I’ve been writing opinion pieces for newspapers since the 1960s, and for the Rappahannock News for almost 15 years. My recent column about the drive-by mauling of Paula Deen by internet pundits apparently struck a nerve with a lot of folks. I’ve gotten a lot of comments about it, almost all of it favorable.
And I was struck by a national poll which said that 83 percent of Americans felt that Ms. Deen had been unfavorably treated by the media. There is some measure of reassurance in that; I was beginning to think the country had been completely taken over by the P.C.P.P., i.e., the Politically Correct Police Party.
But a letter to the editor from Ms. Clay Fulghum takes me to task on the issue. Unfortunately she seems to reinforce my point about the sanctimony of those deciding who is and who isn’t a racist. Now, I wouldn’t be writing about this stuff if I didn’t think it was a very, very serious issue involving an issue that is basic to American values and tradition. And to be “dissed” in such a condescending way merely raises my unshackled hackles.
I quote Fulghum: “He claims that every Southerner ‘of a certain age’ has used the n-word in some context or other.” She goes on to say, “Well, that grants a lot of leeway. I myself spoke out against the n-word when I was growing up in Georgia. Does that count as using it? Certainly not.”
Here is what I actually wrote: “Most Southerners I know over the age of 50 would likely, if given sodium pentothal, confess to having used that word, in some context or another.” Ms. Fulghum, most does not mean every. “Over the age of 50” is not “of a certain age.” But then you say you used the word in the context of speaking out against it, presumably to folks who were using it. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that clearly counts as using it in “some context or another.” Context is what we are discussing, for crying out loud.
Then she tells us, “I was a student at the University of Georgia when Charlayne Hunter, by herself, integrated that racist stronghold. I cheered her on, along with many others.”
Well, it is a minor point, but Charlayne Hunter was accompanied by the late Hamilton Holmes, who became a prominent Atlanta surgeon. And if you were cheering them on, I am afraid they didn’t hear you. According to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, “We were greeted by a screaming, howling mob of students, and I think some provocateurs. And as we walked under the arch, the students were yelling and screaming all kinds of epithets, and telling us to go home, in some cases saying, “Kill the you-know-whats.”
On the night of Jan. 11, 1961, more than 2,000 white demonstrators, mostly UGA students, gathered outside Charlayne’s room in Myers Hall and, according to the student newspaper, “illuminated the sky with fireworks, threw rocks and sported bed sheets printed with racial slurs and repeatedly shouted ‘Don’t worry, Nigger. The worst is yet to come. Hey, don’t worry, Nig . . .’ “
Hunter-Gault said, “A brick came through my window and got glass all over my clothes.”
I relate that story because Ms. Fulghum brought up the incident as if it were a pep rally. And I bring it up because on that night 52 years ago, that mob was made up of college students, many of them the smartest kids in their high schools, mostly kids from privileged homes, with folks who could afford to send them off to the university. Those students, who were your classmates, Ms. Fulghum, are around 70 years old now. I’m sure that many of them became successes in business and law and perhaps education. They worked and they raised families and perhaps they are retired grandparents now.
And they changed. They changed as surely as the South has changed. And I suspect that nearly all of them look back with shame on their actions that night. And the University of Georgia has had decades of racial harmony that would be the envy of any Northern city.
Paula Deen was a 15-year-old in strictly segregated Albany, Ga., that year. She didn’t get to go to the university. No “grande dames” around there. But she went on to become a big supporter of Barack Obama, and to have more black friends than the total population of Rappahannock.
Nor were there any “grande dames” around Sugar Hill, the black neighborhood where I grew up in a primitive shack on the docks of Portsmouth.
I got to Chapel Hill that year at age 20. During the Civil Rights Movement, I was one of many who marched, sat-in, got arrested, went to jail, got punched, got shot at and damn near got killed fighting the KKK. The liberals were “cheering us on.” And occasionally bailing us out.
Madam, I am not offering “fuzzy apologias” for anything. And I am not “splitting hairs.” That ain’t my style. I’ve done a lot of jobs around the South. I have worked in garages and factories and farms and I drove a truck and I worked on the railroad. And I think I know the black people and the white people of the South and I think I know their hearts.
You say, “Did he (Jones) happen to hear Deen deny using the n-word on one occasion because the group she referred to was ‘professional?’ Nobody but a true-blue racist could have said such a thing.”
Well, it doesn’t offend me that your sentence is incoherent. But it offends me that you call this person you don’t know from Eve a “true-blue racist.” You don’t understand that this is a perfect example of plain old bigotry.
Is that clear enough for you?