Bob Beckel was born in New York in 1948 and grew up in Connecticut. He’s three years younger than I am. I was born in the Jim Crow south in a coal camp in Kentucky in 1945. Bob is the senior member of the Fox News roundtable The Five, and is much older than all the rest of that crew. He is the self-appointed resident expert on the civil rights movement even though he was in middle and high school during most of it. He would have still been in college when Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Still he speaks with great familiarity and fond memory about Dr King as if he’d traipsed around behind him, which in fact, two of my high school classmates did while in college. Instead of Dr King, he traipsed around behind Bobby Kennedy during his 1968 presidential primary run, learning the elements of grass roots liberalism, as it was understood to be then.
Beckel has the rest of The Five crew bamboozled into believing that he is an expert on these things all because they are too young to question his authority. It was Bob’s father who was the civil rights activist (arrested 57 times according to Bob), so most of his knowledge about the MLK era probably came to him second hand. But Bob is a proud liberal, a term which has changed a lot since then. I quit being one in 1976 when Mary McGrory, a Washington columnist, stated that “modern liberalism stood for the proposition that all human conduct should be subject to the political process.” That cut it for me, but ever since, when a person proclaims himself a liberal, I always wonder whether he is a Liberal “of the Left,” or “not of the Left.” Turns out, depending on what he wants to talks about at the time, Beckel seems to be both, which, philosophically, is impossible. I don’t think he’s ever given it much thought, in fact. His comments are so self-contradictory one wonders if he really knows what either “liberal” or “being of the left” mean, and I think it is all wrapped up in his belief that liberalism rescued race relations and the legacy of MLK in America when in fact it was Dr King’s dream that was the first thing scuttled by liberals “of the left” after Dr King died.
Bob was still a kid then, so I can’t blame that part of that ugly turn in the history of race relations on him, but he sure did figure out very quickly which side his bread was buttered on, and has been eternally loyal ever since.
It’s about Bob’s disdain for white southerners that irritates me the most.
And therein lies a story.
When I was a kid my mother was often sick. When she took to her bed, a woman named Miss Motley would come over and tend to her, and cook, sometimes for 2-3 days at a time. And she’d bring two of her sons, one named Lester, about my age, and a younger son whose name I can’t recall. I was about 5 at the time. We’d play in the yard, sit down to eat with my dad and sister, and come bedtime, we’d soak in the bathtub together, then we’d put on our BVDs (actually Fruit of the Looms) and crawl into bed, all three of us. Then we’d all laugh and giggle until we fell asleep. Miss Motley slept on a cot in the bedroom with mom. (I can’t remember where Dad slept, maybe the couch, but he was up and off to work before we’d get up.) .
I most remember Lester because of those skinny little black legs sticking out from his underwear, because they had obviously been worn by a bigger kid before he got them; hand-me-down drawers. I think Miss Motley came over two more times to tend to Mom, the last when she had my baby brother at home instead of the hospital, when I was six.
Lester and I were never close pals except when he came to sleep over, for we lived in two separate parts of town, and would eventually go to two separate schools. This was a coal company town, so everyone who lived there worked there, and all the pay was equal. There were no poor people in my town. Nor rich ones. My town had a “colored” school and a white school, since separate-but-equal still ruled southern education in those days. Everyone walked to school. My town ran a mile down a single creek’s left bank, which fed into a river about two miles downstream, and our colored section was in the upper end, near the company store, post office and office area. Interestingly, (which I didn’t think about as a kid), the black neighborhood abutted the four or five streets that housed management, foremen and senior miners. Younger miners’ families lived another half mile down the creek, the lower end of town, arranged entirely by seniority. A dirt alleyway was all that separated the white section of town from the colored section, and this invisible line was only three streets over from where I lived.
Miss Motley lived in the very first house beyond that line. Everyone knew Miss Motley. She was a midwife, nurse, plus ran the best candy store in America. I have no idea how many children she had, but she was married to a man named Red, who was about half her size, and looked a lot like Morgan Freeman, with light hair and skin, and freckles. (It took me a few years to figure that out on my own.) They lived in one of those big two-story, double-sided frame houses, where normally two families would live. It was right across the street from their school, and the left side of that house had been turned into a little store for the students. Every time I ever found a penny, or a nickel, I made a beeline to Miss Motley’s to buy one of those 1-inch jawbreakers she kept on the counter in a big glass jar. Our company store, just two blocks away, had no such delicacies.
As you can imagine, as we grew older, Lester and I rarely played together or hung out. We’d still see each, or sit together when we’d go watch Bernard work out. No one ever sat me down and read me the facts of life about the racial rules of the day. It just happened. I’m sure going to different schools had something to do with it, but there was an unwritten code that once past a certain age, black and white kids no longer pal’d around together. They couldn’t go to my pool hall and I couldn’t go to theirs. Growing up I’d heard of the KKK, and knew they had a chapter in the town two miles down the river, which was a beer-hall-and-dry-goods town where miners spent their paychecks and we bought our groceries. After I was 15 I could hitchhike down there to the pool hall, where I learned some of my favorite cuss words. Black kids never went into any of those places, so I’m not sure where they played pool or learned to cuss.
