Leaving that unfair, racist mob action masquerading as a Democratic precinct meeting in the spring of 1972, I was too angry to speak.
I wondered what was going on in the mind of my almost 18-year-old son. Would this early experience of betrayal turn him completely off of politics and civic life, and make him cynical about his neighbors and fellow citizens? Realizing how upset I was, suddenly he turned to me, put his arm around me as he pushed back his long, wavy hair with the other hand, grinned and said:
"Forget it, Mom. They aren't really attacking me. They're just scared to death of change. I bet they'll feel too bad to sleep tonight. I'd a lot rather be me looking to the future than be them, winning a battle that is doomed to lose in the long run. Let's just forgive 'em and love 'em anyway."
He turned out to be more right than he knew. Overt Southern racism, hostility to women who worked and were "liberated," with minds of their own, and hostility to long-haired, peace-loving young people was indeed on its way out, in the Democratic Party at least. Just four years later, Democrats in our county -- black and white, young and old --and indeed Democrats throughout the South -- were pretty much united in support of a candidate for President who strongly supported integration, opposed segregation, praised Martin Luther King, supported a woman's right to choose, and promised to pardon or grant amnesty to those "long-haired, damn-fool hippies" who opposed the Vietnam War by going to Canada.
Whatever else one might say about the disappointments of President Jimmy Carter, for a time he was a symbolic figure of healing and liberation in the South -- someone who represented the re-unification of the South with the rest of the nation as, finally, a truly equal, if not dominant, economic and political partner.
No longer shackled and ashamed by abject racism, in 1976 we could finally bind up most of the open wounds left from the racial battles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We could let go, at least for a time, of the divisive arguments between Vietnam hawks and doves, between supporters and opponents of Richard Nixon, between black power advocates and segregationists, between young radicals and old establishmentarians.
And my son and I learned that the darkness of the human heart that Shirley Jackson so well illustrated in The Lottery, and that had so shocked us in our own village in the spring of 1972, does not always, in the long run at least, win out.
New rules enacted by Senator George McGovern's commission on delegate selection in 1970 opened up the Democratic Party to what many activists perceived as a closed political process. Before 1972, political primaries -- in which "the people" decided who their party's political nominee would be -- were infrequent if not a rarity. Only a handful of states had held presidential primaries in 1968.
Many women, minorities and young people in 1968 saw the Democratic Party as controlled by paternalistic white men, operating in closed-door, smoke-filled rooms, wielding power if necessary with clubs and night-sticks, as exemplified by "Boss" Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, and the "police riot" at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
A few years earlier, after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required the desegregation of public accommodations, President Lyndon Johnson had predicted that the law would radically change the traditional Southern way of life, eliminate institutional racism, but at the same time Johnson predicted it would eliminate the Democratic Party's political chances in the South for a generation. He was right. The formerly "solid South" that voted Democratic without question for 100 years would soon become competitive for the Republicans, and by 1980, with Ronald Reagan, the "solid South" would indeed become solidly Republican.
McGovern's delegate seletion commission was designed to encourage if not require that women, minorities and young people be represented in executive boards and in the Democratic Party leadership structure. Old guard Democrats and many Republicans were offended and outraged by this change, asserting that Democrats now favored "quotas" and "affirmative action."
They also believed that in selecting McGovern, Democrats were abandoning traditional values of loyalty to God, abstinance from sex and drugs, the honor of serving in the military, respect and obedience to the establishment, to the government and to the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, who they faithfully believed in, a man who would never lie to the American public about such a thing as a break-in at the Watergate hotel, and who sincerely sought "peace with honor" in Vietnam. It was not the place of long-haired, drug-smoking young people to question government authority, they believed, but to OBEY the law, as they had done a generation earlier when called upon to serve in World War II.
Segregationist "Dixiecrats" like Senator Strom Thurmond and WRAL-TV commentator Jesse Helms left the Democratic Party for the Republicans, where they were welcomed with open arms by Richard Nixon. In 1972, many Southerners followed Thurmond and Helms, abandoned the Democratic Party and voted in droves for Nixon. In North Carolina, they elected Helms to the United States Senate against a peace-nik Greek named Nick Galifianakis, a congressman from Durham. Helms appealed to provincial values. His campaign slogan that year was "he's one of US," suggesting that the Greek-American with the long funny name couldn't understand traditional Southern voters the way that Helms could. He was apparently right, because he won in a landslide that year, and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate for 30 years.
Scotland County, like many places, reflected this political turmoil. A "new guard" of women, blacks, college professors and their children took control of the Democratic Party executive committee in the Old Guard's absence and apathy.
