The Architecture of Life: Loving Jim Crow To Death

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Loving Jim Crow To Death

In my "real life," in addition to running an architecture firm, I am the publisher of a rural quarterly called the Round Top Register based in a rural Central Texas with a population of 77. My neighbors are mostly nice people, but very conservative. They are finding it hard to change.

Many of them - black, white and Hispanic - like me have strong feelings about the state of race in this country and we are not always on the same side of the fence. My county voted over 70% Republican in the last election. I printed this story in the first issue after Barack Obama became the president elect of the United States.

by Christopher K. Travis

I got a call November 13th, nine days after the election of America’s first African-American President.

The caller – whose voice had the characteristic twang of my fellow rural Texans - asked me “...why none of the papers were reporting that Klan incident that happened at the Dairy Queen in Bellville.”

According to the man on the phone, he met a guy he knew “at the lumber yard” and his buddy had seen the whole thing. There had been a ruckus at the Dairy Queen in Bellville (a small community about 50 miles outside Houston) when some black people “got served before some white people.”

Next thing you know, he claimed, the Ku Klux Klan was swarming all over the place in hoods and sheets. They were blocking traffic and asking people in passing cars what they thought about black people. Before long police were all over the place. He wanted to know why the event didn’t get any media coverage.

I wondered how such a controversial event could occur so close to my home and I not hear about it. After all, we are the largest circulation per issue editorial publication in the region and we try to keep up. I began questioning the caller about his ‘friend’, telling him I needed an eye witness if I was going to write a story about the confrontation.

I said I would look into it, but he wouldn’t let me off the phone. He began to recite a litany of things he thought were going wrong with our country - the national debt, entrenched special interests in Washington, and more. He really got warmed up about the subject of border security. He claimed all the illegal aliens had voted and swayed the presidential election, then proceeded to tell me a racist joke.

I got off the phone and called the Austin County Sherriff’s department. Just as I suspected, no such event occurred. It was an attempt to create controversy where there was none, and to intimidate those who had taken hope at the election of Barack Obama.

I didn’t get the caller’s name but I knew who he was. His name is Jim Crow.

I know Jim. We grew up in the same neighborhood. He was practically a member of my family, though we never got alone.

Upset and angry, I told my wife about the conversation and she related a story she heard that same day. Apparently a friend’s insurance man had arrived that morning on a sales call. He wanted to know if she had heard they were tearing out the Rose Garden at the White House now that Obama was elected.

Confused, she said she had not heard about that. “It’s true,” said her agent. “They’re replacing it with a watermelon patch.” Apparently Jim Crow sells insurance, too.

Two weeks before the election, a national polls reported that 30% of my fellow Texans still believed Barack Obama is a Moslem. All of us had been buried in election coverage for two years. There is not the remotest possibility anyone who has a television or reads a newspaper lacked the opportunity to expose that obvious lie.

However, you see, ‘Moslem’ is a pseudonym. Jim Crow likes to use pseudonyms. When used to refer to Barack Obama, ‘Moslem’ really means ‘black and untrustworthy’. People who believe lies in the face of all evidence want to believe those lies. Jim Crow has a lot of relatives down here.

Hate dies hard. It is the child of fear and as old as mankind. The fact that we have elected an African-American as our President does not mean it has gone away - or will go away any time soon. What this landmark change in our politics may do is flush it from the shadows. Let us hope that is all it does, because if hate has its way it will tear this nation apart.

I have lived with this darkness all of my life. My own family owned over 100 slaves when Texas was a Republic. They raised cotton and cattle, corn and grain, and their field hands were black before and after the emancipation proclamation. Jim Crow cooked up a way to turn political slaves into economic slaves. He’s a clever guy.

Most of the people who loved and cared for me when I was a little Texas boy openly called black people “niggers” and expected them to “stay in their place.” Everyone in my family knew old Jim Crow. He was welcome in our house.

I was raised in Waco, Texas. The Klan was particularly active in my home town in the first twenty-five years of the last century. The disturbing image on the right is the charred corpse of Jesse Washington after a lynching that took place there on May 15, 1916.

As far back as I can remember I felt ashamed of my ancestors because of these facts. I loved my family, but I hated old Jim.

I am not sure when I decided Jim had it wrong, but by the time I was in the sixth grade, at the time of John F. Kennedy’s election, I began to stand up to my parents about the issue.

My mother, a well-educated and sophisticated southern woman, smiled to see my idealism. In those days she was an idealist herself, and though deep down she harbored the attitudes of her parents, considered it uncouth to use racial slurs. It was something done by white trash.

Our family, like many fallen upper-class Southern families, was taught to give back to the disadvantaged. So the women in our clan tried to be kind to ‘colored people’. It was expected of people of their station. However, I had seen that gentility turn to hate in their eyes too many times not to see through the charade.

My step-father was not so covert. He was a close friend of Jim Crow’s and I never got along with him. When he found out hate speech offended me, he often used it to taunt me - sometimes to tears.

I remember how lonely and confused I felt when my grandparents and great-grandparents, people who loved me with a passion and always showed me the greatest kindness, began to commiserate about the failings of the ‘colored race’. It marked me.

In the last few years I realized I have been trying to make up for it ever since. To an outsider, it is obvious. The Queen and I have only caucused in two elections in the last thirty-five years. The first time was for Jesse Jackson. The second time was for Barack Obama.

My vote was not about the issues. It was about my own issues with Jim Crow.

Jim was a very successful politician for many years here in Texas. Twenty-seven ‘Jim Crow’ laws were passed in the Lone Star state from 1866 to 1958. Texas was among the South's most lynch-prone states. At least 355 people, most of them blacks, died in Texas mob violence between 1889 and 1918.

