In March of 1970, about two-hundred armed white people In Lamar, South Carolina, attacked a phalanx of school buses carrying black children. Fifty years later, one of those children described the violence this way:
“Once the bus stopped, they took those ax handles and knocked out every window in the bus—there were bricks and everything flying. We had to hit the floor. I kept calling everybody’s name to see if everybody was alive. Ever since that day, it has been recovery for me.”
Lamar was under a federal court order to integrate their schools, almost twenty years after the Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Another attack survivor recalled, “The hood of the bus flew up and the engine died. Rocks and bricks started coming through the windows. I got on the floor and started crawling. I heard two gunshots. I think it was tear gas. It smelled, and my eyes teared. Then the back door of the bus came open. A highway patrolman with a gas mask said, ‘Come on, get off.’ I ran to the school. I looked back, and the bus we were on was turned over. For too many years, it was hard even to move on with my life. . . The reason I don’t talk about it is that I get angry when I talk, and I don’t want [my family] to see that.”
Before the attack, politicians had fomented white people’s rage about the desegregation order. A Republican candidate for governor, Albert Watson, told a campaign rally, “Every section of this state is in for it unless you stand up and use every means at your disposal to defend against what I consider an illegal order of the Circuit Court of the United States.”
After the assault, Watson defended the rioters, “(Y)ou can expect that to happen when you have frustrated people … People get restless and then things occur.”
I have researched this history because, rifling through some of my dad’s old writing, I ran across a mock letter that my dad, Martin Miller, a writer and newspaperman, wrote to his “Fellow Americans” in 1970 in reaction to the Lamar riot. It was never published, as far as I know. See if the content doesn’t ring some bells.
It begins, “You have been chosen for the unique opportunity of charter membership in our new exclusive organization dedicated to maintenance of Constitutional principles handed down to us by our forebears.”
Dad’s alter ego goes on to praise Lamar’s white citizens. “Throughout history, those who have hesitated have been lost . . . That is why we hail . . . the good people of Lamar for grasping the nettle as precursors of the victorious defenders in the coming revolution.” Backhandedly, he acknowledges the other side. “Many bleeding hearts will attempt to excite your sympathies on behalf of the little black children in the bus who were showered by broken glass. Their experience is one of the facts of life, and the sooner they get used to it the better.”
He alludes to the “warnings” of a coming revolution by Vice President Spiro Agnew, Attorney General John Mitchell, and his wife Martha Mitchell*. The federal government, they all would agree, is “the greatest threat to our freedoms,” having “grown to such proportions in recent decades that it is completely unresponsive to the grass roots.”
He then gets to the point of the letter, an invitation to join a new organization, a “group of white nationalists devoted to fostering a respect and knowledge of the contribution of whites to the history of the United States.” Without the example of the Mitchells, he says, “We would not have had the courage to organize, and the good citizens of Lamar would not have had the courage to strike the first defensive blow in the coming revolution.”
At the letter’s close, he slyly copies Mrs. John Mitchell.
Violent political rhetoric. Revolution. Abuses of the federal government. White nationalism. My dad would be sad to be complimented for his prescience.
*This piece was written before Watergate and the eventual rehabilitation of Martha Mitchell, a Watergate whistle blower, a view promoted by the recent Julia Roberts movie Gaslit. This was back when she was appearing on talk shows to call anti-war demonstrators Communists and parrot her husband’s right-wing ideas.