2000: Cynthia Tucker, The Atlanta Constitution
Award for Community/Column writing

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Jackson and Milosevic: Tricky business, dealing with a devil

May 5, 1999

As an ordained Baptist minister, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is required to have faith in the power of redemption. It's in the job description.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Jackson would chide his buddy, President Bill Clinton, for "dehumanizing" Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps it is to be expected that Jackson would bow in prayer with Milosevic. Perhaps it is not so startling that Jackson would grasp Milosevic's hand, as if they were soulmates on a shared mission. In Christian theology, even Milosevic is not beyond salvation, no matter his crimes.

But as a longtime civil rights leader, Jackson has also had close-up, face-to-face experience with human evil. He has seen the savagery of seemingly ordinary, churchgoing folks who did not flinch from lynching, beating, bludgeoning, firebombing or fire-hosing their fellow citizens just because they were of a different color. And Jackson has not hesitated to call that evil by its name.

That same evil finds fertile ground in Milosevic. It has been written that he is not a madman but rather a shrewd politician, not so much a hater as a survivor. The distinction hardly matters. He has presided over a pogrom in which women have been gang-raped by his soldiers, young men marched from home and shot in the back of the head, children driven from their houses just as his soldiers set the buildings afire. All because they were a different people, of a different religion, than Milosevic is.

Jackson missed an opportunity to call that evil by its name. Milosevic is no different from the Philadelphia, Miss., murderers who killed three civil rights workers and buried them in an earthen dam. He is no different from the politicians who declared "Segregation now, segregation forever," giving cover to the crazed haters who bombed a Birmingham church and killed four girls.

Milosevic complained to Jackson about being portrayed by the Clinton administration as Satan, but there is a good reason for the portrayal. Milosevic has turned much of the former Yugoslavia into a bloody killing field, attempting to "cleanse" the land of as many Muslims as he can. For years, if not decades, human rights workers will be digging up mass graves that bear witness to the massacres Milosevic's men have carried out. Kosovo is just the latest stop in his campaign of genocide. It started, you will recall, in Croatia.

There is undoubtedly a tension in the minister's mission -- hating the sin while loving the sinner. Jackson's mission had a host of tensions. If he wanted to gain the release of three American prisoners of war, he could hardly afford to condemn Milosevic loudly and repeatedly.

The significance of Jackson's accomplishment, especially with a hard case such as Milosevic, should not be underestimated. He has not only brought home three weary young men and eased the fears of their families but also taken away one of Milosevic's bargaining chips. The Clinton administration no longer has to keep the soldiers' safety in its calculations.

More important, it just may be that Jackson has helped nudge open the door for negotiations between NATO and Milosevic. Like the other religious leaders in his delegation, Jackson always believed that Milosevic could be moved by moral appeals and that peace should be given another chance. There is no more important role in the world for preachers than encouraging peace.

Still, even preachers ought to be wary of getting so close to evil that they are seduced by it. There was something about Jackson's handholding with Milosevic that was discomfiting, as if Jackson had forgotten what the man has done. Would Jackson have been as warm and cozy with the murderers of Medgar Evers or Martin Luther King Jr.?

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Jefferson's kin ought to accept black relatives

May 16, 1999

As a veteran of family reunions, I can tell you they are often fractious affairs. Folks get their feelings hurt.

"Uncle Junebug hasn't spoken to Uncle Pink in 32 years, and he isn't about to talk to the stubborn old fool now. So who sat the two together at the banquet table? Aunt Lillie Bell never did care for Aunt Coot's sweet potato pie, and she never tires of telling her so. So how did the two of them end up in the kitchen together? The descendants of old Jim Tucker have felt slighted for decades by the descendants of old Jack Tucker -- a bossy, elitist crowd. So who allowed Jack's clan to substitute a museum trip for the traditional fish fry and casino night?"

