‘People mistake him for just being a yahoo. But he’s educated, he’s very articulate, and he’s very clever’
Last Saturday, one day after a closely watched Charlottesville judge announced it would take him several more weeks to rule on the legal standing of Confederate statues and other public Civil War memorials in that city, Old Hollow resident J. Bennett Johnston recalled the unlikely moment in history when he and white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke went head-to-head.
The year was 1990, and Johnston, who attended Washington and Lee University and the United States Military Academy at West Point, was a well-seasoned and popular Democratic U.S. senator, first elected by Louisianans in 1972 to represent the Bayou State on Capitol Hill.
And then along came Duke, announcing to Louisianans and the entire country that he was opposing Johnston as a Republican, albeit without the endorsement of the GOP leadership. Senior Republican Senators Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, William Cohen and Nancy Kassebaum, to name several, along with former congressman-turned-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, took the highly unusual step of endorsing a Democrat for the U.S. Senate — in this case the incumbent Johnston.
To the surprise of many political observers, the race turned out to be Johnston’s closest ever for re-election (he garnered 53.9 percent of the vote). Now, people on opposing sides are paying close attention to Duke all over again after the arguably eloquent former KKK grand wizard reared his separatist head in Charlottesville last month, marching with his ilk in support of white supremacy.
“He is so clever,” the retired senator says of Duke from his home bordering Shenandoah National Park. “People mistake him for just being a yahoo. But he’s educated, he’s very articulate, and he’s very clever. And you’ll probably hear some more from him.”
So was the so-called Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville any different from past marches and rallies by the white separatist movement?
“Yes, of course it’s different,” Johnston replies, recalling as current backdrops the string of police-involved shootings of blacks, and the bloody massacre two years ago at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., when as the senator puts it Dylann Roof took the Confederate flag and “made it a symbol” of hate and terrorism.
“This has made for a very toxic situation,” he says. “So along comes the [Confederate] monuments and it’s quite easy to equate those to the Confederate flag and all of that. And these Duke people are looking for a cause. You know David Duke has always been like that.”
The cause in 1990, of course, was to unseat the veteran Johnston and in doing so claim a powerful seat in the hallowed halls of Congress.
“I thought it was going to actually be a lot of fun, because I was going to be the guy on the white horse with all of the quote ‘good people’ unquote rallying to my cause,” Johnston points out. “But I found that there was a huge resentment for liberals, black people, particularly with affirmative action . . .
“They had a demonstration against me on the courthouse square in Shreveport when I was running against Duke and of course they had the Confederate flag out there along with their hoods.”
None of the several hundred mainly young white males were hiding behind hoods when they descended on the college town of Charlottesville in August, chanting loudly while marching in torchlight procession, “You will not replace us! “Jews will not replace us!”
The rally, purportedly to protest the city’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, resulted in three deaths, scores of injuries and the governor of Virginia declaring a state of emergency.
Since then, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore has been weighing whether a 1997 amendment to Virginia law protects Lee’s statue and other city war memorials. His decision, expected in the coming weeks, could have implications statewide and for that matter wind up before a higher court.
“Of course the monuments are not nearly quite the issue of the Confederate flag,” Johnston opines. “I mean, after all, it was the battle flag and is the symbol of rebellion — and [today] not just rebellion, but of the Ku Klux kind of people who take that [as their symbol].”
The former senator says he’s come to realize, particularly after the election of Donald Trump, that “there is that factor of people who will vote in protest to show their anger, to show their disagreement, but don’t want to admit it. . . .
“And David Duke or others can summon up those [people] if they are clever, and those same people can, with the right kind of leadership, be brought around and made to feel like they’re [average] Americans — you know, we’re both fighting in the same war together.
“In this case it was events that brought people together, and leadership can do it as well,” Johnston continues. “One of the reasons for Barack Obama’s great attraction was his speech that said there’s no black America, there’s no white America, there’s no red America. We are all Americans.
“And I think that kind of appeal will help bring us together. That’s one thing I so hate about Charlottesville and the monuments’ [controversy] is it really tends to divide and tends to sort of make out southerners as being bad people, bigoted, etcetera . . .
“I think given a little time . . . local people need to decide [on the monuments] and they will. And they will come around in Shreveport. They appointed a [citizen advisory] commission and the latest, by I think one vote, is we’re going to study a way to keep [that city’s Confederate monument] and tell the story. Others will do differently.”
The Shreveport monument in Johnston’s hometown, which stands just outside the parish courthouse, features a Confederate soldier and four Southern generals: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Henry Watkins Allen, the latter also a governor of Louisiana.
Shreveport officials this summer convened four public meetings to gauge opinion about the monument, with the results weighed by the citizen advisory committee.
Last Saturday, while in the town of Washington, the former senator visited the 20-foot monument erected on the courthouse lawn in honor of Rappahannock’s fallen Confederate soldiers.
“Looking at the monument there, in my judgment, there’s no reason to take that down,” says Johnston, who retired from the Senate in 1997 after 25 years. “It is to the fallen — sons of this area who fell in combat, who I’ll bet there wasn’t a slave owner among them.”