Jimmy Carter is a son of the South. Not the New South of relocated corporate headquarters and (foreclosed) McMansions, but Jim Crow’s South. So we’ll all have to excuse his refusal to act like he doesn’t hear Glenn Beck’s vicious dog whistle. He knows too well the coded language of political racism because he witnessed its writing.
America abhors history. No wonder, given how many national crimes are lurking back there. But we’ve arrived at a time when a politician’s refusal to consider the past is a perverse testament to prudent leadership. And as a result, a statement as obvious as Carter’s—that the tea-baggers hate President Barack Obama because he’s black—can be passed off as controversy in 2009.
It’s self-evident that a movement that calls the president a lying, socialist, Nazi eugenicist with a fake birth certificate is about something more than deficit spending. People don’t brandish automatic weapons and pray for the president’s death because they want to keep their employer-sponsored health plans. But to name the stalking beast is more than we can bear.
Not, thankfully, for Carter. He knows the tea-baggers aren’t new, that their fear of “big government” is but the latest version of states’ rights, which was itself a pseudonym for white supremacy. And he wants us to recall this history: In the months following the 1954 Brown ruling, a Mississippi college football star and plantation manager named Robert Patterson launched a crusade to protect school children from “being taught the Communist theme of all races and mongrelization.” Patterson was angry, and proud of it. “You say this is not the time for hotheads and flag-waving,” he wrote in a public letter quoted in Gene Roberts’ and Hank Klibanoff’s must-read history of civil rights journalism. “We need those hotheads, just as we always have when our liberty has been threatened.”
Patterson channeled his anger into a lasting innovation for the white supremacy movement—give it a respectable face, strip it of explicitly racist rhetoric and use it as an invisible hand to guide mob violence. He created the Citizens’ Council, which would spawn a regional network by year’s end. Each council’s membership boasted the area’s finest white leaders in business, government and, yes, media. They directed their public anger less at integration itself than at federal incursions on local rule, but the resulting violence was no less extreme.
At the time, Carter was a Plains, Ga., peanut farmer and board of education member. He recalls in his campaign memoir, Turning Point (Random House, 1993), how the Plains Council pressured him to join. When he refused, the council sent 20 of his best customers to demand compliance. Carter again refused, this time adding, “and besides, there are a few politicians in Atlanta who are taking the dues from all over the state and putting the money in their pockets, just because folks are worried about the race issue.”
Tea-bagging elites like Fox News, Sarah Palin and Joe Wilson are the political descendants of Patterson’s councils. They’re still using coded language to orchestrate rowdy, racist mobs and they’re still pocketing the money the frenzy generates.
In the tea-bagging universe, “big government”—or, really, the social programs both Beck and Rush Limbaugh conspicuously dub “reparations”—is a stand-in villain for integration. Not the literal act of blacks and whites going to school together. Rather, bashing big government swats at the same anxiety Patterson had: a concern over who gets to make the rules. That question has haunted Dixie ever since black slaves outnumbered the South’s white residents. And it still haunts the GOP’s Southern, white base today.
Nor is it new for the movement’s media mavens to cry foul when someone dares break the code. It started, as Roberts and Klibanoff detail, as the national media covered Little Rock’s brutalities, and it intensified throughout the era. Southern newspaper editors, themselves affiliated with Citizens’ Councils, led a concerted effort to bully national outlets into what pioneering Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill called “the cult of objectivity.”
The fruits are seen in the timidity of today’s mainstream news. Demonstrable liars like Joe Wilson and Sarah Palin are given point-counterpoint coverage. A rally dominated by ugliness such as that on display in Washington on Sept. 12 is reported as legitimate political dispute. And Jimmy Carter’s willingness to speak the clear truth is debated as controversy. Decades ago, CBS correspondent Howard K. Smith predicted this outcome as he watched his network reel from complaints about his Freedom Ride coverage. Applying balance to a discussion in which there is none, he warned, was “equivalent to saying that truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil.”
The White House’s fear of challenging the tea-bag madness is typical of its cautious politics. But the rest of us accept it at our peril. The absurd, plainly racist ideas that found air at Palin’s campaign rallies have dug in as meaningful parts of our daily public conversation. Carter is the most significant public figure to say that’s not OK. Rather than allow the right to shout him down, many more purported leaders must stand up with him.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer.