It started out as a rather unremarkable winter morning in New York City. It was quiet. My masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer were carefully arranged on top of the overstuffed shoe rack near my apartment door. The tiny foyer had become the dressing room for garments needed for protection from Covid-19 threats. My hands were rough yet tender from the constant washing and drying. My ears had become sensitive to the constant pull of the elastic bands that held my double mask in place. But today belonged to me, to be free of restraining outside influences.
My sister Paulette phoned around 10 AM to give me the latest St. Louis family 411. My husband Bill was sleeping late, under mounds of warm comforters. The blinds were open enough to permit sunbeams to fall across our dusty black piano. My orange exercise mat occupied the remaining nine foot space in front of the couch, with unquestioned authority. This was my fantasy space of refuge from the stress of living in fear of the looming death wish of COVID horror. While on my mat, I was free to push and press and stress my body in all forms and shapes in the name of healthy exercise, in the safety of my own cubicle amid densely populated Manhattan.
Like a bolt of lightning my haven was disrupted. Both my phones began to ring, almost in concert. It was the vibrations plus the ringing from my cell phone that coaxed me to answer it first. Paulette was screaming “Stop meditating and turn on your TV! Turn it on now! The white people have gone crazy!” With my big sister’s command, I grabbed the remote and turned on the oversized wall mounted TV.
Paulette was right. White folks had busted loose. They were all over my TV in my private peaceful space. White people were swarming like flies over a piece of rotting meat. Some were dressed like characters from a Marvel comic book series, others wore GI Joe army fatigues, or black leather biker gang outfits, jeans-clad heartland farmers as well as clean cut nerds in those familiar red baseball caps. Add in a sea of half-naked, tattooed, flag waving male maniacs. The presence of Confederate and Presidential red flags made it clear that this was a Republican call to action. They were hot wired and ready for battle. Their manic facial expressions and the gleams in their eyes spoke to me with honesty of purpose. There was something else deeper at work…
The wooden gallows with the signature Ku Klux Klan rope noose hanging ready for a lynching, got my attention right away. Its appearance was immediately disconcerting to my years of image association. Did the KKK intend to hang a black man or woman to drive home their white superiority lie with a media “lynching”? My anxiety rose when I noticed the lukewarm response of police officers to the white mob’s assertive and disrespectful behavior. There was no formidable resistance to the lunatics who were now in charge of the Capitol asylum. I wasn’t sure if I could endure being forced to witness yet another murder of a black person. I shouted “Here we go again!”
Within minutes the enraged mob turned its energy to the actual invasion of the United States Capitol building. In complete shock, I watched them trample uniformed police officers, scale walls, break windows, destroy whatever was in their way to gain entry into the official seat of the American government. Unable to take my eyes off the screen, I sat on my exercise mat and witnessed the Lost Cause staging a Confederacy comeback. The plot of their play was clearer than that of “Gone With the Wind.” Their determined attitude of revenge against their enemy, Congressional politicians and Vice President Pence, became clearer, as I saw them strut and prance around the valuable paintings and statues within the halls and galleries of the Capitol. Their blatant disregard of the building exposed something deeper than responding to instructions from their absent leader.
For the past four years I had witnessed a massive part of the American population support the ridiculous, immature behavior of a man whose temper tantrum Tweets came at 3AM. Who lacked good judgement by hiring and firing friends. Who ignored the advice of senior military personnel and scientists. Who refused to accept the truth of his election loss by over three million votes.
For these people, rallying around their leader was not unusual; but this insurrection was on another level. The hardcore extremist mentality of his followers probably scared off him and his children to a safe space, to watch it on TV like so many other people around the world. 45’s rallying masses shed their KKK hoods, unfurled their Confederate flags, stripped down to white, tattooed, naked skin, and boldly showed up to claim back “their country.” I think they believed another White Lie,
Vice President Pence could not do what 45 claimed he could to overturn the election and keep him as president. Read the Constitution and realize that it is common knowledge that the Vice President has no power to reverse election results. Blame for this rally which had morphed into an insurrectionist mob, belonged squarely on Trump’s shoulders. His White Lie is what got them to the doors of the Capitol, but what fueled the mob’s cold blooded energy?
I had to look beyond the obvious. Was it possible for speeches to cause a mass mostly of white adults to run full speed to the edge of a steep cliff and jump joyfully into the chasm? On the surface it appeared as though they were simply responding to a call to show strength by rallying in Washington.
By nightfall I was no longer outraged. I was curious to apply logic to an illogical situation. I searched through my bookshelves for anything pertaining to the Civil War era. I also reread some thesis papers from friends and scholars who loved the pre- and post- Lincoln years in American history as it related to the education of whites and enslaved blacks. A common thread to their writing was the education of southern Confederate white women and their children. The content of their schoolbooks reinforced a mythical version of the history of slavery and its relationship to white culture as impacted the cause of the Civil War, and was very different from the actual accounts of the war.
After the Confederacy lost, it had to rebuild. Reconstruction, it’s called. Deep scars of anger and resentment of having their once thriving cities and farmlands turned to rubble and graveyards by the Northern troops have never fully been reconciled. To go forward it was clear that white Southerners needed the labor and skills of blacks to regain their culture. The loss of the war and the Emancipation Proclamation were seen as roadblocks to the resurrection of the South. To work around the abolition of slavery, while restoring their culture which required the help of blacks, many southern women got busy and rewired the ways Southerners viewed their former “property.” I feel that is the beginning of the White Lie that re-emerged in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021.
