Courtland Milloy: Congressmen show grace, restraint in the face of disrespect

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; B01

I know how the "tea party" people feel, the anger, venom and bile that many of them showed during the recent House vote on health-care reform. I know because I want to spit on them, take one of their "Obama Plan White Slavery" signs and knock every racist and homophobic tooth out of their Cro-Magnon heads.

I am sick of these people -- and those who make excuses for them and their victim-whiner mentality.

They aren't racists, the apologists say. They just don't like deficits and government takeover of health care. So what does using vile epithets for black or gay congressmen have to do with that? The tea party people didn't refer to white Democrats using racial epithets. No one yelled "white trash" or "redneck cracker" at any of those congressmen. And none of their own ever stands up and declares that such practices are morally wrong.

Reps. John L. Lewis (D-Ga.), Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Missouri), James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and others deserve a hats off for their restraint and composure.

Cleaver told me: "I said to this one person, 'You spat on me.' I thought he was going to say, 'Hey, I was yelling. Sorry.' But he continuing yelling and, for a few seconds, I pointed at him and said, 'You spat on me.' "

How about pointing and declaring: "Spit in my face, fist in yours"? But that's just me.

Cleaver, 66, is a Methodist minister who organized the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a civil rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy).

Cleaver grew up in a house in Texas that had been used as a slave cabin only one generation before, became a congressman serving on the House committee on Homeland Security -- and gets spit in the face from some tea party racist.

And he refuses to press charges, no less.

"I would prefer to believe that the man who allowed his saliva to hit my face was irrational for a moment," Cleaver said.

Have mercy. The preacher walks the walk.

"What I saw on their faces, on the signs, what I was hearing, made me think, 'This is not about health care,' " said Clyburn, 70, who is House majority whip. The son of a minister from Sumter, S.C., he also serves as leader of the House Democrats' Faith Working Group.

"It reminds me of that period in our history right after Reconstruction," Clyburn said, "when South Carolina had a black governor and the political gains were lost because of vigilantism, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan."

Of course, black people are not supposed to have such memories. Forgive -- and forget; that's what we are supposed to do. See, we live in post-racial America now, with a black president and all. So, if anybody is racist, it's black people.

The esteemed Stuart Taylor all but said as much in a 2008 column he wrote for the National Journal.

After discounting the racism at campaign rallies for the Republican presidential ticket, Taylor concluded, "The ugliest race-tinged comment by any prominent leader during this campaign came not from a Republican but from Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat. . . . Lewis accused McCain and Palin on October 11 of 'sowing the seeds of hatred and division,' likening them to George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who created an 'atmosphere of hate [in which] four little girls were killed.' Lewis should be ashamed of himself."

So, here we are, nearly two years later, and Lewis is walking a two-block gauntlet of white hate from the Capitol to the Cannon House Office Building. A racial epithet spews from a crowd being restrained by Capitol Police.

"It reminded me of photographs I saw of the jeering crowds when Central High was being integrated by the Little Rock 9 in 1957," said Lewis, 70, a civil rights veteran and one of the nation's most distinguished advocates for justice and racial quality.

"It also reminded me of the angry demeanor of white people when a group of us were being arrested in February 1960 in Nashville, during a civil rights demonstration. As we were being led to a police van, people lined the streets just like they were at the Capitol, and they were yelling 'The niggers are coming!' and 'Go back to Africa!' "

There he goes again, remembering.

Makes me mad as hell.

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