Old battlefields of racism run deeper than the Deep South

Nearly 30 years ago I stood in the shade of a willow tree overlooking a Civil War battleground in Georgia, contemplating the blood that had been spilled on those now lush, green grasses carpeting the rolling hills of Kennesaw Mountain.

After living in the Deep South for close to 10 years, the last several of which were spent in Atlanta, I felt I had a different perspective from many southerners regarding that period of our nation’s history. Admittedly, having come from Oregon, I felt a certain kinship to The South’s identity as a rebel.

Yet at the same time, I found it hard to walk the thin line between recognizing The South’s undeniable history while overlooking the shadows of racism intertwined with it. 

Last week’s senseless murders of two Good Samaritans in Portland who were trying to defend a pair of teenage African-American girls — one of whom was wearing Muslim attire — served as a reminder that the battlefields of racism run deeper than the Deep South.

In the mid 1800s, when the Oregon territory was larger than Texas and included portions of five western states, the “Lash Law” of 1844 decreed that any black person, free or slave, could be whipped twice a year until he or she left the territory. Eventually, a law was passed simply prohibiting “black people” from living in the territory altogether.

It was a climate that harkened extremists, racists and socialists to establish communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, along with an Oregon Legislature in the 1920s which, rife with Ku Klux Klan members, passed legislation that forbade Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land.

By the 1970s, hate groups like the Aryan Nations had followed suit, jackbooting themselves into areas of Oregon to spread their message of racial purity and the notion of establishing a white utopian society known as “Cascadia.”

At a time when increased scrutiny of each other is slowly approaching that of the McCarthy era, the shadows cast by Oregon’s early history of racism are also slowly creeping over the lessons of our past.

The attack by Jeremy Joseph Christian on that Portland Metro Train wasn’t the result of a concerted campaign of hate. It didn’t stem from organized recruitment.

It erupted from within a vein running just beneath the surface of our society, pulsed by an ever-increasing exposure to suspicion, mistrust and blame offered up as the “new normal” through media — social and otherwise.

Christian expressed his rage against immigrants, Saudi Arabia, liberals, blacks, Muslims and a myriad of stereotypical targets of hate cherrypicked from an endless buffet of extremist ideologies available on the Internet.

Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namakai Meche and Micah Fletcher represented a different kind of ideology when they stood up against Christian, in defense of two strangers who were being threatened by hate.

Best and Meche each died from stab wounds inflicted by Christian.
As we polarize ourselves and choose sides to be aligned with, we can’t risk forgetting the thing that defines us as Americans:

The strength that comes from our unity rather than our division.

It’s the kind of kinship that I want to have as an Oregonian and believe in as an American.

Write Ned Hickson at nhickson@thesiuslaw news.com or c/o Siuslaw News, 148 Maple St., Florence, Ore. 97439.

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

29 thoughts on “Old battlefields of racism run deeper than the Deep South”

  1. It’s a crying shame what’s happening in the U.S. Hate breeds hate and an orange faced fascist who condones and doesn’t condemn these acts of hatred will only breed more. Children bullying minority children in schools will eventually become the age of voting. What will become of America if this isn’t condemned and stopped. Great post Ned. Sorry, but the state of things just boils my blood.

    1. Bullying on all levels seems to be increasing, along with a sense of entitlement to do so. I have to think at some point the pendulum will begin to swing the other way.

  2. It’s a hope that should always be aspired to, Ned, this unity. I really don’t know what it’s going to take, but coming from an Indigenous view, known as Native American in the U.S,, I have a sense of being even one more step removed from that unity. It’s the ultimate irony, given all this land is the original home of my ancestors.

    It seems to be that the idea of the ‘American Dream’, which is a variation on the original Euro-centric idea of what is success, is at the core of all division. That dream was pushed to it’s most openly corrupted version, since Columbus, with the Gordon Gecko line, “greed is good”. The base of that credo required nearly wiping out the Indigenous, to trapping the slaves on which to build the U.S and Canada, which went on to manufacture the necessary division among the hoi polloi to blind them from how much they were being robbed by the same rich mentalities of yester-years. The exact same social mechanism of division being employed so effectively over the last 30 years especially, has this mendacious menace oozing out of its polite societal container now.

    Maybe that will be the key, in the end. The bald-faced ugliness back on full display, nothing to cover the mirror for pretenses. There is no cure without bringing it into the open for real examination. It was always there, but with the exception of people of color, very few knew just how much. This could be the turning of the that tide. No dark evil is cured without exposure to light. I wonder if this is the century of light. I truly hope so.

