Sharing the Secrets of Preserving Southern Racism
I have just finished reading The Letter I Never Sent Harper Lee . In this “letter” the author compares the racism of the 1930’s with that of today and says it is no different. I am outraged that a Ohioan who claims Birmingham, Alabama is her home is so cold and heartless in her writing about our state. It’s because of people like this that we cannot overcome the narrow-mindedness that we are all a bunch of redneck, trailer-park-living, prejudice, rebel-flag-waving bigots. Here is the first sentence in the “letter that should never have been sent anywhere” that got my blood boiling. It is addressed to Harper Lee:
The Maycomb County of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ is hardly worse than the South of today.
Really? The south of today is just as prejudice, just as racist as the south was during the 1930’s? Do we still drink from separate water fountains? Are the schools still segregated? Do African-Americans still ride in the back of the bus? Do black people still say “yes ma’am and no sir” to white people? Do we not have institutes and museums in the city of Birmingham to remind us of the atrocities of our past so that we will never commit them again? Do white, red, yellow and black people not work side by side in offices and factories across the south? Is there no such thing as diversity in the workplace?
Racists in Alabama Today
The attack on our progress continues with this statement:
“Racism is systematically ingrained in the South, so there are just as many racists today as there have ever been, though they don’t always wear white sheets or carry water hoses or hold the leashes of thrashing dogs.”
We will NEVER live down the fire hoses and police dogs. The pictures on the news from those days are forever “ingrained” in people who are prejudiced against the south. The condo where I live is mere steps away from where people were humiliated, persecuted and 1,000’s were jailed. The fire hoses and police dogs are an embarrassment to me and the city of Birmingham. But, I would argue that without those fateful spring days in 1963, the civil rights movement would never have gotten the national attention it needed.
The Embarrassment Reigns
Birminghamians would love for the embarrassment to fade and the memory to preserve the progress we’ve made. However, with writers like this who claim their hometown is Birmingham, but write spiteful, hateful words against us, I’m afraid the embarrassment reigns. If I could whisper anything to the rest of the world about that period in our history, it would be, “Don’t look!” Yet, this article seems eager to keep racism alive.
Our city and state have come so far since the civil rights movement began. Here in Alabama, for the most part, white southerners of today are humiliated by those actions. We cringe at the thought of church bombs and grieve over the death of little girls caught in a shameful cultural war. WE KNOW IT WAS WRONG! And, most black people today no longer hold grudges against things done in previous decades. There may be a few radical whites who truly wish things would go back to the way they were before civil rights, but not the majority! And most people know that southerners of today are no more responsible for what Bull Conner did over 50 years ago than the military children of Tiananmen Square are responsible for that massacre.
Alabama-Born Doesn’t Make You a Racist by Default
We are not perfect and yes, there are still racists living in Alabama. However, if you polled residents in Columbus, OH and Birmingham, AL on their thoughts about racism, you’d find it’s pretty much the same. But outside of our cities, the general idea across this nation, is that the prejudice remains. Most outsiders would assume that Ohio is less prejudice than Alabama, because of people who continue to spotlight the horrors of our past. Another quote from the letter:
The first time I read ‘Mockingbird’ as a ten-year old you [Harper Lee] showed me that being from Alabama doesn’t make you a racist by default. You showed me that it’s possible to practice Southern hospitality even towards people who don’t look like me. You showed me what abiding by a moral code really looks like, which was more than any church pew could ever do.
I don’t believe this author would know southern hospitality if it was spoon-fed to her in a high chair, and I know for a fact that she never sat in the same church pew I did. Church pews where all races raised their hands together in worship of a God much more perfect, much more loving, graceful and merciful than her beloved Atticus.
Books that Brought Change
Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “A Time to Kill,” “The Help” and the movie “Mississippi Burning” were all instrumental in bringing the injustice of prejudice to light. Those books brought about change. This letter suggests that southern beliefs of the past are still practiced in the present. This letter is only instrumental in keeping the same old prejudices in place. The south will always be in a perpetual hamster wheel of racism with people continuing to spew misconceptions about southerners.
Here are just a few more quotes from the letter:
- And despite how uncomfortable I have at times felt when doing these things, it is infinitely better than being spoon fed the hatred that so many Southerners endure to espouse.
- The truth is that these embittered Southerners are generally never as sweet as the tea they drink because they are as broken in spirit as the tornado-swept trailers they inhabit.
- You were there on the days I questioned the gap between “bless your heart” and having a heart. You were there when I questioned how it was possible to have a reputation for Southern hospitality when the South was so damn inhospitable.
To all of this my reply is this. I do not know a single person who “endures to espouse” hatred of any sort.
Those who are broken in spirit may not necessarily live in “tornado-swept trailers;” but I can assure you even if they do, someone has visited them and left them a casserole, a gallon of sweet tea, new housing options after the tornado and a word of encouragement. That is the south of today.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the lesson Scout learned was how to walk in another person’s shoes. I would offer that the author of this letter has forgotten how to walk in a southerner’s shoes. While she may picture us as embittered, racist, inhospitable, hateful people, we still welcome outsiders to our towns with open arms. That’s why they keep moving down here!
So here’s how to preserve racism in the south:
- Breed prejudice against southerners.
- Keep bringing up the embarrassment of fire hoses and police dogs.
- Claim Birmingham as your hometown and then write negatively about the south while you live in Ohio.
- Compare the racism of the 1930’s with the south of today and say they are the same.
- Attack southern ways and manners while being rude and insensitive to the progress of today.
- Insinuate that all southerners live in trailer parks while insulting those who do.
- Accuse Christians of being more racist than fictional characters in a book.
- Insult every citizen in the state of Alabama with accusations of racism.
And if the south is so damn inhospitable, I will offer this quote from Benjamin Franklin. “Guest, like fish began to smell after 3 days.” And good old southerners also know one more thing, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Don’t be surprised if we don’t throw a parade in your honor with confetti and streamers the next time you come “home.”