It was an Era I have titled The Swan Song of America’s Innocence. The World’s Pre-Eminent Super Power was on the brink of both internal and external upheaval of a degree never before endured…. Me? I was coming of age in the semi-rural South and possessing of a curiosity capable of killing a lot of cats.
That curiosity led me to a vacant field outside my idlyllic hometown. What I witnessed that Spring night generated a comment that I uttered for the first, but definitely not the last, time: ….. These Sumb*tches Are Nutz!
I was at an official rally of “da KLAN”.
NOTE: Don’t let the title of today’s commentary confuse you. This one is NOT about The UNC-BOG. We’ll get back to them another day.
Actually it was “The United Knights of The …….” or some such. But it was A Ku Klux Klan Rally. The Grand Dragon – one Robert Shelton – was pontificating via a bullhorn. There was a large burning cross. There were 50—75 guys dressed in white robe-like costumes (bedsheets?) and those infamous pointy dunce-hats. The FBI had decreed they could not hide their faces behind masks, but I didn’t recognize any one.
The amplified rhetoric coming from Grand Dragon Shelton was decidedly “politically incorrect” though that term was some 25+ years from becoming an over-used cliche. This was so long ago that “Gay” was still either a girl’s name or a synonym for “happy”. As I recall, pretty much every sentence Shelton uttered would get a penalty flag thrown in 2014’s NFL, if you get my drift.
…. and Robert Shelton quoted scripture to validate his incendiary rhetoric.
My buddy and I were NOT there because we believed anything or wanted to join. No way. We were there for the same reason we had attended the Clyde Beatty & Cole Brothers Circus a month earlier; also in a vacant lot just outside of town. It was the curiosity that, down thru history, has led boys to touch wet paint, not let sleeping dogs lie, and peel the cover off golf balls…. and other “just because” whys.
As strapping teenagers, our presence on the periphery of that night’s proceedings did not draw attention. With the only illumination coming from the 20’ high burning cross, our wide-eyed stares also when unnoticed.
Teenagers may exude a faux self-assured cockiness but underneath that bravado, want to believe that grown-ups really do know what they are doing and should be deferred to. My confidence in “grown-ups” began to dissipate that Spring night outside our town.
For the time we stayed no one was tarred & feathered or lynched or any such. There were not even any effigies as I recall. Just a lot of incendiary rhetoric being screeched. I recall a prickly feeling…. and I recall thinking:
……. These Sumb*tches are NUTZ.
Moving right along….. about 35 years or so. That wide-eyed teenager in that downeast field was now a veteran of many a corporate combat encounter with scars to prove it. He (me) had lived a dozen places from Dallas to Kansas City to Boston to remote hollows of West By Gawd Virginia. He had said “I do” to two women…. and “I don’t anymore” to one of’em. He had buried both parents and become one (a parent) himself. He was officially on the backside of middle age and resolved he would never play centerfield for The Yankees.
The confidence in my fellow man that was shaken in the glow of that burning cross had ebbed and flowed over the ensuing decades. My naïveté had cost me in some of those corporate boardroom skirmishes. The same curiosity that had drawn me to that vacant field had caused me to draw my sword on a few occasions where discretion would have been more valorous. And seen me emerge victorious on occasion too.
It was a more worldy fellow that stood that April day in 2006 at the entrance to Duke University: ….. at a for-real rally of The New Black Panthers.
Malik Zulu Shabazz was “Robert Shelton” on that day. Instead of 50-75 bed-sheeted acolytes, Malik had two dozen jack-booted thugs in combat fatiques, berets and walkie-talkies….. and nasty countenances.
Malik was in a Saville Row suit but lacked a bullhorn for his pontificating. He coulda used one as the rotary blades of two news-choppers overhead made it difficult to hear him….. so I moved in about 10’ from him….. eliciting the glare of one of Malik’s henchmen.
Malik and TNBP were at Duke to DEMAND the immediate punishment of three “rich white boys” for the horrible rape of “poor poor innocent Crystal Mangum”. Malik saw no need for the wheels of justice to waste time turning….. just turn’em over to Malik Shabazz and his gang of Afro-vigilantes and that would be that.
…. and Malik Shabazz quoted scripture to validate his incendiary rhetoric.
He carried on for 20-30 minutes about the supreme superiority of the Black race citing Egyptian queens and great African dynasties. As I watched and listened, I rechanneled that wide-eyed boy watching that earlier spectacle and I muttered:
These Sumb*tches are NUTZ!.
It had been almost 40 years and I could not think of a more apt description of the moment.
Moving right along….. just 3-4 years later….. on the far end of Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street on, yes, another Spring day. Still as curious as ever, there I was about 15’ from a stage upon which The Reverend William Barber was being hoisted by, yes, another phalanx of ominous bodyguards.
It occurred to me that I was dressed in the same Jimmy Buffet uniform I had worn over at Duke just a few years earlier….. Aloha shirt, khakis and a ballcap.
Raleigh was in the midst of a very very nasty school board election war. Wake County School Board wars aren’t all that much different from public school board wars anywhere in America in The New Millenium. Every community thinks theirs are the most chaotic like every parent thinks his/her baby is the most precious. OK, maybe not the most apt analogy, but you get my point.
That day I was eye-witness to yet another spectacle of vintage Americana – some wild-eyed, spittle-spewing humans screaming how much they hated some other less-worthy humans because ……….
No pointy hats or bedsheets….. no berets or jackboots…… but the rhetoric was the same. The Reverend Barber was the star but he was preceded to the microphone by several warm-up acts…… a few so-called pillars of the black community and some hyped-up hot-blooded galoot from Duke Univ named Timothy Tyson…. “a so-called expert on slavery”. He was a pieca work spouting about as prolifically as a white fella can spout to a street-mob of black folks. He seemed quite proud of hisself but the crowd wanted to hear Barber.
The Reverend Barber was easily on the high side of a quarter ton back then. Attired in enough black suit to make Omar a very large tent. It took six large men to hoist him up the three steps to center stage. He had arrived in a specially-equipped van with a heavy-duty suspension. The van was parked 10’ from the stage.
I had worked my way backstage by then. It was obvious that it was as carefully orchestrated as any rock concert. The build-up to Barber was carefully timed to get his audience “on the edge of hysteria”….. and they were.
Barber was every bit accomplished at knowing which buttons to push with “his people” as had been Robert Shelton and Malik Zulu Shabazz before him.
…. and Bill Barber quoted scripture to validate his incendiary rhetoric.
That curious teenager in the mid 60s had grown into an aging Baby Boomer….. had been places and had done things….. had rubbed elbows with celebrities and been held at shotgun-point outside an Atlanta mall…. had accumulated friends and made a few enemies….. and as I watched the goings-on that day in Downtown Raleigh I realized:
These Sumb*tches are NUTZ!
The more things had changed over 50 years…..
The more they had stayed the same. ……. sigh.