But no one never paid no never mind that little blacks boys would sleep over at a white man’s house. It was not uncommon, anymore than my mom buying a mess of beans from a black woman then sitting outside the back door, shucking them together, speaking of mom things.. She took Miss Motley vegetables all the time, which was just a five minute walk. Nor would anyone ever pay any notice that white kids in the neighborhood would walk over to the back of the colored school in the summer time to watch a kid named Bernard Bickerstaff (current assistant coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers) shoot hoops behind the school. Everyday there were always 10-15 of us alongside an equal number of blacks, Lester and me included, chawing a big wad of purple bubble gum, oohing and aahing and admiring that 6’5 gazelle as he dribbled behind his back, made a dunk (illegal in high school basketball then), and drill 20-footers with the flick of his wrist. Bernard graduated in my sophomore year and I lost track of him until he became an NBA coach, where he ended up in a Milwaukee hospital with some heart problem in 1992, while I was attending one of my son’s swim meets. Isn’t is strange that two fellas from a Kentucky coal camp would find themselves in Milwaukee at the same time?” Nice man.
Bob Beckel was still in college when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and as I said, had worked for RFK that summer, not the civil rights movement. One was liberal, the other was not. I always found his pretense of closeness to MLK to seem contrived, perhaps based on stories learned from his father, but also perhaps on the reflected glory of liberalism as he saw it as a kid, which Bob today says he believes saved blacks from the evils of southern bigotry. He was just young and gullible enough to be at the front end of the rewriting of racial history in America, and never know it, since he had never known sleepovers with black kids, or played with them in their neighborhood. In fact, I doubt that Beckel had any first hand knowledge of the south, black or white, and probably never shook the hand of a black man that hadn’t been pre-vetted by appearing at a college mixer or a political event. His down-the-nose disdain for a southern racism he never witnessed, and his refusal to acknowledge an urban, largely northern racism that persists to this day, which his sainted liberalism not only created, but has institutionalized, for the most cynical of reasons, tells me a lot about that “of the Left” question I’d always wondered about him.
For proof, I offer Dick Gregory, my first liberal icon. When I was 16 (and Beckel was 13) I first saw Dick Gregory on the old Jack Paar Show, which ws the NBC late night before Johnny Carson. Gregory was the first black comedian to be invited to sit at the desk with the host after his routine (a big deal in 1961). Being from Chicago, his jokes were about the rube south, and ran like this:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you”. So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”
That was a liberalism I could like. But Gregory attacked northern hypocrisy as hard as he did southern bigotry. My favorite line was from a New York night club appearance in which he asked the audience:
“Wouldn’t it be funny if all this was burnt cork and you were all just being tolerant for nothing?”
Born in St Louis and raised in Chicago, by 1964 Gregory had become a full-fledged civil-rights activist, publishing a book, a #1 bestseller, with a title you can’t even write or say today, N****r. (I guess Glenn Beck wouldn’t even let Dick on his show, although Dick could still sit down with Paula Deen for a piece of apple pie.) I read it twice. He gave up stand-up and began going on hunger strikes, nearly dying a couple of time, which is how I followed him while I was in college and law school…there were always prayer vigils going on to keep him alive. Dick Gregory was always in my prayers.
But for a northern black man, Dick Gregory had insights that no other social observer of that period ever had. A close ally of Dr King, who was a southern minister (and Republican), and actually only knew the southern brand of racism, since 1965 Gregory had become MLK’s unofficial advisor of northern urban affairs, where he found a totally different cultural racism existing, since blacks in the north had access to everything southern blacks were denied, yet were still shut out.
Gregory, with a maxim I recommend everyone learn, explained the difference this way:
“In the South they don’t care how close you get, just as long as you don’t get too big,
while in the North, they don’t care how big you get, just as long as you don’t get too close.”
I’ve used that maxim several times, but somewhere along the way it dawned on me that of these two different ways for whites to view black people, the southern sin would die off far more quickly, and of natural death, and with far more finality. Indeed it has. James Meredith, another Republican, the first black to break the color barrier at the University of Mississippi, with the help of the 101st Airborne, in 1961, returned there (“the Promised Land” ex-pat blacks called it) in 1972 to enter politics…as a Republican. The vast majority of white South Carolinians just elected a black senator, Tim Scott, to prove my point. ‘Nuff said. What once was a creed among southerners even into the educated middle class now belongs almost exclusively to the snot-eyed, inbred, skin-head lowest reaches of southern gutters. Even the KKK can’t recruit anyone with an IQ in three digits these days. All they can do, in the words of Richard Pryor, is stand around and shout, “Who’re you gonna believe? Me, or your own damned lying eyes?”[…]