By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Robrt L. Pela
So Clinton's appointments are meaningful because traditionally Arkansas' politics have demanded that blacks keep their place--that they be compartmentalized and granted power only over one another. As recently as 1987, racial bigotry nearly resulted in the firing of University of Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson. A black man with a flamboyant personality, Richardson was going through a rough spell (his daughter had died of cancer and his team was losing games nearly as often as they won). Failing to fire Richardson, a heavyweight alumni group called the Razorback Club instructed university president Ray Thornton and athletic director Frank Broyles never to hire another black head coach. (Richardson recovered, but he's still the target of coded racist diatribes in the sports pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)
Similarly, in 1989 a white teacher in the small town of England, Arkansas, defended the segregationist policies of a public swimming pool by saying she felt "uncomfortable around blacks." She drew support from the Ku Klux Klan, a Little Rock radio talk show host and the editorial pages of the Democrat. (Clinton quietly, and with private funds, helped organize a biracial coalition among England high school students after the incident.)
While nearly 600 black Arkansans hold elective office, without exception they represent majority black areas and are presumed to have little influence beyond the "special interest" dictated by their skin. There's no viable black candidate for statewide office, and though recent redrawings of district lines have made it conceivable that a black candidate could be elected to Congress, at least three of the state's four congressional districts seem impenetrably white.
Hope, Arkansas, is the south Arkansas town where Billy Blythe--the boy who was to grow into Bill Clinton--lived his first four years. Hope is fairly typical of small-town life in the South. While an outsider might have trouble distinguishing the working-class-white neighborhoods from their black counterparts, or in distinguishing a qualitative difference between the squalid trailers of "white trash" and the shotgun shacks of poor blacks, there are clear caste boundaries in Hope. The locals know which streets are which and generally keep to their own.
Eldridge and Edith Cassidy, Blythe/Clinton's maternal grandparents with whom he lived while his widowed mother went away to nursing school, ran a general store in a rural area near Hope that was one of the few places where blacks and whites might mingle. The Cassidys extended credit to both whites and blacks alike, and are remembered in the community as somewhat self-righteous social liberals. The uglier term, which still has surprising currency in south Arkansas, is "nigger-lover." The young Clinton heard the term frequently and today he credits his grandparents with developing his moral instinct.
"I know how people are divided," Clinton told New Times. "I've seen it, I grew up with it. If there's anything I feel strongly about, it's this question. We can't let ourselves be torn apart like this."
Clinton acknowledges that the 1957 Central High crisis, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered National Guard troops to seize Little Rock's high school to prevent nine black students from enrolling, turned him into a civil rights activist. One familiar chapter of the Clinton hagiography has the preteen Billy Blythe instructing his mother on the injustice of American apartheid.
When the future governor was 4 years old, his mother married Roger Clinton and the family moved to the spa town of Hot Springs, a more prosperous village than Hope. Here, the candidate says he developed an affinity for black culture, largely through his exposure to music. A redoubtable tenor saxophonist, Clinton (who legally changed his name when he was 15 in an attempt to soothe family tensions) fell in love with the major chord changes of black gospel, rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. He admits Elvis Presley--the white boy with the black sound--as a hero, claiming that news of Presley's death in 1977 brought him to the brink of tears.
(In 1988, however, when Clinton made his famous Tonight Show appearance to atone for his stupefying 33-minute keynote speech at the Democratic Convention, he elected not to fulfill his rock 'n' roll fantasy, and instead performed Gershwin's "Summertime." "I remember Joe Cocker was on there with me," Clinton said. "I wanted to play with him but I was too scared to askHe had a wildass band, this real scary bass player.")
At Georgetown, Clinton was as well-known as antiwar activist and outspoken supporter of civil rights as class politician. In his now-famous letter explaining his decision not to return to the University of Arkansas and its ROTC program, Clinton wrote:
"I worked for two years in a very minor position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committeefor the opportunity, however small, of working against a war I despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam."
Clinton remembers being tremendously affected by John Kennedy--whom Clinton met when he was a 16-year-old high school delegate to a national convention in Washington, D.C.--and the president's younger brother Robert, and Clinton has publicly expressed his desire to re-forge the coalition between the black underclass and white labor that briefly coalesced in support of RFK.
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