Given my experience with these affairs, I've got a little advice for the members of the Monticello Association: If the first gathering of the black and white descendants of Thomas Jefferson doesn't go all that smoothly, don't give up on it. You're just acting like family.

After DNA tests supported centuries-old claims that Jefferson had fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings, the Monticello Association -- a group of 700 officially sanctioned (read "white") Jefferson descendants -- had little choice but to include the African-American heirs. Their first inclusive gathering, which goes through Monday, has no doubt been lively.

The invitation to Hemings' descendants started as a small act of rebellion by one white member of the Jefferson clan. Lucian Truscott IV told the Hemings descendants that they should gate-crash the gathering, held every May at Jefferson's famous Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Va.

When the association heard of the plan, they issued two dozen Hemings descendants an official invitation. Said Monticello Association President Robert Gillespie, "I want them to realize they are welcome by the entire group, not just Lucian Truscott."

But not too welcome. The Jefferson descendants are squabbling over whether the black kin will have full membership in the Monticello Association and the privilege of burial in the family graveyard at Monticello, where Jefferson is buried. "We need to start the process of determining if they are descendants. There is some indication that they are, but we need to get more evidence," said Gillespie.

I have news for Gillespie and the other white Jeffersons: The evidence is in. DNA cannot be denied. While Jefferson defenders try to hide behind caveats of science (the DNA report only stated definitively that a Jefferson male was father to Hemings' youngest child), prominent white historians have given up trying to protect Jefferson's legacy.

So Gillespie needs to adjust to a bit of reality I have learned to live with: You can't choose your relatives. Every family reunion I attend subjects me to at least a couple of kinsmen I'd rather not be associated with, but the genes have already been cast. Those folks -- arrogant jerks or drunks, officious busybodies or scam artists -- cannot be excluded.

Indeed, the Monticello Association has led me to think of extending my family's reunions to include my white relatives. Like many African-Americans, I've got white kin.

Getting them to accept an invitation should not be difficult. After all, none of my white ancestors was a Founding Father, with a significant historical legacy to try to protect from the irony of black blood ties. The white Tuckers have been farmers, merchants, slaveholders. There was a Confederate officer or two. Mostly, they're ordinary folk.

So if the Jefferson clan does not end up in a drunken brawl (or even if they do), I might just issue a renegade invitation to the other Tuckers: "Y'all come!" Breaking bread together would be a good way to get to know one another, and I expect we'd learn that we have more in common than we knew. I expect that the Jeffersons will learn that, too.

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JFK Jr. legacy: If nothing else, he was role model for the elite

July 21, 1999

He was the perfect canvas on which to paint our larger-than-life fantasies -- well-born, charming, rich, and handsome. So, upon his untimely demise, many Americans are also mourning the death of their own dreams, all those things they had hoped for that John F. Kennedy Jr. can never become: ambassador, senator, president.

If some of the speculation on the achievements of a middle-aged JKF Jr. seems a bit far-fetched given a young man of relatively meager accomplishments, it also seems inevitable.

In a culture that values wealth and celebrity over all else, the golden boy at the heart of Camelot was bound to captivate us. The myth of Camelot, after all, was fueled not just by the glamour of a youthful president, John F. Kennedy, and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, but also by the sense of promise in their public service.

Still, there are other Kennedys to carry on the family political dynasty. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and lieutenant governor of Maryland -- is talked about as a likely gubernatorial candidate. Robert Kennedy Jr., a New York attorney, would make an attractive candidate. Patrick Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy, is making a name for himself in the U.S. House.

What the culture needed instead of more politicians was just what John Jr. gave us -- an enormously privileged guy who knew how to bear the burdens of fame and wealth with grace. If his greatest accomplishment was his refusal to act like a jerk, that ought to be given its due.

