Warning: In this article, I quote some people using racial slurs. If that bothers you, this article is not for you. If that doesn’t bother you, then please continue forward.
Considering today is Martin Luther King Jr., I figured I should write about the Civil Rights Movement in some way. Luckily, Gab gave me the perfect topic on 1/15/2021 when they posted a rather odd meme on Twitter. It was the “hard times create strong men/strong men create good times/good times create weak men/weak men create hard times” meme with an odd twist. The hard times were World War Two, the good times were the 1950s, the weak men are Bernie Sanders getting arrested for protesting segregation, and the hard times are 9/11.
Gab does not allow replies on their memes so that, as they put it, “you are forced to quote tweet these based memes to all of your followers, hopefully waking a few of them up in the process.” However, just reading the quote tweets show everyone from across the political spectrum (including my boyfriend) was making fun of them. However, I want to focus with who they label as “weak men,” — that being a man getting arrested for protesting a century old institution that had the support of a large amount of the public. It’s especially odd they used Bernie Sanders, a white guy who benefited from the very institution he was opposing in the first place.
When I think of “weak men,” the last group of people that comes to mind are Civil Rights protesters. People who risked their lives in many cases, specifically to secure the freedoms they believed they were deserved. Both MLK and Malcom X knew what they were up against, and regularly carried guns to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and this terrorism, which was commonly ignored if not backed by local politicians, was actually a motivator to get this era of segregation over with as fast as possible.
Do you know who I do consider “weak men”? The segregationists who tried to defend a popular, century old institution, and then backed away the first second it got hard.
The most infamous example of this is former Alabama Governor George Wallace. First being elected to the position in 1962, Wallace made his career as a firm supporter of segregationists — infamously stating “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address. After two failed Presidential Campaigns, one against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and one on an independent ticked in 1968, Wallace dropped all segregationist aspects from his platform. It’s widely believed his 1968 campaign was one final hurrah to get the nation segregated, and his last two attempts to clinch the Democratic nomination were more based on typical Blue Dog Conservativism than full on racism.
Mind you, one thing occasionally asked is if Wallace truly believed his racist rhetoric. After Wallace lost his first attempt to run for governor in 1958 against state Attorney General John Malcolm Patterson, who had tried to ban the NAACP from operating in Alabama, an organization which, in a great bit of irony, endorsed Wallace the first time around. After the election, Wallace famously said to aide Seymore Trammell:
Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again
When a supporter of Wallace asked he started using racial messages, Wallace said the following:
You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.
Wallace gave up any talk of segregating the races once it became unpopular, and although you could easily consider him a grifter, you can see this kind of backpedaling all throughout the white nationalist movement. After the death of Emmett Till, the White Citizens Council argued that it was tragic, and an argument for segregation — because if the races were separated Tills could never whistle at a white girl. As Robert Patterson (why are there so many racists with the last name “Patterson”?), the founder of the White Citizens Council, argued such. Writing in the official newspaper of the organization, another racist named Tom Ethridge wrote:
Since the horrifying details of the Till crime first came to light, the NAACP has harped on a curiously un-American theory. They have argued that the guilt and responsibility rests not merely with Emmett Till’s killers but with the entire state of Mississippi as well. Their hysterical outbursts blame our entire clergy, press and citizenry.
The most interesting thing about this statement, I must confess, is that at least they called Till’s death “horrifying.”
The most striking example, however, comes from the infamous Alabama public official Bull Connor. The man who arrested Martin Luther King Jr., he needed a massive terrorist-style police force in order to enforce his segregationist ideal. His system was brought down, not by a strong arm, but by a number of black teenagers who were willing to get arrested as many times as it took for him to give up — and he did give up.
What I think should be the biggest takeaway is that the Civil Rights Movement never had to do this. The closest they got was Malcolm X turning on his more Black Nationalist side — but that was a choice he made after he went to Mecca and his change of heart cost him much of his audience and later his life. Malcolm X, just like everyone else in the Civil Rights Movement, never once changed his political opinions for the purpose of getting popular.
There’s an infamous quote from Republican strategist Lee Atwater, most well-known for his creation of the “Wille Horton Ad” during the 1988 Presidential Campaign, from 7/8/1981, which said the following:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The reason I mention this is because of his confession that, by this point, being an open racist hurts you. Might I remind you, less than a year earlier (8/3/1980) Reagan gave a speech on “states rights” at the same location in Mississippi where three Civil Rights activists were killed just one day short of sixteen years earlier. This is commonly considered a “dog whistle” — or a coded term only recognizable to other racists — but the fact that Reagan even had to use a “dog whistle” in the first place is quite interesting.
This shows that systems, even systems as well supported as segregationist, and even systems backed violently enforced, can be overcome. And when that happens, those who once supported them, not matter how vocally, will be shamed back into the worse corners of civilization. Remember, even David Duke denies that he’s a racist (in fact, he calls himself the true anti-racist) because of just how unpopular the idea has become — and that can happen with any system, no matter just how entrenched.