January 19, 2015
Being from Atlanta I get to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. as my homeboy. I’ve spent a lot of time on Auburn Avenue, and not going to Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Royal Peacock Club was there, where the Supremes and James Brown performed. And the band I managed, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ too! I was hit by a car on Auburn in front to the Sweet Auburn Rib Shack. I was on my Vespa scooter and sent flying. I ended up at Grady Hospital, now a Walking Dead location.
But before Atlanta, I was from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Our little town was mentioned by Dr. King in his famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, but not because it was awesome. When I was a kid, I thought it was because it was awesome. (Stone Mountain has a giant granite mountain with a lazar show the ends with “Dixie” that I doubt MLK ever saw.) He mentioned my town because it was the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Sad trombone.
Growing up around the Klan was the beginning of my interest in extremism and oppression. As a grad student at Emory University, I chose to go undercover in the late 1980s to study a new racist group, Nazi skinheads. My first study was a 13-month observation of a racist skinhead gang in Orlando, Florida called the O-Town Skins.
Much to my surprise, these rabid bigots were not morons, or bullies (although a few were sociopaths). They were reasonably intelligent kids who just had been given the wrong explanation for why their world was changing. (“It’s the Jews!”) The right explanation had something to do with Ronald Reagan. I would listen to them gripe about The Cosby Show and how this black family had so much more than their own.
I bonded with these guys, drank beer with them, and talked to them about their girl problems. I began to get too close to them and lose my objectivity. So, while I was home on a break from the study, I rode my scooter over to Martin’s tomb on Auburn and sat with him for a while. I wanted to reflect with the man by the cool reflecting pool and remember why I started the project. He once said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I wanted to understand these skinheads so I could liberate them from their burden of hate. We sat together in the hot Atlanta night and I felt ready to go back into the field.
It was this study that turned me into a feminist. It became clear, as the research progressed, that the racism was just a vehicle for them to perform their masculinity. They saw black men, lesbians and feminists taking “their” white women. And Jews outsourcing “their” manufacturing jobs. And gay men threatening “their” sexual propriety. As the 80s became the 90s, they became obsessed with that “bitch” Hilary Clinton, who signified, to them, the end of the divine right of men. Hateful violence was their defense of their fragile masculinity, not far removed from the rhetoric of the conservative right. Much of this research ended up in my 2001 book with Wayne Wooden, Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws.
Martin Luther King’s love ethic is all around. It’s in the philosophies of bell hooks and Cornell West. It’s in the actions of youth outreach workers and gay rights advocates. And it’s in the work I’ve been doing since I interviewed that very first skinhead. Love undoes hate. If you try to understand the hater, including the misogynist, through love, you can turn them toward the light. As Dr. King told us long ago, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”