It is rare enough. The headlines and airwaves are full of tales of the coddled and privileged behaving badly, of the scions of the famous pimping their family names, of celebrities whining about the burdens of fame while plotting furiously to stay in the spotlight. There is much too much of overpaid athletes leaving trails of cocaine arrests and paternity suits, of vain and self-important actors who mistake their celebrity for influence, of egomaniacal billionaires who assume the normal rules of law and civility do not apply to them.

John Jr. was a refreshing contrast to all that, an easygoing guy who wasn't just like the rest of us but worked at making it seem so. He was often seen with friends bicycling in Central Park or playing touch football. Rather than relying on an assistant to place his phone calls ("Would you hold for Mr. Kennedy, please?"), he dialed himself ("Hello, this is John Kennedy"), recalled a friend of mine who knew him.

His grace was all the more rare because his celebrity was a burden. From adolescence he was stalked by paparazzi, his every stumble recorded. An early failure to pass the New York bar exam was noted with the headline "The Hunk Flunks." His love life, especially his courtship of Carolyn Bessette, was red meat to the sharks of the entertainment media. Yet he kept his cool.

Kennedy seemed a self-possessed young man, comfortable with his pedigree but not captive to it. He knew how to play off his celebrity without exploiting his family name. He founded a celebrity-tinged political magazine, George, in which he once posed nearly nude. Yet he turned down an appeal to run for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, apparently because he understood that he was not yet ready for a prominent political post.

The better we came to know John Jr., the better we also came to know his mother, Jackie, who reared John and her daughter, Caroline, to bear up under the white-heat of intense scrutiny without meltdowns. If the only thing he leaves us is a decent role model for the privileged, that will have to be enough.

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Abernathy allies: Kings defend rogue who sullied famed name

September 22, 1999

Sometimes the price of loyalty is just too high. Sometimes, when you attempt to pull a worthless friend out of hole he's dug for himself, you end up covered in mud, too.

Such was the case last week, when Coretta Scott King used her name and prestige in an apparent effort to persuade a jury to go soft on a scoundrel named Ralph David Abernathy III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr.'s close friend, civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy Sr. For her trouble, Mrs. King and her entourage are now being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for alleged jury-tampering.

Abernathy III capped an ignominious career as a state senator with an indictment on charges of stealing $13,000 from his state-funded expense account. Last week, his trial on those charges ended in a hung jury. While jurors say Mrs. King did not influence them, she has nevertheless sullied her name, giving the impression that she supports rogues and miscreants.

The prosecution seemed to have solid evidence on some of the charges, including a taped conversation in which Abernathy admitted to his PR adviser, Zee Bradford, that he forged her name on expense vouchers and never gave her the money he received. He begged and badgered her to lie, telling her, "Let me tell you this, if you don't lie, it will be your reputation."

For those who've followed Abernathy's high-profile flameout, the theft charges came as no great surprise. His previous career low-lights included smuggling marijuana into the country in his underwear on a return trip from Jamaica; wandering into a women's restroom in a state building but failing to wander promptly back out; and insulting police officers who pulled him over for driving 60 mph in a 30 mph school zone.

Even when he wasn't in trouble with the law, Abernathy was less than impressive as a legislator. His six-year tenure was characterized by laziness, absenteeism, headline-grabbing and attempts to get by on his father's good name. His legislative career was finally ended, mercifully, last year, when he bounced the check he submitted to pay a qualifying fee to run for re-election.

Mrs. King has undoubtedly kept up with Abernathy's troubles. Over the years, despite occasional tensions, the Abernathys and Kings have remained friendly. And, when Abernathy was indicted, Mrs. King may have thought of her own two sons and their struggles to come to manhood in the shadow of their father's famous name. Neither Martin Luther King III nor Dexter Scott King has ever been indicted, but both have tainted their father's legacy with their endless profiteering.

So, last Wednesday found Mrs. King in a hallway outside the Fulton County courtroom where Abernathy was being tried, praying with a group that included the defendant's mother, Juanita Abernathy, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, New York activist Al Sharpton and Mrs. King's two sons. As the jury prepared to leave the courtroom for lunch, a sheriff's deputy asked the King entourage to leave the area. They ignored him, the deputy said.

