Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 2

I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1989, feeling backward but determined to catch up quickly. I imagine that Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture deeply affects everyone who attends that institution. (At first, I did not reflect on the role of slave labor in building the university; that came later.)

In my case, Jefferson’s “academical village” seemed the exact opposite of the impoverished, ramshackle life I had lived during the previous two years—and of the impoverished, ramshackle person I believed that I was. I wanted to transform myself, but there were limits.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. Hardship often reinforces religious belief, especially when fear is deeply inculcated in the target (that seems the right word) at a young age. When circumstances seem hopeless, the thought of a lifeline from heaven can be appealing. And what if things are bad because you won’t stop sinning? My life had just started to work out. I figured I’d better not make God angry.

When I arrived at Virginia, I maintained the practice of praying on my knees before bed. I prayed for family, friends, and the members of the admissions committee that had seen fit to let me go to UVa. I prayed that I’d be good enough, and promised not to commit the sin of pride if the Lord helped me.

I was still a racist, too, but the hold of that poisonous system was weakening before I got to Charlottesville. My parents had painted a happy picture of segregation, but old newsreel footage shown on TV was sufficient to show that they were lying. My racism weakened gradually, becoming more subtle than my parents’ version. I still believed in the stereotypes of the black criminal and welfare cheat, for instance. And, if you knew me then, it would have been best if you didn’t get me started on immigration.

I double-majored in government and history. I had no time for extracurricular activities, because I took more than the standard course load per semester: 18-21 credit hours, rather than 15. I did that because I feared that my parents’ tenuous hold on solvency would slip, and that I would have to return to Tennessee and work to bail them out again. I wanted to get as close as possible to graduation while the home front was stable. Then, if I had to take a hardship leave from Virginia, I could return later and finish the degree quickly—maybe even in a summer. As it happened, my parents somehow managed to hold things together and I finished my degree on schedule, with lots of credit hours to spare.

Virginia was, and is, a class-ridden university. It was difficult being the only one who didn’t have a car, or whose clothes were threadbare. That was especially true around the stereotypical UVa. student, who was upper-middle class, possibly a preppie, maybe even southern gentry.

But I found no class barriers or pitfalls in my studies. I worked extremely hard, often reading and going over notes at the libraries until they closed, even on Fridays. I made A grades in most classes during my first set of mid-terms. That convinced me that I had arrived at exactly the right place.

The education was excellent. I developed a keen interest in modern European history, but I also learned a great deal about classical history, philosophy, and culture. Likewise, I was fascinated by the workings of law and government in the U.S. and Britain.

As my knowledge base expanded and my critical skills improved, I start hacking away at fundamentalism and racism. I learned that Christian scriptures fit poorly with science and history, that classical philosophy was better than Christian homilies. I learned how racism always leads to atrocities and how it is used to divide the poor. Those changes took longer than they should have. I kept looking for salvageable prejudices, compromises with reality. But, in the end, they all collapsed. It was freedom.

Since then, I have wanted to ensure that many people from my background would have similar experiences through higher education. Since then, I have been frustrated.

Recalling those experiences now, I remember that when “friends” teased me about my background, I would sometimes respond by trotting out old racist and fundamentalist views as a sort of put-on. As I saw it, I was giving them what they expected, and the joke was on them. Actually, the joke was on me. I should have just found better friends. I’m sorry to say that bad habit persisted for some years after graduation.

Speaking of graduation, I finished my BA studies on a high note. My grade-point-average was 3.88 on a 4-point scale, and 3.96 in major subjects. I wrote a thesis on 20th century British politics in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs. It won the thesis prize, and the combination of thesis and grades allowed me to graduate with highest distinction. The director of the thesis program told me that no government major had previously received that honor in the several years he had been in charge.

So you can see why I decided to go into academia. I loved learning and felt that I had a mission to share my knowledge. I admired my professors and was grateful to them. I was nobody in the social world of UVa., but that fact had not hindered me even slightly in the academic sphere. I was sure that no field was more open to merit.

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Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I encouraged working-class college applicants to share their experiences and challenge discriminatory practices. I guess I should start things off by describing my own background and education.

In my family, college wasn’t considered an option. My parents were manual laborers, like their parents and grandparents. Of all those ancestors, only one, my mother, finished high school. Only one of my grandparents finished elementary school.

There were two children in the home, me and a younger brother. During the 1970s, my family’s economic circumstances were at their peak. My parents had moved to California from Maryland in the ’60s and they both had union jobs.

We lived in a one-story house in Orange County. Wages were high enough and housing prices low enough that a couple with a typical working-class income could afford a nice, modest house, at least in inland areas. It’s not like that anymore.

For us, it was barely like that then. My parents were always wasteful with money. My father believed that prosperity was measured in cars. If you had multiple expensive cars, especially vintage Chevrolet sports cars, you were king. Debt, high mortgage payments, shabby clothes on your kids—those didn’t matter. Just make sure the kids do a good job washing and waxing the vehicles.

The public schools were good, especially before the effects of Proposition 13 kicked in. I was intellectually curious, but not a good student. My parents never told me the importance of education. They expected that I would attend school as long as it was free and legally required, then get a job. And when I looked at my parents, I saw that they had relatively good pay despite being largely uneducated. I had no idea that the egalitarian economy of mid-20th-century America was on its way out.

