A Darkness Revealed
That image above is of my father on his deathbed in August 2015. Jesus was watching him.
A friend back in the US forwarded to me yesterday a Twitter thread in which a leftist journalist uncovered in archives proof of a terrible story that I had long suspected was true, but hoped against hope was not: that my late father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. Judging from his tweets, the journalist is hoping to use this terrible fact to hurt me -- as if the hidden sins of my dead father were somehow my fault. I don't want to play along with that scheme, but after thinking about it and praying about it overnight, it seems to me that it is worth talking about, because the fear that this might be true has driven so much of my writing in the past. Besides, people are understandably going to wonder about this, and as unpleasant as it is for me to talk about in public, I can't very well keep silence.
The information appears to confirm my belief that in the 1960s, my father Ray was involved in the Klan. I can't remember precisely how I came to suspect this about him, but I know it goes back to my childhood. The first arguments I ever had with him over race were shockingly fierce (shocking to me at the time; I was twelve or thirteen). At that young age, I had experienced a religious conversion from reading Evangelical books, and had begun to read the Bible for the first time. What I found there startled me. If this book that we all said we believed in was true, then the way we white people thought about black people was wrong. I confronted my father about it -- I didn't think it was a confrontation, actually; I just wanted to know how we white Southerners squared our profession of the Gospel with what the Gospel actually says -- and he became terribly angry.
That was only the first of a number of bitter arguments that would characterize my teenage years. They were almost all over race. Eventually we settled into a modus vivendi that a lot of white Southerners of my generation have done with their families: we agreed not to talk about it. I truly cannot tell you what anybody in my family believes about race today, because that conversation went into the deep freeze around 1985. It was a sensible thing to do, at least for anyone who wanted to continue to have a relationship with family. Mind you, I don't know if anybody else in my family shared my dad's views, though I suspect not. Even today, the idea that our beloved paterfamilias had been in the Klan sixty years ago will shock and sadden most of us.
When I was in college in the Eighties, I used to judge my dad harshly. Though we never talked about race, I knew he believed very wrong things about it, and that conviction of mine -- one I still hold -- drove my judgment on him about all things. Put simply, I thought he was a horrible reactionary whose judgment could not be trusted on anything. However, I came to change my views as I grew older, and began to know what I did not know. (And side note here: People today who think that nothing meaningful has changed in our country on the matter of race should reflect on what it was like to be a black man trying to get justice in a courtroom where the judge was also, under cover of darkness and cotton, a Klan leader.)
Specifically, as much as I hated to admit it, my dad, who had grown up in rural Louisiana, and who had spent his career as the chief public health officer for our parish, knew more about actual existing black people and their culture than I did -- because he had lived among them all his life! For me, black people were mostly an abstraction. I had allowed the living, breathing human beings to be assimilated into an idea of Blackness -- specifically, of black people as the eternal victims of white people. When I first discovered Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Enduring Chill" (PDF version here) (I hear that link doesn't work; listen to Stephen Colbert read it aloud here), I was poleaxed, because O'Connor had seen right through me. It's a story about Asbury, an intellectual son of rural Southerners, who goes off to college and comes home full of intellectual pride about how much smarter he is than his mother. Back on the farm, Asbury sought out the company of black farmhands, not because he wanted to know them as people, but because they were totems of his anger at his backwards mother, and of his pride that he was not a sinner like her.
I've carried Asbury in my heart all these years, as a rebuke to myself. When I read that short story in college, I knew Asbury was me. In the story, O'Connor doesn't justify the prejudice of Asbury's mother, but she does use it to reveal that Asbury, in imagining himself free from sin, was guilty of a different sin. I also knew from reading that story that my dad understood things about black folks -- at least in the rural South -- that I did not, despite the fact that he was blinded by his own unconscious prejudice. The point is that I too was blind, but my blindness carried with it the taint of moral superiority. O'Connor showed me that both my father and I were guilty of making abstractions of black people to suit our own conflicting senses of moral order. She also showed me that this is the way it is with us human creatures. We are all at risk of assimilating our fellow creatures into ideas.
In the years that followed, I puzzled over how it was that my dad, with all his race prejudice, could more easily talk to black people than I could. He had a small farm before I was born. I puzzled over how he would cry telling the story of the love he and his old farmhand, Calvin McKnight, had for each other. I would hear about how he would go to town to bail black farmhands of his out when they had landed in jail for public drunkenness, and wonder: how does a white racist do that? At his retirement from the public health officer job decades ago, I couldn't avoid reflecting on the fact that the racist white man who was my father had done more practical good to bring water and sewerage to the homes of poor black people in our parish than nice race liberals like me ever would, despite holding all the correct liberal views of race.
How to explain that? The thing is, if I had brought it up with my dad, he would not have been able to understand my point. He wouldn't have been able to see a contradiction. I used to imagine the dialogue in my head about it, if I had challenged him. But of course I didn't ever bring it up, because the peace between us was so hard won that I didn't want to disturb it.
