Sep 242009
Of late, I have been getting a lot of history from non-historians.  On the one hand, this reaffirms for me how lacking my proper historical education was.  (Acknowledging, of course, that no history class or program can be exhaustive — it’s the nature of the beast to be bigger than one person’s comprehension.)  On the other, it excites me to find great stories  no matter the source.  It all goes toward furthering my knowledge.  I am always thrilled to find well written and interesting stories out there — particularly when they have not been packaged by the professional machine.  The best part is that these new stories awaken my curiosity to find out more and make the stories my own.
This is the narrative on that:
I had written my blog post on the Army-McCarthy hearings because I was annoyed at the lack of civility in the air this summer and worried that we might repeat more of our history (along the lines of the Kennedy assassination).  I was looking for information on the outcry when President Johnson introduced his Great Society legislation to compare to the “Socialist” accusations today, and I found Ron Perlstein’s article in The Washington Post when doing my internet search.  I did a second search on the National Indignation Convention after I read about it in Perlstein’s bit and got a little clip on youtube that included a television appeal by the police chief in Dallas in the days before Kennedy’s assassination asking people to behave themselves.  That clip also had a little something about General Edwin Walker and Billy James Hargis.  I tried to find more of the Police Chief’s speech to show to my students, but I couldn’t.  I did find the flyer accusing President Kennedy of treason when I tried the Sixth Floor Museum’s website.  Holy Shit! I thought.  I was freaking out.  I’d never seen this before.  I looked up the name Robert Surrey, who the website had give as the author, and found his testimony to the Warren Commission.  In that, he testified about the assassination attempt on General Walker.  Then I looked up Walker and found more on his connection to Hargis.  In reading up on both, I found the information on their sex scandals, confirmed in multiple credible sources.  In all of the history classes I had taken, I had never heard mention of the National Indignation Convention, General Edwin Walker, or Billy James Hargis.  None of my professors ever showed me the treason flyer.  Perlstein’s article opened all these doors of discovery for me.  Just a little mention of the ultra-conservatives in that set me on a path to find Surrey, which led me back to Walker.  I saw his involvement in the riot at Ole Miss in 1962, and read up more on that.  I found pictures of the riot to give my students to make the lecture I’d already given on that more real.  Each of these steps in my little investigation served as a new blog post, and the final one noting the coincidence of the sex scandals for Walker and Hargis neatly tied me back to the Army-McCarthy hearings that started it all off.  You start out one place and you end up where you least expect.
Even more interestingly, it prompted a conversation with my mother while we were out walking one evening.  I started telling her about what I’d found and she ended up telling me a great story about how she saw Kennedy right before his assassination.  A Yankee, she and my father had moved to Texas in 1962.  She was working in Houston and Kennedy made an appearance there before heading north to Dallas.  There had been threats against the president prior to his arrival in Texas, Mom said, so there were extra precautions for the parade in Houston.  They weren’t allowed to throw confetti out the windows downtown as the motorcade passed.  The windows in all the buildings were to remain closed.  My father had gotten off work early, so he came to pick my mother up — in their Corvair — to find a spot on the route.  They drove until they hit a barricade and got out.  The President and First Lady passed some twenty or thirty feet or so from them and waved.  Mom said she thought the couple had spotted them because they were the only white people standing on the block (they had unknowingly wandered into a predominately black neighborhood).  Subsequently, when they announced on the news that the president was dead, my mother said it seemed unreal to her — as she had just seen him.  She was incredibly moved and heartbroken (despite the fact that she did NOT vote for Kennedy).  It seemed incomprehensible that someone would kill the president.  It gives her pause, she said, and makes her uncomfortable with all the craziness she hears today.  She can’t understand, she said, what happened to respecting the office.
In closing, I’d like to thank Mr. Perlstein for the wonderful history lesson and for putting me on a path of intellectual inquiry and thoughtful conversation with my mother.  I can’t imagine any history doing more for you than that.
 Posted by at 10:03 pm
Sep 092009

Despite my long-term commitment to the study of history, I have to say that I am often at a loss to draw any set sociological principles or truths from what I find. Each situation is so particular, and the characters so peculiar. It’s hard to make generalities. I would like to be able to answer that age old question: why is it that those who protest the most are the guiltiest, but I can’t. 

