Child of the South

It has been a week since the anniversary of January 6th, and I think I’m closer to understanding what really frightens me about it.  I’m more bothered by January 6th, 2022 than I am of the same day a year prior.  It’s far too reminiscent of the rise to power of the men that lined my textbooks and beamed at me from bulletin boards and elementary school social studies fair tri-boards.  These parallels exist and are fairly terrifying to me, mostly because as a child of the South, I see what consequences really occur when someone with power uses it to control others.  I was born in New Orleans and spent countless Saturdays in the French Quarter.  The spire of St. Louis Cathedral is imprinted in my memories like a tattoo.  When I see New Orleans in my mind, I see the cathedral.  I hear the calliope from the river boat across the square and I smell the cafe au lait down the street from Cafe du Monde.  Front and center of all of that, I see a tall statue of a man on a horse, Andrew Jackson.  Jackson died in 1845 and was gone before Louisiana seceded from the United States in January of 1861.  Countless Native Americans lost their homes and died because he signed the Indian Removal Act while president.  In addition, he did not support the abolition of slavery and favored southern slave states, even going as far as allowing them the right to choose whether anti-slavery mail was delivered through the postal service in their states.  When I think of the place of my birth, I think of a man who actively destroyed the lives of people of color and assisted others in doing so, riding on a horse, tipping his hat, beneath the shadow of a giant church, slowly sinking.  President Jackson was revered by many and is considered to be an excellent president by some.  He clearly wasn’t liked by all, since someone tried to kill him and failed.  Jackson had several hundred slaves throughout his lifetime and was known for paying people to whip slaves who ran away from his home, ten bucks for every hundred whips.  He is remembered for winning the Battle of New Orleans, but his betrayal of the very same people of color who aided him is rarely discussed.  The scenery of my childhood was always painted with the colors of white supremacy.  White men can harm grievously and often suffer no real ill repercussions.  

The Huey P. Long bridge was built in the early 1930s and was a main route into New Orleans before the causeway bridge over Lake Pontchartrain was built in the late 1960s.  Unlike Jackson, Long did not survive his assassination attempt.  During the Great Depression, New Orleans and its sister parishes were not spared from financial devastation.  Long was adored by many people, because he validated their needs and affirmed their existence during a time of invisibility.  Arguably, Long engaged in an early form of social media, reading people’s letters on radio and answering them publicly .  He made people feel seen.  Even his slogan “every man a king” was geared to hit at the raw nerves of hungry, tired people, desperately wanting their lives to improve.  The United States wasn’t a monarchy, so why did some people get to live like kings and others like paupers?  Just like Jackson, Long used his power to propel himself and others while also happening to do some good stuff simultaneously.   Unlike Jackson, who was a son of the Revolutionary War, Long was all but a dictator in name at the time of his death.  Called the “Kingfish”, Long basically ran the entire state of Louisiana like a crime boss that just happened to also be governor.  He kept himself in the good graces of his followers by drastically controlling what media outlets said about him, even going so far as to build his own newspaper, the Louisiana Progress, to compete with others like the Times Picayune.  It was later called American Progress as it moved from local to national publication. In his newspaper, he included cartoons to make fun of his enemies, using their physical appearances for a starting point.  Distracting his constituents by targeting his opponents kept the media focused on him while not focused on him at all.  If voters knew that he was working with the very same large companies he spoke against, he wouldn’t stay in the miniature White House he built for himself.  Plus, he guaranteed himself a padded election wallet by giving people jobs in that replica building and requiring them to pay into his campaign fund.  You didn’t work for the government of Louisiana, you worked for Huey, until he didn’t want you anymore.  His catchy song is an earworm I can’t forget, always taking me back to 8th grade Louisiana history class.  It continues to be recorded even recently. White men can keep their power, no matter what they have to do to keep it, as long as they do enough good to make others look away.  Changing the rules and changing the facts are ok when you’re white and a large enough group of people worship you.

Edwin Edwards was governor of Louisiana too, like Long before him.  During his 2nd run as Louisiana’s governor, I was small and politics belonged in the world of big words and grown-up conversations.  After losing an election, Edwards tried again and became governor for a third time.  Edwards finished his 18th year as governor just before I began high school.  By the time he won the governorship in 1992, the lives of the people making laws around me and running the state I lived in mattered.  I understood enough to know that I should care and was confused by how hard it was to care.  Whether it was teenage angst, true pragmatism, or a combination of both, I recognized things were not as people said they were, that women and people who were gay were fodder for jokes and comedic relief to redirect lines of questioning, that doing the right thing was not how you won a campaign.   Edwards was already notorious for his bribery and unethical behavior during previous terms as governor.  Some believe he intentionally allowed an opponent to win an election just so he could leave his own bad messes to the new leader and swoop back in as the savior during the following term, knowing the damage he left would be too much for the new guy to fix.  People were shocked that Edwards was running again and some more shocked that his opponent was David Duke.  Long before the presidential campaign of 2016, Louisiana had a race between a KKK grand wizard and a man who would later be convicted for many of the things he was already known for, racketeering, bribery, money laundering, fraud, and extortion.  From a Christian perspective, this highlighted early on how easy it was to polarize people from the same religious background.  For some, it was obvious that voting for Edwards was the right choice, because how could voting an openly, unabashedly racist person into office be the Godly decision?  On the other hand, some Christians felt that Duke was the more reputable candidate.  Though he was aligned with the KKK, he hadn’t done as many socially obvious bad things.  In other words, Duke wasn’t a crook.  This was Louisiana in the early 1990s and Duke had already succeeded in becoming a state representative.  Clearly, he wasn’t that bad, right?  Many people rationalized his racism as a relic of his college days.  There was an added element to this election that impacted me in ways that it might not have influenced my peers.  David Duke had attended a high school in New Orleans run by Clifton Ganus, a highly respected Church of Christ preacher.  Then, as it is now, it is very hard for members of Churches of Christ to recognize their extreme prejudice for the sin it truly is.  Voting for David Duke was voting for one of your own.  If you openly opposed him, you were suggesting your church might not be what it said it was.  The Christian Coalition of American even rallied behind Duke until withdrawing its support sometime before the election.  “Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard” was on bumper stickers around town.  Edwards did win, but Duke still got nearly 40% of the votes.  This election taught me that the label “Christian” meant everything, whether you acted like one or not.  In the South, Christian and Racist are sometimes synonymous.  The school that Clifton Ganus helped progress from college to university is still causing harm, because it continues to believe that the good of its founders outweighs any suffering they inflicted.  Edwin Edwards died last year.  David Duke lives within thirty minutes of the house I grew up in.  

