Tube City Almanac

October 21, 2008

Just Plain Folks

Category: Commentary/Editorial, History || By

In 1926, a struggling evangelist named Dr. Bob Jones was trying to get a national ministry off the ground. A group of prominent Protestant businessmen from McKeesport read of his plight and invited him to lead a month-long crusade in the city.

Just after New Year's Day, 1927, a revival tent was erected on the football field at McKeesport Technical High School at the corner of Cornell and Spring streets, and the Daily News led a loud and boisterous publicity campaign, devoting several pages every night to Jones' sermons.

Thousands flocked up the hill to Tech High to hear Rev. Jones speak. One night, a school board meeting had to be canceled for lack of a quorum; most of the school directors were at the revival tent.

. . .

On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 16, according to the Daily News, "interest and enthusiasm was keyed to fever heat by the presence of no less than 3,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan from McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton, Swissvale, Homestead, Elizabeth and Irwin."

The Klansmen brought with them a wooden cross illuminated by "a clever electric arrangement (that) caused flames to shoot from the cross during the entire service," according to the News.

Rev. Jones "welcomed the Klansmen" by saying that they had been misrepresented by propaganda. "He declared that he had always noticed that in every fight, it seemed that the Klansmen were fighting on the right side," the Daily News reported. "You might have some things that don't suit my taste, but I've found that in most cases, you're the finest bunch I've ever met."

(Following the revival, John Sephus Mack, president of G.C. Murphy Co., promised to do whatever was necessary to help Rev. Jones launch a bible college. Bob Jones University to this day has a library named for Seph Mack.)

. . .

It happened 81 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. None of this suggests that the Mon Valley or Western Pennsylvania are inherently racist.

Nor am I suggesting that Bob Jones University is racist. (I should also note that the university was very helpful when I was working on the G.C. Murphy book.)

But 81 years isn't that long ago in terms of Western Pennsylvania, which is home to some of the oldest areas, demographically, in the United States.

. . .

You wouldn't have to look very hard in Olympia Shopping Center to find people alive when the Klan openly marched in the streets in Western Pennsylvania. You also wouldn't have to look very hard to find people who remember when blacks weren't served in certain restaurants in McKeesport.

And you really wouldn't have to look hard to find people who still sling around racial slurs. (D.J. Coffman has been all over this issue.)

. . .

Racism is deeply ingrained in this area. Someone would have to be pretty thick to be outraged over John Murtha's comments last week to the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review.

Luckily, there's no shortage of thick-headed radio talk-show hosts, bloggers, and other cranks who spend all of their time getting outraged over something or other.

No, supporting John McCain doesn't make you a racist, and supporting Barack Obama doesn't make you a snob. Both Democrats and Republicans could stand to tone down the rhetoric: Obama could lose the election for a lot of reasons besides racism.

But instead of working up a lot of fake outrage over Murtha's comments, we all need to step back and look at ourselves.

. . .

Take a ride through North Huntingdon or Sewickley townships and count the number of Confederate battle flags flying from houses, or decorating trucks and cars.

Down South, they say the "stars and bars" are a symbol of heritage. Maybe that's true if you had a great-grandfather who fought in the Confederate army, but I'm pretty sure Westmoreland County never seceded from the union.

Heck, it wasn't too long ago when a local police department got in trouble for having a stars-and-bars sticker on the back of one its patrol cars. The police chief said he sure didn't authorize it, and it's entirely possible someone stuck the sticker on there as a prank.

But there's only one reason you fly the Confederate flag up north, and it isn't because you're a "Dukes of Hazzard" fan.

. . .

Murtha's a lot of things, good and bad, but he didn't create the reality. He's just callin' it as he sees it.

Whether we like it or not, this dirty old shoe fits us.

We do have a choice as to whether we want to keep wearing it.

Your Comments are Welcome!

I’m not naming the neighborhood to protect some innocent acquaintances, but I frequent an area within an hour’s drive where one neighbor has the Stars and Bars and another has a swastika decorating his home. Happily, another neighbor is a bit more level headed soul, a Presbyterian pastor. (Also, the acquaintances in question have this pit bull which is the sweetest animal … as long as he knows you and doesn’t hold a grudge. He knows me but, as for the grudge? I’ve lived so far to talk about it.)
Does it matter? - October 22, 2008

Excellent post. I think you are right on about the things you talk about. Personally I do not think it was Hillary’s superior campaigning that got her the win in Pennsylvania in the primary. I don’t Obama helped himself with the bitter guns and religion remark, and the irony is that he was trying, very poorly he admits, to explain part of the mind set of rural Pennsylvanians, of the phenomenon of Reagan Democrats.

Personally, with much of my family having southern roots, I am startled when I see the confederate flag up here. I would think the “don’t tread on me” flag or something would make more sense.

What’s interesting to me is that so many working class people here are still affiliated with unions, and union leaders are apparently havinga hard time convincing their members that their economic interests lie with Obama. I mean, you can argue that Obama’s tax policies will generate too much debt, but it becomes hard to support McCain in that case, since the taxcuts he wants would generate even more debt. But nobody is having that arguement anyway.

Times are going to get tough again, for a while, but that is nothing new for this area. Obama is proposing activities that will invest in human capital and inferstructure. It will take a while for that to pay dividents (a few years anyway). But it would be nice to get the country headed in a positive direction for a change.
Ed Heath (URL) - October 22, 2008

Excellent discussion Jason. Obviously a big reason for why southwestern Pennsylvania hasn’t shed its racist past is that it is still stuck in the past. Educated young people have left in droves and will never be coming back. Speaking as one of these people, the further away they get from the nostalgia of “home” the more they realize that life wherever they are is more egalitarian, especially if it’s an area with an educated workforce. I have visited, spent a fair amount of time, and have friends is many areas of the country; Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Colorado, California, and Oregon…and I have never in any of these places felt the same level of bigotry I feel in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s a sad fact of an area stuck in the past. Kudos to you for having an honest discussion and trying to move things forward.
Dan - October 23, 2008

Jason you are a fine person and very honest. You do not waste your time with this site.
Mike - October 23, 2008

Mike, your check’s in the mail.
Webmaster - October 23, 2008

Dan if It’s so Bad why don’t u leave? Racisim and Bigotry is a two way street…....
Cox's Jimmy - October 23, 2008

Cox’s Jimmy…I think you misunderstood. I did leave. And in what way is it a two way street?
Dan - October 24, 2008

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