The Truth, Mainly - 04/06/1998

Similarities in governor's races: Nebraska 1998, Alabama 1962
by Leon Satterfield

And yet another parallel between Afrophobia and homophobia.

Back in 1958, George Corley Wallace lost his first run to be governor of Alabama. It was, he decided, because he was seen as a racial moderate, soft on desegregation. He was quoted in a number of sources as vowing he'd never again be "out-niggered" or "out-segged."

Wallace denies now that he ever said any such thing. But whether he said it or not, he certainly began to act it out. He became the single most visible—and hateful—symbol of Southern resistance to black civil rights.

The current conventional wisdom is that he acted more racist that he really was because he saw it as the only way to get elected.

The parallel we see now is in Nebraska's own GOP gubernatorial candidates. My guess is that they're not nearly as homophobic as they appear to be, but like Wallace, they'll do what they think is necessary to get votes.

They don't want to be out-fagged.

Mike Johanns was first. Last summer he said he wouldn't sign a proclamation recognizing the gay-lesbian Lincoln Pride Rally because the group was asking for "special rights"—i.e., they didn't want to be fired or evicted because they were gay or lesbian.

But the mayor knew—or should have known—that the U.S. Supreme Court in knocking down Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2 had already ruled there was "nothing special" about the rights it denied gays and lesbians: "These are protections taken for granted by most people either because they already have them or do not need them."

John Breslow got in the game last month with his radio and television ads declaring that "I won't let the liberals allow men to marry men and women to marry women. I'll veto any laws that threaten our Nebraska values."

Then Jon Christensen played his trump card.

He reminded voters that Breslow—O, the shame!—supported a Lincoln gay rights measure back in the early eighties. Christensen's campaign manager, Andy Abboud, said that means Breslow "wants to extend legal protection to people based on who they have sex with…the first step toward same-sex marriages."

Curses! Out-fagged again!

A rash of protesting letters to the editor seems to have cooled—at least for the time—the homophobic zeal of the candidates.

Johanns has remained, since summer, blessedly silent on the subject. Breslow has dropped the ads, and Christensen has retired to his study to meditate on even snappier gotchas. But all three may just be catching their breath.

It's pretty gaudy. Even entertaining if you don't think in analogies, if you don't worry about moral climates. I worry about moral climates.

Alabama's moral climate in the sixties made Mississippi look normal.

Wallace, by now a captive of his own rhetoric, metamorphized into a rabid racist, was elected governor in 1962, and pledged "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" Then all hell broke loose.

Later in his career, Wallace mellowed out considerably. In his last years in office, he appoint more blacks to state jobs than any previous governor had. Blacks reciprocated by voting for him. Tuskegee Institute gave him an honorary degree. In 1986, a poll of black Alabamans named him the best governor in state history.

Wallace even showed up unannounced at Martin Luther King's old church in Montgomery and apologized to the congregation for his past actions. Coretta King, Jesse Jackson, and Medgar Evers' brother publicly forgave him.

But that's not the Wallace most of us remember. We remember him standing in the doorway turning away two black students trying to enroll at the University of Alabama. We remember him siccing Bull Connor, with his police dogs, water hoses, tear gas, and billy clubs, on peaceful protesters. We remember him falsely blaming Black Muslims for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls.

All that, Time magazine said last summer, to "peddle a racist ideology that, surprisingly, he doesn't even subscribe to."

Now George Wallace is an old man in constant pain in his wheelchair, who, according to his biographer Stephen Lesher, "wants desperately to become personally respectable."

"Why," Lesher quotes him asking repeatedly, "won't they rehabilitate me?"

He's not talking about his broken body.

Back in 1965 after the "Bloody Sunday" when Wallace's forces viciously beat back King's march at the edge of Selma, LBJ had a little talk with the governor.

Burke Marshall remembers the president "putting his arm around [Wallace] and squeezing him and telling him it's a moment of history, and how do we want to be remembered in history? Do we want to be remembered as petty little men, or do we want to be remembered as great figures?"

It's a question our gubernatorial candidates might consider before their next contest to see who can out-fag the others.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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