The past week's unfolding tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, with its militarized and overwhelmingly white police force confronting angry and hopeless African-Americans, is not a story unique to that place or this moment. Many cities and towns in this country confront the same problems of poverty, alienation and inequality as metropolitan St. Louis -- or even worse.
But beneath the familiar narrative, there is a deeper history that reflects the unfinished agenda of race relations -- and the persistence of poisonous prejudice that has never been fully cleansed from the American mainstream.
For decades, Missouri has spawned or attracted many of the nation's most virulent racists, including neo-Nazis and the remnants of the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan. Associated with violent criminality and crackpot religious extremism, these fringe groups could never wield much influence in the post-civil rights era. Beyond those marginalized outfits, however, exists another white supremacist group whose leaders have long enjoyed the patronage of right-wing Republican politicians.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, headquartered in St. Louis, is a living legacy of Southern "white resistance" to desegregation, with historical roots in the so-called citizens councils that sprang up during the 1950s as a "respectable" adjunct to the Klan. Its website currently proclaims that the CCC is "the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights!" What that means, more specifically, is promoting hatred of blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, and Latino immigrants while extolling the virtues of the "Southern way of life," the Confederacy and even slavery.
The group's website goes on to brag that the CCC is the only group promoting "white rights" whose meetings regularly feature "numerous elected officials, important authors, talk-show hosts, active pastors, and other important people" as speakers.
Although that boast may be exaggerated, it isn't hollow. Founded in 1985 by the ax handle-wielding Georgia segregationist Lester Maddox and a group of white activists, the CCC remained obscure to most Americans until 1998, when media exposure of its ties to prominent congressional Republicans led to the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader. Six years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group monitoring racist activity in the United States, reported that the CCC had hosted as many as 38 federal, state and local officials at its meetings (all of them Republicans, except one Democrat) -- despite a warning from the Republican National Committee against associating with the hate group.
Over the years, the CCC's friends in high places included such figures as former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who shared much of the CCC agenda as governor, when he opposed "forced desegregation" of St. Louis schools -- along with the CCC members who served on the city's school board. When President George W. Bush appointed Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, the CCC openly celebrated, declaring in its newsletter, "Our Ship Has Come In."
Recently, far fewer Republican officials have been willing to associate in public with the CCC's racist leaders. Then again, however, Ashcroft himself tended to meet secretly with those same bigots while outwardly shunning them. When asked about his connections with the group during his confirmation hearings in 2001, he swore that he had no inkling of its racist and anti-Semitic propaganda -- a very implausible excuse, given the CCC's prominence in St. Louis while he served as governor.
Despite the CCC's presence, Missouri is home to many fine and decent people, of course -- but malignant traces of the group and the racial animus it represents have spread far beyond the state's borders. The most obvious example is Rush Limbaugh, the "conservative" cultural phenomenon who grew up south of St. Louis -- in Cape Girardeau, Missouri -- and who has earned a reputation as a racial agitator over many years on talk radio, where he began by doing mocking bits in "black" dialect.
In 1998, the talk jock defended Lott when other conservatives were demanding his resignation over the politician's CCC connection. Today Limbaugh echoes the CCC line on the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, which suggests coldly that the unarmed teenager deserved his fate because he may have been a suspect in shoplifting or smoked marijuana. Why would a young man's life be worth less than a box of cigars? Back in Rush's home state, the answer is all too obvious.