Thinking about that peace over the years illuminated other things. For example, as I grew older and moved away from Louisiana, I found it hard to understand how it was that my generation -- the first one in West Feliciana to be educated in integrated public schools, and the first to be raised after then end of segregation -- were never taught in our local public schools about Jim Crow or any of that. It probably seems impossible for people not raised there to imagine, but it really was true. I remember being a very small boy, waiting by the car for my mom to come out of a store in town, and making my way to a broken fence behind an abandoned store. This must have been in the early 1970s. I peered through the break in the fence and saw two doorways in the cinder-block building. Above one was the sign WHITES; above the other, COLOREDS.
What did this mean? I can see it in my mind now as plain as the day I was there. Did I ask my mom about it? Or did I intuit that this was a mystery too dangerous to raise? Honestly, I don't know.
I came to believe not too many years ago that there must have been an agreement -- conscious or not -- between white and black local leaders not to discuss what had happened. They had done this for the sake of making integration work. I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect this is what happened. I come from West Feliciana, which successfully integrated its schools, and today has one of best public school systems in the state. East Feliciana, just across the creek, did not do this, and suffered accordingly. The price of successful integration seems to have been silence about the recent past. If that's how it shook out, then I think it was a deal worth making. But when can we talk about it? More on this in a moment.
What I can tell you is this: I have no recollection of being taught white supremacy. I would be surprised to learn that any of my white classmates had any such memory. It wasn't that our parents had no prejudice. It was, I think, about like Christianity with them: they assumed it was such a part of the natural order that the truth of these things were so obvious as to need no articulation. I've said before in this space that my family didn't go to church often when I was a kid. My folks saw church as more or less like the gym: a place you'd go when you felt the need for a spiritual tune-up, but otherwise not necessary. Now that I think of it, that first fight with my dad over race came when he objected to the then-pastor's invitation to the local junior high school choir to perform in the church. My dad, along with some others in the church, opposed the pastor because he invited black people into the church. I challenged my dad on this, explaining to him using the New Testament that I had recently begun to read, that racism was wrong. Besides, I told him, we almost never go to church, so where do you have standing to tell the pastor what to do?
All I remember is that he got very angry at me. And, thank God, the pastor won that dispute. This was around 1980.
(Side note: that beloved pastor retired in the late Nineties, I think it was, or maybe the early 2000s. The bishop sent the congregation a younger pastor, a white man who was a race liberal. Fine, but according to what my sister, a regular churchgoer, said, he kept haranguing the congregation on the question of race. All I have is her account, but it sounded like he was an Asbury type, not too far from me at his age: so strongly reacting against the evil of racism that he (and I) made a parallel mistake of reducing black people to abstractions. Specifically, my sister said he urged them all the time to invite black people to church. He never seemed aware of the fact that local black people were devoted to their own congregations, many of which dated back to the day their slave ancestors were first evangelized, and which in any case had very different worship traditions than the relatively staid white Methodists. I believe that pastor's heart was in the right place, but his overly intellectualized vision hurt his cause. And this is a character flaw of which I too am often guilty.)
Again, my parents didn't teach my sister and me white supremacy, and I would be very surprised to learn that any white kid's parents did. (The local Klan wound down in the late 1960s, I learned at some point, under FBI pressure.) But they didn't have to, because the ambient culture, while post-segregationist, meant that one absorbed these values unconsciously. Plus, black people and white people really were very different in terms of culture. What a shock it was to me to go to a rare evening assembly at school, when I was 13 and was then moved to the same building as high schoolers, and to see girls only a year or two older than me, whom I would see daily in the hallways at school, carrying their babies while their mothers doted on them. This was how local black culture was. It was also very, very strange to me, as a kid, to learn from black classmates in elementary schools that they had no fathers in the home. I eventually began to wonder to what extent the white taboo against "race mixing" was merely out of pure race hatred, and to what extent it was a form of protection against the sexual code that was destroying the black family.
This might sound shocking to you, but it's true: for us Southern white kids, the only source for any narrative that ran counter to white supremacy was network television. It was really true. If it hadn't been for 1970s TV, the received narrative of our local culture would have remained unchallenged. Reflecting on this fact decades later taught me an important lesson. In 2012, not long after I moved back to my hometown, this time with my wife and kids, a local white friend shared with me a link to this 1964 article in Ebony magazine, about a black man, the Rev. Joseph Carter, who had managed to confound the racist obstacles set up to prevent him from registering to vote. It's a heroic story, but it ends with a white riot on the courthouse lawn after the Rev. Carter left the registrar of voters office.
All of this went down only three years before I was born, but I had never heard of any of it. Never. It was memory-holed. At the time, I lived just around the corner from the courthouse in the beautiful downtown district. Learning that the peaceful courthouse lawn had been the site of such ugliness was a shock to the system. I wondered at the time if my own father had been in that crowd. I had no doubt that a number of men I knew, men I had grown up respecting, had been there.