During the years of Reconstruction, many southerners were much worse off than previously, while trying to hold onto a culture of prosperity and privilege. To preserve and perpetuate their previous lifestyle, education was used to teach the young about the “Southern past.” Rewriting American history was necessary if the life of the Old South was to remain intact for the future. This task was taken seriously by two popular white women activists who took it upon themselves to rewrite textbooks for white school children. The White Lie was taught carefully, starting at childhood from schoolbooks and constantly repeated in public meetings.
The first Confederate flag flew over the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861. The Ku Klux Klan white supremacy group was founded in 1865 on Christmas Eve in Tennessee. Terror and fear alone are powerful enforcers but encourage resistance. Adding in education creates consensus of opinion and shared values which shapes the general will of the people. The mother tongue rings in the ears of babes. Women teach the young. Books hold the history safe to be passed from one generation to another.
Rebecca Latimore Felton and Mildred Lewis Rutherford were white supremacists and active members of the UDC, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894 in Nashville. Both women strongly advocated for the lynching of black men regularly as a precaution, to keep virtues of white women pure and safe. Weekly lynchings were suggested. The membership required a woman or girl to be a direct descendant of a military member or statesman of the Confederate States of America, and there were eleven such states. Fenton and Rutherford were responsible for rewriting Civil War history so that young southerners would experience the South through their eyes. These books were distributed throughout the schools in the former Confederate states. Northern accounts of the cause of the war and the specific accounts of slavery and the war were not permitted to be used in these states.
The powerful racist women members of the UDC placed Confederate flags and symbols and pictures of Southern heroes in the hallways of the public schools of those former Confederate states. Politically they were instrumental in raising money for large permanent monuments of Civil War generals, like Stone Mountain, and are on record for awarding college scholarships to those who are descendants of the Confederacy. The UDC has been involved in the carefully biased miseducation of southern young people for over 127 years, approximately eight generations.
The horrible display of hatred that I saw on January 6th was bigger and deeper than it appeared to be for the political support of one individual. It was rooted in some place deeper than most of us will ever know. Although I was not there physically and was not hurt there, I was made aware of how vulnerable I am to the pain of feeling helpless to change the vile, ugly face of hatred from white supremacists who take it upon themselves to commit heinous crimes without getting beaten down or shot, tear gassed, handcuffed and arrested. I have no control nor expectations of protection from the US government when it seemingly does not wish to protect itself from whites who resemble them. As a mature black woman. I have carried the scars of fear and helplessness that are etched into the private spaces of my soul.
In 1955 when I was 15, my mother and I made our annual summer pilgrimage from St. Louis to Chicago. Cousin Etta lived in a brick apartment house, a four floor walk up, on the South Side. I was always waiting for the chance to go to the glorious Regal Theatre on South Park to see Ray Charles or Ruth Brown or any celebrity. I was star-struck. The South Side had big busy boulevards. Cars were everywhere. I had never seen so many black people in one place in my entire life. I loved going to Chicago because there was energy all around.
On or around August 28th, Etta’s neighbors began to gather during the evening on the connecting wooden back porches. It was hot. Women mostly sat around or leaned over the railings while smoking, drinking beer or cold lemonade from Mason jars and munching on Argo Starch lumps. They whispered about a missing boy who went down South. No one seemed to know his whereabouts because his family was looking for him all night and the next day. Some women who knew the boy’s mother were going to make phone calls. I thought he had gotten lost or wandered off but there was a strangeness about the whispers that scared me. I stayed close to my mom.
Then young Emmett Louis Till was found murdered. The news spread like wildfire. Several white grown men had come in the dark of night to his grandfather’s house and took the teenage boy, screaming and begging “What did I do?” When they finished beating him, they castrated him and hanged him, then tied his remains to a heavy weight near a river. The white men said he tried to flirt with or whistle at a white woman in a store the day before. They needed to send a message to uppity Northern blacks who came south, that their whiteness was judge, jury and executioner in the South. The police did not arrest or detain any murderers.
Funeral lines were long in the hot August sun. Once Emmett’s body was seen with all the battering to his face and head, some people fainted. I stood in the mourning line but was afraid to look. He was about my age. We were just kids. People cried and cussed at the same time. They wanted someone to help them to protect themselves and their children. Although I was surrounded by a sea of blackness, it was the first time I felt helplessness because I was not white, in the presence of my mother, who also was terrified.
I wanted to go home where I thought I’d be safe with my daddy and grandparents in St. Louis. During that summer I had grown up fast. I was force fed a lesson about being a black person in America. I was forever changed, but America stayed the same.
Emmett Till’s murder was 76 years ago. Unfortunately the same sick notion of inherent white supremacy affording a special population of white men the privilege of doing whatever they want, wherever they want, still lives on. They have been carefully miseducated to become thus. Do they get a pass? Do I buy a gun? Start black supremacy or black privilege groups?
But just maybe, the omnipresence of COVID-19 will answer all of the above by forcing all of us to become unified in order to stay alive. Maybe God is still in business.