When a deputy took the jury out through a different exit, the King entourage followed and barged through the group of jurors. While Mrs. Abernathy claimed it was "an accident," it looked like an attempt to impress upon the jurors the fact that Abernathy III had the support of the King family.

Mrs. King should have left Abernathy III -- who will probably be retried -- to face the consequences of his reprehensible conduct. Instead, she lent him her reputation in an effort to help him salvage his family name. It's unlikely that Abernathy III appreciates her sacrifice, since he clearly cared so little for the family name himself.

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South honors fatal culture of violence

November 28, 1999

Over in my home state of Alabama, they might shoot you for looking at 'em funny. The law doesn't get too exercised over it. In court, the she-was-looking-at-me-funny defense may sway a jury.

If you don't believe that, consider the public discourse that has followed a case of road rage run amok on an interstate highway south of Birmingham. After one suburban mother shot another suburban mom dead in a roadside confrontation earlier this month, a surprising amount of public sympathy has flowed to the shooter.

It all started in a way that is frighteningly commonplace, with a scenario that would be recognized in any major metropolis in the country. On Nov. 8, in the grinding bumper-to-bumper traffic headed south on I-65 toward Birmingham's fast-growing Shelby County suburbs, two women started jockeying with each other for position -- chasing, maneuvering, gesturing. Tempers flared.

When they both took the same freeway exit, the stage was set for confrontation.

As Shirley Henson's lawyer tells it, Henson was frightened for her life when Gena Foster jumped out of her car spewing obscenities, with -- as one witness says -- her arms out and "her eyes wide open." So, when Foster approached Henson's sport-utility vehicle, Henson stuck her .38 out of the window and shot Foster in the face.

Never mind that Foster was not armed. Never mind that Henson, according to the prosecutor, had room to drive around. Never mind that Henson had a cell phone and could have dialed 911. Never mind that Henson had her window rolled down. Foster was gesturing, cursing and generally looking at her funny.

Perhaps because the incident involved two women, both white, suburban mothers without criminal records, it has drawn national headlines, underscoring the spread of the phenomenon called road rage beyond the testosterone-charged tempers of male motorists. But the reaction to the shooting has also drawn attention to a peculiar Southern code of conduct, which elevates the gun right alongside the Bible and takes pride in violence described as "self-defense."

Consider the comments on Birmingham talk-radio stations following the shooting. According to published reports, one caller said: "If there is aggressive behavior, somebody come after you, not only do you shoot 'em, you get out and shoot 'em again." Another caller, a woman, said, "If I'm in my car and somebody comes running up to my car, I sure would shoot them. That's just the way it's gonna be."

Even the prosecutor, Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens, is taking a soft-edged approach to the case. Though Henson has been charged with murder, Owens says, "If they (the jury) were to come back with self-defense, I could accept that." Sounds like he's advocating that, since he made the statement to a local newspaper.

The odd notion that a verbal assault represents a threat to be fended off with violence has a long tradition in Southern culture, according to Dov Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of a book, "Culture of Honor," which examines Southern violence. "The South has a culture of honor in which insults and affronts often are responded to with violence," he said.

It's not just Yankee academics who have discerned a hair-trigger temper in the mind of the South. Duke University sociologist Kenneth Land believes that the early Scottish and Irish settlers who are the ancestors of many white (and some black) Southerners passed on a quarrelsome nature that was part of a "herding tradition."

Whatever the cultural causes of the mind-set, the tendency to overreact boils to bloodshed because of widely available handguns. Alabama law enforcement officials estimate that at least half of all Birmingham area motorists carry handguns in their vehicles.

And as long as the common culture holds guns and "honor" in high regard, there'll be lots more mothers -- and fathers -- dying the same senseless deaths.

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