In the Senate, Hearing the Sounds of the Noose and Jim Crow

Impeachment: How much of the hatred of Bill Clinton is rooted in his civil rights record?

By Karen Grigsby Bates
Los Angeles Times, Friday, January 15, 1999
© Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times

It is a totally visceral reaction, but whenever I hear Trent Lott speak, I immediately think of nooses decorating trees. Big trees, with black bodies swinging from the business end of the nooses. Watching the impeachment proceedings of this renegade Southern president, I've been envisioning those hemp ornaments a lot.

I consider myself sort of bicultural--part-Yankee, courtesy of my Connecticut-born father, and part Southern, from my born-and-bred North Carolinian mother.

I was born and raised in New England--grew up reciting Pilgrim history and shoveling snow. But almost every summer, we'd return to my mother's birthplace, and I was gently inculcated in those traditions, too. I am old enough that Charlotte, my mother's hometown, was de jure as well as de facto segregated when I was very small, so the accents around me at that time belonged to black Southerners, almost exclusively. Their speech was very different from the harsher, more clipped accents of my Yankee relatives, but I found it welcome and comforting.

Those Southern accents, couched in the formal courtesies that black Southerners often used with each other, in part to counteract the segregated indignities they faced when they went outside their communities, made me feel looked after, cared for. Part of an extended family. Cherished.

The Southern accents I'm hearing as the impeachment proceedings grind on do not have the same effect. They are like a slap in the ear. While, unlike some Northerners, I can decipher the speech well enough, it still gives me the creeps. Trent Lott speaks and those nooses swing gently; Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" is a muted soundtrack. Strom Thurmond natters on, and, I just see the Old South: Panama-wearing, sharecropper-cheating, dismissive and condescending. (This, even though the ancient former Dixiecrat, pragmatic above all, now has an integrated staff and, according to a story that ran in the Atlanta Constitution, a black daughter he does not deny is his.) Bob Barr brandishes his political Book of Revelations and I think of paddy rollers patrolling swamps, looking for runaway slaves.

It's a reaction I thought I'd squelched long ago, knowing as I do that not all white Southerners have segregationist leanings. Some supported integration and fought against segregationist policies and race-inspired violence at great cost to themselves and their families. Their actions made them vastly unpopular in their own communities. Despite the cost, they stood, as Bill Clinton likes to say, on the right side of history. They were bricks in the bumpy, winding road from the Old South to the New South.

Mississippi's Lott and Georgia's Barr are supposed to be part of the New South, too, but listening to them and looking at how they've chosen to spend their free time makes one wonder whether their corners of the New South got stuck in a politically incorrect Brigadoon. Both have chosen to address the Council of Conservative Citizens, an intellectual version of the KKK. The CCC may be more subtle than their sheet-wearing brethren, but their philosophies are disturbingly similar.

When I hear Bill Clinton, someone old enough to have lived through segregation and beyond it, speak, I don't flinch. He is often among black folks and is comfortable there. It is immensely satisfying to see a president sitting in a black church as a participant, singing the hymns by heart.

That may be, as many have noted, one of the reasons the Senate, largely led by Southern Republicans, wants so badly to put him in his place. The Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression in Old South-speak) was more than 100 years ago. Some people, including more than a few congressmen, have long, long memories.