Ghosts of Tuscaloosa
Two bookends of my life passed away this year. I never met either, and it�s a sure bet they never met each other.
Raw-boned and country-mean, Robert M. Shelton, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, came to symbolize the very spectre of the Klan. However, when he first came my way, Shelton was a mere acolyte of the murderous Tuscaloosa Knights.
It was my misfortune to have been born in the Druid City. Tuscaloosa was also the home of the imperial wizard. One particularly dark Tuscaloosa night of my childhood, a caravan of Klansmen passed through our neighborhood. I was naive and quite intrigued by the burning fagots carried by the men in white hoods. My parents cowered with us until the parade passed on to God knows where.
Weeks after the Klan march, a fresh anxiety settled over the adults after dusk. There were exceptions. Chief among them was my Uncle Edward, known throughout the city as Deadwood Dick and within the family as "Brother." He was not a candidate for the kowtow.
This game of the kowtow is what the cowardly Shelton and his United Klans of America were really all about. Terror was their tactic. A master organizer, Shelton tooted his horn about the "niggras," and the half-wits would pour in from miles around. Not content with burning wooden crosses in open fields, Shelton would seek out poor, unarmed black proletarian families and make an example of them.
The death of the imperial wizard in March reminded me of Tuscaloosa and the state-supported terror that conditioned whites into a false sense of superiority and Negroes into a false sense of inferiority. For every such oppressive action, thank God, there is an equal and opposite reaction. What Alabama�and thus America�conditioned in blacks with its superstructure of apartheid, my generation was able to undo with a resort to civil disobedience, suffering and study at the lamp.
In my case, the discovery that classroom curriculum is so much hooey and propaganda was the beginning of wisdom. Such boilerplate would today condition one to believe that President George W. Bush is bent on liberating the people of Iraq instead of discerning his true motive: the devastation of a sovereign, almost defenseless Arab nation whose oil he covets and whose wealth he seeks to control.
A key early reward for independent study in my case was the discovery of the extraordinary historian Herbert Aptheker. Aptheker had written harmlessly enough on World War II, a subject not unfamiliar to me as a minor in history at the University of Connecticut. Still, I had found his touch nowhere in any book. During Gen. Dwight Eisenhower�s precarious stance during the Battle of the Bulge, Negro soldiers were rushed out of their segregated service units to counter attack the Nazis� blistering assault.
Unlike school-board approved historians, Aptheker told the African American side of the military. He detailed how, in the war to make the world safe for democracy, Uncle Sam trained blacks at inferior, segregated camps and restricted them to all-Negro units that drove trucks, treated the wounded and dug latrines for white soldiers. Yet, when the white troops got overrun in the hedgerows of Germany, black volunteers were courageous, albeit poorly trained, in beating back the Weirmacht.
The war pamphlet led me to another Aptheker pamphlet on "Negro Slave Revolts." I knew of only one�Nat Turner�s. Often I had wondered why, despite the brutal white slaughter of aggressive slaves, there had been only one revolt. Aptheker set the record straight: There had been many revolts, far more than America wanted impressionable young Blacks to know about.
Hooked on such penetrating scholarship, I sought out such Aptheker books as "Documentary History," "Anti-Racism in U.S. History" and "History of the American People." In due course, I discovered that Aptheker was a protege of an even greater scholar, historian, activist and intellect�W.E.B. DuBois. Led to this mentor by his student, I was doubly rewarded with the prodigious outpouring of DuBois books, pamphlets, magazine articles and newspaper columns, all of which, as the literary executor of his estate, Aptheker has published in a rewarding 37-volume set.
Aptheker, at 87, died the same day as 73-year-old Shelton. The world lost one of its great intellectual lights, and Tuscaloosa lost a damnable fool.
By Les Payne