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The dying gasps of the 1950s


There is an ugly little suburban town on the southern edge of my county that I would have to say is one the nastiest and most hateful little places I’ve ever known. To this day — 2016! — black friends tell me that black people are afraid to go there. In 2014, while I was working in the Democratic tent at the county fair, which is held in this little town, an older white man working a concession stand hesitated sourly before selling me a Coke. He did sell me the Coke, but he handed it to me with a hate look, because he knew that I’d come from the Democratic tent. Also, on election day in 2014, there was a great deal of embarrassing television and newspaper coverage after a Democrat was charged with assault on a Republican. The Democrat, a woman, had gotten fed up by, and felt threatened by, an older male Republican who had been in her face for much of the day outside the polls, using ugly terms that I won’t repeat here. She knocked him down.

Just yesterday, a Democrat who is running for office had yet another unpleasant experience in this nasty little town, outside the polling place where early voting was going on. Again, I mustn’t repeat the hateful and racist language that Republicans were using about Democrats. This candidate for office happens to be country lawyer, and you’d think that he’s probably heard everything by now. But he was pretty shaken by, and disheartened by, this experience.

I’ve often wondered how that little town came to be so nasty. Partly, I’ve assumed, it’s because a large fundamentalist church run by a group of tiny-minded little Bible-college preachers pretty much runs the town. But friends who know more of the history of this county than I do tell me that, after Emancipation in the 19th Century, as freed slaves left the nearby plantations and went looking for land, and homes, this little town put up signs telling black people to move on, that they weren’t welcome. Why am I not surprised? This nasty little town has been a nasty little town for 150 years. It has nursed its hatred and racism for that long. It even has a white “militia” now to police itself. The militia even has a booth at the county fair.

This nasty little town remains pretty much segregated. I just ran the numbers and found that black voters are 1 percent of the population. Compare that with the nearby city of Winston-Salem, which is 35 percent African-American. What does it take to keep a little Southern town segregated? Nasty people, nasty churches, nasty politics, and nasty words for anyone who is seen as a threat to 150 years of nastiness. The name of this nasty little town is King, North Carolina. I apologize to the good people who live in this town. There certainly are some, and some of them are friends, but they’re a minority.

On the ground here in the rural South, election season is a tough time. Two weeks ago, in an adjoining (but also Republican) county, I went with my brother into an auto parts store to get some things we needed to hook up a TV antenna for our sister. The printer for the cash register was down, and while one of the guys behind the counter was working to fix it, a small cluster of customers was waiting to check out. A typical loudmouth Republican — white, male, and dumb as the brake shoes he was buying — based on no context that I was aware of, made a racist comment about President Obama, loud enough for all to hear. I looked away and ignored it. Then he made another racist comment about President Obama.

“Careful,” I said. “There might be Democrats in the room.”

He responded with a sexist comment about Hillary Clinton. Now one of the men behind the counter joined in.

“I just walk away if somebody says something I don’t like,” the man behind the counter said.

“Yeah, I just walk away,” said the man who had made the racist comment about President Obama.

“You’re not walking away,” I say. “You’re just standing there throwing out insults.”

My brother, embarrassed, told me to shut up. I can’t say that I blame him. He’s a Democrat, but he has to live with, and keep the peace with, these idiots. Whereas I can’t take it anymore.

Every morning, in front of my computer, I check my usual sources of news and commentary looking for something helpful and intelligent about what is going on in this country and what we might be able to do about it. I’m usually disappointed in the quality of the commentary. Our public intellectuals are as frustrated and dumbfounded as I am. Because I’m exasperated, one piece that has stuck in my mind is Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post on Oct. 21. Trump, Milbank says, mustn’t just be defeated. He also must be humiliated, out of respect for the American democracy, which Trump obviously abhors and to which he is a grave danger.

Even before Trump, I was fed up. I am fed up with racist, hateful, ignorant white people. I am fed up with their politics. I am fed up with what comes out of their mouths. I am fed up with their religion. I try to channel my fed-upness into useful political work. If I ever truly told them what I think of them — and what they truly need to be told — I wouldn’t survive long. These people, increasingly, live right on the edge of violence. A part of the danger of Donald Trump is that he encourages the anger and the violence.

It is sometimes said that the old white people who support Trump idolize the 1950s as a golden age, and that basically what they want is to return to the golden age of the white ignorati. If only there was something like the ghosts who visited Ebenezer Scrooge, who would spirit these tiny-minded white people off on a trip around the country in the 1950s — and the planet — to see what life was like for hundreds of millions of other people. For many, it was not a golden age. It was a hell. No wonder the voiceless and powerless rose up. No wonder the 1960s happened. No wonder the Civil Rights Act happened, or gay liberation, or the women’s movement. Even white young males like me felt smothered by all that, and we threw it off. I’m a child of the ’60s. In our retirement and old age, we children of the ’60s seem to be having our last battle with the children of the ’50s. We children of the ’60s will win, too. Because we’re younger, and our children are younger.

If the miserable year 2016 is about anything, it’s about the ongoing project of throwing off the dark side of the 1950s, forever. I expect to live to see it. But the ’50s’ last stand is turning out to be the ugliest period of my fairly long life.


  1. Well, thanks for that! You’ve crystalized my own depression about the state of our nation this year. Sometimes I think we can’t survive this. You’re more sensible, and I appreciate it!

    Friday, October 28, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  2. Dan wrote:

    I was hoping you would say the name of the town. I looked it up, and sure enough I was close about how big it was. About 6,000. Where I live, small towns around 5,000 residents are plentiful, and most residents tend to be Republican. These are the kinds of towns where everybody knows everybody else, football and hunting are king, camouflage is fashionable, and being a Republican is a sign of intelligence. My state has gotten so “red” I don’t know if there is any coming back from it.

    Friday, October 28, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Henry wrote:

    I am sorry you had to experience that in your retirement, in your beautiful home area…but we all know it still exists, even in California in the town where I live. Be careful of those ugly people they tend to strike and not think.

    Friday, October 28, 2016 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

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