Here's the thing: I had to face the fact that had I been a young white man, born in that time and that place, chances are that I would have been there too, or at least sympathized with them from afar.
Why? Because where would I have learned any different narrative? My dad was born in 1934, and raised in an era in which radio and newspapers never, ever challenged the prevailing racist order. As we know, very few white Southern churches did. If you had been a white person who challenged the segregationist order, you would have put your life on the line, owing to the threat from terrorists like my father once was. It is excruciating to write that line, but if it's true, then it must be faced. Reading the Ebony story, and being compelled to imagine the circumstances under which I could have been seduced by that same evil, was chilling to me. Why? Because it revealed how very, very close to me -- historically, culturally, and even within my family -- that kind of mob evil was.
In 2002, when I was living in New York, my wife prevailed upon me to go see a Catholic therapist to deal with the anger over 9/11 that was eating me alive from within. In the first meeting with the therapist, he told me that he was going to get me to see the awful truth: that under the right circumstances, I could have been piloting one of the planes that struck the Twin Towers. No way! I thought. This made me so angry. I clashed with him on other issues, and ended the therapy early, but I still was mad at him for daring to say that I might in any way have done such an evil deed.
But here I could not avoid the conclusion that if not because of the historical and cultural contingencies of my birth, I probably would have been in that mob on the courthouse lawn, certain of my own righteousness. See, this is part of why I have always hated the mob. It goes back to being bullied in high school, but in my adult years, I have feared the righteousness of the mob, and its capacity for violence. A mob is no less a mob if it's on the "right" side.
In 2015, I wrote an essay for TAC called "When ISIS Ran The American South". What sparked it was public outrage over news that ISIS, the Islamic terror state, had burned a prisoner alive. I pointed out in my essay that this kind of evil is not far from us at all -- that when the Klan had freedom to terrorize the American South, it did the same sort of thing to black people. Everything I've written in this space about race over the years has been in the shadow of the fear that my own father had been involved in this kind of thing. Not every Klan group lynched people, but the fact that they were part of a broader movement that did was sufficiently damning. The spirit behind my writing these things was in part one of atonement for what I imagined that my dad might have done, but also to warn readers that this stuff is much closer to us historically than we care to think.
Back in 2020, my niece Hannah Leming, the first of my father's grandchildren, led a petition drive to get the local Audubon Pilgrimage organizers to end or to change the town's festival. Though I had strong reservations about the way she went about this, especially as she was living abroad at the time, I felt obliged to support her efforts publicly, and wrote this to back her. What she objected to was the fact that the Pilgrimage, a festival that celebrates the antebellum history of the parish, erased slavery and black people. I wrote at the time:
I was four years old when the Pilgrimage started. I don’t remember a time without the Pilgrimage. All my life, I have taken it to be a celebration not of Audubon, but of the antebellum South. Every spring we had it. Tourists would come and visit our gorgeous plantations, admire the azaleas and other spring flowers, and get a taste of 19th century history. Some of the women would dress in period clothing, and gad about town. It was something the whole parish participated in, and by “the whole town,” I mean the white people. Even though half the population was black, there were no black people participating in this festival. And why should they? It was a celebration of a time and a culture in which their ancestors were enslaved on these same plantations.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think the incongruity ever occurred to me until I moved away for college. You might find this hard to believe, but if you grew up white in the South with this double-mindedness, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. When you look at it from the outside, you might think, good Lord, fellow white people, what are we doing? In 1990, my first year working as a journalist, in Baton Rouge, I told my editor I wanted to do a feature story on why my hometown had a festival that excluded the black half of the parish. He agreed with me that it was wrong, but being a wiser man than his crusading young underling, told me that this was not a good idea for me. I was sore about it. In time, I recognized that for complicated reasons, my editor had been right.
Well, that story was finally written, in a way — by my very progressive niece Hannah Leming, who is now living in Spain.
Last weekend, inspired by the George Floyd moment, she posted a change.org petition calling on the Pilgrimage to change its ways, and open itself up to black people and black history, or shut down. She wrote, in part:
I understand that the Pilgrimage is a tradition that a lot of people cherish and is a good form of tourism for our small town. I understand that it was created to celebrate an artist. But in turn, it celebrates slavery by hiding that part of the 1820s from the tour. If it truly is going to be an exploration of the past, we have to see all sides of history at that time.
I grew up going to the Audubon Pilgrimage wearing the dresses and dancing the Maypole. It was an enjoyable part of my childhood. But time, reflection and listening and learning from the Black community has made me realize that the Pilgrimage is part of the system of oppression.
When students are brought to the Rural Homestead for field trips, white and black students are either given or encouraged to buy wooden paddles engraved with their name and whips, both objects used to torture slaves, without any explanation.
