We are in a strange place when, days from a vote to pick an American president and – in Georgia – settle a statewide dispute over charter schools, political discourse is focused on a 91-year-old man attempting to explain a 50-year-old joke.
But that’s where a host of journalists and the Rev. Joseph Lowery had gathered on Friday, in a downtown Atlanta office building at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Absurd Street.
By definition, a dissected joke is a failed joke– no matter how reliable its service might have been in the past. The elder of the Civil Rights era knows this. Throughout his long life, he’s been something of a cut-up.
“I’ll say something at the beginning to relax people and cut through whatever hostility or apprehension there might be,” said Lowery, whose middle years at the height of the movement were fraught with hostility and apprehension.
This was the fellow who helped lead the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the ‘50s. He and Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. You do not make people easy about race by ignoring the topic. You do it by confronting it.
Eight days ago, in the small town of Forsyth, Lowery and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, 80, made a stop at a local church. It was part of an effort to boost votes for President Barack Obama in Georgia.
When Lowery’s turn to speak arrived, he dragged out a tried-and-true chestnut. “I told the story of when I was a bad militant, a bad fellow, I said, ‘White folks are going to hell.’ And it always got a laugh from white folks, because white folks don’t think they’re going to hell.
“But then when I got converted and became a preacher and Christian, I changed my mind,” Lowery continued. Only some white people, he decided, were hell-bound.
But a punchline requires bite, and this was it: Given their recent behavior, Lowery said, he’s considering a return to his original position.
The joke dates back to the 1960s, Lowery estimated. I probably first heard it in the 1980s. Diane Glidewell heard it for the first time last Saturday. She’s a writer for the Monroe County Reporter, the local weekly, and didn’t think it was a joke. Or funny.
“I’m frightened by the level of hatred and bitterness coming out in this election,” she quoted Lowery as saying.
Glidewell also wrote that Lowery used the n-word as he condemned the hundreds of thousands of black Georgians who won’t vote next Tuesday, even with an African-American president at the top of the ticket.
Lowery said he used the word “Negro” – and doesn’t employ the other phrase at all. The reporter says she has no audio recording.
Fox News and conservative outlets on the Internet couldn’t resist the headline over the Monroe Reporter article: “Lowery: Don’t think whites going to heaven.”
They focused on the fact that Lowery had delivered the benediction at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Which was one reason that Lowery responded with his Friday session with reporters, attended by his wife Evelyn and a dozen white, black and tan supporters.
“Obviously, there are people that would like to use anything to get at the president. We’re not stupid. We know what’s happening,” Lowery said.
The name wasn’t mentioned, but there’s no doubt that Lowery also would rather not see his 60-year legacy go the way of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
“I’ve never been more surprised that people didn’t realize I was kidding, and took it and made something nasty of it,” Lowery said. “I would never wish anybody seriously to go to hell. We could never have had the gains in the Civil Rights movement without the support and participation from God knows how many white people. We certainly couldn’t have elected Obama,” he said.
Besides, people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Theresa, Joe Biden, Madonna, Betty Grable and Hedy Lamarr – “You’re too young. Look her up” — all deserve their shot at the Pearly Gates, he said. Ba-dum-dum.
There is another reason worth paying serious attention to this fracas. For a man in his ninth decade, Lowery still wields serious clout in Georgia.
Only hours after the Monroe County Reporter posted its account of his speech online, Lowery’s voice was featured in a series of radio spots condemning Amendment One, the ballot measure to reaffirm state government’s authority to create charter schools – even when local school systems reject them.
The 60-second spots will be aired through Tuesday on stations with African-American audiences. “Don’t let them resegregate our schools,” Lowery says in the ads. He isn’t joking.
African-Americans in favor of the measure, and in search of alternatives to urban school systems, have politely hinted that Lowery is dating himself. “The time has come for us to move beyond the comparisons of education reform efforts to brutally painful and overtly inhumane periods in our nation’s history,” said state Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur.
There is no doubt that Lowery has learned that humor translates differently across the decades. “I will never use this story again!” he declared, reading from a prepared script.
“That’s probably not true,” Lowery then confessed, off-script. “I like that story. And it’s original. I didn’t steal it from Jesse Jackson, as he has stolen from me.”
Which is a joke — and a good one. Though it’s probably 50 years old, too.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider