Within the same week, CNN reported on the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the official start of Barack Obama's run for the White House.
For me, this race is personal.
Growing up in the South, I thought I knew what the Ku Klux Klan was. The folks in my neighborhood saw it as an extension of the law. We lived so far out in the country that, if trouble did occur, it would take the Bradley County Sheriff's Department 15-20 minutes to get there. In the 30 years I lived on the farm, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw a patrol car on our road.
And, though I never actually saw anyone in a hood and robe, it was always felt. The party line was, if a man was abusing his family and was too lazy to support them, a burning cross in his yard was a warning. If the warning went unheeded, "the militia" would take him out for "an attitude readjustment."
And, if that didn't work, his remains would be found some time later.
That's just the way it was in Buck's Pocket.
Then, about 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to ghost-write a history textbook about the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the 1920s. And, as I mentioned earlier, I just thought I knew what the Ku Klux Klan was. The historian I worked for had spent his entire career collecting primary evidence that even included an interview with the Grand Wizard himself.
Come to find out, there have been three Ku Klux Klans, and about the only thing they've had in common was the name. The first Klan existed from 1865-1871. The second Klan existed from 1915-1929. And, the third Klan appeared during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Dr. Snell's work focused on the second Klan.
I learned the second Klan began as a patriotic movement, a reaction to "the Huns" that were sweeping across Europe during WWI. At the top of their hate list were "hyphenated Americans," i.e., German-Americans and Italian-Americans. Then, they hated immigrants in general. Then, they hated Catholics. Then, they hated Jews. And, if there was any hate left over, they hated black folks.
I also learned it was the newspapers that eventually beat the Ku Klux Klan. Investigative reporters infiltrated the meetings and reported relentlessly what they saw. One day, the Klan would donate money to a school district, so it could keep its doors open. The next day, it would burn down a Catholic church. Day in and day out, the newspapers kept reporting the insane ups and downs of the Klan, until people just didn't want to have anything to do with it.
Now, here's the other half of the story, the half that makes it personal.
I never fit into Buck's Pocket. I was stuck in that world, but I wasn't of it. My father taught me early on to judge a man by his merits, not his skin color.
My father wasn't an eloquent man, but he knew the value of a true friend. And, pigment had nothing to do with it.
So, when I rushed my college fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, I was happy to learn that my fraternity was the only fraternity in America that was inter-racial from its inception. When I converted to Catholicism, it was partially because I wanted my family to know that God spoke to more than just hillbillies.
And, now, Barack Obama has become part of our national landscape. And, guess what. Barack Obama is my age. He was born on August 4, 1961; I was born on October 8, 1961. All my life, I've watched the Sunday political talk shows and it's been easy to see myself as the little kid watching the grown-ups run things. But, now, it's our turn. He's one of us.
Keep in mind that Barack and I have no living memory of segregation. At any large gathering, Barack and I have always been able to look around and see some black folks in attendance.
So, when I look at the Ku Klux Klan, I see the world that was handed to me, the world I rejected.
When I see Barack Obama, I see who I've become. I see who I want to be.
I see me.
As such, our nation faces a test of its core values.
Will Americans side with bigotry and fear? Or, will America side with opportunity and progress?