Monday, March 23, 2009

The Spirit of America: What Were They Thinking?

By William Fisher

What with the financial meltdown, two wars, and a myriad of other problems, even news-junkies can be forgiven for missing this story. So let me help you catch up.

Earlier this month, the great state of Mississippi celebrated “The Spirit of America Day” to commemorate the achievements of its outstanding male high school athletes.

“The Spirit of America Day” was blessed – as it has been for more than a generation -- by a resolution from the Mississippi state legislature (on a voice vote).

Seven teenagers were selected on the basis of their athleticism, leadership and citizenship.

“The endeavors of these individual students to be productive and contributing members of society provide the model example for other students to pattern themselves after, in efforts of becoming notable and model citizens for future generations to come,” said the resolution adopted by the House.

Well, why not? These kids probably worked their butts off to win. They’re role models, no? Why not recognize their achievement? Sounds like a good cause, right?

Wrong. No, there’s nothing wrong with the kids. They deserved to be honored. So what’s the problem?

Here’s the back-story:

“The Spirit of America Day” events are hosted by one Richard Barrett, a lawyer in Learned, Miss. Mr. Barrett is chairman of the board of America’s Foundation, a Mississippi sports organization that sponsors “The Spirit of America Day.”

He’s also the head of the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist organization that advocates striking down civil rights laws and organizes white power events nationwide.

Hatewatch, the authoritative publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, reports that Barrett, 65, has long denigrated minorities. In his 1982 autobiography, “The Commission,” he called for resettling non-white Americans to “Puerto Rico, Mexico, Israel, the Orient and Africa,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. He also argued that “the Negro race … possess[es] no creativity of its own [and] pulls the vitality away from civilization.” And he favored sterilization and abortions of those deemed “unfit.”

There’s more. Barrett marched on Martin Luther King Day last year in Jena, La., to deride King and the six black teenagers subjected to unusually harsh prosecutions for an attack on a white student. Nationalist Movement members and supporters chanted slogans such as, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.”

Last fall, he planned a Louisville rally in support of James Forde Seale, who was convicted of facilitating the Klan murder of two black teenagers. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

Barrett has also campaigned on behalf of other 1960s-era racist killers. After Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Barrett circulated a petition and led a march seeking a pardon from the Mississippi governor.

Although Barrett told the AP that he doesn’t share his racist views at “Spirit of America” events, the Anti Defamation League tells us that the “Spirit of America” isn’t Barrett’s only youth outreach effort. In 1988, he invited skinheads to his home for a weekend of paramilitary training. The few teenagers who attended tried to hit a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. during target practice, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported.

Barrett currently runs an online forum for skinheads, where he recently referred to President Obama as “Chimpanzee-in-Chief.” Hatewatch says his racist message is a hit with the young men who post there. ”No matter how many laws you pass a white woman will always be the ultimate prize and target of black men,” reads one recent post. “Long live you my brave brothers and thank God for this forum and the wise words of Richard Barrett.”

Now, exactly how does this kind of stuff happen in a state that now has the second highest number of elected black legislators in the South (after Georgia)? In the Mississippi House, African-Americans occupy 35 of the 122 seats; in the Senate, 11 of 52.

Where, you might ask, were these 46 lawmakers when this resolution passed on a voice vote?

Mostly A.W.O.L., it seems.

But not altogether. According to Hatewatch, Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson, one of the African-American legislators, told his fellow representatives that Barrett was “an avowed racist,” according to the Associated Press. “He’s not ashamed of it; he doesn’t apologize for it,” Johnson said.

Some lawmakers seemed to feel that the resolution was acceptable because it honored the students rather than Barrett. “I’m not concerned about this individual,” veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Warren told the AP. “I’m concerned about these young people being honored by this.”

Nonetheless, the resolution passed. And in an interview with the AP, Barrett sounded pleased about that. “I think that’s a good lesson of how patriotism and Americanism depend on majority rule,” he said. “It’s a great lesson in democracy that we’re learning.”

Right on. A great lesson indeed.

Remember when incoming U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told the audience at Strom Thurmond’s farewell birthday party that the United States would have avoided "all these problems" if the racist Thurmond had been elected president in 1948?

Lott was forced from office. But not by the State of Mississippi.

Dixie willing, Barrett will be around to sponsor the “Spirit of America” next year.