For my part, I didn’t like school. I was a scared kid. My parents abused me physically and I responded to bullying and other problems by withdrawing. Religious fundamentalism provided the motivation for many of the beatings and crazed parental outbursts. My mother belonged to an extreme evangelical sect called Free Holiness, and she saw any childlike unruliness as a plot engineered by the devil.

At the time, I internalized her fear of hellfire, and of the apocalypse she thought imminent. I also absorbed the racism that both parents taught me. My mother had grown up in segregated schools in Tennessee, pre-Brown, and had never really taken to integration. Both parents said that “Mexicans and Orientals” were taking over our country, and I figured they must be right. Looking back, I regret being so easily cowed by bullies (starting with my parents) and failing to reach for the learning, friendship, and enjoyment that were available at school.

Late in high school, I actually started enjoying classes, especially history and civics. I wanted to go to college and learn more, but had no concept what that entailed. After graduation, I took some community-college classes and did a lot better than I had in high school. I wanted to continue.

That was when my parents decided to move us to my mother’s native Appalachia. We were reverse Joads, fleeing relative prosperity in California. My mother terribly missed her (mostly evil) relatives and was sure that the Almighty was going to smite California because of all the sodomites, Hollywood sinners, and Catholic immigrants from Mexico.

So we moved to Tennessee, where the economy was dire and low-wage. My parents gave no thought to what they would do for work, what would become of their sons, anything really, all because Jesus would provide. We met many great people, but they all struggled economically. Welcome to the underclass.

We got by on the money my parents made by selling the house in California, plus some savings and the proceeds of labor provided by yours truly. For a while, I was the only one working. I had multiple part-time jobs and some of them were off the grid. My old man knew someone who paid cash for chopping firewood, clearing land, moving rock. I gave the money to my con-man father, who told me not to tell the others.

He insisted that we were beset by nothing worse than short-term liquidity problems. He had “pension stock” that he couldn’t sell at the moment, or other pools of wealth that he had to wait to access. Also, he was going to make a fortune off old Chevy cars that he always bought but never seemed to sell. When I saw The King of Marvin Gardens years later, I saw a lot of my father in the character of Jason Staebler, played by Bruce Dern. But when I was young, I accepted my dad’s lies and delusions for longer than I should have. Writing about my parents now, I am again amazed that I did not irrevocably sever ties with them until just a few years ago.

I alternated work with classes at UNC-Asheville. I had originally planned to live on campus, before I knew about our “liquidity problems.” I arranged my schedule to be entirely made up of Tuesday-Thursday classes, so I could commute from home and work as needed on other days. I was an A/B student. I could have done better, but I was frequently tired from work. Also, I increasingly worried that I would never get to graduate. The money would run out and I’d need to work all the time.

I had learned enough about college to realize the importance of going to a highly rated institution, if possible. I decided to take a last shot at that dream with a round of applications in the fall of 1988. The following March, I got admitted to the University of Virginia and was granted a mix of scholarships and loans. My parents finally got jobs—awful ones, but they got them. I would be able to enroll.

When I was in California, I had been too crippled by my bizarre home life—and my own wrongheaded responses to problems—to take advantage of educational opportunities. Going to Charlottesville on Greyhound, I was determined to make up for that.

Open Letter to the Ferguson Commission

Clayton, Missouri, seat of St. Louis County government
Clayton, Missouri, financial center and seat of St. Louis County government

Dear Ferguson Commission Members:

Thank you for taking on the task of finding ways to heal our community. I would like to offer a proposal for your consideration. It is time to use tax policy to redress severe inequalities.

The killing of Michael Brown Jr., and the events that followed, demonstrated once again that institutionalized racism is alive in St. Louis—City and County. But I am encouraged by the new proposal from one of your commission’s working groups, which calls for additional police training aimed at reducing racial bias. Last October, veteran activist Percy Green II advocated that police receive regular psychological testing and be required to live in the communities they serve. I believe those recommendations are also essential.

We must confront racism in policing and in other aspects of daily life. But we must also deal with economic divisions. Municipalities like Ferguson receive a large part of their operating funds from a race- and class-biased system of excessive fines. That poisons relationships between police and community, creating a system that more closely resembles a colonial occupation than the protection of free citizens.

These are the main economic causes of that system: the rich do not pay their fair share in taxes, and rigid divides between jurisdictions prevent the wealth of St. Louis from benefiting all St. Louisans. For the past three-and-a-half decades, the wealthy have received one huge tax cut after another. When the rich avoid taxes, the working class gets squeezed. And working-class African Americans are by far the most frequent targets of profiteering law enforcement.

Likewise, Michael Brown Jr.’s story highlighted educational inequalities. It brought media attention to issues of poverty and budget shortfalls at Normandy High School, problems that symbolized the struggles of so many public schools. Again, this is about taxes, and those who do not pay their share.

