Around comes around, the black maxim says, and...

WHAT GOES

February 07, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHAT GOES around comes around, the black maxim says, and that applies to the politics of race. And how.

Kweisi Mfume and other black political leaders find themselves today facing the same sort of challenge that responsible moderate and conservative white political leaders in the Deep South had to confront 30-40 years ago.

There were probably more decent people than outright racists of the White Citizens Councils and Ku Klux Klan types. But nobody knew for sure, and the racists were very vocal and threatening. Governors and state legislators who knew the voices of white rage spewing venom and threatening violence (and not just threatening) needed to be denounced were afraid that doing so would end their careers. So they made modest little efforts to quiet the loudest bigots by co-opting them or only mildly criticizing their worst excesses.

They were often urged to do more by the few more or less liberal newspapers of the region. Often such urging was counter-productive -- for the same reason that a lot of the journalistic advice to Representative Mfume and others today is not real helpful.

White newspaper editors who opposed the bigots on the big civil rights issues of the 1950s and 1960s were mistrusted, to put it mildly, by the Southerners who openly or silently sided with or were intimidated by the white supremacists.

Such editors were denounced with an imaginative epithet, "known liberal." That was worse than being a Commie in some places. The two best-known known liberals of the day were Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson of the Atlanta Constitution. I worked for them on their editorial page for a while as a sort of apprentice known liberal.

I recall their musing over the problem of affecting public opinion. If in their columns or editorials they told moderate Governor So and So to do such and such in regards some race-mongering organization or individual, that alone made it more difficult for the governor to do it. His opponents would flay him with charges that he was doing the bidding of those awful known liberals.

(By the way, the best definition of a Southern moderate of those days came from journalist Calvin Trillin: "A white man not wearing sidearms.")

Well, all that was long ago. It surged up from my memory as I was trying to decide if I could write anything useful about what responsible black leaders should do in re the Khalid Abdul Muhammad flap.

He's the aide to Louis Farrakhan who has been making some very inflammatory remarks about Jews, whites and Catholics in recent speeches. His rhetoric is as disgusting and hateful as any ever heard at a cross burning.

I don't think I can write anything useful. I'm a known white man. I understand that Representative Mfume is going to have to do this his way. Just as, I'll bet, he understands that he is going to have to do it.

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