Thursday, 18 February 2016

Proof of Redemption

I was leafing through the Seattle Daily Times for 26 November 1963 when I happened upon a fascinating crumb of history.

Readers of a certain age will recognise this date as one of a particularly dark and troubling string: four days before, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by a sniper, in the urban core of Dallas, as massive crowds looked on.

I was too little to remember, but the hushed recollections of elders would be a counterpoint of my youth. A pall settled on everything for weeks. Months.

Forever, to be honest.

But what intrigues me today, reading the press of the time, is how steadfastly the American people manned their stations. This was the height of the Cold War, when paranoia and drunken raving about alleged enemies were standard, even among the otherwise level-headed. And the assassin was one of the dozen-odd non-imaginary Marxists in the US: a fair-dinkum Communist Party member who'd once repudiated his country and applied for Soviet citizenship. What are the odds?

Yet even the Seattle Times – a firmly, sometimes cartoonishly, right-wing organ in those days – ran no fist-shaking diatribes, no calls to abandon civil rights or judicial sovereignty, no petitions to torture suspected terrorists, as too great a threat to entrust to America's ill-conceived, chuckleheaded law.

The contrast with today is jarring. But it gets even better.

Floating mid-page, among pieces on the subsequent sensational murder of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, and the presidential funeral the day after that, is the following headline:

Tacoma Ultra-Rightist Quits Post Over Kennedy Slaying

Say what?

Check it out, brothers and sisters:
TACOMA (AP) A Tacoma leader of an ultra-conservative organization resigned today because of President Kennedy's assassination. He said all extremists must share the blame.
J. (Bud) Nelson said he had written Frederick R. Kluge of Burley, head of the state organization:
"Though it was a left-wing Communist who wantonly assassinated our President... I feel that every radical, left and right, had his hand on the rifle butt and finger on that trigger.
"We are all guilty (morally) of fomenting hatreds of one sort or another, thus guilty of a common act of cruelty.
"Therefore I have no choice but to hereby tender my official resignation from the Washington Council, Citizen's Councils of America. And I pray to my God that he forgive me for harboring any prejudices that I might have harbored."
Nelson, who announced formation of the Tacoma chapter a few months ago, said that henceforth he would devote his energies to fighting "those who oppose our great American ideals of freedom for all – no matter the race, color or creed – and justice for all."

Jizo H. Bodhisattva!

For those too young to have to know, Citizen's Councils of America were the political wing of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally a loose affiliation of White Citizens Councils set up to orchestrate violence against black citizens and their white supporters in Southern states, by the late 50s they'd modified their name and struck out to organise bigots across the nation.

"Ultra-conservative" is a euphemism in this context; this-here is a sho' nuff Axis of Evil.

So Mr. Nelson hadn't just bumbled into this group; this guy had a major hate on, and had pulled others like him into what must have been one of the state's largest CCA chapters.

And yet he was a man of conscience. He had, somewhere inside, that inquisitor that demands an unblinking account of one's own responsibility for suffering. It's the genetic origin of decency, and under adequate pressure it asserted itself, trumping such powerful attachments as peer pressure and fear of admitting error.

This doesn't happen every day. In this case, it's almost miraculous.

I did my best to follow up on the story, but only succeeded in verifying the man's existence. He vanishes from the news thereafter, and apparently from politics as well. There are no further memberships, no board minutes, no letters to the editor, that the Internet recalls. If he later reverted to his rightwing predilections, or continued on the path of enlightenment, he did so privately, without attempting to enlist others.

But my God, what a moment. Few have the courage to examine themselves as he did, or to atone so publicly.

I could have known Bud Nelson; he lived twenty minutes from where I grew up. He's gone now, so I'll never get to ask him what that moment was like, or what it came to mean to him over the years.

But one way or the other, his story is yet more proof that it does happen. However rarely, some people undergo a crisis of conscience, and come out the other side redeemed.

It's not just me.
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