QOTD (2010-03-27)

Today’s Quote of the Day is doing double duty as the Lesson from History of the Day, because it comes from a November 7, 1958 article in the Arkansas Gazette, about the Little Rock school integration conflict:

A prize-winning Negro reporter said Thursday the election defeat of Representative Brooks Hays (Dem., Ark.) was an indication of “the tragic extent to which racial passions and frustrations of Little Rock white citizens have been whipped.”

Hays, a moderate in the integration dispute, lost his congressional seat from Arkansas’s Fifth District Tuesday to Dr. Dale Alford, a Little Rock physician and outspoken segregationist member of the Little Rock School Board.

The reporter, Carl T. Rowan of the Minneapolis Tribune, made his remarks in an interview before addressing the Arkansas Teachers Association, a Negro group.

Rowan said:

“I regard it not only as a tragedy that Arkansas will lose the leadership and prestige of a man like Brooks Hays in Washington. But it is really an even greater tragedy that an already distraught people have seen fit to plunge even deeper into a pit of defiance that can only lead to chaos and ultimate loss for all peoples of the state and nation.”

He added:

“Perhaps there may be one blessing in disguise: That men like Brooks Hays will now realize that the White Citizens Councils and Ku Klux Klansmen know no compromise and have no substantial regard for the larger welfare of the people or the nation.”

I really believe that there are more patterns in American history than there are deviations from the patterns, and that’s particularly true where the cultural conflict of North versus South is concerned. In this one episode, there are not only echoes of the antebellum period, there are echoes of today’s racial and otherwise prejudicial violence from the extreme right in the wake of the health care vote. Earlier this week, watching Rachel Maddow on death threats sent to members of Congress from the same extreme right, I found my heart rate accelerating, thinking the country had finally gone off the deep end. But the fact is that the country is no crazier now than it was during the McCarthy hearings, or during this Little Rock crisis I’m learning about in my historiography class, or during the whole long upheaval of the mid-19th century. Of course, we don’t want to have another Civil War on our hands, but I don’t think there is any measure by which our discourse is as insane now as it was then—and that, at least, is a calming thought. The fact that inviting comparison to the Civil War period allows us to reject that comparison immediately is in some sense a relief.

This is not to say that there are not differences between our century and previous ones. The Internet, for example, has completely changed the way that extremist screeds can be circulated, meaning that—as we’ve seen in recent weeks—an extremist in one state can incite extremists in other states to break the windows of Congressional district offices or to shout “nigger” at African-American Congressmen or any number of other very scary things. Perhaps I’m wrong in believing that it is easier for national networks of extremists to spring up now than it was before the Internet—perhaps, now, their communications are simply more accessible to the rest of us—but it is nevertheless a wrinkle that gives me pause.

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