Some Other News from Around the Deep South #3

It’s finally spring . . . almost. The official end of winter isn’t for another two weeks, but in the Deep South, it’s already greening up. Beyond that, we all know that winter is over because both deer season and football season have been over for a while. The venison is packed in the freezer, and the crystal trophy is packed in the trophy case. We also know that spring is here because little league baseball season has begun. The ting! sound of an aluminum bat making contact with a fastball on a far-off field often breaks the relative quiet of a lazy Saturday.

At this point, we’re sitting around without much to do. Yard work hasn’t really kicked in yet, and all the little local festivals and events don’t usually start until April. There’s not much going on in early March, except listening to the boys on sports talk radio go back-and-forth about whether Saban’s Crimson Tide will dominate again, or whether Gus Malzahn will turn Auburn around, and stuff like that. We’re in limbo, waiting to see what will happen next. (Of all the head-coaching turnover in the SEC, most of it occurred outside the Deep South, at Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky.) Auburn’s and Alabama’s spring scrimmage games aren’t until April 20, so we’ve got a bit before we can even sneak-preview next year’s teams. (Alabama’s scrimmage will be televised on ESPN2.) About the only three things that people in the Deep South like about winter – football, Christmas and deer season – are all done. We’ve been ready for warm weather.

The other major things going right now revolve around the efforts of Deep Southern state legislatures adding new chapters to our already rocky political traditions. Whether the issue is abortion, immigrant rights, guns, Medicaid, or education . . . well, you can probably guess.

So it seemed fitting to browse around the web for something worth discussing. Welcome to the third installment of “Some Other News from Around the Deep South”!

Last month, on February 5, the mixed-race daughter of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, passed away at age 87. Mrs. Washington-Williams caused quite the stir in 2006, when her memoir, Dear Senator, outed her vehemently segregationist father as having had a youthful affair with his family’s black maid, producing a child that he never publicly acknowledged. After leading the 1948 Democratic exodus into the racially motivated Dixiecrat Party, Thurmond’s legacy was never going to be positive, but this fact of him puts this vocal white supremacist into a totally new light. And this fact of his former mistress and their daughter having kept his secret for so long . . . makes the story irresistible. Thurmond died before the book was published, before the world knew how he had crossed the color line in the most personal way.

In “The Segregationist’s Daughter” in The New Yorker, among writer Jelani Cobb’s particularly insightful comments about the difficult moral nature of the scenario, this one stood out to me:

Yet only in the most benign of readings could [Thurmond’s] behavior be understood as contradictory. For all his rhetoric about preserving racial purity, interracial sex was not contrary to Thurmond’s goals as a segregationist; on some level, it was entirely the point. 

Much has been written and proclaimed about the sexual power that came along with male-dominated white supremacy – Just read Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. – and clearly Thurmond’s story fits that mould. And the New York Times‘ treatment pointed out this difficult fact for the late Mrs. Washington-Williams:

In 1948, the year [Essie Mae’s mother] Ms. Butler died at age 38, Mr. Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, ran for president on a segregationist platform.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like— to be a mixed-race young woman in America in 1948, having your black mother die at a young age in the same year that your white father, who never publicly claimed you, is displaying a massively hateful political spectacle on a national stage, as you sit silent, knowing that you could tear down his whole world . . . if anyone would have believed you, or taken your side. This was, after all, an era before DNA paternity testing and the white father in question had considerable clout.

In another story that is directly tied to racial issues and the Old South, the state of Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment to US Constitution, which abolished slavery 148 years ago. The ABC News coverage of the story quickly resolves the matter of why this was not handled back in the mid-1800s:

The  amendment was adopted in December 1865 after the necessary three-fourths of the then 36 states voted in favor of ratification.  Mississippi, however, was a holdout; at the time state lawmakers were upset that they had not been compensated for the value of freed slaves.

This latter-day action shouldn’t be surprising. In 1995, Mississippi’s state legislature made a similar symbolic gesture, but failed to officially notify the federal government, which meant that the action was never finalized. It is now.

Yet another story that came up in my searches of news stories also involves race, but this one isn’t quite so ordinary. al.com reported that Alabama has its first black Mormon regional leader ever. Perhaps similar to the Southern Baptists naming their first ever black president last year, Peter Johnson became the stake leader in Bessemer, Alabama, the region that covers the area from Birmingham to the Mississippi state line, a region within the Black Belt that holds a significant African-American population.

The article also reported something I had never been aware of about the Mormon’s doctrinal issues about race. The following paragraphs explain:

Before 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a policy prohibiting black men from being ordained in the church’s lay priesthood, which precluded them from taking part in some rites, call ordinances, in the temple. It also essentially excluded them from holding significant leadership positions in the church.

The ban was lifted in 1978 after the church’s prophet had a revelation that it should be discontinued. Non-white leaders are now common in the 14-million-member worldwide church.

In totally dissimilar news, from over in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a report on February 27 that disgraced-though-apparently-reformed lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the state “lobbyist Disneyland” in a talk he gave to the Atlanta Press Club. The article provides an overview of Abramoff’s remarks, including this one:

“If I were a lobbyist here I would run through that bill in three seconds,” he said. At a later stop, Abramoff referred to his speaking tour and said, “Wherever I went people would reference Georgia as the worst place for ethics.”

At the time of this writing, Georgia has an ethics reform bill that passed their lower house with an almost unanimous vote, and it is currently headed for the senate. Georgia’s current lobbying standards, without the reforms of the bill under consideration, say that lobbyists may make unlimited gifts to legislators as long as they are reported.

Finally, in sad news of a completely different kind, the famed Toomer’s Corner Oaks, named for their conspicuous presence on Auburn’s main downtown intersection, are being taken down on April 20th following one last rolling after the Auburn Tigers’ spring scrimmage. Right now, you can still see the sparse, barely alive trees on the city’s live webcam that points directly at the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue.

For those readers who may not know, the rolling of Toomer’s Corner after an Auburn home-game victory is a long tradition. (I’ve been there for it quite a few times myself.) Although, like many traditions, this practice’s origins are uncertain, though the website of the adjacent Toomer’s Drugs store explains it this way:

Hanging over the corner are two massive old-growth southern live oak trees, and anytime anything good happens concerning Auburn, toilet paper can usually be found hanging from the trees. Also known as “rolling the corner”, this tradition is thought to have originated in the 1950s to celebrate away victories; however, in recent years it has become a way to celebrate anything good that happens concerning Auburn.

Although his trial has not yet been held, a Dadeville resident named Harvey Updyke is believed to be the man who poisoned the trees during Auburn’s 2010 national championship season. According to commonly accepted accounts, Updyke who is an Alabama fan called sports talk radio to brag that he had poisoned the trees, which led authorities to look into whether his claim was true, which led to his arrest. (The subsequent debacle involving Harvey Updyke is a story unto itself.) His trial is set for April 8.
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