Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Odd Brushes with History at the OK Corral and a Tragic Day in Memphis

Two good reads came from History Book Club recently, Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assasin by Hampton Sides and The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How it Changed the American West, by Jeff Guinn.

My dad took us to Tombstone when we were kids and it was a fascinating place to drink sarsaparilla and stand in the shadows of the Earps and Clantons at the OK Corral (even if it did really happen just down the street.) Even then, my dad, Western fan that he is, wisely cautioned that it isn't always easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

It was a little easier to tell in the assassination of Dr. King. The great civil rights leader certainly had his faults, but the murderer was vile and clearly motivated by evil prejudice. And J. Edgar Hoover doesn't come out that well either even if he eventually got his man with the help of Scotland Yard and British Customs and Immigration at Heathrow.

So, my little brush with that history is rather odd. I read in the Side's book that King's killer on the run stayed in a hotel in London at 35-37 Penywern Road, Earl's Court. That was just down the street from where we stayed last summer! Here's the proof. Go to the constantly amazing Google maps and search for the address.  You can click on the street view and turn just a little to the left and you can see this scene (without me) that I snapped on an early morning last August trying to recover from trans-Atlantic jet lag (I don't always look this bad):

Penywern Road, Earl's Court, London, England
I don't know what that means, but I haven't spent any time in Memphis, Tennessee other than a drive through on a trip West, or even in Atlanta, except for pass-throughs in the airport.

But now back to some interesting explanations of Texans, Westerners and Southerners which may give us some insight to the deep background of supporters of  Rick Perry and others now trying to be President (when they are not stirring up "secesh" talk).
The town's rival newspapers were engaged in all-out editorial war. The Nugget was unabashedly Democrat in its leanings, favoring minimal government intervention in territorial and local issues, and claiming that "cowboy depredations" were grossly exaggerated by area leaders who wanted to enrich themselves at the expense of individual freedoms. The Republican Epitath took the opposite view: The cowboys were menaces not only to local safety, but to Tombstone's reputation. . . . The Epitaph demanded federal intervention, currently forbidden by congressional edict. . . .
Guinn, at 4-5. Remember, before the New Deal of the 1930s and the Southern Strategy of the 1960s you have to switch Repub and Dem philosophies. The Earps, off and on federal marshals as well as local law enforcement, were clearly Republicans.
Except in times of physical danger, Westerners generally wanted their government to leave them alone. Laws and taxes represented the kind of impositions that they came west to escape. But they also wanted, and expected, federal arms to protect them from Indians, Mexican raiders, and outlaws that territorial lawmen couldn't control or track down.
Guinn, at 13.
[Cowboy outlaws] considered themselves to be lawbreakers but not criminals, an important distinction. Law represented everything they resented--government intrusion, with marshals and sheriffs and Texas Rangers telling them what they could and could not do. Disturbing the peace, stealing cattle, even robbing stages were in some sense acts of defiance against oppressors. Though some of the cowboys did not initially hail from the South, they subscribed to Southern resentment of any interference with personal freedom. Many were either from Texas or had spent considerable time there; they brought with them to Arizona Territory the bone-deep nineteenth-century Texan prejudice against Mexicans, former persecutors who had been beaten back by the force of arms. Protective as they might be of struggling ranchers in southeast Arizona, the cowboys took delight in stealing from near-impoverished settlements south of the border. To the cowboys, most Mexicans had no rights. They loathed them.
Guinn, at 100. I make no accusations of modern criminal behavior, yet some of these attitudes certainly sound familiar.

And even much uglier, was the family background of Dr. King's killer:
the despair was panoramic. The family suffered from exactly the sort of bleak, multigenerational poverty that King's Poor People's Campaign was designed to address. Living on a farm near tiny Ewing, Missouri, the Rays were reportedly forced to cannibalize their own house for firewood to get through the winter--ripping it apart, piece by piece, until the sorry edifice fell in on itself ant they had to move on, to a succession of equally shabby dwellings up and down the Mississippi.
Sides, at 336. One of those places they lived, ripe with Mormon history irony, was Carthage, Illinois. Ray's father:
wanted to make it clear that he wasn't a racist--and didn't raise his kids to think that way. "I don't hate n{------]s," he said, noting that around Ewing there weren't any black folks anyway. On the other hand, he pointed out, "They aren't the same as us. They just lay around and [breed]."
Sides, at 338.
As he thought about his son's present troubles, he was convinced that where Jimmy went wrong was in failing to heed his childhood lessons, the ones Speedy [his dad] ingrained in him over and over again--that the little guy can't win, that the cards are stacked against him, that the best course is to keep your identity murky and aim low. "People try to get too much out of life," . . . "Sometimes I think Jimmy outsmarted himself. I can't figure out why he tried to compete with all them bigshots. Life don't amount to a s[---] anyway. Jimmy had too much nerve for his own good. He tried to to too far too fast."
Sides, at 339.

I'll end with the observation that it does seem like the ones who deny racism the most strongly are often, well, maybe you should draw your own conclusions. And I will assert that it is tragic that the lower one's life is, the more necessary it seems to put someone or a group of others in an even lower place.

Poverty and ignorance help no one. Yet it is most vile when people manipulate to their advantage the fear and hate that come out of them.

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