I remember going to Oakley Plantation on a field trip and the whole plantation life being glorified and the real history of oppression never was told to me or my black classmates. We didn’t see the slave quarters and they were never even mentioned as being a part of this “educational” field trip.
When you really think about it, the Audubon Pilgrimage is a celebration of slavery. Does our Black community come out and do plantation tours and dress up “like the good old days”? No. Because the “good old days” are only for the white people who gained money off of slave labor and continue to benefit even today.
Well, no, it is not “a celebration of slavery.” That’s unfair, and I’ll tell you why I think so in a moment. I don’t recall when the State of Louisiana moved slave cabins to Oakley, which is a state park, but they are not original to the site. There were slaves on the original plantation, certainly, but the addition of slave cabins to the exhibit was done in recent years. I don’t know exactly when — perhaps after Hannah’s field trip — but the state relocated those cabins to Oakley, to give visitors a sense of what slave life was like.
But these are arguing over details. On the whole, Hannah is right. I was one of the early signers of her petition. I wrote there, in part:
This needs to happen. It’s not a conservative thing or a liberal thing: it’s about human decency, and justice. I didn’t realize until I was a grown man what a one-sided myth our local history was, as my generation was taught it. I had no idea until 2012 what the Civil Rights movement was like in our parish (e.g., that there had been a white near-riot on the courthouse lawn when a black pastor registered to vote on Oct 17, 1963 … just four years before I was born). Our common history is not only one of slavery and oppression, but those evils were real, and must be acknowledged, and repented of. How can the parish have a historic festival that leaves out half the people of the parish, and not only leaves them out, but celebrates an era and a culture that enslaved their ancestors? I hope there is a way to go forward with a new Pilgrimage that is truthful and fair, that celebrates the good that we share in common while acknowledging with sorrow the evil that is also our legacy.
The organizers shut the Pilgrimage down. I regret that; I think this offered an opportunity to tell a more truthful, nuanced, complex story about our parish's history. But I understand why they might have felt it impossible to do in the heat of that George Floyd moment. What I didn't say at the time, but what was in my mind, was that my own father had been formed by that moonlight-and-magnolias myth, and I believed it had probably led him to associate himself with the Klan. A lot of us local white people wanted to tell ourselves a story about our place and our people what edited out the evil parts, or airbrushed them. As a writer and polemicist, I had written a number of things condemning the Left's efforts to rewrite history to suit left-wing prejudices and ideals, so I therefore could not be silent when my own people wanted to do the same thing.
My longtime readers know that I have been fascinated, personally and professionally, with the question of how Catholic bishops tolerated the evil of sexually abusive priests in their ranks. Believe it or not, meditating on my father's case regarding race and society helped me make psychological sense of it. It's like this: these men believed that a certain order in the world was just and right. Therefore (in their minds), anything they did to defend that order was justified. They cultivated double-mindedness and hypocrisy, and overlooked or justified intolerable cruelty, even evil, in defense of what they believed to be justice. And this required assimilating the humanity of the so-called enemies of the System into an idea, which was the necessary first step to dehumanizing them and validating inhuman treatment of fellow children of God. If my dad had been a Klansman, I thought, this is what he had in common with the Catholic bishops.
The most important lesson here is not that this is a weakness that affects old Southern white men, or Catholic bishops, alone, but is part of who all of us are. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil passes down the middle of every human heart. Over and over I have condemned the Left for raising demons that it can't possibly understand -- this, by leaning heavily into frankly racist ideas of "whiteness," and dividing us on questions of race. The spiritual and moral genius of Martin Luther King Jr. came from his profoundly Christian refusal to deny the humanity of those who oppressed him and his people. It is a cruel irony of history that today, it is the progressive Left that has returned us to crude racial politics, condemning some for the color of their skin (thereby holding them responsible for the collective sins of their ancestors), and exalting others, giving them carte blanche (so to speak!) to hate freely those unlike themselves, and to give themselves a moral pass for their own failures. This is not going to end well. It's madness to believe that this can be managed absent a reign of terror.
But I also had my father in mind when I wrote the recent essay here denouncing the concept of "no enemies to the Right". I had earlier written an essay denouncing the secret online life of a white supremacist that the (now former) headmaster of my kids' Christian school lived, until he was exposed. On his pseudonymous Twitter account, the young man said that he was hoping to use his rising influence in the classical Christian schooling world to quietly redpill others into white nationalism. In my initial piece, I said we who support classical Christian education need to be vigilant against such Trojan horses in our midst. To that, one conservative commentator wrote that he doesn't care what the headmaster believed or advocated, because the Left is so evil that we must act as if we have no enemies to the Right. I wrote my piece to say why I think that is the counsel of Hell -- and what I did not say is that I had in my mind the fate of my late father's soul. I hope he is in heaven, but I don't know that. I hope he repented of his racism before he died. But I believe with all my heart that there are eternal consequences for harboring that kind of hatred in one's soul.
