AS WE celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this month and his legacy during Black History Month in February, beware of the false celebrants: Those from the extreme right who perversely turn the civil rights leader's words to support policies anathema to all he stood for.
Those people have made a habit, almost a cottage industry, of using King to fight principles, such as affirmative action, that he died for. Expect such folks as Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, Ward Connerly, famous affirmative action foe, Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to falsely associate themselves with King's ideas.
Recent news reports have revealed that Mr. Lott and Mr. Barr have a long-standing association with a white racist organization. But before dealing with them specifically, a little history and perspective are in order.
Old racism in the new South is an issue that will not retreat gracefully; it continues to be passed on to succeeding generations. On college campuses, for example, it's transmitted by a white fraternal system whose elitism and separatism keeps the races apart.
The system produces student leaders who are the backbone of campus governance. Ultimately, they fill leadership positions in their communities and continue perpetuating white superiority.
Many student leaders are products of "seg academies," those private schools established throughout the South to continue separation of the races after public school desegregation was mandated.
A few such academies are in former public school buildings, appropriated by white officials, along with equipment and teachers for maintenance of Jim Crow. Such glaring insults dot the South's landscape, with almost no protest anymore from civil rights groups.
The separate systems, from seg academies to Greek organizations on campus, are the heirs to the days when Jim Crow ruled.
Most college officials and a few other good people in the South oppose the systems but find it nearly impossible to do anything without finding themselves looking for employment.
The systems and institutions are important and topical now because they gave us such Southerners as Mr. Lott, Mr. Barr, Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice and a host of whites who inherited the legacy of states righters, Dixiecrats, Ku Klux Klansmen and White Citizens Council members.
One such organization is the Council of Conservative Citizens, successor to the White Citizens Councils. Similar to the councils of old, the CCC provides cover for whites who do not want to be caught publicly with the guys who wear bedsheets over their heads.
But the dangerous white supremacy ideology remains. Thus, the CCC has cast Mr. Lott and Mr. Barr, along with Mr. Fordice, into the national spotlight in ways they did not desire. The men followed a well-rehearsed pattern: When exposed, they denied knowledge of the group's true goals and finally disassociated themselves. The CCC, however, produced proof of past coziness.
Meanwhile, colleagues of the politicians were fully and quickly forgiving and urged the rest of us to forget about it -- a typical, disgraceful reaction that promotes perpetuation of the sorry mess, encouraging the practitioners to continue because no punishment will be exacted.
Sounding the alarm
That the races in America are so far apart in so many areas should be cause for alarm, necessitating more than complaints that something should be done about it.
A recently released survey showed a disturbing racial divide in television viewing habits, with whites shunning programs featuring blacks while blacks tune out the most popular white programs.
The differences are crucial to television's bottom line: Since whites rarely watch shows that feature blacks, the networks are reluctant to air such programs during prime money-making hours. Segregation in broadcasting reinforces separation in society.
Nowhere has such separation been so obvious than the nation's political parties. It is no accident that white Southerners have flocked to the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln that they so dearly hated for more than a century. The turnabout came when the GOP became extremely conservative, enough so to drive away blacks who had long rejected Southern Democrats and Dixiecrats.
Mississippi political ancestors of Mr. Lott were the enemies of black people: former Senators Theodore Bilbo, James Eastland, John Stennis and Ross Barnett. As were the Georgia predecessors of Mr. Barr: Eugene and Herman Talmadge, Roy Harris, J. B. Stoner, Richard Russell.
While they have not been condemned by their political colleagues, the activities of Mr. Lott, Mr. Barr, Mr. Fordice, et al, have not escaped the enmity of blacks and their allies; nor will they be soon forgotten.
For the leader of Senate Republicans -- said to be concerned about his party's fate in the wake of impeachment zealotry -- to do something so dumb would be worthy of pity had he not tried to defend and justify his actions. The men lied about the extent of their relationship with the CCC, and tried to cover it up.
The most important lesson from this is that until society -- good white people, that is -- finds the courage to confront and face down the institutions that perpetuate separatism and racism, as well as those people who prop up and support racist activity, then America's race problem, which W.E.B. DuBois termed intractable, will be with us and at a great human price.
Paul Delaney writes from Baltimore.
Pub Date: 1/17/99