Wednesday, 6 January 2021

GEORGIA ON MY MIND: THE NEW SOUTH & THE OLD (MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY)

 In 1973 I was teaching a short-term course at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, about 80 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was staying at a boarding house, and one evening I came back and the lady who ran the house was watching the news. I stood in the doorway for a second, watching a report on the mayoralty race in Atlanta between Maynard Jackson, who would become the city’s first black mayor, and the incumbent, Sam Massell. She saw me there and pointed to the screen. “Will you look at that,” she said. “A big ol’ city like Atlanta, and they can’t even find one white man to run for mayor.” I took the bait. “But Massell’s white,” I said. “He’s not white,” she told me, “he’s a Jew.”

I thought about that moment today when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won, apparently, their US Senate races in Georgia. Warnock became the first black candidate to in a statewide race, and he spoke movingly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, who matched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr back in the day (if you aren’t aware, Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave in Atlanta, where Warnock is the pastor, was King’s church, and his father’s before him.

Back in 1996, after the Olympics had finished and my de-rigging at the Georgia Dome was done, I went to Sweet Auburn, the old heart of Atlanta’s black community, to visit the King Historical Center, across the street from the church. It was amazingly moving, watching that footage of marchers having fire hoses and police dogs set on them, before the police and others moved in to finish the job. I’d seen it on TV, in snippets, when I was a kid, and now the full horror set in, wrapped in the context of people who were required to put their lives on the line just to achieve the justice and equality its people were due as humans.

Afterwards, I went across the street to a luncheonette, sat at the counter and ordered a sandwich. Out the window, I could see the Georgia Dome, just a few miles from where I sat. The counterman brought the sandwich and I said “you must’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks?” He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” Well, with the Olympics and all those tourists. No offense, but there isn’t that much touristy in this city, and the King site, well, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. There must’ve been people coming to see it?” The guy looked out the window and pointed toward the downtown. “That was THEIR Olympics,” he said. “They didn’t send nobody here.”

Atlanta may have had black mayors, in fact every one since Jackson, but they didn’t actually run the city, in the same way that Georgia remained a state governed by whites, one that sent white senators to Washington. Gerrymandered congressional and state house districts kept the black vote restricted, and as we saw in 2018, when Stacey Abrams ran for governor against the then-Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp, who aided his own campaign with wholesale purging of the voter lists: 700,000 cancellations in 2017 alone. Abrams lost by 50,000 votes statewide, but rather than challenge the result in the courts, she turned her attentions to voter registration. Combined with the Covid pandemic making remote and absentee voting more acceptable, Georgia went for Biden as well as the two Senators—by narrow margins that might well be bigger were the state’s minority voters fully enfranchised.

It should be instructive that Kemp, and his secretary of state, have avoided following Trump’s challenges to the election results in Georgia. This does not make them “good guys” in this business: they certainly do not want any full-scale examination of Georgia’s voting practices, and by upholding the rule of the law they set the stage to use that as part of their response should they be accused in 2022 or 2024 of abuses of voting rights.

Meanwhile the election of Ossoff, who will become the only member of the US Senate to have played in the British Baseball Federation (where he hit .200) reminds us that, although Atlanta billed itself as “the city too big to hate” that slogan arose from the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted (in all likelIhood wrongly) of the murder of a 13 year old girl, when his death sentence for the crime was commuted. He and Warnock entering the Senate together, a rare ocurrance brought about by Kelly Koefflr’s having been appointed to fill an unexpired term, will be like a symbolic restatement of that bond which used to link the black and Jewish communities, and, symbolically at least, holds out a modicum of hope for the Democrats and their pseudo-majority in the Senate.

I wonder how they took it in Ashland, and around the rest of the Confederacy? A few days later back in 1973, I returned to the boarding house after a night at a bar, and the husband of the lady who watched the news called me in to see some football. “Y’all played football in college up north?” he asked. “Yup.” “Well take a looksee at this,” he said, as Monday Night Football replayed a 100+ yard kickoff return touchdown by Miami’s Mercury Morris. “Jest lookit that thing run!” he exclaimed. I used to tell that story and point out it was more than 100 years since the Civil War ended, at least on the battlefield. Now I tell it to remind us that this was less than 50 years ago, and there were then, as our president believes there are now, “fine people on both sides”. 

(Note: I wrote this for Arc Digital, a platform available on Medium. Check it out)

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