I have reason to hope that my dad did repent. As he was dying in the summer of 2015, I read to him from the then-forthcoming memoir of the black New Orleans actor Wendell Pierce the story of how Wendell's father, a World War II hero, had been denied the medals he had been awarded. (As I worked with Wendell on that memoir, I prayed often to God that He use me to tell this black man's family story well, and accept it as an act of atonement for the sins of my father.) He had been denied upon his discharge from the service, because the WAC handling his papers could not believe that a black man was capable of that kind of heroism. Decades later, when his son Wendell found out about this injustice, he worked with US Sen. Mary Landrieu to set the record straight. In the book, Wendell tells about the ceremony at the World War II Museum in New Orleans in which his father, by then deaf and almost entirely immobile, received the recognition of a grateful country that had previously denied to him.
As I read this account aloud to my dad, I sobbed. So did he. He was clearly moved to the core by this story. I wanted to ask him then, "Do you see? Do you see what our people did to these people back in the day?" But I didn't dare. He was dying; why open that wound between us again? I wish now that I had, but I was too afraid then, and afraid that I would come across as taking advantage of his weakness to lecture him. In truth, I wanted to lead him to repentance before he died. I failed to be courageous in the moment.
Yet maybe something worked. It's a slim hope, but I'll take what I can get. As he lay on his deathbed, only a few days before he breathed his last, my father called for the Methodist minister to come see him. He had never been to church under this particular minister, in part because of physical infirmity, and in part because churchgoing just didn't mean much to him. He asked to make a confession. Now, Methodists don't have a rite of confession, but the pastor sat by my dying father's bed, and heard what he had to say. I hope and pray that regret over his participation in that Klan business was part of his repentance.
My dad refused a church funeral, instead choosing to have a Masonic graveside service. I hated that, but those were his wishes. Freemasonry meant the world to him, but I now see through those FBI papers that his lodge was a center of Klan recruitment. It centered around a man named John Rarick, a district judge and far-right Congressman from Louisiana. My uncle (my dad's brother) had been his chief of staff for some period when Rarick was a Congressman (1967-75). I remember as a kid John Rarick's name being spoken of with great respect by my dad, but even though Rarick lived in our town until his death in 2009, we never saw him. It turns out that Rarick was a KKK leader and a very active Freemason, even being named by the local lodge as "Mason Of The Century."
I was unaware of the connection between white Southern Freemasonry and the KKK at the time my dad tried to interest me in becoming a Mason. I was in college. I could see that I was headed quite possibly into Catholicism, and that Catholics couldn't be Freemasons. I recall asking my dad what Freemasons believed. He said that it was a fraternal organization built around God. Tell me more, I said. What kind of God? You know, he said, God. I pressed him on this, and he just got mad. Really mad. My questions were theological, and he wasn't prepared to answer them. Thinking about it years later, with a better understanding of his character, I see that he literally could not conceive of "God" outside of the Christian understanding. It would not have occurred to him to think of how the Masonic idea of God might conflict with the Biblical idea. My father hero-worshiped John Rarick, and he hero-worshiped Tradition. Generations of Dreher men had been Masons, so for him, my questioning of whether or not I should be a Mason amounted to impiety -- a sin that he, as a traditional Southern male, took very seriously. Of course I rejected Freemasonry, simply because I had doubts about it -- doubts that he would neither respect nor address. For him, it was 100 percent about my disloyalty and disrespect of him.
And, in fact, this was how he regarded me for all my life: as a traitor, simply because I was not entirely like him. Readers of my books know that I moved back to Louisiana, to my hometown, at the end of 2011, following the death of my younger sister. I wanted to be reunited with my family in Starhill, our little community outside of St. Francisville, and to love and support them all. They ended up rejecting me, and us, because of my father's pride -- a pridefulness my late sister shared. I learned in the spring of 2012, from Hannah, that her sisters would never accept me and my family because their sainted late mother had raised them to think Uncle Rod was a bad person -- a city person who was Not Like Us. Their grandparents -- my father and mother -- had also raised them with that in mind. Hannah told me she discovered how wrong all this was when she became an older teenager, and had come to visit my wife Julie and me. But, she warned, her sisters had never known otherwise, and now that their mom was dead, they would never betray loyalty to her instructions.
I confronted my father with this knowledge. He had the power to change the narrative, but he wouldn't do it. To do so would be to admit that he had once been wrong, and that was something he could not do. He told me in a separate argument that the Leming girls were right to reject us, "because y'all are so damn weird." I fell chronically ill with mononucleosis, for four years, because of stress over all this. Eventually I recovered (I talk about this in my Dante book), and the key moment of my recovery was realizing that without knowing what I was doing, I had made an idol of Family and Place, and in particular of my father, who was the embodiment of this. I took it all to confession, and repented of having placed my earthly father in the place of God the Father in my mind. After that, I began slowly to heal, and was able to be present when my dad, a few months before he died, apologized to me for the way he had treated me. He passed from this world with peace between us -- a great gift from God.
