The Least of These

Ed King's Face, Joan Baez, and George Wallace

From the documentary: <i>George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire</i>
From the documentary: George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire

Sometime in the fall of 1963 a psychology professor fell into step beside me as I crossed the campus of Mississippi College, the small Baptist school where I was beginning my senior year. I did not know the man well, had never studied with him, but in such places names and faces were generally familiar to everyone. He spoke quietly, and though I've long forgotten his exact words, his comment to me went something like this. "Some of us on the faculty know of your views, and I wanted to let you know that a group of students from Millsaps will be meeting with students at Tougaloo to discuss some student activities." He gave me the date and time of the gathering and said if I wished to attend the meeting it would be at the home of the Tougaloo College Chaplain, Rev. Ed King.

The remark about "my views" was a coded reference to the fact that in the previous year I had written a letter to the campus newspaper, a weekly four-pager, criticizing -- condemning, I hoped -- specific actions by Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. Those actions had led, I believed, to violence that saturated the campus of the University of Mississippi when the school was integrated by Mr. James Meredith. The president of my college allowed one letter in rebuttal of my comments after informing the editor that if any further material related to "non-campus matters" were published the paper would be shut down. I had also been known to argue in public places on matters related to race relations, to what I believed were the illegal, immoral, and evil aspects of racial segregation. Small acts, in those times, could mark one as having "views."

But having views and attending meetings at Tougaloo were different things. The historically black college, located just northwest of Jackson, my home, was the center of civil rights activism in central Mississippi. Though it was no more than 10 or 15 miles from Mississippi College, there was no interaction, no communication, no recognition, really, of anything resembling mutual concerns. Indeed, like most white people in the state, I still mispronounced the name of the college as "Tugaloo," rather than the correct "Toogaloo" I would soon adopt.

It was with considerable nervousness, then, that my wife and I drove onto the campus some weeks later, asked directions to Rev. King's residence, and stepped onto the porch of his home.

People married earlier then, especially in the Deep South, in communities defined by religion and cultural restraint as well as by history. Among the very many reasons I realized I would marry Sara Mitchell, with whom I continue to share life, as early as possible, was that when I told her that previous year of the letter I felt I should write about Barnett she immediately agreed that it was of course necessary. She said this knowing what it would mean to express our "views" on such a topic. As I completed my degree, she was teaching English and speech at Pearl High School, a place that would become infamous many years later as the site of yet another tragic school shooting incident. I recount these details because on the night we attended our first meeting at Tougaloo, Sara had been required to attend a PTA meeting at Pearl, and I had accompanied her there so we could drive together to the later appointment. Because of these circumstances we were "dressed up," she in heels and what was then a "teacher's dress," and I in suit and tie.

We had never been to Tougaloo. We had never sat in a room with black people our own age. We had never been recruited because of our views. We stood on that porch under a very bright porch light, a precaution. It was necessary in those times for those opening doors to know clearly who was knocking. Ed King, a white Episcopal priest, came to the door in a clerical collar and shirt-sleeves.

One side of his face was heavily bandaged, swollen to double size. Earlier that week, perhaps even that day -- I can't recall -- he had been badly beaten, his face slashed open, while taking part in a public protest. He was probably in pain.

His welcome was polite but perfunctory. He led us to a back bedroom in his house where young college-aged people, black and white, sat and sprawled and talked. Their jeans and overalls, workshirts and peasant blouses made us feel out of place. We introduced ourselves, mumbled about our previous meeting, and made it clear there would likely be no other students from our college. Most of those present were black students from Tougaloo. A number were from Millsaps, the all-white Methodist school in Jackson, known for the presence of some "liberal" professors and for a student activist subculture. And there were other white students, from "up north," most from Oberlin, the institution that would serve as a training site for students who would flood into the state the following year, 1964, Freedom Summer.

