoticed at the time, it would have provoked justifiable outrage whenever it was discovered. Friend’s continued immunity from criticism tells you all you need to know about elite media. Class bigotry is considered not merely acceptable, but laudable.

Friend’s ludicrous assertions in “White Hot Trash!” have not improved with age. For instance, there is this discussion of crime.

An even more damaged trash response than being chubby and riding without a helmet is serial killings, which are almost exclusively committed by white men between the ages of 25 and 40. More serial murders have been reported since 1970 than in all previous American history combined.

Friend blames “white trash” for that, though most American serial murders that occurred before or after 1970 were perpetrated by the social elite. Even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, thousands of Americans die every year due to lack of health insurance. Why? Because the rich owners of the private-health-care industry want it that way. When you add preventable workplace deaths and the casualties of the elite’s imperial wars, the body count is not even close.

And what about this passage?

Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.

Bridget Hall’s family was so poor they could only afford canned food, and Tad Friend found that hilarious. It was equally disgusting to call Bridget Hall a “Lolita,” a charge that Friend connects closely to poverty.

This is a clear case of an over-privileged white guy calling a 16-year-old girl a slut for being born poor. It makes a sickeningly creepy spectacle. Where were feminists when this article was published? Where are they now?

I thought someone should ask Friend about the views he expressed in “White Hot Trash!” So, a couple of months ago, I e-mailed The New Yorker and asked if I could interview him about that piece. When I didn’t get a reply, I e-mailed my questions and asked the PR department to pass them on to Friend. The magazine’s PR coordinator, Adrea Piazza, wrote back and asked, “What publication are your writing for?” I had already mentioned that I worked freelance and did not have an assignment for the piece I was writing. I explained that again.

Time passed and I didn’t get a reply. I wrote: “Since you work in the PR department, would you like to answer one or more of my questions? Take your pick.” I included a link to “White Hot Trash!” and wrote: “Here is the article that prompted my questions. What do you think of it?

Piazza replied: “Thank you very much, but unfortunately Tad is not available.” He’s apparently also indefensible, because The New Yorker’s PR coordinator did not venture an opinion on “White Hot Trash!” I’m beginning to question the work ethic of my betters.

If you work for a major media outlet, and you feel like challenging bigotry and practicing journalism, here are the questions I tried to ask Tad Friend. Feel free to ask any or all of them. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you might also ask Adrea Piazza and New Yorker Editor David Remnick why they apparently don’t see any problem with Friend’s views. Let me know what you find out.

1. In the article, you warned that white trash were having a destructive impact on America. But haven’t subsequent events (George W. Bush’s presidency, Wall Street’s depredations) as well as previous events (George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Wall Street’s depredations) shown that the real threat to America comes from rich, white, Ivy League preppies—i.e. your social group?

2. Discussing fashion-model Bridget Hall in “White Hot Trash!” you wrote: “Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.” It seems that, in addition to mocking Hall for coming from an impoverished family, you also implied that Hall’s poverty made her a “Lolita.” Would you care to comment?

3. Many of your examples of typical “white trash” behavior involve rich people: Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Menendez brothers, and “men in ties and suspenders” who frequent strip clubs. Here is your explanation for that apparent contradiction: “A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier.” Another explanation would be that posh people like yourself tend to blame poor people for bad behavior by members of your own social group. Isn’t “White Hot Trash!” an example of that phenomenon?

4. I would characterize your article as class bigotry. Am I wrong?

5. One of the underlying assumptions of “White Hot Trash!” is that immorality is hereditary. For instance, you explain the Paula Jones scandal with these words: “Our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch.” Isn’t your attitude on that point very close to those who advocate eugenics?

6. Has anyone at The New Yorker commented on “White Hot Trash!” during the time you have worked at that magazine? Do you recall any specific reactions?

Eminent Class Bigots: Tad Friend and The New Yorker, Part 1

A few years ago, I wrote this piece about class bigotry in elite media. The subject was Tad Friend and his 1994 article for New York, “White Hot Trash!” Friend blamed “white trash” for America’s decline, though the real culprits were obviously his old prep-school classmates in the top echelons of business, government, and media.

That exercise in scapegoating was the politically correct equivalent of right-wing theories about the genetic inferiority of racial minorities and the poor. It is a staggering indictment of elite media that Friend, now at The New Yorker, has never been called to account for his hate-writing. More on that in Part 2.

