In the faces of Tea Party shouters, images of hate and history

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 27, 2010; A13

The angry faces at Tea Party rallies are eerily familiar. They resemble faces of protesters lining the street at the University of Alabama in 1956 as Autherine Lucy, the school's first black student, bravely tried to walk to class.

Those same jeering faces could be seen gathered around the Arkansas National Guard troopers who blocked nine black children from entering Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.

"They moved closer and closer," recalled Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. "Somebody started yelling, 'Lynch her! Lynch her!' I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd -- someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me."

Those were the faces I saw at a David Duke rally in Metairie, La., in 1991: sullen with resentment, wallowing in victimhood, then exploding with yells of excitement as the ex-Klansman and Republican gubernatorial candidate spewed vitriolic white-power rhetoric.

People like that old woman in Little Rock, the Alabama mob that hounded Autherine Lucy, the embracers of Duke's demagoguery in Louisiana, never go away.

They were spotted last weekend on Capitol Hill under the Tea Party banner protesting the health-care-reform bill. Some carried a signs that read "If Brown [Scott Brown (R-Mass.)] can't stop it, a Browning [high power weapon] can." Some shouted racial and homophobic epithets at members of Congress. Others assumed the role of rabble, responding to the calls of instigating Republican representatives gathered on a Capitol balcony.

Tea Party members, as with their forerunners who showed up at the University of Alabama and Central High School, behave as they do because they have been culturally conditioned to believe they are entitled to do whatever they want, and to whomever they want, because they are the "real Americans," while all who don't think or look like them are not.

And they are consequential. Without folks like them, there would be no Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity or Pat Buchanan. There would never have been a George Corley Wallace, the Alabama governor dubbed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter in a 2008 Slate article as "the godfather, avatar of a national uprising against the three G's of government, Godlessness, and gun control."

Hence, an explanation for the familiarity of faces: today's Tea Party adherents are George Wallace legacies.

They, like Wallace's followers, smolder with anger. They fear they are being driven from their rightful place in America.

They see the world through the eyes of the anti-civil rights alumni. "Washington, D.C." now, as then, is regarded as the Great Satan. This is the place that created the civil rights laws that were shoved down their throats. This is the birthplace of their much-feared "Big Government" and the playground of the "elite national news media."

And they are faithful to the old Wallace playbook.

McWhorter wrote how Wallace, in a 1963 speech to the political arm of Alabama's Ku Klux Klan, "referred to the recent bombings in Birmingham against prominent black citizens, citing the lack of fatalities as proof that the 'nigras' were throwing the dynamite themselves in order to attract publicity and money."

Fast-forward to today. Note the pro-Tea Party conservative commentary debunking last weekend's racist and homophobic slurs as a work of fiction and exaggeration strictly for political reasons. Noticeable, too, is the influence of George Wallace, Limbaugh, Beck and their followers on outcomes.

The angry '50s and '60s crowds threatened and intimidated; some among them even murdered. That notwithstanding, Americans of goodwill gathered in the White House to witness the signing of landmark civil rights laws.

Schoolhouse doors were blocked, and little children were demeaned. Yet the bigots didn't get the last word. Justice rolled down like a mighty river, sweeping them aside.

They insulted, abused, lied and vandalized. Still, President Obama fulfilled his promise to sign historic health-care reform into law by the end of his first term.

Those angry faces won't go away. But neither can they stand in the way of progress.

The mobs of yesteryear were on the wrong side of history. Tea Party supporters and their right-wing fellow travelers are on the wrong side now. It shows up in their faces.


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