A possible photo of John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
A possible photo of John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

My first trip to London in 1980 was eye opening. The first time my wife and I took a ride on the tube I was amazed to see so many Jamaicans, Pakistanis and other dark hued people waiting for trains. I’d grown up watching old movies in the afternoon from the Forties when English casts were all white. I hadn’t heard that England had opened its doors to so many of its dark-skinned subjects after the war. We had to get out beyond London to find the white Anglo Saxon England I had expected.

As in rural England a lot of rural America hasn’t seen that many dark hued folks.

When I moved to Minnesota from my semi-integrated Topeka, Kansas, in 1963 there was only one black resident in a town of 25,000 people. My mother called Mankato a “Lily White Town.”

There is an explanation for this. The white north didn’t want black people moving in next door. So, when black southerners got tired of lynching’s and picking cotton and being denied the right to vote they began a great seventy-year migration to the North. They followed neighbors to the big cities like New York, Milwaukee and Chicago where, by the millions, they were confined to a few square blocks.

As late as 1965 when my wife’s family was selling their home in Des Moines, Iowa, the neighbors were so alarmed to see a black realtor helping them that the neighbors offered to buy their house rather than see it sold to negroes. That was the year of the Voting Rights Act when the Civil Rights Era was supposed to be finished fixing America’s racism.

Paranoia about different people is nothing new. When I was in junior high I read the humorous book called Cheaper by the Dozen about the family of the efficiency expert Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr. He had a dozen kids and in one chapter a proper woman from a higher class of society came around to ask Mrs. Gilbreth to join the Eugenics Movement to keep America pure. Too many big ethnic families were overrunning the descendants of the Mayflower. In high dudgeon Ms. Gilbreth summoned all her children to assemble in the living room. The shocked eugenicist fled the house.

Fears of Catholics, Italian’s, Jews and other peoples from southeastern Europe began to dissolve in the aftermath of World War II because the military threw boys of all regions into the same units together (with the notable exception of still segregated black soldiers). After the war dozens of raven headed Italians (once Wops) became America’s most popular crooners in a nation far less preoccupied by their Catholicism.

Black soldiers stayed segregated until 1948 when Harry Truman unilaterally integrated the armed forces. That began a stampede of white southern democrats into a “Dixiecrat” Party which was a short waystation leading them to the Republican Party. It was led by South Carolina’s Senator Strom Thurmond who railed that Truman was mongrelizing the white race. (Although Thurmond had already miscegnated with his family’s black maid)

For Thurmond and his successors like George “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” Wallace, their racism was like peacock feathers, mostly for display. Because ignorance is learned I find it easier to forgive their voters. In the right hands ignorance can be educated away but these grasping politicians only reinforced it. And it was being washed away as many white Americans today are quick to point out. We came close to nailing racism in its coffin with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. But then the worms crawled out to play pinochle. One man stormed America making the ludicrous claim that our President was foreign born and thus an illegal President. And then the two men traded places. An alleged fraud was replaced by a genuine fraud.

Don’t get me wrong. Racists like John Wilkes Booth can do horrible things in their ignorance. He was there when President Lincoln concluded his famed Second Inaugural Speech with the words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” What was the Shakespearian Wilkes’s retort? “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

John Wilkes Booth was an honest racist.

Do I think our President is a racist? No. I think he’s worse than a racist.

Harry Welty’s column will be on hiatus while he spends June, July and August resuming his perennial turn at political candidacy.