President Trump checked all the right boxes – well, some of the right boxes – after a self-identified white nationalist allegedly shot 22 people to death in El Paso to persuade “the Hispanic population … to return to their home countries.” Ignoring any echoes of his own earlier Twitterstorms urging migrants and “American-born congresswomen of color [to] ‘go back’ to their home countries,” Trump delivered prepared remarks condemning “racism, hatred and white supremacy.” Perhaps this time he meant it.
But the whole fandango brought back memories.
In October 1958 the high school in Clinton, Tenn., my county seat, was dynamited. The crime was never solved, but Clinton High was the first public school in the South to be desegregated under federal court order after Brown v. Board of Education. So the racial animus wasn’t hard to figure out. A few days later, after midnight on Sunday, Oct. 12, the Jewish Temple in Atlanta was firebombed by a shadowy group calling itself the Confederate Underground that proclaimed “Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.” (Moviegoers of a later generation will remember it as the synagogue Jessica Tandy’s character belonged to in “Driving Miss Daisy.)” Both acts of violence were widely condemned, of course. But Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, wasn’t having any of it.
“This is a harvest,” McGill wrote in a front-page editorial the day after the Temple bombing. “It is the crop of things sown.
“To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school.
“But let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gate to all those who wish to take law into their own hands.”
There are differences between the 1950s and the present, of course. Then the issue centered on school desegregation; now it centers on immigration. History doesn’t repeat itself, as we so often are reminded, but it does rhyme.
And when Trump read his speech off the teleprompter – offering platitudes about “racist hate,” video games and “the perils of the internet and social media” – it rhymed like a three-page dramatic monologue in iambic pentameter couplets.
If Ralph McGill were here today, I’m sure he would have seen through it.
“There will be, to be sure, the customary act of the careful drawing aside of skirts on the part of those in high places,” he predicted after the Clinton High and Temple bombings in 1958.
“‘How awful,’ they will exclaim. ‘How terrible. Something must be done.’
“But the record stands. The extremists of the citizens’ councils, the political leaders who in terms violent and inflammatory have repudiated their oaths and stood against due process of law have helped unloose this flood of hate and bombing.”
Today’s extremists are different, of course. Instead of the White Citizens’ Council, we have dark money PACs, Russian internet trolls and white nationalists on social media platforms like 8chan. Instead of massive resistance to integrated schools, we have rallies where the president’s supporters shout “Send her back” when he mentions a political opponent and a U.S. senator offers to pay her airfare back to Africa.
But are all of today’s extremists so very different? Surely McGill would have recognized some of today’s white evangelical Christians who aid and abet the haters.
“This, too,” he said the day after the Temple bombing, “is a harvest of those so-called Christian ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion. Let them now find pious words and raise their hands in deploring the bombing of a synagogue.
“You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”
McGill won a Pulitzer Prize for that editorial in 1959, and six years later President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Freedom Medal. He fought the good fight when it was unpopular, even dangerous to do so, and his award came during the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Then there’s this little footnote to history, too. McGill’s columns were syndicated in the Knoxville papers, and I read them as a student at the University of Tennessee. With journalists like McGill – and Horace V. Wells of The Clinton Courier-News, who also fought the good fight – as my heroes, I took inspiration as I wrote for The UT Daily Beacon and went on to cover police beat, school board and county commission meetings for papers in East Tennessee and later up north.
But, sadly, the good fight was never won. I suspect it never is.
Last year, after 11 people died in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh and a white nationalist was charged with hate crimes in connection with the shooting, McGill’s 1958 editorial was reprinted widely. Ron Clark of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a Florida think tank for journalists, pointed up the similarities between the racists of McGill’s day and our president’s divisive rhetoric.
Words, Clark said, matter.
“That phrase is used frequently in reference to President Donald Trump and what are often called his “incendiary” tweets and speeches, his demonizing of political enemies and his scapegoating of certain ethnic groups, especially immigrants,” Clark said. “The argument goes that while the president did not pull the trigger, his language and political tactics have created a culture in which such acts could take place.”
In 1958 Ralph McGill concluded by urging Americans to stand up for the rule of law.
“It is late,” he said. “But there is time.”
Last year Clark of the Poynter Institute reprinted McGill’s editorial and urged his readers, mostly journalists, “Please read, learn and rededicate yourself to speaking truth to power.”
And he concluded in words similar to Ralph McGill’s.
“Written in 1958, published again in 2018,” Clark said.
“What can we learn?
“Is there yet time?”
Good questions. And if not now, I might add, when?
Whatever answers there are, I suspect, they will have something to do with speaking truth to power. Public reaction to the 1958 bombings in East Tennessee and Atlanta, in fact, began the process of healing wounds there and strengthening the Civil Rights movement. If not now, when?
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[Peter Ellertsen, now retired, taught journalism at Benedictine University in Springfield, Illinois. He was a reporter for The Oak Ridger, in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; The Rock Island (Ill.) Argus and The State Journal-Register in Springfield. As a grad student at UT-Knoxville, he wrote an earlier draft of Horace Wells’ biography in the journalism school’s hall of fame.]