I propose that, in addition to raising taxes substantially on the rich in general, we revoke tax exemptions for rich, socially exclusive colleges. I recently resigned my position as an archivist at Washington University to protest taxpayer-subsidized class bias in admissions. Wash. U. is the least economically diverse top national university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Only 6% of that university’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

Washington University also lags behind in racial diversity: 6% of Wash. U. undergraduates are African American and 5% are Hispanic, according to the most recent federal data. Yet that university is exempt from taxes—federal, state, and local—despite possessing an endowment of (at last federal count) $5.3 billion.

Wash. U. administrators recently set a goal of 13% Pell Grant recipients in the 2020-21 freshman class, which may not even be enough to get Wash. U. out of 25th and last place on the U.S. News economic-diversity list. For comparison, here are the latest (2012-13 academic year) percentages of Pell Grant recipients at local four-year colleges:

Harris-Stowe State University: 84%

Fontbonne University: 43%

Webster University: 41%

Lindenwood University: 39%

University of Missouri at St. Louis: 34%

Maryville University: 34%

Missouri Baptist University: 23%

Saint Louis University: 15%

Washington University: 6%

(Figures are based on federal data available here and here.)

I am sure that Wash. U. administrators would tell us that theirs is a leading international university and that such local comparisons are unfair. But the University of California at Berkeley is rated higher than Wash. U. in most rankings and has an endowment with less than one-fourth the value of Wash. U.’s. However, 36% of UC Berkeley undergrads are Pell Grant recipients. I do not believe that colleges with enormous wealth, such as Wash. U., deserve tax exemptions, unless they do at least as well as UCB in enrolling Pell recipients.

Washington University also discriminates blatantly in its admissions policies. That university offers preferences for rich, and mostly white, children of alumni, known as “legacies.” That system of hereditary privilege has no place in the 21st century. It is especially unfair to working-class St. Louisans, whose children are placed at a disadvantage when applying to Wash. U., but who have to pay regressive sales taxes that Wash. U. is allowed to avoid.

To be fair, Washington University provides services to the St. Louis community, especially in the form of programs that offer free health care for some low-income patients. But the value of those services is outweighed by the negative effects of the university’s tax exemptions. Also, a university is ultimately about students, and decisions about which students to admit should not be discriminatory. The problem with institutions such as Wash. U. is that they want to act like country clubs and be taxed like charities.

St. Louis University, with a 2012 endowment of $852 million and only 15% Pell Grant recipients in its undergraduate student body, also stands out as a rich institution sadly lacking in social diversity. As such, SLU should also lose its tax exemptions. Many assume that religious institutions are guaranteed tax exemptions by the U.S. Constitution. That is not true; it is simply a matter of policy.

There is also a simple, practical consideration. Whenever anyone proposes a corporate tax increase, we always hear that it will drive out business. Well, St. Louis’s rich colleges are not going anywhere. We’ll never see Chancellor Mark Wrighton uproot Washington University, put it on the world’s largest flatbed truck, and drive it to Kansas to take advantage of tax cuts for business. (Sorry, Governor Brownback.)

There is little information on the financial value of tax exemptions for private colleges. Those institutions’ private status restricts access to data, and most experts have ignored the issue. In 2013, however, Brian Schmidt, former executive director of the Missouri General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Tax Policy, estimated tax losses from properties Wash. U. owned in University City, excluding those on the main Wash. U. campus. He reported that there was “a loss of potential tax revenue totaling $1,056,279 in 2012.”

That revenue loss relates to only a portion of Wash. U.’s property, and property tax is only one area of taxation. The university is also exempt from paying taxes on the purchases it makes, the donations it receives, and its income from investments on Wall Street. Despite the effects of the financial crash of 2008, Wash. U.’s endowment grew by an average of $118 million a year between 1999 and 2012—all tax-free. We can no longer afford such indulgence, if we ever could.

As I write this, events in Baltimore are providing a grim reminder that the problems that caused the Ferguson crisis still plague the country and the world. To solve those problems, we need to address economic inequalities as well as racial ones. Fairer tax policies, including taxation of rich, socially exclusive universities, must be part of the solution. I respectfully urge you to say so in your report.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

St. Louis County resident and taxpayer

Media Appearances and Thoughts on Them

My interview on The G-Man Interviews is available on Youtube. Thanks, G-Man, for talking to me.

Immediately after the interview was recorded, I feared that I may have been unclear on one or two factual statements. But, having listened, those fears were unfounded. Early on, I was trying to say that, of my parents and grandparents, only my mother finished high school. I didn’t make that point clearly, but that’s my fault, and I think the episode turned out great.

More G-Man Interviews, including ones related to the Eric Garner case and the suspicious death of Gary Jerome Weems, are available here. There have been developments in the latter case, due to the story appearing on The G-Man Interviews.

You can also watch shows on the Keystone XL Pipeline and (lack of) diversity in the media. So please take advantage of this resource.

I also was a guest on Ron Herd’s W.E.A.L.L.B.E. Radio show. It went well and I believe will also be posted on Youtube at some point. I’ll update this space with a link then. We had a wide-ranging discussion with several callers and went over the planned 2-hour duration for the show. (Hey, you can do that on independent radio.) We had callers from different racial and class backgrounds talking about these issues. There were some conflicts between callers and some misunderstandings. But it seemed to me that everyone moved closer toward agreement and understanding, as the show went on.

