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Resisting Liberation

When Americans impose their values on a culture of hate

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It is hard for us to understand why the people would so violently resist freedom and democracy. The principles are so compelling, after all. Why would people not, as President Bush predicted of the Iraqis, welcome with open arms their liberators from the American government?

Instead of open arms, we experienced violent, protracted "massive resistance." But this isn't about the war in Iraq. This is about the war on segregation, when the American government and American troops began to liberate the South from white tyranny.

As we shudder at brutality and humiliation in Iraq, how do we explain American police officers turning firehoses and dogs on children and other fellow citizens in American cities as the US government began to enforce Brown v. Topeka Board of Education? How do we explain lynchings and church bombings and arsons by white-hooded defenders of an old way of life? All over the South, and in the north too as desegregation broadened its reach, local sheriffs and police, with ropes and dogs and batons and cattle prods and remorseless acts of brutality and humiliation, made examples of those caught stepping out of line or sympathizing with integration. The inhumanity spawned similar violent movements on the other side, too, as blacks impatient with the "deliberate speed" of change began to advocate violence as a means to justice.

And so it had been a century earlier as well. Starting in 1865, the federal government sent troops into the South to oversee its "reconstruction" after the Civil War. Former slaves could vote and were protected in doing so, and African-Americans were elected to state government offices in many parts of the South. Along with the troops came Yankee businessmen with money and merchant experience who drove out or co-opted the local businessmen.

Southern whites reviled the businessmen as carpetbaggers and rejected the "reconstruction" as a violation of their sovereign rights. Whites used to run things their own way. They had influence, connections, status. Even the poorest white dirt farmer had supremacy over a black person. Now these white southerners festered and, in some cases, joined groups that, in a different context, would be called guerrillas or insurgents. The South knew them as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils. When Reconstruction ended (thanks to a deal that installed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president after the contested election of 1876, on condition that he pull federal troops out of the South), the restored southern white power structure returned to its old ways. There was no more actual slavery, but blacks were segregated, indentured, scorned, cheated and abused.

Such was the South for 70 years after Reconstruction.

And then, with the end of World War II, in which black as well as white Americans had given their lives to fight oppression and racial hate, President Harry S. Truman and the Roosevelt appointees on the US Supreme Court brought the immorality of segregation back to national consciousness. Chief Justice Earl Warren turned early narrow precedents into a far-reaching constitutional pronouncement in 1954.

The southern insurgents rose up once again. They had encouragement from the highest levels of state governments, men whose pride and grip on power were threatened. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, Georgia's governor and later US Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, and of course South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond prospered politically while promoting resistance. The KKK burned crosses, and attorneys general stalled and fought in the court system.

The forces of democracy, the ones who decried violence and preached non-violence, went to jail or were beaten. White people who wanted to stick up for what was right -- for democracy, for equality, for freedom and justice for all -- were tormented by the local political machines and their local constabulary. In the face of threats or harm or economic ruin, a lot of people just kept quiet.

Today, 50 years later, resistance lingers on. There are many people in the South who still wouldn't think of setting foot in Atlanta's Martin Luther King memorial. They're too busy ranting about the "historic" Georgia flag's inclusion of the Confederate battle flag, or the correct placement of the battle flag at the South Carolina capitol, both of which were initiated after Brown. Clinging to that symbol of "states' rights" is clinging by their fingernails to a civilization gone with the wind.

As George W. Bush gave his touching speech in Topeka, Kansas, on May 17, 2004, you had to wonder where he stood on May 17, 1954? Would he have been standing alongside Linda Brown? Can we imagine this former baseball owner embracing Branch Rickey's hiring of Jackie Robinson? Would this former Texas governor have welcomed federal troops who came to protect a black child from jeers and bricks as she bravely walked up a sidewalk to a white school? Would George Bush have stood firm against a rabid voting majority in support of what was right and constitutional?

You have to wonder where everyone stood that day.

If we of the greatest democratic experiment in human history could act as we did then, what did we expect of the people of Baghdad? Did the modern warriors against Saddam Hussein imagine themselves not as a Reconstruction militia in a hostile South, but as Ike and General Patton liberating France? Did they really think that Saddam's Baghdad was Vichy Paris? Could Bush have really thought, as he strutted on the aircraft carrier like some wide receiver in the end zone, that it was now just a matter of mopping up? Could they not even remember back to Kosovo?

While we see ourselves as Eisenhowers in Baghdad, the Iraqis revile us as intruders, the same way the white power structure in the South saw Yankee soldiers in 1868 and the National Guard in 1957.

It is nice that we are, in a moral sense, "right" -- that democracy, civil liberties and constitutional protection of minority views are universally superior. But we have to remember how long it took America to get from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation, and from there to Brown, and from Brown to this 50th anniversary, and even now we haven't resolved the complex issues of race and equality. In fact, the famous compromises on slavery through the first 85 years after American independence -- compromises that now seem so shameful -- postponed the war over slavery long enough to let the new government and its economy stabilize sufficiently to withstand that apocalyptic schism.

It is nice to have Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson and Lincoln on our side for the Freedom Crusades of the Third Millennium. But when our domestic political rhetoric puts more emphasis on mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance than on actual liberty and justice for all, it is no wonder we thought we might simply shock-and-awe the Iraqis into ditching their government, write them a constitution, and bid them godspeed.

To know it wouldn't be so easy, we had only to look at our own violent history of resisting principles that were manifestly good.

Neil Skene, a longtime journalist, attorney and news executive, grew up in Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s and now lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

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