The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

March 18, 2013

James R. Wheeler, guest columnist: Bigotry, racism remain ugly reminders of 1961

JOPLIN, Mo. — While reading Henry “Bud” Morgan’s incisive and inspiring column on the Voting Rights Act (Globe, March 10), I realized something significant that he didn’t mention, likely because of lack of space.

The Montgomery, Ala., chief of police who apologized to civil rights icon John Lewis on behalf of his department — a department that was grossly and intentionally derelict in its duty in 1961 — had not yet even been born when a white mob brutally attacked and injured Lewis and other peaceful bus riders.

I wonder how many people from Chief Kevin Murphy’s generation and those subsequent are, unlike him, unaware of what that era was like? I’m betting there are many.

Bigotry and racial discrimination are not dead, and it seems to me that the election (and re-election) of the nation’s first black president has, strangely enough, caused a resurgence of such racist passions.

Recently I received an email forwarded by one of my 1959 Naval Academy classmates, with copies to all the others still alive from my long-ago company.

Appealing to patriotism, it decried an apparent act of disrespect by President Obama at a Medal of Honor ceremony, accusing him of placing the honoree’s family in the third row behind political dignitaries. Someone put a lot of labor into this smear, mixing clips of military bravery and combat with glimpses appearing to show the president being disrespectful.

One showed Obama with his hands folded, apparently ignoring the flag while officers around him saluted. This has been shown to be a fraud by the online site, Snopes.com. The ceremony was one where the president was not supposed to salute because of protocol — they were playing “Hail to the Chief” and not addressing the flag.

It took some research and several tries, but I did find and send to my classmates a photo clearly showing the honoree’s parents in the front row at the ceremony. Someone knowingly went to a lot of trouble to creatively construct this hoax: some bigot inflamed by racial hatred.

As the Supreme Court now debates whether the Voting Rights Act has served its purpose and should now be scrapped, I can only join Bud in hoping that the justices will be circumspect about bigotry that’s still rife.

And for young people who may be unaware of what things were really like in 1961, I highly recommend two old, superbly made movies: “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Mississippi Burning.”

James R. Wheeler lives in Joplin.

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