Editor’s Note: Ashley M. Jones is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of the poetry collections “Magic City Gospel” and “dark//thing.” The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Driving from Birmingham to visit my grandmothers in Bessemer, Alabama, and Greensboro, Alabama, always took us through forests, and when I looked at the branches I’d imagine they were just strong enough to hold me and the other five members of my immediate family when the Ku Klux Klan strung us up by our necks with rope.
On Valentine’s Day, Howard “Goodloe” Sutton, editor and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama, published an editorial calling for the KKK to ride again, to clean up Washington and to clean up Democrats who are raising Alabama taxes, starting war and stopping the draft.
It is not fair to Marengo County – where Linden is located – to say that Sutton is their problem, that they should have stopped him, should have silenced him when he called President Barack Obama a Kenyan orphan, when he commented on first lady Michelle Obama’s backside, when he called Hillary Clinton a “little fat oinker,” when he said black football players were doing what they’d learned 200 years ago (kneeling before white men) when they kneeled during the National Anthem.
Goodloe Sutton and those like him are not Marengo County’s problem. Not Alabama’s problem. Not the South’s problem. He is part of an American problem which has festered and bubbled since before 1776. Since 1526, when the first Africans were stolen and taken to the hell of slavery. The very Constitution Sutton claims “the ignorant” don’t understand was originally written to allow men like him to belittle and dehumanize all who weren’t white, landowning and male.
I can’t claim to completely understand Goodloe Sutton’s fundamentally misguided and hateful editorial, because the logic, from a composition perspective, is muddled. Is he mad at rich people, or just rich Democrats? Is he mad at the world because the promise of the (white) American Dream didn’t come true in the tiny, forgettable pages of the Democrat-Reporter?
I’ve sat here reading a steady stream of racist, sexist, nationalist offensive editorials in Sutton’s paper, and I think that’s the real problem: we are still a country that gives unlimited space and time to the speech of the white patriarchy.
Sutton has been publishing disgusting, and yet-so-familiar editorials for decades. He has never been stopped. He has been written off as just a man using free speech. But this editorial and Sutton’s subsequent commentary is more than just an off-color remark – his words incite a gruesome, violent act. Wasn’t Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted of murder in 2002 for his role in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, just a man speaking, freely, through a dynamite tongue? How many black people have been free-speeched to death?
On Election Day in 2016, I watched people cry and ask how we could move past this. Many of those people were white. The fear I’d always had, since childhood, since Rodney King, since Sean Bell, since Trayvon Martin, since Sandra Bland, since Nia Wilson, since always, since on the shores of our own home, since cotton choked us silent, since 1963 and church was bloody, since Emmett Till was a sweet black boy whose eyes were beaten out and smile scratched off, since prison stole us, since Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan locked us away, since Emantic Bradford Jr. was killed in the Riverchase Galleria in my hometown, since since since always, rose just a little higher in my throat.
Which street would I turn down that was that fateful “wrong” one? Where might the Klan be hiding this time? In a dark corner, in a business suit, in Congress, in a police uniform, in a cake shop, in a judge’s robe, in a prison guard, in a gun owner, in a red hat and an American flag?
Goodloe isn’t the only American who wants the death of other Americans or other non-citizens living in America. His words should be condemned, yes, but what of the countless bigots in disguise whose white robes look just like the clothes we wear, the uniforms we trust?
How can we, in this age of reinvigorated (not newly created – make no mistake, we have never truly eradicated racism, oppression, misogyny, discrimination) bigotry, dismantle the in-plain-sight perpetuators of this unjust and murderous system?
It’s not enough to point out the blatant instances of racism, not now, in a country whose complacency and eagerness to claim progress has resulted in this president, this culture of division, this continued attack on people of color, LGBTQ+ people, those affected by poverty, and disabled people. Yes, we must hold those who hold (or encourage) the hangman’s rope accountable, but what of the wife who ironed his sharp collar, what of the onlooker who never opens his mouth to say “stop?”
Goodloe Sutton is everyone’s problem. The question now is: what are we going to do about it?