Published on Monday, January 6, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
What the GOP Can Learn from the KKK
by Osha Gray Davidson
After scurrying around like King Lear in the storm of controversy created by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s inadvertent run-in with honesty, Senate Republicans finally replaced Lott with Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee. Republicans hope that with Senator Lott’s departure and Frist’s assumption, the storm clouds will blow away and all will be rainbows and fresh starts. That may be.
Until the next time.
I don’t know if there are any racist skeletons in Senator Frist’s closet, but even if there are none, Republican leaders need to take this moment for reflection. They should turn for advice to an expert on the subject of race and politics in America. No, I’m not talking about Kweise Mfume, bell hooks or Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (I’m sure they’d each have something to offer–but will Republican listens to them?)
The person for this job is Claiborne Paul Ellis, or CP, as he prefers to be called. CP Ellis knows what racial politics has cost this country – with the brutal intimacy that comes only from life experience. His background is strikingly familiar to Mr. Lott’s. CP was born poor and white, steeped in the Southern toxic brew of nostalgia for the Lost Cause, Jim Crow laws and holding the line against desegregation. Both CP and Mr. Lott turned to politics at an early age. Both were successful. Mr. Lott became an aide to a staunchly pro-segregation Mississippi Congressman. CP became the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina.
Clearly, there is a tremendous difference between the two paths. But they’re not so different as it might appear. The Klan spoke openly and crudely about its beliefs. Racialist politicians (a category that includes both true racists and demagogues whose appeals to racism was a means of getting votes regardless of their own beliefs) used code words and phrases such as “states’ rights” and “separate but equal.” The Klan hailed a burning cross while racialist politicians saluted the flag (back home in the district, where the truth of things runs closer to the surface, however, the flag they honored was often the stars-and-bars, the Confederate Battle Flag). The Klan used the tools it knew best: guns, lynchings and firebombs. Politicians used legislation. They crafted dozens of laws that guaranteed blacks would remain second-class citizens. Their legacy is a host of social ills – poverty, lack of healthcare, drug addiction, and crime – that continues to this day. If one were to conduct an honest tally, the racially-biased actions and inactions of Congress have almost certainly caused far greater devastation to African-Americans than anything the Klan ever did.
CP’s moral path and that of Mr. Lott’s figuratively crossed in 1972 – going in opposite directions. Mr. Lott was elected to Congress in that year and immediately began throwing wrenches into the machinery of the post-civil rights movement. CP left the Klan in 1972 after realizing he was being used by Durham’s elite to keep blacks in their place, with zero benefits to poor whites.
“It finally came to me,” says CP, “that I had more in common with poor black people than I did with rich white ones.” It was not an easy transition. Branded a race-traitor, CP became a pariah in his community. He wrestled with self-hatred, despair and alcoholism. He attempted suicide. Eventually, CP made peace with his decision and rebuilt his life. He became the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers (maintenance workers), local 465 at Duke University. What’s remarkable is that the former Klansman was the elected leader of a union that was eighty percent black.
Mr. Lott had a far easier time of it. Unlike CP, Mr. Lott told his white constituents exactly what they wanted to hear. He confirmed, in code when necessary, that blacks and white liberals were the root of all evil. To the cheers of his audience, he proclaimed that this country would have been a better place had Strom Thurmond, the embodiment of segregation and white supremacy, been elected president.
In 1994, while researching a book about CP’s conversion from Klan leader to labor activist, I spent several days riding around Durham with CP at the wheel. We passed the prestigious financial institution that bankrolled the Klan’s new meeting hall. He showed me the police station where officers slipped him copies of parade permits of civil rights marchers – “So we’d know the route and be there with our guns if we were needed.” CP described how high ranking white politicians who were his best friends in private, pretended, when encountering him in public, that they’d never met him before.
CP always had the radio blaring during our rides and one day Newt Gingrich came on the news. CP fell silent as we listened to the Republican House Whip House use all the familiar code words to fire up the Republican’s white Southern base. CP cursed softly before saying in a voice weary from a lifetime of hearing such things, “The only difference between him and a Klansman is that Newt ain’t got a robe.”
The GOP’s recent problem wasn’t Trent Lott, just as it wasn’t just Newt Gingrich back in the mid-90's. Lott tried to explain away his troublesome endorsement of Thurmond by portraying it as an isolated incident. Since then we’ve learned that it was actually a chronic pattern of racial divisiveness, a calculating and shameful thread that runs through Mr. Lott’s career.
But the same is true of the GOP record. The “Party of Lincoln,” the man who preserved the Union, became in the 1960s what it remains today: the Party of Division. Republican spin-doctors will try to cast Trent Lott as a throw-back, a “wild card” in the GOP. But the real problem lies in the Republicans’ nearly pathological tendency to reach for the “race card” when the going gets tough. George Bush, Sr. used this tactic successfully with his infamous Willie Horton advertisement, during the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis. The current President Bush kicked-off his crucial South Carolina primary campaign with an appearance at Bob Jones University, an institution so entrenched in its racism that it still banned inter-racial dating. There are countless examples of the GOP playing the race card when they don’t think they hold a winning hand on the issues.
After replacing their senate majority leader, Republicans face a far larger decision. Will they continue the politics of exclusion and division, or will they choose a diverse, inclusive future, what proponents have dubbed “Big Tent” Republicanism?
I’m betting on the former, Senator Lott’s fall-from-grace notwithstanding. More strident voices still dominate the GOP. And their call is not to the Big Tent, but to the sideshow, where the freaks of our nation’s deformed and deforming racist past continue to draw crowds – and votes.
When I asked CP what was the most important lesson he’d learned from his difficult and inspirational journey, this is what he said: “I realized that we all need each other.” It is a vital American truth, a plain-spoken version of our national motto: E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One. Unfortunately for both the Republican party and for our nation, the GOP leadership has yet to embrace that creed.
Still, if a robed-Klan leader can do it, maybe there’s hope for the white guys in suits.
Osha Gray Davidson is the author of "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History, and several other books. His website is at http://www.oshadavidson.com/