Richard Reeves

Which Side Are You On?

PARIS -- Newspapers around the world have reprinted and focused on a story that appeared June 8 in The Observer in London about deep-seated racism in rural America. The headline:

"Democrats in Rural Strongholds Refuse to Give Backing to Obama."

A man named Johnny Telvor of Williamson, W.Va., is the star of the piece, offering a string of quotes about how he is a Democrat who will vote for Sen. John McCain in November for the very simple reason that Barack Obama is black. He's a colorful talker, this Telvor, saying:

If Obama wins: "We'll end up slaves just like they was once slaves."

On McCain: "McCain will win here. No doubt about it. ... At least he's an American."

Then the writer, Paul Harris, comes upon Jack Spence, a retiree sitting on a street bench, who says: "I can't vote for a Republican. My daddy would just roll over in his grave."

So, Spence says he just won't vote because he's not going to vote for Obama. Harris asks whether there is anything Obama could say that might change his mind. Spence answers: "Nope!"

Then he adds that it doesn't matter anyway. Why? "Look, someone will kill him. Whoever Obama picks as running mate will end up being president."

Then Harris goes to Pikeville, Ky., where a maintenance man, Stanley Little, says he is a Democrat, too, but that "McCain is one of us. Obama ain't."

Are these folks for real? I suppose they are, my fellow Americans, although I did try to find the loquacious Mr. Telvor without any luck. The name does not appear in any of the standard directories -- superpages.com and all that. A call to the local newspaper, the Williamson Daily News, did not produce anyone who had ever heard the name Telvor in that town of just 3,000 or so people. Then I was assured that "Everyone knows everyone around here."

(There are more than 40 John or Jack Spences listed in West Virginia and 14 Stanley Littles in Kentucky. But I was unable to find the quoted ones.)

Anyway, all Americans of a certain age have heard all of this before -- and we tend to think there is a lot less of it than there used to be. I also believe nutty talk like this, and the characters who spout it, will actually end up helping, not hurting, Obama's chances to be president.

One of the things that pushed civil rights ahead in the 1960s was that many Americans were stunned to see and hear -- via that new medium, television -- what our brothers under the flag looked like and said back then. Most Americans now are probably too young to remember the words and faces of smug, smiling and violent white Jim Crow Southerners. But images of almost forgotten men -- such as the politicians Ross Barnett and Paul Johnson of Mississippi, Lester Maddox of Georgia and George Wallace of Alabama; and the lawmen, Cecil Price and Lawrence Rainey of Philadelphia, Miss., and Bull Connor of Birmingham and the snarling dogs he set on black children -- opened American minds to the racists among us.

Rather suddenly, the more naive of us were forced to watch our fellow Americans in action against other Americans of a different color. We wanted to look away, but we couldn't. Part of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. was drawing attention to these folks and of crafting a rhetoric of American values, using the great words of our founding (and of the Bible) to ask which side we were on. Many of us, beginning with two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, chose to stand with the minority.

We had to. Americans are people whose self-image depends on believing they are doing the right thing. The United States is not geography or the product of thousands of years of bloody history. America is an idea; it is in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the words of Lincoln and of Martin Luther King. You become an American by signing on to those ideas -- or that is at least the way we want to see ourselves.

In the end, if the most ignorant kind of racism comes to the fore in this campaign -- and it probably will -- I doubt that we as a nation are going to choose to stand with the Johnny Telvors.

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