Perhaps it was the 70’s. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of unending years of civil strife in America. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast. By the end of that decade though, ultra-conservative leaders General Edwin Walker and Billy James Hargis — two of the most famous and popular anti-Communist activists of the day — found themselves awash in shame and irrelevancy. Their pro-Christian, conservative, anti-Red barnstorming days were in the past. Walker finally managed to wrangle his pension — which he had forfeited in earlier resigning his military command — from the Army after all and could live out his days, bitter in Texas. Hargis had returned to Tulsa to run a Bible college, training the next generation of patriotic Christians to continue the war against liberalism, Marxism, and rock music (not necessarily in that order). Hargis’ plans, however, were disrupted in 1974, when a couple from his school accused him of sexual misconduct. The young newlyweds discovered on their honeymoon, apparently, that both had been sexually involved with the minister. That must have been one awkward confessional. In any case, they took their story to the school trustees and it was downhill from there for Hargis. Later, a number of other students from the school (male and female) came forward with other allegations of sexual misdeeds on the part of the minister and of threats to keep them from coming forward with the truth. Hargis was forced out and he never regained his previous place in the public eye. Meanwhile, Walker got caught up in his own sex scandal. He was arrested for fondling an undercover policeman and committing a lewd act in a public bathroom in Dallas in 1976. The following year, he was again arrested for public lewdness. The smoking man died in 1993 of lung cancer. Hargis lived on, incapacitated by strokes and dementia, until 2004. 

Both men were outspoken leaders of the conservative movement during the civil rights years, and they denounced the anti-Christian influences in American society. Behind the scenes, though, they were in on some seriously sinful shenanigans. So, why is it that those who crow the loudest are those that are awash in their own sin? I am reminded of the New Testament warning about railing against the speck in your neighbor’s eye while blinded by the mote in your own. I don’t know what it is about Communism in particular that drives the promiscuous and yet sexually repressed to public crusades, but it seems to rub homosexuals (and bisexuals) particularly the wrong way.

 Incidentally, Hargis allegedly wrote a speech for Joseph McCarthy, the old Communist hunter, once. Of course, McCarthy’s comrade in arms was Roy Cohn, a closet homosexual who threatened to out others for political gain. It’s ironic, if not just, that Cohn died of AIDS-related complications in 1986. He, Walker, and Hargis make for an interesting political triumvirate, but you know what they say about strange bedfellows…or in this case, perverts in the pod.



 Posted by at 9:28 pm
Sep 042009

General Edwin Walker — decorated war veteran and West Point graduate — sat at his desk in his private home in Dallas, Texas when a shot burst through the window behind him. The bullet grazed his arm but he was otherwise unharmed. Although it was the spring, it wouldn’t be until December of that year that the police would have a lead on his assailant. At that time, documentary evidence and testimony collected by the Warren Commission would indicate that Lee Harvey Oswald, who had recently assassinated the President of the United States, had taken the shot at Walker as well.

Walker and Kennedy could not have been more politically different. Kennedy represented the modern liberal mainstream of politics, and he and Walker would be drawn into conflicts over the years. Ironically, Walker had run for Governor of Texas (surprisingly as a Democrat) but lost to John Connally, who later sat next to Kennedy in the open car where he died. Walker was an ultra-conservative and opponent of desegregation who had been forced under Eisenhower to provide support and protection to nine black students enrolling at Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School in 1957. During his subsequent posting in Europe, the general was relieved of his command by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who served under Kennedy) for attempting to indoctrinate the soldiers under him with right-wing literature. Walker later resigned from the military in protest of his treatment, alleging that the government was too soft on communism. Walker became a leader in the ultra/conservative movement then. He helped organize protests in Mississippi opposing James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. After riots broke out and more than sixty federal troops and U.S. Marshals were wounded, Walker was arrested for conspiracy and inciting rebellion. The Attorney General who charged him was, of course, Robert Kennedy. One of the volunteers on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and participant in the Mississippi protests was a man named Robert Surrey. Surrey was later responsible for the printing and distribution of a flyer accusing John Kennedy of treason and declaring him “wanted” for his crimes. These flyers were circulated in Dallas two days prior to Kennedy’s assassination. Clearly, for as different as they were politically, Walker’s and Kennedy’s lives seemed intertwined in significant ways.

After the President’s death, Walker continued in his work as a conservative activist. He traveled the country speaking to various groups. In 1963, he joined forces with famed evangelist Billy James Hargis (whose ministry’s headquarters were in Tulsa, Oklahoma) on an anti-communist campaign. Their tours were dubbed “midnight rides” — meant to awaken citizens to the threat of communism and anti-Christian forces at work in America. Both were noted conservative activists in the 60’s and 70’s who later fell into relative obscurity. Today in Tulsa, you hear a good deal about Oral Roberts but they don’t talk about Hargis anymore. And, Walker is certainly not the more famous of Oswald’s victims in the public consciousness. Walker’s rival, Kennedy, was brought down by the assassin’s bullet, but Walker survived, yielding finally to lung cancer in 1993.


 Posted by at 11:39 pm