That official statistic most likely underestimates the actual death toll and the race of the victims. Orientals, Hispanics, Jews, gays and Native Americans were also killed by mobs and much was hidden. Jim Crow had a lot of friends in law enforcement in those days.

Truth is he still does.

When I first started The Round Top Register in 1995, I interviewed an old boy in his late seventies, a German-American man who had lived in the area since birth. He told me a story which haunts me still. I have no idea if it was true or not, but he swore by it.

He claimed that back in the “teens or twenties” a rumor started that a black man in a town eight miles from my home called Burton had raped a white woman in another close town named Carmine. Perhaps the woman really was raped. However, often ‘raped’ was a word like ‘Moslem’. It could mean a black man had sex with a white woman, or sometimes was simply seen in the company of a white woman.

This old boy claimed a posse of vigilantes from Carmine got their guns and broke down doors in Burton until they found the ‘guilty’ party. They then took him out in the woods, chained him to a tree and set him on fire. According to the story, they went to a local bar, got drunk and started bragging about what they had done. The tale got around and county sheriff at that time drove to Carmine and found the perpetrators.

According to the man I interviewed, he walked up to them, shook their hands, thanked them for saving the county money, then drove back to La Grange.

That story may be completely fictitious, but when Jim Crow was running Texas, that kind of thing happened over and over.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 did not put old Jim out of business. Not even close. Some people think they have heard enough about racism in this country. Some people think the fact that we have elected Barack Obama president means we have finally arrived in the “dream” world of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you believe that, I’ll bet you are not African-American, Hispanic, gay, Jewish, Asian-American, Moslem or Native American. Those folks know King’s dream has not become a reality. Some of them find out almost every day.

If you moved to a country whose majority was not of European descent, the same thing would happen to you. Jim Crow is not particular. It’s ironic, but hate doesn’t discriminate. You don’t have to be African-American to get his attention.

All you have to be is different. That’s why we use the word “alien”. It’s also a pseudonym. Even worse is ‘illegal alien’.

Aliens are scary. Think Roswell and War of the Worlds. Imagine a Hispanic with huge pointed teeth bursting out of your chest on a space ship in another galaxy. You get the idea.

Jim Crow and his buddies have always twisted words and worked in darkness like cowards. They do their business in dark rooms on dark nights with dark metaphors.

They rely on our unwillingness to confront them openly. They rely on the fact that most of us will not tell the insurance salesman who makes a racist joke he just lost a customer. Jim knows we will just smile uncomfortably and let it go…because after all, we southerners are "nice" people.

Last February, when I was still the Editor of the Round Top Register, I passionately endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama. Given that Fayette County voted over 70% Republican, that was not a popular decision where I live. Our current editor – also a Republican – has pointed this out. He is probably right.

In that endorsement I pointed out the following: “No one wants to talk about race and gender. The media dances around it. The campaigns duck the subject as though it were an illicit affair or a charge of corruption. But isn’t the fact we have come to the point in our history that a black man or a woman could become President what is most exciting about this race?

“Isn’t that a powerful signal to the world that we are still the most vibrant, egalitarian, compassionate and politically advanced nation on earth!

“Think what it will mean, if and when it happens, about who we are!”

There is one reason I bring up this admittedly uncomfortable subject now – right after we have accomplished this great leap in race relations in our nation.

The truth is the last election did proved that America is, exactly as I predicted, “…the most vibrant, egalitarian, compassionate and politically advanced nation on earth.”

So if that is the case, why am I on this high horse? Let me answer with a question. If we cannot extinguish racism and other forms of discrimination in this country, then where on Earth will it end?

If you watched the faces of people from all over the world on the day after, you know by making that choice we gave new hope to people all over this planet. They need hope, because Jim Crow and his cousins live in every nation and, in most of them, he still has a lot of political and economic power.

His relatives in Iraq kill children simply because they are Shiite or Sunni or Kurd. His drinking buddies in Europe make sure the fix is in. Racial and cultural minorities are quietly excluded from a fair shake.

Ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural minorities experience discrimination everywhere. Millions have died from it.

In 1994, over the course of roughly 100 days, hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s Tutsis were exterminated by Hutu militia because they were different. Most estimates indicate the death toll was between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people.

That is chicken feed. Just in the last century you can barely count the genocides on two hands.

The numbers are in dispute, but here is a summary of the mass killings in the last century.

Mao in China – 20-73 million; Stalin in Russia – 4-60 million; Hitler in Germany – 15-50 million; Japan’s Tojo– 6-30 million in China; Pol Pot in Cambodia – 2-3 million; Kim II-sung in North Korea – 1.6 million; Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia – 1.5 million; Ismail Enver in Turkey – 1.2-1.5 million; Ykubu Gowon in Nigeria – Over a million; and Brezhnev in Armenia – 900,000.

Why the carnage? Because the victims were seen as alien.

So that’s why I am bringing this up in the first Round Top Register since the election. I want to ask you to open your eyes and look into your heart. I want you to see we have just taken a big step, but the journey is long and we have far to go.

For those who are fighting this good fight, I want to point out there are only two things that disarm Jim Crow. Anger and violence only make him stronger. They are his stock in trade.

The first weapon against Jim is the truth. The second weapon is absolutely lethal. It was taught to us by Jesus Christ and preached by Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is the practice of loving your enemy. In the war against racism and hate, the most deadly weapons we have are love, compassion, understanding, patience, and forgiveness.

Old Jim Crow. What a guy. I just love him to death!
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3L said...

This article has deeply touched me. You writing is so eloquent for a subject that is so sad. Thank you for standing up when others politely smile. You sir are a true gentleman worthy of the courage you posses.