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Nancy Smith

I Didn't Think the Tampa Bay Times Could Stoop This Low

June 7, 2012 - 6:00pm

The Tampa Bay Times has a political statement to make, OK, I get it. But their editors used a reckless comparison to make it, and I can't let that go without comment.

Comparing George Wallace in Alabama 49 years ago to Rick Scott in Florida today is so wild and crazy, so unthinkably off the mark, it's like nails on a blackboard to those of us who were in Tuscaloosa on June 11, 1963.

I just can't believe that the folks at the Times responsible for today's editorial, "Governor, halt the voter purge," are proud of what they've done here.

What happened in Tuscaloosa on that June morning was a seminal moment in the arduous struggle for respect, for the civil rights of all "people of color" in this nation. I know. As a 19-year-old, save-the-world college student, one of dozens of civil rights activists who arrived on the University of Alabama campus that day, I was privileged to witness history.

You had to be there to understand it. Reason was not in the majority. Good will was not in the majority. The sense of fear among us, the interlopers, was palpable.

George Wallace, meanwhile, had all the power. He was The Man. He stood in the university doorway, surrounded by Alabama state troopers -- authority, hate, determination flashing in his eyes. Try to imagine how this was for the two young African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood -- even under escort, even in the presence of thousands of federalized National Guardsmen. Imagine how it was for them plying crowds of people chanting racial epithets all the way to the door. What courage it must have taken.

I remember thinking, once they're inside, when their protection falls off, the white students will haze the daylights out of them, nonstop.

Wallace himself was driven by hate and determination and a sense that he was right, that he should -- in fact, that it was his God-given mission to -- refuse a university education to a race he believed upside-down and inside-out was inferior.

This is the man the Times compares to Rick Scott.

The Times editorial is written in the form of a letter to Scott. Reading it is a lot like moving into a new neighborhood, when the first thing the neighbor on your left tells you is that the neighbor on your right beats his wife. That wife-beater seed is planted. You don't believe much good you hear about the guy after that.

The Times plants Rick Scott's wife-beater seed in the first paragraph, painting a colorful portrait of George Wallace's hateful defiance, the request of U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to move, and the intervention of President John F. Kennedy and the National Guard to get the students enrolled.

After that, of course, to show their consummate fair play, the Times backs away from their planted seed. Says the editorial in paragraph 3, "Gov. Scott, we do not believe you share Wallace's hateful views on race. Nor are we equating young African-American students of the '60s with noncitizens of today. But ...,"

But what? The "but" is clever. It comes too late. Segregation. Racism. Hate. All those thoughts are planted as we read on to discover that "it was wrong then (in 1963) to deny those students their right to a public education, and it is wrong now to use an inaccurate database that could deprive U.S. citizens of their right to vote. Of nearly 2,700 voters the state identified as potentially ineligible because they were not citizens, hundreds already have proven they are citizens. Only a handful have been confirmed as noncitizens."

The Times claims Florida should not be at war with Washington -- again, a comparison between the shame of JFK having to federalize the Alabama National Guard so two students could go to school, and Rick Scott, who had the audacity to demand that the Obama administration release the up-to-date Homeland Security list that would identify illegal voters.

This is so awful? This is what our wife-beater wants? A list the state asked for months ago?

Be honest. The voter-list battle is clearly defined by political interests on the left and on the right, not by anybody's deprivation of civil rights.

My beef today is with the gutter tactics of the largest newspaper in the state.

The Times twists the history-changing events of June 11, 1963, into gotcha political fodder. It does so for no other reason than to embarrass one political party and boost the other in an election year. But on the way, it managed to trivialize the accomplishment and bravery of Malone and Hood, and, worse, one of the truly pivotal events in American history.

I think back to that hot day in Tuscaloosa, the first time in my life I ever felt outnumbered and even afraid for my life. Ever so briefly I understood something of how an African-American must have felt in a part of the South that didn't want to say die to segregation. How on God's green earth can that time and that moment bear any comparison to Rick Scott's insistence that voter lists in Florida be accurate?

The Times fired a cheap shot.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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