Bombing on a Book Tour

The author of an award-winning book on the early civil rights movement thought that the lessons it taught about fighting the lunacy of racism had sunk in. She was wrong.

Published September 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a young woman in the front row resolutely raised her hand at the finish of my half-hour talk, when questions were invited. She wore long brown hair with bangs and looked like a bread-baking sort of person, someone who might wear Earth shoes, live in Vermont and home-school her children. She didn't look threatening. We were in Gainesville, Fla., in the air-conditioned conference room of the ultra-modern downtown library on a humid Monday night. I was on a book tour.

That day I had appeared at a ladies' brunch and several radio shows, and at noon I sat beside the anchorwoman of the local TV news. Three stories fell into the Noon News "local interest" category: (1) "Buy a New Mailbox Day" sponsored by the local postmaster, who furnished film footage of rusty and decrepit mailboxes likely to cause injury. "They do look dangerous," enthused the anchorwoman, in a voice-over. (2) The Beanie Baby craze among schoolchildren; and (3) my appearance in town. A clockwise-rotating logo was created in a musical lead-in to the news program, consisting of a photo of a mailbox, a group portrait of Beanie Babies and the cover of the paperback version of "The Temple Bombing." All circling. Clockwise. To music.

Still, I felt up to the challenge that night and gave the library audience some of my best material. I talked about the mayhem and violence convulsing the South in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision outlawing school desegregation. "It was as if Newton's laws had been overturned," I said, describing the shock and disbelief gripping much of the white South. I talked about what many of its denizens believed: That the Jews were behind the civil rights movement, in order to weaken America and pave the way for a Jewish takeover of the world. And I talked about this mind-set as the forerunner to modern American terrorism.

"Perhaps altogether half-a-million white Southerners enlisted in some form of the white resistance to the school desegregation decision," I said, "joining Ku Klux Klans, white citizens councils and states rights parties. At their most civilized, they held potluck suppers, listened to speakers and subscribed to newsletters like 'The Thunderbolt: The White Man's Viewpoint'; at their least civilized, they opened their meetings with Nazi salutes, harassed African-Americans and planted bombs." In essence, my message to the audience was for normal citizens like ourselves, those once called "the silent majority," not to fall silent, not to be intimidated, but to stand together and publicly defy the lunacy and violence. "It's an old, old story," Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote at the time, "when the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, no one is safe."

Questions? The young woman in the front row. "I've been studying the Federalist Papers," she began, and my heart sank, knowing the sort of thing that was coming next. "You're talking about nothing but hatred," she said. "You're full of hatred. We believe in brotherhood. But you're going around the city demonizing Christians." I had heard variations on this theme a lot from Americans who were revisiting the U.S. Constitution and finding modern interpretations of it sorely flawed. Some saw themselves, the white Christians, as "Constitutional citizens," the rest of the population as a lower form of "Amendment citizens." On radio talk shows -- at least the ones I had been booked on during my 40-city tour -- "mongrelization" and "miscegenation" seemed to be on the mind of a great many callers.

"I know something about what you believe in," I interrupted, "and 'brotherhood' isn't even on the list.'" About the "demonizing Christians" charge to which she returned again and again, I was perplexed, since such a large part of my story is the collaboration of Christian and Jew, black and white in Atlanta to lower the volume on the era's racist rhetoric and to outlaw the violence. But later I thought, "She identifies with the characters in my book and in my talk who speak of 'niggers' and assemble bombs -- and she's calling them 'Christian.'"

There was more the next day. "Jews aren't white, you know," said a caller to a radio show. "If you like niggers so much, why don't you marry one?" came in a letter. No dialogue here, no real conversation, only declarations. Their listening to me was not about admitting new data into a closed-off system, but about planning strategically the best moment to interrupt. And it all seemed exceedingly strange, since I'd hit the book trail with a book brimming -- to my mind -- not only with the "wolves of hate" but with heroes of justice.

I came home to Atlanta between cities, called the New York publicist and begged, "no more call-in shows."

"They want callers like these," I said. "When they say they screen the callers, they mean they're screening FOR these callers: 'Ms. Greene? Lunatic on Line 3.'"

"You've only got a few more to do," she replied.

"It's like a moderator inviting an audience to throw things at the speaker. 'And what do you think about ... hey! DUCK!!!'"

"Just a few more," said the publicist.

A newspaper arrived in the mail from Kansas: "WHITE MAN, WAKE UP!" said the headline. "Fight Crime, Deport Niggers." "White Man Under Seige." It offered some convenient mail-order opportunities: "Swastika stickers are effective and low-cost!" read an ad. "Ideal for 'lone wolf' activists who prefer to remain anonymous ... Fight back! Order today!" Elsewhere, in bold print, the words: "'Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnate.' -- William Shakespeare, 16th-17th century British dramatist."

"You see there?" I told my teenage daughter, who'd unfortunately brought in the mail that day. "This is the level of intelligence at work here. They hear Shakespeare and think, 'Shakespeare, Shakespeare, the name rings a bell. Oh, here it is right here: 'British dramatist.'"

In California, I appeared one night on an African-American call-in television show. I went happily. I'd been warmly received by black audiences and black programs in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Dayton, Birmingham and Washington. I felt on safe ground, on friendly turf. The host was informed and cordial. Then the calls began. A few were lovely -- "Thanks for writing that book, Miss Greene. Where can I get a copy of it?"

A few inquired more sharply. "Yes, that's all well and good," said one, "but why did the ADL [the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith] get Arsenio Hall fired? Minister Farrakhan appeared on his show and then the Jews who run Hollywood fired him."

"I'm sure there are people out there who know the answer to this but I'm not one of them," I replied meekly.

"The ADL," said another caller, "got the Nation of Islam fired from their job policing a housing project in Chicago." The Jews run the country, was the gist of a few more calls; they manipulate the nation's wealth to keep blacks impoverished. "The Jews aren't white, you know," said one. Where had I just heard that? Oh yeah, from the other side. "Thanks for coming," said the host with warm feeling. "Before you run, here's one more question: What about Jewish slave owners?"

I went back to my hotel room and collapsed, feeling shot at from both sides out there. Here, at the tail end of the bloody 20th century (why folks are planning to feel nostalgic at the passing of this century I'm sure I don't know), how many tens of thousands of us huddle inside our racial and ethnic enclaves, taking in only the worst of the available misinformation about one another?

Another gig the next day: the Commonwealth Club, in San Francisco. Before my talk, a member of the audience introduced herself to me as an ADL attorney. I drew in close. "Tell me," I whispered, "did we get Arsenio Hall fired?"

"Nope," she replied, "his ratings were down."

"Did we get the NOI fired from a housing project in Chicago?"

"I don't know whether we did or not but they should not have been receiving HUD money," the ADL woman said sharply.

"OK, OK," I said, "one for two then. If I'm going to be on the front lines like this, I just need to know."

Home now, done with travels, both humbled and frightened, I huddle in my own little mid-town, poplar-shaded enclave. It feels more than ever like a cocoon; only this one includes neighbors of all faiths and colors. Two blocks away, the elementary school my kids attend is about 60-to-40 white/black, with a sprinkling of Asian and Hispanic students. Not bad for the Deep South. The integrated faculty and parent body work harmoniously together. The children grow up -- as much as possible in our race-obsessed society -- tolerant, appreciative, culturally multilingual. Is this a well-kept secret? Do most folks believe this doesn't work?

I still believe in integration. Are these fighting words? Let the hate mail come.

By Melissa Fay Greene

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing" (Fawcett), both National Book Award finalists.

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Civil Rights Movement