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Stanley Crouch: The Voting Rights Act and the ‘Comeback Nation’

Recently, all sorts celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which is perhaps the culminating presidential achievement of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ had begun as a segregationist but drove a bright-red truck until it turned blue, and his work predicted the Southern future. He knew Southerners quite well. They would drop Democrats and become Republicans — rednecks covered by mufflers, but with all of their psychological problems remaining in place. No more clown costumes would be accepted during modern times.

That is what was fatefully meant by President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” It was continued by Ronald Reagan when his victorious forthcoming campaign was announced at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., the town where the murdered bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were found back during the bloodiest of times. That was symbolic for Southerners; traditional ways were back in place and had taken the White House. It was much quieter, but there would be hell to tell the captain. The South knew how to fight a guerilla war.

Fifty years later, much has changed — the rhetoric, the politics and the style of motion. It surely is exciting, or satisfying, to see President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, pinning down the confederate forces at an updated Battle of Bull Run. Dominating the House of Representatives since 2010, rednecks remain in charge, but will not be called “rednecks” or “bigots.” They have bought off a high-profile dream and expectation for the so-called tea party, are not at all bothered by congressional inactivity, the passage of almost no bills and congressional investigations raking the dried earth over and over. It does not bother them because they took a secret oath to keep Obama in an impotent position.

It seems difficult, if not a marvelous fib, to believe that segregation was once both lawless and violent, when one looks at well-dressed and pretentiously ineloquent members of Congress who have held or gambled away their voters by not understanding that this was a time for a return to the old ways. The old ways seem hard to take seriously because exactly the kinds of “freedom” formerly predicted by the extremists at the far right of the Southern citizenry that held the Democratic Party in place, confederate to the core — all the worst parts of fully integrated decadence in popular entertainment and high positions of power — seem as free as they can get.

The majestic sadness at the center of Rev. Martin Luther King’s sound, and the peerless courage shown by the minister and his followers, are now claimed by everyone in the room. The empathetic sense of harmful and threatening violence has been replaced by the love of bloody cinema and special effects. Black, white, red and yellow are trotted out and made millionaires by the fans of cartoon eroticism and watching its victims, who are blown up, beaten to a pulp or stabbed repeatedly.

So, during an exceptional and insubstantial time, a melancholic season when advertising has taken distracting attention among the public, the often praised and attacked citizens, every writer is commanded to be as brief as possible. Slogans will do, and the public will consume those paid-for advertisements as though they are reasonable and qualified opinions, the result of long and deep study. But long and deep study will be attacked as “boring,” suffering from the failure to excite.

That is one of the reasons why Sarah Palin understands well what made her a “superstar.” Ideas are no more than educated prattle. The public wants to do, not think. Grown men and grown women still are out there — and they breed, listen and learn from experience.

Nothing other than looking at the mess made by the confederates will win our American day and begin to handle the deadliest of our problems. We always have too much time to waste; that is the modern national problem.

Coming back is a characteristic. In fact, this is a nation that could be called the land of dreams and comebacks. Those are characteristics we will forever have plenty of struggle holding down. Profit may distract us and make us willing to destroy humans, beasts, birds, fish and nature itself, but we will figure out how to stand up in the face of expensive and irresponsibly used machinery. It cannot be done quickly, but it will be done.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at