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Plunkett: The awful lessons of Goodloe Sutton, racism and hate

This month, Americans witnessed an explosive failure of human imagination in the form of an ill-conceived editorial of hate.

Published in a small, family owned, print-only newspaper in Alabama, its opening sentence reads: “Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again.”

Perversely, it debuted on Valentine’s Day.

Chuck Plunkett (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The unsigned, house editorial’s author, Goodloe Sutton Sr., the owner and then editor of The Democrat-Reporter, of Linden, is standing his ground. He’s irresponsibly making matters worse by recklessly injecting extra doses of poison and vitriol into the national debate.

“If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we’d all been better off,” Sutton told the Montgomery Advertiser. “We’ll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them.”

Sutton, 80, is a cautionary tale. Once heralded for courageous journalism, it’s now rumored he suffers from dementia and alcoholism.

I’m a former writer of editorials, and news of Sutton’s transgressions against humanity haunts my soul.

What to make of this? How do you respond to such an act?

A strong editorial can change things. Its power comes from the fact it represents a voice far greater than any one individual. Writing editorials isn’t the same as other types of writing. Reading them puts you in a different state of mind.

Used maliciously, an editorial’s power is dark indeed.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Whether of sound mind or shattered spirit, Sutton broke faith with our profession’s foundational principles: that in good faith we strive to fully report and think through our work; that we stand up to evil and give voice to what’s right about the human condition; that we do so with well-crafted arguments and ideas, not calls for murderous violence or rhapsodic odes to the monsters and demons among us, which the KKK surely represents.

From an editorial writer’s perspective, Sutton has committed among the greatest sins possible. Like a zealot calling for holy war, he’s excused and allowed and enabled thoughts and plans and acts of unconscionable violence and cruelty.

I’ve decided to pity the man, and those like him.

The decision didn’t come easy. My first reaction was to read the wretched lines again and again, and turn the outrage and disgust to 11.

When such sordid events as this go viral, it’s what’s expected anymore. The outrage fuels outrage that fuels outrage and then someone manages to break through with more outrage.

These are truly dark times, and they weigh on us more than we understand. Hate erodes us.

But then I was fortunate enough to remember an art exhibit I visited last year that featured works of more than 20 black painters, quilters and sculptors who cut their teeth during the days of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era.

Much of the exhibit, “Revelations: Art from the African American South,” showcased the efforts of poor laborers who worked with leftover scraps.

There were stunning quilts from women who had been slaves or born to share-croppers, works of the imagination — not store-bought patterns — crafted from whatever material could be found.

Next there were sculptures made from found pieces of wood, painted in garish colors and based upon Biblical denunciations of oppressors.

Consider Bessie Harvey’s “The Poison of the Lying Tongues,” a sculpture meant to draw from James (“But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.”) and Romans (“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit; the venom of vipers is upon their lips.”).

In Harvey’s words: “Before you use [your tongue] to say things that will hurt yourself or someone else, remember that love covers a multitude of faults, and it’s a fault to go around hurting others.”

The exhibit featured press images from Selma, Central High and information about lynchings. More than 4,000 black people were hanged to death during the period, often with the cheering support of townsfolk and watched over by law enforcement. Viewers took home souvenirs.

One sculpture consisted of a metal stand with three limbs supporting 31 pieces of rebar meant to symbolize the hanging trees. A drawing featured two men lynched, one looking heavenward with frightened eyes.

Another metallic sculpture featured a slave ship. A white man shackled a black one, the shackle a bicycle chain. At the front of the ship, a slaver raped an African woman while another trader waited his turn.

Nearby, printed simply on a wall, read the words of Thornton Dial, one of the painters and sculptors.

“People in the United States do not hate one another,” Dial once told an interviewer. “But they be scared of one another. The way life have been taught is to make black peoples and white peoples be against each other in fear. I don’t believe there is any natural hate in people. I believe there is natural love.”

By Friday night, word arrived that The Democrat-Reporter replaced Sutton with a black journalist, Elecia R. Dexter.

The new editor said she hoped the announcement would demonstrate “this is everybody’s paper.”

“I think it can be helpful,” she said.

For decades Goodloe Sutton Sr. enjoyed the support and opportunities of a privileged class. Working in newspapers hourly exposed him to the rich tapestry of lives and ideas that make up our communities and nation. And though his work against a corrupt sheriff and his minions once caused him to fear for his life and the lives of his family, the power of the press allowed him to vanquish his foes.

He should’ve remembered that power comes with awesome responsibility. And it should have endowed him with empathy. He should have looked to the wisdom of thinkers like Dexter, Dial and Harvey.

Highest praise for the many principled people who called out Sutton and demanded better. But now that this pathetic creature has been rightly replaced and stripped of honor, maybe the best thing is to heed the wisdom from children of slaves: Pity the man and those like him; recognize that hate eventually breaks and enfeebles, while love can conquer fear and neutralize a host of wrongs.

Chuck Plunkett, former Denver Post editorial page editor, directs the CU News Corps program within the journalism department at the University of Colorado Boulder. @chuckplunkett