    1. Excellent blog, excellent comment.

      My mantra for the day is: You cannot hate your way into a loving place. Each half of the country hating the other half is not a recipe for a positive outcome. This nation has a history dotted with egregious acts committed against indigenous people and minority communities.

      While Andy Jackson was organizing that pleasant little nature walk known as the Trail of Tears, the Brits were placing a monetary value on slaves in its territories, compensating their owners and freeing those slaves. The USA could have followed that model but many, especially among the northern textile mill owners, felt that the price of cotton would skyrocket if freedman labor was introduced.

      Lincoln did not seek to free the slaves so that they could live peacefully in the USA. His end game was to find a place to remove them to and he had worked diligently in that direction, even meeting with a delegation of freed black leaders (Aug 14, 1862) to make the case for “colonization.”.

      It was a different time with different ethics and morals. Re-read L. Frank Baum’s editorial on the Sioux for context.

      Divide and conquer for fun and profit has been with us since the beginning and is alive and well today.

  3. Ned, I believe that you missed one point entirely but nailed another.

    Jeremy Joseph Christian is mentally ill. That much is obvious from his history and his behavior. He was also politically and socially erratic – being a Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporter, as well as an anti-Trumpist, racist, atheist and darn well anything that resonates with rage and drama.

    To paraphrase one of your paragraphs: “Christian expressed his rage against [snip] a myriad of stereotypical targets of hate cherrypicked from an endless buffet of extremist ideologies available on the Internet.”

    Your editorial leans heavily against the right without acknowledging that Mr. Christian was a very mixed up bag of hate from all points of the political and social compass.

    While the extreme right justly deserves to be condemned at every opportunity, all too often we miss the point that extreme hate springs from the animal core of the human soul and that madness knows nothing about politics or ideology – and it is in all of us – all the time, so we must not make the mistake of pointing to “the other guys” because that points in the wrong direction.

    1. Your point is well taken, but I have to say I purposely avoided pointing to mental illness as a contributing factor, which I think is often used to dismiss these kinds of acts as “explained away.” The fact that Christian was mentally ill isn’t nearly as big an issue as the influence that media — social and news — has on fueling hatred and division, regardless of someone’s mental state.

      1. I can well understand the impulse to avoid “explaining it all away by mental illness” but personally I would have gone the other direction.

        I agree that the media is fueling hatred and division – but by doing so they are providing a focus for mentally unstable people. This fervor not only attracts the mentally ill but it pushes marginal personalities over the edge.

        Recently in Minnesota, Linwood Kaine, the son of vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine was indicted in Ramsey County with charges stemming from an incident where he, along with others, masked his appearance and attacked a peaceful rally with chemical agents and fireworks. Several innocent people, some elderly, were injured. “Woody” Kaine is specifically charged with injuring his arresting officer in a fight.

        This is crazy. It is not politics. It is not much of anything other than a headlong rush into the mad world of Jeremy Joseph Christian.

        That is why I would emphasize mental illness angle, it is not only that toxic politics and social conflict attracts the mentally unstable – but it is also making us sick.

        1. You get no argument from me on that. The current climate of our society is making all of us mentally “ill” to some extent — just some more than others, and some who are more susceptible to it.

        2. This is my only comment on your comment, then I’m outta here: You had to dig pretty deep to find that example, and even then, it’s ridiculous to equate that with murdering 2 people by an avowed nazi.

          1. I owe Mikels a more thoughtful comment.

            I was not searching for an equivalent example, rather I was illustrating my point that the shrill discourse of social media has attracting the insane and is pushing the impetuous into insane actions.

            “Woody” Kaine certainly engaged in impetuous violence.

            I disagree with the characterization of Jeremy Joseph Christian as an avowed Nazi. He was also an avowed Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporter.

            The insane rarely worry about political coherence.

            Characterizing him as a Nazi and blaming it all on the old battlefields of hate is too easy and opens up too much of a temptation to cast this tragedy in partisan tones – thus letting too many who engage in toxic discourse off the hook.

            I grew up in a bad neighborhood, a place where everyone had a big dog on a chained in their backyard. At night when one dog started barking all the dogs joined in. Our nights were filled with the symphony of dogs dancing in the air at the end of their chains and barking their rage.

            No one asked why the dogs barked. We all knew it. They were insane because they never knew human kindness.

            Yes, there is a metaphor in that story, one that we damned well better pay attention to – because the dogs are barking louder and louder.

