The subject came up during my lecture and book signing for my memoir, In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal, but the men and women in the small lecture room exhibited only mild curiosity about the hysteria.
The meeting was hosted by the eminently sensible League of Women Voters, whose cheerfully organized president, Robin Collins, admitted to playing Ms. Deen for community theater.
Mrs. Collins said the exaggerated, south-in-the-mouth accent of the now infamous chef was not hard to master but she could not get herself to look like her subject.
Paula Deen’s name would surface one more time after I tried to cover a career arc of 50 years in about 20 minutes. The lecture was framed by the men and events encountered over that period, which drew a picture of the good guys being invariably progressive and the bad guys being insistently conservative.
It’s not difficult to make that point when you contrast Robert Kennedy with Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland, whose reaction to the Ole Miss riots, in which one third of the marshalls was injured, was to insist marshalls had brutalized Ole Miss coeds.
Governors of the time made neat comparisons. While George Wallace was ranting about “segregation forever,” North Carolina Govs. Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford cooled the race issue, created the financially and socially transformative Research Triangle Park and consolidated its research universities.
Those of us who practiced journalism during that period knew who real racists where. They were the Ku Klux Klan, who bombed school girls, who spoke at white man’s rallies about killing black people. They were the thugs who murdered a black man on his way home from work, a man who did nothing more controversial than gardening.
Those of us who have confronted the rawest forms of racism are now to crown poor Paula Deen as an evil empress of discrimination? No, to do so is to be wildly disproportionate.
When her name came up again in questions after my talk, I had to admit that the N-word has more explosive power than I once thought.
In my book, I was trying to make the point to a friendly but N-word abusing cab driver that bad people don’t come in just one color. I told him that most of the N-words I had known were white. The Georgians laughed, taking my meaning in the context of my talk or having already read the book.
However, as I told the audience, my editor insisted that I delete the word and write around it. I did as I was told, and now I see that it was the practical thing to do. I would be hurt if a single word exploded in my book in a way that would distort the book’s meaning.
The audience and I spent a very short time pondering why there had been such an uproar mainly, it seemed, from white commentators. Many in the crowd nodded assent to my theory of guilty conscience.
Considerably more interest was shown in the radicalization of the Republican Party wondering why there weren’t more reasonable men like Sen. Everett Dirksen, whose support was essential in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
There was some discussion of whether the media were responsible for the decline of religion in the South, or were the declining Baptist conversions due to the Southern Baptist Conventions operating more like a political party than a faith.
Major figures of the time were a topic that held the crowd’s attention for a long time. Most seemed to feel that Lyndon Johnson was effective and sincere in his commitment to civil rights and Great Society legislation. George Wallace’s complexity and seeming change also generated much interest.
The boiling subject of the day, Paula Deen, didn’t engage the Georgians as did the major events and personalities of the day. Sorry about that, Paula, I have to agree with my wife. You’re not worth it.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.