Problematic Thoughts 02 - Historical Regret

By Doctor Comrade

Earlier this week, I wrote a Handsy Miniature post about the students of McGuffey High School in Pennsylvania harassing LGBT students by participating in "Anti-Gay Day" in response to the school's observance of the national Day of Silence the week before. What has continued to bother me about these events has been my deeply held belief that eventually these students will probably be remorseful and come to regret their treatment of their classmates.

On Monday, students at Pennsylvania's McGuffey High School organized an Anti-Gay Day and harassed LGBT students in response to the school's Gay-Straight Alliance observing the National Day of Silence the previous week. They allegedly bullied students on Instagram with Bible verses, and posted anti-gay fliers on other students’ lockers. They dressed in flannel to showcase their supposed solidarity against the “gay lifestyle.”

Many parallels have been drawn between the struggle for gay rights and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s (including by me—in a post in which I replaced words from famous segregationist speeches with contemporary concerns about same-sex marriage), so this seems like an opportune moment to pause and reflect on the historical ramifications of bigotry lived out in public schools.

An article from Slate may put it in a new perspective for you. It's an excerpt from David Margolick's book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which traces the struggles of two young women, one white and one black, during and after desegregation. The white girl, Hazel Bryan Massery, in one of the most infamous photographs of the era, snarls at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, after Eckford had been turned away from her school by the Arkansas National Guard. In the years that followed, Hazel regretted her actions and attempted to apologize, even going so far as to defend African Americans against racism in her family, befriending Elizabeth, and engaging in volunteer activities in the black community.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Being in that crowd that morning, making a ruckus, out-shouting all of her friends, was a way of getting noticed, and far more exciting than going into class. She’d thought nothing would come of what she’d done, and nothing ever would have had she not been captured in mid-epithet by Will Counts, a young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat.

If anyone in the picture, which reverberated throughout the world that day and in history books ever since, should feel aggrieved, it’s of course Elizabeth Eckford....

Paradoxically, it’s been Hazel, who has led a life of far greater financial and familial security, who now feels wounded and angry. Someone who once embodied racial intolerance feels victimized by another form of prejudice, in which good deeds go unappreciated, forgiveness cannot possibly be won, and public statements of contrition breed only resentment and ridicule.

But Hazel Bryan Massery was curious, and reflective. Tuning in her primitive Philco with the rabbit ears her father had bought her, she heard the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and saw those black protesters getting hot coffee and ketchup poured on their heads at segregated lunch counters or being routed by fire hoses and German shepherds. Such scenes brought home to her the reality of racial hatred, and of her own small but conspicuous contribution to it. One day, she realized, her children would learn that that snarling girl in their history books was their mother. She realized she had an account to settle.…

Still, Hazel never stopped thinking about the picture and making amends for it. She severed what had been her ironclad ties to an intolerant church. She taught mothering skills to unmarried black women, and took underprivileged black teenagers on field trips. She frequented the black history section at the local Barnes & Noble, buying books by Cornel West and Shelby Steele and the companion volume to Eyes on the Prize. She’d argue with her mother on racial topics, defending relatives who’d intermarried.

Though her story has since become much more complicated, I think it adequately demonstrates the feelings of regret that eventually accompanied her feelings of hatred. She now feels aggrieved because people haven't recognized that she has changed, and she feels as though she is the victim of a history that has left the only popular representation of her, that photograph, to a narrative of anti-violence. She is powerless to change her place in history; she has been reduced to just another southern bigot in a long tale of southern bigotry. And that is perhaps the only way she will be remembered.

Audio clip of George Wallace

This clip comes from the 1963 inaugural speech of George Wallace, then the newly-elected governor of Alabama. It is remarkable not only because of its unabashed vitriol, but also because of the anti-government discourse embedded in Wallace’s rhetoric. He believed, as homophobes and conservatives today believe, that attempts to prevent segregation and discrimination infringed upon the liberty of the oppressors. Desegregation of schools, and of public spaces in general, indicated the possible end of a racial caste system that had pervaded white consciousness for centuries. Similarly, widespread awareness of violence against queer people, which the National Day of Silence hopes to achieve, will also spell the end of homophobia as an acceptable form of social discourse.

In 1991, Wallace gave an interview to the Washington Post in which he expressed profound regret over having declared, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

"I never should have said it, because it wasn't true," said Wallace…. He says he realized in 1964, a year into his first term as governor, that racial segregation could not survive.

"I saw then that a house divided could not stand – that black and white people had to live with each other," he said.

Then why, I asked him, did he say "segregation forever"? Why did he stand in the door to block the admission of two black youngsters to the University of Alabama? Why in his 1970 campaign did he run ads saying, "Unless whites vote on June 2, blacks will control the state"?

"When I first ran for governor ... I had to stand up for segregation or be defeated, but I never insulted black people by calling them inferior," he said. "That statement in 1963 about 'segregation forever' and my stand in the classroom door reflected my vehemence, my belligerence, against the federal court system that seemed to be taking over everything in the South. I didn't write those words about segregation now, tomorrow and forever. I saw them in the speech written for me and planned to skip over them. But the wind-chill factor was 5 below zero when I gave that speech. I started reading just to get it over and read those words without thinking. I have regretted it all my life."

...

Wallace gave me a computer printout of the 1974 gubernatorial election returns, which show him getting a whopping majority of black votes, and he gave me a Birmingham News-University of Alabama poll indicating that 74 percent of blacks regarded him as "the best governor the state ever had." He also talked about the politics of race across America, saying Ronald Reagan had used tactics of divisiveness to install "a tax structure that is the most crippling system in the country... . The rich got richer while the poor and the middle class didn't get anything at all."

"I don't support white supremacy," Wallace told me. "I'm the one who made them take 'white supremacy' off the roster that was the symbol of the Democratic Party in this state."

"I did nothing worse than Lyndon Johnson," he continued. "He was for segregation when he thought he had to be. I was for segregation, and I was wrong. The media has rehabilitated Johnson, why won't it rehabilitate me?"

Wallace, like Hazel, is considering his historical legacy, urging audiences to consider history in its longue durée. Their regret inspires them to appeal to their lifespans rather than any particular moment. Their introspection animates a desire to be understood as something different from the racism of their past. Their guilt prods them to enunciate a kind of temporal dislocation that removes them from associations with the past.

I think in 20 or 50 years, these homophobic kids will be haunted by their actions and the terrible things they did to classmates, and their photographs will live on in the internet archive for the rest of their lives. They will be ashamed, they will resent their parents and the terrible society that raised them to be so hateful. They will feel victimized by their own intolerance and bigotry. Most importantly, they'll feel guilty and aggrieved, and maybe some of them will even change their minds and become activists or raise their children differently. Nothing is inevitable except the march of time, and time is certainly ticking away on homophobia.

Please let me know what you think of this episode. Find me on twitter @screaminvegan or email the show at handsycompexam@gmail.com. You can follow my co-host Hannah on twitter and Instagram @hans_labyrinth. Like the show on facebook at facebook.com/handsycomprehensiveexam. If you liked the music, you can find my other work at soundcloud.com/disciplinary-boundaries. Thanks again for listening and remember to follow the blog at handsycomprehensiveexam.com.