I live in a different Southern state now, but distance hasn’t altered the backdrop of white supremacy enough that the childhood of my sons will be so wholly different from mine.  Less than three hours from our current home, families can visit Stone Mountain Park, ride down a man-made snow slide in the winter, and watch a laser light display against the faces of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.  Stone Mountain itself was designed with racist intent and used as the site for KKK cross burnings during its second generation and onward.  The US government assisted in fundraising for the carving by minting a Stone Mountain commemorative coin.  Following Brown vs. Board of Education and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, efforts to finish the carving were renewed and the beloved Confederate generals were finally etched in stone eight years before my husband was born.  As a kid living in the suburbs of Atlanta, he and his peers regularly went to the park every year.  Ironically and sadly, on a youth mission trip to Atlanta before my husband and I knew we existed, I too saw this light display.  Neither he nor I understood what was being celebrated, and we know we will face ridicule if we choose not to take our kids to see this Georgia oddity.  Just a couple of years ago, I attended a conference held at Stone Mountain.  I slept in a hotel built to look like an antebellum home, complete with a spiral staircase and pillars out front.  Every morning, I woke up to four flags of the Confederacy.  Every night, I saw the faces of the men who took part in the greatest insurrection in our country’s history, illuminated by floodlights, when I closed my door.  

What is most unnerving about January 6th and the men I’ve mentioned is their shared similarities.  A year has passed and those leaders who aided the rebellion that could have caused a new civil war still sit in the halls of Congress.  Nearly 200 years has passed since Andrew Jackson sent thousands of people to their deaths, and he earned a statue across from a church and shows up on postcards, like a picture perfect accessory.  It has been about a century now since Huey P. Long rose to power.  The descendants of the people he got fired and muzzled are still alive and they have not forgotten, yet his birthday is celebrated yearly in New Orleans with parties, drinking, and serenades of his campaign song.  Edwin Edwards spent so many years in some form of office in Louisiana, he has to be in textbooks.  I imagine what is written about him will be relatively cordial.  If it wasn’t, too much truth about the depth of unethical politics in Louisiana would come out.  People tend to remember that he helped other prisoners earn their GEDs while incarcerated, not that he was in prison too, just like the people he helped.  Just as I thought David Duke might begin to be forgotten, Donald Trump made him a household name again.  I heard the same justifications for why David Duke’s racism was more tolerable than his opponent’s weaknesses, twenty plus years later. It’s exhausting and baffling, because I can’t tell what is satire and jest versus what is genuine. I’ve heard Christian excuses for prejudice and violence with a frequency that makes its occurrence not surprising, but expected. Just under two years ago, white nationalists gathered in Stone Mountain, GA with the intention to go to the park and celebrate its original purpose.  Thankfully, the park chose to close that day in response.  Regardless, three generals that took arms against their country to protect the rights of white people, white slave-owning people specifically, live on forever in the hearts of those who believe they were patriots.  In 2021, people were mercilessly attacked at our nation’s capitol while others huddled in hiding from American terrorists who believed themselves to be patriots, supporting a president who made them feel like being white meant they deserved to be protected more than others. From 2016 to 2020, I watched Andrew Jackson, Huey P. Long, and Edwin Edwards all come to live again in the form of a demagogue who caged children of color and moved them from their families indiscriminately, who repeatedly lied to newspapers and badmouthed anyone who spoke against him, and who used his money and contacts to exert his power. It’s the same mentality of “very fine people on both sides” that helps people continue to rationalize Stone Mountain Park and use words like protesters instead of mob when discussing what happened on January 6th. In 2121, who will be carved into the stone mountains of our hearts?  This is why January 6th frightens me.  We were minutes away from being who we once were, and the ability of those around me to avoid this truth is devastating.  Some might suggest this is proof that we never changed and the weight of this reality is enormous.  Our house is still divided and our work is not yet done.  What side of history will you be on?  

4 thoughts on “Child of the South

  1. Great piece. Thank you for sharing in the irony of Andrew Jackson’s statue in front of the cathedral. I will see it now with open eyes. It is amazing to me how history keeps repeating itself. The more things change the more they stay the same. But there is still hope for your children’s generation, and clearly that hope is you!

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