End of an Evil Era?
August 23, 2001
William Rivers Pitt
"As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men
every day of your life, but let me tell you something and
don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a
black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine
a family he comes from, that white man is trash." - Harper
Lee, from 'To Kill A Mockingbird'"
A Republican state representative from North Carolina this
week took a moment to do something we have all done at one
time or another. Rep. Don Davis sat down at his computer and
forwarded an email he found to be worthy of dissemination
to all of his Congressional colleagues.
The substance of the message: "Two things made this country
great: White men & Christianity. Every problem that has arrisen
(sic) can be directly traced back to our departure from God's
Law and the disenfranchisement of White men."
Davis received this from a website entitled 'God's Order
Affirmed in Love.' It comes as no surprise that Mr. Davis
forwarded a message with religious overtones. Mr. Davis made
his name in North Carolina politics by sponsoring a bill mandating
the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.
One is forced to wonder in what kind of school Mr. Davis
received his education. Were there no teachers to tell him
of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers,
Thurgood Marshall, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver,
Crazy Horse, Eldridge Cleaver, or Langston Hughes?
It is terribly sad to contemplate an education in which only
the accomplishments of White men are eulogized. The gaps there
are vast, to say the very least.
Mr. Davis gleans his understanding of the world from Christianity.
It was that same Christianity that once was foisted upon slaves
newly stolen from their homeland not so long ago. "Blessed
are the meek, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven"
was a marvelous tool for controlling slaves. It gave them
something to look forward to after a life of toil, and layered
a veneer of holiness over a repugnant institution. The Christian
White men who stood over these slaves with whip in hand were
pleased to be doing the work of the Lord.
From Mr. Davis' perspective, at some point between then and
now, White men became disenfranchised, and the Law of God
was laid waste. America became a poisoned well after White
men bearing the Cross no longer held absolute control of the
nation. At what point the White man actually lost his grip
upon power is not something Mr. Davis chose to explain.
When asked to elaborate upon his reasons for sending this
message to every member of the North Carolina state legislature,
Davis replied, "There's a lot of it that's truth, the way
I see it. Who came to this country first - the white man,
didn't he? That's who made this country great."
Mr. Davis only has half the story, a problem to be addressed
by whatever school saw fit to grant him a diploma. The greatness
of this country was and is founded upon a long, blood-soaked
history of genocide perpetrated by the White man upon a diverse
array of peoples.
The White man's arrival on these shores precipitated a decimation
of the native population. 95% of indigenous Americans ceased
to exist in an eyeblink. The bones of untold millions of human
beings fertilize the soil from Portland, Maine to Portland,
Oregon. This was one genocide.
Africans were brought here in chains by the millions as chattel
slaves, no better than cattle, so they might have the privilege
of making this country great for the White Man. 20 million
of them died on the Middle Passage across the sea, and were
tossed overboard like ballast. There is no accounting for
the number of Africans who lived and died with the White man's
bullwhip cracking in their ears. This was another genocide.
Today, we have roads that stretch from the Atlantic to the
Pacific. We have fertile fields of wheat and corn that run
in rows beyond vision. We have cities that scrape the sky,
and technology that borrows whole pages from God's cookbook.
Mr. Davis, in viewing these marvels, has been able to forget
the carnage that allowed such things to exist here.
Mr. Davis believes in the same breed of Christianity that
merited the sword's edge for Muslims during the Crusades.
It is the same breed of Christianity that can justify the
crucifixion of a gay man in Wyoming. It is a Gospel of hate
and fear that Jesus Christ Himself would completely fail to
Perhaps his Ten Commandments read differently from mine:
"Thou shalt not kill, unless in the process of making a country
great for White Christians."
Those among you who cling to a naiveté about this nation
may well be appalled that such a man holds office in America.
That shock is misplaced. Mr. Davis is not an anomaly. He is,
in fact, the inheritor of a bleak political legacy established
in modern-day North Carolina by Jesse Helms, Republican U.S.
Senator from the same state Mr. Davis calls home.
Senator Helms began his service to White Christianity in
the Senate in 1972. In his time, Helms mastered the art of
political race-baiting. When his seat was challenged only
a few years ago by a Black man, Helms fired out a commercial
that would have made the creator of the Willie Horton ad blush.
Jesse Helms will announce today that he does not intend to
seek a sixth term in the Senate. Helms is 80 years old, and
has recently been bedeviled by a variety of health problems.
His departure opens up the prospect of a vigorous dogfight
for his seat. There is no clear front-runner in that race
as of yet, though several big names on both sides of the aisle
are making noise.
Whomever runs for the Republicans will face a decision. For
nearly 30 years, Helms held power by hurling the same brand
of rhetorical broadsides encapsulated by Don Davis' email.
They were always quite effective.
The Republican nominee for Helms' seat must decide whether
or not to use the racist legacy of Jesse Helms to their political
advantage. The question will come up sooner or later - is
it possible to win in North Carolina without inflaming the
souls of White Christians with the claim that they have been
disenfranchised by the descendants of former slaves?
However it plays out, the stain of Jesse Helms will be upon
us forever. His retirement from the Senate may remove a clear
and present insult to all that is decent, and may strengthen,
if only a little bit, that basic idea of human equality that
lies within the beating heart of the American Dream.
We can never escape his legacy, however. His children still
walk the land, and still hold office, and still believe as
he does. Mr. Davis is only one example.
There are many who believe race relations in this country
have improved. The fact that Jesse Helms was allowed to serve
unmolested for almost thirty years in the Senate gives lie
to that statement. Jim Crow is gone, but his politics are
alive and well.
Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post, had
this to say about the departure of Jesse Helms: "In a chamber
increasingly filled with ambitious millionaires, prodigious
fundraisers and professional gasbags, Jesse Helms was something
different: a man who stood for something."
Let us, White Christian and otherwise, take a moment to pray
that men who stand for what Helms stood for are relegated
someday to the dustbin of history, where they belong.