For my part, I was beset by some technical problems. I couldn’t always hear properly and I blame my phone. I misheard a word from a caller at one point. It was weird. I initially thought I may have heard a slur, then quickly realized I hadn’t. But then I began to fear that I had. In an exchange that didn’t make the final program, Ron Herd explained that the caller hadn’t said the offending word. I’m glad we got that straightened out, but in the latter part of the program, I wasn’t able to hear some of the discussion in full.

I listened to parts of the program I couldn’t hear well the first time and I’d like to add a point to the discussion on class and race. Ron Herd’s friend and longtime listener Renee from Kansas City mentioned George W. Bush, whose admission to Yale as a legacy we’d been talking about earlier. She characterized his privileges as due to his white skin.

I didn’t hear that part of the discussion fully at the time of recording, so here’s what I’d like to add. George W. Bush’s admission to Yale was not due to his being white, but due to his being a white legacy whose father and grandfather were political figures. Had George W. Bush been a white cab-driver’s son from Dallas, Yale admissions officers would have tossed his application in the trash after a hearty chuckle.

And in that era, working-class men, whites as well as minorities, who didn’t get college deferments, often wound up in Vietnam. George W. Bush, white cab-driver’s son from Dallas, would have been drafted and probably marked for combat duty. And–let’s be honest–he would have died either in combat or in basic training from a self-inflicted wound while goofing around with weapons, probably while drunk or high.

White privilege may have kept George W. Bush, white cab-driver’s son, from being stopped by the police while carrying drugs in his car. But it wouldn’t have stopped him from dying in a war thought up by rich white guys, many of whom had the finest Ivy League educations, thanks to class privilege. (See David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest.) Anyway, that’s what I’d add now that I’ve managed to hear the show discussion properly. And, as I say, Renee from Kansas City and all us guests–and host–found a lot of common ground as the show went on. I found all that encouraging.

One other thing I’d mention is that, at one point, Ron made a passing reference to Bill Cosby, after which the discussion moved on in another direction. I want to emphasize that I believe the women who have accused Bill Cosby. These charges may never be resolved in court, but I find the many accusations very credible. I think Ron believes that too and wanted to make a larger point about racial stereotyping in the way the media deal with crime. As the English say, fair play to him for that.

After being on these shows, I want to encourage more discussions about class and race. I think that’s going to help us break down some walls that should never have been there in the first place. If you’re African American or Hispanic or Asian and are worried that if we address social class it will take attention away from racial problems, please bring idea that to the table. But let me try to convince you that adding class to the discussion will allow us to address the other problems of our society more completely.

If you’re a working-class white person and you think that affirmative action, welfare, and “reverse racism” are ruining your life, let me try to convince you that the wealthy, and mostly white, elite is really to blame. Affirmative action for the rich–legacy preferences and other class biases–and corporate welfare are the true problems we need to tackle.

In any case, let me hear from you at classblog@zoho.com or on Twitter @ChrisPepus.

Thanks for reading.

Welcome to New Readers + Updates

Welcome, new readers! If you liked my resignation letter, I have other posts on discrimination at America’s colleges and universities here and here. Next week, I’m going to have more posts on higher education and taxes. They’re incendiary but undeniable.

In addition to writing about class bigotry, I address other forms of discrimination on this blog. Wondering about the upsurge in racism and right-wing paramilitary activity? It’s not just that some people harbor fear of a black president. It’s also because conservatives spent years trying to blame racial minorities for the financial crash. You can read about that here.

As for myself, it’s been a hectic few days: exciting but worrying. As I told a friend the other day, financial ruin is a definite possibility. I never was in charge of a business myself. But I gather that potential employers often frown on it when you write a letter to the boss of your old firm like the one I sent Chancellor Wrighton. I’m single and never made much money. I don’t have any family money (and the very thought of such a thing just made me laugh). In the short term, I’m getting by on what little I have saved and my expected severance pay from Wash. U.

I’m hoping I can raise enough money through donations to concentrate on writing the sort of posts you see linked above. I am working on a book and also a bunch of other posts and articles on social class and the law, religious fundamentalism, racism, bigotry against working-class women, and, yes, higher education.

The institutions that are supposed to bring us honest reporting and commentary are too elitist and corrupt to do so. Direct funding by readers is the only real way forward. Even if you can only give 5 or 10 bucks, I’d be grateful for that. The “Donate” button is at upper right. (If you work at Wash. U. and you donate, I won’t tell on you.)

If you’re on the fence about donating, here’s something to consider. In 2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education took a poll and found that 75% of Americans opposed college-admissions preferences for legacies, children of alumni. In practical terms, legacies are children of rich alumni, most of whom are white. (You can read more about that poll and the issue of legacies in general here.) In other news from 2004, George W. Bush, the poster boy for legacy preferences, stated that he thought such preferences should be abolished.

Why do legacy preferences still exist, when even George W. Bush wouldn’t defend them 11 years ago? Why are they so rarely discussed? Leading liberal publications will occasionally allow an op-ed piece criticizing the policy (like the one by Richard Kahlenberg that I linked above). But liberal media-makers should have declared war on legacy preferences ages ago. Why haven’t they? Maybe we can get a hint of the answer if we look at the backgrounds of leading journalists, as I did in the case of New York Times columnists here.

