In June of 1963, after a tumultuous spring of demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., John F. Kennedy said an odd thing.
In a meeting at the White House, the president told civil rights leaders they ought not be too hard on Bull Connor. Connor, he said with a grin, “has done as much for civil rights as Abraham Lincoln.”
Theophilus Eugene Connor, of course, was commissioner of public safety in Birmingham. When you see archival footage of children being menaced by police dogs or bowled over by water from fire hoses, you are seeing his handiwork.
It had previously been possible for segregationists to wrap their cause in dry euphemism. They framed themselves as defenders of constitutional principle — “states’ rights.” They argued that requiring businesses to serve African Americans violated private property rights.
But that footage outraged the world, awakened the nation and hastened civil rights legislation. The president’s point was that none of it would have happened but for Birmingham’s top cop, who punctured dry euphemism with the rawness of his hatred and forced people to finally see.
Every once in a while, the battle for human rights needs a Bull Connor. The battle against the bullying of gay kids may have just found one.
Meet Clint McCance. Before he resigned under fire on Friday, he was vice president of the Midland School District in Arkansas and he apparently felt put out by a call for people to wear purple as a means of highlighting the bullying problem in the wake of five recent suicides by gay teenagers. So he went on Facebook to vent.
“Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers committed suicide. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”
As first reported by the Advocate, a magazine on gay issues, he went on to say: “It pisses me off ... that we make special purple fag day for them. I like that fags can’t procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other AIDS and die. I would disown my kids if they were gay. They will not be welcome at my home or in my vicinity. I will absolutely run them off. Of course my kids will know better. My kids will have solid christian beliefs.”
We will pass lightly over the fact that people this rabidly homophobic are frequently revealed to be gay as all get out.
We will pass with equal lightness over the irony that an education official who derides other people for being stupid has no command of the basic rules of capitalization and punctuation and believes “thereselves” to be a word.
But can you imagine if you were a kid, lonely, alienated, struggling with your nascent sexual identity, daily tormented by classmates who think it’s funny to call you a fag or dunk your face in the toilet, and you go to a school administrator for help and this guy is who you get?
Perhaps you are familiar with the It Gets Better Project (www.itgetsbetterproject.com). It’s a website of videos posted by everyday folk and by luminaries such as President Obama to remind gay and lesbian kids that high school is not forever, that somebody does care, that the future comes quicker than you think. That it gets better.
Let that be the take-away for kids who bear the excruciating pain of being different and alone. And this, too:
Life is funny sometimes. That which means to harm you can ultimately work to your benefit. That was the lesson of Bull Connor. Maybe it will also be the lesson of Clint McCance. Maybe the raw hatred evinced by this educator against five dead kids will force fair-minded people to finally see.
And spur them to make “sure” it gets better — soon.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org