The Ghost of J.B. Stoner

Last year was as mixed-up as the Academy Awards. It was marked with phenomenal events. Women marched in the streets, and the #MeToo movement brought the roosters home to humiliating disgrace in the boardrooms and cloakrooms of Hollywood and Washington. A total solar eclipse united the country for at least an afternoon. Employment was up and 401-K accounts were healthier, but you couldn’t help but wonder if it was time to dump everything and mine Bitcoin. It was a confusing period that created constant doubts about the future. Hurricanes and wildfires generated concerns that the catastrophic results of manmade climate change will be upon us sooner than feared. The insanity of global and domestic terrorist attacks continued to haunt us, and for the first time in generations, world leaders threatened nuclear war. Our whiskey glasses were always either half-full or half-empty and never too far away. Yet for Southerners, sadly, last year produced some uniquely dubious moments. As forewarned during the 2016 presidential election, hate groups were empowered and Dixie returned to play a recurring character on center stage.

For many of us who’ve lived in the South, the villainous antics of Alabama’s Roy Moore and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA are familiar atrocities. During the 1960’s and 70’s, when the country was shedding its overtly racist appearance, Southern bigots clung to their narrow-minded malice. Each state had its own select hatemongers. Georgia was cursed with two: Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner. Maddox, a pickax-wielding restaurateur, was elected governor in 1966, and in 1971, he served as lieutenant governor under Jimmy Carter. Maddox was a segregationist with a feel for political showmanship, but he lacked the violent fervor of J.B. Stoner. A North Georgia lawyer and lifelong Ku Klux Klan member, Stoner decried Hitler as being too moderate. As one of the founders of neo-Nazi political groups, including the National States Right Party, Stoner continuously ran for public office. During a 1972 U.S. Senate contest, a Supreme Court ruling forced local television stations to play Stoner’s campaign commercials without censorship. In between episodes of “Huckleberry Hound” and “The Little Rascals,” school-age children throughout the state witnessed Stoner’s vitriolic diatribes. The patsy-faced leering old man with slicked-back hair and a Confederate battle flag bowtie provided young Georgians a lesson in malevolence. Stoner was never elected to public office, and in 1980 he was convicted of the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Church in Birmingham. He died in 2005, but not before he trained us to hear the dog whistle of today’s white nationalist. We recognize the slack jowls of J.B. Stoner’s evil specter.

The election of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama is one the most significant political events of Southern history, and it delivers a progressive strategy for defeating contemporary bigots. Good old-fashioned indignation is the first component. With the onslaught of the 24-hour social media news cycle, it requires a staggering injustice to catch our full attention. The Hitler salutes and labeling of the Unite the Right supporters as “very fine people” boggled the mind. The campaign of Roy Moore, a misogynistic intolerant sexual predator, was stomach-turning. We must remain observant to these types of affronts to our society and be prepared to act against them. Furthermore, we must pressure our established leaders to take action. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s denunciation of Roy Moore and his support of write-in candidates were courageous. It’s tragic that Shelby’s condemnation was required, but a blessing that it occurred. He spoke out against the endorsement of a Republican president, and in Alabama that’s as dangerous as walking across a busy interstate at nighttime. The other essential element required to rid us of narrow-minded fanatics is community, and in the case of the 2017 Alabama special election it was the black community.

According to article on AL.com, the percentage of black voters in the recent special election ran close to that of the 2008 turnout for Barack Obama’s first presidential election. Much of the credit belongs to a grassroots push, but that drive wouldn’t have succeeded without proper motivation. That source of inspiration is derived from a lineage of civil rights leaders, and the chief cornerstone of that legacy is Dr. Martin Luther King. In his 1957 speech “The Power of Non-violence,” Dr. King presents the tenets for peaceful resistance. His methods include aggressive spirituality, not humiliation of your opponent but reconciliation, and a philosophy of agape love—“understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” This love fuels the sense of community and is the “power in the universe that works for justice.”

This year will be similar to the last one. There will be joys, sorrows, and reckonings. We must recognize and never normalize discrimination and bigotry. Our reasons for action against evil forces such as Roy Moore and J.B. Stoner must be grounded in a zeal for goodness and an all-embracing love. Expelling the menacing spirit of white nationalism won’t require a young priest and an old priest, only awakened beings with a sense of urgency and decency.