Rebel yelp

Atlanta is proudly decking itself out for the Olympics. But even in the capital of the New South, you can still hear echoes of old Dixie, says civil rights historian Melissa Fay Greene.

By Andrew Ross

Published May 10, 1996 10:29AM (EDT)

This week an Alabama state senator shared his feeling that slavery is justified by the Bible and that it was a good thing for African-Americans. Charles Davidson, a 61-year-old Republican who is running for Congress, outlined his views in an Alabama senate debate on flying the Confederate flag over the state Capitol. "It's sad to think we have anyone who has that type of thinking in 1996," said state Rep. Laura Hall, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

How rare is such thinking in the New South? Is the racism and violence of Dixie's past still echoing today? We talked to Melissa Fay Greene, author of the just-published "The Temple Bombing" (Addison-Wesley), a gripping account of the forces that led to the bombing of Atlanta's most prominent Jewish synagogue in1958.

The blurb on "The Temple Bombing" book jacket says the event is "chilling reminder of our troubled present, linked as both times are by the taint of conspiracy theories, intolerance and rage."

Originally, they wanted to compare it to (Nazi Germany's) Kristallnacht and the Oklahoma City bombing. It's not either one, although when I first heard the news of the Oklahoma City bombing I wasn't sure which decade we were in; and I've been struck ever since by the similarities between the Klan and Nazi groups in the South in the '50s and the militia movements today. They're all reading the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and they basically have the same enemies list -- the African Americans, the Jews.
The ones that were fighting communism in the '50s now feel that Washington has fallen -- "Zionist occupied territory" is the way they refer to Congress. It's the same mentality, the same extremely narrow definition of America, and the same under-siege mentality.

The groups today seem more marginal to the American experience somehow. The violence in the '50s, as your book points out, was at least responding to something concrete and immediately threatening to a way of life -- the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

I think the numbers are probably similar -- they are as marginal now as they were then -- but just like the '50s, people get scared into silence by such scary rhetoric. We tend to do that with extremists. I've gotten calls from around the country on the radio shows, telling me I'm unfairly portraying the militias as similar to the hate groups of the '50s, and I say, "Tell me how to talk about you all." They get all hysterical. One listener called in and said the only hope for America was trifurcation -- that we need to divide the U.S. into three countries, one for whites, one for blacks, one for Jews.
How much anti-Semitism still exists in the South?

J.B. Stoner is still around. His latest motto is "lie down with dogs, get up with fleas; lie down with Jews, Haitians, niggers, get up with Aids." There are a lot of J.B. Stoners still out there. I think Southern Jews in their 50s were the last to really feel it.
Still, I get these tearful phone calls from Southern Jews, who are reminded of the anti-Semitism they grew up with. One caller from North Carolina was crying.

Blacks and Jews were much closer in the early civil rights movements. Now we have Louis Farrakhan and a lot of tensions between the groups in cities like New York. Are those divisions apparent in the South?

I've read about it but I've never experienced it. In the South, I think the "black-Jewish rift" is a media product. In Atlanta, I've never felt it. When I was researching the book I was always welcomed in black communities, and they knew I was Jewish. In rural white communities, they were more suspicious of me. I'd have someone interrupt me in the middle of an interview and say, "Melissa, do you know Jesus?"

At the same time, a lot of Jews feel estranged from blacks.
There is a me-firstism in the Jewish community. I think it's based on "enough already" -- enough giving charity to them, let them take care of their own, we've got to take care of Israel. At a barmitzvah last year, I mentioned in a conversation "The Bell Curve" and Farrakhan as two aspects of racism. This man said, "What are you talking about, it's one of the best kept secrets in academia that the blacks just don't have it." I ended up storming out of the barmitzvah celebration and went home and thought, what is this man worshipping? He's a big local Jew, this is a man who thinks he's about Judaism, he's about achievement, he's about intelligence.
Atlanta has always prided itself on being "the city too busy to hate." With the Olympics coming, is the image holding? How much is the city trying to hide?

In Atlanta, business always came before race. That's why it's booming and places like Birmingham are not. For the Olympics, they tried to move people out of a public housing project and renovate it for the athletes. There was all sorts of outcry, so the poor people will be moved back. Then they voted for a plan to give the homeless one-way bus tickets to the city of their choice. Another outcry, so the city went, "Just kidding, they can come back."
The Olympics mascot hasn't gone down too well.