The White-Trash Scapegoat (Razorcake, August 29, 2011)

The financial elite are stealing America. Under Democratic and Republican administrations, the rich seize ever more of the nation’s wealth—especially during Wall Street-created crises. In fact, the economic cycle now consists of a series of recurring scams. At its core, the present crisis is a repeat of the Savings & Loan boondoggle of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Both followed the same trajectory: deregulation, banker fraud, stock-market nosedive, insider bailout, recession.

The scale of the theft is no surprise when compared to similar cases in history, but the lack of opposition is remarkable. Why don’t the American people unite against the rapacious elite? The answer: “scapegoating.” When confronted with populist anger, the rich and their allies simply direct it toward other, much more vulnerable targets. There has been useful reporting on the practice of blaming the country’s problems on racial minorities, non-Christians, immigrants, and gays. Even so, the media consistently ignore one group of scapegoats—except when scapegoating them—working-class whites, or “white trash” in elitist terminology.

The best way to understand the crusade against working-class whites is to look closely at a celebrated expression of it: Tad Friend’s New York magazine article “White Hot Trash!” Widely reprinted, the 1994 piece fit neatly into a pervasive media campaign that drew public attention away from business scandals by demonizing workers and the poor. Such tactics paved the way for the (Non-Corporate) Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Surveying the national scene, Friend saw an army of vicious white trash on the attack: “white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America,” (italics original). When he described these enemies of decency, his words struck a familiar tone. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling characterized the western empires’ colonial subjects as “half devil and half child.” For his part, Friend wrote: “White-trash behavior is defined by childlikeness and the headlong pursuit of easy gratification—quite often, sex.” Throughout the article, he mixed moralizing with voyeurism and treated character as a function of social background. Weighing in on Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton—the tabloid news item of the day—Friend turned the case into a question of lineage: “our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch.”

The New York writer produced a long list of offenses and invariably found white trash at the root of the evil. Whether it was crimes against high fashion (“candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings . . . tattoos”), going to strip clubs (“places like Stringfellow’s, where a table dance costs $20 and where men in ties and suspenders watch topless women crawl around”), altercations with the police (“consider slaphappy Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor”), or even murder (“Any vestiges of our expectations about guilt . . . vanished with the Menendezes”), one gang was behind it all.

Many of the specifics in Friend’s bill of indictment are absurd, but there is a more fundamental problem with his analysis. Why do the rich feature so prominently in his rogues’ gallery of white trash? The Menendez brothers grew up in a wealthy (not to mention Hispanic) family. Zsa Zsa Gabor also came from a well-to-do background. Ties, suspenders, and $20 table dances also don’t fit the white-trash profile. The writer explained: “A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier.” Watch your step, rich people. You might slip and start acting like white trash.

To support his claim that a light-skinned, proletarian horde was razing the civilized world, Friend cited the worsening poverty rate among whites in the U.S. and offered quotes from “scholar Charles Murray.” (Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s fatuous book The Bell Curve, in which the authors labeled African Americans and the poor genetically inferior, was published less than a month after “White Hot Trash!”) “White trash’s connotations increasingly describe America,” Friend summarized. “The country is becoming underclass-laden, illiterate, promiscuous, and just plain fat.” He evidently believes that poverty and illiteracy are personal choices, on a par with overeating. “The country is becoming underclass-laden” is a revealing statement. According to Friend, poverty is something that the poor do to the nation rather than the other way around.

Friend’s attack was wide ranging, but he never strayed far from the topic of sex at its most lurid. This passage demonstrates how closely poverty and depravity are linked in his mind.

“[Courtney] Love’s delight in looking like ‘a 14-year-old battered rape victim,’ a ‘kinderwhore,’ [Friend did not provide the source(s) of those quotes] is a nutshell of white-trash chic. So, too, are the suggestively named Tease-brand baby-doll T-shirts, which evoke a Lolita-at-the-Dairy-Queen thing. (Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.)”

