Tea Baggers, Ku Kluxers, and Red Shirts

The Tea Baggers keep on whooping and hollering.

They’re not fooling anybody. They’re scared stiff.

Away from the TV cameras and the “liberal media” newshounds, they’re licking their wounds from the health care reform fight. But it was only the latest battle angry white folks have lost in the country’s current culture war, the one that started more than 40 years ago.

The Tea Baggers remind this union-card-carrying Hubert Humphrey Democrat of the “white backlash” voters of the 1960s — more on that in a minute.

“A lot of us have been saying for a long time that much of this is not about health care at all,” the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quoted Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., after Tea Baggers yelled racial and homophobic epithets at a pair of Democratic congressman and spat on another one.

The three lawmakers were on the way to the Capitol to vote for the health care bill everybody knew was going to pass. The bigoted barbs and the great expectorations were parting shots from an enemy resigned to defeat, yet determined to go down Götterdämmerung style.

Indeed, the Tea Baggers are steamed over more than what they continue to trash as “Obamacare.” Most of all they fear – and hate — what the president represents: a new America that’s not their, well, cup of tea.

The Tea Bagger movement’s spiritual forebears – the White Citizens’ Councils and the George-Wallace-for-president-in-‘68 crowd come to mind – went apoplectic when Congress passed historic civil rights bills in the 1960s.

These same white people who ranted against “race mixing” were no more welcoming to women’s rights and gay rights, which came later. Both were boosted by more government action on the equality front.

But it was Barack Obama’s election that tore it for the Tea Baggers.

Oh, the uber-right-wingers detested Bill Clinton, too. Even so, not nearly as many of them hit the streets screaming on his watch. He was, after all, a white guy (but one some Tea Bagger yahoos doubtless would call a “n—-r lover”).

It must kill Tea Bagger souls that so many other white people voted for Obama. He couldn’t have gotten elected otherwise.

So Tea Party rallies are also group hug sessions. They’re therapeutic and cathartic. They are the best of times and the worst of times for those who want to “Impeach the Muslim Marxist,” according to their protest signs.

Rallygoers get to congratulate each other for casting ballots against a man who, other Tea Bagger signs say, is a fan of “WHITE SLAVERY.”

At the same time, they get to commiserate collectively – oh, misery does love company – over us, the “MORANS” who elected Obama “Lier in Chief,” according to other Tea Bagger signs apparently produced in dictionary-free zones.

So the Tea Baggers soldier on, still bragging that Obama will be a one-termer. Down deep inside, they fear he’ll be a two-termer.

Passage of health care reform was an especially hard knock. The Tea Baggers and their Republican puppeteers really thought they had killed the bill.

Then came the resurrection, dashed hopes, and “the bullying, threats, and acts of violence,” Charles M. Blow wrote in the New York Times. “But they’re only the most recent manifestations of an increasing sense of desperation,” he added.

Blow said the Tea Bagger tantrums outside the Capitol are “an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of ‘take our country back.’ The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.”

Blow said “even the optics must be irritating” to the Tea Baggers. After all, “a woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.”

Crazy they went. As the pro-health-care reform lawmakers neared the Capitol, they had to run a Tea Bagger gauntlet.

Some of the Tea Baggers called Georgia Rep. John Lewis a “n—-r.” Tea Baggers spat upon Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri , who is also African American. “Faggot!” they yelled at Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, who is gay.

“It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis, and Cleaver – none of them major Democratic players in the health care push – received a major share of…abuse,” Frank Rich wrote in the Times. “When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan ‘Take our country back!,’ these are the people they want to take the country back from.”

Rich echoed Clyburn on what’s really blowing Tea Bagger gaskets: “The health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.”

Other “existential reordering” has roiled the republic. Health care reform is to the Tea Baggers what evolution was to folks like them in the 1920s: a powerful symbol of another lost battle in another culture war.

White Protestant fundamentalist Christians led the crusade against “evil-lution,” which culminated in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925.

Christians of the same Jesus-loves-me-but-He-can’t-stand-you persuasion are a big part of the Tea Party movement.

No group in the 1920s was more anti-evolution than a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. African Americans still topped the Klan’s hate list. But the revived Klan was against everything it saw as making America less of a white man’s country.

Klansmen didn’t just rail against “uppity” blacks, whom they addressed in the same fashion as the Tea Baggers addressed Reps. Lewis and Cleaver. Ku Kluxers also zeroed in on Jews, Catholics, immigrants, “wets,” “flappers,” “modern” women, Freudians, labor unions and, of course, ”socialists” — all in the name of the Prince of Peace and “100 Percent Americanism.”

But “Jelperman,” a Daily Kos blogger, thinks pistol-packing Tea Bagger patriots are more like the Red Shirts, the 19th century Klan’s white supremacist sidekicks in terrorism.

Klan members disguise themselves under robes that look like bed sheets and pointy hoods that look, appropriately, like dunce caps. But the Red Shirts “made no attempt to hide their identities behind hoods or masks,” according to “Jelperman.” “They were open about who they were and what they were doing and were proud of themselves.”

“Jelperman” added that “watching Glenn Beck and the other mountebanks who incite and egg on the cowardly racist thugs known as the Teabaggers is like watching a ‘re-imagining’ of” the Red Shirts, whom he described as “another group of charlatans who fomented a similar mob of cowardly racist thugs back in the late 1800s.”

Like the Klan, the Red Shirts were active in Clyburn’s home state, where he led civil rights demonstrations, according to Stein. Clyburn, who is African American, said the racial epithets that flew from Tea Baggers’ maws stunned him.

“I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus,” Stein also quoted him.

If it were up to the likes of the slur-and-spit Tea Baggers, Clyburn would still be at the back of the bus. But the Tea Baggers know he’s not going back.

And they fret that sooner or later, they’ll end up on the trash heap of history alongside the Ku Kluxers, the Red Shirts, the White Citizens’ Councils, Wallace’s American Independent Party, and the other losers in our various culture wars.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on April 5, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.