Hope, Not Kool-Aid

November 21, 2008

The email came a week or so after Barack Obama’s win in the presidential race.

“I became more worried,” it read, “upon watching the look on the faces of the O supporters after the victory – dancing in the streets.  It was a look, almost universally, of religious fanatics, who have just seen the Messiah.  They have just swallowed the Kool Aid.”

“…Swallowed the Kool Aid.” An interesting choice of phrase. A reference to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, in which 918 followers of the charismatic loon, The Rev. Jim Jones, drank Kool Aid spiked with cyanide at the good reverend’s direction, and died.

I think drinking the Kool Aid is what brought us the past eight years, by enough of the electorate buying into the idea that a “regular guy” you’d feel comfortable having a beer with is a good pick for the most miserable and powerful job on the face of the planet.

I saw the same news clips of the elation at Grant Park, but my take was a bit different.

I suppose it depends on what your preconceptions were, your own personal point of view, and fears, whatever.

Here is one of mine:

One of the most heinous Klan murders happened just 15 minutes from the house where I grew up in Athens, Ga.

It was in the summer of 1964, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The victim was Lemuel Penn, a Lt. Col. in the army reserve and a D.C.-area educator, husband and father.

He and two colleagues were on their way back from some Reserve event at Ft. Benning, Ga., when three KKK members pulled up next to the out-of-state car and gave Penn blasts from a pair of 12 gauge shotguns, blowing off the back of his head.

That happened at home, MY home.

This wasn’t the grim photos of lynchings in the rural South, grainy black & white images of some black man back in the distant past, sagging from a rope thrown over a tree branch, neck unnaturally long, while a crowd of self-righteous goons point at the corpse and sneer.

This was now.

This was today.

People I didn’t know, but knew by sight, had done this.

The world looked just like it always had. People went about their business, shopped for groceries, and did laundry. Adults talked about it in hushed tones, some fearful, some gleeful. Some of the kids at school joked about it. A good start, some said.

Years later, one of the Klansman involved in that murder, though not one of those in the car, owned a greasy spoon called The Open House Café across from where I worked the night shift at a print shop. I used to go there for coffee and watch him. If it was me the way I am now, after 20+ years as a reporter, I’d have asked him what he was thinking that night, what they thought they’d accomplish. But I was 19 or 20, and afraid.

It was a different time. Almost a different country. I mean in the sense of “Whites Only” signs over water fountains, and public restrooms labeled “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.”

Fast forward 44 years. Things are different. Not perfect but different. Change, as Obama said in his speech, has come to America, if at a glacial pace.

It wasn’t fanaticism we saw on those faces in Grant Park that night. To be sure, there were and are fanatics on all sides, some of whom would deify Obama, and some of whom would gladly put him in his grave rather than see him serve.

The light in those faces late on Election Eve was not the deification of Obama, but that of people who have for centuries stood out in the cold of our nation’s further reaches, allowed only to look in the windows and dream. On Nov. 4, they suddenly saw the door to that house open, and a hand beckon them to come in.

Coda: I believe all four of the Klansmen are now dead. One of the triggermen was shot in the chest by a shotgun some years ago, by a friend with whom he had been arguing.

The last time I drove by The Open House Café, which had been closed for some years, it had become a church.
© 2008 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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