You won’t find me shying away from the issues that media should be covering but won’t. I like to take the direct approach. Also, I’m not afraid to risk paying a big price for telling the truth. I think I demonstrated that on Wednesday.

Thanks for reading. Please stick around and tell your friends.

PS: I don’t allow comments, for reasons I discuss in my FAQ page, but you can reach me at:

classblog@zoho.com

I’m also on Twitter: @ChrisPepus

Dr. C.T. Vivian and the Civil Rights Movement

Dr. C.T. Vivian, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi during a Freedom Ride, 1961.
Dr. C.T. Vivian, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi during a Freedom Ride, 1961.

I don’t much like anniversary celebrations. In particular, I don’t understand the numerological significance given to anniversaries with numbers ending in five or zero. Why not eight or three?

In the case of the Selma Campaign and the Voting Rights Act, we could have used a 48th year commemoration to show America what it was about to lose. While that anniversary passed,  right-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court were plotting to use the case of Shelby County vs. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act. They managed to do just that on a 5-4 decision announced in June 2013.

But the media like their fives and zeroes, and I understand why Civil Rights Movement veterans and other activists hold commemoration events during anniversaries in those years. The ceremonies in Selma reminded me of an interview I conducted in 2004 (has it been that long?) with Dr. C.T. Vivian, one of the early leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. Vivian played a crucial role in the Selma voting-rights campaign, and his confrontation with the racist sheriff, Jim Clark, was a pivotal moment of that era.

It was an education and a pleasure talking to Dr. Vivian. I often think back to his remarks about the parallels between economic exploitation today and the old plantation system. Likewise, his statements about poverty and the need for campaigns to raise the minimum wage were certainly prescient.

Getting Back to MLK’s Agenda

Interview with Dr C.T. Vivian, Progressive Populist, April 2004

Few understand activism better than Dr. C.T. Vivian, who played a central role in many of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s. An early member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he went to prison in Mississippi for participating in a 1961 Freedom Ride, and was one of the leaders of the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965. He is probably best known for his confrontation with Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark, during which he protested Clark’s use of force against demonstrators. The sheriff responded by hitting him in front of television news crews. Bleeding from his mouth, Vivian continued to upbraid Clark until the sheriff ordered him arrested. The assault was one of many televised outrages that helped pass the Voting Rights Act, but Vivian also sees the event in terms of the personal impact of Gandhi and King’s philosophy of nonviolent direct action. “I would never run from anybody. That’s one reason why I love nonviolence.”

About as dramatic as the Selma campaign was the effort to integrate public accommodations in Nashville in 1960, which included in a march on City Hall by 4,000 demonstrators. At City Hall, Vivian and fellow activist Diane Nash pressed the mayor to commit to integration. The mayor broke with essentially every other southern officeholder by agreeing that segregation was morally wrong and promising to help end it. The downtown lunch counters at the heart of the controversy were quickly integrated, an event that helped spur the campaign to integrate the rest of the city. Was Vivian shocked by the mayor’s response? “That it actually happened shocked me. I had to cut him off right quick and show him that he wouldn’t get away with just making a nice speech.”

Victories against such overwhelming odds have contributed to Dr. Vivian’s infectious optimism. At age 79, he continues to be active in SCLC, while maintaining a heavy schedule of talks at universities and progressive organizations. Vivian is currently upbeat about American activism, despite the repressive mood prevailing in the county. He sees the recent demonstrations against the policies of the World Bank and World Trade Organization as evidence that people are beginning to understand that poverty in other, low-wage countries contributes to poverty here. “We have to see to it that the ‘developing countries’ develop,” he remarks.

A key theme of Vivian’s talks these days is that the public has received an incomplete picture of Dr. King’s activism. He notes that politicians and media figures are happy to discuss King’s efforts to end legal segregation, but ignore his views on economic justice. Given the powerful interests at play, Vivian does not believe that omission is a coincidence. “They want to forget,” he says, his voice sharpening. For him, the starting point for activism today is King and SCLC’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to redistribute the nation’s wealth. The campaign reached out to all ethnic groups, including impoverished southern whites, and managed to bring some whites into the fold, both before and after King’s death. However, 1968 is remembered as the year that the Republicans “southern strategy” of coded racism came to fruition, and Richard Nixon split the southern electoral vote with George Wallace.

Even so, Dr. Vivian is quick to point out that blacks and poor whites have not always been at odds in the South. Lower-class whites were often prominent in southern anti-slavery groups, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because they realized that slavery depressed wages for free workers. In a pattern often repeated, the plantation aristocracy crushed those organizations. “One of the things that kept poor whites poor was the division between black and white,” he explains. “The bankers [in the northeastern US] wanted it to happen, because the South was basically a colony anyway.”

