Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The KKK 'not so much a racist thing', and other harmful myths

State Rep. Tommy Benton, who has represented Georgia's 31st State House District for the last decade, believes that the KKK -- by its own account created "to maintain forever the God-given supremacy of the white race" -- “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order. ... It made a lot of people straighten up.”

He said that this week. In 2016.

As to "law and order", does he mean like this?

It sure made poor Charlie Hale "straighten up." Look at him dangling from a noose outside the Gwinnett County courthouse in Lawrenceville in 1911. The sign at his feet reads "Please Do Not Wake." The photo comes from a postcard created and sold to commemorate the event. (As I've mentioned before, my own grandfather was a KKK member in West Virginia.)

Benton further informs us that the Civil War was not fought over slavery and that the Confederacy was founded for noble purposes that deserve to be honored. That would certainly come as news to men such as Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy who hailed from Taliaferro County, just three counties over from Benton's home in Jackson County. In his 1861 Cornerstone Speech, Stephens tells the world -- and tells us still today -- that the "peculiar institution African slavery" "was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

"Our new government is founded upon ... its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

Benton taught middle-school history for 30 years, retiring in 2004. A lot of impressionable minds went through his classroom in those 30 years. Today, he is a member of the state Legislature, making laws and policy on behalf of the people of Georgia.

It's not exactly a secret that people still think the way that Benton does, although some would like to pretend it is. They would like to pretend that racism is yesterday's problem, that in government and business and education it no longer has the power to twist minds and distort outcomes. Some would even have us believe that the biggest obstacle to racial harmony are those who dare to suggest that racism still exists.

Earlier this week, Jeremy Spencer, a top official in the state Department of Education, was forced to resign over bigoted material was discovered on his Facebook page. Some had been posted by Spencer himself, in which he targeted gays, Muslims and black people.

In the most egregious example, Spencer had posted an anti-Obama cartoon. In response, somebody posted this:

And that's what's most troubling. Spencer apparently lives in a world in which such things are socially acceptable. No warning bells went off in his head, no thoughts that this might be out of line for a high-ranking, well-paid state official. He felt safe, he thought it was OK. If his colleagues at the Department of Education saw the page -- if his brother, a state representative, saw the page -- they apparently didn't advise him of how totally inappropriate it was.

And if we're going to be honest, such public eruptions of racism have to be considered just the tip of the iceberg. From them, you have to infer the presence of a lot of such sentiment that doesn't find public expression, but that nonetheless exerts a powerful influence. You can fool yourselves into believing otherwise, just as Benton believes that the KKK "was not so much a racist thing."

But the facts argue otherwise.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.