There were others too, activists, organizers, there because Tougaloo was a place to gather. Plans were already being made. Committees were being formed. Instructions were being passed along. Against the wall, wearing the denim jacket and jeans, the "uniform" of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, sat a slightly older black man. Bob Moses was a major SNCC officer who had only recently been shot at while organizing in the Delta.

We fell into relative ease. Smoking cigarettes, the sturdy social crutch, helped, and we talked about the issues. The purpose of this meeting was to plan an event to be held in the spring of 1964 at Tougaloo. It had to be something that would attract students from colleges and universities throughout the state, demonstrating that other young people would defy political and cultural boundaries. It would be a concert, of course. Dylan was mentioned. Someone had contacts. But maybe he would be too hot, even for what would already be, by its very occurrence, "controversial." The suggestions shifted to Joan Baez.

In April of the following year she came. And so did those students -- from every college, every university, from Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, even from the smaller schools. Some of our friends from Mississippi College were there, all but one of them male. At M.C. the Dean of Women had made the event "off limits," which meant that women attending the concert could be expelled. In the predictable formal Southern manner a "reception" followed at which we stood in line to shake hands with Ms. Baez, thank her for coming. But before that, before she left the stage, we stood, hundreds of students. White and black, arms crossed, hands locked, we swayed and sang "We Shall Overcome," which I cannot to this day do without tears. John Kennedy was dead by then, of course, killed while we planned. We still knew so little of what was to come.

That fall Sara and I went off to Chicago. There, on hard, cold days we remembered where we were from. We delighted in performing as "professional Southerners" for people who hated Mississippi because they thought they knew what the name meant. But they knew nothing of the staggering, riotous beauty of the place, and nothing of the gentle, polite people, their quietness, their delicacy. They knew nothing of how it felt to be ashamed for such splendid things. Paul Stekler, my friend andcolleague, told me his next film would be the Wallace biography. He talked about the complexity of Wallace's character, the widely noted changes as Wallace's life was clearly ending, the richness and depth of this as a story not only of the South, but of the nation in those times, of issues still faced today. Even before there were photo files or scripts or rough cuts to view, I remembered Wallace like I remembered the previous hour. Shoulders thrown back, "standing in the doorway." The sneer, the smirk, the unmistakable hate. I saw his face.

I saw Ed King's face, too, the white bandage thick under the yellow porch light in the fall of 1963.

For a year my office was directly across the hall from the rooms in which the Wallace film was being constructed. My reading, marking papers, conversations with students would without warning be strangely altered as recordings of that voice floated up through the hollow ceilings and down into my room. High-pitched, whiny, insistent, always defined by utter, arrogant confidence. The voice was almost too close, dredging time and place and emotion. Nothing about it seemed remote, seemed removed to "history."

The Least of These

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

"Let's tell these pointy-headed intellectuals a thing or two."

"What you need is a haircut and a bath."

Sometimes I sent a note by e-mail. Sometimes I spoke with Paul before a meeting. Sometimes I crossed the hall and stuck my head into the doorway and tried to make it sound like a joke. But I meant what I said.

Do not sanctify George Wallace in this film. His evil was -- is -- real.

Was he more evil than others on the political stages of his time or ours? Probably not. Are we all, in some way, at some time, complicit in the fear he manipulated? Without doubt. Was he shot and forever after tortured because of his beliefs? Certainly the answer is no. Bremer was a psychotic opportunist.

But the sheer intensity, the desperate precision of Wallace's tasks, the terrible, unwavering clarity of purpose set him apart. Whether he perceived and brilliantly planned the cause he could exploit, or was himself surprised by the magnitude of his success, there is no doubt he reveled in it. George Wallace was -- and there is clear irony here -- the black hole of American racism, sucking to himself the contamination, the dread of difference on which the nation has structured itself. This defilement was the source of his power and energy. He plastered over a fundamental fault in our cultural foundation with a malevolent and vicious claim of patriotism. And for a short time he was the emblem, the spectacle making clear that the corruption in which he trafficked was not "Southern" at all, but was an American vein so wide and deep it still debases those who would mine it. That we have traveled so short a distance from where he stood is, for me, evidence of his true legacy.