Dr. King and his successors in the movement have always sought to ally with poor whites, but can progressive groups overcome GOP racial politics? Vivian cites the issue of corporate welfare as a potential rallying point for working-class people of all ethnic groups and regions. The spate of deregulation, corporate subsidies, and tax-breaks implemented to attract industry have created a situation in which working people “have to give up everything to have a job in their town. You put all that together, doc, and what you’ve got is the old plantation system.” In the near future, Dr. Vivian expects to see SCLC take more of a leading role on questions of economic inequality, especially with regard to the push for a higher minimum wage. “We have to understand that what we’re talking about is Martin’s agenda.”

Savage Terror: A Screenplay

Barbara Steele, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock), 1962
Barbara Steele in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (original title: L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock), 1962

In 2010, I wrote a short horror screenplay called Savage Terror. I tried a number of different avenues in my attempts to get the film made, but none worked out. Since the screenplay will not be produced, I decided to post it here.

I was reluctant to post it, because it contains a lot of detailed description of action, which seems to me a bit like explaining your jokes. On the other hand, horror fans may enjoy the screenplay, and it fits with the themes addressed in this blog.

If you are familiar with screenplay format, you’ll notice that when I created this post I tightened up the line breaks. I also left-aligned the dialogue (or, in this case, monologue) and rendered it in italics, due to formatting issues. I hope you won’t let that deter you. However, if you are deterred by all the savagery and terror, I’ll understand.

 

SAVAGE TERROR 

FADE IN

EXT. SIDEWALK IN FRONT OF AN APARTMENT BUILDING – EARLY EVENING, PRESENT

Camera faces down a sidewalk. SUSAN walks on the pavement toward the camera, carrying her purse. She is white and in her 20s. She turns on to the walkway leading to the front door of the apartment building.

The building is modern, and at least four stories tall. Susan walks to the front door and enters. PAN up to a fourth-story apartment. ZOOM on the apartment, then,

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. SUSAN’S APARTMENT LIVING ROOM – MOMENTS LATER

Long shot from across the living room, looking at the front door. (Let’s say the front door is on the east side of the room.) The apartment is comfortable, well-furnished, with a kitschy 1970s retro touch. The kitchen is on the side of the apartment near the front door, as is a hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom.

In the living room, on the extreme opposite of the front door, is a sliding glass door that opens on to a balcony. There is a bookcase or similar piece of furniture with shelves against the west wall, south of the balcony doors. Books and curios are on the shelves, along with dolls and small sculptures of people, mainly modeled on adults. There is a white-hatted cowboy of the Gene Autry/Roy Rogers sort. Other dolls include:

An Indian woman, wearing a sari

A contemporary-looking, white, male U.S. soldier (enlisted man)

A British soldier in colonial field dress from the era of the Zulu War: red tunic, white helmet

Dolls and small sculptures also populate the top surface of a low chest on the north wall of the living room, not far from the balcony doors. The chest has legs and is not flush with the wall. There is space behind it and underneath it. The dolls/sculptures face outward toward the viewer (i.e. south). On the chest are the following dolls, among others:

A little green man from outer space

A white, male banker, holding a large, full money bag bearing a dollar sign and the words “FIRST BANK”

A male, faux-African doll like the one in Trilogy of Terror (1975), holding a long spear in his left hand. He stands on the right (east) portion of the chest. As Susan moves around the apartment, this doll is seen only in partial views, with the face obscured.

Now, back to the movie. Susan enters through the front door, carrying mail. She closes, locks, and chains the door behind her, switches on a light. She puts her purse on a table near the door and sits on the couch.

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Medium frontal shot of Susan, opening and reading her mail. The last of the envelopes she opens is her bank statement. When she is finished reading, she gets up and places the mail in a drawer on the table.

Susan takes her cell phone out of her purse, leaving the latter on the table. She pushes a couple buttons, walks to the balcony door, and pulls back the curtain partway with her free hand. The screen door remains closed. She looks outside while waiting for an answer on the phone.

SUSAN:  Hi, I got your message. (Pause.) No, she couldn’t make it. It was just me and  mom. (Pause.) We didn’t do much, just some shopping. (Pause, laugh) As  matter of fact, I did buy a few new dolls.

Susan walks back to the low chest and looks down at the dolls. She smiles.

SUSAN (CONT’D):  Wait ‘til you see them.

Susan picks up the faux-African doll, which is at her far right. The doll is visible briefly from the back, but not in full-length view.

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CU of Susan, walking slightly toward the balcony, doll in one hand but not fully visible.

SUSAN (CONT’D): She’s doing fine. She wants to meet you, but I told her I’m not even sure I like you yet. (Pause, laugh.) How did your game go? (Pause.) That’s too bad. (Hurried) OK. Thursday sounds great. (Pause.) All right, I’ll see you then. Bye.

Susan puts the doll back down on the chest. The shot centers on the row of dolls while Susan is placing the faux-African doll back on the shelf. Camera holds position as Susan walks right, her body still obscuring that particular doll at far right.

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Frontal shot of Susan from behind the chest. Dolls are not visible, except the top of the faux-African doll’s spear. She pokes the tip gently with a finger, making a slightly pained face. She puts the phone down on a piece of furniture near the chest. She turns, walks to, and opens the balcony door, leaving the screen door closed. The curtain billows in the nice breeze.