Political conflict in the community was reflected in the household of Lillian Secrest Buie and her husband John Buie. John was an old-style Democrat. He was taught by his parents to never, never vote Republican. The damn Yankee carpetbagger Republicans had treated Southerners abominably after the civil war, he was taught. Republicans were sympathetic to the demonic scorched earth policies of General William Tecumsah Sherman badly, he was taught. Republican Herbert Hoover "caused the Great Depression," he knew, and he and his kin folk revered Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal for saving their farms and for saving the South.
John and Lil shared a reverance for FDR's New Deal. They were both "yeller dawg Democrats" -- they would vote for a yeller dawg before they would ever vote for a Republican. But in the 1960s and 1970s, they parted political company on civil rights, integration, the role of the federal government vs. states rights, poverty, welfare, the war in Vietnam, the rights of women and emerging feminism, and on the behavior of young people in politics and music.
Lil Buie allied herself with her children and her students against the old-time, traditional Southern values of her husband and his kin. Enough of her neighbors in Scotland County apparently agreed with her, because a New Guard "reform" group of blacks, women and St. Andrews college professors took over the county Democratic Executive Committee in 1970. But the Old Guard wasn't about to quietly disappear that quickly, as she learned from that bitter Democratic Party precinct meeting in the spring of 1972.
Perhaps you remember those times and events differently. What do you think?
My literal-minded students could not believe the ending of Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery". Their journals indicated their confusion. Nobody would stone a friend to death for drawing the marked numbers in what appeared to be a traditional game.
Other students immediately caught the author's message, rendered through shock, and saw themselves blindly following the crowd, later feeling guilty that they'd been a part of cruelty to a friend.
By sharing an unforgettable experience of betrayal from trusted neighbors and loved ones, I think I helped my young friends get the story's message. Years later, the memory was still vivid enough to evoke pain.
Democratic precinct meetings are never well-attended. Party leaders generally have had things their way because no one ever bothered to challenge them. Not paying attention to new rules that required the Party to reach out to women, minorities and young people and place them in leadership roles, the Old Guard of conservative Democrats in our county, didn't bother to show up in significant numbers for precinct meetings in 1970. Many of them had supported segregationist third party candidate George Wallace when he ran for President in 1968, and were planning to do so again in 1972. But when they found themselves no longer holding positions of power within the local Party -- ousted by a bunch of blacks, women and "long-haired hippie-types" -- they weren't going to sit by passively and let it happen.
On a spring night in 1972, my teenage son and I walked out our door, headed around the corner to town hall, expecting a handful of Democrats to join us in choosing officers and forming resolutions for the coming year. Instead we found Main Street teeming with 200 villagers (the town's total population is only 500). The crowd was spilling out onto Highway 401 where a pick-up truck served as a platform.
Our surprised black chairman -- a fellow teacher -- stood before a mike, his serious, intelligent face revealing his wonder at the turnout, so different from the boycott he had learned to expect from white citizens during his term in office.
When he called the meeting to order, and capably disposed of old business, he opened the floor to nominations of new officers. Immediately, a stout, middle-aged man, a large landowner in the county, demanded to be heard and read a slate of officers, in the same breath moving that his slate be adopted unanimously.
Before the expected second, I jumped to my feet and made an impassioned plea for fairness, and for understanding between the two factions.
Lifelong friends, family members, including our loving Aunt Mary, Mary Anna, our closest and dearest elderly neighbor Lena, and several young men and women, including ex-students I'd taught and loved over the years, carefully avoided my eyes as I spoke. Instead, they turned to their leaders, to the lawyer advising them. After a whispered consultation, he recommended that other nominations be allowed.
Mumbles of "nigger" and "young hippie fools" could be heard as we attempted to place active members of the Party into nomination. Our efforts were in vain. My son Jim, who knows so much about politics and has been so active in the county, in the state, and even in Washington, was defeated for the youth slot by a young married women who wouldn't know whether a donkey or an elephant represented her party, and would vote only if her husband or father told her which lever to pull.
Our bright, sensitive black chairman, who holds an advanced degree in science, was replaced by an aging landholder who still lived in the past, on the deeds of his ancestors.
I couldn't believe that those dear people, who had nurtured my children from infancy, were denying my son, who they knew to be well-qualifed. At the signal from their leader, they raised their hands like robots, voting to limit the discussion, to refuse to hear further motions, to approve their slate as a block, and to adjourn the meeting.
Averting their eyes, they scurried past us to their cars like hunted animals, although for many of them, home was just a block or two away. Jim and I walked home alone in the darkness, not only the darkness of the night, but in the darkness of the human heart that we had just experienced, the same darkness that Shirley Jackson illustrated so well in her short story, The Lottery.
The summer of 1969, Lil and John chaperoned a group of 18 high school students to London, Exeter, England and Paris, France for six weeks, and not only survived, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The entire trip, all expenses paid, cost about $800 per person. The expenses of Lil and John were paid for because they were chaperones.