Yet there were consequences to his pride. The family system that my dad prized above everything has ceased to exist. My marriage effectively ended chiefly as a result of my family rejecting us, and making me so sick for so long. The pressure on us as a couple was too great. Earlier this year, as you know, my wife filed for divorce. My mom still thinks that Julie and I had it coming, this rejection, even though it destroyed us. She contemplates this alone, because after what was done to my soon-to-be-ex-wife, to me, and to our kids after we made the mistake of returning to Louisiana with the hope of serving these people, of loving them and being loved by them, I no longer have the strength or the will to accommodate my family's illusions about itself. The destruction has been completed. It is perhaps fitting that I learned this awful confirmation about my father's past while in England on the first Christmas apart from my wife and kids in decades.
There's something eerie here too. Just last week, in conversation with an Orthodox priest back in America, a cleric who is also an exorcist, the priest told me how he had discovered in his exorcism work how wicked Freemasonry is. He has seen people become possessed through it. I told him about my Catholic friend in New York whose grandfather was a high-level Freemason in Italy, and who had become possessed through the curse he brought onto the family (which destroyed her father and his generation within the family, and had wreaked havoc on hers). In this conversation, I mentioned to the exorcist my belief that my late father, a 32nd-degree Mason, had been involved with the Klan in the Sixties, and how I suspected that had a lot to do with his prior involvement with Freemasonry. The exorcist told me that I must pray for my father's soul every day for the rest of my life. I agreed to do this.
And now we find proof that my suspicions were accurate. Lord, have mercy. I don't know what else to say.
I do need to say this: people on the Left who expect me to denounce my father will wait in vain. I loved him, and do love him, and am proud to be his son. Those who spite me for that can -- and I say this in all due Christian charity -- f*ck right off. He was one of the greatest men I have ever known. I say that even though he is guilty of being an accomplice to great evil back in the day, and even though I have suffered personally from the effects of his pride. I can't deny that he was, in most respects, a courageous and good man. His hidden past in the Klan does not negate the good things I know for a fact he did to help black people (nor, to be clear, do those good things negate the evil of his Klan membership). His past does not negate the way he, as a landlord, showed mercy to working-class people who could not pay their rent on time, even though we didn't have a lot of money either, and had to make do with less. His past does not negate the many, many kindnesses I watched him show to his friends and neighbors, and even to strangers who needed a hand. And he was a tender and loving father to my sister and me, giving us a childhood for which I am deeply grateful, despite its flaws. I can say without fear that many of the best things about my own character come from his example.
Besides which, I think that it may be necessary to stand in judgment of the sins of one's fathers and mothers when they are made public, as this one has been, it is also necessary to affirm one's filial love for one's ancestors. My dad thought I was a disloyal son because I didn't share all of his beliefs. Out of their belief that they were defending their Way Of Life, he and my sister laid the groundwork to make it impossible for this prodigal to come home. My wife and I shattered our own marriage on the rocks of their hard-heartedness. And yet, I testify in all truth that I love and respect my dad, and pray for God's mercy on him, wherever his soul resides today.
As the exorcist told me last week, for most of us human beings, our hope for God's mercy will depend in part on our ignorance of our own sinfulness. He meant that my dad, as a product of a particular time and place and culture, likely was unaware of the full horror of his sin. We believe that ignorance of the law does not excuse us from its precepts, but it may mitigate our culpability. Only God knows for sure. If I were to damn the memory of my father because I now know for sure that he was part of this evil Klan fraternity, how can I count on my children or later descendants thinking of me with mercy in their hearts when they look upon the sins I might be committing today, but don't recognize as sins?
After we moved back to Louisiana, I heard that the man who was at the time the local Episcopal priest, had regularly played poker with a group of men whose number included John Rarick, who lived near the Episcopal church. The priest was an immigrant from Latin America, and not a man who had much use for racism. I asked him once if he knew who John Rarick had been in public life. Yes, he said, but added, "He's not so bad once you get to know him." There was a lot of mercy in that priest's voice. I learned from him. He had come to see Rarick, by then quite old, as a neighbor and a human being. I think of that priest, who understood that he too was a sinner, like every one of us, as practicing the adjuration of the poet W.H. Auden: "You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart."
Just yesterday, standing on a street corner in Cambridge, my son, who is finishing his undergraduate degree in history, said that he would like to visit the Balkan countries some day. I advised him to read Rebecca West's great book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, based on her travels in the Balkans in the 1930s. Read that, I said, and you'll see how extremely difficult it is to moralize history, because every group there treated every other group there horribly at some point over the centuries. Everybody is guilty. Everybody. The distribution of guilt among the populations depends on where you draw the line in history.
