As police shootings of blacks continue, as anti-Muslim speech and violence intensifies, and as Donald Trump surfs a wave of Alt-Right bigotry toward the White House, I can’t help flashing back to the Alabama of my childhood, half a century ago. I grew up in a small town during the heyday of George Wallaceand the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, when wholesale hatred and violence from angry whites were directed against African Americans seeking equality.
I was seven in May 1963, when the police chief in Birmingham turned fire hoses and police dogs loose on Civil Rights protesters. I was still seven in September, when four KKK members planted a bomb beneath the steps ofBirmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which had played an active role in the movement. The bundle of dynamite—15 sticks say some accounts, 19 say others—went off shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, killing four girls and injuring more than 20 other people. It was the city’s deadliest bombing, but far from the first: previously some 50 racially motivated explosions had already earned Birmingham the nickname “Bombingham.”
I was nine in March 1965, when state troopers and a mounted sheriff’s posse blocked a march by peaceful protesters in Selma. After a brief standoff, the police attacked the marchers, firing tear gas and clubbing people with wooden nightsticks. At the time, I was too young and too sheltered—I lived in a quiet town of 6,500—to grasp the ferocity of the bigotry and violence.
By the time I was in seventh grade, my school had integrated. One of my basketball teammates was a black boy named Earl—“Earl the Pearl”—who, confounding stereotypes, played as badly as I did. Earl sometimes stopped by my house after school to shoot hoops, but we both remained benchwarmers, sitting side by side: equals, judged not by the color of our skin but by the lameness of our game. Dr. King’s dream had come true, at least in a third-string sort of way.
In high school I got religion and felt called to the ministry; at 16, I landed an appointment as a Methodist lay pastor, preaching the gospel twice a month at a one-room country church whose dead, their graves adorned with dusty plastic flowers, far outnumbered the living. One day early in my appointment, I passed a hand-lettered sign beside the road, less than a mile from my church: Klan Meeting Tonight. I was astonished; I’d imagined the Klan was over and done with. I was also baffled. Who would go to a Klan meeting in this sleepy crossroads? Would Etta Mae, the church’s fifty-something pianist? Her husband, Bob, whom I never saw on Sundays because he had his own pulpit, in a fire-and-brimstone Primitive Baptist church? The handful of quiet farmers and highway-department workers scattered among my pews?
Being young and new and unsure of myself, I didn’t ask about the sign, I’m sorry to say. Over the course of my pastorate—which ended two years later, when I went off to college and lost my theological certainty—I never saw the sign again.
I remember it, though—more often than ever now, against the backdrop of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and White Lives Matter and Charleston and a sickening rise in hate groups and Klan groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose Intelligence Project tracks extremists of all stripes, the number of U.S. hate groups rose last year to more than 1,600—a 14 percent increase in just one year. More alarmingly, says the SPLC, the number of Klan chapters rose by more than 250 percent in 2015, to a total of nearly 200.
Last fall came the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, which killed dozens of people in the name of radical Islam. Those tragedies were followed by a fierce anti-Muslim backlash. Donald Trump vowed to ban Muslim immigration and called for a “national registry” of Muslims already in the country. Trump’s Muslim-bashing was mirrored by (perhaps partly responsible for) a continuing surge of anti-Muslim violence, including incidents of vandalism and arson at mosques, widespread harassment, and violent assaults—beatings and murders—of innocent Muslims.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sympathizing with radicalized terrorists who kill in the name of Allah. Their actions sicken and grieve me, just as “Christian Identity” violence—shootings and bombings at abortion clinics, or calls for the killing of every Jew in America—sickens and grieves me. Murder gives God—any God—a bad rap. You don’t have to be a former preacher boy to realize that.
I no longer live in Alabama; now I’m next door in Georgia, in the music-making, tatted-up town of Athens, home of the University of Georgia. I love it here. And yet: Two weeks after the Charleston church shootings—and less than an hour after my wife and I first arrived in Athens—a shiny crew-cab pickup rumbled past us, cruising the street that doubles as the university’s fraternity row. Two big Confederate battle flags streamed behind it, waved by jeering young white men, and my wife—a newly hired professor of social work and human rights—stopped dead, turned to me, and wept tears of sadness and fury.
Last month, in Covington, Georgia, a Muslim group’s plan to build a mosque was thrown into doubt when a militia group staged a protest at the proposed site. Some of the militia members wore fatigues and carried assault rifles. Their spokesman called the local Muslims “a future ISIS training group.”
It’s not very far to Covington from Athens. Truth is, these days it’s not very far to Covington from anywhere in Georgia. Or Alabama. Or America. The back roads of bigotry and dark alleys of violence could quickly take us all to Covington. From there, it’s only a hop, skip, and a rope back to Bloody Sunday and Bombingham and Klan Meeting Tonight.
Jon Jefferson is a crime novelist in Athens, Georgia.
I was a teen in the 60’s and I remember protesting Vietnam, eating dinner while we watched them pull the numbers of the next boys going to Vietnam, and watching American Bandstand and learning about Civil Rights. I didn’t know what a lynching was until I saw one on the news. I remember being horrified by what was happening in the South. If only Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated, I thought and the reconstruction he planned had happened. I was even more idealistic then than I am now.
Today I am a 66 year old rebel and I do not like what is happening in our beautiful country. First of all, it is not perfect and it never will be. It was not perfect when the Founding Fathers still walked the streets of Philadelphia. The Revolutionary War separated the people into two sides, the Whigs and the Tories. The war tore many families apart. The Civil War saw the formation of the Union and the Confederacy.
Today our country is going through a very difficult time. The country is full of haters, racists, bigots, narrow-minded people who live in fear of all that is different. This has happened before in our country and we survived. Our country is growing up just as our children have. Things that worked before, just don’t anymore. Americans are more educated than we used to be, we are more traveled, we have experienced more natural disasters and crime than before.
America is also prone to periods of paranoia For example the McCarthy years when many talented Americans left and became ex-pats because McCarthy was determined to root out all Communism …real or imagined. He terrified people to give up names of others who were communists where it was true or not; to save themselves from going to jail. Careers were destroyed.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, we rounded up all Japanese people and put them in camps. Many of them were of Japanese heritage but were born here. That was cruel, but America was paranoid once again.
We must stop the hating and every American must turn back to what is important in life. Friendship, love, kindness, acceptance, compassion, forgiveness. We need to put violence into our past where it belongs. Yes, there are refugees living here now. Yes, we have a lot of Latinos here. We are a country built by immigrant peoples. All of this land belonged to the Indigenous people. We killed them and stole their land from them. But as Americans we can learn, we can grow, we can take the higher road this time. We can stop all of the negativity that is pummeling our country and open up our arms to each other.
This is what acceptance comes in. You may be Irish, Black, Italian, Asian, Swedish, Russian, or Tibetan but we are the same. The differences may be cultural or spiritual or the color of skin, but they don’t matter. There are no 100% Americans so put your egos away and realize that we all came here from somewhere else, or someone in your family tree did. Stop hating, stop hating anyone. Muslims, blacks, little people, fat people are all acceptable in the arms of Divinity. Do you know more than God? I don’t think so. Yes, there is warring going on with radical Jihadists, they are a very small portion of the Muslim population.
Don’t let America be torn apart again. Vote. Go home and practice whatever spiritually you follow in peace for yourself and for all other people.