Hatred on its Last Legs
As I write this, I have just passed the minute Monday morning (9 February) when I became exactly 48 years old. No presents have arrived yet, but it’s likely that I won’t be getting the two items I’ve been asking for in recent years – a mid-range iPod and a Kansas City Monarchs (Negro League) baseball cap. If anyone can spare such items, I’m still open to receiving.
But, as I’ve also frequently done throughout the last couple of decades, I’ve just spent a few hours reflecting on a message spoken on the 1963 day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The speaker was Chet Huntley, co-anchor of the evening newscast on NBC-TV. That night, Huntley took a minute and 17 seconds to deliver the comments that follow; the comments did not make much of an impression at the time, and I first learned of them in 1988, when the A&E Network replayed NBC’s tapes from that hideous day. Huntley’s thoughts were:
“It’s a logical assumption that hatred – far-left, far-right, political, religious, economic or paranoiac – moved the person or persons who today committed this combined act of murder and national sabotage. There is in this country, and there has been for too long, an ominous and sickening popularity of hatred. The body of the President, lying at this moment in Washington, is the thundering testimony of what hatred comes to and the revolting excesses it perpetrates.
“Hatred is self-generating, contagious, it feeds upon itself and explodes into violence. It is no inexplicable phenomenon that there are pockets of hatred in our country, areas and communities where the disease is permitted or encouraged or given status by those who can and do influence others.
“You and I have heard, in recent months, someone say, ‘Those Kennedy’s ought to be shot.’ A well-known national magazine [The National Review] recently carried an article saying that Chief Justice [Earl] Warren should be hanged. In its own defense, it said it was only joking. But the left has been equally bad.
“Tonight, it might be the hope and the resolve of all of us that we’ve heard the last of this kind of talk, jocular or serious, for the result is tragically the same.”
Relatively few people today even recall what Chet Huntley looked and sounded like; he retired from NBC News in 1970 and died of cancer a couple of years after that. And the disease he spoke of that night has yet to be eradicated. Many of the names discussed every February, Black History Month, fell at its hands. Before JFK, there were Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and after JFK there were Civil Rights activists named Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney. For the very same reason, Malcolm X once told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We’re both dead men;” within months he was proven right.
The list merely begins there. There’s also President Kennedy’s brother Robert and Dr. King’s own mother. Chilean folk singer Victor Jara and many Cambodian pop singers of the 1960s and 1970s were murdered by their governments for making the wrong sounds. Olof Palme, the former Swedish premier, enacted the wrong legislation. Steven Biko supported the wrong regime change. One jerk considered George Moscone guilty of both.
Not all of the disease’s victims are commonly recalled. Who among us remembers Allard Lowenstein or Ruben Salazar? On the other hand, if I need to remind you of Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard, you’re obviously reading the wrong newspaper. In the two decades since A&E reran Huntley’s comments, Chet’s former industry has largely been turned over by its administrative string pullers to creatures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and a local species of vermin who trades under the misnomer “Jon Justice,” all of whom make their daily bread by misguiding our neighbors into what H.L. Mencken once described as “the courage of their prejudices.” Resultantly, the stock values of the industry’s companies have plummeted down a bottomless hole.
After all of this, I must make mention of a small incident from last week which has given me a tremendous level of hope that the disease is within range of a cure. In the year of my birth, 1961, a young African-American civil rights activist named John Lewis was beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for sitting down at a “Whites Only” bus station lunch counter. One of the men who beat him was Elwin Wilson, who’d hung a black doll in a noose from the tree in his front yard.
Last month, the Rock Hill Herald got a phone call from a couple of men who had just read one of that paper’s articles, about local civil rights activists’ reactions to President Obama’s inauguration. One of the callers was Elwin Wilson, and they expressed their desire to apologize to the activists for their violence of 48 years ago. The Herald documented the men breaking bread at another diner which had been “Whites only” in ’61. But Elwin Wilson didn’t stop there. Last week, Wilson also personally apologized to John Lewis, who is now a member of Congress, representing a section of the Atlanta Metropolitan area. Wilson extended his apology at Lewis’ Congressional office in Washington.
It is little events like these that lead me to paraphrase Dr. King’s last public speech and believe the Promised Land is within sight for us LesBiGays, too. And I’m also led to directly quote another victim of an assassin’s bullets, John Lennon, in the very words that his assassin had earlier mocked him for singing: You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.
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