I'm not sure he quite got what I was saying. I know it would have been hard for me to have grasped it at that age. But then, when I was his age, I was sure that my father was a bad man because of his antiquated racial views, and I was sure that my own heart was pure, and therefore that my judgments were sure. I was wrong, and prideful. The fact is, all of us can fall into this crevasse. I think this is exactly what is happening now, in the Great Awokening. The Left, and all the institutions it has conquered, is throwing into the bin the wisdom of Martin Luther King, which entails the truth that the only way we can live in peace and mutual respect is to judge each other not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.
This is what Christianity teaches. We no longer live in a Christian culture. There was never a Christian paradise on this earth, but one reason why King's leadership was so effective in the face of Southern segregation was that he highlighted the utter hypocrisy of these men and women claiming to be followers of Christ, but oppressing people of color so violently. King's message could only have worked on a country that still harbored memory of having been Christian. Now, though? My fear, as expressed in my "No Enemies To The Right" essay, is that post-Christian conservatives will throw aside Christ's teachings in their eagerness to attack the Left. I mean, look, you had the headmaster of a conservative Christian school privately affirming racist and anti-Semitic doctrines, even as he presented himself as a faithful Christian. As shocking as this may be, it was not a huge shock to me, because I grew up with the father I had. Not, to be clear, that my dad openly taught us kids racist principles, but rather that he, like almost every other white person of his time and place, truly saw no contradiction between Christianity and racism. And that blindness led him and other men in confederation with him to do horrible things, or at least to associate themselves with an evil cause.
Because I see how this malign ideology captured my dad as a young man, I know how easy it can be to surrender to it, in either left-wing or right-wing versions. Maybe it would have captured me if I hadn't stumbled into the Bible at an impressionable age, and realized that what the authorities in my local culture were leading me to believe wasn't true, or at least couldn't be true if what the Bible told us was true. I've said it before and I'm going to repeat it now: people on the Left who traffick in racial identity politics are calling up demons on the Right that have barely been subdued, historically speaking. The great evil that was the Ku Klux Klan has, for now, been defeated. But hating people on the basis of their race, and holding them collectively guilty for things their ancestors, or even people of past generations who share their skin color, did -- that's the road to hell. This past summer, I met a young South African white man, a Christian, who told me the story of how his grandmother and his younger brother back home had been stripped, beaten, and held hostage by black robbers who were sure they knew the combination to the safe (they did not). This young man was under no illusions about the evil of apartheid. But he was also under no illusions that black South Africans were somehow collectively innocent, and free from sin, because his white ancestors had collectively benefited from an evil system.
But then, the world today, which correctly paid so much attention when it was white South Africans brutalizing black ones, prefers not to know what is being done to white South Africans in the post-apartheid period. This selective morality is wrong, and it's not only wrong, it is stupid, if the goal is to get whites and blacks there to live in peace. Similarly, this woke ideology that holds all whites equally responsible for the sins of the past is not only unjust, it is stupid if the goal is to create an America where we can all live in peace and mutual respect.
Anyway, I've said what I need to say. I do think, in a strange way, that I have been gifted as a writer to have arrived in a time when the ways of the Old South -- the good and the bad -- were a living memory, and that the peoples of that era were not historical abstractions to me, but souls made of flesh and blood. Today it would be impossible for young white men to have a relationship with Oliver McNabb, an old black farmhand we called Preacher, who was the cook at my father's hunting camp. Preacher -- so called because he used to stand on the yard at Angola State Penitentiary and preach the Gospel as he understood it -- had done time in prison for killing his wife's lover. He was dear to me in my childhood. He loved all us kids, children of the hunters. He made jelly cakes for us on our birthdays. Truth to tell, I would have preferred to have stayed in the hunting camp kitchen, on the bluff high above the Mississippi, on those cold winter mornings, rather than go into the swamp in search of deer. I liked drinking paper cups full of hot, sweet coffee, with the gas heater burning brightly, listening to that old black man tell stories. I was innocent back then of the social order, and what it had done to Preacher and men like him. I just knew that I loved him, and he loved me (he called me, for some strange reason, "Clyde"; he had funny names for all us kids). I wonder this morning if Preacher knew that my father, with whom he was friendly, had been in the Klan not ten years earlier. If he did, how did it affect the way he saw my dad. Did he know of other white men at the camp who had been Klansmen? I'll never know, not this side of heaven. I do believe that, as sentimental as it sounds, Preacher has spent his time in heaven praying for them. That's who he was: a convicted murderer, a believer in Jesus, and a teller of delightful tales to white children he plied with jelly cakes on their birthdays.
That really happened. All of it. Why does the best American literature come from the South? Because we are a romantic and mystery-loving people who live with contradiction and hypocrisy, and who let it drive us mad. And we like a good story.