How did Bridget Hall get to be a “Lolita”? Are all young, female models Lolitas, or just those whose parents could only afford canned food? There is certainly room to criticize the photographers, clothiers, and advertisers responsible for producing sexualized images of models who resemble (or are) children, but why denigrate the model herself? An honest treatment of the issue would require investigation of the fashion industry, the posh snobs who run it, and the customers who pay colossal sums for its wares. Then there are the magazines that devote obsessive coverage to the details of models’ lives. For instance, New York now offers an online profile of Bridget Hall, including the names of celebrities she has dated and a list of her key characteristics as a model: “Body, Cheekbones, Hair.” It is easy to see why Friend preferred to place blame for the fashion world’s Lolita fixation on the narrow shoulders of a girl from an impoverished, rural background.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Friend resorted to this film reference: “Like the urbanities in Deliverance, we have found ourselves in the grinning clutches of sexually predatory backwoodsmen,” he bellowed. “White-trash culture commands us to ‘squeal like a pig!’ And we’re oinking.” There is no stopping the white-trash war on society. By Friend’s lights, even white-collar crime is a blue-collar problem: “Whitewater, though numbingly complex, is at bottom a pure good-old-boy scam.”

With that claim, he went too far. Between overeating, the headlong pursuit of sex, command performances on Cops, and forcing businessmen to frequent strip clubs, there hardly seems to be enough time in a white-trash day to devise new ways to evade financial-industry regulations. At the least, Friend should have admitted that his stereotype of the lazy, white-trash slob was inaccurate.

Of course, Whitewater amounted to only a small sidebar on the Savings & Loan crisis, which was still siphoning off billions of tax dollars when New York published its screed against white trash. Come to think of it, the chief perpetrators of the S&L bailout, President George H.W. Bush and his treasury secretary, Nicholas F. Brady, hail from the same old-money background as Tad Friend. As a matter of course, all three attended posh prep schools and Ivy League universities. The grandson of a famous industrialist, Brady went to Yale, where the Bush clan has been a fixture since the 1840s. Friend’s family tree has Ivy aristocracy on every branch: one of his ancestors was the first president of Yale. It is not surprising, therefore, that he decided to give it the old school try and tell his readers that society was rotting from the bottom rather than the top.

Though the article was syndicated nationally at the height of political correctness, no one in the media seemed to notice anything wrong with it. Friend became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1998, and he included “White Hot Trash!” in a 2001 collection of his magazine pieces. Had he chosen just about any other group as the target for his blunt expressions of hatred, his tenure as a writer for top magazines would have been cut short in favor of a challenging new career as Michael Savage’s on-air sidekick. Class bigotry, on the other hand, is considered perfectly respectable.

When it comes to scapegoating working-class Americans for the sins of the elite, Tad Friend is one example among many. After the billionaire-funded, corporate-shilling Tea Party emerged, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, and other liberals called the group’s members “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” Some liberals still apply the “hillbilly” epithet—and other disparaging terms for low-income whites—to the Tea Party, even though an April 2010 CBS/New York Times poll showed that the typical Tea Partier has a higher income than the average American and is more likely to possess a college degree.

Liberals’ contempt for right-wing “rednecks” caused a mighty outcry at Fox News Channel: Conservatives are always ready to pose as defenders of everyday folks against liberal smears. Pretending to like working people (of any race) is a tough task for right-wingers, especially when Republican politicians need fall guys. In 2004, published photos revealed the grisly results of the Bush administration’s systematic use of torture against prisoners of war. The president, vice president, and defense secretary were directly responsible for the brutal policy, but not according to Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In the pages of that newspaper, rightist pundit John Podhoretz blamed Bush’s torture program entirely on low-ranking soldiers. He also condemned a large segment of society, calling the soldiers “white-trash ghouls.” Conservative would-be populists, usually so easy to enrage, remained silent when Podhoretz and Murdoch showed what they really thought of working-class whites. Contempt for white trash is a point of bipartisan agreement.

For decades, the country’s elite has thwarted populism by making scapegoats of the powerless. Our economic nightmare will never end unless Americans learn to see through that tactic—even when the scapegoats are working class and white.

History versus Religion: The Case of Pontius Pilate

Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate's name.
Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate’s name.

My posts on religious issues have been popular, relatively speaking. So here’s another. It’s from way back. In the spring of 2000, I wrote a review of two books about Pontius Pilate. It was rejected for publication, so here it is for the first time. I believe the review offers a close look at the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.

“Whence Art Thou?” (April 2000)

Pontius Pilate had an especially high profile this Easter. In a widely publicized move, the directors of the Oberammergau passion play revised the script to emphasize the Roman governor’s guilt in Jesus’ execution, distancing the production from Gospel accounts that blamed the Jewish people. Toward the same purpose, makers of the CBS miniseries Jesus gave Pilate some additional, unflattering scenes, loosely based on the writings of the first-century historian Josephus.

