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A Racist World, Described by Those Who Knew It

Listening from the side of the store, Angelou reflected on the Klansmen. “The ‘boys’? Those cement faces and eyes of hate that burned the clothes off you if they happened to see you lounging on the main street downtown on Saturday. Boys? It seemed youth had never happened to them. Boys? No, rather men who were covered with graves’ dust and age without beauty or learning. The ugliness and rottenness of old abominations.”

And Angelou was, in a way, just as furious about the sheriff’s condescension, the blithe evil of warning the innocent to “lay low.” “If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff’s act of kindness, I would be unable to say anything in his behalf,” she wrote. “His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan’s coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear.”

Her uncle did hide. What choice did he have? Angelou, her brother and her grandmother covered Willie in potatoes and vegetables inside the store’s storage bins. The night passed without incident — the Klansmen did not call — but if they had, Angelou wrote, “they would have surely found Uncle Willie and just as surely lynched him.”


Richard Wright in 1945.

Associated Press

The realities of the segregated world of Angelou’s childhood were lyrically captured in 1941 by Richard Wright in “Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.” It was the year after he’d published the novel “Native Son,” and a publisher wanted text to accompany a series of photographs of African-Americans from the archives of the New Deal’s Farm Credit Administration. Wright took on the task, referring to members of the white power structure as the “Lords of the Land”: “And we cannot fight back; we have no arms; we cannot vote; and the law is white. There are no black policemen, black justices of the peace, black judges, black juries, black jailers, black mayors, or black men anywhere in the government of the South … This is the way the Lords of the Land keep their power. For them life is a continuous victory; for us it is simply trouble in the land.”

That victory was made possible, Wright noted, by appeals to poor whites for whom color was everything since they had nothing else. “Sometimes, fleetingly, like a rainbow that comes and vanishes in its coming,” he wrote, “the wan faces of the poor whites make us think that perhaps we can join our hands with them and lift the weight of the Lords of the Land off our backs. But, before new meanings can bridge the chasm that has been long created between us, the poor whites are warned by the Lords of the Land that they must cast their destiny with their own color, that to make common cause with us is to threaten the foundations of civilization.”

Two decades later, in the 1960s, Gov. George Corley Wallace Jr. of Alabama was one of the most effective practitioners of the politics of division Wright had described in the 1940s. After rising to fame by trying to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, Wallace ran for president in 1964 and again in 1968 (he was shot during a third bid in 1972) and found receptive audiences among alienated working-class whites far beyond the South. In Marshall Frady’s compelling biography “Wallace,” an unnamed moderate Alabama politician says that what Wallace is “ trying to do in the nation is what he’s managed to do in Alabama. When you draw the line the way he does, the whites go with the white, and the blacks with the black, and when that happens, you’re in for warfare.” Frady then quotes “a former Alabama senator,” who adds: “It’s conceivable that he could win a state like Illinois or even California when he puts the hay down where the goats can get at it. He can use all the other issues — law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights — and never mention race. But people will know … What Wallace is doing is talking to them in a kind of shorthand, a kind of code.” It is not difficult to draw a line between Wallace and the current president of the United States. With a large and important distinction: Trump speaks from the White House.

In “The Inner Conflict,” Warren mused about the path forward. “We have to deal with the problem our historical moment proposes, the burden of our time,” he wrote. “We all live with a thousand unsolved problems of justice all the time. We don’t even recognize a lot of them. We have to deal only with those which the moment proposes to us … All we can do for posterity is to try to plug along in a way to make them think we — the old folks — did the best we could for justice, as we could understand it.” Doing the best we can requires looking back, but, as Warren noted, we’ll all be judged not by the past but what we make of it in disheartening moments — moments like our own.

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