Eagerly reading today about Obama’s speech on the healthcare de(bacle)bate in the US got me thinking about the meaning of reform, be it for an individual or for a system, and how reform comes about.  While I haven’t personally read anything comparing the current press for universal healthcare to the civil or women’s rights movements, I do think that there are parallels to draw.

This video is from an interview on popular Australian program Enough Rope with former Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, Johnny Lee Clary.  In it, Clary describes the influence of preacher and NAACP state leader Wade Watts on his eventual disillusionment with, and rejection of, the White Knights.

This clip is only a segment of the full interview with host Andrew Denton, and some aspects of it are problematic.  On my initial viewing, I felt like Watts was elevated to Magical Negro status, with his twinkly-eyed cheer winning over the misguided white man. 

On a second viewing, I started to think that Clary’s relation of his experiences with Watts is genuine, at least from his own perspective, and what he’s trying to illustrate is how Watts’ resilience, intelligence, and relentless good humor demanded Clary’s attention and respect.  Certainly, Clary is unafraid to describe his youthful ignorance and bigotry, even if his narrative style seems to make light of the repugnant acts in which he participated.  His description of his racist expectations of Reverend Watts as a boombox-carrying, white-devil-hatin’ caricature, as opposed to the unthreatening, charming reality of the man, is funny, and is intended to demonstrate just how ridiculous his notions were of African-Americans.  It clearly sent his tiny world into a tailspin to be confronted with someone so warm and friendly, and who appeared to illuminate Christian values.

In fact, the anecdotal nature of the stories – and Clary readily admits to later burning down Watts’ church, as well as threatening him with harm both on the phone and in person – really pokes fun at Clary.  I don’t have the impression that Clary is downplaying the terrifying nature of his group’s behavior towards Watts, but rather, in his conversational style, illustrating how pointless and stupid these actions were (there is no description of physical harm; I am not sniffing at the psychological trauma or destruction of property perpetrated by these hate-mongerers; it simply is what it is, and it remains reprehensible).    But when Clary describes how, when they burned a cross across the street from Watts’ house after Watts had failed to respond to having trash thrown on his lawn, Watts came out and offered them hotdogs and marshmallows, it is evident that the joke was on Clary and his gang – and they even saw it at the time, much as it infuriated them.

Simply put, Clary came to understand that this man was better than him (please watch the clip for the chicken story, which apparently even cracked up the KKK).  Clary couldn’t defeat Watts, because Watts would just tell Clary that he loved him, and that Jesus did too, and that he believed that Clary had it in him to be better.  Yes, this sounds like something of a romantic tale, but it’s real.  All the Reverend Watts did was try to embody what he believed in, which was equality and the basic good of human nature.  He may not be revered as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi, but he was abiding by and exhibiting the same principles, with grace.  Magical Negro connotations aside, I think Clary is tipping his hat to a man who changed his life.

Because I can’t resist, here are a couple of highlights from Watts’ Wiki page:

In the late 1950s, Watts and Oklahoma State Senator Gene Stipe entered a restaurant. When a waitress stopped them at the door and told them that the restaurant “[did] not serve Negroes,” Watts replied, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.”

Watts was a life-long Democrat[1] and took issue with his nephew’s position as a national leader in the Republican party—which Watts viewed as opposing the interests of “poor people, working people, [and] common people.”[1] His nephew countered by saying his support of the Republican party stemmed from his perception that the Democrats had let his uncle down, saying that his uncle had “delivered more black votes for the democratic [sic] Party than any black person in the state of Oklahoma,”[1]and yet it was a Republican who gave his uncle a decent job, a point his uncle conceded. [1] Despite the disagreement, Watts still said he was proud of what his nephew had achieved [1], and J.C. Watts continues to express admiration for his uncle.[6]

While I am not personally interested in the evangelical portions of this story, I am deeply impressed with Reverend Watts, and also by Clary’s willingness to detail the wrongedness of his actions and thoughts.  He owns up, very publicly, to his dismal deeds of the past and attempts to use his experiences to educate (he apparently also advises the FBI on white power mentality and how to combat hate groups).  It’s clear that Watts became a hero of Clary’s for his refusal to surrender or to sink to the level of hatred.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s the responsibility of every individual person of a racial minority to educate Whitey, nor do I think it’s the job of every right-thinking liberal to salvage healthcare reform by gently taking a hysterical Tea-Partyer in hand and soothing their frantic psyches.  But I do think it’s a good time to remind each other about tolerance, and that the best way to educate is by example.  I know that I, personally, want to throw my hands up and scream and call folks names, but it’s also sinking to their level – and the reason that they’re at this level of discourse is because they have no rationale on their side (I am, of course, making an exception for the hilarious mockery of Joe Wilson’s outburst).

So, yes, we have to be firm, but we also have to talk, educate, elucidate, and listen.  It takes one person at a time to reform an entire system, and we could do much worse than admire Wade Watts and do our best to emulate his composure and style.