Easter also saw the U.S. release of Ann Wroe’s biography, Pontius Pilate, after a successful run in the U.K., which included a Samuel Johnson Prize nomination. Interest in Pilate appears to be at flood tide, at least among publishers. Helen K. Bond’s Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation preceded Wroe’s volume, and two novels, one about Pilate himself and one about his wife (assuming he was married), followed soon after.

Ann Wroe starts with an odd declaration: she intends to discover “all our Pilates,” the historical figure and subsequent representations of him. Her use of the possessive is striking, if not alarming, and throughout the book she seems unusually close to her material. She is also diligent, surveying a wide range of art and literature to supplement the sketchy historical record.

Pilate served as governor (his official title was “prefect”) of Judea from 26-36/7 CE. The only hard historical evidence of him—some coins, an inscription, and brief accounts from the Jewish authors Josephus and Philo—reveals an ambitious and sycophantic politician. Josephus and Philo recounted the governor’s conflicts with the Jewish population, but the actions that got Pilate into trouble suggest that he wanted to be noticed in Rome, if not in posterity.

He commissioned an aqueduct for Jerusalem, triggering riots when he used Temple funds for its construction, and his other unpopular initiatives aimed at the greater glory of the emperor Tiberius or smacked of Romanization. In Jerusalem, he set up military standards with Tiberius’ (graven) image on them and, later, votive shields dedicated to him, removing both only after intense pressure. Pilate’s introduction of coins depicting items used in Roman religious ritual seems a more subtle attempt to place the stamp of Roman culture on the province, just as his construction of a “Tiberium”—it is unclear what sort of building it was—at his headquarters in Caesarea offered a less controversial means of celebrating his boss’s greatness.

Guiding the reader through such evidence, Wroe’s impressive command of classical history and literature allows her to place Pilate in his cultural context, and to speculate fruitfully about his upbringing and early career. Wroe is at her best while writing about the pre-Good Friday Pilate, but the closer the story gets to the trial of Jesus, the more she adds melodramatic touches and tenuous links to current issues. Is a police captain at an Operation Rescue protest like Pilate? The ways in which the officer is and is not like the Roman governor receive a full airing, in which no observation comes unexpected. Wroe’s preferred Pilate turns out to be the one who symbolizes humankind in the presence of God—touched by the divine, but drawing back from it:

There had been potential in Pilate at that moment [Jesus’ trial] for darkness or light far beyond the routine experience of a Roman prefect. Even he seemed to sense it. The tiny seed had lodged in his heart or his mind, suggesting infinite possibilities. He could take untraveled roads, open hidden doors, escape the bounds of earth and flesh, exceed himself. Or he could stay as he was: shrug, scratch his ear, write another memorandum.

He stayed as he was. As most of us do.

Of course, that figure is a romanticized version of the Pilate who appears in John’s Gospel, and the portrayal hinges on the belief that he was a reluctant executioner. But scholars such as John Dominic Crossan have asked why we should accept the Christian stories of a conflicted Pilate, harried by a Jewish mob into killing Jesus. They point out that Josephus (a pro-Roman source) depicted the prefect as a hot-tempered ruler, with a penchant for excessive force and capital punishment.

For instance, Tiberius recalled Pilate to Rome to face charges from Samaritan leaders that he had been too harsh in suppressing a potential insurrection. Josephus does not report the outcome of those proceedings, except to note that, by the time Pilate arrived, Tiberius was dead and Caligula was emperor. We do know that the episode marked the end of Pilate’s tenure in Judea. That does not mean he was found guilty. But the fact that he was recalled at all indicates that the charges initially seemed to carry some weight, even by the brutal standards of Roman imperial rule.

Had Jesus staged a one-man riot in the Temple just before Passover, as the New Testament records, would the governor have needed the Jewish authorities to coerce him into crucifying the troublemaker? Could Caiaphas, the high priest, have exerted such pressure on Pilate, considering that the former held his office at the latter’s pleasure?

The Gospel writers would have found it tempting to have Pilate affirm Jesus’ innocence, thus giving early Christians a defense against the charge that they worshipped a rebel against Rome. Shouldn’t we read the trial narratives in that light? Wroe offers reasons to doubt the Christian accounts, but, when she speculates about Pilate’s feelings during the trial, she assumes that the Gospels are accurate reports. By that point, the first-century Roman of the book’s early pages is long gone, and Wroe’s use of Roman literature and philosophy to explore Pilate’s view of Jesus merely underscores that fact.

