(This post has been through more than a dozen iterations before reaching the form you see here. I still don’t like it, but sometimes a guy just has to hit “publish” and move on.)
Somebody reached this blog recently by searching on the phrase “were the Allman Brothers racist?” You might expect them to be, long-haired white boys from Georgia and all. But the first concert Duane and Gregg Allman ever attended featured Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, B.B. King, and Patti LaBelle, and one of their bands, 31st of February, recorded “God Rest His Soul,” a song about the death of Martin Luther King that praised him as a peacemaker. And they weren’t the only white Southern rockers whose fandom and influences crossed racial lines—even the members of Lynryd Skynyrd, which would eventually adopt the Confederate flag as a symbol, were friendly with a black man named Curtis Loew and later wrote a song about him. Many white Southern acts covered black blues songs.
Some went further. In an essay titled “‘Luther King Was a Good Ole Boy’: the Southern Rock Movement and White Male Identity in the Post-Civil Rights South,” Mike Butler says: “While covering old blues songs on their albums represented a step of rebellion in the post-civil rights South, the decision to pay tribute to the music, cuddle black children, and include blind bluesmen on the album covers [as Wet Willie did on their biggest album, Keep on Smilin’] proved to be even more rebellious.”
(The Butler essay is currently unavailable online, which is too bad because it’s great, and it would be a worthwhile read on this day.)
I don’t know—on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in this sesquicentennial year of the Gettysburg Address, in this year in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was largely eviscerated by the Supreme Court—exactly how we get over our historical tendency to hate and fear people of other races. It’s no great revelation to say that change will have to come from the attitudes of individuals, more so than the actions of institutions. It’s true that what institutions do matters a great deal. The law can make you do things—forcing Southern states to permit more equal access to the voting booth, for example. But it can’t make you believe those things are right—which is why Southern states (and others, including Wisconsin) are rushing to institute procedures that would be illegal under the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years of institutional force didn’t change enough minds, and we’re right back where we started.
The open-mindedness of the individual Allmans, members of Skynryd, and the guys in Wet Willie—and the millions of other Americans, white and black, who have figured it out—hasn’t proven to be enough. The mythology of the Lost Cause continues to resonate, and the neo-Confederate ideology that animates today’s Republican party is absolutely toxic to racial progress. The result is that the losing side of the Civil War is winning significant battles 150 years later, and America is more screwed up on the subject of race than at any time since the March on Washington.
Maybe some future generation wiser than ours can figure out how to bridge the divide for good and all. On this day, it’s a thin reed, but it’s all the reed we’ve got.