Paul R. Lehman, Kilpatrick’s Old South’s ignorance and prejudice

September 26, 2010 at 12:13 am | Posted in American Bigotry, Media and Race, Race in America | Leave a comment
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In a recent article published in The Oklahoman, Gene Owens spoke about the late columnist James J. Kilpatrick. The article entitled “Remembering a voice from the Old South” included several points that stood out to me as being associated with ignorance and prejudice, two bedfellows.

The focus of the article was on the early years of civil rights and the newspaper coverage. Owens recounts how Kilpatrick spoke of the “Northern papers would send in their traveling teams   to get all the nasty stories they could about the segregated South, and these people arrived with their prejudices in their suitcases, and never unpacked their suitcases.” What struck me about this statement is what is missing. Why were these people considered prejudice? Was it simply because they were from the North? The assumption seems to be that the segregated South was doing just fine until these people came down here and started looking at the negative effects of segregation. If that was the bases of these Northerners prejudice, than what kind of rationale informed the Southerners? Also, notice that no mention is made of their ethnicity. 

The next sentence read “Then a couple of black reporters came down—very literate, very intelligent—and they sat around my office and we yakked for an hour or so. They were two first-rate reporters.” Notice that these two reporters were identified as black, but more importantly, they were “very literate, very intelligent.” This statement is code for they were almost like white reporters in that they could approximate European Americans in their speech and their thought. The assumption from this statement is that no one expected African American reporters to be literate and intelligent, so when they were both, mention had to be made of it because it was seen as an exception to the norm. What evidently never dawned on Kilpatrick’s mind was the reason that the reporters spent so much time with him in his office was for their own self protection. Remember, the time was early civil rights years and these reporters were in the South. They had to touch bases with some European American of note who could vouch for them if necessity called for it.

The article continued, “I remember saying to my wife that evening—and this may have been part of the awakening—‘If they had been white, I would have invited them to dinner in my home.’”What a bigoted comment to make! The only reason he did not invite them to dinner in his home was because of their color? Actually, their color was not so much the reason for not getting an invite as it was the symbol of the prejudice that was so natural to the South during that time. Would Kilpatrick have been criticized by his neighbors and co-workers had he invited these reporters? We do not know because he did not risk the chance. What apparently underscores this statement is the ignorance and biased mind-set of Kilpatrick who hadn’t the slightest idea of his prejudice. To him, his way of thinking was perfectly in keeping with God and the world. Segregation and discrimination were part of Southern culture. Imagine, having two African American male reporters visiting in the home of a Southern European American at this time in America—what a novel idea! He might have been labeled a civil rights activist and charged with trying to change the social system. He could not afford that, but the thought was nice.

The fact that Kilpatrick would have been willing to invite these reporters into his home had they been white underscores the problem. Ethnic bias or prejudice was the ruling principle in America especially during the early years of civil rights. Kilpatrick tells us of his ethnic ignorance and hence, prejudice, “I don’t know what attitude I had toward Southern blacks in general. I grew up in a segregated society in Oklahoma City. I spent all my formative years in a segregated society. They [African Americans} were kind of invisible. You saw certain servants…but you never had any relationship as equals.” That says it all. If one grows up in a segregated society through his formative years, what is likely to be his perception of people who do not look like him? If he knew what kind of society he grew up in and the kind of society he lived in, why would he not know that his attitude is one of ethnic superiority?

The focus of the article was to underscore the prejudice of the “Yankee journalist” against the South and how they went about acquiring their stories. The thought that discrimination and segregation were wrong regardless of their manifestations was never considered. The idea of the Northern reporters making the South look bad was the problem. However, the fact that the two African American reporters were literate and intelligent was special since they spent an hour talking with Kilpatrick.

With due respect to Kilpatrick and Owens, these comments are not meant to ridicule or belittle either man, but to underscore the need for ethnic education in America. Too many Americans feel comfortable with their biases thinking that it is okay to hate your neighbor because of his or her skin color or religion. The article gives us an opportunity to see just how easy some European Americans wear their ethnic ignorance and prejudice. America needs desperately to be re-educated relative to the power and presence of ethnic diversity in society. America needs to stop using the words race for ethnic group or ethnicity, and black for African American, and white for European American. But first, America needs to know why that change is necessary.

If one think that ethnic ignorance and prejudice in America is a thing of the past, one needs only turn on the local news or pick up a paper and the evidence will slap the directly in the face—Americans wanting to burn holy books, cut off social security to the elderly, stop the poor for receiving food stamps, force unemployed Americans to lose support. And the beat goes on….

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