I'll leave you by commending to you Walker Percy's 1956 Commonweal essay titled, "Stoicism In The South". I don't recall when I first read it, but I do remember that it explained to me better than anything else the mindset of my father and his generation of white Southern men. It's when I realized that my dad was far more Stoic than Christian -- and that this is why it was so difficult for him to embrace the shame that came with acknowledgement of his own sinfulness. To be sure, my dad was not of the Southern gentry, but neither was he of the Snopes class. He was a working-class man with a college education, eager to do what those above him socially expected of him. To hear my father talk of "poor white trash" in the same breath that he spoke of the moral failures of black people will make perfect sense to many Southerners of my generation. Both betrayed a superior moral order. Excerpt from Percy:
The difference is that for the Southern Stoic the day has been lost and lost for good. It seems to him that the Snopes have won, not only the white Snopes but the black Snopes as well: the white man has lost his oblige, the black man has lost his manners, and insolence prevails. For Southern society was above all a society of manners, an incredible triumph of manners, and a twilight of manners seems a twilight of the world. For the Stoic there is no real hope. His finest hour is to sit tight-lipped and ironic while the world comes crashing down around him.
It must be otherwise with the Christian. The urban plebs is not the mass which is to be abandoned to its own barbaric devices, but the lump to be leavened. The Christian is optimistic precisely where the Stoic is pessimistic. What the Stoic sees as the insolence of his former charge—and this is what he can’t tolerate, the Negro’s demanding his rights instead of being thankful for the squire’s generosity—is in the Christian scheme the sacred right which must be accorded the individual, whether deemed insolent or not. For it was not the individual, after all, who was intrinsically precious in the Stoic view—rather it was one’s own attitude toward him, and this could not fail to be specified by the other’s good manners or lack of them. If he became insolent, very well: let him taste the bitter fruits of his insolence. The Stoic has no use for the clamoring minority; the Christian must have every use for it.
Here is Percy referring to the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans's controversial decision to integrate the city's Catholic schools:
The Stoic-Christian Southerner is offended when the Archbishop of New Orleans calls segregation sinful (or discusses the rights of labor). He cannot help feeling that religion is overstepping its allotted area of morality. In the comfortable modus vivendi of the past, he had been willing enough to allow Christianity a certain say-so on the subject of sin—by which he understood misbehavior in sexual matters, or in drinking and gambling. He is therefore confused and obscurely outraged when Christian teaching is applied to social questions. It is as if a gentleman’s agreement had been broken. He does not want the argument on these grounds, but prefers to talk about a “way of life,” “state’s rights,” and legal precedents, or to murmur about Communism, left-wing elements and infiltration.
Yet eventually he must come to terms with his own Christian heritage. So far Archbishop Rummel has been answered only by having his name booed by the Citizens’ Council and by having a cross burned in his front yard. The secular press is silent; the Sartorises are silent if they are not booing; many of his Protestant colleagues are silent; more sadly, his own flock wavers. But sooner or later the Archbishop must be answered. And the good pagan’s answer is no longer good enough for the South.
I think my dad recognized at some point long ago that his South was lost, that his kids and grandkids didn't believe what he believed, and he just kept his mouth shut, and stayed away from church. It is to his credit, I reckon, that he probably had a bad conscience about it all. Maybe he even regretted it, and repented of it privately, but would never admit it, owing to his devotion to keeping up the appearance of being the strong, noble patriarch. I will never know. All I can do is pray for him. I regret that now his grandchildren will know this evil fact of his life, but it is no doubt a good lesson for them to understand that even someone they love and rightly admire can suffer from terrible flaws ... and that they take that difficult truth into their hearts as they move through life, and are tempted to judge others definitively.
One more line from Percy:
It is always hard to generalize about the South, harder perhaps for the Southerner, for whom the subject is living men, himself among them, than for the Northerner who, in proportion to his detachment, can the more easily deal with ideas.
I don't know if this cliche is still true, but I certainly feel it in my own life. In the huge controversy over Confederate monuments, I have had to think about the fact that my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy weren't generals and officers, but ordinary privates who almost certainly did not have an ideology in mind when the marched off to war, but were simply defending their homeland. Yet the fact that their cause defended slavery, and if they had won, blacks would have remained enslaved, can't be erased from history. Again, and for the last time: the great challenge here, as ever, is to strive to see our ancestors and our contemporaries with moral clarity, not whitewashing their sins and failings with poetic memory, while also recognizing their virtues -- and in all cases, never, ever allowing their full humanity, the good and the bad alike, to be assimilated into the realm of ideas.
Get daily emails in your inbox
UPDATE: I was just thinking about the time back in January 1994, when I wrote a front-page freelance story for the Baton Rouge paper (which turned into a New York Times story) about an impoverished, historic black church threatened by a white developer, I attended a meeting at the church in which their lawyer, a white man doing the work pro bono, advised them of their rights. At the very back of the church that night sat a very old white man who had once been the sheriff of the parish. He had, back in the day, led the White Citizens Council, opposing integration. But there he was, in the last year or two of his life, showing up at the church to show his black neighbors that he was on their side. People change. Places change. Christ is born -- glorify Him!