Susan turns and crosses the living room, goes down the hall, enters the bedroom. The door remains open, but the camera does not enter the room. Susan walks to a closet, grabs a dressing gown, walks across the frame, changes into the dress O.S. She then walks back into frame, through the bedroom door, down the hallway, across the corner of the living room, and into the kitchen.

INT. KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

Susan enters the kitchen, puts some meat in the oven to cook.

INT. LIVING ROOM – CONTINUOUS

Susan walks into the living room. She moves toward the couch, notices a strong wind blowing through the screen door.

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Susan’s POV. All the dolls on the low chest are missing from the top surface. The curtain in front of the balcony door billows.

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Medium frontal shot of Susan walking slowly toward the balcony door. She looks closely at the empty space atop the chest.

SUSAN (smiling): Did the wind knock you down, little fellows?

Susan proceeds to the balcony slowly. She pulls the curtain back a little and looks at the screen door, still closed. She looks out onto the balcony, sees nothing amiss, closes and locks the main door.

Susan turns and walks back to the chest. She stands in front of the chest and looks down at it. She then looks back to the balcony, then crouches down to look under the chest.

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Susan’s POV: Dolls lying in a cluster. It is only a short glimpse. Faux-African doll is visible at back, mostly obscured by other dolls.

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Susan, viewed from her left (west). She backs up a bit and raises her head from the floor. She’s still in a kneeling or crouching position. (O.S.) AGGRESSIVE GROWLING. Surprised, Susan quickly turns to her left.

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Susan’s POV: BANKER DOLL (BD), the money bag, empty, lying on the floor in the background. Three fast CUTS, each one closer, ending on a head-and-torso shot. Banker Doll is modeled on a white man in his 50s, with a pin-striped, three-piece, gray suit. He is also a stereotypical WASP; Allen Dulles would make an excellent model for BD. He growls, jumps up and down.

BD begins running toward Susan.

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Susan (not from BD’s POV) running away, east. She goes a few steps then takes a classic woman-in-a-horror-film fall, turns and rises a little from the floor, looking back.

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Frontal medium shot of BD approaching.

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Susan on the floor, looking back toward the monster. FAST ZOOM on her eyes as she screams.

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Susan’s POV, on the floor. BD comes running toward her head. Whoosh! At the last second, he turns hard right and runs out of frame left.

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Susan, monster not visible. She follows BD’s movements with her eyes, turning around quickly and crawling backward across the floor away from him. Her moves should indicate that he ran around her toward the (north) table. The sequence ends with a shot of Susan sitting on the floor, leaning back in fear. Her back is against the couch or some other furniture.

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Susan’s POV. BD is holding her purse upside down, shaking it. He tosses it aside, picks up her billfold off the floor. He opens it, takes out cash, and starts eating it. He is a fast and loud eater.

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Medium shot of Susan: shock and confusion on her face. She instinctively leans forward, trying to get a better look and make sure she isn’t seeing things.

SUSAN: How can this be happening?!

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Banker Doll, who scoops her change up in both (cupped) hands and then devours it. It takes several grabs, but only a few seconds. He then pulls one of her credit cards out of the billfold and eats it. Other credit cards are visible in billfold slots.

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Susan, same angle as before. Her expression shifts from shock to anger and she lunges at BD. He tucks the billfold under his arm and starts to run away. But Susan reaches out and snatches it from him shortly after he starts running.

BD turns and tries to get it back, initiating a short tug-of-war. Susan wins, momentarily, by smacking BD’s head with her left hand, causing him to fly to her right. He bounces off the wall, lands on the floor, and springs back up immediately. (He does that every time he is knocked down.) He jumps up, sees the cell phone sitting on a nearby piece of furniture. He grabs the phone and throws it at Susan with both hands. She ducks and it shatters against a wall behind her.

BD then runs back toward Susan to grab at the billfold again. Susan smacks him and he flies backward.

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BD jumping up. Susan charges the monster, smacking him a third time. He sails southward, past the couch, lands on his stomach, then jumps up again, turns and faces Susan.

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CU of Susan looking at BD, then turning left toward the kitchen.

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Susan’s POV: the kitchen. A broom is visible on the near side of that room.

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Susan, same angle as before. She puts the billfold in a pocket of her gown and moves toward the kitchen.

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Medium shot of BD. He has turned around to face Susan, sees her retreat. He starts to run in the direction of her retreat (east), then takes a right turn toward the southeast corner of the room.

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BD’s POV. He stops abruptly when he sees a print of a painting on the south wall: the Judgment of Paris. The painting is a contemporary, cheesecake interpretation — in keeping with the kitschy decor. Paris holds out a large, extremely shiny, gold apple.

The frame TUNNELS to show just the apple.

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Closer shot of the south wall, displaying print. BD jumps up into frame, landing on a small, round table. From there, he leaps at the painting, reaching for the apple. His body hits the print full on, bounces back down to the floor. He jumps up and immediately gets whacked westward by the handle of a broom wielded by Susan.

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BD getting up from the floor and starting to run away from Susan, rounding the couch. A chase ensues around the couch. Susan swings the broom and mostly misses: in addition to being fast, BD is elusive. At least once, he jumps over one of her low swings. He also grabs some curios and throws them back at her. She dodges them, but he destroys some (mid-20th century style) bric-a-brac that way. BD darts into Susan’s bedroom.

