the Senate, Hearing the Sounds of the Noose and Jim Crow
How much of the hatred of Bill Clinton is rooted in his civil
Karen Grigsby Bates
Los Angeles Times, Friday, January 15, 1999
© Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
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.
myself sort of bicultural--part-Yankee, courtesy of my Connecticut-born
father, and part Southern, from my born-and-bred North Carolinian
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.