Wroe’s desire to humanize Pilate causes her to miss the fact that in recent retellings of the story he actually appears less human and more a part of the background. It is true that Sergei Bulgakov made Pilate the centerpiece of his take on Easter in Master and Margarita. But then Bulgakov was offering a critique of Stalinism, and the Roman governor fit easily into the role of an apparatchik haunted by his actions.

Late-twentieth-century writers have often focused on Jesus’ humanity, and, conversely, reduced Pilate to a stereotype of Rome or corrupt authority. Pilate became more than ever a one-dimensional figure, thereby highlighting Jesus’ emotional depth and the novelty of authors’ explorations of the Son of Man. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis portrayed the prefect as a hissing fop whose desire to release Jesus stems solely from spite for Jewish leaders.

When he wrote The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer left Pilate with roughly the words assigned him by the New Testament. But he described Pilate’s actions as an attempt to secure the largest possible bribe from Caiaphas. In his play Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally likewise preferred Gospel accounts of Pilate’s words, but assigned him only two lines. He did make one significant change, however. He substituted the word “queer” for “King of the Jews”—a move that hardly makes the speaker more sympathetic. Far from being a spiritual Everyman, “our Pilate” is an inhuman man faced with a human god.

Helen K. Bond disavows any hope of finding either our Pilate or the historical one, and concentrates instead on the motivations behind the various first-century depictions of him. In a series of self-contained set pieces on Josephus, Philo, and each Gospel, she shows how Pilate served writers’ agendas. Josephus’ viewpoint was colored by his support for Roman rule and his desire for concord between Jews and Romans.

In his historical works (Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War), he tried to show that violent uprisings were futile and peaceful lobbying was effective. His description of Pilate’s actions fit that goal: the governor crushes the riot caused by his appropriation of Temple funds for the aqueduct, but removes the imperial standards from Jerusalem after the populace engaged in passive resistance. Josephus’ other reports of Jewish conflicts with Roman authority followed a similar plot.

Bond also finds argumentative goals paramount in the case of Philo, who claimed that Pilate’s actions in the dispute over the votive shields were deliberately provocative. Philo viewed Romans from a theological perspective, idealizing those he regarded as respectful toward Jews and their religion (even Tiberius received a positive gloss), while describing less understanding Romans as uniformly evil. It is therefore uncertain whether Pilate sought confrontation as aggressively as Philo indicates.

Bond explains the Gospels in terms of polemical objectives as well. The crux of her interpretation is that she regards Pilate’s pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence as ironic, except in Luke’s version. Roman practice for dealing with messianic and kingly claimants was well established, and Roman law mandated conviction if the accused declined to offer a defense, as the Jesus of the New Testament did. Bond argues that the Gospels’ contemporary readers probably would have known such facts, and that Pilate’s apparent reluctance is best explained as an effort to avert reprisals against Rome by implicating the Jewish people in Jesus’ death.

In her view, “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” was a loaded question designed to elicit exactly the response it received. (Since Pilate was accusing the people of regarding Jesus as their king, anyone who spoke up for Jesus risked sharing his fate.) Likewise, “What evil has he done?” was a coy question aimed at getting the crowd’s assent to the prisoner’s sentence on record. Bond reinforces her point by demonstrating that such tests of loyalty and displays of false reluctance were standard tactics of first-century rulers—especially, she might have added, Tiberius.

Following Mark’s Gospel, the oldest, Matthew and John placed the Jews in a harsher light, reflecting the increasing rivalry between Christianity and Judaism. Their characterizations of Pilate, however, differed little from Mark’s. Luke is the odd one out: his Pilate did want to release Jesus. Bond credits the friendly portrayal of the prefect to sharp conflicts between Christians and Jews in Luke’s social context (probably the 80s CE, possibly Antioch). But would that Gospel’s author(s) have been so much more anti-Jewish than the creators of the other, roughly contemporary, New Testament books? If not, then Luke’s sympathetic account of Pilate strengthens the case for a literal reading of the governor’s lines in the other Gospels.

Either way, Bond demonstrates the absence of solid facts behind the different authors’ portrayals. Her work implicitly endorses the script changes at Oberammergau. There is little chance that we today could be more biased about Pilate than writers from the governor’s own era.