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INT. BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS

BD jumps atop Susan’s dresser and runs across it, stopping briefly to grab a pair of gold earrings. He eats them on the fly. Susan takes a bad angle while chasing BD and he eludes her, running back into the living room.

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INT. LIVING ROOM – CONTINUOUS

Susan lands another hit. It sends BD flying west, but doesn’t seem to weaken him.

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Medium shot of Susan, looking down toward the monster in frustration.

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Susan’s POV. She sees BD standing a short distance from the sliding doors that open to the balcony.

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Same shot of Susan as before. With a look of determination, she throws the broom behind her and runs toward BD. She gets the monster in her hands and rushes toward the balcony. BD howls and flails. Susan lets go with her right hand to reach for the handle of the door.

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CU of BD in Susan’s left hand. He wriggles free, falls to the floor, and runs away again. Susan looks to her left (east) and starts running toward the kitchen.

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INT. KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

Profile shot of Susan in the kitchen, going through drawers, finding a large knife. When she’s got it, she turns to face the camera, striding toward it and the living room, hell for leather.

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INT. LIVING ROOM – CONTINUOUS

Susan’s POV, just past the opening that connects the kitchen and living room. There’s no sign of BD. SLOW PAN around the living room, followed by INTERCUTS between CU of Susan and her POV, TRACKING slowly forward. The shots are relatively long in duration.

Susan, in profile, passes in front of the cabinet against the west wall. Camera TRACKS with her. A couple shelves of dolls are visible. BD’s head darts out from behind the cowboy. That action takes place behind Susan’s field of vision, so she does not notice at first. The camera STOPS TRACKING and lets Susan nearly walk out of frame.

Susan stops, turns around. She looks at the shelf, seeing the monster. He scurries behind the row of dolls, knocking four or five of them forward off the shelf. He then jumps down out of frame at bottom-right as Susan lunges toward him. She swipes at him with the knife, missing high. Susan turns and looks at the floor. (O.S.) Sound of BD scurrying away. Susan follows him with her eyes, turns full and starts running toward him.

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Floor-level shot of BD. He pushes hard against the leg of a small vintage chair. He tips the chair over, which lands in Susan’s way and trips her. She falls to the floor, holding the knife carefully to avoid cutting herself or losing her grip.

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Looking down on Susan lying on the floor, face down. A few dolls are scattered near her head and upper torso, also face down and looking dead. These include the Indian woman, the U.S. and British soldiers. Also on the floor is a broken model of the Parthenon. Susan is only down for a few seconds.

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Susan’s (floor-level) POV, looking right (east): BD running toward the table where Susan put her purse and mail. He opens a drawer, rifles through some papers, and grabs one.

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Susan getting up and starting to stumble toward BD. He runs a little farther away, but Susan can still see him. The monster stops, stands in medium profile. He extends his right arm above his head and holds the paper — Susan’s bank statement — over his mouth. The numbers of Susan’s bank balance are visible. As he holds the statement (without his mouth touching it), he begins making violent chewing sounds. The numbers indicating the balance start spinning and stop at a row of zeros.

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Susan, who screams angrily and resumes chasing BD, knife in hand.

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INT. KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

Susan chases BD into the kitchen. She stabs at him, mostly missing, but when she does hit, the blow doesn’t stop BD and he quickly wriggles loose from the knife. He yells a lot, sometimes in pain, sometimes in anger. Once, BD blocks one of Susan’s stabs by throwing open a cabinet door and causing her to stick her knife in it.

At one point in their sprawling kitchen-floor battle, BD ducks under one of Susan’s lunges and snatches the protruding billfold from her dressing-gown pocket. He flees, opening the billfold while running. He stops for a second, pulls out a credit card and gobbles it. Susan catches up with BD and grabs the billfold. BD extracts the last credit card and starts to back away. Susan smacks it out of his hand and they both grab at it on the floor, moving past the oven in their struggle.

BD grabs the card and is about to take a giant bite. Susan reaches forward with her left hand low. She slaps upward, knocking the card out of BD’s hands. The card sails upward, spinning sideways like a shuriken over the sink. It banks off the wall behind the sink and falls into the right side, where the disposal unit is housed. A small control switch is visible on the wall behind the sink.

Camera follows BD as he vaults up to a cabinet door handle, grabs it with both hands, and swings his body upward to the outer edge of the sink (right side). He then dives into the sink, snarling with excitement. BD executes this acrobatic display quickly and smoothly.

Susan rises into frame. She turns on the garbage disposal with her right hand and grabs BD’s legs with her left, pushing him down. He emits a champion scream-queen death shriek. Sawdust and pieces of BD’s fancy suit shoot up into the air. Change is heard rattling around in the disposal, which nonetheless keeps going until BD is no more.

Susan switches off the disposal, then turns right and walks out of the kitchen. When she gets to the living room, she leans up against the wall, breathing heavily, but relieved.

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INT. LIVING ROOM – CONTINUOUS

Susan’s POV: the mess in the living room.

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The mess, seen from the opposite side of the room. Susan walks toward the camera and further into the living room. She starts cleaning up.

FADE OUT.

 THE END