  4. This was an insane situation. I am so sorry they lost their lives in defense of those girls. It is unfortunate that his “hate” is not just one person but a thought process that is the true danger to our lives and freedom. I am ashamed of the way some “Americans” act toward anyone who they see as different. This country was built by immigrants for God’s sake! My only thought is that ANYONE who breaks the law should be punished but don’t assume the only bad people are the ones who came from somewhere else! 😒

  5. Very well said, Ned. I didn’t know all that about Oregon’s history. When I heard the news of what happened, I thought, “Oregon?? If this is happening in Oregon, what hope is there for the rest of the country?” I’m from the East Coast, but my sister worked at Crater Lake for a few years. I don’t know a ton about the area, but it always seemed like such a peaceful, tolerant place to me. Those 2 girls and the 3 heroes who stood up for them are in my prayers.

  6. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you completew credit as the author. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading your work. If “OK” please let me know via email.


  7. Blog. Or, bog? I got stuck reading ‘old’ Ned Hicks columns. 2017 was not that long ago, but I don’t recall reading this column in The Siuslaw News which I professed to read cover to cover each week – each edition. I guess I must recant that if I can’t recall this subject matter.

    Anyway, I was taken to back to my memory of visiting a Civil War Train Museum in Kennesaw, Georgia. I took with me a young man, age 12, who is the son of a friend in Acworth, GA. I don’t recall any hint of racism in viewing the trains and the history of their role in the Civil War to shuttle supplies to/from the battlefields of the Confederacy. But, I do recall an earlier time when Shawn’s father took me and my wife Becky to Stone Mountain, GA. About 15,000 troops of the Union Army marched through the area burning and looting everything in their path on the way to ravaging Atlanta. In the memory of those who survived, General Sherman was quite correct in the oft repeated phrase, “War is hell!” “Sherman’s neckties’ can still be found in the forests of the area.

    I also recall the moments we spent with ‘L’il Shawn’s’ father visiting the place near Stone Mountain where the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan took place. That ‘rebirth’ was in 1915. It took several decades and many Klan Rallies before the State of Georgia acquired the lands belonging the the family that had allowed KKK access. With ownership of the properties where the rallies were held, the Governor was able to ‘void’ prior rights to use these cites.

    I did not pay any attention to the words’ Stone Mountain’ until 1963 when a Baptist Pastor used them in a speech he gave on the Washington Memorial. He was shot and killed in Tennessee in 1968 by a man still motivated by racial hatred. The pastor was an African American – The Rev. Martin Luther King. The shooter, nameless to me, was a ‘white’ American. Much strife and vengeance followed that act of violence. I suppose it continues to this very day. Sad.

    I would rather spend my time with Shawn and ‘L’il’ Shawn repairing any divides that remain as best I can. We have shared Thanksgiving Meals in Boston and Acworth. We have shared fishing and crabbing expeditions in Winston and Florence, OR. We have not discussed much, if anything, about the difference in our skin colors. I have ‘white’ skin. They have ‘black’ skin. (Mine is actually kinda tan and their skin kinda more tan.) True. But what I think of is that they have great smiles, warm laughter, dang good fishing techniques and luck. They like to tell stories, share meals and even sing songs together with me.

    Yeah, we are divided still. But it is not by skin color or strong accents in our ‘English’ language. It is only by the distance between Oregon and Georgia. History does not divide us. Past injustices do not divide us. Love and respect, and a few worms on the hooks of our fishing poles and chicken parts in the crab traps, they unite us.

    They have invited me to come join them for a quick trip to Disneyworld in December and spending Christmas eve with their family and friends. Sounds like a good time to have a good time. I am going. And, I trust they will come visit me at Kabononalak in Florence this coming summer.

    So, my solution to the hooks and barbs of residual racism in America, in Oregon, in my own heart is this: worms. Yes, put worms on those hooks with barbs and go fishing. There is nothing like a warm smile shared at the moment that line gets a tug and two friends net a nice trout. Yes, let’s all go fishing more. (It’s cheaper than a trip to Disneyworld, too!)

    1. Well said, Bill. I, too, have visited Stone Mountain, back when I lived in Atlanta in the early 90s. I think history — for better or worse — is important fort us to remember lest we repeat our same mistakes in the future. And while the majority of Southern folks aren’t racist, they do exist, in the same way you can’t give a “pass” to anyone who isn’t from the South by assuming they aren’t. The fact is, racism exists everywhere in pockets everywhere. The best solution is to call it when you see it and support those who do so.

No one is watching, I swear...

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