(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Friday, December 27, 2002

I know that I am late to the discussion on Senator Frist's 1994 invocation of Marion Barry, and whether this was a racial appeal to racist voters. But the talk is still bouncing around the blogworld, and my holiday journey has reminded me that I really do know something about this that is different from what many people know. This is one of those rare posts -- I try to keep them to a minimum -- that is based on a declaration that you're really going to have to trust me because I'm something of an expert here.

Those days -- the early to mid 1990s -- were part of the period of my career in which (in addition to being a union lawyer and some other odds and ends) I was part of a great team of lawyers representing the City of Birmingham and (in some matters) its Mayor, in a variety of things growing out of a long-running attempt by the FBI and the U.S Attorney's Office to find something on the Mayor. The Mayor was Black. He was also honest and law-abiding, so the years of FBI/US Atty attempts to find dirt on him were completely unsuccessful.

But what I'm here to tell you about is that many of my white acquaintances, when I would run into them at bars and restaurants and parties etc., were eager to believe that he simply must have done something criminal and that it would be found eventually -- even long after all the probes had been closed with no charges having been brought. These were not merely the oldsters of my parents' and grandparents' generation; it also included people of my own age, then closing in on 30. It was rampant among white people, the desire to know that Black people were "incapable of self-government" as the saying went. And in a vast number of these conversations, in which I would sorely disappoint them with my honest belief that the Mayor was clean and that we had proven it, time and time again, the name of Marion Barry would be invoked -- at least there was Marion Barry, who gave temporary comfort to those looking for proof of the "incapable of self-government" theory. In those days in Alabama, and I would infer that the same was true in the state of Tennessee next door, Marion Barry was not a bad Mayor; he was a bad Black Mayor. There was a glee in white discussions of him that you simply won't find today in Alabama in a discussion of the white Mayor of Providence or the white Jim Traficant even if you can stir up a conversation about those guys. In the South in 1994 -- and to a large extent in the South today -- Marion Barry was joyfully exuberant code for "I told you so! Can't trust 'em! Whatchoo gonna say now, Mr. Liberal?" Anyone who tells you otherwise is either unfamiliar with the local dialect, or is trying to make excuses.

posted by sam 8:42 AM 0 comments


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