THERE WERE campus riots at Kent State and Berkeley, but Louisiana State University was a quiet Southern school of 20,000 where the most violent uprising was the roar from Tiger Stadium during football season. The prevailing campus attitude was that everyone had a right to say what he or she felt and to fight, non-violently of course, for what he or she believed in. We had peaceful walk-outs for longer dorm hours, sit-ins for the right of women students to wear pants rather than skirts to class, and candlelight vigils protesting the Vietnam War.
Thus David Duke was tolerated. He was an annoyance, an irritation, a joke to many. But day after day, his racist, reactionary rhetoric drew crowds of up to 40 students to a spot dubbed "Free Speech Alley" in front of the student union.
Many students stood with incredulous looks on their faces, shocked that anyone could believe the kinds of things he was saying. For his intellectual and articulate put-down of blacks and Jews flew in the face of the tolerant, peaceful mind-set prevalent across LSU and college campuses in America at the time.
Duke's claims were outrageous. A communist plot backed the political advancement of liberals, and promoted the mixing of the races, to ultimately weaken and overthrow the U.S. government. Mixing the races would dilute and reduce the superior white intellect. Jews were using the blacks to cause race riots so that they could emerge as peacemakers. The federal government's civil rights decisions subjugated whites and took away their civil rights. And the prisons were filled with many more blacks than whites (he quoted figures), blaming the crime problem on blacks.
Once he handed out a flier that said the Jews were trying to take over the country by infiltrating banking, government and major industry. The paper listed areas where Jews were becoming particularly numerous and setting a "dangerous precedent." As a Jew, I was so shaken by his wording that it remains indelibly etched in my brain 20 years later.
Many who listened shook their heads in disgust. Many, including myself, argued back. I remember taking exception to his denial that the Holocaust ever occurred. I wanted to know how he accounted for the extermination of millions of people. He claimed the figures were exaggerated and, yes, the Jews did suffer some losses but that Jews have historically suffered losses and setbacks and they should be used to it.
But standing there tall, thin and blond with any hint of handsomeness masked by hatred, he was an adept and convincing speaker who easily out-voiced anyone who didn't agree with him.
There were never many blacks in the crowd listening to Duke, but those who did brave the bashing were defiant. Duke never spoke to them. Instead, he just spoke to the crowd as if they didn't exist.
I always bristled because he wasn't just spreading hate, he was pushing propaganda that sounded believable. He was quoting facts and figures that no one could dispute because no one knew better or, even worse, bothered to take the time to look up. And he frightened me because if he so desperately believed in what he was selling, then how far would he take it? It is clear now how far: He's in the Nov. 16 runoff for keys to the Louisiana governor's mansion and perhaps later he'll seek the White House.
Instead of the hard sell he used 20 years ago as he stood among the live oaks and Spanish moss on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, now he stands before TV cameras and sugarcoats the same philosophy with facts and figures about welfare and affirmative action that few bother to dispute. It is a nice, neat package that the disgruntled voters of Louisiana, suffering hard times, will buy.
Family and friends in New Orleans tell me that many people feel that Duke's past is being dredged up just to make him look bad, that the general attitude toward Duke is that he is proposing much-needed reform in government giveaway practices.
Louisianans are good people, but they're not known for making wise election decisions. Duke has convinced many of them that he no longer espouses the KKK or American Nazi Party doctrine. That was his "bad boy" past, he says cavalierly.
But what Duke isn't saying is much more important than what he is espousing now. If ever a voting public needed to become informed and read between the lines, this is the time. Because if you look carefully, you can see the references to race that made him the highest-ranking cross-burner in the South. Avowed racists wholeheartedly support him. Closet racists find his rhetoric appealing because he's saying what they think but won't say. The David Duke I argued with 20 years ago beneath the Spanish moss is the same today; only the facade has changed.
Vicki Silverboard, a Miami Herald reporter, attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge from 1969 to 1973 when fellow student David Duke was espousing more caustic, racist doctrines.