SHADES of the US South’s racist past came creeping back this week just as the South could be poised to play a pivotal role in electing the nation’s first black president.
An alleged plot by two young white supremacists to go on a killing spree and assassinate Barack Obama, though far-fetched by most accounts, may conjure images of the Jim Crow era for some. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect the modern South, which in recent years has seen a huge influx of immigrants and transplants from other regions, as well as the empowerment of a black electorate that could decide Tuesday’s election.
“These incidents, isolated though they are, serve as a reality check,” said journalist John Seigenthaler, 81, who was US Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant and was attacked with the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights era.
“Yes we’ve changed in significant ways, but there are those that haven’t,” said Seigenthaler, who also was editor and publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville and founded the First Amendment Center.
The alleged plot “should serve as a low-voltage electric shock. We’re a new South, but there are elements of the old South still under the surface”.
Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, and Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee, who are accused of dreaming up the plan to behead blacks across the country and assassinate Barack Obama while wearing white top hats and tuxedoes, were likely too disorganised to carry out the plot. They have a federal court hearing scheduled for Thursday morning in Memphis.
While authorities say the men had guns capable of creating carnage, documents show they never got close to getting off the ground.
Among the blunders: They drew attention to themselves by etching swastikas on a car with sidewalk chalk, only knew each other for a month, couldn’t even pull off a house robbery, and a friend ratted them out to authorities.
“Certainly these men have some frightening weapons and some very frightening plans,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who studies the white supremacy movement. “But with the part about wearing top hats... it gets a bit hard to take them seriously.”
The Rev James Lawson, an 80-year-old Freedom Rider who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights movement and is now a visiting distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, says he’s not surprised by this latest threat to Obama.
He says he’s had conversations with fellow blacks at various places, not just the South, since Obama’s candidacy began nearly two years and they have been afraid for Obama’s life.
“In the black community, there’s been all over the country anticipation of his being in harm’s way,” said Lawson. “That is a reflection of the fact that, by and large, the black community still experiences racism when it comes to access to jobs, in unemployment levels, in housing discrimination and predatory lending in housing.”
The two accused met online about a month ago, introduced by a friend and bound by a mutual belief in white supremacy, according to an affidavit written by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who interviewed them.
Doug Shipman, executive director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, says threats to Obama and blacks in the South are remnants of the Old South, the Jim Crow era, but not the face of most of today’s South.
“I don’t think it’s more a reflection of the new South,” he said. “I think the South is going through a transition, you’re seeing huge numbers of individuals moving in from elsewhere.”
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