Do I believe in his repentance? Of course. Who, with such things on his conscience, with such potential for nightmares, would not repent, seek forgiveness, humble himself before God and man? All the more reason to accept his sincerity.

In our conversations, Paul would explain his ideas, his plan for the film. It would be a tricky, complicated project.

Not for me, I said. The only thing that matters now is that we be forced to remember. It is not history we need. It is memory. History is the tutor of memory. History is memory educated. Any presentation of Wallace must match his skills and his passion. And matching him means forcing our attention to topics and techniques more visceral than thoughtful. Matching him means exposing the demonic without demonizing. To match Wallace we must see, above all, that he could choose -- and that he chose to do evil things. Only then will we remember that we had, still have, choices of our own.

I am grateful that this is what George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire does. Again and again we see and hear how decisions were considered, how alternatives were framed, how conclusions were reached. As I watch I think of how it could have been so different. I try to remember, to understand, even as I tried to understand then, why it was not. I face the astonishing reality that it was, after all, only 40 years ago, 40 years, that these things happened. Have we forgotten the appalling words that could then be used in public, not only in stump speeches, but in schools, in the halls of government, even in churches? Have we forgotten how people could spit at quiet, dignified young people? How bricks could be thrown, dogs unleashed, houses torched -- how children could so easily be murdered? Does anyone think it did not happen, not only "there," but everywhere -- here?

For all the complexity and ambiguity of his character, this film allows Wallace's actions to lay bare the brutality of his own choices and more importantly, of all the choices that had been taken for granted by so many until that time. George Wallace mortgaged his career, his life, perhaps his soul, as well as the careers and lives of family and friends, to the evil of racism. More crucially, his life's major work showed that a place, a culture, a nation, were in debt to that same evil. That some of us loved, continue to love that place, that culture, that nation means we owe more, not less, interest on the debt that burdens us still. Sometime in the late Eighties my family spent a few days in Los Angeles. We stayed in Santa Monica, at the Shangri La Hotel on Ocean Boulevard. Coincidentally, the last concert of the Dylan-Petty tour was playing at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Because we had a dinner date, Sara and I, in a fit of irresponsibility, gave the rental car to Jud and Kate, who drove down Lincoln to Century and across to the Coliseum, where we had earlier purchased what surely must have been the last two tickets. We returned to the hotel before they did, waited uneasily, parentally, for an imagined inevitable announcement that they were lost somewhere in Long Beach or broken down in North Hollywood. But return they did, pleased and doubly excited. Guess who was checking in as they were coming through the lobby!?


Joan Baez!

We speculated that she might have been at the concert, or playing somewhere, or just relaxing in Santa Monica. The next morning some of us headed out for coffee and there she was, walking ahead of us. I thought for a moment of calling out -- softly, of course, in a Baezian manner -- to stop her, introduce us all, chat, to thank her again for coming to Tougaloo in April of 1964. Good manners kept me quiet, but I got to tell the story of the concert yet again to my children.

Ed King still lives in Jackson. I've not spoken to him since 1964. People who know him say his face is badly, deeply, scarred. The great Mississippi preacher/theologian, Will Campbell, says that when Jesus tells us in the gospels to care for "the least of these" he means that each of us must personally define the category. Personally, Campbell says, the admonition means he must go into the prisons and minister to Klansmen who have murdered and maimed, because they are, for him, the least of all. I believe he's right. I believe the gospels are right. I am a Christian, and I know what I should do. Good people, black and white, forgave George Wallace before he died. I hope some day to be that good. end story

Horace Newcomb is the F.J. Heyne Centennial Professor in Communication, Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of numerous books about television, including the recently published Television: The Critical View.
  • More of the Story

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    The story behind Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe's documentary George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire

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