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Stranger in the South

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Message Siegfried Othmer
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It was Christmas Eve 1951 that I arrived in Idlewild airport (now Kennedy) to meet my father for the first time at the age of eleven. Our family had been separated by the war. Next day I arrived in Richmond, Virginia, which was to be my new home. My daily walk to parochial school at Bethlehem Lutheran Church took me past the statues of JEB Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. These were just several of the reminders of early history that are plentiful in Richmond, many going back before the formation of the nation.

My lived experience of Richmond was that of a cohesive, stable society. The issue of race was implicit more than explicit because the segregation was complete, and thus substantially invisible. Church life, school life, and residential patterns were all segregated. When black visitors did come to our church, which was rarely, they would be greeted warmly like other visitors, but not really welcomed into membership. Soon they would drift away again. What first brought racial realities home to me was a visit to the local general aviation airport, where an old water fountain had made provision for blacks that in all aspects was different from the one for the whites. The bowl was smaller; the spout was of a lesser design. It was mounted closer to the ground so that blacks would have to bend over more to reach it. All that complication--a doubling of the parts count, for one thing-- just to maintain the distinction between black and white. Separate and unequal. It took it to be a relic of an earlier day.

I remained somewhat oblivious to the dimensions of the issue. At the Greyhound Station one day, everyone was staring at me in the men's room, and then I realized that all the faces were black. I had mistakenly entered the black men's room, an event likely without precedent. On another occasion, riding my bicycle in what must have been a black area, some kid yelled after me, "white trash." Ok, so this racial animosity goes both ways. No surprise there.

Yet when it came to the values taught in school one could hardly ask for better. Civic virtue, the rule of law, the sanctity of the Constitution, and of the Bill of Rights in particular, all were paramount. We held each other to high standards in discourse. "That's guilt by association;" "that's an 'ad hominem' argument." Not ok. We granted that the Soviets, our new adversaries, may indeed be abiding by the letter of the law, but we indicted them for not also abiding by the spirit of the law--the higher standard to which we felt ourselves obligated. Without a doubt, considerable idealism reigned. Racial realities were not seen as a living contradiction of our ideals.

Then in 1954 came the Supreme Court decision in "Brown versus (Kansas City) Board of Education." What had been implicit now became explicit. Virginia went into a campaign of massive resistance. Jack Kilpatrick, then Editor of the Richmond News Leader, took up the cause of our instruction in the Interposition Doctrine of John C. Calhoun. Put simply, if more than one-fourth of the States deem a ruling of the Supreme Court to be tantamount to an amendment to the Constitution to which they objected, then that ruling should remain without effect. For weeks and months on end we were instructed in the historical background and intellectual pedigree of this doctrine. Since the process of amending the Constitution was intentionally complex, it should not be easily hijacked by a rogue Supreme Court. The rule of law would only be further assured by providing for the corrective of a final recourse by the States. It is those without power that most depend upon the protection of the laws. The appeal here was to both law and logic, ever the refuge of the underdog, which the Southern States had become.

Then in 1961 came the commemoration of the Civil War, the War Between the States, at Virginia Tech. I expressed my wonderment that the Civil War should still play such a large role to Dean G. Burke Johnston, who was heavily involved in the planning for the event. He was taken aback by the question, but then provided a multi-fold answer. I don't remember the particulars, but vividly recall the emotions involved in their delivery. I had touched on a sensitive issue. And yet I was talking to one of the most humane individuals I have ever met. The arguments were not about race and the preservation of slavery. The war had been the defining event for the South over its entire history.

The South had lost the war, and the consequences of that loss were still reverberating through the society one hundred years later. Victors in war move on to other issues, never realizing what torments they have unleashed among the losers. They also get to write the history books. In the grand scheme, the issue was one of the Hamiltonian versus the Jeffersonian view of the new republic. Hamilton's was the path that would lead to empire. Jefferson's was the path to a more fluid, less centralizing democracy that would allow for its own renewal from time to time, even through revolution if necessary. The flag of the State of Virginia is a spear through the heart of a vanquished tyrant.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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