That mascot! "Whatizzit" is the name of it, a computer generated image that we refer to as the giant blue sperm. Lately they tried to make it more friendly, so they announced its nickname would be "Izzy." Someone contacted the Anti-Defamation League to see if there was something anti-Semitic about it, because who other than a Jew is named Izzy? They've named a giant blue sperm "Izzy"? The ADL said no offense.

I favored Brer Rabbit as the symbol. They said no, that would bring up slavery. OK, how about the phoenix, the symbol of Atlanta arising after it was burned down? No, then you'd have to mention the Civil War. So this computer-generated image is the whole way they're marketing Atlanta, like it was born yesterday: "We started fresh here. Look at these skyscrapers." Which is really too bad, because the history is rich and complicated and painful, and the city dealt with it.

How much of the present is being covered over? Is the "New South" really so new?

Schools, even in small Georgia towns, are integrated. But there is a new segregation which is taking place at the level of testing and tracking. Classifying a disproportionate number of African-American students as educably mentally retarded, as learning disabled, and a disproportionate number of white students as gifted. That's happening mostly in the counties outside Atlanta, which is more segregated by housing. But in Atlanta, there is a strong and genuine alliance between black and white business communities. Local government is integrated and works well -- which is one of the ways they sold the Olympic Committee on Atlanta.

But they couldn't do away with Confederate symbols entirely.

Gov. Zell Miller has tried to get the stars and bars down before the Olympics. He sent historians around the state explaining to people that we could fly an earlier Georgia flag. But the stars and bars are going to fly over the Olympics. People just feel that is their identity. You see all these bumper stickers with the stars and bars -- "It's my flag."

A letter to my "real" mother

For many teenagers "Mother's Day" offers an opportunity to
thank their real "moms" -- not their birth mothers but the women who raised them. Denishia Thomas, a 15-year-old high school student in Alameda, Calif., writes about her great-grandmother who took on the task of raising her when she was 69.

When I think of my birth mother, I feel numb. I can only focus on the woman who was my real mother, my great-grandmother who raised me.

I love you Mama for deciding I would be your child. At 69 years of age, you had already sired one generation and I was two generations down and illegitimate. You fed me when I cried. You dealt with my toddler years and those incessant questions. Combed my hair and tried to prepare my young mind and soul for the complications you knew couldn't be avoided. I'm grateful to you for reading to me every day and opening my mind to my history; for making me stand against the wall for half an hour every other day so my back would be straight.

Oh, and I remember walking with you to the Red Cross when you were 74 and I was five years old to collect that salty government
cheese and butter, the canned fruit and bread. So I could eat well,
which I did, and you would not let me touch any pork. You made some fried chicken to die for; and Mama, thank you for that bread pudding and for never asking where I got the pumpkin on Halloween.

Thank you for discipline and for old stories about the South where the blood relatives are. I love you, Mama, for giving me a sense of
character. Thank you for being happy I am a girl and teaching me pride in being a woman of color, and always telling me I was intelligent and just as good as those who seemed to get more chances than me.

And when you started to get senile from life's stresses finally catching up to you, I know you thought first about sending me to relatives, trying to keep me away from foster care and residential treatment homes. When it didn't work, you would ride the bus for an hour to see me in a Level 12 group home when you were 81.

You'll be 85 next month. I know there have been times when
your love has been almost all I've had. You done been through it, Mama, and I give you every iota of respect in my soul. It ain't enough, in my opinion, though you don't seem to ask for even that much. You just want to see me on the right mental and moral track.

I love you for that, Mama, and I always will. You got to be the biggest player I know. Telling me when I'm making you proud and loving me with no strings attached.

Denishia Thomas is a staff reporter for YO! -- a newspaper by and about youth produced by Pacific News Service.

Quote of the day

Coming home

"For the first time, people have something in hand. It's very small and very humble, but reality is richer than before. It's like a very big prison, but the prisoners have hope that they will be released."

-- Mahmoud Darwish, an Israeli-Arab poet, visiting Palestinian-controlled territory for the first time after 26 years in exile imposed by Israel.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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